My six months with $30/month email service Superhuman

A $30-per-month email service capturing the adoration of investors and founders in Silicon Valley is perhaps an unsurprising story in a subscription-obsessed landscape, yet we’re only now hearing how stealth-y startup Superhuman has captured investor $$$.

The New York Times reports that the SF startup closed a $33 million Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz last month, raising at a $260 million valuation. The company has been oddly tight-lipped about its funding for a startup that people won’t stop talking about, though CEO Rahul Vohra has justified this as a desire to keep the story on the product not the money.

Superhuman has little need for a marketing budget when every VC’s twitter is spreading the gospel of luxury email.

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The startup has seemed to have grown at its own pace, the service’s members frequently reference the 100,000+ people on the waiting list to pay for the email app  though the company seems most intent on growing by word of mouth referrals which allow you to hop the line. (Roose’s story details that list is actually 180k people long, and that the company has less than 15k on-boarded subscribers)

The service is designed around helping people that spend several hours in email every day to find areas to cut down on friction. What’s it like though?

I spent about 6 months paying for the service (thanks for the referral Niv) before eventually unsubscribing a couple months ago. There’s certainly plenty to love, though the price can be a bit to stomach when you realize how much you’re paying for email compared to other services.

Superhuman’s central strength is speed. Its other strength is that it feels like an exclusive club, though its members probably have nicer things to say about it than The Battery.

More on its functional differentiators in a bit, but the culture surrounding the app is a little fascinating. It’s a luxury app icon to have on your phone. You won’t find the Superhuman app in the App Store, you have to be approved for the service in iOS’s TestFlight where constant beta updates are delivered.

Other founders I’ve chatted with have been inspired by how Superhuman’s on-boarding process helps users feel like they’re getting a product custom-built for them. I met with Vohra during my 30-minute meeting where he walked me through the product and asked me about my own email habits as he helped me set up my account. The result is a bizarre connection with the product and team.

Example: for 30 days after you set up your account, you get an email from Vohra detailing some tips and tricks for using the service. Not only did I not immediately unsubscribe from these messages, I read almost all of them. When I filled out a survey at the end surrounding what I thought about the service, an employee at the startup shot me an email a few days later with a full response, I responded to that.

But honestly, how many paid services would expect its users to include a line in their signature plugging the service “Sent via Superhuman” and never disable it? And yet, the cult of Superhuman led me to keep it for awhile until my eyes were opened that flexing my $30/month email in my signature made me look like an asshole. Yes, it did.

What all of these interaction earn Superhuman is that when reality eventually beamed on me that I was not making VC money and I should probably end this little experiment, I almost felt like I had to apologize to the startup for cancelling my subscription. I felt so coddled as a member of the service with every new little update feeling like a new membership perk.

Okay, okay, yes, there are other ways to feel special that aren’t a $30/month electronic mail service. What is so nice about using it?

Speed is the top-line item. The desktop experience is the platform’s key differentiator, it’s structured entirely around keyboard shortcuts and the app is constantly training you to move through your email more quickly.

A couple of months in, I truly was spending far less time combing through pitches and tips, particularly thanks to the custom buckets that Superhuman sorts your mail into. The “Important” tab in your inbox differentiates newsletters and mailing list emails and only sucks in messages that were sent directly to you. It is miles better than the rudimentary sorting that Gmail pulls off.

If you aren’t used to the cult of “inbox-zero,” the service will drag you into it. The app prompts you to archive, snooze or delete every email in your inbox, transforming the utility of the service from a simple mailbox into a to-do list.

Other features like the souped up email tracking lets you know when your email was opened and does this much better than the free Gmail extensions I’ve tried. When a founder tried to claim he hadn’t seen my email asking him about some problems at his startup, I checked the app and saw he had opened it no less than 17 times on his phone and PC. Hmmm…

Before starting Superhuman, Vohra founded Rapportive which LinkedIn later bought. He kind of recreated that service for Superhuman which really allows you to get into people’s inboxes more easily. If you can guess someone’s email, a sidebar in the app will populate with a bio of the person if you’re correct. This is obviously pretty useful to a journalist, but if you’re trying to cold email your way into new opportunities it can be pretty great as well.

