Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FindItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.

Facebook will not remove deepfakes of Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and others from Instagram

Facebook will not remove the faked videos featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Kardashian and President Donald Trump from Instagram, the company said in a statement.

Earlier today, Vice News reported on the existence of videos created by the artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe and video and audio manipulation companies including CannyAIRespeecher and Reflect. 

The work, featured in a site-specific installation in the UK as well as circulating in video online, was the first test of Facebook’s content review policies since the company’s decision not to remove a manipulated video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received withering criticism from Democratic political leadership.

“We have said all along, poor Facebook, they were unwittingly exploited by the Russians,” Pelosi said in an interview with radio station KQED, quoted by The New York Times. “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election.”

After the late May incident Facebook’s Neil Potts testified before a smorgasbord of international regulators in Ottawa about deep fakes, saying the company would not remove a video of Mark Zuckerberg . This appears to be the first instance testing the company’s resolve.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram . If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages,” said an Instagram spokesperson in an email to TechCrunch.

The videos appear not to violate any Facebook policies, which means that they will be subject to the treatment any video containing misinformation gets on any of Facebook’s platforms. So the videos will be blocked from appearing in the Explore feature and hashtags won’t work with the offending material.

Facebook already uses image detection technology to find content that has been debunked by its third-party fact checking program on Instagram. When misinformation is only present on Instagram the company is testing the ability to promote links into the fact-checking product on Facebook.

“Spectre interrogates and reveals many of the common tactics and methods that are used by corporate or political actors to influence people’s behaviours and decision making,” said Posters in an artist’s statement about the project. “In response to the recent global scandals concerning data, democracy, privacy and digital surveillance, we wanted to tear open the ‘black box’ of the digital influence industry and reveal to others what it is really like.”

Facebook’s consistent decisions not to remove offending content stands in contrast with YouTube which has taken the opposite approach in dealing with manipulated videos and other material that violate its policies.

YouTube removed the Pelosi video and recently took steps to demonetize and remove videos from the platform that violated its policies of hate speech — including a wholesale purge of content about Nazism.

These issues take on greater significance as the U.S. heads into the next Presidential election in 2020.

“In 2016 and 2017, the UK, US and Europe witnessed massive political shocks as new forms of computational propaganda employed by social media platforms, the ad industry, and political consultancies like Cambridge Analytica [that] were exposed by journalists and digital rights advocates,” said Howe, in a statement about his Spectre project. “We wanted to provide a personalized experience that allows users to feel what is at stake when the data taken from us in countless everyday actions is used in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways.”

Perhaps, the incident will be a lesson to Facebook in what’s potentially at stake as well.

 

Instagram one-ups TikTok with karaoke lyrics

Lip-syncing jumpstarted TikTok’s rise to the center of teen culture, arguably displacing Instagram . Now the Facebook-owned app is striking back with a new feature that lets you displays lyrics on your video Story synced to a soundtrack you’ve added with the Music sticker. Lyrics could help creators and their fans sing along, and the visual flare could make the amateur MTV content more watchable.

Instagram scored a big endorsement from teen scare-pop phenomenon Billie Eilish who’s featured in the demo video for Story lyrics, which are now available in all the countries where Instagram Music has launched including the US, Germany, and France.

To play with the feature, first select the Music lens type (amidst Boomerang and other options) before you shoot or the Music sticker after. Once you pick a song, you’ll see lyrics pop up which can help you cue the segment of the music you want to play. Then you can cycle through a bunch of animation styles like traditional karaoke teleprompter, a typewriter version that preserves mystery by only revealing lyrics as they’re sung, and big flashy billboard font.

“Music can be a big part of expression on Instagram – between adding music to Stories, connecting with artists, sending song recs back-and-forth, there are lots of ways to connect with music on IG” an Instagram spokesperson tells me. “Now, we’re building on our music features and introducing the ability to add lyrics when you add a song to your story.” As with pretty much everything Instagram launches, it was first dug out of Android code and revealed to the world by frequent TechCrunch tipster and reverse engineering master Jane Manchun Wong. She first spotted Lyrics in March and we wrote about the prototype in April.

