Khosla GP launches Bling Capital to help seed-stage startups build products

At Facebook, where he was the first-ever director of platform, they called him Bling. At YouTube the following year, they still called him Bling. At Google in 2010, they continued to call him Bling. Even at Khosla Ventures, where Ben Ling has been a general partner for the past five years, the nickname stuck.

It was only natural that Bling Capital would be the name of his debut venture capital fund, a $60 million seed-stage vehicle backed by Marissa Mayer, Nellie and Max Levchin, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo.

We first spotted Bling Capital’s $60 million filing two months back; this week, TechCrunch sat down with Ling, who will officially depart from Khosla next month, to learn more about his investment strategy and why he’s venturing off on his own.

Bling Capital founder Ben Ling

Ling joined Khosla in 2013 to invest in consumer technology, internet, mobile, marketplace, SaaS and consumer health. In his tenure as a general partner and angel investor, he deployed capital to nine “unicorns,” including Lyft, Palantir, Square, Instacart and Zenefits. But he wanted the freedom to invest at a more rapid clip.

“Going out on my own allows me to be more agile; a sole GP can act a lot more quickly and speed matters a lot in seed,” Ling said. “And I love early-stage and product because I think there is a void in the marketplace — there’s a lot of money in seed but there’s not a lot of product builders in seed.”

Ling will invest between $750,000 and $1 million in one to two U.S. companies per month in exchange for 10 percent equity.

The firm is in the process of closing two funds: a $60 million flagship vehicle that will invest in consumer tech, internet and mobile, marketplace, data, fintech, SaaS and automation startups, and a $30 million opportunities fund, per an SEC filing, reserved for follow-on investments.

“It’s pretty much the things that a Google, a Facebook or an Amazon would be interested in,” Ling said, referring to where the fund will invest. “What’s it’s not is crypto, or rockets or enterprise, but it’s pretty much everything else when we think about the world of the internet.”

Given Ling’s experience, the fund will have a particular focus on product. Ling is the sole general partner of Bling, but he’s recruited a team of roughly 60 experts to work with his portfolio company executives as part of what Ling has dubbed his Product CouncilThat includes the heads of product at Square, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Nextdoor and Uber, who also are all investors in the fund.

Members of the Product Council will be available to consult with founders and may become advisors, investors or board members, if it’s a good match.

WhatsApp’s chief business officer is leaving

Roughly one year after WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton made his highly-publicized exit from Facebook, another executive and early employee of the messaging platform is doing the same. Neeraj Arora, WhatsApp’s chief business officer, announced today that he would be “taking some time off to recharge and spend time with family.”

Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014 and pledged to allow the messaging giant to continue to operate independently under Acton and co-founder Jan Koum, who served as its chief executive officer until abruptly quitting over privacy and data concerns in April. Arora, who joined WhatsApp in 2011 from Google, was rumored to be the frontrunner to replace Koum as CEO. With him out the door, it’s unclear who will be tapped to lead WhatsApp .

In today’s announcement, Arora said he was “deeply indebted” to both Acton and Koum, “who entrusted me to be their business companion for so many years.”

Facebook subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram are both in periods of flux following the exits of their original founders, which are believed to be caused by quarrels with the social media giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg .

In what was one of the largest tech stories of 2018, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced they were leaving Facebook years after the company acquired their photo-sharing app for $1 billion. They shared the news in September, just a few months after Koum stepped down from WhatsApp.

According to The New York Times, Zuckerberg, over the course of the last year, had begun to assert more and more control over Instagram, upsetting its leaders.

Koum, for his part, reportedly wrote in a since-removed WhatsApp blog post that Zuckerberg and Facebook no longer had respect for privacy: “These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends they day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect your personal data… remember, when advertising is involved, you the user are the product.”

According to TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, Koum was unhappy “about how Facebook would monetize his app and the impact of that on privacy.” Both Acton and Koum departed Facebook before they fully vested from the multi-billion acquisition, meaning the pair chose to lose hundreds of millions of dollars over continued employment at Facebook.

Arora’s exit is further evidence that Facebook has entered a new era, one in which the company’s acquisition strategy may be in serious danger of long-term damage.

You can read Arora’s full post below.

Instagram kills off fake followers, threatens accounts that keep using apps to get them

Instagram is fighting back against automated apps people use to leave spammy comments or follow then unfollow others in hopes of growing their audience. Today Instagram is removing inauthentic follows, Likes, and comments that violate its policies from people’s accounts who use these apps; sending them a warning to change their password to cut ties with these apps, and saying people who continue using these apps “may see their Instagram experience impacted”. Instagram tells me it “may limit access to certain features, for example” for those users.

