LA’s Kickback is a social shopping app that converts users into marketing channels through cash rewards

Frankie Bernstein, the Venice, Calif.-based serial entrepreneur, knows marketing.

At his last startup, Markett, Bernstein turned college students into brand ambassadors who were paid by the companies they repped for proselytizing about them on campuses.

Now he’s using that knowledge to launch Kickback on iOS and Android. It’s invite-only at this point, but the idea is that it uses company’s marketing budgets to create shopping rewards and incentives for app users. In the same way that Markett turned college students into advocates for apps like Uber and Lyft, Kickback will turn shoppers into brand ambassadors through its app.

In-app referrals and discounts for shopping are nothing new to the e-commerce world. In China, apps like Pinduoduo have turned into billion dollar businesses on the strength of referrals. Indeed, Pinduoduo recently raised $1.1 billion in funding to hit a valuation of nearly $100 billion.

It was only a matter of time before an American company tried to copy its success. Kickback — like most new apps these days — is invite-only.

Once past the waiting list, users get discounts on brands and can earn cash-back rewards when they shop or when they encourage their friends to buy something with the app.

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So far brands on the app include Walmart, Sam’s Club, Nike, Alo Yoga, Reebok, Away, Planet Blue, Sonos, Winc, Postmates, Casper, Kate Somerville, Lacoste, Columbia. Users get discounts or cash rewards when they shop and earn “kickbacks” when they invite someone to shop using their discount code. Cash rewards can be withdrawn using PayPal, according to a statement.

“Our mission is to take the billions of dollars brands spend on advertising and put that money directly into the pockets of the people,” said Franky Bernstein, Founder and CEO of Kickback, in a statement. “Brands know the most powerful form of marketing is word of mouth. We like to say that people are 100% more likely to go on a first date, watch a movie or, in our case, try a new product or service if a friend tells them about it. People have always loved sharing their favorite products and services with their friends. Now with Kickback, they get paid for it.”

White Castle becomes the first fast food chain to test out the robot fry cook, Flippy, from Miso Robotics

The next time Harold and Kumar go to a White Castle, there may be a robot making their French Fries.

In one of the first trials of a robotic fry cook at a national burger chain, White Castle said it would work with Pasadena, Calif.-based Miso Robotics to test that company’s robotic chef at a restaurant in the Chicago area. It’s a  trial run for potentially bringing the robot to other White Castle kitchens across the country, the company said.

White Castle first began talking about using the Miso Robotics robots in its kitchens about nine months ago according to White Castle’s vice president of shareholder relations, Jamie Richardson. For the company, it was a question of, “How can we start to make the kitchen of tomorrow today?” 

Already a success on social media, where videos of Miso Robotics’ Flippy robot have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, White Castle was intrigued about the prospects of a burger flipping, chicken, onion, and french frying robot in its locations, Richardson said.

“I think automation is here to stay and this is the first example of a really large credible player starting down that journey,” said Miso Robotics chief executive Buck Jordan of the new collaboration with White Castle. 

White Castle has a fairly interesting track record when it comes to working with startups. The company was the first fast food chain to embrace Impossible Foods for its sliders.

At an undisclosed restaurant in the Chicago area, Miso Robotics is already working to install the latest version of its Flippy robot. The robotic fry cook will be integrated with the company’s point of sale system so that the robot can begin preparation as soon as an order is taken at the register.

That first robot will be coming online in September, according to Richardson.

And Richardson said that White Castle employees don’t need to worry about a robot coming for all of their jobs… yet. 

“It’s going to save us money in food costs because there will be less waste,” said Richardson.  “The other savings will be in terms of output… that’s going to be helpful.. If you maintain speed of service that’s getting a little bit better and a little better you do see more visits… that’s where we see it having the biggest impact… we’re not looking at this as a way to reduce people power.” 

A typical installation of a Miso Robotics system in a kitchen would cost a restaurant $30,000 upfront and then another $15,000 per year. However, with White Castle, the terms (which were undisclosed) were a little different.

