UK’s MarketFinance secures $383M to fuel its online loans platform for SMBs

Small and medium businesses regularly face cashflow problems. But if that’s an already-inconvenient predicament, it has been exacerbated to the breaking point for too many during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, a UK startup called MarketFinance — which has built a loans platform to help SMBs stay afloat through those leaner times — is announcing a big funding infusion of £280 million ($383 million) as it gears up for a new wave of lending requests.

“It’s a good time to lend, at the start of the economic cycle,” CEO and founder Anil Stocker said in an interview.

The funding is coming mostly in the form of debt — money loaned to MarketFinance to in turn loan out to its customers as an approved partner of the UK government’s Recovery Loan Scheme; and £10 million ($14 million) of it is equity that MarketInvoice will be using to continue enhancing its platform.

Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo S.p.A. and an unnamed “global investment firm” are providing the debt, while the equity portion is being led by Black River Ventures (which has also backed Marqeta, Upgrade, Coursera and Digital Ocean) with participation from existing backer, Barclays Bank PLC. Barclays is a strategic investor: MarketFinance powers the bank’s online SMB loans service. Other investors in the startup include Northzone.

We understand that the company’s valuation is somewhere in the region of under $500 million, but more than $250 million, although officially it is not disclosing any numbers.

Stocker said that MarketFinance has been profitable since 2018, one reason why it’s didn’t give up much equity in this current tranche of funding.

“We are building a sustainable business, and the equity we did raise was to unlock better debt at better prices,” he said. “It can help to post more equity on the balance sheet.” He said the money will be “going into our reserves” and used for new product development, marketing and to continue building out its API connectivity.

That last development is important: it taps into the big wave of “embedded finance” plays we are seeing today, where third parties offer, on their own platforms, loans to customers — with the loan product powered by MarketFinance, similar to what Barclays does currently. The range of companies tapping into this is potentially as vast as the internet itself. The promise of embedded finance is that any online brand that already does business with SMEs could potentially offer those SMEs loans to… do more business together.

MarketFinance began life several years ago as MarketInvoice, with its basic business model focused on providing short-term loans to a given SMB against the value of its unpaid invoices — a practice typically described as invoice finance. The idea at the time was to solve the most immediate cashflow issue faced by SMBs by leveraging the thing (unpaid invoices, which typically would eventually get paid, just not immediately) that caused the cashflow issue in the first place.

A lot of the financing that SMBs get against invoices, though, is mainly in the realm of working capital, helping companies make payroll and pay their own monthly bills. But Stocker said that over time, the startup could see a larger opportunity in providing financing that was of bigger sums and covered more ambitious business expansion goals. That was two years ago, and MarketInvoice rebranded accordingly to MarketFinance. (It still very much offers the invoice-based product.)

The timing turned out to be fortuitous, even if the reason definitely has not been lucky: Covid-19 came along and completely overturned how much of the world works. SMEs have been at the thin edge of that wedge not least because of those cashflow issues and the fact that they simply are less geared to diversification and pivoting due to shifting market forces because of their size.

This presented a big opportunity for MarketInvoice, it turned out.

Stocker said that the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic saw the bulk of loans being taken out to manage business interruptions due to Covid-19. Interruptions could mean business closures, or they could mean simply customers no longer coming as they did before, and so on. “The big theme was frictionless access to funding,” he said, using technology to better and more quickly assess applications digitally with “no meetings with bank managers” and reducing the response time to days from the typical 4-6 weeks that SMBs would have traditionally expected.

If last year was more about “panicking, shoring up or pivoting,” in Stocker’s words, “now what we’re seeing are a bunch of them struggling with supply chain issues, Brexit exacerbations and labor shortages. It’s really hard for them to manage all that.”

He said that the number of loan applications has been through the roof, so no shortage of demand. He estimates that monthly loan requests have been as high as $500 million, a huge sum for one small startup in the UK. It’s selective in what it lends: “We choose to support those we thought will return the money,” he said.

TrueLayer nabs $130M at a $1B+ valuation as open banking rises as a viable option to card networks

Open banking — a disruptive technology that seeks to bypass the dominance of card networks and other traditional financial rails by letting banks open their systems directly to developers (and new services) by way of APIs — continues to gain ground in the world of financial services. As a mark of that traction, a startup playing a central role in open banking applications is announcing a big round of funding with a milestone valuation.

