Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe

As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

Amazon expands IP Accelerator to Europe after US SMBs register 6,000 trademarks

As we head into the biggest shopping period of the year — which this year may well have an even stronger online component than usual because of Covid-19 — Amazon has launched its latest effort to combat the sale of counterfeit goods on its site.

The e-commerce giant today announced that its free IP Accelerator in now live in Europe — specifically France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and the United Kingdom — to help SMBs selling on Amazon obtain trademarks on their intellectual property, protect their brands and tackle the sale of counterfeit goods, connecting companies with recommended legal firms to carry out work. Joining the IP Accelerator is free, while the legal aid is provided as “low-cost assistance”, with those costs coming in the form of “competitive, pre-negotiated rates,” Amazon said.

The European launch — in Amazon’s six biggest markets in Europe, covering more than 150,000 small and medium businesses selling on Amazon’s platform, which account for more than half the products sold in the region — comes just over a year after Amazon kicked off an IP Accelerator in the U.S., in October 2019.

Amazon today said that the U.S. effort has so far yielded 6,000 trademark applications submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office by SMBs working through the program.

Amazon has long struggled with counterfeit and other illicit items sold through its marketplace — which brings in third-party sellers and is built on the very concept of economies of scale, offering a vast array of choices to shoppers, and the IP Accelerator comes on the heels of a lot of other proactive efforts to battle the situation.

They have included Amazon filing a number of lawsuits — both on its own and in partnership with others, and most recently, just this month, being the plaintiff in a case that interestingly extended outside its own platform to target online influencers.

It also has built a lot of technology also to help track and spot illicit goods.

And it’s working with government authorities, most recently in an initiative to halt the import of counterfeit inventory before it gets sold or delivered to buyers.

It’s a Sisyphean task in some regards: Amazon’s growth means more sellers, and more goods to triage, and more chances for dodgy items. But it’s one that is very much in Amazon’s interest to get right: if it can’t protect IP, the best brands will stay away, and consumers will start to lose confidence in the platform, too.

That’s where initiatives like the IP Accelerator come in, where the idea is that it gives sellers who are smaller more direct control over their own brand destinies. The focus on SMBs is very specific and not just because of their collective selling power on Amazon. They are most often not in full possession of their legal options, and perhaps also worried about the costs of getting involved in trademarking, with a recent report from the European Intellectual Property Office finding that just 9% of SMBs have registered IP rights, versus 36% of larger companies.

“We know from our conversations with small business owners that there is often confusion about why IP rights are important and how sellers can secure them,” said Francois Saugier, Vice President for EU Seller Services, Amazon, in a statement. “As part of our broader commitment to supporting small businesses, we have set up IP Accelerator to make the IP registration process as easy and as affordable as possible for entrepreneurs in the early days of their businesses.”

In addition to legal assistance, SMBs in the program can join the Amazon’s Brand Registry, which currently covers some 350,000 brands and gives them ways to manage and track their brands, using automated algorithms built by Amazon to proactively track for potential copycats and other trademark criminals.

The business of providing services to SMBs on the platform is an interesting one.

We’ve seen a number of startups emerge in recent times that are looking to acquire and roll up the best of the SMBs that sell on Amazon with big ambitions of their own.

Their plans are to use economies of scale to run these businesses better, with better supply-chain management, marketing, IP control and more. That strategy is predicated on the fact that those small businesses are finding it a challenge to take their enterprises to the next level on their own.

In that regard, Amazon’s IP Accelerator potentially gives those smaller sellers another helping hand to stay independent (or at least grow their businesses enough to catch the attention of these consolidators).

“Great ideas are the core of every good business. Turning those ideas into a reality relies on IP,” said Pippa Hall, director of Innovation and Chief Economist at the UK’s Intellectual Property Office, said in a statement. “Understanding, protecting and getting the most out of your IP is a crucial ingredient of success. A good IP strategy should sit at the heart of every good business plan.”

Industrial drone maker Percepto raises $45M and integrates with Boston Dynamics’ Spot

Consumer drones have over the years struggled with an image of being no more than expensive and delicate toys. But applications in industrial, military and enterprise scenarios have shown that there is indeed a market for unmanned aerial vehicles, and today, a startup that makes drones for some of those latter purposes is announcing a large round of funding and a partnership that provides a picture of how the drone industry will look in years to come.

Percepto, which makes drones — both the hardware and software — to monitor and analyze industrial sites and other physical work areas largely unattended by people, has raised $45 million in a Series B round of funding.

Alongside this, it is now working with Boston Dynamics  and has integrated its Spot robots with Percepto’s Sparrow drones, with the aim being better infrastructure assessments, and potentially more as Spot’s agility improves.

The funding is being led by a strategic backer, Koch Disruptive Technologies, the investment arm of industrial giant Koch Industries (which has interests in energy, minerals, chemicals and related areas), with participation also from new investors State of Mind Ventures, Atento Capital, Summit Peak Investments, Delek-US. Previous investors U.S. Venture Partners, Spider Capital and Arkin Holdings also participated. (It appears that Boston Dynamics and SoftBank are not part of this investment.)

