Joue targets novice musicians with its latest crowdfunded instrument

I wrote about Joue back in January, right before the company participated in (and won) our CES pitch-off. The company was one of a handful of crowdfunded musical instrument startups at the show that were really worth getting excited about.

This week, the French startup is launch the campaign for Play, a more user-friendly version of the company’s self-titled modular MIDI controller. As I noted in the earlier piece, the system operates similarly to Sensel’s Morph system, with silicone pads that slip on top of a touch interface to mimic a variety of different instruments, including a drum pad, piano, guitar and an electronic musical interface.

The new version of the instrument aims to lower the bar with a connected mobile app that works as follows:

  • The instruments are gathered in a circle in the middle
  • The timeline shows successive musical events simply and clearly
  • The mixer lets you adjust the volume of each instrument
  • Recording is accessible directly from the Pads, for maximum reactivity 

In addition to the companion iOS/Mac/Windows app, the Play is also more than $100 cheaper than its predecessor (at least it is currently on Joue’s Kickstarter page). That price includes the board and five different silicone pads. It’s a clever product and one designed for a broader audience than the original — which went over fairly well in its own right. 

Unfortunately, the device won’t be available while we’re all still cooped up inside. It’s currently projected to launch in October.

Google ditched tipping feature for donating money to sites

Leaked images obtained by TechCrunch reveal that Google considered and designed a feature that would let people donate money to websites to help support news publishers, bloggers, and musicians. But Google scrapped the idea and chose not to build out the product, despite these kinds of businesses and creators often struggling to earn revenue.

Google’s design for tipping money to The New York Times

Last year, Google explored tipping as a new wing of Google Contributor, a service that lets people pay around 1 cent per page view to remove ads from partnered websites. Screenshots of the tipping feature showed the ability to make one-time donations of $0.20 to $5 to help support sites. “Want to see more content like this on our site? Support with a contribution” one version explained. It’s unclear if Google would have taken the same 10% cut of tips as it does from Contributor ad removal fees. Google mocked up designs for tipping on the sites of the New York Times, Wired, “Tech Crunch” [sic], and more.

If Google had launched the tipping feature, it could have provided a valuable tool to sites battered by the declining display ad market. And now amidst coronavirus lockdowns that have cancelled events and reduced podcast listenership that media publishers rely on for revenue, the ability to accept donations could have helped sites avoid laying off staff. Perhaps Google should consider resurrecting tipping as a more sustainable form of assistance alongside its new Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

Google’s designs for tipping money to news sites

TechCrunch obtained these screenshots from a source that provided evidence that they came directly from Google. When asked, Google confirmed that the designs were of internal idea it explored last year but decided not to pursue as part of Contributor and Google Funding Choices, which lets sites ask visitors to disable ad blockers, or instead buy a subscription or pay a per page fee to remove ads. Google shared the idea with under a handful of publishers in a request for feedback. The company decided to prioritize other products, including a way for sites to request consent to personalize ads using their data amidst strengthened regulations like GDPR.

A Google spokesperson provided TechCrunch with a statement that “We recognize that there isn’t a single business model that works for all publishers today and think it’s critical to explore new technologies that can help publishers make more money. Funding Choices is a great example of a product we have invested in significantly and will continue to evolve to support publishers and their monetization strategies.”

A design for the floating button to be overlaid on websites for making a contribution

In fact, few business models work for publishers at all. With layoffs common across local news, national papers, and digital outlets, publishers could use have used all the help they could get, even if long-term subscriptions would be more lucrative than one-off tips.

Google’s Unlaunched Patronage Feature

Designs for Google’s tipping feature show a floating “Support New York Times” button overlaid at the bottom of the screen as you scroll. Tapping it reveals instructions to “Select an amount below using Google Contributor to help fund this site” with options like $1, $3, or $5.

Google’s designs for tipping on a musician’s website

After choosing one, users log into their Google account if they aren’t already, and then “By clicking ‘Pay now’ you agree that: You will use your Google Payments account to make this one-time payment.” You’re then returned to the page you were viewing, with the button saying “Thank you for your support!” before shrinking to just the Contributor logo.

