Venture firm M13 names former Techstars LA managing director, Anna Barber, as its newest partner

The Los Angeles and New York-based venture firm M13 has managed to nab former Techstars LA managing director, Anna Barber, as its newest partner and the head of its internal venture studio, Launchpad.

Designed to be a collaborative startup company incubator alongside corporate partners, Launchpad focuses on developing new consumer tech businesses focused on M13’s main investment areas: health, food, transportation, and housing.

For Barber, the new position is the latest step in a professional career spent working both inside and outside of the tech industry.

Barber got her first taste of the startup world when she was poached from McKinsey to join one of the several online pet supply stores that cropped up in 1999. From her position as the vice president of product at Petstore.com, Barber got her taste of the startup world… and left it to become a talent manager and the co-founder of the National Air Guitar championships (no word if she managed air guitar talent).

Prior to launching the Techstars LA incubator program, Barber founded ScribblePress, a retail and digital publishing app, which was sold to Fingerprint Digital.

Anna Barber, partner, M13. Image Credit: Raif Strathmann

At M13, Barber will be working to recruit entrepreneurs to work collaboratively on developing startup consumer businesses that align with the strategic interests of M13’s corporate partners, like Procter & Gamble.

We will be bringing in founders in residence who will come in without an idea,” Barber said of the program. “We’re starting with a blank sheet of paper and building teams in partnership with entrepreneurs and in partnership with corporate partners who will bring their perspective and their IP. “

The EIRs will receive a small stipend and equity in the business, Barber said.

The starting gun for M13’s Launchpad  program was in 2019 and the program currently has managed to spin up three startups. There’s Rae, an developer of affordable women’s wellness products; and the beauty tech company OPTE; Kindra menopause products; and Bodewell for sensitive skin care, which were all developed alongside Procter & Gamble Ventures.

M13, for its part, is developing a strong team of women partners who are investing at the firm. Barber will join Lizzie Francis and Christine Choi on the investment team, something that Barber said was especially exciting.

“There is no better place for M13’s Launchpad than Los Angeles and no better person to lead it than Anna. M13 is home to a creative, diverse community of entrepreneurs and operators who want to make the world better by applying innovation in everything from media to biotech, prop tech to food,” said M13 co-founder Carter Reum. “We are excited for Anna to continue to lead LA’s center of entrepreneurs, mentors and investors with a rigorous Launchpad program and more exceptional partners and cohorts.”

Facebook loses final appeal in defamation takedown case, must remove same and similar hate posts globally

Austria’s Supreme Court has dismissed Facebook’s appeal in a long running speech takedown case — ruling it must remove references to defamatory comments made about a local politician worldwide for as long as the injunction lasts.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the ruling.

Green Party politician, Eva Glawischnig, successfully sued the social media giant seeking removal of defamatory comments made about her by a user of its platform after Facebook had refused to take down the abusive postings — which referred to her as a “lousy traitor”, a “corrupt tramp” and a member of a “fascist party”. 

After a preliminary injunction in 2016 Glawischnig won local removal of the defamatory postings the next year but continued her legal fight — pushing for similar postings to be removed and take downs to also be global.

Questions were referred up to the EU’s Court of Justice. And in a key judgement last year the CJEU decided platforms can be instructed to hunt for and remove illegal speech worldwide without falling foul of European rules that preclude platforms from being saddled with a “general content monitoring obligation”. Today’s Austrian Supreme Court ruling flows naturally from that.

Austrian newspaper Der Standard reports that the court confirmed the injunction applies worldwide, both to identical postings or those that carry the same essential meaning as the original defamatory posting.

It said the Austrian court argues that EU Member States and civil courts can require platforms like Facebook to monitor content in “specific cases” — such as when a court has identified user content as unlawful and “specific information” about it — in order to prevent content that’s been judged to be illegal from being reproduced and shared by another user of the network at a later point in time with the overarching aim of preventing future violations.

The case has important implications for the limitations of online speech.

Regional lawmakers are also working on updating digital liability regulations. Commission lawmakers have said they want to force platforms to take more responsibility for the content they fence and monetize — fuelled by concerns about the impact of online hate speech, terrorist content and divisive disinformation.

