Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Top Hat, a startup that digitizes textbooks and turns them into an interactive experience for college students, announced on Wednesday that it has acquired yet another business: Fountainhead Press. The acquisition marks Top Hat’s third scoop of a publishing company in the past 12 months.

Consolidation is going to be huge in the next few years for edtech, as bigger players raise enough financing (and gain profits) to be able to afford other businesses.

Top Hat’s whole business proposition is a subtweet to Zoom University: It wants to make learning an active, online experience and completely digital. That focus has let them reach 3.5 million students and thousands of universities. With a new acquisition, Top Hat is bringing more content into its fold, and with it, more customers who need a better solution to a dusty textbook.

I caught up with Top Hat CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to understand what has triggered this string of content acquisitions. While the M&A isn’t tech-focused, we can learn about how a well-funded edtech startup is navigating the early innings of 2021.

We’ll talk about the shift from offline to online, edtech’s consolidation environment and why the “sell to Pearson or bust” mindset might officially be out the door for the sector.

Offline to online

Group Nine’s SPAC goes public

Group Nine Media revealed last month that it was forming a SPAC (short for special purpose acquisition corporation) in order to raise money for acquisitions.

The company has now moved forward with those plans, announcing last night that it had priced the SPAC’s IPO at $10 per unit, to raise a total of $200 million. It’s now trading on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol GNACU; as of 2:53 p.m. Eastern shares were up 6.55%. (Eventually, the Class A common stock will be listed as GNAC and warrants will be listed separately as GNACW.) The offering is expected to close on January 20.

The acquisition corporation, like Group Nine itself, is led by CEO Ben Lerer (pictured above). Imagination Capital Partner Richard D. Parsons and Reddit Chief Operating Officer Jen Wong are also on the board of directors.

Group Nine was formed in 2016 with backing from Discovery, merging Thrillist, NowThis, The Dodo and Seeker. It subsequently acquired PopSugar, with co-founder Brian Sugar becoming president of both Group Nine and now Group Nine Acquisition Corp.

SPACs, also known as blank-check corporations, have become an increasingly popular way for companies to raise money from the public markets. In its initial filing, Group Nine said it would use the funding “for the purpose of effecting a merger, capital stock exchange, asset acquisition, stock purchase, reorganization or similar business combination.”

Apple is extending Apple TV+ trials again

If you’ve got an Apple TV+ trial that’s set to expire sometime between now and June, good news: you’re getting some free bonus time.

Apple TV+ first launched in November of 2019, alongside a one-year free trial for anyone buying a new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV or Mac. As those initial trials approached their end, Apple voluntarily extended them out to February of 2021. Now they’re extending them once again.

As first reported by 9to5Mac, any trial that previously would’ve expired from February to June of 2021 will now expire in July instead. We have confirmed these plans with Apple.

Users should expect to get an email about the extension in the coming weeks. If you’re already paying for AppleTV+ or have it as part of an Apple One bundle, meanwhile, you’ll be getting a $4.99 per month credit until the end of June.

If you haven’t already, take this as an opportunity to blast through Ted Lasso, which is probably the most charming thing anyone has made for TV in a decade. Central Park is also great, though it has yet to hook me in quite the same way as Loren Bouchard’s other series (Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies).

Desktop Metal buys fellow 3D printing company EnvisionTEC for $300M

Desktop Metal this morning announced its intention to purchase fellow 3D printing company EnvisionTEC. Founded in Germany in 2002, EnvisionTEC specializes in photopolymer additive manufacturing, putting its technology in more direct competition with the likes of 3D printing darling Carbon than Desktop Metal’s own existing portfolio.

The deal follows Desktop Metal’s push to go public last August as part of a growing trend of SPAC mergers. Prior to this, the company had raised no shortage of its own funds, with a rapid ascent into unicorn status on the wake of $430 million in investments. It’s spending $300 million to acquire EnvisionTEC through a combination of cash and stock.