Google also designed a micropayments version of the feature where users could make smaller donations, such as $0.20. This call to action could be inserted into a static position inside a website. When a user’s contributions totaled $1 or more, they would be billed. They’d also have the option to save their contribution and make it later.

Google’s designs for micropayment tipping to blogs

To drive home the emotional satisfaction of making a donation, this design shows a profile photo of you and tip recipient with a heart in between. Afterwards, a cute cat photo illustration shows a messaging saying “Thanks for the support. Your contribution is saved and we will send a confirmation email” with a cheeky “Purrrrrfect, thanks!” before returning you to the site.

Beyond traditional news sites, Google mocked up the tipping feature for The Points Guy travel advice site, the Spiritual Boss Babe blog, the Miranda Sings musician site, and the Forest Research UK government site. TechCrunch was not aware that Google was using our site in mockups for the tipping feature. Other sites included in the mockups did not respond to inquiries about if they were asked for feedback.

Publishers In Need

Google got into the publisher funding space with Google One Pass in 2011, helping users buy subscriptions to sites before it was shut down a year later. In 2014, Google Contributor launched to let people pay a monthly fee in exchange for ad removal on partnered sites, but that program concluded around the end of 2016.

In 2017, Google relaunched the program with users paying up front to fund a per page view fee for removal, and that program remains active with some publishers. The tech giant also operates Subscribe With Google, which lets people buy and manage publisher subscriptions or fan club entry from their Google account, and then surfaces that site’s content atop related Google searches.

If Google ever chose to revive the tipping feature and taxed it 10% like Contributor, it could create a modest new revenue stream. But more importantly, it could help fuel the creation of the content that fills its News and Search results. It would also allow Google to double-dip, potentially earning money from tips and from the ads users see on those sites.

A tipping feature could be especially helpful for websites that haven’t figured out a premium subscription strategy and mostly rely on ads. The fall of display ad prices, worsened by the COVID-19 recession, could put these publishers in danger of closing. BuzzFeed and Vox have cut staff pay or furloughed team members while tons of newspaper and sites like Protocol have suffered layoffs.

Tips might not replace other revenue streams, but could extend sites’ runway. A voluntary option to accept tips without having to build all the payments infrastructure could be a lifeline for the news business, if Google would ordain it a priority.

Altman and others want to crowdfund 1 billion masks in the next 180 days

Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator and CEO of OpenAI, tweeted out his goal to secure 1 billion masks in 180 days. The public just needs to crowdfund those masks, first.

Altman, along with his brother Max Altman, an employee at Rippling, Radu Spineanu, the co-founder of Two Tap, Tinnei Pang, a designer at Mercari US, and others, are all working with suppliers in China to get 1 billion single-use masks to help the broader U.S. population, from service workers to those in hospitals but not directly working with COVID-19 patients.

The tech leaders will not be financing these masks themselves, but instead have asked the public to crowdfund a large order.

“This is a somewhat unusual market—the most effective way to guarantee supply is to pay up front so that factories can buy the equipment and supplies they need, and buying in bulk leads to significant cost savings,” the site reads.

“We won’t be funding any of these masks — we’re working with a few other groups to help fund getting [personal protective equipment] for medical workers. The goal of this project is to get surgical masks to places that need them at a dramatically lower rate than they could ever get themselves,” Max Altman wrote in an e-mail to TechCrunch.

According to the initiative’s website, none of the organizers will make money from the mask production.

Users can visit the 1billionmasks.com website and submit a form of “indication of interest.” If there’s enough demand, according to the team, an order form will appear on the site, and approved buyers will sign a contract and submit a payment to then “crowdfund” the masks.

If the demand hits a certain point, the team will be able to sell masks at 32 cents per mask, not inclusive of taxes and duties. If there is less demand, that price will be higher.

The masks are not meant to replace the dramatic shortage of N95 masks we’re seeing across the country, but rather to stop those not on the frontlines from buying scarce N95 masks.