Jordan said the goal is to bring the cost of the robotic system down to $15,000 for the entire system, obviating the need for any upfront costs, and convincing restaurants and franchisors that the robot can pay for itself right out of the gate.

There’s a clear path to getting that down to 20K,” said Jordan. “I’m trying to chisel that down to 15K,… at that kind of price and these things have lifetimes of seven to ten years we can afford to take the loss upfront.”

The robots have taken on new significance in the post COVID-19 era as restaurants like White Castle become essential services even as they struggle to keep the lights on with fewer customers. 

At White Castle that meant pay cuts for executives in order to retain staff. “We cut a lot of investment and we didn’t want to lose one job,” Richardson said. However, even with the strategic cuts, the implementation of at least this first robotic system remained a priority.

“There were things that we thought, COVID or no COVID were important,” Richardson said. “This project falls under that banner.”

White Castle’s decision to pilot Flippy in the kitchen creates an avenue for reduced human contact with food during the cooking process – reducing potential for transmission of food pathogens. The implementation also brings intelligence to cooking, tapping into sensors, intelligent monitoring and anticipated kitchen needs to keep food temperatures consistent, that ensure optimal quality and a perfect bite for customers. With Flippy in the kitchen automating repetitive, time consuming and dangerous tasks like frying, team members can be redeployed to more customer-experience driven tasks.

Image Credit: Miso Robotics

TradeDepot adds $10 million to add financial services to its supply chain services for African SMBs

Nigeria’s e-commerce startup TradeDepot, which connects international brands to small businesses in Africa, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding to expand its business into financial services and credit offerings for retailers.

First launched in 2016, TradeDepot has built up a network of 40,000 small businesses in Nigeria and connects them to local distributors of global consumer brands like Nestlé, Unilever, GB Foods and Danone, according to a statement.

The initial business model managed to attract a $3 million investment led by Partech back in 2018. And now, as the firm invests from its largest African fund, Partech returned to co-lead TradeDepot’s latest round with the International Finance Corp., Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative and MSA Capital.

TradeDepot’s business depends on making a range of household supplies like milk, soap, and detergent more accessible and affordable for the street-side vendors and small shops that provide goods and services for hundreds of communities in cities like Lagos — where the company is headquartered.

Using the company’s mobile apps on Android or Whatsapp, USSD short code messaging or a toll-free phone number, retailers can place orders and have goods and services delivered through TradeDepot’s fleet of vans and tricycles. They can make payments, order stock, and manage inventory online or through the app as well.

For consumer brands, they have a central hub through which to distribute directly to vendors on the continent, along with data that can help them manage their relationship with these small vendors.

Image Credit: TradeDepot

Africa’s offline retail market is estimated at $1 trillion, and this new investment allows us to capture an even greater segment of that market,” said Onyekachi Izukanne, in a statement. “We will continue to use data to drive efficiencies and provide an easier stock acquisition service for our [over] 40,000 retailers, driving down costs for them by negotiating even better deals with our global manufacturing partners, whilst simultaneously providing a better, faster route to market for our suppliers.”

The company said that a new store comes online to use its services every three minutes and that the company receives an order from retailers every four seconds, on average.

Now, with the new capital, TradeDepot will expand into a suite of financial services and lending products for its retailers. Many of the company’s customers lack a credit rating, but TradeDepot has alternative ways to score credit based on the data it has from its existing trading relationships.

“The founders’ vision to build a digital platform that improves the unit economics of serving the mass market is one we feel privileged to support,” said Wale Ayeni, the head of Africa Venture Capital investment at the IFC.

That support disproportionately goes to helping women entrepreneurs, according to the company. Women account for over 75% of the retailers on the company’s platform. Now, with the help of its new investor We-Fi, TradeDepot will look to offer mentorship opportunities and link these business owners to global markets.

“Women play a pivotal role in driving economies across Africa, but lack of access to capital, limited market linkages, cultural norms and other challenges often prevent them from achieving the success they want,” saiid Hanh Nam Nguyen, who represents the We-Fi initiative with the IFC. “We-Fi financing will incentivize TradeDepot to build stronger women-led small and medium enterprises (SME) retailer and distributor networks, which will support them to become drivers of economic growth in their communities.”  