But TikTok isn’t waiting up. Today it launched its own text feature for adding overlaid captions to videos. Typically, creators had to use Snapcat, Instagram Stories, or desktop editing software to add text. Creators are sure to find plenty of hilarious use cases for text on TikTok, and it could help replace the common trope of writing captions on paper and holding them up during clips.

All of these features are about keeping social video from going stale. The manicured, painstakingly posed Instagram aesthetic is over, as The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz deftly identified. Fans are sick of perfection, which breeds envy and feels plastic or inauthentic. Comedy, absurdity, and the rough edges of reality are becoming the new ‘look’ of social media. Tools to overlay lyrics and text give creators more freedom to express complex jokes or just act silly. The popularity of Billie Eilish’s own dirtbag chic fashion and willingness to reveal her own insecurities exemplifies this shift, so it’s smart Instagra

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Bell Curve

Bell Curve founder Julian Shapiro describes his team as talented growth marketers who have a long tail expertise of various channels and who aren’t afraid to play part-time therapists. As an agency, they’re comfortable grounding founder expectations by explaining “No, virality isn’t a dependable growth strategy,” but “Hey, we can come up with a better strategy together.”

Bell Curve, the agency, also runs Demand Curve, a remote growth marketing training program that teaches students (and marketing professionals) the ins and outs of performance marketing.

For a glimpse of how Bell Curve thinks about growth marketing, check out Julian’s guest posts about how startups can actually get content marketing to work and how founders can hire a great growth marketer.

What makes Bell Curve different:

“Bell Curve runs a growth bootcamp which we took in February. It radically improved our growth rate, gave us access to enough data to experiment with, and as a result we built an engine for growth that we could continue to tune.” Gil Akos, SF, CEO & Co-founder, Astra
“We run a program where we train companies to run ads on every channel. So, what makes Bell Curve unique is that we, by necessity, have a deep understanding of many more channels than the average agency. We have an archive of tactics and approaches that we’ve accumulated for how to do them just as well as the big ad channels.

In effect, companies come to us when they need expertise beyond Facebook, Google and Instagram, which we still bring to the table, but when they also need to figure out how to make Quora ads profitable, how to get Reddit working, how to get YouTube videos working, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc. These are channels people don’t specialize in enough and so we also bring that long tail of expertise.”

On common misconceptions about growth:

“A common mistake people make coming into growth is thinking that growth hacks are a meaningful thing. The ultimate growth hack is having the self-discipline to pursue growth fundamentals properly and completely. So, things like properly A/B testing, identifying your most enticing value propositions and articulating them clearly and concisely, bringing in deep channel expertise for Facebook, Instagram, Google Search, and a couple of other channels. These are the tenants of making digital growth work. Not one-off hacks.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Bell Curve Founder Julian Shapiro

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into this game of growth?

Julian Shapiro: I actually started by running growth for friends’ companies because they had a hard time finding experienced growth marketers. After a year and a half of doing this, I realized it’d be a more stable source of income if I formed an agency. It’d also allow me to pattern match so I could exchange learnings among clients and have a better net performance.

It all came together very quickly. Once Bell Curve hit about 10 clients, we had enough strategic and customer acquisition overlap that we were able to share tactics, double our volume of A/B testing, and get better results. It also gave us the ability to hire out a full-fledged team so we could start specializing, whereas, as a contractor, I was too much of a generalist. I wasn’t able to go deep on certain channels, like Snapchat or Pinterest ads.

Fitness startup Mirror nears $300M valuation with fresh funding

Today, Peloton is a bonafide success. The company, which sells $2,245 internet-connected exercise bikes, boasts a $4 billion valuation and a cult following.

