HoneyBook, a client management platform for creative businesses, raises $28M Series C led by Citi Ventures

HoneyBook co-founders Oz and Naama Alon

HoneyBook, a customer-relationship management platform aimed at small businesses in creative fields, announced today it has raised a $28 million Series C led by Citi Ventures. All of its existing investors, including Norwest Venture Partners, Aleph, Vintage Investment Partners and Hillsven Capital, also returned for the round. Citi is a strategic partner for HoneyBook and this will enable it to offer new financial products to freelancers, its co-founder and CEO Oz Alon told TechCrunch.

This brings HoneyBook’s total raised so far to $72 million. It is using the funds to grow its teams in San Francisco and Tel Aviv and build new features for its user base, including small companies, people who work by themselves (“solopreneurs”) and freelancers. Like other CRMs, HoneyBook helps them develop relationships with potential new clients, manage projects, send invoices and accept payments, but with tools scaled for their business’ needs.

Alon told TechCrunch in an email that one segment HoneyBook is focused on is millennials (he cites a survey that found 49 percent of people under 40 plan to start their own business). HoneyBook currently claims tens of thousands of customers and has passed $1 billion in business booked using its software, along with 75,000 members in Rising Tide, the company’s online community for creative entrepreneurs.

Other management software platforms competing for the attention of entrepreneurs and freelancers include Tave, Dubsado and 17hats. One of the main ways HoneyBook differentiates is by enabling its users to accept online payments without integrating with a third-party service. Thanks to this, its users “transact more than 80 percent of their business online, significantly more than any other payments platform serving this audience, Alon said. It’s partnership with Citi will also allow the company to develop more unique services for its target customers, he added.

In a prepared statement, Citi Ventures’ Israel director and venture investing lead Omit Shinar said “We are in the midst of a period of extensive changes in societal structures and economic models. The fintech ecosystem is producing more and more breakthrough innovations that serve the needs of modern consumers, and we believe, as a pioneer in its space, HoneyBook can become a market leader in the U.S.”

Former Oath CEO Tim Armstrong is exiting Verizon with a payout worth more than $60 million

Tim Armstrong will leave Verizon Communications with an awards and benefits package worth more than $60 million. The Wall Street Journal calculated the total amount based on a securities filing from last Monday by combining Armstrong’s compensation in 2018, severance and a special incentive package he was given by Verizon when it acquired AOL in 2015. Armstrong was head of Oath (now called Verizon Media), which took a write down of $4.5 billion last year and laid off seven percent of its workforce as it struggled to compete with other digital media companies.

Oath, the company’s digital media unit, was created in 2017 by merging AOL and Yahoo, two companies acquired by Verizon Communications. (Disclosure: TechCrunch was part of AOL, then Oath and now Verizon Media).

Verizon Communications announced Oath’s $4.5 billion after-tax write down at the end of last year. It said the sum, which basically cancelled out the benefits of the merger, was due to increased competition in digital advertising and other market pressures last year had resulted in lower-than-expected 2018 results and that it expected those issues to continue.

The business unit also announced in late January that it would lay off seven percent of its workforce, or about 800 employees.

After months of rumors, Verizon Communications announced that Armstrong would be succeeded as CEO of Oath by Guru Gowrappan last September. Armstrong formally left the company at the end of 2018.

TechCrunch has contacted Verizon for comment.

Ola raises $300M as part of a new electric vehicle partnership with Hyundai and Kia

Ride-hailing platform Ola announced today that it has raised $300 million from Hyundai and Kia as part of a strategic partnership focused on electric vehicle development.

This brings the company’s total raised to $3.8 billion according to Crunchbase. Ola’s last funding was announced just three weeks ago, when the company said it had raised $56 million in early funding by investors including Tiger Global and Matrix India (two of its earliest backers) to spend on its recently spun-out electric vehicle business called Ola Electric Mobility.