I’m perhaps not enough of a power user to get the most of snippets, which allow you to quickly inject canned responses that you can stylize, but they seem like they’d be amazing for intros though I rarely ended up using them.

When it comes to shortcomings, Superhuman is a desktop experience first-and-foremost. I’m a heavy mobile email user and the Superhuman app may have better than most other iOS email apps I had used, but it is still iterative on mobile and I think I was left thinking about the subscription costs most when I was swiping through emails there.

Even in the six months that I was a subscriber the mobile app made some hefty advances, though getting people to continually justify a subscription over what would otherwise be free is a challenge that won’t go away as long as it holds its price tag.

The issue for Superhuman is that in a lot of ways the app just trains you how to use email more effectively. Since cancelling my subscription, I’ve dialed in my Gmail keyboard shortcuts and shifted how I flag and archive messages and I’d say I’m operating fairly close to the efficiency I pulled off on the premium service.

The mental load of spending $30 month on email is admittedly heavy and is undoubtedly a barrier for Superhuman scaling to different echelons of users, but with $33 million from Andreessen Horowitz, the startup certainly has some options for how it grows from here. I do still dearly miss the “Important” tab, email tracking and sidebar profiles and perhaps I will eventually return though I imagine that will happen when the service costs less than what I put into Apple Music and Netflix combined.

Reddit quarantines its biggest headache

Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit has been a lingering issue for the site’s leadership.

The community, which was organized in the lead-in to Trump’s presidential run, has come to represent much of the site’s failures in uniformly enforcing content policies. Add in Russian election interference and a dollop of racism, sexism and xenophobia and you have the recipe for a long-simmering scandal that has finally coming to a head after the community hosted “threats against the police and public figures.”

Today, Reddit quietly quarantined the Donald Trump-focused subreddit, meaning that the content on the subreddit will stay self-contained at its URL for non-subscribers and will require an opt-in screen for visiting users.  Perhaps more notable, the quarantine removes the community from Reddit’s ad network, ensuring that the company isn’t making ad revenue from content on r/The_Donald.

Screen Shot 2019 06 26 at 11.59.53 AM

In a lengthy, carefully-worded statement to TechCrunch regarding the action, a Reddit spokesperson said, “We are clear in our site-wide policies that posting content that encourages or threatens violence is not allowed on Reddit. As we have shared, we are sensitive to what could be considered political speech, however, recent behaviors including threats against the police and public figures is content that is prohibited by our violence policy. As a result, we have actioned individual users and quarantined the subreddit.”

The step is far from the ban that users have long requested from the company’s CEO Steve Huffman in his regular site-wide Q&As. Just last month, Huffman addressed some of the issues r/The_Donald had been causing:

“…Yes, we do see individual posts and comments that cross the line, but the offending content also gets removed as we ask and expect, and we also take action against those individual users and accounts with suspensions or full bans from the site as appropriate. I wish there was a solution that was as simple as banning the community—certainly it would make some things easier—but the reality is that banning a large political community that isn’t in violation of our policies would be hugely problematic, not just for Reddit, but for our democracy generally…”

Reddit has had a history of being conservative in its efforts to phase out controversial subreddits. The venture-backed only recently banned a subreddit called r/WatchPeopleDie in the wake of the New Zealand mosque shooting.

In a post on the subreddit, r/The_Donald moderator u/shadowman3001 said, “It would seem they’ve set up an impossible standard as a reason to kill us before the 2020 election,” in response to the company’s expectations for banning all violating user content on the subreddit.

Just last month, the Trump administration shared a public survey asking Americans to respond if they had been censored by social media companies.

The next frontier for sneakerheads is trying on shoes virtually

Startups in the AR space see a bright future for bringing retail experiences into the home, but there haven’t been a ton of convincing examples of companies carrying out this vision effectively. Wannaby is using AR to help sneaker heads visualize their next purchase by letting them try on the shoes virtually.

The company launched its own app Wanna Kicks earlier this year where users can “try on” high quality 3D models from Nike, Adidas, Allbirds and others. The startup just launched a partnership with Gucci this morning to help consumers try on shoes inside the luxury brand’s dedicated app.