That hasn’t always been the case. For years, Peloton battled for venture capital investment and struggled to attract buyers. Now that it’s proven the market for tech-enabled home exercise equipment and affiliated subscription products, a whole bunch of startups are chasing down the same customer segment.

Mirror, a New York-based company that sells $1,495 full-length mirrors that double as interactive home gyms, is closing in a round of funding expected to reach $36 million, sources and Delaware stock filings confirm, at a valuation just under $300 million. It’s unclear who has signed on to lead the round; we’ve heard a number of high-profile firms looked at Mirror’s books and passed. The company has previously raised a total of $38 million from Spark Capital, First Round Capital, Lerer Hippeau, BoxGroup and more.

Mirror declined to comment for this story.

Like Peloton, Mirror is sold for a hefty fee with a subscription to the service’s unlimited live and on-demand workouts that comes at an additional cost. The company hasn’t disclosed subscriber numbers, though The New York Times reported in February the business was selling $1 million worth of Mirrors — or some 650 units — per month.

The company has not only benefited from the Peloton effect, but also from a near-immediate interest from celebrities and influencers in its product. Kate Hudson, Alicia Keys, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow are among the many celebrities to have publicly boasted about Mirror, undoubtedly boosting sales for the up-and-coming startup.

Venture capitalists were quick to show support for Mirror, too; in fact, the business attracted money at a $200 million valuation prior to launching its first product. Mirror began selling its sleek equipment, dubbed by The New York Times as “The Most Narcissistic Exercise Equipment Ever,” in September.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 06: Mirror Founder and CEO Brynn Putnam (L) and moderator Lucas Matney speak onstage during Day 2 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 6, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

The round comes amid a distinct boom in funding for fitness-related startups evidenced not only by Peloton’s mammoth valuation and hyped-over initial public offering expected soon but by the rapid uptick in small upstarts looking to capitalize on rising interest in fitness apps and equipment. In total, VCs bet some $2 billion on U.S. fitness startups in 2018, a record amount of funding for the space. So far this year, nearly $500 million has been allocated to the growing sector, per PitchBook, as entrepreneurs strive to bring the gym into the home.

Tonal, which sells personal exercise equipment that combines on-demand training with smart features, is among a small class of venture-backed fitness companies to have accumulated a large following. The company has raised $91.7 million in equity funding at a valuation of $185 million, according to PitchBook, from investors including L Catterton, Shasta Ventures, Mayfield and Sapphire Sport.

When it comes to early-stage efforts, there’s no shortage of recent fundraises. Last week, Livekick, which gives customers access to one-on-one personal training and yoga from their home, closed a $3 million seed round led by Firstime VC. Two weeks ago, fitness startup Future secured an $8.5 million round led by Kleiner Perkins’ Mamoon Hamid. For a $150 monthly fee, Future assigns personalized workout plans and a coach who tracks customers’ fitness activity through an Apple Watch. To keep users committed to their workout regimens, Future sends daily text messages with motivational feedback.

The AI-based personal training company Aaptiv, Plankk, which sells live fitness lessons led by Instagram stars, and audio coaching app Eastnine, have also recently launched.

Mirror was founded in late 2016 by Brynn Putnam, an entrepreneur behind Refine Method, a chain of boutique fitness studios located in New York. The former professional dancer spoke to TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney at Disrupt San Francisco in September about the future of the business.

“[We want] to enhance the human touch rather than to replace it,” Putnam said. “Our goal is not to be the next treadmill in your life, our goal is to be the next screen in your home,” Putnam said.

Ultimately, Putnam added, Mirror plans to scale beyond fitness content with potential extensions including physical therapy, fashion, beauty and education.

“We have the ability to create personalized premium content across a wide range of verticals, with fitness being our first vertical,” Putnam said.

UK Internet attitudes study finds public support for social media regulation

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has published a new joint report and stat-fest on Internet attitudes and usage with the national data protection watchdog, the ICO — a quantitative study to be published annually which they’re calling the Online Nation report.

