Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 road map for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc., Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for nonprofits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

Back in 2013 when Facebook launched its Donate button, I suggested that it could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different. We’ve also asked whether Instagrammers will be able to raise money for personal causes, which would make it more of a competitor to GoFundMe — which has sadly become the social safety net for many facing healthcare crises.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for nonprofits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse-engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the nonprofit search engine. A Facebook spokespeople tells me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerberg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call last month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good.” Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase rather than abandoning their cart. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future.” Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing nonprofits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benign secondary business benefit speeds companies toward assisting nonprofits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial buys UK currency exchange giant WorldFirst reportedly for around $700M

Ant Financial, the financial services behemoth affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has made its first big move into Europe. It’s acquired London-headquartered payments company WorldFirst in a deal that sources tell us is valued at around $700 million.

(That price would also line up with multiple reports from December claiming the two were in talks for an acquisition of around £550 million, or $717 million at current exchange rates.)

This isn’t your average multi-hundred million dollar acquisition. The deal was confirmed by WorldFirst in a note to customers while Alibaba, which curiously didn’t put out an official press release, acknowledged the acquisition to us through a spokesperson.

Yet despite a relatively under-the-radar outing, the deal has potentially significant consequences. It not only underscores the strong market connections between China and Europe, but also the margin (and thus strategic) pressures that many smaller remittance companies are under in the wake of larger companies like Amazon building its own money-moving services, as well as competition from local players in Asia.

One of a number of globally active money remittance services, 15-year-old WorldFirst lets businesses and consumers move money between countries at prices that are lower than regular banks.

The company claims to have transferred over £70 billion ($90 billion) for customers since 2004, with more than one million transfers made each year. WorldFirst is a player in the competitive remittance market, in which migrant workers send money home to family, who can make transfers online or in person at WorldFirst outlets.

Ant Financial is best known for its Alipay service, which is China’s dominant mobile payment app with over 550 million registered users. Alibaba owns one-third of Ant, which is valued at as much as $150 billion, and it has been pushing to expand its empire outside of China and beyond Asia Pacific, too.

“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” WorldFirst co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Quin wrote in an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch.

According to Quin, WorldFirst will retain its brand and become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ant Financial. Many merchants in the UK already accept Alipay, which has expanded to cater for Chinese tourists spending money overseas.

“The tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s range of technology solutions,” an Ant Financial spokesperson told TechCrunch without disclosing the size of the buyout.

WorldFirst has been financed by private equity investors and, as a private company, it keeps its financial details closely held, but in August 2018 it noted that it had transferred more than $95 billion for some 160,000 customers — businesses and individuals included. A source told us its GMV was around $10 billion a year.

But sources noted that it was under pressure of its own that would have made securing a deal with Ant even more of a priority.

“That whole sector of payments from the West to China sellers for e-commerce is under massive margin pressure from Amazon going direct with its own service, plus new China based entrants PingPong, LianLian and Airwallex,” one executive very close to the remittance space told us. “WorldFirst had recently seen low to declining growth because of this.” Another source said that it had been shopping itself around.

(The Amazon reference is related to Amazon PayCode, a new service it has built with Western Union to let people in markets where Amazon has not launched a local site to pay for goods in local currencies on its platform. The deal was first announced in October last year, and has seen the two companies offering payment alternatives in places like Thailand and Kenya to remove the need to transfer payments in other ways, via Alipay or whatever transfer service a seller or buyer might use.)

The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a presence in Europe, but it comes amid some stumbles for the company in its other attempts to expand internationally.

Notably, the company agreed to acquire Nasdaq-listed MoneyGram for $1.2 billion in 2017 after it won a bidding war for the global payment company. Ultimately, however, the deal was blocked by the U.S. government. Bruised by the episode, which set its plans back by a year, Ant went on to raise an enormous $14 billion funding round last summer during which time it presumably kicked off the search for a MoneyGram alternative.

