Planning for the uncertain future of work

In a recently published, roughly 75-page report, British non-profit organization The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA) outlined several scenarios for how the UK labor market will be impacted by frontier technologies such as automation, AI, AVs and more.

The analysis titled “The Four Futures of Work” was conducted in collaboration with design and consulting firm Arup and was spearheaded by the RSA’s “Future Work Centre”, which focuses on the impact of new technologies on work and is backed by law firm Taylor Wessing, the Friends Provident Foundation, Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org and others.

The report is less of a traditional research paper and more of a qualitative, theoretical and abstract exploration of how the world might look depending on how certain technological and sociological variables (immigration, political will, etc.) develop. The authors don’t try to estimate growth paths for new technologies nor do they try to reach a definitive conclusion on what the future of work will look like. The work instead looks to lay out multiple possible outcomes in order to help citizens prepare for transformations in labor and to derive policy recommendations to mitigate externalities in each scenario.

As opposed to traditional quantitative data-based methodologies, research was conducted using “morphological scenario analysis.” The authors’ worked with technologists, industry executives and academic researchers to identify the technological and non-technological uncertainties that will have a critical impact on the future of work, before projecting three (minimal impact, moderate impact, and severe impact) possible scenarios of how each will look by the year 2035. With input from the report’s collaborators, the researchers then chose the four most compelling and sensical scenarios for how the future of work look.

The value of the report depends entirely on how readers intend to use it. If one hopes to gauge market sizes or inform forecasts or is looking for scientific, quantitative research with data — they should not read this. The report is more useful as a way to understand the different ways new technologies may evolve through thought-provoking, fun-yet-probabilistic, and poetic narratives of hypothetical future economic structures and how they might function.

Rather than summarize the four detailed scenarios in the report and all the conclusions discussed, which can be found in the executive summary or full report, here are a few takeaways and the most interesting highlights in our view:

The underwhelming:

Facebook staff raised concerns about Cambridge Analytica in September 2015, per court filing

Further details have emerged about when and how much Facebook knew about data-scraping by the disgraced and now defunct Cambridge Analytica political data firm.

Last year a major privacy scandal hit Facebook after it emerged CA had paid GSR, a developer with access to Facebook’s platform, to extract personal data on as many as 87M Facebook users without proper consents.

Cambridge Analytica’s intention was to use the data to build psychographic profiles of American voters to target political messages — with the company initially working for the Ted Cruz and later the Donald Trump presidential candidate campaigns.

But employees at Facebook appear to have raised internal concerns about CA scraping user data in September 2015 — i.e. months earlier than Facebook previously told lawmakers it became aware of the GSR/CA breach (December 2015).

The latest twist in the privacy scandal has emerged via a redacted court filing in the U.S. — where the District of Columbia is suing Facebook in a consumer protection enforcement case.

Facebook is seeking to have documents pertaining to the case sealed, while the District argues there is nothing commercially sensitive to require that.

In its opposition to Facebook’s motion to seal the document, the District includes a redacted summary (screengrabbed below) of the “jurisdictional facts” it says are contained in the papers Facebook is seeking to keep secret.

According to the District’s account a Washington D.C.-based Facebook employee warned others in the company about Cambridge Analytica’s data-scraping practices as early as September 2015.

Under questioning in Congress last April, Mark Zuckerberg was asked directly by congressman Mike Doyle when Facebook had first learned about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data — and whether specifically it had learned about it as a result of the December 2015 Guardian article (which broke the story).

Zuckerberg responded with a “yes” to Doyle’s question.

Facebook repeated the same line to the UK’s Digital, Media and Sport (DCMA) committee last year, over a series of hearings with less senior staffers

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee — which made repeat requests for Zuckerberg himself to testify in front of its enquiry into online disinformation, only to be repeatedly rebuffed — tweeted yesterday that the new detail could suggest Facebook “consistently mislead” the British parliament.

The DCMS committee has previously accused Facebook of deliberately misleading its enquiry on other aspects of the CA saga, with Collins taking the company to task for displaying a pattern of evasive behavior.

The earlier charge that it mislead the committee refers to a hearing in Washington in February 2018 — when Facebook sent its UK head of policy, Simon Milner, and its head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, to field DCMS’ questions — where the pair failed to inform the committee about a legal agreement Facebook had made with Cambridge Analytica in December 2015.

The committee’s final report was also damning of Facebook, calling for regulators to instigate antitrust and privacy probes of the tech giant.

Meanwhile, questions have continued to be raised about Facebook’s decision to hire GSR co-founder Joseph Chancellor, who reportedly joined the company around November 2015.