Israel-based Percepto has now raised $72.5 million since it was founded in 2014, and it’s not disclosing its valuation, but CEO and founder Dor Abuhasira described as “a very good round.”

“It gives us the ability to create a category leader,” Abuhasira said in an interview. It has customers in around 10 countries, with the list including ENEL, Florida Power and Light and Verizon.

While some drone makers have focused on building hardware, and others are working specifically on the analytics, computer vision and other critical technology that needs to be in place on the software side for drones to work correctly and safely, Percepto has taken what I referred to, and Abuhasira confirmed, as the “Apple approach”: vertical integration as far as Percepto can take it on its own.

That has included hiring teams with specializations in AI, computer vision, navigation and analytics as well as those strong in industrial hardware — all strong areas in the Israel tech landscape, by virtue of it being so closely tied with its military investments. (Note: Percepto does not make its own chips: these are currently acquired from Nvidia, he confirmed to me.)

“The Apple approach is the only one that works in drones,” he said. “That’s because it is all still too complicated. For those offering an Android-style approach, there are cracks in the complete flow.”

It presents the product as a “drone-in-a-box”, which means in part that those buying it have little work to do to set it up to work, but also refers to how it works: its drones leave the box to make a flight to collect data, and then return to the box to recharge and transfer more information, alongside the data that is picked up in real time.

The drones themselves operate on an on-demand basis: they fly in part for regular monitoring, to detect changes that could point to issues; and they can also be launched to collect data as a result of engineers requesting information. The product is marketed by Percepto as “AIM”, short for autonomous site inspection and monitoring.

News broke last week that Amazon has been reorganising its Prime Air efforts — one sign of how some more consumer-facing business applications — despite many developments — may still have some turbulence ahead before they are commercially viable. Businesses like Percepto’s stand in contrast to that, with their focus specifically on flying over, and collecting data, in areas where there are precisely no people present.

It has dovetailed with a bigger focus from industries on the efficiencies (and cost savings) you can get with automation, which in turn has become the centerpiece of how industry is investing in the buzz phrase of the moment, “digital transformation.”

“We believe Percepto AIM addresses a multi-billion-dollar issue for numerous industries and will change the way manufacturing sites are managed in the IoT, Industry 4.0 era,” said Chase Koch, President of Koch Disruptive Technologies, in a statement. “Percepto’s track record in autonomous technology and data analytics is impressive, and we believe it is uniquely positioned to deliver the remote operations center of the future. We look forward to partnering with the Percepto team to make this happen.”

The partnership with Boston Dynamics is notable for a couple of reasons: it speaks to how various robotics hardware will work together in tandem in an automated, unmanned world; and it speaks to how Boston Dynamics is pulling up its socks.

On the latter front, the company has been making waves in the world of robotics for years, specifically with its agile and strong dog-like (with names like “Spot” and “Big Dog”) robots that can cover rugged terrains and handle tussles without falling apart.

That led it into the arms of Google, which acquired it as part of its own secretive moonshot efforts, in 2013. That never panned out into a business, and probably gave Google more complicated optics at a time when it was already being seen as too powerful. Then, SoftBank stepped in to pick it up, along with other robotics assets, in 2017. That hasn’t really gone anywhere either, it seems, and just this month it was reported that Boston Dynamics was reportedly facing yet another suitor, Hyundai.

All of this is to say that partnerships with third parties that are going places (quite literally) become strong signs of how Boston Dynamics’ extensive R&D investments might finally pay off with enterprising dividends.

Indeed, while Percepto has focused on its own vertical integration, longer term and more generally there is an argument to be made for more interoperability and collaboration between the various companies building “connected” and smart hardware for industrial, physical applications. It means that specific industries can focus on the special equipment and expertise they require, while at the same time complementing that with hardware and software that are recognised as best-in-class. Abuhasira said that he expects the Boston Dynamics partnership to be the first of many.

That makes this first one an interesting template. It will see Spot carrying Percepto’s payloads for high resolution imaging and thermal vision “to detect issues including hot spots on machines or electrical conductors, water and steam leaks around plants and equipment with degraded performance, with the data relayed via AIM.” It will also mean a more thorough picture, beyond what you get from the air, and potentially a point at which the data that the pairing sources results even in repairs or other work to fix issues.

“Combining Percepto’s Sparrow drone with Spot creates a unique solution for remote inspection,” said Michael Perry, VP of Business Development at Boston Dynamics, in a statement. “This partnership demonstrates the value of harnessing robotic collaborations and the insurmountable benefits to worker safety and cost savings that robotics can bring to industries that involve hazardous or remote work.”

Kahoot drops $50M on Drops to add language learning to its gamified education stable

After raising $215 million from SoftBank to double down on the surge of interest in online learning, Kahoot has made an acquisition to expand the scope of subjects that it covers. The popular startup, which lets people build and share educational games, has picked up Drops, a startup that helps people learn languages by way of short picture- and word-based games. The plan is to integrate more Kahoot features into Drops’ apps, and to bring some of Drops’ content into the main Kahoot platform.

Kahoot, which trades a part of its shares through Norway’s alternative exchange the Merkur Market and currently has a market cap of over $3 billion, said in an announcement that it would pay $31 million in cash, plus up to $19 million more in cash and shares, based on Drops meeting certain targets between now and 2022. The deal is expected to close this month.