TradeDepot adds $10 million to add financial services to its supply chain services for African SMBs

Nigeria’s e-commerce startup TradeDepot, which connects international brands to small businesses in Africa, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding to expand its business into financial services and credit offerings for retailers.

First launched in 2016, TradeDepot has built up a network of 40,000 small businesses in Nigeria and connects them to local distributors of global consumer brands like Nestlé, Unilever, GB Foods and Danone, according to a statement.

The initial business model managed to attract a $3 million investment led by Partech back in 2018. And now, as the firm invests from its largest African fund, Partech returned to co-lead TradeDepot’s latest round with the International Finance Corp., Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative and MSA Capital.

TradeDepot’s business depends on making a range of household supplies like milk, soap, and detergent more accessible and affordable for the street-side vendors and small shops that provide goods and services for hundreds of communities in cities like Lagos — where the company is headquartered.

Using the company’s mobile apps on Android or Whatsapp, USSD short code messaging or a toll-free phone number, retailers can place orders and have goods and services delivered through TradeDepot’s fleet of vans and tricycles. They can make payments, order stock, and manage inventory online or through the app as well.

For consumer brands, they have a central hub through which to distribute directly to vendors on the continent, along with data that can help them manage their relationship with these small vendors.

Image Credit: TradeDepot

Africa’s offline retail market is estimated at $1 trillion, and this new investment allows us to capture an even greater segment of that market,” said Onyekachi Izukanne, in a statement. “We will continue to use data to drive efficiencies and provide an easier stock acquisition service for our [over] 40,000 retailers, driving down costs for them by negotiating even better deals with our global manufacturing partners, whilst simultaneously providing a better, faster route to market for our suppliers.”

The company said that a new store comes online to use its services every three minutes and that the company receives an order from retailers every four seconds, on average.

Now, with the new capital, TradeDepot will expand into a suite of financial services and lending products for its retailers. Many of the company’s customers lack a credit rating, but TradeDepot has alternative ways to score credit based on the data it has from its existing trading relationships.

“The founders’ vision to build a digital platform that improves the unit economics of serving the mass market is one we feel privileged to support,” said Wale Ayeni, the head of Africa Venture Capital investment at the IFC.

That support disproportionately goes to helping women entrepreneurs, according to the company. Women account for over 75% of the retailers on the company’s platform. Now, with the help of its new investor We-Fi, TradeDepot will look to offer mentorship opportunities and link these business owners to global markets.

“Women play a pivotal role in driving economies across Africa, but lack of access to capital, limited market linkages, cultural norms and other challenges often prevent them from achieving the success they want,” saiid Hanh Nam Nguyen, who represents the We-Fi initiative with the IFC. “We-Fi financing will incentivize TradeDepot to build stronger women-led small and medium enterprises (SME) retailer and distributor networks, which will support them to become drivers of economic growth in their communities.”  

LA-based Replicated adds former GitLab head of product as its chief product officer

Replicated, the Los Angeles-based company pitching monitoring and management services for Kubernetes-based applications, has managed to bring on the former head of product of the $2.75 billion-valued programming giant, GitLab, as its new chief product officer. 

Mark Pundsack is joining the company as it moves to scale its business. At GitLab Pundsack saw the company grow from 70 employees to 1,300 as it scaled its business through its on-premise offerings.

Replicated is hoping to bring the same kind of on-premise services to a broad array of enterprise clients, according to company chief executive Grant Miller.

First introduced to Replicated while working with CircleCI but it was the company’s newfound traction since the launch of its kubernetes deployment management toolkit that caused him to take a second look.

“The momentum that Replicated has created with their latest offering is tremendous; really changing the trajectory of the company,” said Pundsack in a statement. “When I was able to get close to the product, team, and customers, I knew this was something that I wanted to be a part of. This company is in such a unique position to create value throughout the entire enterprise software ecosystem; this sort of reach is incredibly rare. The potential reminds me a lot of the early days of GitLab.”

It’s a huge coup for Replicated, according to Miller.