In a press release, Ola said the partnership will build “India-specific” electric vehicles and infrastructure customized for Ola’s fleet and operating and management software. It also includes new financing programs, such as loans and installment payments, for driver who want to purchase the EVs.

Ola Electric Mobility’s challenges including building EV infrastructure (and gathering related data, including maps) for India’s sprawling and diverse landscape. One incentive is the government’s stated goal of making 30 percent of the country’s vehicles electric by 2030, though it hasn’t formalized that policy yet.

Ola’s announcement said that “data accumulated during service operation will allow the companies to make constant vehicle improvements to better meet local needs and specifications.” For Hyundai, the partnership represents an opportunity to move beyond being an auto-maker to taking control of all parts in the “mobility value chain,” including production, fleet operation and services.

Ola’s goal is to increase its drivers from 1.3 million to two million and offer one million EVs by 2022. Its other EV programs include a pledge to add 10,000 rickshaws for use in cities.

Facebook says the original New Zealand shooter video was viewed about 4,000 times before removal

Facebook released new figures about its attempts to stop the spread of videos after a shooter livestreamed his attacks on two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques last Friday, killing 50 people.

In a blog post, Facebook vice president and deputy general counsel Chris Sonderby said that the video was viewed less than 200 times during the live broadcast, during which no users reported the video. Including views during the live broadcast, the video was viewed about 4,000 times before it was removed from Facebook. It was first reported 29 minutes after it started streaming, or 12 minutes after it had ended. Sonderby said a link to a copy was posted onto 8chan, the message board that played a major role in the the video’s propogation online, before Facebook was alerted to it.

Before the shootings the suspect, a 28-year-old white man, posted an anti-Muslim and pro-facism manifesto. Sonderby said the shooter’s personal accounts had been removed from Facebook and Instagram, and that it is “actively identifying and removing” imposter accounts.

Facebook’s new numbers come one day after the company said it had removed about 1.5 million videos of the shooting in the first 24 hours after the attack, including 1.2 million that were blocked at upload, and therefore not available for viewing. But that means it failed to block 20 percent of those videos, or 300,000, which were uploaded to the platform and therefore could be watched.

Both sets of figures, while meant to provide transparency, seem unlikely to quell criticism of the social media platform’s role in spreading violent videos and dangerous ideologies, especially since Facebook Live launched three years ago. They call into question why the platform is still heavily reliant on user reports, despite its AI and machine learning-based moderation tools, and why removals don’t happen more quickly, especially during a crisis (and even routine moderation takes a deep psychological toll on the human monitors tasked with filling in the gaps left by AI). The challenges of moderation on a platform of Facebook’s scale (it now claims more than 2 billion monthly users).

Sonderby also said that the company has hashed the original Facebook Live video to help detect and remove other visually similar videos from Facebook and Instagram. It has also shared more than 800 visually-distinct video related to the attack through a database it shares with members of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). “This incident highlights the importance of industry cooperation regarding the range of terrorists and violent extremists operating online,” he wrote.

Other online platforms, however, have also struggled to stop the video’s spread. For example, uploaders were able to use minor modifications, like watermarks or altering the size of clips, to stymie YouTube’s content moderation tools.

Reed Hastings says Netflix won’t be part of Apple’s upcoming video streaming service

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said during a Los Angeles press event tonight that it will not be part of the streaming video service Apple is expected to unveil next week at its Cupertino headquarters.

While it will have original content, Apple’s service will most likely initially focus on third-party content, competing against Amazon Channels with la carte subscriptions to third-party channels (Amazon’s lineup includes HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, but not Netflix, which prefers to control its own in-app experience).

Asked how Netflix will compete against rivals with a lot of money like Amazon and Apple, Hastings said “with difficulty,” adding that “it is definitely getting more expensive to source content” as the streaming video market becomes increasingly fragmented.

As the largest video streaming service in the United States, however, Netflix has been the subject of antitrust lawsuits and debates. When asked about potential antitrust regulations aimed at large tech companies, Hastings describe Netflix as “really mostly a content company powered by tech,” saying it spends much more on content than tech (Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said last year that 85 percent of its total spending goes to new shows and movies, and in October the company announced plans to raise $2 billion in debt to fund new content).