N95 masks are necessary, because they filter out small particles, which is key for healthcare workers on the frontlines caring for COVID-19 patients. This doesn’t mean that others don’t need to wear masks — and in fact the WHO and CDC both recommend the use of masks broadly. Because of the recommendation, many DIY mask tutorials have been created, urging folks to use materials ranging from scarves to socks.

There has been a flurry of efforts from the private tech sector to help with medical shortages across the country. Apple, for example, sourced over 20 million protective masks and is now building “face shields.” Smaller companies are stepping up too: a heating filter company, a robotics startup and an architecture startup have all independently shifted operations to start making masks and ventilators.

The option that Altman and his team are providing has been rated for bacterial infiltration for people not on the frontlines. The mask option is closer to a surgical mask  than an N95 mask. Surgical masks do not provide as much respiratory protection as an N95 respirator, but do protect against droplets and large respiratory particles. According to the CDC, “most surgical masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.”

According to the website, the masks could be handed out by state and local governments, institutions, organizations and companies to essential workers, like grocery shoppers or delivery people.

Deliveries would start to arrive in Long Beach three to four weeks from the first order and then continue weekly for six months. Long Beach is the drop-off point because it is the location that the team can get supplies to the quickest, according to Max Altman.

Wefunder launches campaign to help coronavirus-impacted small businesses crowdfund loans

With the COVID-19 crisis, startups across Silicon Valley are looking for opportunities where they can both increase the visibility of their services and be helpful to people and businesses deeply affected by the pandemic.

Wefunder, an investment crowdfunding platform, announced an initiative Tuesday to help small businesses impacted by the coronavirus secure loans through its platform on friendlier terms.

The goal of the Coronavirus Crisis Loan program is to “provide critical cash flow during this economic crisis at a reduced interest rate,” a release from the company detailed. Loans can be structured in amounts ranging from $20,000 to $1 million with payments deferred until 2021 (and flexible, depending on revenue). The startup has a pretty simple calculator on its site to help businesses estimate what their payment structure would look like.

For Wefunder’s part, it’s not charity — they’re still taking a slice of the total volume raised, though they are halving their usual percentage from 7.5% to 3.75%. Wefunder also charges individuals a 2% cut from their contribution.

Wefunder was founded in 2011 and has raised just over $9 million in funding from investors, including Visary Capital and Y Combinator. In recent years, legislation passed that has made it possible for companies to raise smaller amounts of money — about $1 million or less in total — from non-accredited investors. The company says that businesses have raised $130 million to date through the platform.

Back in 2016 when the legislation was first introduced, equity crowdfunding was a pretty hot topic of discussion, but for the most part, equity crowdfunding hasn’t become commonplace. Part of this is the result of prevalent seed capital, something that has likely increased the riskiness of the startups that seek funding through platforms like these. This is obviously less of an issue when a good deal of the motivation to invest in a small business is because of the social good component, as might be the case with investors backing businesses taking advantage of this new program.

Alongside its loan program, Wefunder has also announced a three-month startup accelerator program focused on startups that can help tackle problems that will result from the crisis. They’ve notably cast a pretty wide net for the startups they are looking for, everything from remote collaboration to telemedicine to homeschooling, but they will invest $50,000 in each company and then help them raise more money through their platform on demo day.

Snopes rolls its own crowdfunding infrastructure to prepare for 2020’s disinformation warfare

2020 will likely be one of the most bitter and hard-fought elections in decades, not just on pulpits and stages, but on the true battleground of modern politics: the internet. And veteran fact-checker Snopes is girding itself for the fight with a crowdfunding effort it hopes will free it from a dependence on internet platforms for which the truth is a secondary consideration.

The last we heard from the company, it was emerging from a — disastrous is too strong a word, but perhaps we could say ineffectual — fact-checking partnership with Facebook. The obvious mismatch in priorities made Snopes think hard about its future and how to guarantee it could pursue its mission without begging for coins from companies that so obviously cared little for what they could provide.

