London ed tech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.
Pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market.”
In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware-focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract; pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.
The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.
One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office, where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.
Pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.
Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”
“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pi–top 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.
Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the U.K. office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.
We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.
Pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy, but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region.”
We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost-reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.
As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. ed tech seed fund.
Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary ed tech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.
At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth-gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $ 200,000 to fund the project.
In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community,” as well as offering social sharing features.
The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)
We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.
Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week.
“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”
Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $ 4 million in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability,” as it put it today.
“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.
As we move from a world dominated by virtual machines to one of serverless, it changes the nature of monitoring, and vendors like New Relic certainly recognize that. This morning the company announced it was acquiring IOpipe, a Seattle-based early-stage serverless monitoring startup, to help beef up its serverless monitoring chops. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
New Relic gets what it calls “key members of the team,” which at least includes co-founders Erica Windisch and Adam Johnson, along with the IOpipe technology. The new employees will be moving from Seattle to New Relic’s Portland offices.
“This deal allows us to make immediate investments in onboarding that will make it faster and simpler for customers to integrate their [serverless] functions with New Relic and get the most out of our instrumentation and UIs that allow fast troubleshooting of complex issues across the entire application stack,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.
It adds that initially the IOpipe team will concentrate on moving AWS Lambda features like Lambda Layers into the New Relic platform. Over time, the team will work on increasing support for serverless function monitoring. New Relic is hoping by combining the IOpipe team and solution with its own, it can speed up its serverless monitoring chops.
Eliot Durbin, an investor at Bold Start, which led the company’s $ 2 million seed round in 2018, says both companies win with this deal. “New Relic has a huge commitment to serverless, so the opportunity to bring IOpipe’s product to their market-leading customer base was attractive to everyone involved,” he told TechCrunch.
The startup has been helping monitor serverless operations for companies running AWS Lambda. It’s important to understand that serverless doesn’t mean there are no servers, but the cloud vendor — in this case AWS — provides the exact resources to complete an operation, and nothing more.
Once the operation ends, the resources can simply get redeployed elsewhere. That makes building monitoring tools for such ephemeral resources a huge challenge. New Relic has also been working on the problem and released New Relic Serverless for AWS Lambda earlier this year.
As TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois pointed out in his article about the company’s $ 2.5 million seed round in 2017, Windisch and Johnson bring impressive credentials:
IOpipe co-founders Adam Johnson (CEO) and Erica Windisch (CTO), too, are highly experienced in this space, having previously worked at companies like Docker and Midokura (Adam was the first hire at Midokura and Erica founded Docker’s security team). They recently graduated from the Techstars NY program.
IOpipe was founded in 2015, which was just around the time that Amazon was announcing Lambda. At the time of the seed round the company had eight employees. According to PitchBook data, it currently has between 1 and 10 employees, and has raised $ 7.07 million since its inception.
Berlin-based femtech startup Inne is coming out of stealth to announce an €8 million (~$ 8.8M) Series A and give the first glimpse of a hormone-tracking subscription product for fertility-tracking and natural contraception that’s slated for launch in Q1 next year.
The Series A is led by led by Blossom Capital, with early Inne backer Monkfish Equity also participating, along with a number of angel investors — including Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder of TransferWise; Tom Stafford, managing partner at DST; and Trivago co-founder Rolf Schromgens.
Women’s health apps have been having a tech-fuelled moment in recent years, with the rise of a femtech category. There are now all sorts of apps for tracking periods and the menstrual cycle, such as Clue and Flo.
Some also try to predict which days a women is fertile and which they’re not — offering digital tools to help women track bodily signals if they’re following a natural family planning method of contraception, or indeed trying to conceive a baby.
Others — such as Natural Cycles — have gone further down that path, branding their approach “digital contraception” and claiming greater sophistication vs traditional natural family planning by applying learning algorithms to cycle data augmented with additional information (typically a daily body temperature measurement). Although there has also been some controversy around aggressive and even misleading marketing tactics targeting young women.