Instagram is also hoping to discourage users from ever giving another company the login details to their accounts as this can lead to them being hacked or having their account used to send spam. So if you see Instagram follower accounts drop, it’s not because that profile offended people, but because to followers were fake.

The renewed vigor for policy enforcement comes amidst the continuing threat of foreign misinformation campaigns on Facebook and Instagram designed to polarize communities and influence elections in the US and abroad. Facebook has said that inauthentic accounts are often the root of these campaigns, and it has removed 754 million fake accounts in the past quarter alone, and stopping these spam apps could prevent them from misusing clients’ accounts. Instagram has been taking down fake accounts since at least 2014, but this is the first time it’s publicly discussed removing fake likes from posts. It now says “We’ve built machine learning tools to help identify accounts that use [third-party apps for boosting followers] and remove the inauthentic activity.”

Some of the most popular bot apps for growing followers like Instagress and Social Growth have been shut down, but others like Archie, InstarocketProX, and Boostio charge $10 to $45 per month. They often claim not to violate Instagram’s policies, though they do. The New York Times this year found many well-known celebrities had stooped to buying fake Twitter followers from a company called Devumi.

Users typically have to provide their username and password to these services which then take control of their accounts and automatically Like, comment on, and follow accounts associated with desired hashtags to dupe them into following the unscrupulous user back. The spam app users will now get scolded by Instagram, which will send “an in-app message alerting them that we have removed the inauthentic likes, follows and comments given by their account to others” and be told to change their passwords.

InstarocketProX advertises how it sends fake likes and follows from your account to get you followers

One big question, though, is whether Instagram will crack down harder on ads for services that sell fake followers that appear on its app. I’ve spotted these in the past, and they sometimes masquerade as analytics apps for assisting influencers with tracking the size of their audience. We asked Instagram and a spokesperson told us “Ads are also subject to our Community Standards, which prohibit spammy activity like collecting likes, followers, etc. — so you are correct that ads promoting these services violate our policies. Please feel free to report them if you see them”.

Follower accounts on apps like Instagram have become measures of people’s influence, credibility, and earning potential. This is becoming especially true for social media stars who are paid for brand sponsorships in part based on their audience size. Now that brands are even paying “nanoinfluencers” with as a few as one thousand followers to post sponsored content, the allure to use these services can be high and lead to an immediate return on illicit investment.

If no one can believe those counts are accurate, it throws Instagram’s legitimacy into question. And every time you get a notification about a fake follow or Like, it distracts you from real life, dilutes the quality of conversation on Instagram, and makes people less likely to stick with the app. Anyone willing to pay for fake followers doesn’t deserve your attention, and Instagram should not hold back from terminating their accounts if they don’t stop.

WhatsApp could wreck Snapchat again by copying ephemeral messaging

WhatsApp already ruined Snapchat’s growth once. WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories, now has 450 million daily active users compared to Snapchat’s 188 million. That’s despite its 24-hour disappearing slideshows missing tons of features, including augmented reality selfie masks, animated GIFs, or personalized avatars like Bitmoji. A good-enough version of Stories conveniently baked into the messaging app beloved in the developing world where Snapchat hasn’t proved massively successful. Snapchat actually lost total daily users in Q2 and Q3 2018, and even lost Rest Of World daily users in Q2 despite that being where late-stage social networks rely on for growth.

That’s why it’s so surprising that WhatsApp hasn’t already copied the other big Snapchat feature, ephemeral messaging. When chats can disappear, people feel free to be themselves — more silly, more vulnerable, more expressive. For teens who’ve purposefully turned away from the permanence of the Facebook profile timeline, there’s a sense of freedom in ephemerality. You don’t have to worry about old stuff coming back to haunt or embarrass you. Snapchat rode this idea to become a cultural staple for the younger generation.

Yet right now WhatsApp only lets you send permanent photos, videos, and texts. There is an Unsend option, but it only works for an hour after a message is sent. That’s far from the default ephemerality of Snapchat where seen messages disappear once you close the chat window unless you purposefully tap to save them.

Instagram has arrived at a decent compromise. You can send both permanent and temporary photos and videos. Text messages are permanent by default, but you can unsend even old ones. The result is the flexibility to both chat through expiring photos and off-the-cuff messages knowing they will or can disappear, while also being able to have reliable, utilitarian chats and privately share photos for posterity without the fear that one wrong tap could erase them. When Instagram Direct added ephemeral messaging, it saw a growth spurt to over 375 million monthly users as of April 2017.