TrueLayer, which provides technology for developers to enable a range of open-banking-based services — these currently include payments  payouts, user account information and user verification — has raised $130 million in a funding round that values the London-based startup at over $1 billion.

Tiger Global Management is leading the round, and notably, payments juggernaut Stripe is also participating.

Open Banking is a relatively new area in the world of fintech — the UK was an early adopter in 2018, Europe then signed on, and it looks like we are now seeing more movements that the U.S. may soon also join the party — and TrueLayer is considered a pioneer in the space.

The vast majority of transactions today are still made using card rails or more antiquated banking infrastructure, but the opportunity with open banking is to build a completely new infrastructure that works more efficiently, and might come with less (or no) fees for those using it, with the perennial API promise: all by way of few lines of code.

“We had a vision that finance should be opened up, and we are actively woking to remove the frictions that exist between intermediaries,” said CEO Francesco Simoneschi, who co-founded the company with Luca Martinetti (who is now the CTO), in an interview. “We want a financial system that works for everyone, but that hasn’t been the case up to now. The opportunity emerged five years ago, when open banking came into law in the UK and then elsewhere, to go after the most impressive oligopoly: the card networks and everything that revolves around them. Now, we can easily say that open banking is becoming a viable alternative to that.”

It seems that the world of finance and commerce is slowly catching on, and so the funding is coming on the heels of some strong growth for the company.

The startup says it now has “millions” of consumers making open banking transactions enabled by TrueLayer’s technology, and some 10,000 developers are building services based on open banking standards. TrueLayer so far this year has doubled its customer base, picking up some key customers like Cazoo to enable open-banking based payments for cars; and it has processed “billions” of dollars in payments, with payment volume growing 400%, and payment up 800%.

The plan is to use the funding to invest in building out that business further — specifically to extend its payments network to more regions (and more banks getting integrated into that network), as well as to bring on more customers using open banking services for more regular, recurring transactions.

“The shift to alternative payment methods is accelerating with the global growth of online commerce, and we believe TrueLayer will play a central role in making these payment methods more accessible,” said Alex Cook, partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “We’re excited to partner with Francesco, Luca and the TrueLayer team as they help customers increase conversion and continue to grow the network.”

Notably, Stripe is not a strategic investor in TrueLayer at the moment, just a financial one. That is to say, it has yet to integrate open banking into its own payments infrastructure.

But you can imagine how it would be interested in it as part of the bigger mix of options for its customers, and potentially also to build its own standalone financial rails that well and truly compete with those provided by the card networks (which are such a close part of what Stripe does that its earliest web design was based on the physical card, and even its name is a reference to the stripe on the back of them.

There are other providers of open banking connectivity in the market today — Plaid out of the U.S. is one notable name — but Simoneschi believes that Stripe and TrueLayer on the same page as companies.

“We share a profound belief that progress comes through the eyes of developers so it’s about delivering the tools they need to use,” he he said. “We are in a very complementary space.”

Tyk raises $35M for its open-source, open-ended approach to enterprise API management

APIs are the grease turning the gears and wheels for many organizations’ IT systems today, but as APIs grow in number and use, tracking how they work (or don’t work) together can become complex and potentially critical if something goes awry. Now, a startup that has built an innovative way to help with this is announcing some funding after getting traction with big enterprises adopting its approach.

Tyk, which has built a way for users to access and manage multiple internal enterprise APIs through a universal interface by way of GraphQL, has picked up $35 million, an investment that it will be using both for hiring and to continue enhancing and expanding the tools that it provides to users. Tyk has coined a term describing its approach to managing APIs and the data they produce — “universal data graph” — and today its tools are being used to manage APIs by some 10,000 businesses, including large enterprises like Starbucks, Societe Generale, and Domino’s.

Scottish Equity Partners led the round, with participation also from MMC Ventures — its sole previous investor from a round in 2019 after boostrapping for its first five years. The startup is based out of London but works in a very distributed way — one of the co-founders is living in New Zealand currently — and it will be hiring and growing based on that principle, too. It has raised just over $40 million to date.