The new structure hints at the direction of travel for online regulation in the UK, following government plans set out in a recent whitepaper to regulate online harms — which will include creating a new independent regulator to ensure Internet companies meet their responsibilities.

Ministers are still consulting on whether this should be a new or existing body. But both Ofcom and the ICO have relevant interests in being involved — so it’s fitting to see joint working going into this report.

As most of us spend more time than ever online, we’re increasingly worried about harmful content — and also more likely to come across it,” writes Yih-Choung Teh, group director of strategy and research at Ofcom, in a statement. “ For most people, those risks are still outweighed by the huge benefits of the internet. And while most internet users favour tighter rules in some areas, particularly social media, people also recognise the importance of protecting free speech – which is one of the internet’s great strengths.”

While it’s not yet clear exactly what form the UK’s future Internet regulator will take, the Online Nation report does suggest a flavor of the planned focus.

The report, which is based on responses from 2,057 adult internet users and 1,001 children, flags as a top-line finding that eight in ten adults have concerns about some aspects of Internet use and further suggests the proportion of adults concerned about going online has risen from 59% to 78% since last year (though its small-print notes this result is not directly comparable with last year’s survey so “can only be interpreted as indicative”).

Another stat being highlighted is a finding that 61% of adults have had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year — rising to 79% among children (aged 12-15). (Albeit with the caveat that it’s using a “broad definition”, with experiences ranging from “mildly annoying to seriously harmful”.)

While a full 83% of polled adults are found to have expressed concern about harms to children on the Internet.

The UK government, meanwhile, has made child safety a key focus of its push to regulate online content.

At the same time the report found that most adults (59%) agree that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks, and 61% of children think the internet makes their lives better.

While Ofcom’s annual Internet reports of years past often had a fairly dry flavor, tracking usage such as time spent online on different devices and particular services, the new joint study puts more of an emphasis on attitudes to online content and how people understand (or don’t) the commercial workings of the Internet — delving into more nuanced questions, such as by asking web users whether they understand how and why their data is collected, and assessing their understanding of ad-supported business models, as well as registering relative trust in different online services’ use of personal data.

The report also assesses public support for Internet regulation — and on that front it suggests there is increased support for greater online regulation in a range of areas. Specifically it found that most adults favour tighter rules for social media sites (70% in 2019, up from 52% in 2018); video-sharing sites (64% v. 46%); and instant-messaging services (61% v. 40%).

At the same time it says nearly half (47%) of adult internet users expressed recognition that websites and social media platforms play an important role in supporting free speech — “even where some people might find content offensive”. So the subtext there is that future regulation of harmful Internet content needs to strike the right balance.

On managing personal data, the report found most Internet users (74%) say they feel confident to do so. A majority of UK adults are also happy for companies to collect their information under certain conditions — vs over a third (39%) saying they are not happy for companies to collect and use their personal information.

Those conditions look to be key, though — with only small minorities reporting they are happy for their personal data to be used to program content (17% of adult Internet users were okay with this); and to target them with ads (only 18% didn’t mind that, so most do).

Trust in online services to protect user data and/or use it responsibly also varies significantly, per the report findings — with social media definitely in the dog house on that front. “Among ten leading UK sites, trust among users of these services was highest for BBC News (67%) and Amazon (66%) and lowest for Facebook (31%) and YouTube (34%),” the report notes.

Despite low privacy trust in tech giants, more than a third (35%) of the total time spent online in the UK is on sites owned by Google or Facebook.

“This reflects the primacy of video and social media in people’s online consumption, particularly on smartphones,” it writes. “Around nine in ten internet users visit YouTube every month, spending an average of 27 minutes a day on the site. A similar number visit Facebook, spending an average of 23 minutes a day there.”