Snapchat lost daily active users the past two quarters

WhatsApp should be able to build this pretty easily. Add a timer option when people send media so photos or videos can disappear after 10 seconds, a minute, an hour, or a day. Let people add a similar timer to specific messages they send, or set a per chat thread default for how long your messages last similar to fellow encrypted messaging app Signal.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s memo leaked by Cheddar’s Alex Heath indicates that he views chats with close friends as the linchpin of his app that was hampered by this year’s disastrous redesign. He constantly refers to Snapchat as the fastest way to communicate. That might be true for images but not necessarily text, as BTIG’s Rich Greenfield points out, citing how expiring text can cause conversations to break down. It’s likely that Snapchat will double down on messaging now that Stories has been copied to death.

Given its interest in onboarding older users, that might mean making texts easier to keep permanent or at least lengthening how long they last before they disappear. And with its upcoming Project Mushroom re-engineering of the Snapchat app so it works better in developing markets, Snap will increasingly try to become WhatsApp.

…Unless WhatsApp can become Snapchat first. Spiegel proved people want the flexibility of temporary messaging. Who cares who invented something if it can be brought to more people to deliver more joy? WhatsApp should swallow its pride and embrace the ephemeral.

Limiting social media use reduced loneliness and depression in new experiment

The idea that social media can be harmful to our mental and emotional well-being is not a new one, but little has been done by researchers to directly measure the effect; surveys and correlative studies are at best suggestive. A new experimental study out of Penn State, however, directly links more social media use to worse emotional states, and less use to better.

To be clear on the terminology here, a simple survey might ask people to self-report that using Instagram makes them feel bad. A correlative study would, for example, find that people who report more social media use are more likely to also experience depression. An experimental study compares the results from an experimental group with their behavior systematically modified, and a control group that’s allowed to do whatever they want.

This study, led by Melissa Hunt at Penn State’s psychology department, is the latter — which despite intense interest in this field and phenomenon is quite rare. The researchers only identified two other experimental studies, both of which only addressed Facebook use.

One hundred and forty-three students from the school were monitored for three weeks after being assigned to either limit their social media use to about 10 minutes per app (Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram) per day or continue using it as they normally would. They were monitored for a baseline before the experimental period and assessed weekly on a variety of standard tests for depression, social support and so on. Social media usage was monitored via the iOS battery use screen, which shows app use.

The results are clear. As the paper, published in the latest Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, puts it:

The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baseline, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring.

Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.

It’s not the final word in this, however. Some scores did not see improvement, such as self-esteem and social support. And later follow-ups to see if feelings reverted or habit changes were less than temporary were limited because most of the subjects couldn’t be compelled to return. (Psychology, often summarized as “the study of undergraduates,” relies on student volunteers who have no reason to take part except for course credit, and once that’s given, they’re out.)

That said, it’s a straightforward causal link between limiting social media use and improving some aspects of emotional and social health. The exact nature of the link, however, is something at which Hunt could only speculate:

Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.

When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.

The researchers acknowledge the limited nature of their study and suggest numerous directions for colleagues in the field to take it from here. A more diverse population, for instance, or including more social media platforms. Longer experimental times and comprehensive follow-ups well after the experiment would help, as well.

The 30-minute limit was chosen as a conveniently measurable one, but the team does not intend to say that it is by any means the “correct” amount. Perhaps half or twice as much time would yield similar or even better results, they suggest: “It may be that there is an optimal level of use (similar to a dose response curve) that could be determined.”

Until then, we can use common sense, Hunt suggested: “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”

Monashees raises $150 million for its eighth Brazilian fund

As technology investment and exits continue to rise across Brazil, early stage venture capital firm monashees today announced that it has closed on $150 million for its eighth investment fund.

Commitments came from Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund affiliated with the Singaporean government, China’s financial technology company, CreditEase; Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, the University of Minnesota endowment; and fund-of-funds investor Horsley Bridge Partners.

S-Cubed Capital, the family office of former Sequoia Capital partner, Mark Stevens, and fifteen high net worth Brazilian families and investment groups also invested in the firm’s latest fund.

As one of the largest venture capital firms in Latin America with over $430 million in capital under management, monashees has been involved in some of the most successful investments to come from the region. Altogether, monashees portfolio companies have gone on to raise roughly $2 billion from global investors after raising money from the Sao Paulo-based venture capital firm.

“We are excited to further advance our partnership with the monashees team,” said Du Chai, Managing Director at Horsley Bridge Partners . “Over the course of our partnership, we have continued to be impressed by monashees’ strong team, platform and their ability to attract the region’s leading entrepreneurs.”