The question now is if Facebook knew there were concerns about CA data-scraping prior to hiring the co-founder of the company that sold scraped Facebook user data to CA, why did it go ahead and hire Chancellor?

The GSR co-founder has never been made available by Facebook to answer questions from politicians (or press) on either side of the pond.

Last fall he was reported to have quietly left Facebook, with no comment from Facebook on the reasons behind his departure — just as it had never explained why it hired him in the first place.

But the new timeline that’s emerged of what Facebook knew when makes those questions more pressing than ever.

Reached for a response to the details contained in the District of Columbia’s court filing, a Facebook spokeswomen sent us this statement:

Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015, as we have testified under oath

In September 2015 employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service. In December 2015, we first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action. Those were two different things.

Facebook did not engage with questions about any of the details and allegations in the court filing.

A little later in the court filing, the District of Columbia writes that the documents Facebook is seeking to seal are “consistent” with its allegations that “Facebook has employees embedded within multiple presidential candidate campaigns who… knew, or should have known… [that] Cambridge Analytica [was] using the Facebook consumer data harvested by [[GSR’s]] [Aleksandr] Kogan throughout the 2016 [United States presidential] election.”

It goes on to suggest that Facebook’s concern to seal the document is “reputational”, suggesting — in another redacted segment (below) — that it might “reflect poorly” on Facebook that a DC-based employee had flagged Cambridge Analytica months prior to news reports of its improper access to user data.

“The company may also seek to avoid publishing its employees’ candid assessments of how multiple third-parties violated Facebook’s policies,” it adds, chiming with arguments made last year by GSR’s Kogan who suggested the company failed to enforce the terms of its developer policy, telling the DCMS committee it therefore didn’t have a “valid” policy.

As we’ve reported previously, the UK’s data protection watchdog — which has an ongoing investigation into CA’s use of Facebook data — was passed information by Facebook as part of that probe which showed that three “senior managers” had been involved in email exchanges, prior to December 2015, concerning the CA breach.

It’s not clear whether these exchanges are the same correspondence the District of Columbia has obtained and which Facebook is seeking to seal. Or whether there were multiple email threads raising concerns about the company.

The ICO passed the correspondence it obtained from Facebook to the DCMS committee — which last month said it had agreed at the request of the watchdog to keep the names of the managers confidential. (The ICO also declined to disclose the names or the correspondence when we made a Freedom of Information request last month — citing rules against disclosing personal data and its ongoing investigation into CA meaning the risk of release might be prejudicial to its investigation.)

In its final report the committee said this internal correspondence indicated “profound failure of governance within Facebook” — writing:

[I]t would seem that this important information was not shared with the most senior executives at Facebook, leading us to ask why this was the case. The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

We reached out to the ICO for comment on the information to emerge via the Columbia suit, and also to the Irish Data Protection Commission, the lead DPA for Facebook’s international business, which currently has 15 open investigations into Facebook or Facebook-owned businesses related to various security, privacy and data protection issues.

An ICO spokesperson told us: “We are aware of these reports and will be considering the points made as part of our ongoing investigation.”

Last year the ICO issued Facebook with the maximum possible fine under UK law for the CA data breach.

Shortly after Facebook announced it would appeal, saying the watchdog had not found evidence that any UK users’ data was misused by CA.

A date for the hearing of the appeal set for earlier this week was canceled without explanation. A spokeswoman for the tribunal court told us a new date would appear on its website in due course.

This report was updated with comment from the ICO

Keatz, a European ‘cloud kitchen’ startup, raises further €12M

Keatz, one of a growing number of so-called “cloud kitchens” — delivery only restaurant brands running on the rails of Deliveroo and UberEats — has raised €12 million in new funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Project A Ventures, Atlantic Labs, UStart, K Fund and JME Ventures, who are joined by RTP Global. It adds to €7 million raised last May and will be used by the Berlin-based company to further expand its roll-out of cloud kitchens across Europe.

Launched in Spring 2016, Keatz now operates 10 cloud kitchens across Europe, having expanded beyond Berlin to Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and Munich. The startup’s network of satellite kitchens are designed to negate the high front-of-house costs found in conventional restaurants, while also selling takeout food that is better suited to delivery.

“We believe the last unsolved part in food delivery is the preparation of food itself,” Keatz co-founder Paul Gebhardt tells TechCrunch. “Delivery food today is often compromised and sold by companies focusing on hospitality and not delivery food. Classic brick and mortar restaurants simply have a different business model, namely hospitality, which is all about the experience and location and the food is meant to be eaten immediately. Nobody at Nandos or Byron Burger designed the food keeping in mind that the food might travel on a Deliveroo bike for another 15 miles, mostly upside down in a delivery bag”.