A long-standing EU rule, prohibiting Member States from putting a general content monitoring obligation on platforms, limits how they can be forced to censor speech. But the CJEU ruling has opened the door to bounded monitoring of speech — in instances where it’s been judged to be illegal — and that in turn may influence the policy substance of the Digital Services Act which the Commission is due to publish in draft early next month.

In a reaction to last year’s CJEU ruling, Facebook argued it “opens the door to obligations being imposed on internet companies to proactively monitor content and then interpret if it is ‘equivalent’ to content that has been found to be illegal”.

“In order to get this right national courts will have to set out very clear definitions on what ‘identical’ and ‘equivalent’ means in practice. We hope the courts take a proportionate and measured approach, to avoid having a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” it added.

Sonos launches an $8/month streaming radio service

There’s no shortage of streaming music options in the world, but the fine folks at Sonos decided we can all do with one more. Following the April launch of the ad-supported Sonos Radio, the company just announced a $7.99 a month premium tier called Sonos Radio HD. As its name implies, this is a streaming radio offering, rather than a full-fledged music service like Spotify/Apple Music.

The other bit the name should make clear is the bit rate is much higher. It’s 16-bit, versus the standard radio’s 128kbps, putting it at around lossless CD quality. The ad-free premium tier also adds the ability to skip and replay songs, which you can’t do on regular Sonos Radio.

There are a smattering of additional station offerings only available on Radio HD. In addition to Sonos Radio’s Thom Yorke, Brittany Howard, Jack White and Ludwig Göransson stations, HD gets Dolly Parton’s Songteller Radio. Which, fine, everyone loves Dolly Parton, to the best of my knowledge, so good get there. Additional artist-curated stations are coming at some point down the road.

There are a handful of additional curated genre stations, as well as a bunch of “soundtracks,” aimed at different moods like relaxation and productivity, including white noise, pink noise, brown noise, rain, rainforest and piano sounds.

The original Sonos Radio is now the No. 4 most listened to streaming service on Sonos speakers, according to the company. The fact that it’s free no doubt played a major roll in that. I suspect an $8 a month premium service is going to be a much heavier lift with all of the different options out there.

If you’re interested, it’s available starting today in the U.S. and U.K., following a one-month free trial.

mmhmm videochat software is now available to all for Mac

mmhmm, the presentation software developed by Evernote founder Phil Libin, is today coming out of beta. The mmhmm app is now officially available for Mac.

The software allows folks to spice up their video calls with the ability to add different backgrounds, play videos, add images, and use filters, among other cool effects. The app has been invite only since its inception, but today it becomes available to all.

Alongside the launch of the free app, mmhmm is also introducing Premium Tools.

This includes customizable rooms, presenter controls and extra add-ons like laser pointers. Users can get a free seven-day trial of the Premium Tools, and after the trial will have access to these tools for one hour per day. The Premium Tools will cost $99/year or $9.99/month, but free users will still be able to videochat, record, collaborate and use the basic present with a default background and simple presenter mode.

Another important note: mmhmm has decided to make its Premium Tools free to students and educators for one year.

The public launch also brings a handful of new features, including Big Hand Mode (which lets folks in the video call visually react), improvements to the appearance of mmhmm’s virtual green screen, and mmhmm Creative Services.

Big Hand Mode is only available on Apple’s new M1-powered Macs.

Creative Services represent another revenue channel for the company, which will now offer white-glove bespoke services to folks running large events or experiences.

For now, mmhmm is only available on MacOS, but the company is working on a Windows beta as we speak.

Apple HomePod Mini review: Remarkably big sound

It’s hard to shake the sense that the smart speaker market would look considerably different had the HomePod Mini arrived several years back. It’s not so much that the device is transformative on the face of it, but it’s impossible to deny that it marks a dramatically different approach to the category than the one Apple took almost three years ago with the launch of the original model.

Apple has never been a particular budget-conscious company when it comes to hardware — terms like “Apple tax” don’t spring out of nothing. But the last few years have seen the company soften that approach in an effort to appeal to users outside its traditional core of creative professionals. The iPhone and Apple Watch have both seen the company more aggressively pushing to appeal to entry-level users. It only follows that it would follow suit with its smart speaker.