Tyk (pronounced like “tyke”, meaning small/lively child) got its start as an open source side project first for co-founder Martin Buhr, who is now the company’s CEO, while he was working elsewhere, as a “load testing thing,” in his words.

The shifts in IT towards service-oriented architectures, and building and using APIs to connect internal apps, led him to rethink the code and consider how it could be used to control APIs. Added to that was the fact that as far as Buhr could see, the API management platforms that were in the market at the time — some of the big names today include Kong, Apigee (now a part of Google), 3scale (now a part of RedHat and thus IBM), MuleSoft (now a part of Salesforce) — were not as flexible as his needs were. “So I built my own,” he said.

It was built as an open source tool, and some engineers at other companies started to use it. As it got more attention, some of the bigger companies interested in using it started to ask why he wasn’t charging for anything — a sure sign as any that there was probably a business to be built here, and more credibility to come if he charged for the it.

“So we made the gateway open source, and the management part went into a licensing model,” he said. And Tyk was born as a startup co-founded with James Hirst, who is now the COO, who worked with Buhr at a digital agency some years before.

The key motivation behind building Tyk has stayed as its unique selling point for customers working in increasingly complex environments.

“What sparked interest in Tyk was that companies were unhappy with API management as it exists today,” Buhr noted, citing architectures using multiple clouds and multiple containers, creating more complexity that needed better management. “It was just the right time when containerization, Kubernetes and microservices were on the rise… The way we approach the multi-data and multi-vendor cloud model is super flexible and resilient to partitions, in a way that others have not been able to do.”

“You engage developers and deliver real value and it’s up to them to make the choice,” added Hirst. “We are responding to a clear shift in the market.”

One of the next frontiers that Tyk will tackle will be what happens within the management layer, specifically when there are potential conflicts with APIs.

“When a team using a microservice makes a breaking change, we want to bring that up and report that to the system,” Buhr said. “The plan is to flag the issue and test against it, and be able to say that a schema won’t work, and to identify why.”

Even before that is rolled out, though, Tyk’s customer list and its grow speak to a business on the cusp of a lot more.

“Martin and James have built a world-class team and the addition of this new capital will enable Tyk to accelerate the growth of its API management platform, particularly around the GraphQL focused Universal Data Graph product that launched earlier this year,” said Martin Brennan, a director at SEP, in a statement. “We are pleased to be supporting the team to achieve their global ambitions.”

Keith Davidson, a partner at SEP, is joining the Tyk board as a non-executive director with this round.

Trade promotion management startup Cresicor raises $5.6M to keep tabs on customer spend

Cresicor, a consumer packaged goods trade management platform startup, raised $5.6 million in seed funding to further develop its tools for more accurate data and analytics.

The company, based remotely, focuses on small to midsize CPG companies, providing them with an automated way to manage their trade promotion, a process co-founder and CEO Alexander Whatley said is done primarily manually using spreadsheets.

Here’s what happens in a trade promotion: When a company wants to run a discount on one of their slower-selling items, the company has to spend money to do this — to have displays set up in a store or have that item on a certain shelf. If it works, more people will buy the item at the lower price point. Essentially, a trade promotion is the process of spending money to get more money in the future, Whatley told TechCrunch.

Figuring out all of the trade promotions is a complicated process, Whatley explained. Companies receive data feeds on the promotions from several different places, revenue data from retailers, accounting source data to show how many units were shipped and then maybe data directly from retailers. All of that has to be matched against the promotion.

“No API is bringing this data back to brands, so our software helps to automate and track these manual processes so companies can do analytics to see how the promotions are doing,” he added. “It also helps the finance team understand expenses, including which are valid and those that are not.”

What certain companies spend on trade promotions can represent their second-largest cost behind manufacturing, and companies often end up reinvesting between 20% and 30% of their revenue into trade promotions, Whatley said. This is a big market, representing untapped growth, especially with U.S. CPG sales topping $720 billion in 2020.

“You can see how messy the whole industry is, which is why we have a bright future and huge TAM,” he added. “With this new funding, we can target other parts of the P&L like supply chain and salaries. We also provide analytics for their strategy and where they should be spending it — which store, on which supply. By allocating resources the right way, companies typically see a 10% boost in sales as a result.”