Drops makes three main apps. First in an eponymous freemium app, with free and paid features, that helps adults learn new languages, currently some 42 in all, with a focus on vocabulary, built around five-minute, “snackable” sessions. A second app, Scripts, is aimed at learning to read, write and sign, and it covers four alphabets and four character-based writing systems. A third, Droplets, is aimed specifically at language learning for learners aged between eight and 17. Altogether Drops has clocked up 25 million users.

Notably, one reason it might be off TechCrunch’s (and the startup world’s) radar is that it appears to have been bootstrapped up to now. (We are confirming that detail and will update when/if we learn more.) But it’s had some notable accolades, getting named app of the year by Google in 2018, for one.

The startup was founded in Estonia and has 21 employees and has no “head office” as such, with the team spread across Estonia, US, UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia. This could be one reason why it’s kept costs low: in 2019 it reported gross revenues of $7.5 million (€6.3 million), with cash conversion of 40%.

For some more context, Kahoot says that in the last 12 months, more than 1 billion participating players in over 200 countries attended over 200 million Kahoot! sessions. That figure includes both educational users of its free services, as well as enterprises, which pay to build and use games (for example related to professional development or business compliance) on the platform.

“We are thrilled to welcome Drops to the expanding Kahoot! family as we advance towards our vision to become the leading learning platform in the world,” said Eilert Hanoa, the CEO of Kahoot, in a statement. “Drops’ offerings and innovative learning model are a perfect match to Kahoot!’s mission of making learning awesome through a simple, game-based approach. Drops and language learning becomes the latest addition to our growing offering of learning apps for learners of all ages and abilities. We will continue to expand in new areas to make Kahoot! the ultimate learning destination, at home, school or work, and to make learning awesome!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a bonanza for educational apps, which are collectively seeing a huge rush of usage in the last year.

For students, educators and parents, they have become a way of connecting and teaching at a time when physical schools are either closed, or drastically curtailed in what they can do, in order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Businesses and other organizations, on the other hand, are leaning on e-learning as a way of keeping connected with staff, engaging them, and training them at a time when many are working from home.

It might seem ironic that at a time when travel has been drastically limited, if not completely halted altogether, for many of us, that language learning has seen an especially big boom.

Maybe it’s about making hay — that is, using the moment to get yourself ready for a time in the future when you might actually get to use your newly acquired foreign language skills. Or maybe it’s just another option for distracting or occupying ourselves in a more constructive way. Whatever might be the motivation or cause, the effect is that language learning is on the up.

Most recently, Duolingo — which incidentally also uses game-based concepts, where you enter a leaderboard for your learning and your daily sessions become winning streaks — raised $35 million on a $2.4 billion valuation, a huge jump for the company.

Kahoot cites figures that predict that digital language learning will be an $8 billion+ market by 2025 as describes Drops as “one of the fastest-growing language platforms in the world.”

“The entire Drops team has spent the last five years building a new way to learn language, and we’re just getting started,” said Daniel Farkas, co-founder and CEO, Drops, in a statement. “We’ve introduced millions of users across the globe to our playful, dynamic approach to language learning. Kahoot! is doing the same for all types of learning. We’re excited to work with such a mission-aligned company to introduce the Drops platform to game-loving learners everywhere.”

Gartner: Q3 smartphone sales down 5.7% to 366M, stemming Covid-19 declines earlier this year

As we head into the all-important holiday sales period, new numbers from Gartner point to some recovery for the smartphone market as vendors roll out a raft of new 5G handsets. Q3 smartphone figures published today showed that smartphone unit sales declined 5.7% globally over the same period last year to 366 million units. Yes, it’s a drop, but it is still a clear improvement on the first half of this year, when sales slumped by 20% in each quarter, due largely to the effects of Covid-19 on spending and consumer confidence overall.

In terms of brands, Samsung continued to lead the pack in terms of overall units, with 80.8 million units, and a 22% market share. In fact, the Korean handset maker and China’s Xiaomi were the only two in the top five to see growth in their sales in the quarter, respectively at 2.2% and 34.9%. Xiaomi’s numbers were strong enough to see it overtake Apple for the quarter to become the number-three slot in terms of overall sales rankings. Huawei just about held on to number two. See the full chart further down in this story with more detail.

Also worth noting: overall mobile sales — a figure that includes both smartphones and feature phones — were down 8.7% 401 million units. That underscores not just how few feature phones are selling at the moment (smartphones can often even be cheaper to buy, depending on the brands involved or the carrier bundles), but also that those less sophisticated devices are seeing even more sales pressure than more advanced models.

Smartphone slump: it’s not just Covid-19

It’s worth remembering that even before the global health pandemic, smartphone sales were facing slowing growth. The reasons: after a period of huge enthusiasm from consumers to pick up devices, many countries reached market penetration. And then, the latest features were too incremental to spur people to sell up and pay a premium on newer models.

In that context, the big hope from the industry has been 5G, which has been marketed by both carriers and handset makers as having more data efficiency and speed than older technologies. Yet when you look at the wider roadmap for 5G, rollout has remained patchy, and consumers by and large are still not fully convinced they need it.