A multi-month investigation by the medical device regulator in Natural Cycles’ home market, instigated after a number of women fell pregnant while using its method, found rates of failure were in line with its small-print promises but concluded with the company agreeing to clarify the risk of the product failing.
At issue is that the notion of “digital contraception” may present as simple and effortless — arriving in handy app form, often boosted by a flotilla of seductive social media lifestyle ads. Yet the reality for the user is the opposite of effortless. Because in fact they are personally taking on all of the risk.
For these products to work the user needs a high level of dedication to stick at it, be consistent and pay close attention to key details in order to achieve the promised rate of protection.
Natural contraception is also what Inne is touting, dangling another enticing promise of hormone-free contraception — its website calls the product “a tool of radical self-knowledge” and claims it “protect[s]… from invasive contraceptive methods”. It’s twist is it’s not using temperature to track fertility; its focus is on hormone-tracking as a fertility measure.
Inne says it’s developed a saliva-based test to measure hormone levels, along with an in vitro diagnostic device (pictured above) that allows data to be extracted from the disposable tests at home and wirelessly logged in the companion app.
Founder Eirini Rapti describes the product as a “mini lab” — saying it’s small and portable enough to fit in a pocket. Her team has been doing the R&D on it since 2017, preferring, she says, to focus on getting the biochemistry right rather than shouting about launching the startup. (It took in seed funding prior to this round but isn’t disclosing how much.)
At this stage Inne has applied for and gained European certification as a medical device. Though it’s not yet been formally announced.
The first product, a natural contraception for adult women — billed as best suited for women aged 28-40, i.e. at a steady relationship time-of-life — will be launching in select European markets (starting in Scandinavia) next year, though initially as a closed beta style launch as they work on iterating the product based on user feedback.
“It basically has three parts,” Rapti says of the proposition. “It has a small reader… It has what we call a little mouth opening in the front. It always gives you a smile. That’s the hardware part of it, so it recognizes the intensity of your hormones. And then there’s a disposable saliva test. You basically collect your saliva by putting it in your mouth for 30 seconds. And then you insert it in the reader and then you go about your day.
“The reader is connected to your phone, either via BlueTooth or wifi, depending on where you are taking the test daily… It takes the reading and it sends it over to your phone. In your phone you can do a couple of things. First of all you look at your hormonal data and you look at how those change throughout the menstrual cycle. So you can see how they grow, how they fall. What that means about your ovulation or your overall female health — like we measure progesterone; that tells you a lot about your lining etc. And then you can also track your fluids… We teach you how to track them, how to understand what they mean.”
As well as a contraception use-case, the fertility tracking element naturally means it could also be used by women wanting to get pregnant.
“This product is not a tracker. We’re not looking to gather your data and then tell you next month what you should be feeling — at all,” she adds. “It’s more designed to track your hormones and tell you look this is the most basic change that happens in your body and because of those changes you will feel certain things. So do you feel them or not — and if you don’t, what does it mean? Or if you do what does it mean?
“It builds your own hormonal baseline — so you start measuring your hormones and we go okay so this is your baseline and now let’s look at things that go out of your baseline. And what do they mean?”
Of course the key question is how accurate is a saliva-based test for hormones as a method for predicting fertility? On this Rapti says Inne isn’t ready to share data about the product’s efficacy — but claims it will be publishing details of the various studies it conducted as part of the CE marking process in the next few weeks.
“A couple more weeks and all the hardcore numbers will be out there,” she says.
In terms of how it works in general the hormone measurement is “a combination of a biochemical reaction and the read out of it”, as she puts it — with the test itself being pure chemistry but algorithms then being applied to interpret the hormonal reading, looping in other signals such as the user’s cycle length, age and the time of day of the test.
She claims the biochemical hormone test the product relies on as its baseline for predicting fertility is based on similar principles to standard pregnancy tests — such as those that involve peeing on a stick to get a binary ‘pregnant’ or ‘not pregnant’ result. “We are focused on specifically fertility hormones,” she says.