While WorldFirst is based out of the UK, the company last year made a key move to expand its US operations when it was announced in August that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based startup Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology but was selling it to focus on the other side of its business, providing currency exchange APIs to larger B2B customers.

It looked like all systems go for WorldFirst to move deeper in the US after that. But then, the company abruptly announced on February 20 that it planned to close the U.S-based business. The move may have been made to prevent a repeat of that scuppered MoneyGram acquisition.

WorldFirst is closing its business in the U.S. in a move widely seen as a precursor to its acquisition by Ant Financial

Outside of the U.S. and China, Ant Financial has aggressively expanded its presence in Asia through a series of investment deals that have seen it put $200 million into Kakao Pay in Korea, and find similar deals in Southeast Asia. The overall strategy appears to be to replicate the success of Alipay in China, where it offers mobile payments and digital financial services that cover loans, banking and wealth management.

In a show of its global ambition, Alipay just this week announced a deal to bring its payment option to U.S. Walgreens stores. A previous partnership with point-of-sale company First Data added Alipay to four million retail partners Stateside, and the company has similar deals in Europe and parts of Asia.

The plot to revive Mt. Gox and repay victims’ Bitcoin

It was the Lehman Brothers of blockchain. 850,000 Bitcoin disappeared when cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox imploded in 2014 after a series of hacks. The incident cemented the industry’s reputation as frighteningly insecure. Now a controversial crypto celebrity named Brock Pierce is trying to get the Mt. Gox flameout’s 24,000 victims their money back and build a new company from the ashes.

Pierce spoke to TechCrunch for the first interview about Gox Rising — his plan to reboot the Mt. Gox brand and challenge Coinbase and Binance for the title of top cryptocurrency exchange. He claims there’s around $630 million and 150,000 Bitcoin are waiting in the Mt. Gox bankruptcy trust, and Pierce wants to solve the legal and technical barriers to getting those assets distributed back to their rightful owners.

The consensus from several blockchain startup CEOs I spoke with was that the plot is “crazy”, but that it also has the potential to right one of the biggest wrongs marring the history of Bitcoin.

The Fall Of Mt. Gox

The story starts with Magic: The Gathering. Mt. Gox launched in 2006 as a place for players of the fantasy card game to trade monsters and spells before cryptocurrency came of age. The Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange wasn’t designed to safeguard huge quantities of Bitcoin from legions of hackers, but founder Jed McCaleb pivoted the site to do that in 2010. Seeking to focus on other projects, he gave 88 percent of the company to French software engineer Mark Karpeles, and kept 12 percent. By 2013, the Tokyo-based Mt. Gox had become the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange, handling 70 percent of all Bitcoin trades. But security breaches, technology problems, and regulations were already plaguing the service.

Then everything fell apart. In February 2014, Mt. Gox halted withdrawls due to what it called a bug in Bitcoin, trapping assets in user accounts. Mt. Gox discovered that it had lost over 700,000 Bitcoins due to theft over the past few years. By the end of the month, it had suspended all trading and filed for bankruptcy protection, which would contribute to a 36 percent decline in Bitcoin’s price. It admitted that 100,000 of its own Bitcoin atop 750,000 owned by customers had been stolen.

Mt. Gox is now undergoing bankruptcy rehabilitation in Japan overseen by court-appointed trustee and veteran bankruptcy lawyer Nobuaki Kobayashi to establish a process for compensating the 24,000 victims who filed claims. There’s now 137,892 Bitcoin, 162,106 Bitcoin Cash, and some other forked coins in Mt. Gox’s holdings, along with $630 million cash from the sale of 25 percent of the Bitcoin that Kobayashi handled at a precient price point above where it is today. But five years later, creditors still haven’t been paid back. 

A Rescue Attempt

Brock Pierce, the eccentric crypto celebrity

Pierce had actually tried to acquire Mt. Gox in 2013. The child actor known from The Mighty Ducks had gone on to work with a talent management company called Digital Entertainment Network. But accusations of sex crimes led Pierce and some team members to flee the US to Spain until they were extradited back. Pierce wasn’t charged and paid roughly $21,000 to settle civil suits, but his cohorts were convicted of child molestation and child pornography.