The new plan is to see whether the site’s sizable readership will be willing to put a bit of cash on the table for a service they may have been using for years for free. Right now there’s a standard rewards-based backing scheme ($40 gets you a shirt and mug, etc.), but subscriptions and other means of support are coming soon.

“Everything about the site since its inception has been a long, slow, evolutionary process, from what it looked like to the material we covered to how it was funded. This is just another part of that process,” said founder David Mikkelson. “We’re just going where the road leads us.”

And the last couple of years have made it clear that the road leads nowhere near the sites that actually deliver news to users: Google, Facebook, Apple and so on.

VP of operations Vinny Green, who spearheaded the new direction Snopes is headed, called what those companies are doing right now “credibility theater.”

“The fact that Facebook has more people on their PR staff than there are formal fact checkers in the world demonstrates the disproportionality of the situation,” he said. “Apple News and Google News don’t have the mission or the mandate to ensure we have a healthy discourse online. Someone has to step up who has an interest in making sure the content flowing through the pipes is credible and reliable — so we’re stepping up. But our only access to capital and reach is what we grow ourselves.”

To that end, Green and the team at Snopes have put together their own crowdfunding infrastructure, eschewing the likes of Kickstarter and Patreon to make something that fits their purposes better. The resulting product will be familiar to anyone who has backed a project on those other sites, but is extensible on their side to serve as an all-purpose system for soliciting from and rewarding their community.

They’ve had a thousand backers already since the campaign launched a couple days ago, only half of which wanted anything in return. This first effort is intended to get the word out and shake the bugs out, while subscriptions and new project-specific funding options will appear early in 2020.

“There are fact-checking organizations, but there aren’t a lot of fact-checking businesses,” he said. Companies tend to give their information away or meekly agree to “partnerships” like Facebook’s, where the fabulously rich and influential company paid a pittance of money and attention so it could claim to be taking a stand against disinformation.

“You really have to wonder, why is the multi-billion-dollar platform paying fact checkers, you know, like $30,000 a month to check 30 things?” said Mikkelson. “It’s clear that the primary objective of the Facebook fact-checking partnership was not to curb the appearance or reach of false information on that platform. That was a secondary or tertiary objective. Presenting only credible information is contrary to their business model… while it’s exactly inline with ours.”

The traffic and feedback show that Snopes is valued by many people out there — why can’t it support itself directly?

“2020 is going to be bonkers in terms of debunking this information, but the business model isn’t going to get better,” said Green. “There will be increased traffic and it’ll be bigger in traditional metrics, but I think there will also be an appetite for a venue online where you can consume information without vitriol or spin.”

A browser extension is also planned

To that end they hope that the crowdfunding infrastructure will allow for a few things. First, it could directly support investigative work like the recent report on a fraudulent network of Facebook pages and fake accounts seemingly linked to right-wing outlet the Epoch Times. Facebook today announced it was taking the network down, saying “our investigation linked this activity to Epoch Media Group, a US-based media organization, and individuals in Vietnam working on its behalf.”

No mention of Snopes, though the company points out its email describing the network was opened “hundreds” of times. That should give you an idea of relations between the companies.

Having readers chip in $5 toward a follow-up or expenses related to an investigation like this could be a great way to create small but noticeable change. They could also submit relevant information and tips.

Second, it could justify and power a news aggregator curated by Snopes staff, who sort through an immense amount of information for their work. “It’s not going to be comprehensive, but what we do put in there, we can back,” Green said. An early version will launch in the spring.

Other improvements are on the roadmap, such as a progressive web app version of the site and a better method for feedback and sourcing data from the community.

“We don’t have 2 billion users, we may not be some unicorn company, but damn, we can be something,” he said.

If ad revenue is drying up and the site finds itself in an adversarial relationship with potential funders, what are the other options? With less than a dozen people in its newsroom, Snopes is a pretty small operation. It may be that there’s room in the overtaxed hearts of users for one more subscription, if it’s for a service they’ve been using on and off already for two decades.