“Our device is a medical device. It’s CE-certified in Europe and to do that you have to do all kinds of verification and performance evaluation studies. They will be published pretty soon. I cannot tell you too much in detail but to develop something like that we had to do verification studies, performance evaluation studies, so all of that is done.”
While it developed and “validated” the approach in-house, Rapti notes that it also worked with a number of external diagnostic companies to “optimize” the test.
“The science behind it is pretty straightforward,” she adds. “Your hormones behave in a specific way — they go from a low to a high to a low again, and what you’re looking for is building that trend… What we are building is an individual curve per user. The starting and the ending point in terms of values can be different but it is the same across the cycle for one user.”
“When you enter a field like biochemistry as an outsider a lot of the academics will tell you about the incredible things you could do in the future. And there are plenty,” she adds. “But I think what has made a difference to us is we always had this manufacturability in mind. So if you ask me there’s plenty of ways you can detect hormones that are spectacular but need about ten years of development let alone being able to manufacture it at scale. So it was important to me to find a technology that would allow us to do it effectively, repeatedly but also manufacture it at a low cost — so not reinventing the whole wheel.”
Rapti says Inne is controlling for variability in the testing process by controlling when users take the measurement (although that’s clearly not directly within its control, even if it can send an in-app reminder); controlling how much saliva is extracted per test; and controlling how much of the sample is tested — saying “that’s all done mechanically; you don’t do that”.
“The beauty about hormones is they do not get influenced by lack of sleep, they do not get influenced by getting out of your bed — and this is the reason why I wanted to opt to actually measure them,” she adds, saying she came up with the idea for the product as a user of natural contraception searching for a better experience. (Rapti is not herself trained in medical or life sciences.)
“When I started the company I was using the temperature method [of natural contraception] and I thought it cannot be that I have to take this measurement from my bed otherwise my measurement’s invalid,” she adds.
However there are other types of usage restrictions Inne users will need to observe in order to avoid negatively affecting the hormonal measurements.
Firstly they must take the test in the same time window each time — either in the morning or the evening but sticking to one of those choices for good.
They also need to stick to daily testing for at least a full menstrual cycle. Plus there are certain days in the month when testing will always be essential, per Rapti, even as she suggests a “learning element” might allow for the odd missed test day later on, i.e. once enough data has been inputted.
Users also have to avoid drinking and eating for 30 minutes before taking the test. She further specifies this half hour pre-test restriction includes not having oral sex — “because that also affects the measurements”.
“There’s a few indications around it,” she concedes, adding: “The product is super easy to use but it is not for women who want to not think ever about contraception or their bodies. I believe that for these women the IUD would be the perfect solution because they never have to think about it. This product is for women who consciously do not want to take hormones and don’t want invasive devices — either because they’ve been in pain or they’re interested in being natural and not taking hormones.”
At this stage Inne hasn’t performed any comparative studies vs established contraception methods such as the pill. So unless or until it does users won’t be able to assess the relative risk of falling pregnant while using it against more tried and tested contraception methods.
Rapti says the plan is to run more clinical studies in the coming year, helped by the new funding. But these will be more focused on what additional insights can be extracted from the test to feed the product proposition — rather than on further efficacy (or any comparative) tests.
They’ve also started the process of applying for FDA certification to be able to enter the US market in future.
Beyond natural contraception and fertility tracking, Inne is thinking about wider applications for its approach to hormone tracking — such as providing women with information about the menopause, based on longer term tracking of their hormone levels. Or to help manage conditions such as endometriosis, which is one of the areas where it wants to do further research.
The intent is to be the opposite of binary, she suggests, by providing adult women with a versatile tool to help them get closer to and understand changes in their bodies for a range of individual needs and purposes.