Users launch the feature in the Gucci app, bringing up a camera which leverages Wannaby’s AR tech to position the shoes proportionally on their feet. Snap a photo and you can get a direct link to Gucci’s website where you can drop a few hundred dollars on the shoes you were just “wearing.”

Gucci is just the tip of the iceberg for the AR startup based in Minsk. The 22-person team is hoping that its tech can blur the lines between shopping at home and going to a retail store. The company closed a $2.1 million seed round last year from local firm Bulba Ventures.

As sneaker marketplaces like StockX and GOAT gain in popularity among streetwear enthusiasts, there’s a lot of potential to make advances in helping users visualize purchases. GOAT, which acts as a middleman between resellers verifying the authenticity of kicks, currently uses AR to help consumers see every angle of the shoe, but hasn’t integrated tech like Wannaby’s to take the try-on process further.

While there aren’t too many other AR platforms focused on foot-tracking, there is the danger that a Google or Apple drives to the hoop and integrates that tech into its platform enabling apps to do it themselves, but Wannaby’s CEO says that their product is about content and implementation as much as it is about foot-tracking.

“[These big platforms are] definitely a threat to some extent, but there’s more than just the technology,” CEO Sergey Arkhangelskiy.

Right now, Wannaby is largely working off of flat-rate licensing fees, but the startup is hoping that it can grab a slice of sales in the future if consumers spend time trying on a pair of AR shoes before they make a purchase.

The startup is obviously focused on a tight market, but Arkhangelskiy points to the acquisition of AR makeup app Modiface by L’Oreal as a sign that individual retailers are looking to build a closer relationship between smartphone users and their products using whatever tech they have available to them. Arkhangelskiy also tells me that he has hopes this tech can strengthen in-store sales as well, allowing retailers to tease new products or allow visitors to “try-on” shoes that are no longer in stock.

The next frontier for sneakerheads is trying on shoes virtually

Startups in the AR space see a bright future for bringing retail experiences into the home, but there haven’t been a ton of convincing examples of companies carrying out this vision effectively. Wannaby is using AR to help sneaker heads visualize their next purchase by letting them try on the shoes virtually.

The company launched its own app Wanna Kicks earlier this year where users can “try on” high quality 3D models from Nike, Adidas, Allbirds and others. The startup just launched a partnership with Gucci this morning to help consumers try on shoes inside the luxury brand’s dedicated app.

Users launch the feature in the Gucci app, bringing up a camera which leverages Wannaby’s AR tech to position the shoes proportionally on their feet. Snap a photo and you can get a direct link to Gucci’s website where you can drop a few hundred dollars on the shoes you were just “wearing.”

Gucci is just the tip of the iceberg for the AR startup based in Minsk. The 22-person team is hoping that its tech can blur the lines between shopping at home and going to a retail store. The company closed a $2.1 million seed round last year from local firm Bulba Ventures.

As sneaker marketplaces like StockX and GOAT gain in popularity among streetwear enthusiasts, there’s a lot of potential to make advances in helping users visualize purchases. GOAT, which acts as a middleman between resellers verifying the authenticity of kicks, currently uses AR to help consumers see every angle of the shoe, but hasn’t integrated tech like Wannaby’s to take the try-on process further.

While there aren’t too many other AR platforms focused on foot-tracking, there is the danger that a Google or Apple drives to the hoop and integrates that tech into its platform enabling apps to do it themselves, but Wannaby’s CEO says that their product is about content and implementation as much as it is about foot-tracking.

“[These big platforms are] definitely a threat to some extent, but there’s more than just the technology,” CEO Sergey Arkhangelskiy.

Right now, Wannaby is largely working off of flat-rate licensing fees, but the startup is hoping that it can grab a slice of sales in the future if consumers spend time trying on a pair of AR shoes before they make a purchase.

The startup is obviously focused on a tight market, but Arkhangelskiy points to the acquisition of AR makeup app Modiface by L’Oreal as a sign that individual retailers are looking to build a closer relationship between smartphone users and their products using whatever tech they have available to them. Arkhangelskiy also tells me that he has hopes this tech can strengthen in-store sales as well, allowing retailers to tease new products or allow visitors to “try-on” shoes that are no longer in stock.