In the past year, investment in Latin American startup companies has exploded.  The ride-hailing service 99 was acquired for $1 billion and Rappi, a delivery service, managed to raise $200 million at a $1 billion valuation. Another delivery service, Loggi, caught the attention of SoftBank, which invested $100 million into the Brazilian company.

Public markets are also rewarding Latin American startups with continued investment and high valuations. Stone Pagamentos, a provider of payment hardware technology, raised $1.1 billion in its public offering on the Nasdaq with an initial market capitalization of $6.6 billion.

“monashees brings a truly unique set of skills to the table, with a disciplined investment strategy, as well as the unmatched local expertise and knowledge that leads the team to identify and invest in the region’s best founders,” said Stuart Mason, Chief Investment Officer at the University of Minnesota . “The recent billion-dollar acquisition of 99 by DiDi is not only a milestone for the local ecosystem, but validation of this sentiment and suggests that there’s no liquidity hurdle for great companies in Latin America. We are excited to partner with monashees as it continues to find and nurture the best opportunities going forward.”

 

James Patterson released a work of interactive fiction on Facebook Messenger

One of the world’s best-selling authors is experimenting with a new form of digital-first storytelling.

James Patterson has partnered with Facebook to release his latest novel,‘The Chef’, on its messaging app. The thriller has been available to read on Facebook Messenger since Tuesday and will make its print debut in February. Interested readers just have to send a message to “The Chef by James Patterson” on Messenger to get started with the immersive reading experience.

Facebook Messenger counts 1.3 billion monthly users. Patterson, known for the Alex Cross series, ‘The President is Missing,’ ‘Witch & Wizard,’ and others, has sold some 375 million books worldwide.

The story follows Caleb Rooney, a New Orleans police detective by day and food truck chef by night that’s been accused of murder. The short novel is formatted like a series of text messages, with video, audio, photos and documents interspersed. Rooney and the book’s other leading characters have Instagram accounts for fans to interact with.

The novel’s social media play taps into the new generation of content consumers — those accustomed to layered, multi-media experiences.

Patterson told Cheddar he considers the project a “bookie,” or a book meets a movie. The author is no stranger to innovative experiments, he’s previously released a line of super-short, $4 books and was an early pioneer of e-books.

“It’s so important to me that books … keep up — that they enter the modern age,” Patterson said.

Snapchat’s PR firm sues influencer for not promoting Spectacles on Instagram

Influcencer marketing could get a lot more accountable if Snapchat’s PR firm wins this lawsuit. Snapchat hoped that social media stars promoting v2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses on its biggest competitor could boost interest after it only sold 220,000 of v1 and had to take a $40 million write-off. Instead Snap comes off looking a little desperate to make Spectacles seem cool.

Snap Inc comissioned its public relations firm PR Consulting (real imaginative) to buy its an influencer marketing campaign on Instagram . The firm struck a deal with Grown-ish actor Luka Sabbat after he was seen cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian. Sabbat got paid $45,000 up front with the promise of another $15,000 to post himself donning Spectacles on Instagram.

He was contracted to make one Instagram feed post and three Stories posts with him wearing Specs, plus be photographed wearing them in public at Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks. He was supposed to add swipe-up-to-buy links to two of those Story posts, get all the posts pre-approved with PRC, and send it analytics metrics about their performance.

But Sabbat skipped out on two of the Stories, one of the swipe-ups, the photo shoots, the pre-approvals, and the analytics. So as Variety’s Gene Maddaus first reported, PRC is suing Sabbat to recoup the $45,000 it already paid plus another $45,000 in damages.

TechCrunch has attained a copy of the lawsuit filing, embedded below, that states “Sabbat has been unjustly enriched and PRC is entitled to damages.” Snap confirms to us that it hired PRC to run the campaign, and that it also contracted a campaign with fashion blog Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine Cohen. And as a courtesy, I Photoshopped some Spectacles onto Sabbat above.

But interestingly, Snap says it was not involved in the decision to sue Sabbat. The debacle brings unwanted attention to the pay-for-promotion deal that brands typically tried to avoid when commissioning influencer marketing. The whole thing is supposed to feel subtle and natural. Instead, PRC’s suit probably cost Snapchat more than $90,000 in reputation.

The case could solidify the need for influencer marketing contracts to come with prorated payment terms where stars are paid fractions of the total purse after each post rather than getting any upfront, as The Fashion Law writes. PRC’s choice to chase Sabbat even despite the problematic publicity for its client Snap might convince other influencers to abide more closely to the details of their contracts. If social media creators want to keep turning their passion into their profession, they’re going to have to prove they’re accountable. Otherwise brands will slide back to traditional ads.