Couple that with the fact that the Echo Dot and Google/Nest Home minis pretty consistently rate as the best-selling smart speakers for their respective company, and arrival of a HomePod Mini was all but inevitable, as Apple looks to take a bite out of the global smart speaker market, which currently ranks Amazon and Google at around 40% a piece. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the HomePod, but the Mini is, simply put, its strongest push in that direction to date.

Launched in early 2018 (after delays), the HomePod was a lot of things — but no one ever claimed it was cheap (though no doubt they found a way to spin it as a good deal). The $349 price tag (since reduced to $299) was hundreds of dollars more than the most expensive models from Amazon and Google. The HomePod was a premium device, and that was precisely the point. Music has always been a cornerstone of Apple’s philosophy, and the HomePod was the company’s way of embracing the medium without cutting corners.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As Matthew wrote in a David Foster Wallacesque “four sentence” review, “Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the seven years Apple has been working on it.”

He called it “incredibly over-designed and radically impressive,” while bemoaning limited Siri functionality. On the whole, the HomePod did a good job in being what it set out to be — but it was never destined to be the world’s best-selling smart speaker. Not at that price. What it did do, however, was help convince the rest of the industry that a smart speaker should be, above all, a speaker, rather than simply a smart assistant delivery device. The last several generations of Amazon and Google products have, accordingly, mostly brought sound to the forefront of product concerns.

Essentially, Amazon and Google have become more focused on sound and Apple more conscious of price. That’s not to say, however, that the companies have met somewhere in the middle. This is not, simply put, the Apple Echo Dot. The HomePod Mini is still, in many ways, a uniquely Apple product. There’s a focus on little touches that offer a comparably premium experience for its price point.

That price point being $99. That puts the device in league with the standard Amazon Echo and Google Nest, rather than their respective budget-level counterparts. Those devices run roughly half that price and are both fairly frequently — and quite deeply — discounted. In fact, those devices could nearly fall into the category of loss leaders for their respective companies — dirt-cheap ways to get their smart assistants into users’ homes. Apple doesn’t appear particularly interested in that approach. Not for the time being, at least. Apple wants to sell you a good speaker.

And you know what? The HomePod Mini is a surprisingly good speaker. Not just for its price, but also its size. The Mini is nearly exactly the same size as the new, round Echo Dot — which is to say, roughly the size of a softball. There are, however, some key differences in their respective designs. For starters, Amazon moved the Echo’s status ring to the bottom of the device, so as to not impede on its perfectly spherical design. Apple, on the other hand, simply lopped off the top. I was trying to figure out what it reminds me of, and this was the best I came up with.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design decision keeps the product more in line with the original HomePod, with an Aurora Borealis of swirling lights up top to show you when Siri is doing her thing. It also allows for the inclusion of touch-sensitive volume buttons and the ability to tap the surface to play/pause music. Rather than the fabric-style covering that has dominated the last several generations of Google and Amazon products, the Mini is covered in the same sort of audio-conductive mesh material as the full-size HomePod.

The device comes in white or space gray, and unlike other smart speakers, seems to be less about blending in than showing off. Of course, being significantly smaller than the HomePod makes it considerably more versatile. I’ve been using one of the two Minis Apple sent on my desk at home, and it’s an ideal size. On the bottom is a hard plastic base with an Apple logo.

There’s a long, non-detachable fabric cable. It would be nice if the cord was user-detectable, so you can swap it out as needed, but no go. The cable sports a USB-C connector, however, which makes it fairly versatile on that end. There’s also a 20W power adapter in the box (admittedly, not a sure bet with Apple, these days). It’s disappointing — but not surprising that there’s no auxiliary input on-board — there wasn’t one on the standard HomePod, either.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Where Amazon switched to a front-facing speaker for the new Echo, Apple continues to focus on 360-degree sound. Your preference may depend on where you place the speaker, but this model is more versatile, especially if you’re not just seated in front of the speaker all day. I’ve used a lot of different smart speakers in my day, and honestly, I’m really impressed with the sound the company was able to get out of the 3.3-inch device.

It’s full and clear and impressively powerful for its size. Obviously that goes double if you opt for a stereo pair. Pairing is painless, out of the box. Just set up two devices for the same room of your home and it will ask you whether you want to pair them. From there, you can specify which one handles the right and left channels. If you’d like to spread out, the system will do multiroom audio by simply assigning speakers to different rooms. From there, you can just say, “Hey Siri, play music in the kitchen” or “Hey Siri, play music everywhere.” You get the picture.