Drone Racing League is raising $50 million

The enterprise drone space has been heating up over the past couple years, but a startup in the entertainment drone space is raising the big cash now.

The Drone Racing League is in the process of raising up to $50 million from investors in a Series C round according to SEC docs published today. The startup has already raised over $26 million of that figure and is looking to secure additional investors to close out the rest. Investors in the new round appear to already include Lux Capital and RSE Ventures.

We reached out to Drone Racing League for comment.

The company had previously raised $32 million in funding from backers including Sky, CRCM Ventures and Hearst Ventures. Drone Racing League closed a $20 million Series B in 2017.

The startup, as the name implies, is in the business of speedy drone racing. It was founded in 2015 with the goal of capitalizing on some of the excitement around the technology, while aiming to build out a league that captured the thrill of airborne Formula-1 racing.

We did a deep dive on the company’s efforts back in 2016 and the surrounding drone racing enthusiast space. The athletes fly custom-built hardware at 90 miles per hour in tourneys that take place at sites ranging from empty warehouses to professional sports arenas. Races have been broadcast on NBC Sports, Twitter, Sky Sports and FOX Sports Asia according to the startup.

 

Week-in-Review: YouTube’s awful comments and Google’s $1B tech-free investment

Hello, weekend readers. This is Week-in-Review where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about how the top gaming industry franchises were proving immortal and how that could change. I mainly asked questions and I got some great answers in my email. Keep the feedback coming.

An interesting corollary to that conversation was Niantic releasing its Harry Potter title this week, a game that takes liberal gameplay cues from Pokémon GO but attaches it to new IP. The big question is whether Niantic can strike gold twice; here’s an Extra Crunch interview my colleague Greg did with the startup’s CEO.


This week, the biggest tech topic at hand from the big companies was probably Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, I’d normally dig into that but my colleague Josh did such a bang-up job breaking down Libra and why it’s important that I don’t feel the need to. You can read his explainer below.

Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know 

In the midst of scouring this week’s headlines, a pretty low-key story from Friday caught my eye detailing how YouTube was testing a version of its app where the comments were hidden by default. Companies test this stuff all the time and it’s hardly a commitment but it did make me reflect on how the nature of user-submitted comments has shifted and how certain platforms develop community cultures based on the way those comments are sorted.

Web comments have been searching for their final form for a while now. Twitter turned comments into the main 140 character dish, but Twitter’s influence is getting baked into a ton of platforms. Sites like Instagram are starting to gain a greater understanding of how users want responses to complement their content and the opportunities they’ve seized on really showcase the user-submitted opportunities being wasted by platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

YouTube downgrading their comment visibility kind of highlights what a cesspool the company has allowed them to turn into, but rather than being a place where people are vile, the platform just hasn’t grown them into something useful or exciting over the past decade.

As Instagram continues to become a place where more and more famous users interact with each other, the comment fields are becoming the place where users “bond” with the accounts they follow even if they’re still lurking around and reading how the account responds to other high-profile users. 

This is how public channels with big audiences should operate. Sure, it’s partially a result of the culture of the platform, but algorithms can shape these cultures.

The issue is so many other comment systems are seemingly organized to treat anonymous users, real-name users and verified personalities the same. Ascribing an equal weight to all of these types of content is kind of a surprisingly quaint way to handle user-generated content, it’s also a great way for platforms to find engagement ceilings and the limits of what spam can become.

You don’t have to go searching far through TechCrunch’s stories to find some good old-fashioned “how I earned $72/hour working from home” spam, but just because something isn’t spam doesn’t means it’s worthwhile. Platforms have developed their own comment memes based on what can play the algorithms, it’s not particularly useful, “Like if Jimmy Fallon brought you here,” “Like if you’re watching this in 2019.”

Platforms organized around building communities have an incentive to elevate anonymous voices and foster relationships and dialogue. Back in the Gawker days, most of my time on the site was spent digging through the comments looking for commenters I recognized and enjoying their dialogue. That’s what Reddit has become in a lot of ways, a place where the posts are secondary to the reactions, but the forum systems of web 1.0 aren’t made for such general influencer-focused platforms of 2019 and it’s an area where there are a lot of wasted opportunities.