Social commerce startup Goxip lands $1.4M investment to add flexible payments

Social e-commerce startup Goxip raised $5 million in January, and now the Hong Kong-based business has brought in more cash with a strategic $1.4 million investment from financial services company Convoy. Existing backers including Chinese photo app company Meitu also took part.

Convoy offers a range of services that include asset management, insurance and other investment options. Hong Kong’s largest financial advisory with over 100,000 customers, Convoy isn’t in great shape now. It has been in crisis over legal action and a corruption investigation that is centered around a former company director.

The company’s shares remain suspended on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange although it recently made appointments aimed at modernizing its business and this deal is likely another part of that strategy. Convoy’s portfolio of strategic investments includes Nutmeg in the UK and Ireland’s Currencyfair, which bought up Convoy’s payments arm.

Goxip said it will use the capital and the new relationship with Convoy to offer more installment-based financing options on its service, which is akin to a ‘shoppable Instagram’ that has a focus on high-end fashion.

The company already counts major retailers like Net-a-Porter, Harrods, and ASOS and brands that include like Nike, Alexander McQueen and Topshop. To date, Goxip has helped customers find outfits and buy them but now, with Convoy, it wants to offer payment plans using a virtual credit card, Goxip co-founder and CEO Juliette Gimenez told TechCrunch.

With 600,000 monthly users and average orders of $300, Goxip is getting close to breaking even, Gimenez said, but she is hopeful that offering staggered payment options over varying periods such as 6-12 months will serve Goxip well as it expands in Southeast Asia where typical consumers spend less. That’ll happen soon after the company opened an office in Bangkok ahead of an imminent launch in Thailand, its second expansion after Malaysia.

Goxip has just opened an office in Bangkok ahead of an upcoming launch in Thailand

Beyond geographical additions, Goxip has also branched out into influencer marking this year with its soon-to-launch RewardSnap service. Similar to Rewardstyle in the U.S, it will enable internet influencers — and particularly those on Instagram — to partner with brands and make money through referrals to their audience. Gimenez said that 150 influencers have signed up, including Elly Lam who has 14 million followers across all platforms.

Instagram is beefing up its commerce focus — with the addition of a shopping tab and new management at the wheel — but Gimenez said she isn’t phased. She points to the fact that Facebook, which owns Instagram, hasn’t been able to make e-commerce work in Asia, while the simplicity of Rewardsnap and its connection to the Goxip service, makes it highly defensible even as Instagram ups its shopping game.

Robby Stein to talk about Instagram beyond Systrom at Disrupt Berlin

Last month, Instagram co-founders CEO Kevin Systrom and CTO Mike Krieger announced that they would be leaving Instagram and Facebook. All eyes are now on Instagram to figure out what’s going to happen to the photo and video app. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Instagram Product Director Robby Stein is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Instagram is Facebook’s next big bet. Facebook’s growth has slowed down, which puts even more pressure on Instagram. Compared to Facebook, Instagram is still a relatively young platform. More and more people are joining Instagram and stories are boosting engagement.

Facebook currently has 2.23 billion monthly users while Instagram has 1 billion users. Many people have an active account on both platforms. But does Instagram have what it takes to reach Facebook’s scale?

When it comes to product, Instagram has relentlessly released new features over the past few years. Stories have become a creative playground, stars can share longer videos on IGTV and you can now start group video chats from the app.

It’s impressive to see that such a big platform keeps releasing radical changes that will affect over a billion users. Instagram has been moving incredibly fast. And it’s been key when it comes to fostering growth.

Stein will tell us more about Instagram’s product design strategy and what’s coming up. It’s always interesting to hear the perspective of an insider to analyze product decisions and discuss them.

Before joining Instagram, he was the co-founder and CEO of Stamped, which was acquired by Yahoo back in 2012. Stein started his career at Google. In a short period of time, he managed to work for Google, Facebook and Yahoo, and he also founded his own startup. Quite an impressive resume.

And if you want to hear what it feels like to work for Instagram at a pivotal moment, you should come to Disrupt Berlin. The conference will take place on November 29-30 and you can buy your ticket right now.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

Robby Stein

Product Director, Instagram

Robby Stein is Product Director at Instagram, where he leads the consumer product team for sharing, which includes Stories, Feed, Live and Direct Messaging. Previously he was the Co-Founder and CEO of Stamped, which was acquired by Yahoo in 2012. At Yahoo, Robby led mobile video products focused around recommended content. He started his career at Google, where he worked to bring new features to market for Gmail and Ad Exchange. He has been recognized on the Forbes 30 under 30 and graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern University.