Netflix adds 8.8M subscribers despite growing competition

Netflix grew by 8.8 million net subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to its latest earning report, putting its growth well ahead of its forecast of 7.6 million.

The company says it has 167 million paid memberships worldwide, with more than 100 million outside the United States. It also reported stronger-than-expected financials, with revenue of $5.47 billion and earnings per share of $1.30, compared to analyst estimates of $5.45 billion and EPS of 53 cents.

That’s all despite the launch of two major streaming services, Disney+ and Apple TV+, with more competition coming this year from WarnerMedia’s HBOMax and NBCUniversal’s Peacock.

Netflix addresses the competitive landscape in its letter to shareholders, arguing that there’s “ample room for many services to grow as linear TV wanes,” and noting that during Q4, “our viewing per membership grew both globally and in the US on a year over year basis, consistent with recent quarters.”

Netflix also points to Google Search Trends showing much higher interest in its original series “The Witcher” than in Disney+’s “Mandalorian,” Apple TV+’s “Morning Show” or Amazon’s “Jack Ryan.”

Google Trends

That might seem like an unfair comparison, especially since Disney+ is only available in a handful of countries so far, but Netflix argues, “If Disney+ were global we don’t think the picture would be much different, to judge from the ​NL results​ where Disney+ first launched.”

In fact, Netflix says “The Witcher” is on-track to become “our biggest season one TV series ever,” with 76 million member households choosing to watch the show. It also says 83 million households chose to watch the Michael Bay-directed action film “6 Underground.”

If you’re wondering about the slightly awkward “chose to watch” phrasing — yep, Netflix is switching up the (already controversial) way that it reports viewership. While it previously shared the number of accounts that watched at least 70% of an episode or film, it’s now looking at how many members chose to watch a show or movie, and then actually watched for at least two minutes (“long enough to indicate that the choice was intentional”).

The company says this increases viewer counts by an average of 35%.

“Our new methodology is similar to the BBC iPlayer in their rankings​ based on ‘requests’ for the title, ‘most popular’ articles on the New York Times which include those who opened the articles, and YouTube view counts,” Netflix says. “This way, short and long titles are treated equally, leveling the playing field for all types of our content including interactive content, which has no fixed length.”

One dark cloud in the earnings report is what appears to be slowing growth, with 7.0 million projected net additions in Q1 of this year, compared to 9.6 million net adds in the first quarter of 2019. Netflix attributes this to “the continued, slightly elevated churn levels we are seeing in the US,” as well as more balance between Q1 and Q2 growth this year, “due in part to the timing of last year’s price changes and a strong upcoming Q2 content slate.”

As of 4:51pm Eastern, Netflix shares were up 0.41% in after-hours trading.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech company announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to be relevant in Africa.

Original Content podcast: Netflix goes to the Oscars

When this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced on Monday, Netflix received 24 nominations — the most of any Hollywood studio.

That’s thanks in large part to “The Irishman,” which received 10 nominations, and “Marriage Story,” which received six (both films were nominated for Best Picture). As a result, Darrell finally watched Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour gangster epic — and he wasn’t impressed by the results.

He explains why on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, in we discuss our reactions to the nominations, including the eyebrow-raising 11 nods for “Joker.” This leads to a broader discussion of why the nominations were so disappointing from a diversity perspective, and what exactly we want from awards like the Oscars anyway.

In addition, we recap the latest details about NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming service Peacock, and Jordan offers a spoiler-y review of the second season of Netflix’s “You.”

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
1:01 Peacock discussion
14:21 Oscars discussion
53:17 “You” season 2 spoiler review

US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world’s most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn’t make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years — the last 27, to be exact — IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don’t tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent “families”, which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it’s very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) — notable when you think about how cars are the next “hardware” and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). “Tech” in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology… look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I’m guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262
  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469
  3. Canon Inc 3548
  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081
  5. Intel Corp 3020
  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805
  7. Apple Inc 2490
  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468
  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427
  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418
  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348
  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331
  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177
  14. Sony Corp 2142
  15. Google LLC 2102
  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034
  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946
  18. General Electric Co 1818
  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607
  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504
  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387
  22. Boeing Co 1383
  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345
  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285
  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268
  26. United Technologies Corp 1252
  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244
  28. Toshiba Corp 1170
  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158
  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107
  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080
  32. Denso Corp 1052
  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050
  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020
  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008
  36. Facebook Inc 989
  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980
  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973
  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926
  40. NEC Corp 923
  41. Kia Motors Corp 921
  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894
  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865
  44. Oracle International Corp 847
  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842
  46. Sharp Corp 819
  47. SK Hynix Inc 798
  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794
  49. Fujifilm Corp 791
  50. LG Chem Ltd 791

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘6 Underground’ is very fun and very dumb

Netflix’s “6 Underground” feels like a movie that belongs on the big screen.