Notably, in this past quarter, there is still some evidence that emerging/developing markets continue to have an impact on growth — in contrast to new features being drivers in penetrated markets.

“Early signs of recovery can be seen in a few markets, including parts of mature Asia/Pacific and Latin America. Near normal conditions in China improved smartphone production to fill in the supply gap in the third quarter which benefited sales to some extent,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner, in a statement. “For the first time this year, smartphone sales to end users in three of the top five markets i.e., India, Indonesia and Brazil increased, growing 9.3%, 8.5% and 3.3%, respectively.”

The more positive Q3 figures coincide with a period this summer that saw new Covid-19 cases slowing down in many places and the relaxation of many restrictions, so now all eyes are on this coming holiday period, at a time when Covid-19 cases have picked up with a vengeance, and with no rollout (yet) of large-scale vaccination or therapeutic programs. That is having an inevitable drag on the economy.

“Consumers are limiting their discretionary spend even as some lockdown conditions have started to improve,” said Gupta of the Q3 numbers. “Global smartphone sales experienced moderate growth from the second quarter of 2020 to the third quarter. This was due to pent-up demand from previous quarters.”

Digging into the numbers, Samsung has held on to its top spot, although its growth was significantly less strong in the quarter. “Fortunately” for Samsung, it’s still a long way ahead. That is in part because number-two Huawei, with 51.8 million units sold, was down by more than 21% since last year, in the wake of a public relations crisis after being banned in the US and phased out in the UK, due to the accusations that its equipment is used by China for spying.

It will be interesting to see how Apple’s small decline of 0.6% to 40.6 million units to Xiaomi’s 44.4 million, will shift in the next quarter, on the back of the company launching a new raft of iPhone 12 devices.

“Apple sold 40.5 million units in the third quarter of 2020, a decline of 0.6% as compared to 2019,” said Annette Zimmermann, research vice president at Gartner, in a statement. “The slight decrease was mainly due to Apple’s delayed shipment start of its new 2020 iPhone generation, which in previous years would always start mid/end September. This year, the launch event and shipment start began 4 weeks later than usual.”

Oppo, which is still not available through carriers or retail partners in the US, rounded out the top five sellers with just under 30 million phones sold. The fact that it and Xiaomi do so well despite not really having a phone presence in the US is an interesting testament to what kind of role the US plays in the global smartphone market: huge in terms of perception, but perhaps less so when the chips are down.

“Others” — that category that can take in the long tail of players who make phones, continues to be a huge force, accounting for more sales than any one of the top five. That underscores the fragmentation in the Android-based smartphone industry, but all the same, its collective numbers were in decline, a sign that consumers are indeed slowly continuing to consolidate around a smaller group of trusted brands.

 

Vendor 3Q20

Units

3Q20 Market Share (%) 3Q19

Units

3Q19 Market Share (%) 3Q20-3Q19 Growth (%)
Samsung 80,816.0 22.0 79,056.7 20.3 2.2
Huawei 51,830.9 14.1 65,822.0 16.9 -21.3
Xiaomi 44,405.4 12.1 32,927.9 8.5 34.9
Apple 40,598.4 11.1 40,833.0 10.5 -0.6
OPPO 29,890.4 8.2 30,581.4 7.9 -2.3
Others 119,117.4 32.5 139,586.7 35.9 -14.7
Total 366,658.6 100.0 388,807.7 100.0 -5.7

Source: Gartner (November 2020)

 

 

Snap acquired Voisey, an app to create music tracks overlaying your own vocals

Snapchat helped pioneer the use of lenses on faces in photos and videos to turn ordinary picture messages into fantastical creations where humans can look like, say, cats, and even cats can wear festival-chic flower crowns. Now it sounds like the company might be turning its attention… to sound.

The company appears to have acquired Voisey, a UK startup that features instrumentals that you overlay with your own voice to create short music tracks (and videos), and also lets musicians upload instrumentals that become the basis for those tracks. Users can apply audio filters (like auto-tune, automated harmonies, and some funny twists like a Billie-Eilish-ish effect) to their voices; and they can also browse and view other people’s Voicey tracks.

The results look something like this or this.

The deal was first reported by Business Insider, which noted Voisey had changed its company address in London to that of Snap’s. In addition to that, we have seen that filings in Companies House indicate that the the four people who co-founded the startup — Dag Langfoss-Håland, Pal Wagtskjold-Myran, Erlend Drevdal Hausken and Oliver Barnes — as well as the startup’s first two investors — Terry Steven Fisher and Jason Lee Brook — all resigned as directors of the company on October 21. At the same time, two employees at Snap — Atul Manilal Porwal on the legal team and international controller Amanda Louise Reid — were assigned directorship roles.

Snap’s London spokesperson Tanya Ridd said Snap declined to comment for this story. Voisey did not respond to our email.

Voicey had raised only $1.88 million to date (per PitchBook data), and it’s ranked at 143 in iOS in Music in the US currently, according to AppAnnie stats. It’s not clear how much Snap would have paid for the startup but the news comes on the heels of a Snap filing earlier this month that indicated that the UK entity, which is still loss-making, is poised to borrow up to $500 million, so there is possibly come cash for acquisitions reserved as part of that.