In fact, the whole setup process is pretty simple with an iPhone. It’s quite similar to pairing AirPods: hold the phone near the speaker and you’ll get a familiar white popup guiding you through the process of setting it up, choosing the room and enabling voice recognition.

The speakers also get pretty loud, though if you need clear sound at a serious volume, I’d strongly recommend looking at something bigger (and pricier) like the original HomePod. For the living room of my one-bedroom in Queens, however, it does the trick perfectly, and sounds great from pretty much any angle in the room.

As a smart assistant, Siri is up to most of the basic tasks. There are also some neat tricks that leverage Apple’s unique ecosystem. You can, say, ask Siri to send images to your iPhone, and it’ll oblige, using Bing results. The fact of the matter is, however, that Amazon and Google got a pretty major head-start on the smart home assistant front and Apple is still catching up.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There have, however, been some key strides of late — particularly as it pertains to Home/HomeKit. The last couple of iOS updates have brought some solid smart home updates; 14.1 brought intercom functionality specifically for HomePods and 14.2 extends that to other other devices. So you can say, “Hey Siri, intercom everyone, dinner is ready,” and beam it to various devices. The feature joins similar offerings from Amazon and Google, but does so on a wide range of (Apple) products, sending a pre-recorded snippet of your voice to the devices.

The system works out of the box with HomeKit-compatible devices — it’s a small list, compared to what’s currently offered for Alexa and Google Assistant, but it’s growing. You can check out the entire list of compatible smart home devices here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I found the voice recognition to be quite responsive to voice, even when the music is playing loud. Beyond Siri, there are a couple of ways to interact with the device. In addition to a single tap on the top to play/pause, a double-tap advances the track, triple-tap goes to the previous track and touching and holding fires up Siri. Unlike other smart speakers, there’s no physical button to turn off the mic — and you can’t ask Siri to do this either. The device is only listening for a “hey Siri” trigger and audio isn’t stored, but the feature would be nice for additional peace of mind.

You can also control music from your iPhone using AirPlay 2. That’s my preferred method, because I’m a bit of a micromanager when it comes to music. You’ll need to hit the AirPlay button to do that — or you can simply hold the iOS device near the HomePod Mini to take advantage of handoff using the U1 chip (iPhone 11 or later). That’s a neat little trick.

As someone who’s more accustomed to using Spotify than Apple Music, one thing that tripped me up a bit, however, is that when you ask the HomePod to play music, it will pick up from the last time you verbally requested playback, rather than treating all of your Apple Music listening sessions as a single stream. I prefer Spotify’s unified cross-device approach here.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, a nice little iOS 14.2 addition brings your aggregated listening history (Apple Podcasts and Music) to a single stream accessible by long-pressing your HomePod in the Home app. From there you can tap on an album or podcast to automatically send them to the smart speaker.

All told, I’ve quite enjoyed my time with the little smart speaker. As I noted at the top, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Apple had launched the Mini alongside the initial HomePod. I suspect the company would still be a ways from market share domination, but the product really could have eaten into Amazon and Google’s lead. Instead, Apple waited — likely in hopes of getting the package right. That’s certainly understandable. Apple’s never been one to rush into a product, and the HomePod Mini sounds all the better for it.

Sales CRM Pipedrive takes majority investment from Vista Equity Partners to reach unicorn status

Pipedrive, the sales CRM tool for small and medium-sized businesses, is the latest European company to reach unicorn status.

Founded in Estonia and now headquartered in New York, the company has taken a majority investment from U.S. enterprise software focused private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. This means that Vista has effectively acquired Pipedrive, in the sense that the PE firm now has a majority stake. Multiple sources with knowledge of the deal tell TechCrunch the transaction values Pipedrive at $1.5 billion dollars. The official announcement also makes mention of unicorns.

We’re also told that Pipedrive’s existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners, Insight Partners, Atomico, DTCP, and Rembrandt Venture Partners, will continue as minority investors in the company. Asked which shareholders exited, a spokesperson for Pipedrive says that this is not a secondary funding round, underlining that all major investors as well as the company’s founders, Timo Rein and Urmas Purde, continue invested in Pipedrive’s potential for further growth in the next few years.

