Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016 but it was pretty much flawed from the word go with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage like communication between Android devices.

But could is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

A leaky database of SMS text messages exposed password resets and two-factor codes

A security lapse has exposed a massive database containing tens of millions of text messages, including password reset links, two-factor codes, shipping notifications and more.

The exposed server belongs to Voxox (formerly Telcentris), a San Diego, Calif.-based communications company. The server wasn’t protected with a password, allowing anyone who knew where to look to peek in and snoop on a near-real-time stream of text messages.

For Sébastien Kaul, a Berlin-based security researcher, it didn’t take long to find.

Although Kaul found the exposed server on Shodan, a search engine for publicly available devices and databases, it was also attached to to one of Voxox’s own subdomains. Worse, the database — running on Amazon’s Elasticsearch — was configured with a Kibana front-end, making the data within easily readable, browsable and searchable for names, cell numbers and the contents of the text messages themselves.

An example of one text message containing a user’s phone number and their Microsoft account reset code. (Image: TechCrunch)

Most don’t think about what happens behind the scenes when you get a text message from a company, whether it’s an Amazon shipping notification or a two-factor code for your login. Often, app developers — like HQ Trivia and Viber — will employ technologies provided by firms like Telesign and Nexmo, either to verify a user’s phone number or to send a two-factor authentication code, for example. But it’s firms like Voxox that act as a gateway and converting those codes into text messages, to be passed on to the cell networks for delivery to the user’s phone.

After an inquiry by TechCrunch, Voxox pulled the database offline. At the time of its closure, the database appeared to have a little over 26 million text messages year-to-date. But the sheer volume of messages processed through the platform per minute — as seen through the database’s visual front-end — suggests that this figure may be higher.

Each record was meticulously tagged and detailed, including the recipient’s cell phone number, the message, the Voxox customer who sent the message and the shortcode they used.

Among our findings from a cursory review of the data:

  • We found a password sent in plaintext to a Los Angeles phone number by dating app Badoo;
  • Several Booking.com partners were sent their six-digit two-factor codes to log in to the company’s extranet corporate network;
  • Fidelity Investments also sent six-digit security codes to one Chicago Loop area code;
  • Many messages included two-factor verification codes for Google accounts in Latin America;
  • A Mountain View, Calif.-based credit union, the First Tech Federal Credit Union, also sent a temporary banking password in plaintext to a Nebraska number;
  • We found a shipping notification text sent by Amazon with a link, which opened up Amazon’s delivery tracking page, including the UPS tracking number, en route to its destination in Florida;
  • Messenger apps KakaoTalk and Viber, and quiz app HQ Trivia use the service to verify user phone numbers;
  • We also found messages that contained Microsoft’s account password reset codes and Huawei ID verification codes;
  • Yahoo also used the service to send some account keys by text message;
  • And, several small to mid-size hospitals and medical facilities sent reminders to patients about their upcoming appointments, and in some cases, billing inquiries.

“Yeah, this is very bad,” said Dylan Katz, a security researcher, who reviewed some of the findings.

The exposure to personal information and phone numbers notwithstanding, the ability to access two-factor codes in near-real-time could have put countless number of accounts at risk of hijack. In some cases, websites will only require a phone number to reset an account. With access to the text message through the exposed database, hijacking an account could take seconds.

“My real concern here is the potential that this has already been abused,” said Katz. “This is different from most breaches, due to the fact the data is temporary, so once it’s offline any data stolen isn’t very useful.”

Kevin Hertz, Voxox’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said in an email that the company is “looking into the issue and following standard data breach policy at the moment,” and that the company is “evaluating impact.”

Many companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have rolled out app-based two-factor authentication to thwart SMS-based verification, which has long been seen as vulnerable to interception.

If ever there was an example, this latest exposure would serve well.

Nigerian data analytics company Terragon acquires Asian mobile ad firm Bizense

Nigerian consumer data analytics firm Terragon Group has acquired Asian mobile marketing company Bizense in a cash and stock deal.

Based in Singapore, with operations in India and Indonesia, Bizense specializes in “mobile ad platform[s] for Telco’s, large publishers, and [e-commerce] ad networks” under its proprietary Adatrix platform—according to its website and a release.