Give InKind’s smarter giving platform brings in surprise $1.5 million in pre-seed funding

Helping out a friend in need online can be surprisingly difficult. While giving cash is easy enough, that’s often not what people need most — so Give InKind aims to be the platform where you can do a lot more than write a check. The idea is such a natural one that the company tripled its goal for a pre-seed round, raising $1.5 million from Seattle investors.

The company was selected for inclusion in the Female Founders Alliance’s Ready Set Raise accelerator, at the demo day for which I saw founder Laura Malcolm present.

The problem Malcolm is attempting to solve is simply that in times of hardship, not only do people not want to deal with setting up a fundraising site, but money isn’t even what they require to get through that period. Malcolm experienced this herself, when she experienced a personal tragedy and found that what was out there to let others help was simply inadequate.

“My friends and family were trying to support me from around the country, but the tools they had to do that were outdated and didn’t solve the problems for us,” she explained. “There just wasn’t one place to put all the help that’s needed, whether that’s meal drop-off, or rides to school for the kids, or a wishlist for Instacart, or Lyft credits. Every situation is unique, and no one has put it all together in one place where, when someone says ‘how can I help?’ you can just point there.”

The idea with Give InKind is to provide a variety of options for helping someone out. Of course you can donate cash, but you can also buy specific items from wishlists, coordinate deliveries, set up recurring gifts (like diapers or gift boxes), or organize in-person help on a built-in calendar.

These all go on a central profile page that Malcolm noted is rarely set up by the beneficiary themselves.

“90 percent of pages are set up by someone else. Not everyone has been impacted by one of these situations, but I think almost everyone has known someone who has, and has wondered how they were supposed to respond or help,” she explained. “So this isn’t about capturing people during a time of need, but about solving the problem for people who want to know how to help.”

That certainly resonated with me, as I have always felt the cash donation option when someone is going through a tough time to be pretty impersonal and general. It’s nice to be able to help out in person, but what about a friend in another city who’s been taken out of action and needs someone else to figure out the dog walking situation? Give InKind is meant to surface specific needs like that and provide the links (to, for instance, Rover) and relevant information all in one place.

“The majority of actions on the site are people doing things themselves — signing up for meals, or to help. The calendar view is for coordination, and it’s the most used part of the site. About 70 percent is that, the rest is those national services [i.e. Instacart, Uber, etc.],” Malcolm said.

Locally run services (cleaners that aren’t on a national directory, for instance) are on the roadmap, but as you can imagine that takes a lot of footwork to put together, so it will have to wait.

Right now the site works almost entirely on an affiliate model; Helpers make accounts to do things like add themselves to the schedule or help edit the profile, then get sent out to the merchant site to complete the transaction there. The company is experimenting with on-site purchases for some things, but the idea isn’t to become host transactions except where that can really add value.

The plan for expansion is to double down on the existing organic growth patterns of the site. Every page that gets set up attracts multiple new users and visits, and those users are far more likely to start more pages even years down the line. Between improving that and some actual marketing work, Malcolm feels sure that they can grow quickly and could soon join other major giving services like GoFundMe in scale.

Ready, set, raise… a lot more than expected

Give InKind came to my attention through the Female Founder Alliance here in Seattle, which hosted a demo night a little while ago to highlight the companies and, naturally, their founders as well. Although some of the companies focused on female-forward issues, for instance the difficulty of acquiring workwear tailored to women’s bodies, the idea is more to find valuable companies that just happen to have female founders.

“Ready Set Raise was built to find high potential, dramatically undervalued investment opportunities, and translate them into something the VC community can understand,” said FFA founder Leslie Feinzaig. “Our last member survey results were consistent with findings that women founders raise less capital but make it go further. Give InKind is a perfect example. They bootstrapped for 3 years, found product market fit, grew 20% every month, and still struggled to resonate with investors.”

Yet after presenting, Malcolm’s company was honored at the event with a $100K investment from Trilogy Ventures. And having originally kicked off fundraising with a view to a $500K round, she soon found she had to cap it at an unexpected but very welcome $1.5M. The final list of participants in the round includes Madrona Venture Group, SeaChange Fund, Keeler Investments, FAM Fund, Grubstakes, and X Factor Ventures.