Voicey has been described in the past as a “TikTok for music creation”. And it does look a little like the popular video app, which like Voicey is also focused around user-generated content. Voicey has a distinctly stronger creator feel to it, and there has even been at least one singer discovered on the platform. The Billie Eilish-esque Olivia Knight, who goes by “poutyface,” signed with Island Records/Warner Chappell earlier this year.

On the other hand, TikTok — at least for now — is less about music creation, and more about people creating other kinds of content — dancing, written messages, chitchat — set to music. We write “for now” because TikTok’s parent Bytedance has also quietly acquired assets for music creation, so maybe we should watch this space.

It’s not clear whether Snap would look to integrate some or all of Voicey’s features into its flagship app Snapchat to create new music services, or run Voicey as a separate app (with easy hooks into Snapchat), or a combination of the two. Based on past experience it could be any of these.

Snap has been slowly building up its music cred but up to now that has felt more like work to clone TikTok: last month, it launched Sounds on Snapchat, a feature to let people add tunes to their Stories, to make them, well, more like TikTok videos. That has come with a growing trove of licensing deals with big publishers.

Even before it launched that, Snap hadn’t ignored the power of sound completely. It has been offering voice filters, to give your videos a more comedic twist, for years already. But with music being one of the most engaging of formats on social media, Voicey could potentially give Snap, and Snapchat, a leg up in the feature race with a platform to build original content.

What’s interesting is the timing of this deal.

It was just last week that we revealed another voice-focused acquisition of Snap’s, the Israeli startup Voca.ai, which it acquired for $70 million (although a close source disputed that and said it’s $120 million…).

As with Voicey, no word on where Voca.ai tech will be used, but Voca.ai is an AI-based startup that lets companies create interactive voice-based chatbots for customer service interactions. That could see Snap expanding the kinds of services it provides to businesses, or expanding how people can interact using voice on its existing services, specifically its Spectacles, or both (or, again, something completely different).

Put together with the Voicey deal, it’s a sign of the company doing a lot more than just snapping pictures.

SellerX raises $118M to buy up and grow Amazon marketplace businesses

As Amazon’s Marketplace continues to grow and mature, a new opportunity has emerged in the world of e-commerce for a new breed of startups to consolidate the most promising of the smaller businesses that sell via Amazon’s platform, and build out their own economies of scale within that ecosystem. In the latest development, SellerX — a new outfit in Berlin — has closed a round of $118 million (€100 million) that it plans to use to roll up smaller enterprises that use Fullfilment by Amazon for payments, logistics and delivery for their products.

The round is being co-led by Cherry Ventures, Felix Capital and TriplePoint Capital, with participation also from Village Global, with Zalando co-founder David Schneider, Shutterfly CEO and former Amazon UK CEO Chris North, and the founders of KW Commerce, a big Amazon seller out of Germany (selling mobile phone accessories and home goods), also participating.

Notably, this $118 million is a seed round for the company, the first real money that it has raised to date, and it comes in the form of some equity, but mostly debt, which SellerX will use for acquisitions to play out its strategy, in the words of Malte Horeyseck (who co-founded the startup with Philipp Triebel) to become “the digital Procter & Gamble.”

SellerX’s focus will be “evergreen consumer goods,” said Triebel, in areas like household, pets, garden supplies, goods for kids and beauty. It has made one acquisition to date; and although it declined to disclose to me what it is, Horeyseck said that it, combined possibly with other acquisitions it will make in the coming weeks, will give SellerX a revenue run rate of €20 million by the end of this year.

The horse has well and truly bolted in the world of Amazon marketplace roll-ups: the last several months have seen a number of startups raise large rounds of funding, with sizable proportions of the sums in debt, in order to go out and consolidate the most interesting smaller companies that are selling and getting their orders fulfilled by Amazon.

Just yesterday, another player in this space based out of the U.S. called Heyday announced a round of $175 million. Earlier this week, London-based Heroes announced a $65 million round. Perch raised $123 million last month. Thrasio, another big player in this area, was valued at $1.25 billion in its own debt round earlier this year.

The opportunity is a clear one: the Amazon marketplace has quickly become a major player in the world of e-commerce — a position that has become even more apparent this year, during the Covid-19 global health pandemic, which has led to many people turning away from in-person shopping either out of choice or requirement (in the UK, for example, all ‘non-essential shops’ are currently closed for in-person shopping). In the last quarter the company, which reported revenues of $98 billion, saw product sales of $52 billion, with estimates putting the number of marketplace sellers at just over 50% of that figure. By some accounts Amazon is already responsible for 50% of all online retail, Felix founder and investor Frederic Court noted.

“It is the new high street,” he said in an interview.

At the same time, we’ve seen a flourishing of the concept of “D2C” where companies are bypassing traditional retailers and building their own brands for selling their own unique products on their own terms. Amazon has played a big part in that. Just as a writer can now self-publish on Amazon and bypass getting book deals, you can list your products on Amazon and theoretically get access to a huge audience of shoppers without having to pitch your goods to a buyer who may or may not do your bidding.