Whatley started the company in 2017 with his brother, Daniel, Stuart Kennedy and Nikki McNeil while a Harvard undergrad. Since raising the funding back in February, the company has grown 2.5x in revenue, while employee headcount grew 4x over the past 12 months to 20.

Costanoa Ventures led the investment and was joined by Torch Capital and a group of angel investors including Fivestars CTO Matt Doka and Hu’s Kitchen CEO Mark Ramadan.

John Cowgill, partner at Costanoa, said though Cresicor raised a seed round, the company was already acquiring brands and capital before releasing a product and grew to almost a Series A company without any outside capital, saying it “blew me away.”

Cresicor is the “perfect example” of a company that Costanoa would get excited about — a vertical software company using data or machine learning to augment a pain point, Cowgill added.

“The CPG industry is in the middle of a rapid change where we see all of these emerging, digital native and mission-driven brands rapidly eating share from incumbents,” he added. “For the next generation of brands to compete, they have to win in trade promotion management. Cresicor’s opportunity to go beyond trade is significant. It is just a starting point to build a company that is the core enabler of great brands.”

The new funding will be used mainly to hire more talent in the areas of engineering and customer success so the company can hit its next benchmarks, Alexander Whatley said. He also intends to use the funding to acquire new brands and on software development. Cresicor boasts a list of customers including Perfect Snacks, Oatly and Hint Water.

The retail industry is valued at $5.5 trillion, and one-fifth of it is CPG, Whatley said. As a result, he has his eye on going after other verticals within CPG, like electronics and pet food, and then expanding into other areas.

“We are also going to work with enterprise companies — we see an opportunity to work with companies like P&G and General Mills, and we also want to build an ecosystem around trade promotion and launch into other profit and loss areas,” Whatley said.

Commercetools raises $140M at a $1.9B valuation as ‘headless’ commerce continues to boom

E-commerce these days is now a major part of every retailer’s strategy, so technology builders and platforms that are helping them compete better on digital screens are seeing a huge boost in business. In the latest turn, Commercetools — a provider of e-commerce APIs that larger retailers can use to build customized payment, check-out, social commerce, marketplace and other services — has closed $140 million in funding, a Series C that CEO Dirk Hoerig has confirmed to me values the company at $1.9 billion. 

The funding is being led by Accel, with previous investors Insight Partners and REWE Group also participating. Munich, Germany-based Commercetools spun out of REWE — a giant German retailer, and also a customer — and announced $145 million in investment led by Insight in October 2019.

This latest round represents a huge hike on its valuation since then, when Commercetools was valued at around $300 million.

Part of the reason for the big bump, of course, has been the wave of interest in digital transactions from shopping online. E-commerce was already growing at a steady pace before 2020, by some estimates representing more than half of all commerce transactions. The Covid-19 pandemic turbo-charged that proportion, with many retailers switching exclusively to internet sales, and consumers stuck at home happy to shop with a click.

While companies like Shopify have addressed the needs of smaller retailers, providing them with an alternative or complement to listing on third-party marketplaces like Amazon’s, Commercetools has built its business around catering to larger retailers and the many specific, large-scale needs and investment budgets that they may have for building their digital commerce solutions.

It provides some 300 APIs today around some nine “buckets” of services, and a wide network of integration partners, Hoerig said, and powers some $10 billion of sales annually for its customers, which include the likes of Audi, AT&T, Danone, Tiffany & Co., John Lewis and many others.

“Our main focus is the retailer with more than $100 million in gross merchandise value,” Hoerig said. “This is when it becomes interesting.” But he added that the force of market growth is such that Commercetools is also seeing a lot of business from smaller companies that are simply needing more functionality to address their fast growth. “So we also sometimes have customers that start at $5 million in GMV and quickly go to $50 million. With that scale, they also have specific requirements, so the lines get a bit blurry.” (And that also explains why investors are so interested: there is a lot of evidence of the market growing and growing; and by capturing smaller retailers on big trajectories, that represents a lot more scale for Commercetools.)

Hoerig is sometimes credited with being the person who first coined the term “headless commerce”, which basically means APIs that can be used by a company, or its team of strategists, developers and designers, to build their own customized check-out and other purchasing experiences, rather than fitting these into templates provided by the tech company powering the checkout.