I suggested that this must have been something of a validating experience.

“It’s super validating,” she agreed. “The founder journey is long and hard, and the odds are not in favor of female founders or impact companies, necessarily, and consumer is not huge in Seattle, either. We really sort of defied the odds across the board raising this round so quickly… Seattle really showed up.”

She described the accelerator as being “incredibly unique. It’s entirely about creating access for female founders to investors, mentors, and experts.”

“We spent so much time turning my model upside down and shaking everything out of it. Turns out it was much more defensible than I thought. We didn’t change the business, and we didn’t change the product — we lightly changed the positioning,” she said. “This combination of access with coaching and mentorship, getting the ability to present the business in a way that’s compelling, you realize how much of this is held back from people who don’t have these opportunities. I’ve been carrying around Give InKind for three years in a paper bag, and they put a bell on it.”

Feinbaig cited the competitiveness of the application process and quality of their coaches, which give lots of 1 on 1 time, for the high quality of the companies emerging from the accelerator. You can check out the rest of the companies in the second cohort here — and of course Give InKind is live should you or anyone you know need a helping hand.

The FrankOne is a simple and portable coffee brewing gadget

The FrankOne coffee maker, fresh off a successful crowdfunding campaign, is now available for purchase, and I got a chance to test out one of the first run of these funky little gadgets. While it won’t replace my normal pourover or a larger coffee machine, it’s a clever, quick and portable way to make a cup.

Designer Eduardo Umaña pitched me the device a little more than a year ago, and I was taken by the possibility of vacuum brewing — and the fact that, amazingly, until now no one from Colombia had made a coffee maker (it’s named after Frank de Paula Santander, who kicked off the coffee trade there). But would the thing actually work?

In a word, yes. I’ve tested the FrankOne a few times in my home, and, while I have a couple reservations, it’s a coffee making device that I can see myself actually using in a number of circumstances.

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The device works quite simply. Ground coffee goes in the top, and then you pour in the hot (not boiling!) water and stir it a bit — 30-50 seconds later, depending on how you like it, you hit the button and a pump draws the liquid down through a mesh filter and into the carafe below. It’s quick and almost impossible to mess up.

The resulting coffee is good — a little bit light, I’d say, but you can adjust the body with the size of the grounds and the steeping time. I tend to find a small amount of sediment at the bottom, but less than you’d get in a cup of French press.

Because it’s battery powered (it should last for ~200 cups and is easily recharged) and totally waterproof, cleaning it is a snap, especially if you have a garbage disposal. Just dump it and rinse it, give it a quick wipe and it’s good to go. It gets a bit more fussy if you don’t have a disposal, but what doesn’t?

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I can see this being a nice way to quickly and simply make coffee while camping — I usually do a French press, but sometimes drip, and both have their qualities and limitations. The FrankOne would be for making a single cup when I don’t want to have to stand by the pourover cone or deal with disassembling the French press for cleaning.

It’s also, I am told by Umaña, great for cold brew. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t really like cold brew, but I know many do, and Umaña promises the FrankOne works wonders in a very short time — four minutes rather than an hour. I haven’t tested that, because cold brew tastes like bitter chocolate milk to me, but I sincerely doubt he would mention it as many times as he did if it didn’t do what he said.

There are, I feel, three downsides. First, you’re pretty much stuck with using the included glass carafe, because the device has to create a seal around the edge with its silicone ring. It didn’t fit in my biggest mug, but you might find an alternative should the carafe (which I have no complaints about — it’s attractive and sturdy) crack or get lost.

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Second, it doesn’t produce a lot of coffee. The top line as indicated in the reservoir is probably about 10-12 ounces — about the size of a “tall” at a coffee shop. Usually that’s a perfect amount for me, but it definitely means this is a single-serving device, not for making a pot to share.

And third, for the amount of coffee it produces, I feel like it uses a lot of grounds. Not a crazy amount, but maybe 1.5-2x what goes into my little Kalita dripper — which is admittedly pretty economical. But it’s just something to be aware of. Maybe I’m using too much, though.