There’s a lot of potential for Desktop Metal to grow here. EnvisionTEC has the underlying technology with the ability to print in more than 190 materials, and Desktop Metal has the resources to help scale that tech beyond what the German company has been able to build thus far.

It’s clear that dental is a pretty huge piece of this puzzle. It’s among the clearest and most immediate use cases for this sort of mass volume 3D printing — and, indeed, the company already sports around 1,000 customers in dental, including companies like Smile Direct Club. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the company effectively tripled its Envision One dental shipments over the previous year.

“It’s used for everything from restorations to same-day, full arch implants,” Desktop Metal CEO Ric Fulop tells TechCrunch. “Usually when you get a denture, you’ve got to wait three weeks for denture implants. This is the first time you’ve got a solution that can do it in the same day. And it’s affordable.”

Per a press release issued in the wake of the news, other existing customers include Ford and Hasbro. Fulop says the company will continue to operate as its own division after the acquisition, which is expected to close this quarter.

“We’ll be able to leverage their channel,” the executive says. “We look forward to expanding on that capability and using our channel to give them more tools to have a full solution that spans from metal to composites to biomaterials and now photopolymer printing.”

WhatsApp delays enforcement of privacy terms by 3 months, following backlash

WhatsApp said on Friday that it won’t enforce its new data-sharing policy until May 15, weeks after news about the new terms created confusion among its users, exposed the Facebook-app to a potential lawsuit, launched a nationwide investigation, and drove a lot of its loyal fans to explore alternative messaging apps.

“We’re now moving back the date on which people will be asked to review and accept the terms. No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp. We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15,” the firm said in a blog post.

The messaging app, which serves more than two billion users, said it was delaying the enforcement of the new terms, which it first unveiled last year, over “confusion” it has created worldwide. The delay of the planned privacy update is aimed at providing users with more time to review the terms, the company said.

“We’ve heard from so many people how much confusion there is around our recent update. There’s been a lot of misinformation causing concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and the facts,” said the company, which earlier this week ran full-page ads on several Indian newspapers.

Through an in-app alert, WhatsApp had asked users earlier this month to agree to new terms of conditions that grants the app the consent to share with Facebook some personal data about them, such as their phone number and location. Users will have to agree to these terms by February 8 if they wish to continue using the app, the alert said. The change has been mischaracterized by many as their personal communication being compromised, which WhatsApp also clarified this week was not the case.

WhatsApp, which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014, has been sharing some limited information about its users with Facebook.

“With these updates, none of that is changing. Instead, the update includes new options people will have to message a business on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data. While not everyone shops with a business on WhatsApp today, we think that more people will choose to do so in the future and it’s important people are aware of these services. This update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook,” WhatsApp wrote today.

Following the backlash, tens of millions of confused and angered users flocked to Signal and Telegram. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this week, Signal co-founder and chairman executive Brian Acton said “the smallest of events helped trigger the largest of outcomes. We’re also excited that we are having conversations about online privacy and digital safety and people are turning to Signal as the answer to those questions.”

More to follow…

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says wisdom lies with your developers

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson knows a thing or two about unleashing developers. His company has garnered a market cap of almost $60 billion by creating a set of tools to make it easy for programmers to insert a whole host of communications functionality into an application with a couple of lines of code. Given that background, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lawson has written a book called “Ask Your Developer,” which hit the stores this week.

Lawson’s basic philosophy is that if you can build it, you should.

Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should. In every company, there is build versus buy calculus that goes into every software decision. Lawson believes deeply that there is incredible power in building yourself instead of purchasing something off the shelf. By using components like the ones from his company, and many others delivering specialized types functionality via API, you can build what your customers need instead of just buying what the vendors are giving you.

While Lawson recognizes this isn’t always possible, he says that by asking your developers, you can begin to learn when it makes sense to build and when it doesn’t. These discussions should stem from customer problems and companies should seek digital solutions with the input of the developer group.