And while the report records relatively high awareness that personal data collection is happening online — finding that 71% of adults were aware of cookies being used to collect information through websites they’re browsing (falling to 60% for social media accounts; and 49% for smartphone apps) — most (69%) also reported accepting terms and conditions without reading them.

So, again, mainstream public awareness of how personal data is being used looks questionable.

The report also flags limited understanding of how search engines are funded — despite the bald fact that around half of UK online advertising revenue comes from paid-for search (£6.7BN in 2018). “[T]here is still widespread lack of understanding about how search engines are funded,” it writes. “Fifty-four per cent of adult internet users correctly said they are funded by advertising, with 18% giving an incorrect response and 28% saying they did not know.”

The report also highlights the disconnect between time spent online and digital ad revenue generated by the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook — which it says together generated an estimated 61% of UK online advertising revenue in 2018; a share of revenue that it points out is far greater than time spent (35%) on their websites (even as those websites are the most visited by adults in the UK).

As in previous years of Ofcom ‘state of the Internet’ reports, the Online Nation study also found that Facebook use still dominates the social media landscape in the UK.

Though use of the eponymous service continues falling (from 95% of social media users in 2016 to 88% in 2018). Even as use of other Facebook-owned social properties — Instagram and WhatsApp — grew over the same period.


The report also recorded an increase in people using multiple social services — with just a fifth of social media users only using Facebook in 2018 (down from 32% in 2018). Though as noted above, Facebook still dominates time spent, clocking up way more time (~23 minutes) per user per day on average vs Snapchat (around nine minutes) and Instagram (five minutes).  

A large majority (74%) of Facebook users also still check it at least once a day.

Overall, the report found that Brits have a varied online diet, though — on average spending a minute or more each day on 15 different internet sites and apps. Even as online ad revenues are not so equally distributed.

“Sites and apps that were not among the top 40 sites ranked by time spent accounted for 43% of average daily consumption,” the report notes. “Just over one in five internet users said that in the past month they had used ‘lots of websites or apps they’ve used before’ while a third (36%) said they ‘only use websites or apps they’ve used before’.”

There is also variety when it comes to how Brits search for stuff online, and while 97% of adult internet users still use search engines the report found a variety of other services also in the mix. 

It found that nearly two-thirds of people (65%) go more often to specific sites to find specific things, such as a news site for news stories or a video site for videos; while 30% of respondents said they used to have a search engine as their home page but no longer do.

The high proportion of searches being registered on shopping websites/apps (61%) also looks interesting in light of the 2017 EU antitrust ruling against Google Shopping — when the European Commission found Google had demoted rival shopping comparison services in search results, while promoting its own, thereby undermining rivals’ ability to gain traffic and brand recognition.

The report findings also indicate that use of voice-based search interfaces remains relatively low in the UK, with just 10% using voice assistants on a mobile phone — and even smaller percentages tapping into smart speakers (7%) or voice AIs on connected TVs (3%).

In another finding, the report suggests recommendation engines play a major part in content discovery.

“Recommendation engines are a key way for platforms to help people discover content and products — 70% of viewing to YouTube is reportedly driven by recommendations, while 35% of what consumers purchase on Amazon comes from recommendations,” it writes. 

In overarching aggregate, the report says UK adults now spend the equivalent of almost 50 days online per year.

While, each week, 44 million Brits use the internet to send or receive email; 29 million send instant messages; 30 million bank or pay bills via the internet; 27 million shop online; and 21 million people download information for work, school or university.

The full report can be found here.

Meet Projector, collaborative design software for the Instagram age

Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures bonded with Trevor O’Brien in prison. The pair, Suster was quick to clarify, were on site at a correctional facility in 2016 to teach inmates about entrepreneurship as part of a workshop hosted by Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the issue of mass incarceration.

They hit it off, sharing perspectives on life and work, Suster recounted to TechCrunch. So when O’Brien, a former director of product management at Twitter, mentioned he was in the early days of building a startup, Suster listened.