The situation still haunts Pierce’s reputation and makes some in the industry apprehensive to be associated with him. But he managed to break into the virtual currency business, setting up World Of Warcraft gold mining farms in China. He claims to have eventually run the world’s largest exchanges for WOW Gold and Second Life Linden Dollars.

Soon Pierce was becoming a central figure in the blockchain scene. He co-founded Blockchain Capital, and eventually the EOS Alliance as well as a much-derided “crypto utopia” in Puerto Rico called Sol. His eccentric, Burning Man-influenced fashion made him easy to spot at the industry’s many conferences.

As Bitcoin and Mt. Gox rose in late 2012, Pierce tried to buy it, but “my biggest investor was Goldman Sachs. Goldman was not a fan of me buying the biggest Bitcoin exchange” due to the regulatory issues, Pierce tells me. But he also suspected the exchange was built on a shaky technical foundation that led him to stop pursuing the deal. “I thought there was a big risk factor in the Mt. Gox back-end. That was my intuition and I’m glad it was because my intuition was dead right.”

After Mt. Gox imploded, Pierce claims his investment group Sunlot Holdings successfully bought founder McCaleb’s 12 percent stake for 1 Bitcoin, though McCaleb says he didn’t receive the Bitcoin and it’s not clear if the deal went through. Pierce also claims he had a binding deal with Karpeles to buy the other 88 percent of Mt. Gox, but that Karpeles tried to pull out of the deal that remains in legal limbo.

The Supposed Villain

Sunlot has since been trying to take over the rehabilitation proceedings, but that arrangement was derailed by a lawsuit from CoinLab. That company had partnered with Mt. Gox in 2012 to run its North American operations but claimed it never received the necessary assets, and sued Mt. Gox for $75 million. Mt. Gox countersued, saying CoinLab wasn’t legally certified to run the exchange in the US and that it hadn’t returned $5.3 million in customer deposits. For a detailed account the tangle of lawsuits, check out Reuters’ deep-dive into the Mt. Gox fiasco.

CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes

This week, CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes increased the claim and is now seeking $16 billion. Pierce alleges “this is a frivolous lawsuit. He’s claiming if [the partnership with Mt. Gox] hadn’t been cancelled, CoinLab would have been Coinbase and is suing for all the value. He believes Coinbase is worth $16 billion so he should be paid $16 billion. He embezzled money from Mt. Gox, he committed a crime, and he’s trying to extort the creditors. He’s holding up the entire process hoping he’ll get a payday.” Later, Pierce reiterated that “Coinlab is the villain trying to take all the money and see creditors get nothing.” Industry sources I spoke to agreed with that characterization

Mt. Gox customers worried that they might only receive the cash equivalent of their Bitcoin according to the currency’s $483 value when Gox closed in 2014. That’s despite the rise in Bitcoin’s value rising to around 7X that today, and as high as 40X at the currency’s peak. Luckily, in June 2018 a Japanese District Court halted bankruptcy proceedings and sent Mt. Gox into civil rehabilitation which means the company’s assets would be distributed to its creditors (the users) instead of liquidated. It also declared that users would be paid back their lost Bitcoin rather than the old cash value.

The Plan For Gox Rising

Now Pierce and Sunlot are attempting another rescue of Mt. Gox’s  $1.2 billion assets. He wants to track down the remaining cryptocurrency that’s missing, have it all fairly valued, and then distribute the maximum amount to the robbed users with Mt. Gox equity shareholders including himself receiving nothing.

That’s a much better deal for creditors than if Mt. Gox paid out the undervalued sum, and then shareholders like Pierce got to keep the remaining Bitcoins or proceeds of their sale at today’s true value. “I‘ve been very blessed in my life. I did commit to giving my first billion away” Pierce notes, joking that this plan could account for the first $700 million he plans to ‘donate’.