Building great customer experiences

Lawson posits that you can build a better customer experience because you understand your customers so much more  acutely than a generic vendor ever could. “Basically, what you see happening across nearly every industry is that the companies that are able to listen to their customers and hear what the customers need and then build really great digital products and experiences — well, they tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” Lawson told me in an interview about the book this week.

Billboard for book Ask your Developer by Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio

Image Credits: Twilio (image has been cropped)

He says that this has caused a shift in how companies perceive IT departments. They have gone from cost centers that provision laptops and buy HR software to something more valuable, helping produce digital products that have a direct impact on the business’s bottom line.

He uses banking as an example in the book. It used to be you judged a bank by a set of criteria like how nice the lobby was, if the tellers were friendly and if they gave your kid a free lollipop. Today, that’s all changed and it’s all about the quality of the mobile app.

“Nowadays your bank is a mobile app and you like your bank if the software is fast, if it is bug free and if they regularly update it with new features and functionality that makes your life better [ … ]. And that same transformation has been happening in nearly every industry and so when you think about it, you can’t buy differentiation if every bank just bought the same mobile app from some vendor and just off the shelf deployed it,” he said.

Tracy Chou launches Block Party to combat online harassment and abuse

Block Party, an anti-harassment startup that aims to help folks feel safer on social media founded by Tracy Chou, launched today. Currently only available for Twitter, Block Party helps people filter out the content they don’t want to see and into what Block Party calls the Lockout Folder. That’s where all of the filtered-out content lives in the event you want to review it later.

“We think it’s important to still acknowledge that these people exist,” Chou told me.

If you pretend like it doesn’t exist, you might miss out on useful information or genuine connections.

“There’s a lot of good stuff that would get lost there,” she said. “There is a reason we use public platforms like Twitter.”

On the more negative side, she said, you still may need to check periodically to see if there’s someone threatening your physical safety.

Helpers play a big part of the Block Party experience. You can grant a trusted helper access to your Lockout Folder to let you know if there’s anything useful in there, or to simply block the trolls.

“It’s a lot easier for someone else to help you process it and flag something that is a concern,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to share that burden. The current design of most of these platforms is to put the burden of dealing with it solely on the person who’s being abused.”

The Lockout Folder also serves as a record-keeping tool in the event you need to present evidence of your harassment to a company, a lawyer or someone else.

Image Credits: Screenshot/Block Party

“It’s really about trying to make people’s lives easier,” Chou said. “It’s just so painful to have to see the abuse again when you’re filing the report.”

Block Party emerged from Chou’s own experiences working at platform companies like Facebook and Quora, as well as her experience as an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech. At Quora, the block button was one of the first things she built after being harassed on the platform, Chou told me.

“There’s that perspective of having been on the inside and seeing how product and engineering teams work,” Chou said. “But also being a DEI activist and seeing how lack of representation on teams has impacted product decisions for the worst.”

Although Block Party is only available for Twitter users, the goal is to add other platforms and help folks address harassers that target them across multiple platforms. Block Party is currently free but plans to introduce subscription tiers. Still, Chou said she envisions the free version always existing.

To date, Block Party has raised a little less than $1.5 million in funding. Its lead pre-seed round was led by Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures. Other investors include Alexia Bonatsos, Ellen Pao, Alex Stamos and others.

 

Fired GitHub employee who warned coworkers about Nazis is seeking legal counsel

On the day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, a worried GitHub employee warned his co-workers in the D.C. area to be safe.

After making a comment in Slack saying, “stay safe homies, Nazis are about,” a fellow employee took offense, saying that type of rhetoric wasn’t good for work, the former employee told me. Two days later, he was fired, with a human relations representative citing a “pattern of behavior that is not conducive to company policy” as the rationale for his termination, he told me.

In an interview with TechCrunch, the now-former employee said he was genuinely concerned about his co-workers in the area, in addition to his Jewish family members. 

TechCrunch agreed to keep the identity of the terminated employee confidential due to fears of his and his family’s safety.