Three years later, O’Brien is ready to talk about the idea that captured the attention of the Bird, FabFitFun and Ring investor. It’s called Projector.

It’s the brainchild of a product veteran (O’Brien) and a gaming industry engineer turned Twitter’s vice president of engineering (Projector co-founder Jeremy Gordan), a combination that has given way to an experiential and well-designed platform. Projector is browser-based, real-time collaborative design software tailored for creative teams that feels and looks like a mix of PowerPoint, Google Docs and Instagram . Though it’s still months away from a full-scale public launch, the team recently began inviting potential users to test the product for bugs.

We want to reimagine visual communication in the workplace by building these easier to use tools and giving creative powers to the non-designers who have great stories to tell and who want to make a difference,” O’Brien told TechCrunch. “They want change to happen and they need to be empowered with the right kinds of tools.”

Today, Projector is a lean team of 13 employees based in downtown San Francisco. They’ve kept quiet since late 2016 despite closing two rounds of venture capital funding. The first, a $4 million seed round, was led by Upfront’s Suster, as you may have guessed. The second, a $9 million Series A, was led by Mayfield in 2018. Hunter Walk of Homebrew, Jess Verrilli of #Angels and Nancy Duarte of Duarte, Inc. are also investors in the business, among others.

O’Brien leads Projector as chief executive officer alongside co-founder and chief technology officer Gordon. Years ago, O’Brien was pursuing a PhD in computer graphics and information visualization at Brown University when he was recruited to Google’s competitive associate product manager program. He dropped out of Brown and began a career in tech that would include stints at YouTube, Twitter, Coda and, finally, his very own business.

O’Brien and Gordan crossed paths at Twitter in 2013 and quickly realized a shared history in the gaming industry. O’Brien had spent one year as an engineer at a games startup called Mad Doc Software, while Gordon had served as the chief technology officer at Sega Studios. Gordan left Twitter in 2014 and joined Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence before O’Brien pitched him on an idea that would become Projector.

Projector co-founders Jeremy Gordan (left), Twitter’s former vice president of engineering, and Trevor O’Brien, Twitter’s former director of product management

“We knew we wanted to create a creative platform but we didn’t want to create another creative platform for purely self-expression, we wanted to do something that was a bit more purposeful,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, we just wanted to see good ideas succeed. And with all of those good ideas, succeeding typically starts with them being presented well to their audience.”

Initially, Projector is targeting employees within creative organizations and marketing firms, who are frequently tasked with creating visually compelling presentations. The tool suite is free for now and will be until it’s been sufficiently tested for bugs and has fully found its footing. O’Brien says he’s not sure just yet how the team will monetize Projector, but predicts they’ll adopt Slack’s per user monthly subscription pricing model.

As original and user-friendly as it may be, Projector is up against great competition right out of the gate. In the startup landscape, it’s got Canva, a graphic design platform valued at $2.5 billion earlier this week with a $70 million financing. On the old-guard, it’s got Adobe, which sells a widely used suite of visual communication and graphic design tools. Not to mention Prezi, Figma and, of course, Microsoft’s PowerPoint, which is total crap but still used by millions of people.

There are many tools scratching at the surface, but there’s not one visual communications tool that wins them all,” Suster said of his investment in Projector.

Projector is still in its very early days. The company currently has just two integrations: Unsplash for free stock images and Giphy for GIFs. O’Brien would eventually like to incorporate iconography, typography and sound to liven up Projector’s visual presentation capabilities.

The ultimate goal, aside from generally improving workplace storytelling, is to make crafting presentations fun, because shouldn’t a corporate slideshow or even a startup’s pitch be as entertaining as scrolling through your Instagram feed?

“We wanted to try to create something that doesn’t feel like work,” O’Brien said.

Indonesia restricts WhatsApp and Instagram usage following deadly riots

Indonesia is the latest nation to hit the hammer on social media after the government restricted the use of WhatsApp and Instagram following deadly riots yesterday.