On the other side, however, you have huge fragmentation on the platform. As Amazon gets more popular, it makes it harder than ever for individual sellers to get themselves seen, or to differentiate themselves once they are found.

There is also a ton of junk sold on Amazon — there is a whole industry of those who buy off wholesale sites and resell on Amazon, which is one reason why so many merchants seem to sell identical anonymous products.

For the unassuming shopper, it’s nearly impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff — not least also because of the ongoing problems that Amazon has had with the integrity of its review system, and the selling of iffy products (it has worked hard to try to fight all of this, but it still remains an issue).

This makes for a challenging landscape on Amazon, which sometimes feels more held together by its Prime delivery promises and the fact that you can still usually find something to fill your needs not because the goods are great, but because of the sheer size of it being an everything store.

Horeyseck said that the idea behind SellerX (and its many competitors, hopefully) is not to find the most successful companies of all, regardless of how they get there. Rather, its mission is to build a thriving business by focusing on the more interesting sellers that are doing well legitimately and using the Amazon framework to do it, but might lack the capital, expertise or appetite to stick with their enterprises longer term. The idea is to pick these up and apply SellerX’s own analytics and processes, and production relationships that it is building, to pick up these saplings and grow them into trees.

Horeyseck believes that this ultimately can be a win-win on all sides, for SellerX, the smaller merchant, and Amazon itself.

“I think basically everything we are doing will help Amazon have a better quality marketplace,” he said. “This is about creating strong D2C brands, where you get quality every time. Amazon needs that in its marketplace right now.”

Filip Dames, founding partner of Cherry Ventures, said in a statement, “The diverse seller landscape on Amazon provides a unique opportunity to acquire some category-winning, highly profitable products, empower them through technology, and build them into the next-generation consumer brands. The founders Malte and Philipp combine decade-long e-commerce and buy-and-build expertise, which uniquely positions them to capture this opportunity.”

Quid raises $320M to loan money to startup employees using their equity as collateral

Startups that take time to scale before going public or getting acquired can represent big, if long-term, returns for employees that hold equity in them. Big, because tech companies have proven to be some of the most valuable in the world when it comes to exits; long-term, because it might take years for a startup to have a liquidity event to give those equity-holding employees some money off the table.

Today, a company called Quid, which has built a business out of giving those employees another option — taking out loans and using their equity as collateral — is announcing a new fund to target that growing opportunity.

After providing loans to employees at some 24 companies, including Unity, Palantir, Crowdstrike, Uber, and Lyft, Quid now has raised a new $320 million fund that it plans to deploy both by collaborating directly with more startups to run programs for their employees, as well directly with employees themselves.

The aim is to select 30 more high-growth startups on track to IPO, and to allocate up to $30 million per company in the form of loans to employees, based on loaning up to 35% of the stock’s current value.

Quid was founded within Troy Capital — an investor that made its name previously with growth-stage investments in Uber, Bird, SpaceX and others — and Troy’s two managing partners, Josh Berman and Anthony Tucker (pictured below), run Quid as well. Berman has a pretty long history in startups and tech, including being one of the founders of MySpace; Tucker is younger and brings a stronger connection with how tech is moving and shaking today.

Quid raised its first fund of $200 million to deploy loans to those whole money was locked up in equity back in 2018, and it was spun out of Troy more formally earlier this year (pre-Covid).

Quid says that this latest fund is backed by Harvard Management Company, Oaktree Capital, Davidson Kempner, and unnamed strategic investors that include board members at leading late stage technology companies — perhaps the very companies that Quid in turn will work with to help give employees more liquidity.

The problem that Quid is tackling — or, in another view, profiting from — is that equity in a potentially hot startup has been a big driver for attracting talent to join what might otherwise turn out to be risky bets. But unlocking the cash connected to that equity typically only comes with a liquidity event. (Indeed, “quid” is double-word play: a reference to liquidity, as well as to slang that means money. In British English, quid is slang for the UK pound currency, which in turn is thought to be a reference to the Latin quid pro quo, which means “something for something.”)

Those liquidity events are not coming as fast these days as in the past, in part because there is so much money swimming around in the venture world that companies can stay private for longer, using venture and private equity funding to fuel their growth without needing to open themselves up to raising capital in a more public way.

While some companies will have secondary rounds — where another investor buys up existing shares — to give employees some liquidity, this isn’t always the case, and those processes can take longer. Those employees may need the cash for buying property, or for some large outlay around education or something else that requires a large payment, or to buy up more options in their company. So Berman and Tucker spotted an opportunity to address that with their own money.

Quid works in a pretty straightforward way: Quid takes a flat 7% annual fee on the amount that a person borrows, and that value is based on how much equity she or he has in a company, and calculations that Quid itself works out that value that equity.

That valuation may be in part based on previous rounds of fundraising, but also if shares are trading on the secondary market as well as other factors, Berman said. The loan against the equity amount is positioned as an alternative to selling shares on the secondary market, with the carrot being that if you’re at a high-growth company, holding on to those shares will give you a bigger return in the longer run.