As Business Insider first reported, his firing led to employees circulating an internal letter asking GitHub to denounce white supremacy and Nazis. The employees also wanted answers about his firing. That led to GitHub CEO Nat Friedman telling employees the company would investigate the termination of the employee.

Now, the terminated employee says he is currently seeking counsel to ensure his family is protected, as well as figure out if he can receive damages or some other form of reconciliation. The fired employee said GitHub has reached out to him for help in the internal investigation, but is waiting to engage with the company until he has legal representation in place.

Still, he said he is not optimistic about the investigation. 

“I am 90% sure it’s not genuine,” the terminated employee said of Friedman’s response. “This type of stuff had been said before. It happened with the ICE stuff where the company said let’s have discussions but then if you mention ICE, you get fired. I used to believe in this company, but now I don’t.”

Similar to what some employees are asking, the terminated employee sees this as an opportunity for GitHub to take a stance on white supremacy.

He said, “I feel like this could be an opportunity for GitHub to really do a purge and say ‘Do we want white supremacists at this company and how do we get Black leaders into executive management?’

The latter is something he said he’s been asking for since he joined GitHUb. But as he kept talking about the lack of diversity at the leadership level, he said he found his job at risk.

“When I kept talking about it, I got threatened being fired in October,” he said. “Both my managers had to come completely to my defense and beg them not to fire me when I pointed out how the sales team maybe has just two people of color.”

In a blanket statement to TechCrunch about the contents of this article, a GitHub spokesperson said:

We take all complaints of this nature very seriously. We are actively investigating the situation.

Upon his termination, the former employee said the company gave him two paychecks and sent him on his way. He said he would be open to some form of reconciliation, whether in the form of damages, healthcare coverage or something else. While he’s not looking for his job back, he says he would like to see more worker power at GitHub. 

“If I had a magic wand, I’d love for the employees at GitHub to be able to have a union and represent people from marginalized communities,” he said.

 

DOT evaluated 11 GPS replacements and found only one that worked across use cases

The United States’ GPS system, which is operated by the Defense Department, offers every one of us critical infrastructure around what is known as positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). Positioning and navigation is obvious every time we open up a maps app, but timing is also a critical function of GPS — offering our smartphones and devices precision timing to ensure that compute processes are accurately synced.

As more of the economy relies on these systems, they have increasingly become a target of hackers through GPS spoofing. The government wants to create additional redundancy and resiliency in the sector, and has explored using commercial alternatives to augment or backup parts of the GPS system.

The Department of Transportation, under a Congressional mandate added to the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2018, ran a comprehensive evaluation of commercial alternatives to government-owned and operated GPS that could serve as a backup to our existing infrastructure.

Among the 11 companies considered in the study were a number of prominent positioning startups, including Satelles, which raised a $26 million round of capital in 2019; NextNav, which has raised a total of nearly $300 million including $120 million from Fortress a year ago; and Hellen Systems, which according to Crunchbase raised a small seed round last year.

You can read the full report from the DOT, which runs to 457 pages long and covers all 14 measures the researchers explored in evaluating these different PNT platforms.

The summary though is that there are a number of companies that offer decent backup capabilities for GPS, although the performance and cost vary widely. NextNav came out furthest ahead according to the researchers, who stated that “All [Technology Readiness Level]-qualified vendors demonstrated at least some PNT performance of value, but only one vendor, NextNav, demonstrated in all applicable use case scenarios.”

Beyond that, the DOT researchers said that “… none of the systems can universally backup the positioning and navigation capabilities provided by GPS and its augmentations.” Given the range of needs that GPS fulfills, they recommended that “a diverse universe of positioning and navigation technologies” be used to add resiliency in this infrastructure.

Finally, costs remain quite complicated to determine. Given the way that different positioning systems operate, the fixed and variable costs for each system are highly dependent on desired coverage area and necessary transmitter density. The researchers weren’t able to devise a clear opinion on the cost effectiveness of different systems, although they do offer some initial data that can provide early insight.