I reviewed the Geesaa a little while back, and while it’s a cool device, it was really complex and takes up a lot of space. If I wanted to give it to a friend I’d have to make them download the app, teach them about what I’d learned worked best, share my “recipes” and so on. There was basically a whole social network attached to that thing.

This is much, much easier to use — and compact, to boot. It’s a good alternative to classic methods that doesn’t try to be more than a coffee maker. At $120 it’s a bit expensive, but hey, maybe you spend that on coffee in a month.

And by the way, you can use the discount code “TC” at checkout to get 10% off — this isn’t a paid post or anything, Umaña’s just a nice guy!

Loog launches a trio of new educational guitars

Educational guitar maker Loog returned to Kickstarter this week, some eight years after it first hitting the crowdfunding site. This fourth campaign from the company features a trio of instruments aimed at helping accelerating the learning process.

There are three models, each aimed at a different age group: the Loog Mini (ages 3+), Loog Pro (ages 8+) and Loog Pro VI (ages 12+). The latter of which is the company’s first guitar to sport the standard six strings (versus the three it usually offers).

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All have a built-n speaker and amp, reducing the need for additional accessories for a kid’s first instrument. They’re also designed to work with the company’s app, which now utilizes augmented reality (guitAR, if you will), to overlay instructions when using the front facing camera on a mobile device. The are flash cards (for chords), videos and games on-board, as well.

The app also has a song book, featuring a wide variety of popular artists, ranging from The Beatles to Taylor Swift. Kids can slow down and mute tracks to play along karaoke-style, while recording themselves in the process.

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Kickstarter prices start at $99 for the Mini, versus $150 at retail. The company keeps going back to the crowdfunding well, but the model has worked pretty well so far. Loog’s started to gain some traction in the music education world and, as evidence by its Kickstarter video, landed in the hands of a couple of actual rockstars in the process.

This charming little camera prints instantly to receipt paper

I’m a big instant camera fan, but the film is expensive and the digital printers just aren’t very good. So I was delighted to see this alternative seeking funds on Kickstarter: the Alulu camera, which prints photos in black and white on receipt paper. Why did no one do this before?

The idea is so simple that you’ve already gotten it — no explanation necessary, but since explaining things is my job I am going to do so anyway.

The Alulu is an idea incubated by three friends as they left college, each heading their separate directions but looking to take a shot at making this cool gadget a reality before doing so. Right now it only exists in prototype form (they only thought it up in May), but it works more or less as intended, and it’s as silly and fun as I wanted it to be; I got to test one out, as it happened that one of the team members happened to live in my neighborhood.

The camera is a little box about the size of a fat point-and-shoot, with charming little dials on the top to select exposure mode or a 10-second timer if you want it, and a shutter button that’s hard to miss. On the side is the charge port and a button to advance the paper. And the back has a little frame that flips out and helps you set up your shot — very loosely, I hardly need add.

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Inside the 3D-printed, acrylic-plated exterior, the guts of the camera are simple. An off-the-shelf camera stack that does all the hard work of actually taking a picture — but don’t worry about the megapixels, because they don’t matter here. The camera sends its signal to a custom board that prepares and optimizes the image for black-and-white printing.

To be clear, we’re talking black and white, not shades of grey. The printer inside the camera is a standard receipt printer, which uses heat-activated ink that’s either transparent or black and nothing in between. You feed paper in via a little chamber on the bottom.

alulu

Thankfully creating the appearance of shading in 1-bit imagery is old hat for computer graphics, and an algorithm dithers and tweaks the picture so that more or fewer dots in various patterns create the illusion of a wider palette.

The results are… well, photos printed on receipt paper. Let’s keep our expectations in line. But they’re instantly printed (with a little stutter like a dot matrix printer) and charming little artifacts indeed. You can even use receipts you’re given at stores or restaurants, if they fit, and you can always fold it over a bit if it’s too large.

receiptrow4 receiptrow2

(By the way, if you’re worried about being poisoned by receipt paper, don’t be. The stuff with high BPA content was generally phased out a while back, and you can order non-poisonous rolls of paper easily and cheaply.)

