Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hopping on Zoom with betaworks’ John Borthwick and Matt Hartman to discuss the tech world’s adaptation to this new locked-down world, the future of new media and answer questions from the audience.
We discussed whether new media companies can raise capital right now, and touched on emerging trends around audio, voice, AR, live events, travel-related companies and many other topics.
It was a delight, and I’m excited to do more of these in the future.
For those of you who missed the Zoom, here’s a rundown of what we discussed (audio embed below).
When Eliot Buchanan tried to use his credit card to pay his Harvard tuition bill, the payment was rejected because the university said it doesn’t accept credit. Realizing the same problem exists for thousands of different transactions like board, rent and vendor payments, he launched Plastiq. Plastiq helps people use credit cards to pay, or get paid, for anything.
Plastiq today announced that it has raised $ 75 million in venture capital in a Series D round led by B Capital Group. Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Accomplice and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated in the round. The round brings the company’s total known venture capital raised to more than $ 140 million.
To use Plastiq, users enter their credit card information on Plastiq’s platform. In return, Plastiq will charge you a 2.5% fee and get your bills paid. While Plastiq was started with consumers in mind, SMBs have now accounted for 90% of the revenue, according to Buchanan. The new financing round will invest in building out features to give SMBs faster services around payments and processing.
Plastiq provides a way for SMBs and consumers to pay their bills and make sure they have reliable cash flow. For example, restaurants sometimes have a drop in revenue due to seasonality or, as we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns. Or tourism companies for cities that are struggling to attract visitors. Those companies still need cash flow, and using Plastiq’s service, they can use credit cards to pay suppliers even in an off season.
There is no shortage of competition from other companies also trying to solve pain points in small-business cash flow. According to Buchanan, Plastiq’s biggest competitors are traditional lenders, as well as companies like Kabbage and Fundbox. Similar claims could be made about Brex, which offers a credit card for startups to access capital faster.
Kabbage provides funding to SMBs through automated business loans. The SoftBank-backed company landed $ 200 million in a revolving credit line back in July, fresh off of landing strong partnerships with banks and giants like Alibaba to access more customers. Kabbage loans out roughly $ 2-3 billion to SMBs every year.
Plastiq, according to its release, is also on track to make more than $ 2 billion in transactions. But unlike Kabagge, Plastiq doesn’t issue loans or credit, it just unlocks a payment opportunity.
“SMBs don’t need to be burdened with additional debt or additional loans,” Buchanan said. “So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, let’s use a behavior they have already earned.”
Buchanan would not disclose Plastiq’s current valuation or revenue, but he did say that it’s not too far away from $ 100 million in revenue run rate. The company’s revenue has grown 150% from 2018 to 2019.
The company also noted that it has surpassed “well over 1 million users,” up 150% in unique new users from 2018 to 2019.
In terms of profitability, Buchanan said that “we could be profitable if we wanted to be,” noting that Plastiq’s revenue and margins could lead them toward profitability if they wanted to focus less on growth. But he added they don’t plan to “slow down” the growth engine any time soon — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because the Series D round closed at the end of 2019, Buchanan said the pandemic did not impact the deal. However, the company had planned to time the announcement with tax season. Now, as small businesses struggle to secure capital and stay afloat due to lockdowns across the country, Plastiq’s new raise feels more fitting.
“Our customers are more thankful for solutions like ours as traditional sources of lending are drying up and not as easy to access” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can measure how many businesses make it through this because of us.”
The 140-person company is currently hiring across product and engineering roles.
Rocket launch startup Astra, which had been attempting to claim DARPA’s prize for successful demonstration of flexible space launch capabilities until earlier this month, will not be moving forward with an attempted flight of its launch vehicle this week as planned. The company’s “One of Three” rocket ran into an “anomaly” during pre-launch testing in preparation for its flight this week, and the schedule for a make-up launch are currently is currently up in the air.
“Astra’s launch vehicle “One of Three” suffered an anomaly following an otherwise successful day of testing in Kodiak in preparation for a launch this week,” explained Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp via email. “Fortunately, our own hardware was the only thing harmed, and our team is already hard at work to determine the root cause so that we can improve the vehicle’s design. As a result of yesterday’s anomaly we will no longer be attempting a launch this week. We do intend to attempt another launch from Kodiak once conditions with coronavirus improve and we have resolved the cause of yesterday’s incident.”
Astra’s launches are set to take off from Kodiak Launch Complex, which is located a the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. The company had challenges with weather conditions leading up to its attempts to win the $ 2 million DARPA prize, the deadline for each expired at the beginning of March, but the anomaly yesterday had to do with the vehicle hardware itself, and not external conditions. Local news additionally reported this morning that while the emergency response triggered by the anomaly had ended, the “areas is still hazardous and should be avoided” according to Alaska Aerospace CEO Mark Lester.
Kemp also cited the current coronavirus crisis in his statement to TechCrunch, and while that doesn’t look like it contributed to any technical issues, the ongoing global pandemic definitely seems likely to impact any attempted work that would involve repairs or rescheduling the launch at this time.
The pen company’s first headphones silence the world as if they’re submerging you in jet black ink.