However, it’s clear from my own sources that, as is the case with these type of private equity buyouts, many of Pipedrive’s early shareholders will have exited or partially exited, including employees/management and early backers. This is either voluntary or mandatory as part of a shareholder agreement “drag-along” clause.

Founded in 2010, Pipedrive’s calling card has always been that it is sales software designed to serve first and foremost the needs of sales people not their managers — built by sales people, for sales people, if you like — but has since matured into a more comprehensive CRM platform play also spanning marketing.

The software integrates with over 100 other apps used in business, for example Google Apps, Trello, Zapier, MailChimp, Yesware and PandaDoc. Pipedrive also employs what the company describes as artificial intelligence and automation to help sales teams manage leads and deals more efficiently, and track customer and prospect communications — all with the aim of helping to improve the bottom line.

It hasn’t always been an easy sell, however. When the company raised its Series C round in mid-2018, Rein told TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden that there was some skepticism when the Pipedrive first launched that it would be possible to make a dent in a landscape dominated by the likes of Salesforce and Microsoft.

“When we entered the market in 2010, people asked us, ‘Why build a product in an area where Salesforce is already strong?’ But having been in sales for more than a decade ourselves, we realized that it’s not just the sheer number of features you offer users. The difference is finding the right spot on the spectrum where you are getting what you need out of a product that you can use,” Rein said. “We have proven that users are migrating from Salesforce and others and are coming to Pipedrive. We definitely have less functionality, but professional salespeople know that performance is largely about your personality.”

Fast forward to today and Pipedrive claims 95,000 companies use its wares. Cue statement from current CEO Raj Sabhlok: “Reaching ‘unicorn’ status and partnering with Vista will enable us to accelerate our mission to support SMBs as they continue to digitize their businesses in order to grow. Our goal is to successfully deliver on the bold vision that Pipedrive set earlier this year – to provide our users with powerful tools that cover the whole customer journey.”

Adds John Stalder, Managing Director at Vista Equity Partners: “As more and more small and medium-sized businesses look to accelerate their digital adoption to grow and thrive, Pipedrive has proven itself an invaluable partner with solutions that drive revenue growth to its customers. We see a tremendous opportunity to work with the Pipedrive team and their partners to continue to grow the business and serve small and medium-sized businesses globally”.

Meanwhile, Pipedrive’s unicorn status adds to a decent run for Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström. The VC has seen three of its portfolio companies achieve unicorn status this year (being valued by investors at 1 billion dollars or more): Pipedrive, Lilium and MessageBird. Another Atomico investment, Klarna, also achieved so-called decacorn status with a valuation of $10.5 billion.

“Pipedrive is now Europe and Estonia’s newest SaaS unicorn,” says Zennström. “While financially rewarding for long time Pipedrive founders, employees, and shareholders, it’s more importantly a strong re-affirmation — from one of the world’s leading SaaS PE firms — of the mission started by Timo, Urmas, Ragnar, Martin Henk and Martin Tajur to make salespeople successful around the world. We are proud to have partnered with Pipedrive since we led their Series B in 2017, and believe the company is now well and truly on track to become Europe’s next global SaaS success story. That’s why we have doubled down as part of this latest investment and are excited to continue the Pipedrive journey with Vista at the helm. On a personal note, I am really proud to see another global leader emerge from Estonia with some ex-Skypers as key executives”.

Instagram redesign puts Reels and Shop tabs on the home screen

Instagram is putting its TikTok competitor Reels front-and-center in a redesigned version of its app by giving it the center position on its new navigation bar. The update, arriving today, also replaces the Activity tab (heart icon) with the Shop tab, following a test that had changed this aspect of the app’s home screen earlier this summer.

In the redesigned app, both the Compose button and the Activity tab have been relocated to the top-right of the home screen, while the center middle button now belongs to Reels.

Before, Reels videos were mixed in with other photo and video content on the Instagram Explore page, though Instagram this fall began to experiment with different layouts (see below).

This led to some early complaints from users looking for Reels in the app, who had said it was harder to find, the company says.