The price of the acquisition was not disclosed.

The company lists audience analytics, revenue optimization, and white label SSP services among its client offerings.

Headquartered in Lagos, Terragon’s software services give its clients — primarily telecommunications and financial services companies — data on Africa’s growing consumer markets.

Products allow users to drill down on multiple combinations of behavioral and demographic information and reach consumers through video and SMS  campaigns while connecting to online sales and payments systems.

Terragon clients include local firms, such as Honeywell, and global names including Unilever, DHL, and international agribusiness firm Olam.

The company’s founder and CEO Elo Umeh sees cross-cutting purposes for Terragon services in other markets.

“Most of the problems we seek to solve for our clients in Africa also exist in places like South East Asia and Latin America,” Umeh told TechCrunch.

The Bizense acquisition doesn’t lessen Terragon’s commitment to its home markets, according to Umeh.

“We are…super focused on Africa right now, building out propriety platforms powered by data and artificial intelligence to help Telco’s, SMEs, FMCGsand financial institutions …increase their customer base and drive more transaction volumes,” he said.

Terragon’s CEO would not divulge the acquisition value, saying only that it consisted of  “a combination of cash and stocks, with the actual amount not disclosed.”

In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Umeh confirmed the company was looking into global expansion.

Tarragon already has a team of 100 employees across Nigeria, KenyaGhana and South Africa.

Umeh indicated the company is contemplating further expansion in Asia and the Latin America, where Terragon already has consumer data research and development teams.

With the Bizense acquisition Terragon plans to “build out platforms, tools and machine learning models to help businesses…acquire new customers and get existing customers to do more.”

Bizense founder and CEO Amit Khemchandani will be involved in this process. “We are excited about the next phase of this journey as we innovate for Africa and other emerging markets,” he said.

With the exception of South African media and investment giant Naspers, acquisitions of any kind—intra-continental or international—are a rarity for Sub-Saharan African startups and tech companies.

Terragon’s acquisition in Singapore, and other moves made by several other Nigerian startups this year, could change that. African financial technology companies like Mines and Paga announced their intent to expand in and outside Africa. They would join e-commerce site MallforAfrica, which went global in July in a partnership with DHL.

Epic Games just gave a perk for folks to turn on 2FA; every other big company should, too

Let’s talk a bit about security.

Most internet users around the world are pretty crap at it, but there are basic tools that companies have, and users can enable, to make their accounts, and lives, a little bit more hacker-proof.

One of these — two-factor authentication — just got a big boost from Epic Games, the maker of what is currently The Most Popular Game In The World: Fortnite.

Epic is already getting a ton of great press for what amounts to very little effort.

The company is giving users a new emote (the victory dance you’ve seen emulated in airports, playgrounds and parks by kids and tweens around the world) to anyone who turns on two-factor authentication. It’s one small (dance) step for Epic, but one giant leap for securing their users’ accounts.

The thing is any big company could do this (looking at you Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and any other company with a huge user base).

Apparently the perk of not getting hacked isn’t enough for most users, but if you give anyone the equivalent of a free dance, they’ll likely flock to turn on the feature.

It’s not that two-factor authentication is a panacea for all security woes, but it does make life harder for hackers. Two-factor authentication works on codes, basically tokens, that are either sent via text or through an over-the-air authenticator (OTA). Text messaging is a pretty crap way to secure things, because the codes can be intercepted, but OTAs — like Google Authenticator or Authy — are sent via https (pretty much bulletproof, but requiring an app to use).

So using SMS-based two-factor authentication is better than nothing, but it’s not Fort Knox (however, these days, even Fort Knox probably isn’t Fort Knox when it comes to security).

Still, anything that makes things harder for crimes of opportunity can help ease the security burden for companies large and small, and the consumers and customers that love them (or at least are forced to pay and use them).

I’m not sure what form the perk could or should take. Maybe it’s the promise of a free e-book or a free download or an opportunity to have a live chat with the celebrity, influencer or athlete of a user’s choice. Whatever it is, there’re clearly something that businesses could do to encourage greater adoption.

Self-preservation isn’t cutting it. Maybe an emote will do the trick.