Sure, it isn’t part of a giant franchise (yet), and it doesn’t feature any well-known superheroes — but it does star “Deadpool”‘s Ryan Reynolds as a wise-cracking hero who criss-crosses the globe, going from one spectacularly destructive set piece to another. And behind the camera, you’ve got Michael Bay (who made “Bad Boys” and countless “Transformers” movies) coordinating the action.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, your hosts freely admit that we … enjoyed it?

The movie is spectacularly dumb, but Bay’s approach to action — cut as often as possible and blow up everything — never gets boring. “6 Underground” opens with a fast-paced car-chase that introduces the titular team of international operatives (each of them with their own specific skill), and it follows up with scenes that are even more inventive and/or pulse-pounding.

It also helps that the script comes from “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, so there’s a glib, profane energy to all of the dialogue, and some of the jokes are genuinely funny.

But your enjoyment will hinge on your ability to turn off your brain — to not be bothered by a plot that’s both laughably slapdash and ridiculously convoluted, or by Bay’s tendency to film women as if their butts were their main features.

And you definitely don’t want think too hard about the core premise, which suggests that the world would be a better place if secretive tech billionaires ignore international law and could force regime change in the Middle East.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you want to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:42 “6 Underground” spoiler-free review
22:49 “6 Underground” spoiler discussion

Former Google Pay execs raise $13.2M to build neo-banking platform for millennials in India

Two co-founders of Google Pay in India are building a neo-banking platform in the country — and they have already secured backing from three top VC funds.

Sujith Narayanan, a veteran payments executive who co-founded Google Pay in India (formerly known as Google Tez), said on Monday that his startup, epiFi, has raised $13.2 million in its Seed financial round led by Sequoia India and Ribbit Capital. The round valued epiFi at about $50 million.

David Velez, the founder of Brazil-based neo-banking giant Nubank, Kunal Shah, who is building his second payments startup CRED in India, and VC fund Hillhouse Capital also participated in the round.

The eight-month-old startup is working on a neo-banking platform that will focus on serving millennials in India, said Narayanan, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“When we were building Google Tez, we realized that a consumer’s financial journey extends beyond digital payments. They want insurance, lending, investment opportunities and multiple products,” he explained.

The idea, in part, is to also help users better understand how they are spending money, and guide them to make better investments and increase their savings, he said.

At this moment, it is unclear what the convergence of all of these features would look like. But Narayanan said epiFi will release an app in a few months.

Working with Narayanan on epiFi is Sumit Gwalani, who serves as the startup’s co-founder and chief product and technology officer. Gwalani previously worked as a director of product management at Google India and helped conceptualize Google Tez. In a joint interview, Gwalani said the startup currently has about two-dozen employees, some of whom have joined from Netflix, Flipkart, and PayPal.

Shailesh Lakhani, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, said some of the fundamental consumer banking products such as savings accounts haven’t seen true innovation in many years. “Their vision to reimagine consumer banking, by providing a modern banking product with epiFi, has the potential to bring a step function change in experience for digitally savvy consumers,” he said.

Cash dominates transactions in India today. But New Delhi’s move to invalidate most paper bills in circulation in late 2016 pushed tens of millions of Indians to explore payments app for the first time.

In recent years, scores of startups and Silicon Valley firms have stepped to help Indians pay digitally and secure a range of financial services. And all signs suggest that a significant number of people are now comfortable with mobile payments: More than 100 million users together made over 1 billion digital payments transaction in October last year — a milestone the nation has sustained in the months since.

A handful of startups are also attempting to address some of the challenges that small and medium sized businesses face. Bangalore-based Open, NiYo, and RazorPay provide a range of features such as corporate credit cardsa single dashboard to manage transactions and the ability to automate recurring payouts that traditional banks don’t currently offer. These platforms are also known as neo-bank or challenger banks or alternative banks. Interestingly, most neo-banking platforms in South Asia today serve startups and businesses — not individuals.

Netflix and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Goop Lab’ will launch on January 24

“The Goop Show,” an upcoming reality series co-hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow and tied to her lifestyle company Goop, now has a launch date and a trailer.

Goop has faced many accusations of promoting and selling pseudoscience — most notoriously, perhaps, in selling jade eggs for vaginas — and it seems like the series is embracing the site’s reputation, as it will feature what Netflix calls “boundary-pushing wellness topics.”

In fact, the company also released an eyebrow-raising poster today, with the tagline “reach new depths.”