I think this thing is great, though I’m afraid that the projected $99 retail price might be too high for what amounts to a novelty. The idea, I was told, was to drive the price down with mass manufacturing, but until they do so they want to be honest about the cost of the parts (the printer itself is the most expensive piece, but like everything else the price goes down when you order a thousand or more).

Whether it makes it to the factory or not, I think the Alulu is a great idea. We need more weird, one-off devices in this world of ours where every function seems to devolve to the smartphone — and I’m tired of my phone! Plus, it can’t print on receipt paper.

The Alulu is currently looking for backers on Kickstarter. Go give it a pledge.

Patreon raises $60M Series D, targets international growth and more customization

Patreon, the San Francisco-based platform that helps over 100,000 online content creators manage paid membership communities for their most dedicated fans, has raised $60 million in Series D funding.

Glade Brook Capital, a late-stage fund based in Greenwich, Connecticut, led this round with participation from prior investors like Index Ventures, CRV, Thrive Capital, Initialized, and DFJ Growth. This totals $165 million in funding that Patreon has raised since its founding in 2013.

In February, I published a 5-part series analyzing Patreon’s founding story, product evolution, business, competition, and overarching vision. The company has prioritized established creators who can generate $1,000+ per month in membership revenue as its core customer and is focused on being the underlying platform they use to manage relationships with superfans through a CRM, payment processing, and gating of exclusive access to content and discussion groups.

It makes money by taking a cut of each creator’s monthly revenue earned from their fans’ Patreon memberships.

Co-Founder & CEO Jack Conte shared news of the Series D via a blog post and tells me the new funds will contribute toward these priorities:

  1. Benefits functionality: integrating with more tech platforms using the Patreon API to ensure only paying members receive access to creators’ exclusive discussion groups on Discord or Discourse, receive special badges that mark them as a patron on Reddit, etc.
  2. Premium features: adding more features to the new Pro and Premium pricing tiers it launched in March which provide extra services and functionality to creators in exchange for a higher cut of their membership revenue (8% and 12%–plus payment processing fees–respectively, compared to 5% for the original Lite tier).
  3. Page customization: enabling creators to customize their Patreon pages more by changing colors, layout, and font to fit their own brand.
  4. Merchandising: expanding Patreon’s fulfillment of merchandise for creators who offer merch as a reward to their fans who subscribe to a given membership tier by adding international shipping options and more merch products to select for custom branding.
  5. International expansion: ensuring Patreon is available in more languages and can easily handle international payments, plus staffing new offices in Dublin (Ireland), Porto (Portugal), and other locations yet to be finalized.

When I asked Conte whether he plans to use this new funding to make more acquisitions — Patreon acquired the white-label membership management platform Memberful last summer — he responded that there are no deals currently in the pipeline but M&A is certainly on the table if they identify the right opportunity:

“It’s been a few years that we have been seeing the ‘Patreon for X’ trend of startups focused on a specific niche like podcasting. We’re looking at those companies and always open to joining forces if the mission is aligned and product is great.”

As it announced in January, Patreon expects to surpass $500 million in payments processed during 2019, passing the milestone of over $1 billion paid out to creators since founding. Roughly 40% of those payments are international and the overall monthly spend of fans who use Patreon is $12 on average.

 

Glade Brook Capital’s managing partner Paul Hudson, who originally founded the firm as a hedge fund, shared a statement with TechCrunch on why he invested in Patreon:

“Too many talented creators struggle to monetize their efforts in the digital era. Patreon is growing so fast because creators recognize the value in building recurring fan-based revenue streams and improving engagement with their most passionate fans.”

Conte also revealed that a handful of artists, including musician Serj Tankian and comedian Hannibal Buress, invested in Patreon as part of this new round. He hopes that the Pro and Premium tiers will draw more creators who don’t already use Patreon and support existing customers who need more advanced toolset given the size of their fanbase.