MallforAfrica goes global, Kobo360 and Sokowatch raise VC, France explains its $76M fund

B2B e-commerce company Sokowatch closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

The Kenya based company aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multi-national suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

MallforAfrica and DHL launched MarketPlaceAfrica.com: a global e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items — clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear and personal care — and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made-in-Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” Folayan told TechCrunch.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron  href="https://pctechmag.com/2018/05/french-president-emmanuel-macron-launches-a-usd76m-africa-startup-fund/">unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018 and TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — who will administer the new fund — to get details on how it will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha told TechCrunch.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha. President Macron followed up the Africa fund announcement with a trip to Nigeria last month.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 was accepted into Y Combinator’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2 million in pre-seed funding led by Western Technology Investment.

The startup — with an Uber like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN — a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it, Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60-month period.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” CEO Obi Ozor told TechCrunch. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5480 drivers and moved 37.6 million kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, and DHL.

Ozor thinks the startup’s asset-free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal.

[PHOTO: BFX.LAGOS] And finally, applications are open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa, to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, December 11. Early-stage African startups have until September 3 to apply here.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

·         CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians


African Tech Around the Net

·         More Than Half of Sub-Saharan Africa to Be Connected to Mobile by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study
·         Ethiopia’s Gebeya acquires Coders4Africa to accelerate its growth
·         Rwanda, Andela partner to launch pan-African tech hub in Kigali
·         Google’s free public Wi-Fi initiative expanded to Africa
·         Accounteer wins 2018 MEST Entrepreneur challenge
·         SafeBoda completes expansion to Kenya, now live in Nairobi
·         Uganda government sued over social media tax

Twitter posts record $100M profit but loses 1M users

The social media apocalypse is on us this week. Days after Facebook’s stock took a record $123 billion plunge on a poor earnings report, Twitter’s shares are down nearly 20 percent after the company announced falling users numbers.

The microblogging service recorded a drop of one million monthly users in Q2, with 335 million overall and 68 million in the U.S.. International users stayed consistent, with U.S. numbers down from 69 million in the previous quarter.

Bloomberg reported that Twitter’s share price sunk by 17 percent in early trading following the earnings announcement.

The market seems spooked that Twitter has failed to grow in the U.S.. Indeed, one year ago it recorded 68 million users on home turf, and while it has grown its international presence by a fairly modest 3.5 percent over that period, there are doubts as to whether Twitter can increase its audience. The company itself said it expects to see its monthly active user count drop by “mid-single-digit millions.”

Twitter has increased its efforts finding and suspending fake accounts, which is said to have doubled over the past year, but it also said that it didn’t expect that to impact users numbers this quarter.

“When we suspend accounts, many of the removed accounts have already been excluded from MAU or DAU, either because the accounts were already inactive for more than one month at the time of suspension, or because they were caught at signup and were never included in MAU or DAU,” Twitter further explained in its release.

The company did say, though, that its work with SMS carriers and reallocation of resources, are the reasons why it is forecasting more user number declines.

While Twitter can (just about argue) that its daily user number grew by 11 percent in the quarter — a little higher than 10 percent in Q1 — the company doesn’t actually disclose this number.

The stock drop will be frustrating for executives because, in its favor, Twitter had a record quarter of profit. GAAP net income came in at $100 million with revenue climbing 24 percent year-on-year to reach $711 million. Adjusted EBITDA came in at $265 million — Twitter is predicting it will decline to $215-$235 million in the next quarter.

That profit was above analyst forecasts of $70 million but, following Facebook’s epic crash this week, investors want to see growth potential… and that means more users. Unfortunately, that’s Twitter’s Achilles heel.

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The Nudge is a planner app packaged as an SMS subscription service

How do you fix digital information overload and the resulting life-attention deficit that’s apparently afflicting smartphone owners everywhere — and even leading some very large tech giants to unbox “digital wellness” tools lately?

San Francisco-based startup The Nudge reckons the answer to getting millennials to spend less time sucked into screens, and more time out and about actually doing things, is — you guessed it — another technology service! Albeit one that delivers inspirational plan ideas for stuff to do in your free time, delivered via the traditional text message conduit of SMS.