Similar to other cloud kitchen startups, such as France’s Taster, Gebhardt says Keatz is changing this by focusing exclusively on food “made for delivery,” including designing dishes that can withstand a minimum 15 journey. The startup has a portfolio of eight delivery-only food brands, which are all prepared in the same shared kitchens.

“Our kitchens are usually between 100-200 square metres big and serve a delivery radius of 1-2 kilometres and we sell exclusively on existing delivery platforms, such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, JustEat, Delivery Hero, and TakeAway. Food arrives warm in nice sustainable packaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, although Gebhardt thinks the future of takeout food will ultimately be drones delivering robot-cooked meals, he says autonomous kitchens are much more in reach than autonomous food delivery and already forms a large part of Keatz’s vision to build “highly automated kitchens”.

“It is much easier for us to iteratively automate our kitchens compared to drone-delivery, which is a fairly binary technological transition,” he explains. “Our existing cloud kitchens today are already much more automated than traditional kitchens, from WiFi-connected convection ovens to a software supported food assembly process. At the end of the day high quality food preparation is an on-demand manufacturing problem: a customer orders a Burrito on UberEats and expects a warm meal 20 minutes later. This is quite a technological challenge we are trying to solve”.

To that end, Keatz’s cloud kitchens can be thought of as akin to a “factory operator”. Rather than developing autonomous kitchen hardware of its own, Gebhardt says the company is partnering with kitchen equipment and automation companies in a similar way to BMW partnering with companies to build its car manufacturing plants.

“Despite our ambition to automate the kitchen, we are also very keen on being a great employer,” he adds, citing above market pay and comprehensive training opportunities. Today, Keatz employs around 200 people across its 10 kitchens in Europe.

Keatz, a European ‘cloud kitchen’ startup, raises further €12M

Keatz, one of a growing number of so-called “cloud kitchens” — delivery only restaurant brands running on the rails of Deliveroo and UberEats — has raised €12 million in new funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Project A Ventures, Atlantic Labs, UStart, K Fund and JME Ventures, who are joined by RTP Global. It adds to €7 million raised last May and will be used by the Berlin-based company to further expand its roll-out of cloud kitchens across Europe.

Launched in Spring 2016, Keatz now operates 10 cloud kitchens across Europe, having expanded beyond Berlin to Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and Munich. The startup’s network of satellite kitchens are designed to negate the high front-of-house costs found in conventional restaurants, while also selling takeout food that is better suited to delivery.

“We believe the last unsolved part in food delivery is the preparation of food itself,” Keatz co-founder Paul Gebhardt tells TechCrunch. “Delivery food today is often compromised and sold by companies focusing on hospitality and not delivery food. Classic brick and mortar restaurants simply have a different business model, namely hospitality, which is all about the experience and location and the food is meant to be eaten immediately. Nobody at Nandos or Byron Burger designed the food keeping in mind that the food might travel on a Deliveroo bike for another 15 miles, mostly upside down in a delivery bag”.

Similar to other cloud kitchen startups, such as France’s Taster, Gebhardt says Keatz is changing this by focusing exclusively on food “made for delivery,” including designing dishes that can withstand a minimum 15 journey. The startup has a portfolio of eight delivery-only food brands, which are all prepared in the same shared kitchens.

“Our kitchens are usually between 100-200 square metres big and serve a delivery radius of 1-2 kilometres and we sell exclusively on existing delivery platforms, such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, JustEat, Delivery Hero, and TakeAway. Food arrives warm in nice sustainable packaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, although Gebhardt thinks the future of takeout food will ultimately be drones delivering robot-cooked meals, he says autonomous kitchens are much more in reach than autonomous food delivery and already forms a large part of Keatz’s vision to build “highly automated kitchens”.

“It is much easier for us to iteratively automate our kitchens compared to drone-delivery, which is a fairly binary technological transition,” he explains. “Our existing cloud kitchens today are already much more automated than traditional kitchens, from WiFi-connected convection ovens to a software supported food assembly process. At the end of the day high quality food preparation is an on-demand manufacturing problem: a customer orders a Burrito on UberEats and expects a warm meal 20 minutes later. This is quite a technological challenge we are trying to solve”.

To that end, Keatz’s cloud kitchens can be thought of as akin to a “factory operator”. Rather than developing autonomous kitchen hardware of its own, Gebhardt says the company is partnering with kitchen equipment and automation companies in a similar way to BMW partnering with companies to build its car manufacturing plants.