“I want to shift the way people perceive our female bodies to be binary,” she adds. “Our bodies are not binary, they change around the month. So maybe this month you want to avoid getting pregnant and maybe next month you actually want to get pregnant. It’s the same body that you need to understand to help you do that.”
Commenting on the Series A in a supporting statement, Louise Samet, partner at Blossom Capital, said: “Inne has a winning combination of scientific validity plus usability that can enable women to better understand their bodies at all stages in their lives. What really impressed us is the team’s meticulous focus on design and easy-of-use together with the scientific validity and clear ambition to impact women all over the world.”
Tilting Point announced yesterday that it has acquired Gondola, a company that aims to increase game monetization by optimizing in-game offers and video ads.
Tilting Point CEO Kevin Segalla described his company’s model as “progressive publishing” — usually, mobile game developers start working with Tilting Point because they need help with user acquisition, and then develop a deeper publishing relationship over time.
“With a select group of our development partners, we’ll acquire an IP, and we’ll … have them take the engine that they already have and create a whole new game,” Segalla said. “It’s really a dual effort between us and the developer.”
To accomplish all this, the company has built artificial intelligence tools to improve user acquisition. But the other side of that equation, in Segalla’s view, is increasing the lifetime value of the users acquired.
“At the end of the day, scaling a game boils down to two simple things, [cost per install] and LTV,” he said. “Strong developers are working to improve the LTV of their players, but there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that with the right toolset you can use to improve the lifetime values. That’s what Gondola is about … We’ve been following for years, and we said, ‘Let’s bring this in-house.’ ”
Gondola currently offers four modules: Target Optimization (choosing the best offer for a player), Rewarded Video Ad Optimization (choosing the right amount of virtual currency to reward a player for watching a video ad), Store Optimization (choosing the right store items to show a player) and Currency Optimization (choosing the best virtual currency amounts for offers and promotions).
The financial terms of the acquisition — Tilting Point’s first — were not disclosed. As part of the deal, Gondola CTO André Cohen is joining Tilting Point as its head of data science, while his co-founder and CEO Niklas Herriger remains involved as an executive advisor.
Marc Benioff will discuss building a socially responsible and successful startup at TechCrunch Disrupt
Salesforce chairman, co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff took a lot of big chances when he launched the company 20 years ago. For starters, his was one of the earliest enterprise SaaS companies, but he wasn’t just developing a company on top of a new platform, he was building one from scratch with social responsibility built-in.
Fast-forward 20 years and that company is wildly successful. In its most recent earnings report, it announced a $ 4 billion quarter, putting it on a $ 16 billion run rate, and making it by far the most successful SaaS company ever.
But at the heart of the company’s DNA is a charitable streak, and it’s not something they bolted on after getting successful. Even before the company had a working product, in the earliest planning documents, Salesforce wanted to be a different kind of company. Early on, it designed the 1-1-1 philanthropic model that set aside 1% of Salesforce’s equity, and 1% of its product and 1% of its employees’ time to the community. As the company has grown, that model has serious financial teeth now, and other startups over the years have also adopted the same approach using Salesforce as a model.
In our coverage of Dreamforce, the company’s enormous annual customer conference, in 2016, Benioff outlined his personal philosophy around giving back:
You are at work, and you have great leadership skills. You can isolate yourselves and say I’m going to put those skills to use in a box at work, or you can say I’m going to have an integrated life. The way I look at the world, I’m going to put those skills to work to make the world a better place.
This year Benioff is coming to TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco to discuss with TechCrunch editors how to build a highly successful business, while giving back to the community and the society your business is part of. In fact, he has a book coming out in mid-October called Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, in which he writes about how businesses can be a positive social force.
Benioff has received numerous awards over the years for his entrepreneurial and charitable spirit, including Innovator of the Decade from Forbes, one of the World’s 25 Greatest Leaders from Fortune, one of the 10 Best-Performing CEOs from Harvard Business Review, GLAAD, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative for his work on equality and the Variety Magazine EmPOWerment Award.