A person is only expected to pay back the agreed-on sum, based on the value of the equity at the time of the loan, after equity shares can start to be converted into cash. Quid also pays tax bills and basically guarantees the loan itself, in that it assumes a company’s value is going to stay steady or go up.

“If a company turns out to be a Theranos or a WeWork, we take the risk,” said Berman. People are not expected to pay back the full sum in those cases.

The catch is that not everyone is eligible to take out a Quid loan. Berman said that to date it has worked with only 24 companies. It vets companies based on their growth rates, valuation and other factors, and then only chooses a subsection of those.

That list is likely to grow a little larger now, however, not least because Quid has more money to deploy, and because the pool of companies that have hit “unicorn” status of being worth more than $1 billion has also become a lot bigger.

As with so much in the world of investing, it seems like a simple enough idea, so much so that it would be a surprise if it didn’t get copied.

And, when you consider the giant investment vehicles that have landed in the last several years, and the challenges they have had in simply finding enough opportunities for investing their funds, and how that might have possibly led to some particularly bad and indiscrete bets, you can also imagine how such a service might end up being yet another bad bet if not handled well.

“There are a lot of funds that have large amounts of capital,” said Tucker. “But for us, a lot of this is about a customer relationship. It’s about marrying the ability to underwrite a loan with that.”

Headway raises $26M to help people find therapists, and therapists to accept insurance

Mental health has taken a nosedive for many people this year — spurred by economic and political uncertainty, a Covid-19-fueled public health crisis, and being cooped up, among other things. In the U.S., a startup is today announcing some funding to make it easier for those who need it to find help.

Headway, which helps people search for and engage therapists who accept insurance for payments, is today announcing that it has raised $26 million, a Series A that it plans to use to expand the service to more cities and to widen the pool of therapists that it works with, as well as to invest in building out more technology to improve how its search and recommendation works.

The startup currently has some 1,800 therapists on its books in the New York area and says that tens of thousands of patients have used its service to find them and book appointments.

The funding is being co-led by Thrive and GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), and also includes participation from past investors Accel (which led its seed round), GFC and IA Ventures. The startup has now raised $33 million, and other previous investors include the founders of One Medical, Flatiron Health, and Clover Health. It’s not disclosing valuation with this round.

Headway has built a two-sided marketplace of sorts that taps into one of the biggest hurdles around how medical care works in the US: it favors big business over smaller operations.

People who are seeking out a therapist usually are looking for someone who they can trust and connect with to constructively and reassuringly work through problems they are facing. That can be a big challenge in itself — and Headway addresses that with a kind of “Yelp” style directory covering them. To note, the Yelp comparison only goes so far: there is no paid placement, just listings. That could be one reason why it caught the eye of a VC connected to the world’s biggest online search company.

But this isn’t the only issue patients face.

In many cases, therapists are sole traders, people who work for themselves, and they typically do not take insurance as payment.

The reason may have been originally partly traditional. Specifically, mental health therapy would not have been covered by insurance in the old days, and employees would not want to disclose issues to employers, who typically provide health insurance in the US, to push that paradigm. (This is rapidly changing, and in some industries it’s been turned into a deal sweetener, with extensive policies covering many other kind of therapies also included).

But the reason for lack of insurance coverage is also operational: the health insurance industry is geared around working with large hospitals and health organizations that have large teams of people on staff specifically to handle claims, process payments, and generally interface with the different parties.

Andrew Adams, the co-founder and CEO of Headway, said he came up against this very issue himself when moving to New York from California several years ago to take a job. He was looking for a therapist, but he found most unwilling to accept his insurance as payment, making getting therapy unaffordable.

“This is the defining problem in the space,” he in an interview. “Health insurance is built around a medical world dominated by billers and admins, but therapists are small practitioners and don’t have the bandwidth to handle that, so they don’t. So we thought if we could make it easier for them to, they would, and they have.”

Headway’s approach has been to build relationships with insurers and act as a kind of middleman/broker between them and a wide pool of therapists. It’s built software that helps those therapists — whose skills and expertise are in working with people and helping them manage their issues, not office and business admin — manage not just appointment booking but, critically, billing and all of the work that comes with that.

The business model is interesting here. Headway doesn’t charge patients for its search service, nor does it charge therapists. It takes a commission from the insurance providers, which pay it essentially for enabling wider access to more therapists (and billable work) for their policies.

Today, Headway’s focus is squarely on mental health, with “therapists” mostly being in categories like psychotherapy or psychiatry. But you could imagine how that might over time widen out to the multitude of other professional categories that also reach into complementary or completely different categories of therapies and are connected to a person’s well-being and mental health.

So, too, are there more opportunities for what Headway provides in the process.

Adams said that before the coronavirus pandemic, some 90% of meetings between patients and therapists were in-person. Now, “90% are virtual.”

While Headway is not providing the platform for those meetings to take place, it seems like an obvious step to provide therapists with the tools to do their customer-facing work alongside the tools it’s already providing to handle those relationships in the back office.

Similarly, while the search engine today can help people look for therapists based on some parameters like location, gender and age, you can imagine more being brought into that recommendation mix, where a person without a clear idea of what he or she wants can perhaps walk through a more detailed list to identify what to look for next.