“Despite our ambition to automate the kitchen, we are also very keen on being a great employer,” he adds, citing above market pay and comprehensive training opportunities. Today, Keatz employs around 200 people across its 10 kitchens in Europe.

Tech regulation in Europe will only get tougher

European governments have been bringing the hammer down on tech in recent months, slapping record fines and stiff regulations on the largest imports out of Silicon Valley. Despite pleas from the world’s leading companies and Europe’s eroding trust in government, European citizens’ staunch support for regulation of new technologies points to an operating environment that is only getting tougher.

According to a roughly 25-page report recently published by a research arm out of Spain’s IE University, European citizens remain skeptical of tech disruption and want to handle their operators with kid gloves, even at a cost to the economy.

The survey was led by the IE’s Center for the Governance of Change — an IE-hosted research institution focused on studying “the political, economic, and societal implications of the current technological revolution and advances solutions to overcome its unwanted effects.” The “European Tech Insights 2019” report surveyed roughly 2,600 adults from various demographics across seven countries (France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and the UK) to gauge ground-level opinions on ongoing tech disruption and how government should deal with it.

The report does its fair share of fear-mongering and some of its major conclusions come across as a bit more “clickbaity” than insightful. However, the survey’s more nuanced data and line of questioning around specific forms of regulation offer detailed insight into how the regulatory backdrop and operating environment for European tech may ultimately evolve.

 

Distractions

Paris to tax scooter and bike services

According to the City of Paris, there are 15,000 free-floating vehicles of all forms and shapes in the city, from electric scooters to fluorescent bikes and motorcycle-like scooters. And the City of Paris announced today that companies that operate free-floating services will have to pay a tax depending on the size of their fleet.

If the plan goes through and if you’re running a bike-sharing service, you’ll have to pay €20 per bike per year. For scooter companies, they’ll pay €50 per scooter per year. Motorcycle scooters will be taxed €60 per scooter per year.

According to Le Parisien, it will be a tier system. Every time you go over the basic tier, you’ll have to pay more. Companies will pay 10 percent more for vehicle No. 500 to vehicle No. 999, 20 percent more for vehicle No. 1,000 to vehicle No. 2,999, and 30 percent more for any vehicle after No. 3,000.

Paris is a tiny city — it’s smaller than San Francisco when it comes to geographical footprint. And it’s also impossible to park a car and drive in Paris. That’s why a vast majority of people who live in Paris don’t own a car. It’s simply much faster and cheaper to use the subway or other transportation methods.

That’s why bikes, scooters and motorcycle scooters are thriving. Having fewer cars on the road is a great thing, but it has created some unexpected challenges.

Bike-sharing services thrived when the city’s bike-sharing system was more or less useless during a network upgrade. GoBee Bike, oBike, Ofo and Mobike all launched their services in the streets of Paris. But they’ve all failed. GoBee Bike shut down, Ofo still has a few bikes but no team, Mobike is scaling back international operations…

That was a bad start for free-floating services, as many broken bikes are littering the streets of Paris. The dock-based bike-sharing system Vélib is now working, fine with more than 1,200 stations and tens of thousands of rides per day — you basically see them everywhere.

On the scooter front, there are now nine companies operating in Paris. Yes, you read that number correctly. They all have funny-sounding names too — Lime, Bird, Bolt, Wind, Tier, Voi, Flash, Hive and Dott.

They’re quite popular because there are a ton of bike lanes in Paris. Most people still don’t wear helmets and there are a lot of injuries — but that’s another issue.

Like many other cities, many people complain about scooters crowding the sidewalk. If you’re in a wheelchair, pushing a stroller or if you’re visually impaired, navigating the sidewalk can be difficult these days.

The City of Paris wants to make those companies accountable. They need to take care of their fleets in order to maximize the number of scooters that actually work and remove the broken scooters. And I’m sure there will be some consolidation and bankruptcies in the space.

When it comes to motorcycle scooters, Cityscoot and Coup have been putting more scooters on the road. There’s no reason they would be excluded from the tax. Sometimes, they are cluttering bike parking space, for instance:

Let’s see if that strategy works to avoid a dumping strategy. Free-floating services have a huge impact on the environment. Scooters only last a few weeks before they need to be replaced. The solution isn’t to throw more scooters at the problem.