It’s worth noting that in 2018, a group of 618 Salesforce employees presented Benioff with a petition protesting the company’s contract with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Benioff in public comments stated that the tools were being used in recruitment and management, and not helping to separate families at the border. While Salesforce did not cancel the contract, at the time, co-CEO Keith Block stated that the company would donate $ 1 million to organizations helping separated families, as well as match any internal employee contributions through its charitable arm, Salesforce.org.
Disrupt SF runs October 2 to October 4 at the Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco. Tickets are available here.
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By now, the venture world is wary of blood testing startups offering health data from just a few drops of blood. However, Baze, a Swiss-based personal nutrition startup providing blood tests you can do in the convenience of your own home, collects just a smidgen of your sanguine fluid through an MIT manufactured device, which, according to the company, is in accordance with FDA regulations.
The idea is to find out (via your blood sample) which vitamins you’re missing out on and are keeping you from living your best life. That seems to resonate with folks who don’t want to go into the doctor’s office and separately head to their nearest lab for testing.
Most health professionals would agree it’s important to know if you are getting the right amount of nutrition — Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic affecting calcium absorption, hormone regulation, energy levels and muscle weakness. An estimated 74% of the U.S. population does not get the required daily levels of Vitamin D.
“There are definitely widespread deficiencies across the population,” Baze CEO and founder Philipp Schulte tells TechCrunch. “[With the blood test] we see that we can actually close those gaps for the first time ever in the supplement industry.”
While we don’t know exactly how many people have tried out Baze just yet, Schulte says the company has seen 40% month-over-month new subscriber growth.
That has garnered the attention of supplement company Nature’s Way, which has partnered with the company and just added $ 6 million to the coffers to help Baze ramp up marketing efforts in the U.S.
I had the opportunity to try out the test myself. It’s pretty simple to do. You just open up a little pear-shaped device, pop it on your arm and then press it to engage and get it to start collecting your blood. After it’s done, plop it in the provided medical packaging and ship it off to a Baze-contracted lab.
I will say it is certainly more convenient to just pop on a little device myself — although it might be tricky if you’re at all squeamish, as you’ll see a little bubble where the blood is being sucked from your arm. For anyone who hesitates, it might be easier to just head to a lab and have another human do this for you.
The price is also nice, compared to going to a Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp, which can vary depending on which vitamins you need to test for individually. With Baze it’s just $ 100 a pop, plus any additional supplements you might want to buy via monthly subscription after you get your results. The first month of supplements is free with your kit.
Baze’s website will show your results within about 12 days (though Schulte tells TechCrunch the company is working on getting your results faster). It does so with a score and then displays a range of various vitamins tested.
I was told that, overall, I was getting the nutrients I require with a score of 74 out of 100. But I’m already pretty good at taking high-quality vitamins. The only thing that really stuck out was my zinc levels, which I was told was way off the charts high after running the test through twice. Though I suspect, as I am not displaying any symptoms of zinc poisoning, this was likely the result of not wiping off my zinc-based sunscreen well enough before the test began.
For those interested in conducting their own at-home test and not afraid to prick themselves in the arm with something that looks like you might have it on hand in the kitchen, you can do so by heading over to Baze and signing up.
‘This is Your Life in Silicon Valley’: The League founder and CEO Amanda Bradford on modern dating, and whether Bumble is a ‘real’ startup
Welcome to this week’s transcribed edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley. We’re running an experiment for Extra Crunch members that puts This is Your Life in Silicon Valley in words – so you can read from wherever you are.
This is your Life in Silicon Valley was originally started by Sunil Rajaraman and Jascha Kaykas-Wolff in 2018. Rajaraman is a serial entrepreneur and writer (Co-Founded Scripted.com, and is currently an EIR at Foundation Capital), Kaykas-Wolff is the current CMO at Mozilla and ran marketing at BitTorrent.