“Like Game Of Thrones, the last season of Mt. Gox hasn’t been written” Pierce tells me, speaking in terms HBO’s Silicon Valley would be quick to parody. “What kind of ending do we want to make for it? I’m a Joseph Campbell fan so I’m obviously going to go with a hero’s journey, with a rise and a fall, and then a rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”

But to make this happen, Sunlot needs at least half of those Mt. Gox users seeking compensation, or roughly 12,000 that represent the majority of assets, to sign up to join a creditors committee. That’s where GoxRising.com comes in. The plan is to have users join the committee there so they can present a united voice to Kobayashi about how they want Mt. Gox’s assets distributed. “I think that would allow the process to move faster than it would otherise” Pierce says. “Things are on track to be resolved in the next three to five years. If [a majority of creditors sign on] this could be resolved in maybe 1 year.”

Beyond providing whatever the Mt. Gox estate pays out, Pierce wants to create a Gox Coin that gives original Mt. Gox creditors a stake in the new company. He plans to have all of Mt. Gox’s equity wiped out, including his own. Then he’ll arrange to finance and tokenize an independent foundation governed by the creditors that will seek to recover additional lost Mt. Gox assets and then distribute them pro rata to the Gox Coin holders. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the regulatory status of a Gox Coin and what holders would be entitled to, Pierce admits.

Meanwhile, Pierce is bidding to buy the intangibles of Mt. Gox, aka the brand and domain. He wants to then relaunch it as a Gox or Mt. Gox exchange that doesn’t provide custody itself for higher security. Despite the recent crypto recession with prices at multi-year lows, he believes there’s room for another exchange with a brand tied to the early heyday of Bitcoin.

“We want to offer [creditors] more than the bankruptcy trustee can do on its own” Pierce tells me. He concedes that the venture isn’t purely altruistic. “If the exchange is very successful I stand to benefit sometime down the road.” Even if the revived Mt. Gox never rises to legitimately challenge Binance, Coinbase, and other leading exchanges, Piece believes it’s all worth the effort. He concludes, “Whether we’re successful or not, I want to see the creditors made whole.” Those creditors will have to decide for themselves who to trust.

Chat app Line’s mobile payment service is getting its own Visa card

Brown, Cony and the gang are coming to a credit card near you in Japan. Line, the messaging app company behind the cute sticker characters, announced today that it is bringing its payment service to plastic through a tie-in with Visa.

Line is Japan’s largest chat app with an estimated 50 million registered users. The cards will be released later this year and they’ll allow Line Pay, the company’s digital wallet service, to stretch beyond its existing merchant base to allow users to pay at any retailer accepting Visa . In addition, the first year of use will see customers get 3 percent of their spending back in Line’s ‘Points’ virtual currency, which is used to buy stickers and other content.

The partnership is a step up from Line’s own payment cards, which were introduced in 2016 and supported by JCB.

It’s an interesting deal because mobile is generally seen as being the future form factor for payments. In China, for example, using cash or card to pay is considered antiquated — you’ll get glares from other patrons forced to wait while you complete your transaction — but digital payments face a struggle in most other markets.

WeChat and Alipay have become de facto in China, but retailers — and particularly smaller ones — don’t always have the awareness, confidence or resources to add support for Line or other digital wallets. Japan, where cash is still king, is perhaps most emblematic of that struggle. The government is making a sustained push towards cashless — particularly ahead of the 2020 Olympics — and Line, as the country’s dominant chat app, may help that along with this partnership.

Line wrapped up a deal with WeChat last November that allows users of the China-based chat app to make payment via Line Pay points of sale. Tencent’s WeChat and Alipay from Alibaba have spent recent years developing a system that lets Chinese tourists pay while they are overseas.