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While the world continues to hunker down amidst the spread of Covid-19, GDC is already planning for a recovery.
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Apple appears to be expecting a longer disruption to shopping at its physical retail stores as a result of the public health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this week, in a press release, the iPhone maker said it would be closing retail stores outside China until March 27. A note on its website now says the shutdown is open-ended. Apple writes that the bricks-and-mortar stores “are closed until further notice” — so at the very least it’s signalling to customers to expect ongoing disruption to its retail business as usual.
Those looking to buy Apple products are told to shop on the website. Service and support is also offered online or via telephone.
We’ve reached out to Apple to ask for confirmation on a policy change.
In its March 13 missive, the company wrote that it is committed to paying all its hourly workers as if the stores remained open, and also said it was expanding its leave policies to “accommodate personal or family health circumstances created by COVID-19.”
Late yesterday six Bay Area counties issued a “shelter in place” order to restrict the potential spread of the novel coronavirus. Additional measures seem likely in the coming days.
Multiple countries in the European Union have already ordered the closure of non-essential shops — instructing residents to stay at home unless they need to venture out to obtain essential supplies or are required to work and cannot work from home.
TransferWise, the London-headquartered international money transfer service most recently valued by investors at $ 3.5 billion, has partnered with China’s Aliplay for international transfers.
The launch enables TransferWise’s now 7 million-plus users to be able to send Chinese yuan from 17 currencies to users of Alipay, which serves more than 1.2 billion people worldwide including via its local e-wallet partners.
Promising “instant” money transfers — under 20 seconds, apparently — TransferWise users simply need the recipient’s name and Alipay ID to initiate a money transfer. The money will then be sent to the bank account linked to the recipient’s Alipay profile.
It could be a potentially smart bit of business by TransferWise, which has sometimes struggled to secure the kind of partnerships that can accelerate its customer base and increase transaction volume. According to a 2019 report the fintech is citing, China is projected to be one of the top remittance recipient countries in the world, with £54bn expected to be sent back home by Chinese expats and migrants living abroad.
“The partnership is a major expansion for TransferWise as it reaches a new, additional market of people managing their money via the Alipay platform,” says the company.
With that said, Alipay is the second meaningful partnership that TransferWise has announced in the last few months. In November, it joined forces with GoCardless, the London fintech that lets customers pay via recurring bank payments (known as Direct Debits in the U.K.). GoCardless is used by more than 50,000 businesses worldwide, spanning multinational corporations to SMBs, and the partnership sees its own FX functionality powered by TransferWise.
Fintech startup Revolut has introduced a new trading feature for premium users. Starting today, Premium and Metal users can access gold exposure from the app.
Revolut works with a gold services partner (London Bullion Market Association) so that money you spend on gold exposure is backed by real gold held by this partner. In other words, you’re not going to receive gold coins in the mail. You can just invest money based on the price of gold.
The startup has been building a financial hub and already lets you purchase cryptocurrencies and buy public shares. Gold is part of a new feature called Commodities.
There are multiple ways to invest in gold. You can purchase gold exposure directly at market price, set a limit price to auto-exchange gold when it reaches a certain price or get cashback in gold for Metal customers.
At any time, you can convert your gold investment back into fiat currencies or cryptocurrencies. If you spend money with your Revolut card and you only have gold, Revolut will use your gold exposure automatically. You can also transfer gold exposure to another Revolut user.
According to the company’s website, Revolut charges a 0.25% markup when you trade gold during the week and a 1% markup from Saturday at midnight to Monday at midnight U.K. time.
It’s worth noting that gold isn’t protected through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in the U.K. “However, in the unlikely event of Revolut’s insolvency, all Precious Metals holdings will be sold and proceeds will be credited to your e-money account,” Revolut says. You’ll have to trust their word.
Fitness, wallpaper, and lost item-finding startups could have a big new competitor baked into everyone’s iPhones. Leaks of the code from iOS 14 that Apple is expected to reveal in June signal several new features and devices are on the way. Startups could be at risk due to Apple’s ability to integrate these additions at the iOS level, instantly gain an enormous install base and offer them for free or cheap, as long as they boost sales of its main money maker, the iPhone.
It’s unclear if all of these fresh finds will actually get official unveiling in June versus further down the line. But here’s a breakdown of what the iOS 14 code obtained by 9To5Mac’s Chance Miller shows and which startups could be impacted by Apple barging into their businesses:
Fitness – Codename: Seymour
Apple appears to be preparing a workout guide app for iOS, WatchOS and Apple TV that would let users download instructional video clips for doing different exercises. The app could potentially be called Fit or Fitness, according to MacRumors‘ Juli Clover, and offer help with stretching, core training, strength training, running, cycling, rowing, outdoor walking, dance and yoga. The Apple Watch appears to help track your progress through the workout routines.
The iOS Health app is already a popular way to track steps and other fitness goals. By using Health to personalize or promote a new Fitness feature, Apple has an easy path to a huge user base. Many people are afraid of weight and strength training because there’s a lot to learn about having proper form to avoid injury or embarrassment. Visual guides with videos shot from multiple angles could make sure you’re doing those pushups or bicep curls correctly.