Guesty, a tech platform for property managers on Airbnb and other rental sites, raises $35M

The growth of Airbnb — and likewise other platforms like Booking.com, VRBO and Homeaway for listing and renting short-term accommodation in private homes — has spawned an ecosystem of other businesses and services, from those who make money renting their homes, to cleaning companies that make properties “Airbnb-ready”, to those who help design listings that will get more clicks. Airbnb has seen some wild success so far, but it turns out that being a part of that ecosystem can be a lucrative business, too.

Today, Guesty — a Israeli startup that provides a suite of tools aimed at property managers that list on these platforms — is announcing that it has raised $35 million, money that it will use to fuel its growth, after seeing the number of properties managed in some 70 countries through its tech double to over 100,000 in the last year.

The company is not disclosing valuation with this round, which was led Viola Growth with participation also from Vertex Ventures, Journey Ventures, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, La Maison Compagnie d’Investissement, TLV Partners and Magma Ventures. But Amiad Soto, the CEO and co-founder, noted that it too has “more than doubled” since its last funding almost a year ago. PitchBook notes that round was around $90 million post-money, so this would put the current valuation at at least $180 million, likely more.

The idea for Guesty came about like many of the best startup ideas do: out of a personal need. In 2013, twin brothers Amiad and Koby were renting out their own apartments on Airbnb, and found themselves spending a lot of time doing the work needed to list and manage those properties.

Their first stab at a business was an all-in-one service to help hosts get their properties ready and subsequently tidied up for listings. “I was cleaning apartments, Koby was doing the business development, and my girlfriend was doing the laundry,” Soto told me in an interview. They quickly realised that this was never going to scale, “and also that our competitive advantage was building software. We are computer geeks.”

So the company quickly pivoted to building a platform that could provide all the tools that property managers — who work with individual property hosts/owners and had started emerging as key players as Airbnb itself scaled out — needed to juggle multiple listings. (That girlfriend is now his wife, so seems like they may have pivoted just in time.)

Guesty started as SuperHost and, like Airbnb, went through the Y-Combinator accelerator. It eventually rebranded to Guesty, and it now provides tools in a dozen areas that touch property managers and the job they do: Channel Manager (“channel” being the platform where the property is being listed), Multi-Calendar, Unified Inbox, Automation Tools, Mobile Management App, Branded Website Task Management, Reporting Tools, Owners Portal, Payment Processing, Analytics, Open API, 24/7 Guest Communication.

The plan is to complement that in coming years with more “smart” tools: the company is introducing AI and machine learning elements that will help it suggest more services to users, and for managers to use to do their jobs better. (One example of how this might work: if you have a property manager in New York City, and the city regulator changes something in the tax code for properties in Brooklyn, this will now be suggested through to managers whose properties are affected, and this can help with pricing modelling down the line if the manager, say, wanted to keep a specific margin on rentals.)

Perhaps because short-term property renting is a relatively new area of the accommodation and residential market, it’s fairly fragmented, and so Guesty is providing a clear move to consolidate and simplify some of that work.

“There are about 700 different services and other things that go into short-term property rentals,” Soto noted when I asked him about this. “It would take me hours to go through it all with you.”

And indeed, the market itself is much bigger than what Guesty is currently working with. Soto estimates that there are around 7 million properties now collectively getting listed on these short-term letting platforms, speaking to the opportunity ahead.

Guesty very much got its start with Airbnb and that helped it not only establish what property managers needed, but also to forge a close relationship with Airbnb at a time when it wasn’t yet building many bridges to third-party services. Soto said Guesty built its own private API to use with Airbnb, and subsequently helped inform how Airbnb eventually build an API that others could use.

It’s still a trusted partner in that regard. Now that Airbnb is moving into multi-dwelling arrangements — that is, rooms in hotels (which will now expand with its HotelTonight acquisition), plus multiple apartments in single buildings for big groups that might want to secure bookings at several places at once — it will very soon be launching a tool for these kinds of listings. Guesty has helped in the building of that, too.

Still, the opportunity for short-term lettings is bigger than Airbnb itself these days. Booking.com and its many subsidiary businesses have made a big move into this area, as have many other companies, and Guesty now handles bookings on a number of “channels”. Soto said on average, the number of bookings on its platform that are listing on Airbnb is 60 percent, with some vacation spots seeing the percentage much lower, and some urban markets seeing a much higher penetration.

This is one of those cases where being an early mover in identifying a market opportunity has worked in a startup’s favor. Guesty’s strong work with Airbnb has helped the startup build stronger ties with those companies that hope to compete with it and give Airbnb a run for its money: Booking.com, Soto notes, is a premier partner these days.