But as the API economy has continued to grow, and the world of non-tech companies that use tech continues to mature, that has taking on a mass-market appeal, and so Commercetools is far from being the only one in this area. In addition to Shopify (which has its own version targeting larger businesses, Shopify Plus), others include SprykerSwellFabricChord and Shogun.

Commercetools will be using the funding both to continue organically expanding its business, but also to make some acquisitions to bolt on new customers, and new technology, tapping into some of the scaling and consolidation that is taking place across e-commerce as a whole. What will be interesting to see is where consolidation will happen, and which startups will be raising money to scale on their own: right now there is a lot of enthusiasm around the space because it is so buoyant, and that will spell more money being funneled to more startups.

Case in point: when I first got wind of this funding round, Commercetools told me it was in the middle of a deal to acquire a company. In the end, that company decided to stay independent and take some more investment to try to grow on its own. Hoerig said it’s now pursuing another target.

Indeed, that is also the bigger force that has brought Commercetools to where it is today.

“The chance to invest in a fast-growing, innovative commerce platform was one we could not pass up,” said Ping Li, the partner at Accel who led on this deal, said in a statement. “Commercetools provides e-commerce enterprises the technology necessary to capture revenue in the rapidly growing global e-commerce market.”

Twitter introduces a new label that allows the ‘good bots’ to identify themselves

Twitter today is introducing a new feature that will allow accounts to self-identify as bots by adding a label to their profile. This feature is designed to help people better differentiate between automated accounts — like bots that retweet the news, public service announcements, or other updates — from those operated by humans. It’s not, however, designed to help users identify the “bad bots” which are those that pose as people, often to spread misinformation or spam.

The company has been contemplating labeling bots for years.

In 2018, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing whether he believed users had a “right to know” if they were speaking to a bot or a human on Twitter’s platform. He agreed that Twitter should add more context to tweets and was considering identifying bots, to the extent that it could. However, Dorsey also pointed out it would be more difficult to identify bots that were using scripting to give the appearance of being a human, compared with those that were leveraging Twitter’s API.

Last year, the company finally solidified those plans, saying it would later introduce new features that would allow users to be able to distinguish between human-run accounts and those that were automated. When Twitter launched its account verification system in May, it reminded users that it would soon offer other ways to identify different types of accounts beyond the long-coveted blue badge — such as labels for bots.

Image Credits: Twitter

Today, Twitter says its new “Automated Account” label that identifies “good bots” will be made available to over 500 Developer Accounts. This group will test the feature and provide feedback before it’s opened up more broadly to all Twitter developers. As it’s still a test for the time being, the label won’t be required.

However, when Twitter updated its Developer Policy last year, it did ask developers to indicate in their account profile or bio whether the account was a bot, what the account is, and who’s behind it. These account labels would allow developers an easier way to comply with that policy rather than having to handwrite this information in their bio.

Twitter tells TechCrunch that based on what it learns during this experiment, it may decide to make adopting the label a requirement for all developers who run automated accounts in the future, once it becomes broadly available.

Image Credits: Twitter

To be clear, Twitter doesn’t have any problem with those who run good bots, as it understands how automation can allow accounts to update people with helpful, relevant, or, sometimes, just fun information. The company even celebrated a few of its favorite bots when announcing today’s developer news, including the public service account @earthquakesSF; a bot offering COVID-19 updates, @vax_progress; a bot that offers an ongoing breakdown of the last 100 bills introduced in Congress, @last100bills; an accessibility-focused bot, @AltTxtReminder; and others that just add value in their own way, like @met_drawings, which shares public domain works from The Met’s Drawings & Prints department, or the goofy @EmojiMashupBot, among others.

All these will be a part of the initial test group.

Twitter is also less concerned with how consumers may use automation to update their own accounts, perhaps by using third-party tools like IFTTT to post links or other content.

“You are ultimately responsible for the actions taken with your account, or by applications associated with your account,” Twitter’s policy advises Twitter users. “Before authorizing a third-party application to access or use your account, make sure you’ve thoroughly investigated the application and understand what it will do.” It also adds that Twitter users that adopt automation will still need to adhere to Twitter’s guidelines.