YouTube comments have garnered this reputation for being so laughable bad because the company has let the average of what’s submitted define them, acting as a one-size fits all for platforms that are decidedly more dynamic.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
[email protected]

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Tesla paints it black (for a price)
    Tesla is looking to keep those margins hopping and there next play to make your Tesla a bit more pricey is by making the white paint job on its vehicles, making white the standard color. It may seem like a rough deal, especially when you can a monitor stand for your new Apple Display for the same price. Read more here about why Elon did this.
  • Google drops a B on the Bay
    To those living in the arena of Silicon Valley, it’s no secret that the housing shortage is hurting wallets. How much of that is big tech’s fault and how much of it is the local government’s fault is hard to tell at times, but certainly neither is doing as much as they could. This week Google pledged a whopping $1 billion worth of assistance to the problem. Forking over $750 million worth of real estate and a quarter-billion dollars worth of funding for residential projects is quite the pledge, let’s see how the money gets spent. You can read more here.
  • Slate failures
    Google’s Pixel Slate tablet was such hot garbage that the company is leaving the tablet game for good and focusing on its Pixel laptop line instead. Read more here.

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. Apple recalls some MacBooks:
    [Apple issues voluntary recall of 2015 MacBook Pro batteries due to overheating concern]
  2. Google swats down shareholder vote:
    [Google defeats shareholders on ‘Dragonfly’ censored search in China]
  3. Facebook in hot water over fake review sales: 
    [Facebook and eBay told to tackle trade in fake reviews]
  4. Maps keeping it real fake:
    [Google responds to report that concluded there are millions of fake business listings on Maps]

Image via Getty Images / Feodora Chiosea

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Ron Miller wrote a story asking VCs and CEOs just how much startup founders should be paying themselves.

Startup founders need to decide how much salary is enough

“…Murat Bicer,  general partner at CRV,  says you could probably ask 10 VCs this question, and get 10 different answers, but he sees the range at the low end of perhaps $125,000 and at the high end maybe $200,000, depending on the location of the startup and the cost of living in a particular city…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit about keeping your H-1B status and how you should be negotiating your term sheet with strategic investors.

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Facebook announces dates for Oculus Connect 6

After a busy year, Facebook’s VR arm is returning to San Jose, Calif. on September 25 and 26 for the sixth annual Oculus Connect.

Oculus has had a transformative year with the release of its Quest and Rift S headsets, turning the high-end gaming company into one more focused on meeting the needs of mainstream consumers. Oculus Connect 6 will give the company an opportunity to hit a stride on content and software optimizations, without the specter of missing hardware features hanging heavy.

“With Quest and Rift S bringing more people into VR than ever before, OC6 is the perfect moment to think bigger, build smarter, and realize the true potential of what we’re creating together,” the company wrote in a short blog post.

For developers, this could be a more contentious meeting as Facebook’s top virtual reality hardware product remains a walled garden with only certain content permitted in the store. Apple has shifting its efforts over the past two years to nabbing top game developers and offering less monetary support to indies that are experimenting in VR for the first time.

In the teaser post, the company is already highlighting that one of the main announcements will be a first-person combat title created by Respawn Entertainment, the maker of Apex Legends.

Week-in-Review: E3’s forever franchises and Elon Musk’s submersible Tesla

Hey, weekend readers. This is Week-in-Review where I get hopped up on caffeine and give a heavy amount of analysis on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I railed on Google’s new Stadia game streaming platform. The injection of competition into the tired PlayStation/Xbox gaming rivalry is certainly welcome, but Google is making such a concerted play into a tight niche that it’s hard to imagine them following through. I got some great emails and DMs with a lot of good back-and-forth, most notably pointing out that I didn’t give Google credit for some of the details they did give on multi-player, I also got some less helpful responses, but hey, I guess I’m the one that asked for the feedback.

On that note, check out my comparison of Stadia with Microsoft’s new xCloud service that they revealed this week.


Alright, onto new things. Actually, let’s dig into my week at the E3 gaming expo. I swear this isn’t only a gaming newsletter, but let’s talk forever franchises…

I spent the past few days on the show floor of the conference checking out what the latest and greatest gaming trends were, what I saw looked pretty familiar though.