“Guesty was the first to recognize the potential of the property management market and has quickly become a category leader with its vertical-oriented, end-to-end approach,” said Natalie Refuah, partner at Viola Growth, in a statement. “Technology and AI continue to disrupt the innovation stack, acting as a catalyst to the digitization of “traditional” areas such as real estate and travel. Guesty is leading the charge, fostering a more seamless experience for property managers while providing clear advantages to customers and ultimately, their guests. We believe that with its experienced and elite executive team, Guesty is fully equipped to modernize and revolutionize the property management ecosystem.” Refuah is joining Guesty’s Board of Directors.

Guesty, a tech platform for property managers on Airbnb and other rental sites, raises $35M

The growth of Airbnb — and likewise other platforms like Booking.com, VRBO and Homeaway for listing and renting short-term accommodation in private homes — has spawned an ecosystem of other businesses and services, from those who make money renting their homes, to cleaning companies that make properties “Airbnb-ready”, to those who help design listings that will get more clicks. Airbnb has seen some wild success so far, but it turns out that being a part of that ecosystem can be a lucrative business, too.

Today, Guesty — a Israeli startup that provides a suite of tools aimed at property managers that list on these platforms — is announcing that it has raised $35 million, money that it will use to fuel its growth, after seeing the number of properties managed in some 70 countries through its tech double to over 100,000 in the last year.

The company is not disclosing valuation with this round, which was led Viola Growth with participation also from Vertex Ventures, Journey Ventures, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, La Maison Compagnie d’Investissement, TLV Partners and Magma Ventures. But Amiad Soto, the CEO and co-founder, noted that it too has “more than doubled” since its last funding almost a year ago. PitchBook notes that round was around $90 million post-money, so this would put the current valuation at at least $180 million, likely more.

The idea for Guesty came about like many of the best startup ideas do: out of a personal need. In 2013, twin brothers Amiad and Koby were renting out their own apartments on Airbnb, and found themselves spending a lot of time doing the work needed to list and manage those properties.

Their first stab at a business was an all-in-one service to help hosts get their properties ready and subsequently tidied up for listings. “I was cleaning apartments, Koby was doing the business development, and my girlfriend was doing the laundry,” Soto told me in an interview. They quickly realised that this was never going to scale, “and also that our competitive advantage was building software. We are computer geeks.”

So the company quickly pivoted to building a platform that could provide all the tools that property managers — who work with individual property hosts/owners and had started emerging as key players as Airbnb itself scaled out — needed to juggle multiple listings. (That girlfriend is now his wife, so seems like they may have pivoted just in time.)

Guesty started as SuperHost and, like Airbnb, went through the Y-Combinator accelerator. It eventually rebranded to Guesty, and it now provides tools in a dozen areas that touch property managers and the job they do: Channel Manager (“channel” being the platform where the property is being listed), Multi-Calendar, Unified Inbox, Automation Tools, Mobile Management App, Branded Website Task Management, Reporting Tools, Owners Portal, Payment Processing, Analytics, Open API, 24/7 Guest Communication.

The plan is to complement that in coming years with more “smart” tools: the company is introducing AI and machine learning elements that will help it suggest more services to users, and for managers to use to do their jobs better. (One example of how this might work: if you have a property manager in New York City, and the city regulator changes something in the tax code for properties in Brooklyn, this will now be suggested through to managers whose properties are affected, and this can help with pricing modelling down the line if the manager, say, wanted to keep a specific margin on rentals.)

Perhaps because short-term property renting is a relatively new area of the accommodation and residential market, it’s fairly fragmented, and so Guesty is providing a clear move to consolidate and simplify some of that work.

“There are about 700 different services and other things that go into short-term property rentals,” Soto noted when I asked him about this. “It would take me hours to go through it all with you.”

And indeed, the market itself is much bigger than what Guesty is currently working with. Soto estimates that there are around 7 million properties now collectively getting listed on these short-term letting platforms, speaking to the opportunity ahead.

Guesty very much got its start with Airbnb and that helped it not only establish what property managers needed, but also to forge a close relationship with Airbnb at a time when it wasn’t yet building many bridges to third-party services. Soto said Guesty built its own private API to use with Airbnb, and subsequently helped inform how Airbnb eventually build an API that others could use.

It’s still a trusted partner in that regard. Now that Airbnb is moving into multi-dwelling arrangements — that is, rooms in hotels (which will now expand with its HotelTonight acquisition), plus multiple apartments in single buildings for big groups that might want to secure bookings at several places at once — it will very soon be launching a tool for these kinds of listings. Guesty has helped in the building of that, too.