The redesign, which makes Reels the main button in the app, is an aggressive attempt on Instagram’s part to direct users to its short-form video feed, which has so far seen only a lukewarm reception from reviewers. Critics have said Reels lacks competitive features, contributes to Instagram’s bloat, feels stale and features a lot of recycled TikTok content. At best, it’s been deemed a shameless clone.

Instagram, on the other hand, would argue that it’s still early days for its Reels short-form video in its app. And the change could encourage more creators to share their Reels, given the now high-profile position given to the product.

That said, it cannot be understated how significant it is to relocate a Compose button in an app that relies on user-generated content. That Instagram would minimize the button’s importance in this way is a testament to how much of its future relies on making Reels work.

“The way we think about this update is that we’re trying to make it really easy to use an expanded suite of products now available on Instagram, while maintaining a simplicity,” explains Instagram’s director of Product Management, Robbie Stein.

Simplicity, given the wide range of products Instagram now offers, could become a challenge.

When tapped, the relocated Compose button will now take users to a redesigned Camera experience, too. Here, you can either pick photos or videos to post to your Feed, or scroll over to choose to post to your Story, Reels, or go Live. While this doesn’t replace the swipe gesture to get to the Camera, it does give all the different post formats a more equal footing.

Image Credits: Instagram

Next to the new Compose button is the relocated Activity button (the heart icon) and a redesigned messaging button that takes you to your Instagram DMs — which are now connected to Facebook Messenger’s universe. The messages button itself has been changed to look like the Facebook Messenger icon, and not the paper airplane icon that was previously associated with the Instagram inbox.

Another major change sees the Instagram Shop winning a home screen placement.

The company began testing the Shop tab in place of the Activity tab in July, where it would send users to an updated version of the Instagram Shop. Here, users could filter by brands they followed on Instagram or by product category. And, in many cases, users could pay for their purchase using Instagram’s own Checkout feature, which involves a selling fee.

Instagram’s push to make its app more of an online shopping destination through this and other changes comes at a critical time for the e-commerce market. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the shift to e-commerce by at least five years, according to some analysts. That means any plans Instagram had to become a major player in online commerce were also just expedited.

Image Credits: Instagram

Combined, both moves signal a company that’s worried about the impact TikTok may have on the long-term future of its business.

The Chinese-owned rival video app has been surging in popularity around the world, and particularly with the Gen Z demographic. TikTok is now projected to top 1.2 billion monthly active users in 2021, according to a recent forecast. However, the app’s U.S. fate is still unknown due to a lack of attention from the Trump administration over the TikTok ban, as well as uncertainty as to how the incoming Biden administration will proceed to enforce it.

Today’s TikTok captures users’ attention with its short-form content, personalized “For You” feed, sizable music catalog and special effects.

Image Credits: Instagram

But there’s also potential for the app to expand beyond being just an entertainment platform, as its recent partnership with Shopify on social commerce indicates. TikTok’s video format makes for an ideal medium to showcase a brand’s products — which is why Walmart angled in on the would-be TikTok acquisition for its U.S. operations, driven by Trump’s TikTok ban.

If and when TikTok scales this side of its business in the U.S., it could win social commerce market share from both Facebook and Instagram. And its appeal on the entertainment front could make it more difficult for Reels, or anyone else, to compete.

But Instagram has one big advantage in this battle: user data. It can inform its own personalization algorithms for Reels based on what users are doing elsewhere in its app, and even on Facebook if the user connected their account.

However, Stein says the main signals Reels personalization algorithms use are based on data coming from engagement within Reels, like whether you liked a video, for example.

Though Instagram users may not appreciate the buttons being relocated, Stein says, in tests, people came to adapt the changes. And in the end, it was necessary.

“We try to maintain simplicity by making sure that it’s clear why everything is where it is. But also, each tab has a really clear purpose to you,” says Stein. “So there’s now one clear place to go to start watching video and be entertained and, hopefully, have some fun,” he says. “There’s one really clear place to go now, when you want to post. And there’s one really clear place now you want to shop, which is really important to us.”

The changes will roll out to all markets where Reels and Shop are live, including the U.S., over the next few days.

On-demand delivery app Glovo is spinning up a b2b logistics unit for super speedy urban delivery

Spain’s on-demand delivery app, Glovo, is gearing up to be able to deliver a much wider range of products within a 30-minute timeframe by rolling out a b2b logistics play — drawing on a network of city centre warehouses that it plans to massively expand over the next twelve months.