Lydia launches shared accounts for its mobile payment app

French startup Lydia now lets you share your Lydia sub-accounts with other people. The company wants to make it easier to manage money when you’re traveling with friends, sharing an apartment with someone and more.

When Lydia introduced its premium offering back in March 2018, the company completely rethought the way Lydia accounts worked. Users had a single Lydia account and were basically limited to sending, receiving and withdrawing money — it was all about peer-to-peer payments. Now, you can create as many Lydia accounts as you want, move money around, set money aside and top up each account separately.

That was just the first step as you can now share those accounts with other people. This way, you don’t have to create a Splitwise group and track who owes what to whom. Instead of getting your money back after a while, people chip in and top up the shared account directly. Anybody can then safely spend that money.

As always, Lydia is all about getting money in the app and out of the app as seamlessly as possible. When you create a shared account, each user can top up the account using other Lydia sub-accounts, a traditional bank account that you have already connected to the app or a debit card if it’s a small amount.

If your bank account isn’t compatible with Lydia, you also get an IBAN number for this sub-account in particular. So you can initiate a traditional bank transfer from your bank account as well.

Once the account is up and running, anybody can spend money. You can generate a virtual card, add it to Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay, and associate it with the shared account. If you’re on a ski trip and buying raclette cheese for your group of friends, you can then pay with your phone and debit the shared account.

If you’re a premium user and have a good old plastic Lydia card, you can also use it in any card reader and associate transactions with your shared account. Some websites already let you pay with your Lydia account directly as well. You can select your sub-account when confirming the transaction on your phone.

You can imagine multiple different use cases for such a feature. This is a good way to share an account with your significant other without switching to the same bank. This could be a way to pay for utility bills with your roommates.

“I use it with my son for instance. I created a shared account, I set up a virtual card and he added it to his Google Pay,” co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me. He can then send him money that he can use instantly whenever he needs to.

This feature will become more valuable over time, when you can pay with your Lydia account in more places. Mobile payment systems, such as Apple Pay and Google Pay, are slowly becoming more widespread. And Lydia has also been working with popular payment service providers to add support for more e-commerce websites.

It’s a radical way of sharing expenses with friends and family members, but it could become the obvious way if Lydia becomes ubiquitous.

Zwipe tops up with $14M to bring biometric payment cards to market this year

Biometric payment card startup Zwipe has swiped $14M to add to an earlier Series B round as it continues to work towards commercializing technology that embeds a fingerprint reader in payment plastic for an added layer of security.

“We are not commercially rolled out yet, we expect that to happen in the second half of this year, starting first in Europe and potentially in the Middle East,” a spokesman told us, saying the financing will be used to scale up the company to prepare for a commercial rollout of a biometric payment card solution in the second half of 2019.

He said it’s also eyeing additional form factors such as wearables down the line, penciling in 2020 for expanding into other devices and verticals.

Although it has yet to push its tech past the pilot stage with payment cards.

“Our technology is currently deployed in pilot programs in Italy, with Intesa Sanpaolo Bank and with 10 different banks across the Middle East,” the spokesman told us. “We have active partnerships globally. In APAC, specifically China and the Philippines, we expect to launch further trials in the near term. In Europe we have piloted with the Bank of Cyprus and expect to launch several more trials in Europe in the first half of 2019.”

Back in 2014, working with MasterCard, it showed off a credit card with an embedded fingerprint reader, seemingly taking a leaf out of Apple’s approach with Touch ID.

The new funding was raised via an offering of 6M new shares, from around 2,300 investors, ahead of a planned listing of the company on Merkur Market, Oslo Børs. Zwipe says the share offer was substantially over-subscribed, and it expects trading to commence on or around January 28. The pre-money valuation of the company is stated as NOK 189 million ($22M).

Commenting on the raise in a statement, CEO Andre Løvestam said: “Zwipe is at the forefront of a global shift towards more secure and convenient contactless payments and the market is primed for growth. We are confident that our industry leading technology and partnerships will secure a strong market position both in the short and long-term. Thanks to the new funding received, we can intensify our efforts to support our customers and partners in ‘making convenience secure’.”

Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The Amazon boogie-man has every retailer scrambling for ways to fight back. But the cost and effort to install cameras all over the ceiling or into every shelf could block stores from entering the autonomous shopping era. Caper Labs wants to make eliminating checkout lines as easy as replacing their shopping carts while offering a more familiar experience for customers.

The startup makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, but it’s finalizing the technology to automatically scan items you drop in thanks to three cameras and a weight sensor. The company claims people already buy 18 percent more per visit after stores are equipped with its carts.

Caper’s cart

Today, Caper is revealing that it’s raised a total of $3 million including a $2.15 million seed round led by prestigious First Round Capital and joined by food-focused angels like Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, Plated co-founder Nick Taranto, Jet’s Jetblack shopping concierge co-founder Jenny Fleiss, plus Y Combinator. Caper is now in two retailer in the NYC area, though it plans to use the cash to expand to more and develop a smart shopping basket for smaller stores.

“If you walked in to a grocery store 100 years ago versus today, nothing has really changed” says Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao. “It doesn’t make sense that you can order a cab with your phone or go book a hotel with your phone, but you can’t use your phone to make a payment and leave the store. You still have to stand in line.”

Autonomous retail is going to be a race. $50 million-funded Standard Cognition, ex-Pandora CTO Will Glaser’s Grabango, and scrappier startups like Zippin and Inokyo are all building ceiling and shelf-based camera systems to help merchants keep up with Amazon Go’s expanding empire of cashierless stores. But Caper’s plug-and-play cart-based system might be able to leapfrog its competitors if its easier for shops to set up.

Caper combines image recognition and a weight sensor to identify items without a barcode scan

“I don’t have an altruistic reason to care about retail, but I really want to put a dent in the universe and I think retail is severely under-innovated” Gao candidly remarked. Most founders try to spin a “super hero origin story” about why they’re the right person for the job. For Gao, chasing autonomous retail is just good business. He built is first startup in gaming commerce at age 14. The jewelry company he launched at 19 still operates. He went on to become an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan but “I always felt like I was more of a startup guy.”

Caper was actually a pivot from his previous entry to the space called QueueHop that made cashierless apparel security tags that unlocked when you paid. But during Y Combinator, he discovered how tough it’d be to scale a product that require a complete rethinking of a merchant’s operations flow. So Gao hoofed it around NYC to talk to 150 merchants and discover what they really wanted. The cart was the answer.

Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao

V1 of Caper’s cart lets people scan their items’ barcodes and pay on the cart with a credit card swipe or Apple/Android Pay tap with their receipt emailed to them. But each time they scan, the cart is actually taking 120 photos and precisely weighing the items to train Caper’s machine vision algorithms in what Gao likens to how Tesla is inching towards self-driving.

Soon, Caper wants to go entirely scanless, and sections of its two pilot stores already use the technology. The cameras on the cart will use image recognition matched with weight sensor to identify what you toss in your cart. You shop just like normal but then just pay and leave with no line. Caper pulls in a store’s existing security feed to help detect shoplifting, which could be a bigger risk than with ceiling and shelf camera systems, but Gao says it hasn’t been a problem yet. He woudn’t reveal the price of the carts but said “they’re not that much more expensive than a standard shopping cart. To outfit a store it should be comparable to the price of implementing traditional self-checkout.” Shops buy the carts outright and pay a technology subscriptions but get free hardware upgrades.

Caper hopes to deliver three big benefits to merchants. First, they’ll be able to repurpose cashier labor to assist customers so they buy more and keep shelves stocked, though eventually this technology is likely to eliminate a lot of jobs. Second, the ease and affordable cost of transitioning means businesses will be able to recoup their investment and grow revenues as shoppers buy more. And third, Caper wants to share data its carts collect on routes through the store, shelves customers hover in front of, and more with its retail partners so they can optimize their layouts.