“Mark created the core product strategy at GitLab; transforming GitLab from a source control company to a complete DevOps platform, with incredible support for Kubernetes,” said Miller. “There really isn’t a better background for a product leader at Replicated; Mark has witnessed GitLab’s evolution from a traditional on-prem installation towards a Kubernetes-based installation and management experience. This is the same transition that many of our customers are going through and Mark has already done it with one of the best. I have so much confidence that his involvement with our product will lead to more success for our customers.”

Pundsack is the second new executive hire from Replicated in six months as the company looks to bring more muscle to its c-suite and expand its operations.

Fringe pitches a monthly stipend for app purchases and subscriptions as the newest employee benefit

Fringe is a new company pitching employers on a service offering lifestyle benefits for their employees in addition to, or instead of, more traditional benefits packages.

“We didn’t think it made sense that employees need to be sick, disabled, dead or 65+ to benefit from their benefits,” wrote Fringe chief executive Jordan Peace, in an email.

The Richmond, Va.-based company was founded by five college friends from Virginia Tech rounded up by Peace and Jason Murray, who serves as the company’s head of Strategy and Finance. The two men previously owned a financial planning firm called Greenhouse Money, which worked with small businesses to set up benefits packages and retirement accounts.

During that time, the two men had a revelation… Employees at these small and medium-sized businesses didn’t just want retirement or healthcare benefits, they wanted perks that were more applicable to their day-to-day lives. Since Murray and Peace couldn’t find a company that offered a flexible benefits package on things like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu subscriptions, Uber rides, Grubhub orders, or Instacart deliveries, they built one themselves.

As they grew their business they brought in college friends including Isaiah Goodall as the vice president of partnerships, Chris Luhrman as the vice president of operations and Andrew Dunlap as  the head of product.

Peace and Murray first launched the business in 2018 and now count over 100 delivery services, exercise apps, cleaning services and other apps of convenience among their offerings.

For their part, employers pay $5 per employee-covered per month and set up a monthly stipend (that may or may not be subtracted from a total benefits package) of somewhere between $50 and $200 that employees can spend on subscription services.

It’s a pitch to employers that Peace says is especially compelling as office culture changes in the wake of massive office closures and work-from-home orders from major US companies as a response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

“In-office perks and even most ‘off-site’ perks (gyms, massage spas, etc.) are all null and void,” wrote Peace. “Even post-COVID, it’s highly likely that many of these aspects of office culture will bear less significance with many CEOs vowing to allow ‘WFH forever’. This means companies need a way to package of their office culture, and ship them home. Fringe is perfectly positioned for this and determined to be the first name that comes to mind to provide a solution.”

Peace sees this as the next step in the evolution of benefits offerings for employees. He traces its legacy to the development of private health insurance, 401k retirement plans. “After another 40 years lifestyle benefits are the newest breakthrough — and like its predecessors, will be almost universally adopted in the next 5 years,” Peace wrote.

Gaming network Venn will launch with 20 hours of live programming on August 5, 2020

Venn, the company looking to be gaming’s answer to ’80s-era MTV, has revealed the first slate of shows to premier on the network when it launches August 5, 2020.

Working out of studios in Playa Vista in Los Angeles and New York’s World Trade Center (coming in 2021), Venn intends to use 1,000 square feet and 30 million pixels of LED walls and floors to create its interactive shows and narratives.

The company is planning a slate of news and talk shows, game shows and documentaries, according to a statement.

“From conception, Venn has been laser-focused on elevating the creators of this generation with production leadership, a chance to flex new creative muscles and grow their audiences via our broad distribution,” said Ariel Horn, co-chief executive of Venn. “As we close in on our August launch, we’re thrilled to pull back the curtain on the first wave of programming — and the unique blend of talent curated from the worlds of gaming and cutting edge digital storytelling.”