Interestingly, Headway’s role may be no less important in environments where there may be multiple systems at work, for example in countries where the government provides some healthcare coverage, or all of it, or none at all.

“The complexity of dealing with insurance doesn’t get any harder or easier,” Adams said. “In fact, I’d say there is even more needed to deal with the complexity.”

Tourlane adds another $20M at a $242M valuation to help it weather the Covid storm

The tourism and travel industry has been one of the hardest hit by the global Covid-19 health pandemic, and today a promising startup in the space announced some funding to help it weather the storm. Berlin-based Tourlane, which has built a platform that mimics the role of an in-person travel agent to plan and book all aspects of multi-day trips for individuals and small groups, has raised $20 million, in what it describes as an extension to its 2019 Series C.

The money will be used to give Tourlane, in its own words, “financial stability; allowing the company to pursue its customer-centric vision of creating an end-to-end experience for booking unique individual trips based on advanced technology and travel expertise.”

From what we understand, the company has had a big drop in bookings as a result of the many bans on travel, reduced flight schedules and stay-at-home orders issued across different countries as they try to grapple with the coroanvirus outbreak: it’s currently at 20% the rate of bookings versus the same time last year.

The Series C had been $47 million originally — bringing the total now to $67 million — and was co-led by Sequoia Capital — itself making a bigger push into Europe at the moment — and Spark Capital. Those two VCs, along with other existing investors DN Capital, and HV Capital, and both founders, all participated in the extension. Tourlane has now raised over $100 million.

From what I understand the extension is happening at the same valuation — which according to PitchBook (and my sources) is around $242 million.

A press release announcing the extension did not include any metrics, but in addition to the allusion to financial stability, the undercurrent of the notice is one of just making sure the company has the resources to get through this, and potentially turn the situation into a positive for the company (however that may be possible).

“We deeply believe that this pandemic is an opportunity to rethink travel, and will be a catalyst for the Tourlane business model,” said Julian Stiefel, co-CEO & co-founder of Tourlane (the other co-founder and co-CEO is another Julian, Julian Weselek). “With this latest funding round, we are continuing to invest in our technology and product experience, while at the same time ensuring maximum flexibility for our customers.”

This is not too far outside of the bigger trend among other startups in the industry, and compared to some is a relatively good outcome. Indeed, Tourlane’s funding comes on the heels of a number of twists and turns in the wider category of startups focused on travel and tourism. Just this week, Airbnb filed its long-awaited IPO prospectus, which — while still a big deal — revealed huge drops in the company’s revenues in the wake of many people cancelling travel plans.

Others have not fared so well. Domio (another player in the accommodation space) is reportedly in the process of shutting down its business after raising well over $100 million. Trip Actions, Zeus Living and Sonder have all seen big layoffs. GetYourGuide, another Berlin-based travel startup, raised $133 million in the form of a convertible note as it looks to raise more money to get itself through the crisis.

At Tourlane specifically, in addition to the drop in the number of bookings currently, the startup has also been having a rocky year since the outbreak of the pandemic.

In March, the company saw a 30% higher surge of inbound customer service queries as people got in touch to cancel or rebook their trips. That meant not just a potential loss of revenue — Tourlane was issuing refunds even in cases where it had not been able to secure the refunds from suppliers yet itself — but a big operational cost to the company.

Before the pandemic the company had some 290 employees and had been on a growth tear. While it has made some layoffs — it has around 250-ish now — about half of the remaining employees are on a partial furlough scheme, where they are working only part time (part of a German government scheme, where it provides assistance to make up the difference).

There have been some brighter spots, too. In the summer, when there was a small amount of recovery in many places — so much so that we even started to see stories about group getaways amongst nomads who just couldn’t cool their itchy feet — companies like GetYourGuide, Airbnb and Tourlane saw an increase in activity.

Tourlane offers curated trip itineraries and bookings to some 50 destinations, and it said that in some places like Iceland — which found itself one of the few destination spots that didn’t see big outbreaks in Covid-19 cases — it was even seeing record bookings. Unfortunately, all that evaporates like so much geothermal steam when cases start to tick up again.

The hope now is that vaccines and their rollout will give people more confidence to travel again, and governments and other organizations the ability to reduce some of the strong restrictions that have been put in place that make quick getaways completely impossible.

“When the crisis hit us earlier this year, our team made an incredible effort to adjust strategy, adapt to a new reality, and get ready for the new demand when the market bounces back,” Weselek said in a statement. “In these unprecedented times, the commitment from our investors is a strong signal of confidence in our strategy, the Tourlane business model, and what’s to come in the future.”

“Tourlane has the tremendous opportunity to redefine the way people experience travel,” added Andrew Reed, partner at Sequoia Capital, in a statement. “We are excited to continue our partnership in this next chapter supporting Tourlane’s technological innovation and growth in the years to come.”

“We were impressed by Tourlane’s ability to quickly and consistently adapt their strategy during such a turbulent year,” said Christian Saller, chairman of Tourlane and general partner at HV Capital, said in his own statement. “The new investment will help to quickly transition into growth mode when the market recovers. We are more convinced than ever that Tourlane is perfectly positioned to create the best experience in travel.”