Caper’s screen tracks items you add to the cart and can surface discounts and recommendations

One big advantage over its ceiling and shelf camera competitors is that Caper’s cart can promote deals on nearby or related items. In the future, it plans to add recommendations based on what’s on your cart to help you fill out recipes. ‘Threw some chips in the cart? Here’s where to find the guacamole that’s on sale.’ A smaller hand-held smart basket could broaden Caper’s appeal beyond grocers amongst littler shops.

Gao says that with merchants already seeing sales growth from the carts, what keeps him up at night is handling Caper’s supply chain since the product requires a ton of different component manufacturers. The startup has to move fast if it wants to be what introduces Main Street to autonomous retail. But no matter what gadgets it builds in, Caper must keep sight of the real-world stress their tech will undergo. Gao concludes “We’re basically building a robot here. The carts need to be durable. They need to resist heat, vibration, rain, people slamming them around. We’re building our shopping cart like a tank.”

Square finds its Sarah Friar replacement with new CFO Amrita Ahuja

Founder and chief executive Jack Dorsey says Square has poached Amrita Ahuja from Blizzard Entertainment, a division of the gaming company Activision Blizzard, to lead finance at the merchant services and mobile payments company.

Ahuja will join Square later this month, about three months after long-time Square chief financial officer Sarah Friar exited the company in favor of a CEO opportunity at Nextdoor, a neighborhood social networking site. Friar, often described as Dorsey’s right-hand woman, joined Square in 2012 and led the startup through an initial public offering that valued the company at about $3 billion.

Prior to an eight-year stint at Blizzard, Ahuja clocked in a few years at Fox Networks Group, the Walt Disney Company and Morgan Stanley, where she was an analyst in the investment banking division.

“In Amrita, we have found an amazing, multidimensional business leader,” Dorsey said in a statement. “Amrita brings the ability to consider and balance opportunities across our entire business, and she will help strengthen our discipline as we invest, build, and scale.”

Shares of Square [NYSE: SQ] dropped more than 8 percent on Thursday.

A month after $70M, Clearbanc raises $50M fund to front startups ad money

Clearbanc is disrupting startup funding by providing companies cash to buy ads in exchange for a revenue share so they don’t have to sell as much equity to venue capitalists. That idea has proven so appealing that 1000 companies seeking up to $1 billion total hit up Clearbanc since we reported it raised $70 million last month. So to meet the demand of the most eligible startups asking for marketing cash, Clearbanc has just raised a $50 million fund from Seamless co-founder Jason Finger’s new firm Upper90.

If a company’s Facebook ads and Stripe sales metrics show it’s a sure bet, Clearbanc can provide $5,000 to $10 million in funding to pour fuel on the fire. Startups invest that into ad spend, and then split the revenue with Clearbanc from the sales triggered by those ads until it’s paid back plus six percent. Essentially, Clearbanc offers an alternative to selling valuable equity and control to VCs by offering capital based on new data sources traditional banks aren’t looking at.

“In 2018, Clearbanc has funded over $100M into 500 different companies. Our portfolio companies are putting that capital to work and growing at over 100% year over year on average” co-founder and CEO Andrew D’Souza tells us.

Clearbanc co-founder Michele Romanow

To back the investments, Clearbanc raises sub-funds from LPs who earn a return through a slice of the revenue sharing deals. Part of the last $70 million was used to set up the first Clearbanc fund, and the whole $50 million being announced today is the second fund. Clearbanc expects the funds to mature and pay out after just two years, offering LPs a faster but lower-stakes return then typical eight-year VC funds. Upper90’s goal is just those sort of steady gains. “This deal literally came together in 3 weeks from first meeting to close, which was unheard of” D’Souza notes.

He wouldn’t say exactly how much Clearbanc has raised in traditional equity for itself, but revealed most of the $70 million round’s investors were buying standard equity and it has some flexibility in how it applies some of the funding. D’Souza tells me “We have been largely focused on ecommerce companies and subscription ecommerce, but have started doing some deals with enterprise companies.  In 2019 we plan to expand internationally beyond the US and Canada, introduce new verticals, and launch new financial products to help entrepreneurs.”