The company has been on a tear lately in terms of rolling out new features. Just this week, it has launched Communities, tests of emoji reactions, support for full-width photos and videos, and a way to “soft block” followers, among other things.

Twitter has not said how long the test would run before the Automated Account labels are rolled out more broadly.

A popular smart home security system can be remotely disarmed, researchers say

A cybersecurity company says a popular smart home security system has a pair of vulnerabilities that can be exploited to disarm the system altogether.

Rapid7 found the vulnerabilities in the Fortress S03, a home security system that relies on Wi-Fi to connect cameras, motion sensors, and sirens to the internet, allowing owners to remotely monitor their home anywhere with a mobile app. The security system also uses a radio-controlled key fob to let homeowners arm or disarm their house from outside their front door.

But the cybersecurity company said the vulnerabilities include an unauthenticated API and an unencrypted radio signal that can be easily intercepted.

Rapid7 revealed details of the two vulnerabilities on Tuesday after not hearing from Fortress in three months, the standard window of time that security researchers give to companies to fix bugs before details are made public. Rapid7 said its only acknowledgment of its email was when Fortress closed its support ticket a week later without commenting.

Fortress owner Michael Hofeditz opened but did not respond to several emails sent by TechCrunch with an email open tracker. An email from Bottone Riling, a Massachusetts law firm representing Fortress, called the claims “false, purposely misleading and defamatory,” but did not provide specifics that it claims are false, or if Fortress has mitigated the vulnerabilities.

Rapid7 said that Fortress’ unauthenticated API can be remotely queried over the internet without the server checking if the request is legitimate. The researchers said by knowing a homeowner’s email address, the server would return the device’s unique IMEI, which in turn could be used to remotely disarm the system.

The other flaw takes advantage of the unencrypted radio signals sent between the security system and the homeowner’s key fob. That allowed Rapid7 to capture and replay the signals for “arm” and “disarm” because the radio waves weren’t scrambled properly.

Vishwakarma said homeowners could add a plus-tagged email address with a long, unique string of letters and numbers in place of a password as a stand-in for a password. But there was little for homeowners to do for the radio signal bug until Fortress addresses it.

Fortress has not said if it has fixed or plans to fix the vulnerabilities. It’s not clear if Fortress is able to fix the vulnerabilities without replacing the hardware. It’s not known if Fortress builds the device itself or buys the hardware from another manufacturer.

Read more:

TikTok’s new Creator Marketplace API lets influencer marketing companies tap into first-party data

TikTok is making it easier for brands and agencies to work with the influencers using its service. The company is rolling out a new “TikTok Creator Marketplace API,” which allows marketing companies to integrate more directly with TikTok’s Creator Marketplace, the video app’s in-house influencer marketing platform.

On the Creator Marketplace website, launched in late 2019, marketers have been able to discover top TikTok personalities for their brand campaigns, then create and manage those campaigns and track their performance.

The new API, meanwhile, allows partnered marketing companies to access TikTok’s first-party data about audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos, and real-time campaign reporting (e.g. views, likes, shares, comments, engagement, etc.) for the first time.

They can then bring this data back into their own platforms, to augment the insights they’re already providing to their own customer base.

TikTok is not officially announcing the API until later in September, but it is allowing its alpha partners to discuss their early work.

One such partner is Capitv8, which tested the API with a NRF top 50 retailer on one of their first TikTok campaigns. The retailer wanted to discover a diverse and inclusive group of TikTok creators to partner with on a new collaboration and wanted help with launching its own TikTok channel. Captiv8 says the branded content received nearly 10 million views, and the campaign resulted in a “significant increase” in several key metrics, which performed about the Nielsen average. This included familiarity (+4% above average), affinity (+6%), purchase intent (+7%) and recommendation intent (+9%).

Image Credits: TikTok Creator Marketplace website

Capitv8 is now working with TikTok’s API to pull in audience demographics, to centralize influencer offers and activations, and to provide tools to boost branded content and monitor campaign performance. On that last front, the API allows the company to pull in real-time metrics from the TikTok Creator Marketplace API — which means Capitv8 is now one of only a handful of third-party companies with access to TikTok first-party data.