Numerous Indonesia-based users are today reporting difficulties sending multimedia messages via WhatsApp, which is one of the country’s most popular chat apps, while the hashtag #instagramdown is trending among the country’s Twitter users due to problems accessing the Facebook-owned photo app.

Wiranto, a coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, confirmed in a press conference that the government is limiting access to social media and “deactivating certain features” to maintain calm, according to a report from Coconuts.

Rudiantara, the communications minister of Indonesia and a critic of Facebook, explained that users “will experience lag on Whatsapp if you upload videos and photos.”

Facebook — which operates both WhatsApp and Instagram — didn’t explicitly confirm the blockages , but it did say it has been in communication with the Indonesian government.

“We are aware of the ongoing security situation in Jakarta and have been responsive to the Government of Indonesia. We are committed to maintaining all of our services for people who rely on them to communicate with their loved ones and access vital information,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

A number of Indonesia-based WhatsApp users confirmed to TechCrunch that they are unable to send photos, videos and voice messages through the service. Those restrictions are lifted when using Wi-Fi or mobile data services through a VPN, the people confirmed.

The restrictions come as Indonesia grapples with political tension following the release of the results of its presidential election on Tuesday. Defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto said he will challenge the result in the constitutional court.

Riots broke out in capital state Jakarta last night, killing at least six people and leaving more than 200 people injured. Following this, it is alleged that misleading information and hoaxes about the nature of riots and people who participated in them began to spread on social media services, according to local media reports.

Protesters hurl rocks during clash with police in Jakarta on May 22, 2019. – Indonesian police said on May 22 they were probing reports that at least one demonstrator was killed in clashes that broke out in the capital Jakarta overnight after a rally opposed to President Joko Widodo’s re-election. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP)

For Facebook, seeing its services forcefully cut off in a region is no longer a rare incident. The company, which is grappling with the spread of false information in many markets, faced a similar restriction in Sri Lanka in April, when the service was completely banned for days amid terrorist strikes in the nation. India, which just this week concluded its general election, has expressed concerns over Facebook’s inability to contain the spread of false information on WhatsApp, which is its largest chat app with over 200 million monthly users.

Indonesia’s Rudiantara expressed a similar concern earlier this month.

“Facebook can tell you, ‘We are in compliance with the government’. I can tell you how much content we requested to be taken down and how much of it they took down. Facebook is the worst,” he told a House of Representatives Commission last week, according to the Jakarta Post.

Daily Crunch: Instagram influencer contact info exposed

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Millions of Instagram influencers had their private contact data scraped and exposed

A massive database containing contact information for millions of Instagram influencers, celebrities and brand accounts was found online by a security researcher.

We traced the database back to Mumbai-based social media marketing firm Chtrbox. Shortly after we reached out, Chtrbox pulled the database offline.

2. US mitigates Huawei ban by offering temporary reprieve

Last week, the Trump administration effectively banned Huawei from importing U.S. technology, a decision that forced several American companies, including Google, to take steps to sever their relationships. Now, the Department of Commerce has announced that Huawei will receive a “90-day temporary general license” to continue to use U.S. technology to which it already has a license.

3. GM’s car-sharing service Maven to exit eight cities

GM is scaling back its Maven car-sharing company and will stop service in nearly half of the 17 North American cities in which it operates.

4. Maisie Williams’ talent discovery startup Daisie raises $2.5M, hits 100K members

The actress who became famous playing Arya Stark on “Game of Thrones” has fresh funding for her startup.

5. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels to launch the app as soon as the end of this quarter.

6. Future Family launches a $200 membership for fertility coaching

In its recent user research, Future Family found that around 70% of new customers had yet to see a fertility doctor. So today, the startup is rolling out a new membership plan that offers customers a dedicated fertility coach, and helps them find a doctor in their area.