Apple’s entrance into fitness could endanger startups like Future, which offer customized workout routines with video clips demonstrating how to do each exercise. The $ 11.5 million-funded Future actually sends you an Apple Watch with its $ 150 per month service to track your progress while using visuals, sounds and vibrations to tell you when to switch exercises without having to look at your phone. By removing Future’s human personal trainers that text to nag you if you don’t work out, Apple could offer a simplified version of this startup’s app for free.
Apple Fitness could be even more trouble for less premium apps like Sweat and Sworkit that provide basic visual guidance for workouts, or Aaptiv that’s restricted to just audio cues. Hardware startups like Peloton, which offers off-bike Beyond the Ride workouts with live or on-demand class, and Tempo’s giant 3D-sensing in-home screen for weight lifting, could also find casual customers picked off by a free or cheap alternative from Apple.
There’s no code indicating a payment mechanism, so Apple Fitness could be free. But it’s also easy to imagine Apple layering on a premium feature like remote personal training assistance from human experts or a wider array of exercises for a fee, tying into its increasing focus on services revenue.
Wallpapers – access for third-parties
In iOS 14, it appears that Apple will offer new categorizations for wallpapers beyond the existing Dynamic (slowly shifting), Still and Live (move when touched) options. Apple’s always only offered a few native wallpapers plus the option to pull one from your camera roll. But the iOS 14 code suggests Apple may open this up to third-party providers.
A wallpaper “store” could be both a blessing and a curse for entrepreneurs in the space. It could endanger sites and apps like Vellum, Unsplash, Clarity, WLPPR and Walli that aggregate wallpapers for browsing, purchase or download. Instead, Apple could make itself the ultimate aggregator by being built directly into the wallpaper settings. But for creators of beautiful wallpaper images, iOS 14 could potentially offer a new distribution method where their collections could be available straight from where users install their phone backgrounds.
The big question will be whether Apple merely works with a few providers to add wallpaper packs for free, does financially backed deals to bring in providers or creates a full-blown marketplace for wallpapers where creators can sell their imagery like developers do apps. By turning this formerly free feature into a marketplace, Apple could also start earning a cut of sales to add to its services revenue.
AirTags – find your stuff
Apple appears to be getting closer to launching its long-awaited AirTags, based on iOS 14 code snippets. These small tracking tags could be attached to your wallet, keys, gadgets or other important or easily lost items, and then located using the iOS Find My app. AirTags may be powered by removable coin-shaped batteries, according to MacRumors.
Native integration with iOS could make AirTags super-easy to set up. They also could benefit from the ubiquity of Apple devices, as the company could let the crowd help find your stuff by allowing AirTags to piggyback on the connectivity of any of its phones, tablets or laptops to send you the missing item’s coordinates.
Most obviously, AirTags could become a powerful competitor to the vertical’s long-standing frontrunner, Tile. The $ 104 million-funded startup sells $ 20 to $ 35 tracking tags that locate devices from 150 to 400 feet away. It also sells a $ 30 per year subscription for free battery replacements and 30-day location history. Other players in the space include Chipolo, Orbit and MYNT.
But as we saw with the launch of AirPods, Apple’s design expertise and native iOS integrations can allow its products to leapfrog what’s in the market. If AirTags get proprietary access to the iPhone’s Bluetooth and other connectivity hardware, and if they’re quicker to set up, Apple fans might jump from startups to these new devices. Apple also could develop a similar premium subscription for battery or full AirTag replacements, as well as bonus tracking features.
Augmented reality scanning – Codename: Gobi
iOS 14 includes code for a new augmented reality feature that lets users scan places or potentially items in the real world to pull up helpful information. The code indicates Apple is testing the feature, codenamed Gobi, at Apple Stores and Starbucks to let users see product, pricing and comparison info, according to 9To5Mac’s Benjamin Mayo. Gobi can recognize QR-style codes for specific locations like a certain shop, triggering a companion augmented reality experience.
It appears that an SDK would allow partners to build their own AR offerings and generate the QR codes that initiate them. Eventually, these capabilities could be extended from Apple’s mobile devices to the AR headset it’s working on so you’d instantly get a heads-up display of information when you entered the right place.
Apple moving to power lighter-weight AR experiences rather than just offering the AR Kit infrastructure for developers to build full-fledged apps could create competition for a range of startups and other tech giants. The whole point of augmented reality is that it’s convenient to explore hidden experiences in the real world, which is defeated if users have to know to download and then wait to install a different app for every place or product. Creating a central AR app for simpler experiences that load instantly could speed up adoption.
Startups like Blippar have been working on AR scanning for years in hopes of making consumer packaged goods or retail locations come alive. But again, the need to download a separate app and remember to use it has kept these experiences out of the mainstream. Snapchat’s Scan platform can similarly trigger AR effects based on specific items from a more popular app. And teasers of Facebook and Google’s eventual augmented reality hardware and software hinge on adding utility to every day life.
If Apple can build this technology into everyone’s iPhone cameras, it could surmount one of AR’s biggest distribution challenges. That might help it build out a developer ecosystem and train customers to seek out AR so they’re all ready when its AR glasses finally arrive.
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