Another early alpha partner is Influential, who shared it’s also leveraging the API to access first-party insights on audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos, and more, to help its customer base of Fortune 1000 brands to identify the right creators for both native and paid advertising campaigns.

One partner it worked with was DoorDash, who launched multiple campaigns on TikTok with Influential’s help. It’s also planning to work with McDonald’s USA on several new campaigns that will run this year, including those focused on the chain’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the return of Spicy McNuggets.

Other early alpha partners include Whalar and INCA. The latter is currently only available in the U.K. and its integration stems from the larger TikTok global partnership with WPP, announced in February. That deal provided WPP agencies with early access to new advertising products marketing API integrations, and new AR offerings, among other things.

Creator marketplaces are now common to social media platforms with large influencer communities as this has become a standard way to advertise to online consumers, particular the younger generation. Facebook today offers its Brands Collabs Manager, for both Facebook and Instagram; YouTube has BrandConnect; while Snapchat recently announced a marketplace to connect brands with Lens creators. These type of in-house platforms make it easier for marketers to work with the wider influencer community by offering trusted data on metrics that matter to brands’ own ROI, rather than relying on self-reported data from influencers or on data they have to manually collect themselves. And as campaigns run, marketers can compare how well their partnered creators are able to drive results to inform their future collaborations.

TikTok isn’t making a formal announcement about its new API at this time, telling TechCrunch the technology is still in pilot testing phases for the time being.

“Creators are the lifeblood of our platform, and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to make it easy for them to connect and collaborate with brands. We’re thrilled to be integrating with an elite group of trusted partners to help brands discover and work with diverse creators who can share their message in an authentic way,” said Melissa Yang, TikTok’s Head of Ecosystem Partnerships, in a statement provided to select marketing company partners.

 

Clubhouse is adding spatial audio effects to make users feel like they’re really in the room

It’s been a busy summer for Clubhouse. The hit social audio app rolled out new messaging features and an Android app over the last few months and now the company is turning its attention to enhancing its core audio experience. Clubhouse announced Sunday that its rooms will now be infused with spatial audio to give the app’s listeners a richer sense of hanging out live with a group of other people.

TechCrunch spoke with Clubhouse’s Justin Uberti about the decision to add spatial audio, which has the effect of making different speakers sound like they’re coming from different physical locations instead of just one spot.

Uberti joined Clubhouse in May as its head of streaming technology after more than a decade at Google where he created Google Duo, led the Hangouts team and most recently worked on Google’s cloud gaming platform Stadia. Uberti also created the WebRTC standard that Clubhouse was built on top of.

“One of the things you realize in these group audio settings is that you don’t get quite the same experience as being in a physical space,” Uberti said.

While Clubhouse and other voice chat apps bring people together in virtual social settings, the audio generally sounds relatively flat, like it’s emanating from a single central location. But at the in-person gatherings Clubhouse is meant to simulate, you’d be hearing audio from all around the room, from the left and right of a stage to the various locations in the audience where speakers might ask their questions.

To pull off the new audio tricks, Clubhouse is integrating an API from Second Life creator Philip Rosedale’s spatial audio company High Fidelity and blending it with the company’s own custom audio processing, tuned for the chat app.

High Fidelity’s HRTF technology, which stands for “Head Related Transfer Function,” maps speech to different virtual locations by subtly adding a time delay between stereo channels and replicating the way that high and low frequencies would sound entering the ear depending on a sound’s origin.

The result, long used in social VR, gives virtual social experiences a sense of physical presence that good records have been pulling off for ages. Think listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in stereo with good headphones but instead of sound effects and instruments playing around your head, you’re hearing the people you’re hanging out with arrayed in virtual space.

 

According to Uberti, Clubhouse’s implementation will be subtle, but noticeable. While the audio processing will “gently steer conversation” to put most speakers in front of the listener, Clubhouse users should have a new sense that people are speaking from different physical locations.

The new audio features will roll out Sunday to the majority of iOS users, reaching the rest of Clubhouse’s iOS and Android users within the next few weeks. The experience will be available to everyone in time, but users will also have the ability to toggle spatial audio off.