Previously at McKinsey, D’Souza had raised over $300 million in venture for startups before teaming up on angel investments with Michele Romanow, an investor from Canada’s Shark Tank-style TV show Dragons’ Den. The two have become a romantic couple amidst Clearbanc’s start in 2015. It’s now taken cash from Emergence Capital, Social, Social Capital, CoVenture, Founders Fund, 8VC and others. Groupon co-founder Ranjen Ruparell and Third Point hedge fund partner Keri Findley are now joining Clearbanc’s board. “We may take on more traditional equity in the future but we don’t need it right now” D’Souza reveals. “We will raise an additional 250-300M in LP capital next year to continue to meet demand.”

We are witnessing an evolution of the growth capital business – entrepreneurs do not want to be forced to choose between restrictive equity or debt arrangements to fund their business growth” Cleabanc’s new board member Findley says. “Clearbanc is building a new asset class that is compelling for entrepreneurs as well as investors looking for strong risk-adjusted returns.”

The business model depends on Clearbanc accurately assessing demand for the products for which it’s funding ad buys. If products flop and the startups don’t have much revenue to share, its influx of LPs will dry up. Clearbanc is also vulnerable to changes in the ad market and platforms like Facebook or Google. If ad prices go up or new content formats like Instagram Stories don’t work as well for direct response ecommerce ads, that could also put the squeeze on Clearbanc. “We’re funding customer acquisition across platforms (it just happens to be primarily on Facebook and Google right now)” D’Souza counters. “We’re looking at data across our portfolio and building relationships with emerging platforms to help our companies stay ahead of the curve”

Given the explosion of direct to consumer brands in the wake of successes like Dollar Shave Club’s acquisition for $1 billion, there may be plenty of startups clamoring for Clearbanc’s capital.

PayPal: Black Friday & Cyber Monday broke records with $1B+ in mobile payment volume

Black Friday broke records in terms of sales made from mobile devices, according to reports last week from Adobe. This week, PayPal said it saw a similar trend during the Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday shopping event. PayPal saw a record-breaking $1 billion+ in mobile payment volume for the first time ever on Black Friday – a milestone it hit again on Cyber Monday.

Mobile payment volume on Black Friday was up 42 percent over Black Friday 2017, the company said, and it even outpaced the mobile payment volume on Cyber Monday this year.

However, Cyber Monday saw more total payment volume, likely because much of the shopping that takes place that day comes from office workers back at their desktops, wrapping up a few more purchases.

Worldwide, mobile payment volume from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday accounted for a significant 43 percent of PayPal’s total payment volume. Between those days, PayPal was processing more than $25,000 per second, with more than $11,000 per second processed on mobile.

The peak hour took place on Black Friday, which shows the sales event has shifted much of its business online. It’s now coming close to topping Cyber Monday in terms of both online and mobile shopping, PayPal noted.

PayPal’s data also pointed to another trend: that of the blurring of the line as to when holiday shopping begins and ends. Many retailers these days are launching their deals on Thanksgiving or even earlier, then allowing them to run for the week of Black Friday or longer.

Amazon, for example, has decided to capitalize on its own Black Friday/Cyber Monday momentum by launching a “12 Days of Deals” event that will feature hundreds of new deals every day from Sunday December 2 through Thursday December 13.

Other times, the shopping starts early, as PayPal’s data shows. Thanksgiving has now become another major shopping day, the company said, having broken into the top 10 shopping days of the year. It also grew 41 percent over last year.

E-commerce spending wasn’t the only thing that’s up year-over-year, PayPal also found. On Giving Tuesday – the event focused on donating to charities and other worthwhile causes – PayPal said over a million customers from 180 markets donated $98 million this year. That’s a 51 percent increase from 2017, it said.