Still, the opportunity for short-term lettings is bigger than Airbnb itself these days. Booking.com and its many subsidiary businesses have made a big move into this area, as have many other companies, and Guesty now handles bookings on a number of “channels”. Soto said on average, the number of bookings on its platform that are listing on Airbnb is 60 percent, with some vacation spots seeing the percentage much lower, and some urban markets seeing a much higher penetration.

This is one of those cases where being an early mover in identifying a market opportunity has worked in a startup’s favor. Guesty’s strong work with Airbnb has helped the startup build stronger ties with those companies that hope to compete with it and give Airbnb a run for its money: Booking.com, Soto notes, is a premier partner these days.

“Guesty was the first to recognize the potential of the property management market and has quickly become a category leader with its vertical-oriented, end-to-end approach,” said Natalie Refuah, partner at Viola Growth, in a statement. “Technology and AI continue to disrupt the innovation stack, acting as a catalyst to the digitization of “traditional” areas such as real estate and travel. Guesty is leading the charge, fostering a more seamless experience for property managers while providing clear advantages to customers and ultimately, their guests. We believe that with its experienced and elite executive team, Guesty is fully equipped to modernize and revolutionize the property management ecosystem.” Refuah is joining Guesty’s Board of Directors.

Nigerian fintech startup OneFi acquires payment company Amplify

Lagos based online lending startup OneFi is buying Nigerian payment solutions company Amplify for an undisclosed amount.

OneFi will take over Amplify’s IP, team, and client network of over 1000 merchants to which Amplify provides payment processing services, OneFi CEO Chijioke Dozie told TechCrunch.

The move comes as fintech has become one of Africa’s most active investment sectors and startup acquisitions—which have been rare—are picking up across the continent.

The purchase of Amplify caps off a busy period for OneFi. Over the last seven months the Nigerian venture secured a $5 million lending facility from Lendable, announced a payment partnership with Visa, and became one of first (known) African startups to receive a global credit rating. OneFi is also dropping the name of its signature product, Paylater, and will simply go by OneFi (for now).

Collectively, these moves represent a pivot for OneFi away from operating primarily as a digital lender, toward becoming an online consumer finance platform.

“We’re not a bank but we’re offering more banking services…Customers are now coming to us not just for loans but for cheaper funds transfer, more convenient bill payment, and to know their credit scores,” said Dozie.

OneFi will add payment options for clients on social media apps including WhatsApp this quarter—something in which Amplify already holds a specialization and client base. Through its Visa partnership, OneFi will also offer clients virtual Visa wallets on mobile phones and start providing QR code payment options at supermarkets, on public transit, and across other POS points in Nigeria.

Founded in 2016 by Segun Adeyemi and Maxwell Obi, Amplify secured its first seed investment the same year from Pan-African incubator MEST Africa. The startup went on to scale as a payments gateway company for merchants and has partnered with banks, who offer its white label mTransfers social payment product.

Amplify has differentiated itself from Nigerian competitors Paystack and Flutterwave, by committing to payments on social media platforms, according to OneFi CEO Dozie. “We liked that and thought payments on social was something we wanted to offer to our customers,” he said.

With the acquisition, Amplify co-founder Maxwell Obi and the Amplify team will stay on under OneFi. Co-founder Segun Adeyemi won’t, however, and told TechCrunch he’s taking a break and will “likely start another company.”

OneFi’s purchase of Amplify adds to the tally of exits and acquisitions in African tech, which are less common than in other regional startup scenes. TechCrunch has covered several of recent, including Nigerian data-analytics company Terragon’s buy of Asian mobile ad firm Bizsense and Kenyan connectivity startup BRCK’s recent purchase of ISP Everylayer and its Nairobi subsidiary Surf.

These acquisition events, including OneFi’s purchase, bump up performance metrics around African tech startups. Though amounts aren’t undisclosed, the Amplify buy creates exits for MEST, Amplify’s founders, and its other investors. “I believe all the stakeholders, including MEST, are comfortable with the deal. Exits aren’t that commonplace in Africa, so this one feels like a standout moment for all involved,”

With the Amplify acquisition and pivot to broad-based online banking services in Nigeria, OneFi sets itself up to maneuver competitively across Africa’s massive fintech space—which has become infinitely more complex (and crowded) since the rise of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product.

By a number of estimates, the continent’s 1.2 billion people include the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population. An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns that problem into an opportunity for mobile based financial solutions. Hundreds of startups are descending on this space, looking to offer scaleable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered by Briter Bridges and a 2018 WeeTracker survey, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital to African startups,

OneFi is looking to expand in Africa’s fintech markets and is considering Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Ghana and Egypt and Europe for Diaspora markets, Dozie said.