Despite its focus on international growth, Hastings also said that even though Netflix once considered entering China by creating a joint venture with a local partner, it currently has no plans to do so, noting that the strategy still didn’t help competitors such as Apple’s iTunes.

Korean e-commerce unicorn Coupang hires Walmart’s former global chief compliance officer

Coupang, the unicorn that is defining e-commerce in Korea, announced today that it has hired Jay Jorgensen, Walmart’s former global chief ethics and compliance officer, to serve as its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Jorgensen will relocate to Seoul for the position.

Founded in 2010, with a total of $3.4 billion raised from investors including SoftBank and a valuation of $9 billion, Coupang currently operates only in Korea, where it is the largest e-commerce player, but has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Seattle and Shanghai.

Known for building a tech infrastructure that gives it almost complete control over delivery fulfillment, including last-mile logistics, Coupang more than doubled its revenue over the past two years to about $5 billion in 2018. The company says more than 120 million products are available on its platform and half of Koreans have downloaded its mobile app, with millions of customers ordering from Coupang more than 70 times each year.

Prior to Walmart, Jorgensen was a partner in law firm Sidley Austin LLP. Earlier, he served as a judicial law clerk for the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and a law clerk for Samuel Alito Jr. while he sat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Jorgensen told TechCrunch in a phone call that he wanted to join Coupang because of “the extent to which it is changing life in Korea. It is not just an e-commerce player, it is the e-commerce player.” The company also reminded Jorgensen of learning about Amazon and later on Alibaba in their early days, then watching them develop into the world’s biggest e-commerce players.

When a quickly growing startup unicorn hires a chief compliance officer, the obvious question is if that means a public offering is in the works. Coupang’s vice president of marketplace and customer experience, Dan Rawson, who was also on the call with TechCrunch, said the timing of company’s future IPO is “contingent on a number of factors, including everything from market conditions to company performance” and that it still sees many growth opportunities both in Korea and eventually other countries.

Rawson adds that Korea, already one of the five biggest e-commerce markets in the world, is set to become the third biggest, after only China and the United States, and there is still room for growth in the country. One of Coupang’s most important advantages is its control of the last-mile delivery and customer service experience (most packages are brought to customers by “Coupang men,” or the company’s delivery workers, while a some are performed by Coupang Flex, a peer-to-peer delivery program similar to Uber Eats).

More than four million products are available through its premium Rocket Delivery service, which, like Amazon Prime, offers faster shipment. Rocket Delivery’s options, however, are even faster than Amazon Prime’s. For example, one guarantees delivery by dawn if customers order by midnight. Rawson says Rocket Delivery has fulfilled more than one billion items since September 2018.

AgroStar gets $27M Series C to give more Indian farmers increase crop production with data analytics

Indian agriculture tech startup AgroStar announced today that it has raised a $27 million Series C for its platform, which helps farmers increase crop production, manage orders and buy supplies online. The round was led by Bertelsmann India Investments, with participation from returning investors Accel, Chiratae Ventures and Aavishkaar Bharat Fund.

AgroStar bills its app as a “one-stop solution” that contains everything India’s 135 million farmers need, including agronomy tools, such as a crop disease diagnosis tool that combines image recognition technology, educational content and an e-commerce store that sells farming products. Its new funding, which brings AgroStar’s total raised so far to $42 million, will be used to scale the platform in order to take advantage of India’s increasing smartphone penetration in rural areas and hire more agriculture experts.

CEO and co-founder Shardul Sheth told TechCrunch that the app has been downloaded over a million times and engaged with more than million farmers. Its target is to reach 10 million downloads over the next two years and expand its e-commerce operations to more states in India.

In a statement, Bertelsmann India Investments managing director Pankaj Makkar said the investment firm will work with AgroStar to “build the right strategy for its supply chain and will bring the best practices from our investments in similar spaces in China.”