The first slate of shows from the company include:

  • VENN ARCADE LIVE — A daily variety show centered on gaming themes (and unfortunately not inspired by the seminal Hüsker Dü album, “Zen Arcade”) to be hosted by James “Dash” Patterson, Venn Arcade will feature guest appearances, live performances, interactive gameplay and audience participation from the hottest gamers, streamers, celebrities, athletes, musicians and rising stars.
  • DARE PACKAGE — An extreme challenge version of unboxing where loot crates filled with mystery challenges are delivered to streamers’ homes hosted by @AustinOnTwitter.
  • GUEST HOUSE — On weekday afternoons celebrity guests will take over the Venn studios to craft their own streaming show for live audiences.
  • THE SUSHIDRAGON SHOW — Hosted by the eclectic and eccentric performance artist and streamer, “The SushiDragon Show” will feature interviews, performances and entertainers alongside SushiDragon’s own signature dancing set against digital backdrops and avatars.
  • LOOKING FOR GAINS — Hosted by the entertainer known as CashNasty this show will be an interactive fitness show designed to showcase guest’s ultimate quarantine workout.

“We’re disrupting the traditional television business model and giving birth to a powerful voice in GenZ and millennial entertainment. We identify and curate fan favorite talent, develop and elevate their content with a world-class TV production infrastructure, then rapidly scale it all via our universally distributed network”, said Ben Kusin, Venn’s other co-chief executive, in a statement. “There’s a currency in generational talents and a currency in generational movements, and that timeliness can’t wait for traditional TV to adapt. The time for Venn is now.”

Raising $22.5 million, Liftit looks to expand its logistics services in Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador

The Colombian trucking and logistics services startup Liftit has raised $22.5 million in a new round of funding to capitalize on its newfound traction in markets across Latin America as responses to the COVID-19 epidemic bring changes to the industry across the region.

“We’re focusing on the five countries that we’re already in,” says Liftit chief executive Brian York.

The company recently hired a head of operations for Mexico and a head of operations for Brazil as it looks to double down on its success in both regions.

Funding for the round was led by Cambridge Capital and included investments from the new Latin American-focused firm H20 Capital along with AC Ventures, the venture arm of the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in LatAm; 10x Capital, Banyan Tree Ventures, Alpha4 Ventures, the lingerie brand Leonisa; and Mexico’s largest long-haul trucking company, Grupo Transportes Monterrey. Individual investor Jason Radisson, the former chief operating officer of the on-demand ride hailing startup 99, also invested.

The new capital comes on top of Liftit’s $14.3 million Series A from some of the region’s top local investors. Firms like Monashees, Jaguar Ventures and NXTP Ventures all joined the International Finance Corp. in financing the company previously and all returned to back the company again with its new funding.

Investors likely responded to the company’s strong performance in its core markets. Already profitable in Chile and Colombia, Liftit expects to reach profitability across all of its operations before the end of the year. That’s despite the global pandemic.

Of the 220 contracts the company had with shippers, half of them went to zero and the other half spiked significantly, York said. While Liftit’s major Colombian customer stumbled, new business, like Walmart, saw huge spikes in deliveries and usage.

“Managing truck drivers is incredibly difficult, and trucking, in our opinion, is not on-demand,” said York. “At the end of the day the trucking market in all of Latin America is a majority of independent owners. They’re not looking for on-demand work… they’re looking for full-time work.”

Less than 1% of the company’s deliveries come from on-demand orders; instead, it’s a service comprised of scheduled shipments with optimized routes and efficiencies that are bringing customers to Liftit’s virtual door. 

“We do scheduled trucking delivery so we integrate with existing systems that shippers have and start planning how many trucks they’re going to need and the routes they’re going to take and … tee it up exactly what is going to happen regardless what the traffic conditions are so we have been able to reduce the delivery times for the trucks,” said York. 

In pandemic era, entrepreneurs turn to SPACs, crowdfunding and direct listings

If necessity is the mother of invention, then new business owners are getting very inventive in the ways in which they access cash. Relying on some long-tested and some new avenues to raise money, entrepreneurs are finding more ways to get public market cash faster than they would have in the past.

Whether it’s from Reg A crowdfunding dollars, Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) or direct listings, these somewhat arcane and specialized financing vehicles are making a comeback alongside a rise in new funding mechanisms to get to market quickly and avoid the dilution that comes from private market rounds (especially since those rounds are likely to come at a reduced valuation given market conditions).