Rajaraman and Kaykas-Wolff started the podcast after a series of blog posts that Sunil wrote for The Bold Italic went viral. The goal of the podcast is to cover issues at the intersection of technology and culture – sharing a different perspective of life in the Bay Area. Their guests include entrepreneurs like Sam Lessin, journalists like Kara Swisher and Mike Isaac, politicians like Mayor Libby Schaaf and local business owners like David White of Flour + Water.
This week’s edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley features Amanda Bradford – Founder/CEO of The League. Amanda talks about modern dating, its limitations, its flaws, why ‘The League’ will win. Amanda provides her candid perspective on other dating startups in a can’t-miss portion of the podcast.
Amanda talks about her days at Salesforce and how it influenced her decision to build a dating tech product that focused on data, and funnels. Amanda walks through her own process of finding her current boyfriend on ‘The League’ and how it came down to meeting more people. And that the flaw with most online dating is that people do not meet enough people due to filter bubbles, and lack of open criteria.
Amanda goes in on all of the popular dating sites, including Bumble and others, providing her take on what’s wrong with them. She even dishes on Raya and Tinder – sharing what she believes are how they should be perceived by prospective daters. The fast-response portion of this podcast where we ask Amanda about the various dating sites really raised some eyebrows and got some attention.
We ask Amanda about the incentives of online dating sites, and how in a way they are created to keep members online as long as possible. Amanda provides her perspective on how she addresses this inherent conflict at The League, and how many marriages have been shared among League members to date.
We ask Amanda about AR/VR dating and what the future will look like. Will people actually meet in person in the future? Will it be more like online worlds where we wear headsets and don’t actually interact face to face anymore? The answers may surprise you. We learn how this influences The League’s product roadmap.
The podcast eventually goes into dating stories from audience members – including some pretty wild online dating stories from people who are not as they seem. We picked two audience members at random to talk about their entertaining online dating stories and where they led. The second story really raised eyebrows and got into the notion that people go at great lengths to hide their real identities.
Ultimately, we get at the heart of what online dating is, and what the future holds for it. If you care about the future of relationships, online dating, data, and what it all means this episode is for you.
For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free.
Sunil Rajaraman: I just want to check, are we recording? Because that’s the most important question. We’re recording, so this is actually a podcast and not just three people talking randomly into microphones.
I’m Sunil Rajaraman, I’m co-host of this podcast, This is Your Life in Silicon Valley, and Jascha Kaykas-Wolff is my co-host, we’ve been doing this for about a year now, we’ve done 30 shows, and we’re pleased today to welcome a very special guest, Jascha.
Jascha Kaykas-Wolff: Amanda.
Amanda Bradford: Hello everyone.
Kaykas-Wolff: We’re just going to stare at you and make it uncomfortable.
Bradford: Like Madonna.
Kaykas-Wolff: Yeah, so the kind of backstory and what’s important for everybody that’s in the audience to know is that this podcast is not a pitch for a product, it’s not about a company, it’s about the Bay Area. And the Bay Area is kind of special, but it’s also a little bit fucked up. I think we all kind of understand that, being here.
So what we want to do in the podcast is talk to people who have a very special, unique relationship with the Bay Area, no matter creators that are company builders, that are awesome entrepreneurs, that are just really cool and interesting people, and today we are really, really lucky to have an absolutely amazing entrepreneur, and also pretty heavy hitter in the technology scene. In a very specific and very special category of technology that Sunil really, really likes. The world of dating.
Rajaraman: Yeah, so it’s funny, the backstory to this is, Jascha have both been married, what, long time-
Kaykas-Wolff: Long time.
Rajaraman: And we have this weird fascination with online dating because we see a lot of people going through it, and it’s a baffling world, and so I want to demystify it a bit with Amanda Bradford today, the founder CEO of The League.
Bradford: You guys are like all of the married people looking at the single people in the petri dishes.
Rajaraman: So, I’ve done the thing where we went through it with the single friends who have the app, swiping through on their behalf, so it’s sort of like a weird thing.