Entrenched franchises are a special kind of force in the gaming industry.

Walking around it was wild how so many of these studios are coasting off of 20 or 30-year-old characters and storylines. Sega had a massive booth this year showing off some reskinned Sonic the Hedgehog shit. Watching the Square Enix keynote was a special kind of hell, I admittedly do not have a very religious connection to the studio, but their announcements were all related to reboots, rehashes or remasters. Nintendo, which I dearly love, dug into the success of Breath of the Wild by promising a direct sequel for the title, something that’s a bit unusual for the Zelda series, Jesus, even Animal Crossing is nearly a 20-year franchise at this point! Every large booth dragged gamers’ attention to something derivative.

This obviously isn’t some sort of breaking news, but as the years stretch on from the gaming industry’s conception, it’s fascinating to see how the founding franchises are keeping their shine.

What’s fascinating is how this impacts the boom and bust life cycles of game studios and massive publishers. While larger movie studios need to constantly be vetting new tentpole franchises, once game studios find a hit they join this club of mainstays where the marks of success become more dependent on creative execution rather than creativity itself. This can make life pretty profitable for studios like Rovio that strike gold and can spend a decade milking their former glory and fading out, but it’s still fascinating.

It also makes the introduction of new IP such a nerve-racking, high stakes process. You look at someone like Hideo Kojima and the buzz Sony has been trying to build around Death Stranding and you just realize how insanely complex it is to craft a hit with nothing but marketing and talking head hype. Word of mouth and network effects build these franchises over time, but there’s so much invested beforehand and for new IP, it’s hard to guarantee a winner.

Why does Toy Story fade after a few films but a singular piece of gaming IP can suck hundreds of hours out of a gamer’s life over several releases? I’d imagine being able to hold a role in the progression of a character fosters a closer bond with the user, gameplay can be dozens of hours long but more often than not the storyline is pretty straight-forward leading you to fill in the blanks, which can be powerful. Games are fundamentally more than just stories.

But then, as I walked around and watched gameplay and cinematic trailers, I was left with the takeaway that so much of the dialogue in some of these games is garbage. When are the writers behind the “golden age of TV” going to trickle down into crafting some of these single-player campaigns? But then are more rich and rewarding storylines going to cause these franchises to have shorter shelf lives because we’ll get to know the characters too well? I don’t really know, if you work in the games industry I’d love to pick your brain.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
[email protected]

On to the rest of the week’s news.

(Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context.

  • Salesforce buys Tableau
    Marc Benioff is known to signal Salesforce’s future via its M&A, so the company’s largest acquisition to date is probably worth taking a closer look at. Read why Salesforce is spending $15.7 billion on Seattle-based Tableau.
  • Samsung gets ready to re-release its Foldy phone
    The Galaxy Fold has had a pretty raucous life in the press and it hasn’t even successfully been released yet. Read more about its coming launch.
  • Musk’s Tesla submarine
    It wouldn’t be a Tesla shareholder meeting if some bizarre headlines didn’t surface. Apparently Musk claims that the company has vehicle designs for a submersible Tesla based on the aquatic car from the James Bond movie. Musk said it’s technically possible to make a functioning version, but added, “I think the market for this would be small — small, but enthusiastic.” Read more here.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of awfulness:

  1. YouTube CEO serves up an “apology”:
    [YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki addresses hate speech controversy]
  2. Deepf**ked:
    [Facebook will not remove deepfakes of Mark Zuckerberg and others from Instagram]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch’s Sarah Buhr chatted with some venture capitalists that are investing in female fertility startups and tried to get to the bottom of what signals they search for.

What top VCs look for in a women’s fertility startup

“…Longer term, women’s health has a special interest: a new understanding of women’s reproductive health will generate novel insights into other domains, including longevity…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week TechCrunch writers talked a bit the future of car ownership, and whether people raising venture capital should even bother dealing with associates at the firms…

Want to read some of this stuff, but haven’t signed up? We’ve got a deal going where you can sign up for $2 and get two months of Extra Crunch.

Google leaks its own phone

Details of the Pixel 4 have been swirling around this week, so Google has decided to just leak the design of its next phone via its official Twitter account, revealing the backplate and new camera module on the smartphone.