The startup is currently fundraising and looks to close a round by the second half of 2019. OnfeFi’s transparency with performance and financials through its credit rating is supporting that, according to Dozie.

There’s been sparse official or audited financial information to review from African startups—with the exception of e-commerce unicorn Jumia, whose numbers were previewed when lead investor Rocket Internet went public and in Jumia’s recent S-1, IPO filing (covered here).

OneFi gained a BB Stable rating from Global Credit Rating Co. and showed positive operating income before taxes of $5.1 million in 2017, according to GCR’s report. Though the startup is still a private company, OneFi looks to issue a 2018 financial report in the second half of 2019, according to Dozie.

Google fined $1.49BN in Europe for antitrust violations in search ad brokering

The European Commission has just announced another antitrust fine for Google .

The latest fine — $1.49BN — relates to its search ad brokering business which competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager noted today is “by far” the company’s main source of revenue.

“Today’s decision is about how Google abused its domiance to stop website’s using broker’s other than the AdSense platform,” she said, noting that the Commission looked at more than 200 agreements and found at least one clause that harmed competition.

“There was no reason for Google to include these restrictive clauses in its contracts other than to keep rivals out of the market,” she added.

The Commission found three types of anti-competitive restriction in Google’s contracts — including the company requiring its ads to have premium placement.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

This story is developing… refresh for updates

It’s the third Commission antitrust penalty for Google, following the $5BN fine for anti-competitive behaviors attached to Android last summer and a $2.7BN penalty for Google Shopping antitrust violations in mid 2017.

In recent years Vestager has also flagged concerns about several other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Though no formal probes have yet been announced.

The latest EU antitrust decision against Google relates specifically to Google AdSense ads that appear on third party sites as a result of a search made on those sites.

The Commission made a formal Statement of Objections against AdSense in 2016, when it identified several practices it believed violated antitrust rules after investigating complaints.

Its objections included that Google required exclusivity in AdSense site search deals, mandating that third parties do not source search ads from its competitors; that Google required third parties to take a minimum number of search ads from it, with premium placement for them; and that Google required sites to seek approval from it before making any changes that might involve competing ads.

The Commission noted at the time that exclusivity practices had been in place since 2006, before being gradually replaced by Google from 2009 in most contracts — with the requirement of premium placement/minimum ads and the right for Google to authorise competing ads.

“The Commission is concerned that the practices have artificially reduced choice and stifled innovation in the market throughout the period,” it wrote then. “They have artificially reduced the opportunities for Google’s competitors on this commercially important market, and therefore the ability of third party websites to invest in providing consumers with choice and innovative services.”

You can read more on the background to the AdSense complaint (and Google Shopping) in our report from 2016 here.

Since being hit with a wave of antitrust scrutiny and action in Europe Google has been forced to tweak product and make some changes to its business practices. Though it’s far from clear it’s done enough to stave off further regulatory intervention if the end-goal is to promote effective competition.

Google’s latest Android tweaks — announced just yesterday — attempt to address complaints that its default browser and search settings on the smartphone platform box out competition by preferring its own browser over rival browsers.

In a blog post dated March 19 Google said it will start asking Android users to choose which browser and search apps they wish to use, with the change slated as coming in the next months.

Last fall it also made changes to the licensing terms of Android to allow device makers to unbundle its apps — for a fee.

While in fall 2017 Google tweaked how it displays search results for products in Europe.

Although it was later accused of creating a ‘fake’ price comparison site scheme to create the allusion of a thriving market.

In all these EU antitrust cases complaints against Google have not gone away.

Rather complainants continue to couch the company’s self-styled compliance ‘remedies’ as a joke.

Yet with antitrust and political scrutiny of Google and other tech giants stepping up domestically as well as internationally, any self-serving competition ‘fixes’ are operating on borrowed time.

Moreover figleafs will likely increase pressure for more radical regulatory intervention — such as a break up of Google…

It’s therefore likely no coincidence that — in a more recent browser-related update — the search giant quietly expanded search engine choices in Chrome, adding privacy-focused rival DuckDuckGo’s search engine to the lists of options it promotes to users in more than 60 markets with the latest Chromium stable release, as well as French pro-privacy Qwant as an option in its home market.

This change was welcomed by both DuckDuckGo and Qwant.

Though the latter told us it still recommends its users use Firefox or Brave, rather than Google’s Chrome browser.