Bradford: I know, we’re like a different species, aren’t we?
Toyota is enlisting the help of startup Preferred Networks, a Japanese company founded in 2014 with a focus on artificial intelligence and deep learning, to help move forward its goal of developing useful service robots that can assist people in everyday life.
The two companies announced a partnership today to collaborate on research and development that will use Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR) robotics platform. The platform, which Toyota originally created in 2012 and has been developing since, is a basic robot designed to be able to work alongside people in everyday settings. Its primary uses involve offering basic car and support assistance in nursing and long-term care applications. Equipped with one arm, a display, cameras and a wheeled base, it can collect and retrieve items, and provide remote control and communication capabilities.
Preferred Networks already has some experience with Toyota’s HSR – it demonstrated one-such robot programmed to clean a room fully autonomously at Japan’s CEATEC robotics conference in 2018. The system could identify objects, responsd to specific human instructions and, importably pick up and put down objects it couldn’t define from its database in a safe manner.Toyota will be providing “several dozen” HSR units to Preferred Networks for the startup to work on, and then over the next three years, the two will collaborate on R&D, sharing the results of their work and the resulting intellectual property, with no restrictions on how either party uses the results of the joint work.
One of Toyota’s guiding goals as a company is to develop commercial home robotics that can work with people where they live. The automaker has a number of different projects in the works to make this happen, including through research at its Toyota Research Institute (TRI) subsidiary which works with a number of academic institutions. Toyota also recently revealed a number of robotics projects its bringing to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which will help it field test a number of its projects.
As someone who has been fortunate enough to be a part both the Startup and Digital Agency World, it pains me to witness the many recurring mistakes that are happening by bringing these two worlds together. The Agency wants the business and the Startup wants the best and smartest people to “grow their baby”. It all sounds like a “no-brainer’ right? Well, this perfect situation can sometimes be clouded by one of the most bastardized words in the client-agency relationship – Expectations. In this post, I will highlight some of the misconceptions that could, at the very least, help the next Startup as they prepare to show their product/service to the world.
How to Play the Digital Agency Game:
Don’t get me wrong. There are many highly reputable Marketing Agencies in the world that do not fit this description. On the other hand, there are some other Agencies that work on a different playing field that is not financially supportive of Startups. Most agencies take a 15% commission of Ad Spend regardless of performance or the companies financial situation. These agencies often provide a “Production Line” level level of service that question the actual time spend which leads to the overall client performance. Beware of agencies that promise GOLD and deliver pennies.
What Startups really need from an Agency:
- 100% transparency of where and how their money is being spent.
- Daily Direct communication with the Strategist/Marketer.
- Less than 24 hour turn-around times for typical updates.
- Level of ongoing Education on how the digital advertising world works.
Big Agency Regurgitation
I have witnessed many horror stories over the years from prospects/clients from either a performance or client relationship with a previous agency. The one thing that all of them had in common was the lack of achievable expectations. Situations such as poor communication, lackluster performance and just an overall bad experience have not only left a bitter taste in their mouth but also question the entire agency experience. Moreover, this feeling of being “burned” has motivated their thinking to bring the marketing “in-house” as the only alternative to reaching success. This is not a good thing….
As a big fan of conferences, they often open your eyes to a whole new world of innovation, prosperity and vision for business owners and that’s a great thing. However, it can sometimes backfire to the point of confusion and anxiety of what to focus on first. It is very easy for Entrepreneurs to get “over-excited” about the latest bells and whistles in software, automation and analytics. They are told that once they have these tools in their toolbox, they can turn their business into a fortune 100 company instantly.
Unfortunately, a reality check is needed to bring everyone down from this “high” and re-focus on the core issue at hand which is identifying, engaging and converting with their core audiences within a sensible budget. Remember, investing in Shiny Objects make you vulnerable, not successful.