The sibling duo behind the startup, John and Sarah Peterson, have bagged $540,000 in pre-seed funding for their text planner idea, after running a year-long public beta of the service in San Francisco. The investment is led by seed-stage VC firm NextView Ventures, with Sequoia’s scout fund also participating.

Peterson says the idea to send plans via SMS evolved out of his earlier (and first) startup, called Livday: Also a planner app for friends to share their favorite ideas for weekend hikes and so on. But being just another app meant having to compete for attention with noisy social content, so the siblings hit on the idea of using SMS — as a sort of artisanal reversion of current state consumer tech — to “find a way to rise above the noise,” as they put it. Or, well, attempt to circumvent app notification fatigue/mute buttons.

As is often the case in fashion-led consumer tech, old ways can get polished up to feel shiny and new again once whatever displaced them has lost enough sheen to start to look old.

The Nudge has garnered around 10,000 active weekly users at this point, launching out of its year-long public beta. Peterson describes the typical user as “an active millennial woman,” with the community skewing 70 percent female at this point.

For the active user metric the team defines an active user as someone who is reading and engaging with the text messages they’re sending — either by clicking a link or replying.

They further claim to have signed up 5 percent of San Francisco’s millennials to their lifestyle “nudges.”

“While our new rebrand has a somewhat feminine aesthetic it’s interesting that we initially were targeting men. It just really resonated with millennial women,” says Peterson.

“They need this because taking the initiative is the essential yet hardest part of living our lives to the fullest, and that’s what we give them,” he adds. “A nudge. We’re laser-focused on that demo right now but have plans to help other demographics long-term. My empty nest parents badly need this.”

Nudges take the form of — initially — an SMS text message, containing a handwritten brunch idea or a hike plan, or details of a hip coffee venue or volunteering opportunity which the startup reckons will appeal to its SF community.

The texts may also contain a link to a more fully fledged plan (with photos, address, logistics etc.). You can see some of their sample plans here.

While the core delivery mechanism is SMS, there also is a Nudge app where plans can be saved for later perusal, and subscribers to the service can mark Nudges as “done” (presumably to avoid being spammed with the same plan later).

Currently, the startup has an editorial team of three people coming up with plan ideas to inspire subscribers — writing in a friendly, narrative style that’s intended to complement the cozy SMS delivery medium.

They’re also working with local social media influencers to hit on trendy ideas that resonate with their target millennial users.

Convincing information-overloaded consumers to willingly hand over their mobile digits to get random texts might seem a bit of a counter-intuitive “fix” for digital information overload. But Peterson reckons it boils down to getting the tone of voice right. (And, clearly, being careful not to send too many texts that you end up coming across as spam.)

“We want people to really feel like The Nudge is just another one of their (ridiculously resourceful and fun) friends texting them, and I think we’ve succeeded there so far,” he tells TechCrunch. “Nearly all of our growth has come from word of mouth. You’re right that text messaging is a sacred space, and we’re very sensitive about that.”

Peterson claims that unsubscribe rates are less than 1 percent each week — though they’re also limiting themselves to sending three “personalized” lifestyle “nudges” per week at this point.

On the personalization front, they say plan ideas are customized based on factors such as the current weather and local trends. They are not, as a rule, customized per user though — beyond being personalized with the subscriber’s name. So it’s more “Nudge Club” than VIP personalized lifestyle advisor.

“In general, everyone is getting the same content, as we’ve found that there’s a lot of power in the shared experience (you know your friend just got the same text at that moment),” he says. “That said, we do sometimes create a dialogue where we ask you a question and depending upon your answer, we recommend something specific for you.

“We’re carefully not taking this part too far, as we really don’t view ourselves as a bot.”

Given they are (usually) sending ~10,000 people pretty much the same idea of what to do at the weekend or of an evening, Peterson admits that venue overcrowding has been a problem they inadvertently ended up creating — for example he says they recommended a free event that ended up getting 10x overbooked and had to cancel some tickets.

“Our answer is to only recommend small venues as a general suggestion (do this date idea this summer), and recommend larger venues specifically (do this hike tomorrow),” he says, explaining how they’ve tweaked the service to try to workaround creating unintended flash mobs of demand.