Given the importance of GPS and the desire for companies and the government to have reliable alternatives, VCs have dumped money on the PNT sector in recent years. Now, we have some hard data on which vendors are potentially picking up steam in terms of functionality and utility.

Bumble files to go public

The dating and networking service Bumble has filed to go public.

The company, launched by a former co-founder of the IAC-owned Tinder, plans to list its share on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.” Bumble’s planned IPO was first reported in December.

Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd was on the founding team at Tinder before starting Bumble. She filed suit against Tinder for sexual harassment and discrimination, which was at least somewhat inspirational in her quest to build a dating app that put women in the driver’s seat.

In 2019, Wolfe Herd took the helm of MagicLab, renamed to Bumble Group, in a $3 billion deal with Blackstone, replacing Badoo founder and CEO Andrey Andreev following a harassment scandal at the firm.

The company is targeting the public markets at a particularly heady time for new offerings, with investors embracing venture-backed IPOs throughout late 2020 and the start of 2021. Previously privately held companies like Airbnb, Affirm, and others have seen their fortunes soar on the back of prices that public investors are willing to pay, perhaps inducing more IPO filings than the market might have otherwise seen.

You can read its IPO filing here. TechCrunch will have its usual tear-down of the document later today, but we have pulled some top-line numbers for you to kick off your own research.

But before we do, the company’s board makeup, namely that it is over 70% women is already drawing plaudits. Now, into its numbers.

Inside Bumble’s IPO filing

Let’s consider Bumble from three perspectives: Usage, financial results, and ownership.

On the usage front, Bumble is popular, as you would imagine a dating would have to be to reach the scale required to go public. The company claims 42 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of Q3 2020 — many companies will try to get public on the strength of their third-quarter results from 2020, as it takes time to close Q4 and the full calendar year.

Those 42 million MAUs translated into 2.4 million total paying users through the first nine months of 2020; the percent, then, of paying users to MAUs is not 2.4 million divided by 42, but a smaller fraction.

Turning to the numbers, recall that Bumble sold a majority of itself a few years back. We bring that up as Bumble’s financial results are complicated thanks to its ownership structure.

After the IPO, Bumble Inc. will “be a holding company, and its sole material asset will be a controlling equity interest in Bumble Holdings,” per the S-1 filing. So, how is Bumble Holdings doing?

Medium? Doing the sums ourselves as the company’s S- 1 is fraught with accounting nuances, in the first nine months of 2019, Bumble managed the following:

  • Revenues of $362.6 million
  • Net income of $68.6 million

And then, combining two columns to provide a similar set of results for the same period of 2020, Bumble recorded:

  • Revenues of $416.6 million
  • Net income of -$116.7 million

For those following along, we’re using the “Net (loss) earnings” line, for profitability, and not the “Net (loss) earnings attributable to owners / shareholders” as that would require even more explanation and we’re keeping it simple in this first look.

While Bumble saw modest growth in 2020 through Q3 and a sharp swing to losses on a GAAP basis, the company’s adjusted profitability grew over the same time period. The company’s adjusted EBITDA, a very non-GAAP metric, expanded from $80.0 million in the first three quarters of 2019 to $108.3 million in the same period of 2020.

While we are generally willing to allow quickly-growing companies some leniency when it comes to adjusted metrics, the gap between Bumble’s GAAP losses and its EBITDA results is a stress-test of our compassion. Bumble also swung from free cash flow positivity during the first nine months of 2019 to the first quarters of 2020.

If you extrapolate Bumble’s Q1, Q2, and Q3 revenue to a full-year number, the company could manage $555.5 million in 2020 revenues. Even at a modest software-ish multiple, the company would be worth more than the $3 billion figure that we discussed before.

However, its sharp unprofitability in 2020 could damper its eventual valuation. More as we dig more deeply into the filing.

Finally, on the ownership question the company’s filing is surprisingly denuded of data. Its principal shareholder section looks like this:

When we know more, we’ll share more. Until then, happy S-1 reading.