The Misunderstanding of Monetization
In some instances, both advertisers and agencies, often forget to track every interaction point and that little oversight can be an unfortunate mistake. This assumed “low-hanging” fruit for tracking things other than traditional eCommerce/Lead Gen Forms such as (below) can completely skew overall performance and future optimization which could be devastating to startups as they hunger for continual growth.
- Contact Forms
- Email Newsletter Signups
- Live Chats
- Phone Calls
- Pageviews of a particular page can lead to
Mistrust of the Case Study
Case Studies are a great source for understanding the successes of a particular experience that allow the reader to adapt to new ideas and strategies. However, you need to be careful not put to put too much emphasis on the successes of these studies because of the substantiated factors which often lead inaccuracy. Here are some examples:
- Geography (Some of these studies reference a specific GEO area and not the wider population)
- Singular view and opinion. Often, these studies are done by a small group of people which may have biased opinions based on data collected.
- Case Studies are often used as a “Toot your own horn” strategy to generate more business. (Google is pretty good at that)
Don’t Bet the Farm
I can understand the anxieties of Startups where they want to launch their business with a big bang. However, spending too much too fast (especially in the PPC marketing world) can completely ruin their chances for steady sustainable growth. It’s imperative to start testing “right out of the gate” as well as identifying the quick wins and losses. Moreover, you will need to develop strategies to generate relevent traffic and awareness through alternative methods such as Social Media, SEO and quite frankly “word of mouth”. To prove this theory, just a take a look at these screenshots from SpyFu’s Monthly Trend function.
Outside Opinion Overload
Yes, it’s important to get as much feedback as possible when launching a new company. However, getting advice from people who think they know certain aspects of online marketing because they read an article or attended a conference, can be a slippery slope. Taking advice and/or criticism from someone “on the outside” that completely contradicts the vision of both your business partners and hired experts can be harmful to the business. This 3rd party opinion is often made without any understanding of what it takes to implement as well as its expected outcome. Whether it’s strategies about Landing Pages, Brand vs. Non-Brand, or even simple things such as Promotions and Offers can have a negative effect on revenue if not discussed by everyone on the team.
Solution: Soak up all of the feedback you can get, discuss with your team and agree to label these new ideas as “TEST” Campaigns and analyze the heck out of them.
Forecast Projection Failures
How many times have you seen someone simply create excel formulas which magically forecast the future of online marketing revenue based on a single monetary amount. (For example, if we increase our budget from $ 10,000 to $ 100,000 we will generate an additional $ 1 million dollars.) Yeah, I wish that were all true. However, that is not the case. The math may sound great to a Venture Capitalist/Investor, but it’s just not realistic.
- Take in account the following scenarios:
- Market Saturation Levels
- Seasonality Highs/Lows
- Potential Technical issues
- Search Engine Algorithm changes
- Increased Competitor landscape
“Off the Mark” Target Audiences
Hate to say this, but I have witnessed startup companies that thought they new their audiences and it wasn’t until they over-spent their PPC dollars and countless Landing Page A/B test to come to that realization. Selling a product or service requires more than just a few hours of typical market research. When it comes to online marketing, either hire a PPC Consultant or purchase PPC Competitive Research Software such as SpyFu.com to see some of these invaluable competitor information:
- Monthly Budget Trends
- PPC and SEO Keywords
- Top Text Ads
- Their own PPC and SEO Competitors
- Review monthly and seasonality trends
- Compare up to (3) three competitors and see which terms they are all bidding on.
Here’s an example:
Whether you are building a Startup company or growing an existing one, the agency experience should be a positive one. However, dealing with the “dog eat dog” agency world when it comes to trust, expectations and continual growth is unfortunate and should never happen. I hope this blog post, at the very least, has provided some insight into preventing these situations as well as learning from them. Finding the right agency partner is just as important as finding the right target audience.
Boxbot is building self-driving delivery vans, plus an automatic loading system. Humans would still help when needed to open gates or climb stairs.
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