Clubhouse will use the same virtual soundstage techniques to give large rooms a sense of sounding large while making more intimate rooms sound like they’re actually happening in a smaller physical space. And because most people use headphones to participate on Clubhouse, most of the app’s users can benefit from the effects possible through two-channel stereo sound.

“You have this notion of people [being] in a space, in a room… We try to mimic the feel of how it would be in a circle with people standing around talking.”

Uberti also notes that spatial audio could give regular Clubhouse users a less obvious benefit. It’s possible that regular, non-spatialized audio in social apps contributes to the pandemic-era phenomenon of Zoom fatigue. As the human brain processes virtual audio like a phone call or group audio room, it differentiates between speakers in a different way than it would in a natural in-person setting.

“Your mind has to figure out who’s talking. Without spatial cues you have to use timbre… that requires more cognitive effort,” Uberti said. “This could actually make for a more enjoyable experience aside from more immersion.”

It’s too early to know how Clubhouse’s many subcommunities will take to the spatial audio effects, but it could enhance experiences like comedy, music and even ASMR on the app quite a bit.

“Someone tells a joke and it often feels really flat,” Uberti said. “But on Clubhouse, when you feel the laughter come from all around you, it feels a lot like a comedy club experience.”

Stipop offers developers and creators instant access to a huge global sticker library

With more than 270,000 stickers, Stipop’s library of colorful, character-driven expressions has a little something for everyone.

The company offers keyboard and social app stickers through ad-supported mobile apps on iOS and Android, but it’s recently focused more on providing stickers to developers, creators and other online businesses.

“We were able to gather so many artists because we actually began as our own app that provided stickers,” Stipop co-founder Tony Park told TechCrunch. The team took what they learned from running their own consumer-facing app — namely that collecting and licensing hundreds of thousands of stickers from artists around the world is hard work — and adapted their business to help solve that problem for others.

Stipop was the first Korean company to go through Yellow, Snapchat’s exclusive accelerator. The company is also part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.

Stipop’s sticker library is accessible through an SDK and an API, letting developers slot the searchable sticker library into their existing software. The company already has more than 200 companies that tap into its huge sticker trove, which offers a “single-day solution” for a process that would otherwise necessitate a lot more legwork. Stipop launched a website recently that helps developers integrate its SDK and API through quick installs.

“They can just add a single line of code inside their product and will have a fully customized sticker feature [so] users will be able to spice up their chats,” Park said.

Park points out that stickers encourage engagement — and for social software, engagement means growth. Stickers are a playful way to send characters back and forth in chat, but they also pop up in a number of other less obvious spots, from dating apps to e-commerce and ridesharing apps. Stipop even drives the sticker search in work collaboration software Microsoft Teams.

The company has already partnered with Google, which uses Stipop’s sticker library in Gboard, Android Messages and Tenor, a GIF keyboard platform that Google bought in 2018. That partnership drove 600 million sticker views within the first month. A new partnership between Stipop and Coca-Cola on the near horizon will add Coke-branded stickers to its sticker library and the company is opening its doors to more brands that understand the unique appeal of stickers in messaging apps.

Park says that people tend to compare stickers and gifs, two ways of wordlessly expressing emotion and social nuance, but stickers are a world unto themselves. Stickers exist in their own creative universe, with star artists, regional themes and original casts of characters that take on a life of their own among fans. “Sticker creators have their own profession,” Park said.

Visual artists can also find a lot of traction releasing stickers, even without sophisticated illustrations. And since they’re all about meaning rather than refinement, non-designers and less skilled artists can craft hit stickers too.

“Stickers are great for them because it [is] so easy to go viral,” Park said. The company has partnered with 8,000 sticker creators across 25 languages, helping those artists monetize their creations and generate income based on how many times a sticker is shared.

Stickers command their own visual language around the world, and Park has observed interesting cultural differences in how people use them to communicate. In the West, stickers are often used in place of text, but in Asia, where they’re used much more frequently, people usually send stickers to enhance rather than replace the meaning of text.

In East Asia, users tend to prefer simple black and white stickers, but in India and Saudi Arabia, bright, golden stickers top the trends. In South America, popular stickers take on a more pixelated, unique quality that resonates culturally there.

“With stickers, you fall in love with [the] characters you send… that becomes you,” Park said.