And if you watch the trailer, you’ll see that the topics will include energy healing, psychedelics, cold therapy, psychic mediums and orgasms. At one point, Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen (who’s co-hosting with Paltrow) declares, “What we try to do at Goop is explore ideas that may seem out there or too scary.”

The show was first announced in February 2019. It will premiere on January 24.

This may also be a good time to remind people of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ remarks last year, in response to questions about the decision to pull an episode of Hasan Minaj’s “Patriot Act” in Saudi Arabia: “We’re not in the truth to power business, we’re in the entertainment business.”

India’s ruling party accused of running deceptive Twitter campaign to gain support for a controversial law

Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in India, has been accused of running a highly deceptive Twitter campaign to trick citizens into supporting a controversial law.

First, some background: The Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last month that eases the path of non-Muslim minorities from the neighboring Muslim-majority nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to gain Indian citizenship.

But, combined with a proposed national register of citizens, critics have cautioned that it discriminates against minority Muslims in India and chips away at India’s secular traditions.

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people in the country — if not more — have participated in peaceful protests across the nation against the law. The Indian government, which has temporarily cut down internet access and mobile communications in many parts of India to contain the protests, has so far shown no signs of withdrawing the law.

On Saturday, it may have found a new way to gain support for it, however.

India’s Home Minister Amit Shah on Thursday tweeted a phone number, urging citizens to place a call to that number in “support of the CAA law.”

Thousands of people in India today, many affiliated with the BJP party, began circulating that phone number on Twitter with the promise that anyone who places a call would be offered job opportunities, free mobile data, Netflix credentials, and even company with “lonely women.”

Huffington Post India called the move latest “BJP ploy” to win support for its controversial law. BoomLive, a fact checking organization based in India, reported the affiliation of many of these people to the ruling party.

We have reached out to a BJP spokesperson and Twitter spokespeople for comment.

If the allegations are true, this won’t be the first time BJP has used Twitter to aggressively promote its views. In 2017, BuzzFeed News reported that a number of political hashtags that appeared in the top 10 Twitter’s trends column in India were the result of organized campaigns.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, last year demonstrated how easy it was to manipulate many politicians in the country to tweet certain things after he gained accessed to a Google document of prepared statements and tinkered with the content.

Last month, snowfall in Kashmir, a highly sensitive region that hasn’t had internet connection for more than four months, began trending on Twitter in the U.S. It mysteriously disappeared after many journalists questioned how it made it to the list.

When we reached out, a Twitter spokesperson in India pointed TechCrunch to an FAQ article that explained how Trending Topics work. Nothing in the FAQ article addressed the question.

The streaming wars to come

After years of speculation and hype, major players in Hollywood and Silicon Valley are getting ready to challenge Netflix .

It’s only been a few months since Apple launched TV+, followed quickly by Disney launching Disney+. And there’s more to come this year, with AT&T-owned WarnerMedia preparing to release HBO Max, while NBCUniversal does the same with Peacock.

Even before they’re available to subscribers, these new offerings are shaking up the status quo: As part of their preparation, Hollywood studios are consolidating, and they’re reclaiming key titles like “Friends” and “The Office” from rival platforms.

Netflix, in turn, has been preparing for a world where its old content partners are either unwilling to license key titles, or charging a much higher price when they do — hence the service’s seemingly endless flood of original content, and its exclusive contracts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with big-name creators.

Studios don’t have much of a choice here: with declining box office at U.S. movie theaters and declining ratings for traditional TV, audiences are shifting and Hollywood must move with it, or be left behind.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Witcher’ shows off big muscles and bigger monsters

It’s easy to see “The Witcher” as Netflix’s answer to “Game of Thrones,” thanks to its impressive special effects and its big movie star lead (Henry Cavill, previously best known as Superman in the recent DC films) — not to mention its willingness to put blood, guts and naked female bodies on-screen.

But in other ways, “The Witcher” feels like a throwback to an earlier generation of fantasy TV, and to shows like “Xena: Warrior Princess.” While longer storylines weave their way through the eight-episode season — and those storylines tie together quite cleverly — the show also maintains an old-fashioned devotion to self-contained storytelling, with Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia battling different adversaries in each episode.

And as we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we both found this to be pretty refreshing. Once you get past its gray surface, “The Witcher” turns out to be delightfully unpretentious, reveling in its pulpiness and occasionally poking fun at its stoic hero with preposterously large muscles.

That sense of fun also made us more forgiving of touches like rushed plots and anachronistic dialogue.

And while the setting might seem, at first, to resemble a generic copy of George R. R. Martin, we were both won over by “The Witcher”’s world-building; even though neither of us could keep track of all the made-up countries going to war with each other, we were still impressed by the intricate mythology behind some of the show’s monsters.

You can listen to our spoiler-free discussion in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)