Some of these tools have existed for a while and are newly popular in an era where retail investors are driving much of the daily fluctuations of the public markets. Wall Street institutions are largely maintaining their conservative postures with regard to new offerings, so secondary market retail volume growth is outpacing institutional. Retail investors want into these new issues and are pouring into the markets, contributing to huge pops to new public offerings for companies like Lemonade this Thursday and creating an environment where SPACs and crowdfunding campaigns can flourish.

The rise of zero-commission brokerages and the popularization of fractional trading led by the startup Robinhood and adopted by every one of the major online brokers including Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E-Trade and Interactive Brokers has created a stock market boom that defies the underlying market conditions in the U.S. and globally. For instance, daily trades on Robinhood are up 300% year-over-year as of March 2020.

According to data from the BATS exchange, the total trade count in the U.S. was up 71% and May trading was up more than 43% over 2019. Meanwhile, E-Trade daily average revenue trades posted a 244% increase in May over last year’s numbers.

Don’t call it a comeback

The appetite for new issues is growing and if many of the largest venture-backed companies are holding off on going public, smaller names are using SPACs to access public capital and reach these new investors.

With partnerships at major children’s hospitals, Manatee seeks clinical validation of its CBT-based app

When Manatee founder Damayanti Dipayana’s brother was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the family took all the steps to ensure that he was properly cared for. All of the things that could have been an obstacle to getting treatment weren’t for Dipayana’s family.

A comfortably middle class background, a supportive family and ready access to care were all available, but still the therapy didn’t take. For Dipayana, it was witnessing the breakdown between the care provided at sessions and the differences in treatment at home, that led her to create Manatee.

“Therapy just sucks for kids,” Dipayana said. “My brother hated it.. It can’t be the best thing for children to put them in a room with an adult and have them talk about their problems for an hour.”

Now the graduate from Techstars Los Angeles has $1.5 million in funding from investors including the Michigan-based investment firm, Grand Ventures; Telosity, a fund launched by Vinaj Ventures & Innovation, that invests in companies improving children’s and young adult’s mental health; and the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, will pursue clinical validation for its suite of apps and services to provide a continuum of care for children with cognitive and behavioral disorders. 

Beginning with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Manatee has started a trial with ten clinicians and fifty families to evaluate the commercial use case for Dipayana’s service.

The first targets for care are anxiety and oppositional disorder, Dapayana said.

Image credit: Manatee

“I really want to focus on children. From a social [return on investment] perspective it seems insane to me that we don’t invest more in the early wellbeing of children,” said Dipayana. “If we did then we probably wouldn’t have to deal with a  ballooning juvenile detention system.”

From the company’s earliest days the stars seemed to align for Dipayana. She found her technical co-founder, Shawn Kuenzler, thanks to a post on AngelList. A veteran in the health tech startup world, Kuenzler ran engineering at Health Language and Zen Planner and has two exits under his belt. If that wasn’t serendipitous enough, Kuenzler’s wife is a clinical psychologist.

The two Denver-based entrepreneurs then took their startup on the road to the Techstars Los Angeles accelerator. It was there that they were introduced to contacts at companies including Headspace and LA Children’s Hospital that are paving the way for clinical validation of digitally delivered cognitive behavioral healthcare.

“We’re going to spend money and resources on launching our research with Children’s LA to understand the impact for a health system,” Dipayana said. “We position it as everyday therapy for kids. We provide the platform for providers to make it the day-to-day therapy for kids.” 

Manatee sells its services directly to healthcare systems to ensure that it can reach the broadest population of users rather than just ones who could afford to access the company’s app-based offerings. Doctors use Manatee as a clinical dashboard and way to communicate to both a child and their family around care plans and treatment.

“I thought about this really long and hard… Looking from my personal experience. Parents and families that have kids with autism… there’s so much snake oil that gets pushed down their throat that they’ll try anything,” Dipayana said. “It was very important to me that one i understand the clinical workflow and understood how the workforce manages behavioral healthcare and whether the work we were doing was valuable.”