It’s just announced the launch of a new business unit, called Q-Commerce — the ‘Q’ standing for quick — to accelerate development of a b2b service that will see it offer to stock third parties’ products in its warehouses and have the couriers that operate on its on-demand platform make deliveries for other businesses too — offering what it bills as a “turn-key” logistics solution for businesses of all sizes to underpin their own online stories. 

It is already working with retail brands like Unilever, Nestle and L’Oreal and supermarkets including Walmart, Carrefour and Kaufland to stock and sell their goods from its network of so-called ‘dark stores’ — which are currently located in Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Milan — offering users there speedy delivery for selected groceries and other items under its ‘Glovo Market’ brand (currently with the carrot of free 24-hour delivery and no minimum spend). But it’s aiming to ramp up across the board — expanding the reach of its Glovo Market offer to more cities and launching a b2b offer to power others’ online stores — saying it plans to have more than 100 dark stores up and running by the end of 2021.

Commenting in a statement, Daniel Alonso, global director of Q-Commerce at Glovo — and former ecommerce director at Walmart — said: “With shops closing down and lockdowns globally, consumers now want and expect more items than ever to be delivered to their doorstep. With this has brought new demands — it is no longer a case of waiting 24-48 hours for a delivery. Rather, the expectation for this is now a matter of minutes. At Glovo we’re committed to thirty minutes or less with all products available on Q-Commerce. As we continue to expand our enhanced offering, we’re excited to launch Q-Commerce in other parts of Spain and the rest of Europe, Eastern Europe and Africa over the next 12 months.”

Glovo says it wants Q-Commerce to power delivery of a wide range of products — not just meals and food from restaurants and supermarkets but anything sold in toy, music, book, flower, beauty and pharmacy stores.

There are some obvious gaps in that list: Clothes and shoe stores, for example, which are more likely to have their own online shopping infrastructure already. Plus clothes shopping is also more complex — given the propensity for returns when items don’t fit or suit. But it looks like Glovo is going after almost everything else.

It says its Glovo Market service has more than 50,000 active users, at this point — touting the delivery of around two orders every minute. It also says it’s delivered more than 12 million “multi-category” orders globally to date, while in Spain the number of orders for grocery items doubled this year to more than 1 million. Its overall growth rate in 2019 was more than 300% year-on-year, it added.

The Deliveroo and Uber Eats rival has always touted itself as a ‘deliver everything’ app because it offers the option for users to request anything (within bike-able reason) be brought to your door by one of its gigging couriers, even though the majority of the business involves biking fast food around cities.

Meal deliveries were making up three-quarters of its revenues at the start of this year — but Glovo has ambitions to beat Amazon at the urban convenience game of delivering all sorts of stuff really, really fast. And it’s got investors on board with the plan. Last year it raised a $169M Series D and a $166M Series E in quick succession.

It’s further beefed up its balance sheet this (pandemic) year by offloading its LatAm ops — selling them to European rival Delivery Hero for $272M — which means it’s concentrating its market focus on Southern and Eastern Europe (it also has a small footprint in sub-Saharan Africa, in Kenya and Ivory Coast).

Presumably it sees that footprint as a better fit for the ‘get stuff now’ convenience push it’s making with Q-Commerce combined with a network of its own city center warehouses (aka dark stores). Though last year it also said it wanted to work on building a path toward profitability over the next year+ so fierce competition in LatAm may have pushed those markets out of reach.

Glovo says it has more than 9 million monthly active users, at this point — and 55,000 “associated partners” globally; aka the gig workers who do the heavy lifting of making actual deliveries for its platform.

The startup is facing ongoing legal uncertainty in its home market over its classification of ‘glovers’ (as it calls couriers) as ‘self-employed’. Spain’s supreme court recently found a rider to be in a laboural relationship with the platform — and any move to force the business to reclassify the thousands of couriers it relies upon in the country would radically rework its push for profitability, to put it mildly.

Railsbank, the Banking-as-a-Service, raises $37M in growth funding

Railsbank, the London-headquartered Banking-as-a-Service platform, has raised $37 million in new growth funding.