Well, since there seems to be some interest, here you go! Wait ’til you see what it can do. #Pixel4″ the tweet from the company’s verified @MadeByGoogle account read.

Renders of the Pixel 4 had leaked this week via smartphone blog Pricebaba.

The back of the phone makes some big changes. Most noticeable is the now-square camera module with a pair of lenses, a flash module and a couple of other sensor modules. Also noteworthy is the apparent lack of a rear fingerprint reader, in contrast to past models. There’s not much else evident here, they didn’t post renders of the device’s front.

Google’s Pixel 3 release kind of cemented that Google doesn’t stake much of the Pixel line’s strengths on hardware specs, it’s all about what it can leverage machine learning software tricks to do within those bounds.

On that note, it’s worth noting that Google has been pretty late to the two-camera rear module setup; at past event the company has always justified this by suggesting that because of their software they can do more with one than most can do with two. This was clearly the case given the strengths of their cameras, but there are undoubtedly advantages to having dual cameras with different specs, it seems Google is now ready to take this plunge.

 

 

 

Against Gravity is building a VR world that won’t stop growing

The quest to create a social auditorium in virtual reality has eaten many VC dollars over the years. While plenty of contenders have emerged, it’s likely Against Gravity’s href="https://rec.net/"> Rec Room has been the most creative in its approach to capturing a niche market while plotting how to build a sustainable business based on users in VR headsets talking to one another.

The Seattle startup has told TechCrunch exclusively that it has bagged $24 million over two rounds of funding. The studio’s Series A was led by Sequoia and their Series B, which just recently closed, was led by Index Ventures . Against Gravity has a bevy of top investors that also participated in the rounds, including First Round Capital, Maveron, Anorak Ventures, Acequia Capital, Betaworks and DAG Ventures.

The company didn’t break down the specific details of the rounds. Against Gravity was authorized to raise up to $15.4 in its Series B at up to a $126 million post-money valuation, according to Delaware stock authorization docs we got from PitchBook. The company didn’t comment on the valuation.

Rec Room is hardly a household name compared to some major console titles, but among virtual reality users, the title has been a standby known for the diversity of gameplay available inside its walls and its wide support for hardware. Users are able to create experiences or “rooms” that can be accessed by other users. They don’t need any coding knowledge to build these spaces, as creation all happens within the game and can be done by multiple users simultaneously.

Rec Room is also about to surpass one million rooms created by users on the platform. The company says these environments include “sports games, shooters, adventure quests, nightclubs, club houses, and escape rooms.”

While companies like Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, have focused their VR efforts on realistic but unvarying user-created environments, Against Gravity has seemingly one-upped their strategy by focusing on dynamic gameplay modes where the emphasis is on user interactions as opposed to graphic fidelity.

The Seattle startup, which was founded in 2016, now has 35 employees building out and maintaining Rec Room. The company is playable on a variety of platforms, and is about to add iOS support to its roster, an expansion that could bring a lot more users onto the VR-centric platform.

Rec Room’s content isn’t monetized too aggressively at the moment. CEO Nick Fajt thinks some of the user-generated experiences are going to offer an interesting opportunity down the road, prompting users to spend in-game tokens on more than just upgrades to the platform’s Playmobil-like avatars.

“I think a direction that we’re actually excited about is that we want to let the users creating some of this content charge tokens to play them,” Fajt tells TechCrunch. “I think that’s one that we’re kind of on the cusp of doing and we’re hoping to get that out later this year.”

For Against Gravity, timing has always been a key consideration for expansion, especially inside the slow-growing VR market, which has only recently seemed to hit a stride. I chatted with Fajt back in 2017, and he told me that the key for VR startups surviving was staying lean and biding their time until standalone mobile headsets with positional tracking and motion controllers were released. Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset, which came out less than a month ago, is perhaps the first clear device to fit that vision.

One of Facebook’s head AR/VR executives shared earlier this week that more than $5 million in Quest content had been sold in the company’s store in the first two weeks after the device’s launch. That’s a major development for an industry that hasn’t seen many smash hits, but for free-to-play game makers like Against Gravity, which has now raised $29 million to date, there’s plenty of maturation in the VR market that still needs to happen.