7. When will customers start buying all those AI chips?

Danny Crichton says it’s the best and worst time to be in semiconductors right now. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Instagram’s IGTV copies TikTok’s AI, Snapchat’s design

Instagram conquered Stories, but it’s losing the battle for the next video formats. TikTok is blowing up with an algorithmically suggested vertical one-at-a-time feed featuring videos of users remixing each other’s clips. Snapchat Discover’s 2 x infinity grid has grown into a canvas for multi-media magazines, themed video collections, and premium mobile TV shows.

Instagram’s IGTV…feels like a flop in comparison. Launched a year ago, it’s full of crudely cropped & imported viral trash from around the web. The long-form video hub that lives inside both a homescreen button in Instagram as well as a standalone app has failed to host lengthier must-see original vertical content. Sensor Tower estimates that the IGTV app has just 4.2 million installs worldwide with just 7,700 new ones per day — implying less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users have downloaded it. IGTV doesn’t rank on the overall charts and hangs low at #191 on the US – Photo & Video app charts according to App Annie.

Now Instagram has quietly overhauled the design of IGTV’s space inside its main app to crib what’s working from its two top competitors. The new design showed up in last week’s announcements for Instagram Explore’s new Shopping and IGTV discovery experiences. At the time, Instagram’s product lead on Explore Will Ruben told us that with the redesign, “the idea is this is more immersive and helps you to see the breadth of videos in IGTV rather than the horizontal scrolling interface that used to exist” but the company declined to answer follow-up questions about it.

IGTV has ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of algorithmically suggested videos — much like TikTok. This affords a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience that relies on Instagram’s AI to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the viewer.

IGTV has also ditched its awkward horizontal scrolling design that always kept a clip playing in the top half of the screen. Now you’ll scroll vertically through a 2 x infinity grid of recommended clips in a what looks just like Snapchat Discover feed. Once you get past a first video that auto-plays up top, you’ll find a full-screen grid of things to watch. You’ll only see the horizontal scroller in the standalone IGTV app, or if you tap into an IGTV video, and then tap the Browse button for finding a next clip while the last one plays up top.

Instagram seems to be trying to straddle the designs of its two competitors. The problem is that TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for punchy, short videos that get right to the point. If you’re bored after 5 second you swipe to the next. IGTV’s focus on long-form means its videos might start too slowly to grab your attention if they were auto-played full-screen in the feed rather than being chosen by a viewer. But Snapchat makes the most of the two previews per row design IGTV has adopted because professional publishers take the time to make compelling cover thumbnail images promoting their content. IGTV’s focus on independent creators means fewer have labored to make great cover images, so viewers have to rely on a screenshot and caption.

Instagram is prototyping a number of other features to boost engagement across its app, as discovered by reverse engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Those include options to blast a direct message to all your Close Friends at once but in individual message threads, see a divider between notifications and likes you have or haven’t seen, or post a Chat sticker to Stories that lets friends join a group message thread about that content. And to better compete with TikTok, it may let you add lyrics stickers to Stories that appear word-by-word in sync with Instagram’s licensed music soundtrack feature, and share Music Stories to Facebook. What we haven’t seen is any cropping tool for IGTV that would help users reformat landscape videos. The vertical-only restriction keeps lots of great content stuck outside IGTV, or letterboxed with black, color-matched backgrounds, or meme-style captions with the video as just a tiny slice in the middle.

When I spoke with Instagram co-founder and ex-CEO Kevin Systrom last year a few months after IGTV’s launch, he told me “It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time . . . Everything that is great starts small.”

But to grow large, IGTV needs to demonstrate how long-form portrait mode video can give us a deeper look at the nuances of the influencers and topics we care about. The company has rightfully prioritized other drives like safety and well-being with features that hide bullies and deter overuse. But my advice from August still stands despite all the ground Instagram has lost in the meantime. “Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video.” Until the content is right, it won’t matter how IGTV surfaces it.