Jack Dorsey records podcast with fitness writer who claimed “vaccines do indeed cause autism”

Jack Dorsey, known for making tone-deaf statements on the platform he co-founded, is in the middle of another controversy. This time it is for plugging a podcast he recorded with fitness writer Ben Greenfield. Greenfield has espoused anti-vaccination views on Twitter and other platforms, continuing to do so despite measles outbreaks in the United States.

Dorsey retweeted Greenfield’s tweet about their podcast interview, commenting “Great conversation, and appreciate all you do to simplify the mountain of research focused on increasing one’s healthspan.”

Greenfield recently doubled down on the disproven claim that vaccines cause autism and has repeatedly included anti-vaccine propaganda on his podcast and social media pages.

TechCrunch has contacted Twitter for comment. A company spokesperson told Recode that neither Dorsey, who has done a string of podcast appearances recently, or the company was aware of Greenfield’s stance on vaccines and that the topic was not discussed during the interview.

Dorsey’s endorsement of Greenfield is especially striking considering that other tech companies, including YouTube and Facebook, are currently clamping down on anti-vaccination content. For example, YouTube recently announced it will demonetize anti-vaccination videos, while Facebook is down-ranking vaccine misinformation on its News Feed and hiding it on Instagram. Pinterest, which has prohibited anti-vaccination content in its terms for years, also recently said it will stop returning any search result related to vaccines.

Dorsey recently generated backlash for a tweet thread about his meditation retreat in Myanmar that neglected to mention the Rohingya genocide and declaring that Elon Musk is his favorite Twitter user, despite the fact that Musk’s tweets have landed him in legal trouble, including with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Creative agency Virtue introduces genderless voice Q to challenge biases in technology

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and Bixby–almost all virtual assistants have something in common. Their default voices are women’s, though the role that plays in reinforcing gender stereotypes has been long documented, even inspiring the dystopian romance “Her.” Virtue, the creative agency owned by publisher Vice, wants to challenge the trend with a genderless voice called Q.

The project, done in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive and thirtysoundsgood, wants technology companies to think outside the binary.

“Technology companies are continuing to gender their voice technology to fit scenarios in which they believe consumers will feel most comfortable adopting and using it,” says Q’s website. “A male voice is used in more authoritative roles, such as banking and insurance apps, and a female voice in more service-oriented roles, such as Alexa and Siri.”

To develop Q, Virtue worked with Anna Jørgensen, a linguist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen. They recorded the voices of five non-binary people, then used software to modulate the recordings to between 145-175 Hz, the range defined by researchers as gender neutral. The recordings were further refined after surveying 4,600 people and asking them to define the voices on a scale from 1 (male) to 5 (female).

Virtue is encouraging people to share Q with Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, noting that even when different options are given for voice assistants, they are still usually categorized as male or female. As the project’s mission statement puts it, “as society continues to break down the gender binary, recognizing those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.”

Amazon reportedly nixes its price parity requirement for third-party sellers in the U.S.

Amazon will stop forbidding third-party merchants who list on its e-commerce platform in the United States from selling the same products on other sites for lower prices, reports Axios.

The company’s decision to end its price parity provision comes three months after Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged the Department of Justice to open an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s policies and a few days after Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she would make breaking up Amazon, Google and Facebook a big part of her campaign platform.

Also called “most favored nation” (MFN) requirements, Amazon’s price parity provisions gave it a competitive edge, but because of its size, also led to concerns about its impact on competition and fair pricing for consumers. Amazon stopped requiring price parity of its European Union sellers in 2013 after it was the subject of investigations by the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading and Germany’s Federal Cartel Office.

In a statement, Blumenthal said Amazon’s “wise and welcome decision comes only after aggressive advocacy and attention that compelled Amazon to abandon its abusive contract clause.” He added that “I remain deeply troubled that federal regulators responsible for cracking down on anti-competitive practices seem asleep at the wheel, at great cost to American innovation and consumers.”

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.