Leading the round is MiddleGame Ventures and Ventura Capital, which are both existing investors in Railsbank. Also participating is Anthos Capital, Global Brain, Clocktower Technology Ventures, Moneta VC, Mitsui Fudosan and Firestartr.

Nigel Verdon, co-founder and CEO of Railsbank, tells me the injection of capital will be used to continue expanding the fintech’s global footprint and for further product development. This will include the launch of “credit cards as a service” in the U.S. and expand its product in APAC, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Japan. It will also double down on existing markets such as the U.K./Europe.

Verdon isn’t ruling out further M&A activity, either, including other strategic acquisitions following the purchase of Wirecard in the U.K.

Asked what the upside of the Wirecard acquisition was, the Railsbank founder says it helps maintain an orderly market in the U.K. and Europe and helps protect the reputation of the fintech industry. Most immediately, Verdon says it allowed several million card holders to continue to operate their cards, “and customers could remain in business with minimal disruption”.

He also says the acquisition brought “hugely talented and experienced people” from Wirecard to Railsbank, and ultimately added “significant equity value” to the company.

Railsbank positions itself as a “utility” on which other companies — spanning fintech upstarts, challenger brands, to incumbent banks that want to re-factor their tech — can build and sell various financial services or add fintech features to their products.

When the company closed its Series A, Verdon likened it to what Amazon has done for data centres with AWS. “Railsbank is a utility for the complete financial services backend: platform, connectivity, operations, scheme memberships (e.g. Visa), regulation, and compliance,” he told me at the time. More recently — and unsurprisingly given recent fintech trends — Railsbank is also talking itself up as an embedded finance partner.

The pitch is that Railsbank’s APIs are the building blocks for customers “to build pretty much any financial use case they can imagine. The use cases are also diversified, with the top three being lending, banking and savings related, which are embedded into fintech, retail, telco, insurance and other customer journeys,” Verdon says.

To that end, Railsbank’s credit card as a service offering means that any company can offer a branded credit card using the fintech’s infrastructure and tech. “In less than 12 weeks, we deliver a credit card in the customer’s brand along with a user journey seamlessly embedded into the customer’s existing user experience,” explains Verdon.

“Our mission is to reinvent, unbundle and democratise access to the complex, opaque and byzantine 70-year-old credit card market, which is worth $4 trillion in the U.S. alone”.

Meanwhile, Railsbank now employs 200+ people, who between them speak 40+ languages. It has offices in 11 locations: Santa Monica (U.S.), Singapore, Vilnius (Lithuania), Munich (Germany), Newcastle (U.K.), London, Manila (Philippines), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Melbourne (Australia), Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

PUBG announces return to India: New game, $100 million investment

PUBG Mobile will make its return to India in a new avatar, parent company PUBG Corporation said on Thursday. TechCrunch reported last week that the South Korean gaming firm was plotting its return to the world’s second largest internet market two months after its marquee title was banned by the country.

Additionally, the company said it plans to make investments worth $100 million in India, one of the largest markets of PUBG Mobile, to cultivate the local video game, esports, entertainment, and IT industries ecosystems. “Thanks to overwhelming community enthusiasm for PUBG esports in India, the company also plans to make investments by hosting India-exclusive esports events, which will feature the biggest tournaments, the largest prize pools, and the best tournament productions,” it said in a statement.

The company did not share exactly when the new game would be released in India.

New Delhi has banned over 200 apps including PUBG Mobile and TikTok in recent months over cybersecurity concerns. To allay concerns of the Indian government, PUBG Mobile has cut ties with Chinese internet giant, Tencent, which is its publisher in many markets. The company last week announced that it had inked a global deal with Microsoft to move all PUBG Mobile data — as well as data from its other properties — to Azure.

In a statement on Thursday, PUBG Corporation said, “privacy and security of Indian player data being a top priority for PUBG Corporation, the company will conduct regular audits and verifications on the storage systems holding Indian users’ personally identifiable information to reinforce security and ensure that their data is safely managed.”

Prior to the ban in early September, PUBG Mobile had amassed over 50 million monthly active users in India, more than any other mobile game in the country. It helped establish an entire ecosystem of esports organisations and even a cottage industry of streamers that made the most of its spectator sport-friendly gameplay, said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet The Mako Reactor.

More to follow…