On the business model side, the plan is to make The Nudge a subscription service. Though they’re not going into details at this stage as they’re still experimenting with different options. (And they’re not currently charging for the service.)

But Peterson says the intention is not to make money via the specific things they’re recommending — which, in theory, frees them from needing to operate a creepy, privacy-hostile data-harvesting surveillance operation to determine whether an SMS can be linked to a specific bar bill or restaurant check for them to take a cut, for example.

Though, to be clear, Peterson says they’re gathering “as much data as we can about people doing a Nudge” — presumably so the team can better tailor the content and recommendations they’re making by figuring out what their users really like doing.

“We don’t promote any products or services,” he emphasizes. “Selling tickets or products or ads is tempting, and a lot of lifestyle services do that, but it would ruin or credibility. This is ultimately a subscription service based on trust.”

Despite that reassuring claim, it is worth noting that their current privacy policy states they “may periodically send promotional emails about new products/special offers/info etc via provided email addresses.” So be aware you are at least agreeing to theoretical email spam if you hand over your details.

What’s next for The Nudge now that the team has raised their first tranche of VC? Peterson says they’re planning to expand the service to LA this year — which he confirms will mean hiring a team on the ground to produce the custom content needed to power the service.

Albeit, he concedes, “right now our process is very manual.” And it’s not at all clear whether their concept could sustain much automation-based scaling — at least not if they don’t want to risk generating yet more impersonal noise versus the friendly digital lifestyle advisor tone they’re aiming to strike as a strategy to stand out.

Beyond LA, Peterson says they plan to expand “pretty aggressively” in 2019. “The Nudge as it stands now would work in any urban market as I believe it’s a solution to a fundamental human problem,” he says.

The Nudge’s spare time plans by text is by no means the only SMS-based lifestyle subscription service hoping to cut itself a slice of the attention economy.

In 2016 a startup called Shine launched on-demand life coaching by text messaging, for example.

And let’s not forget Magic — the “get anything via a text message” service that had a viral moment in 2015 — and now bills itself as a “24/7 virtual assistant.”

Google has also tried texting people shopping deals. And Microsoft has dabbled in event planning specifically — outing an iMessage app for social event planning last year.

Meanwhile Facebook added “M,” a text-based assistant app (which was itself human-assisted), to its Messenger platform back in 2015 — but went on to shutter the service in January this year, apparently never having found a way to scale M into a fully fledged AI assistant.

Safaricom rolls out Bonga social networking platform to augment M-Pesa

When it comes to monetizing digital social interactions, Kenya’s Safaricom has its own order. American tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter offered social networks first, then moved to commercialize them.

Through its M-Pesa mobile money product, Safaricom built one of Africa’s most robust commercial webs and now aims to leverage it as a social network.

The vehicle is the company’s new Bonga platform, something Kenya’s largest telco rolls out in pilot phase this week. An outgrowth of the Safaricom’s Alpha innovation incubator, “Bonga is a conversational and transactional social network,” Shikoh Gitau, Alpha’s Head of Products told TechCrunch.

“It’s focused on pay, play, and purpose…as the three main things our research found people do on our payment and mobile network,” she said. Gitau offered examples: pay could be using M-Pesa and SMS to coordinate anything from tuition payments to e-commerce, play spans online sports betting to gaming, and purpose includes SMS or WhatsApp chat groups that raise money for weddings, holidays, or Kenya’s informal investment groups.

“In our [Bonga] research we’ve said ‘what can we do to build upon those three network behaviors in our network that is Safaricom?,’” she said.

I recently sat in on an Alpha product development session in Nairobi and talked to Safaricom CIO Kamal Battacharya on his vision for the product late last year, as reported at TechCrunch.

“Safaricom’s unique in that we have telco services and a financial services platform that connect nearly every household in Kenya largely on the basis of trade,” he said.

“We’d actually like to move beyond M-Pesa by leveraging its power as a social network to connect people to other product solutions.”

As a telco, Safaricom­—still  has 69 percent of the Kenya’s mobile subscribers. Its M-Pesa fintech app―which generated $525 million of the company’s $2 billion annual revenues―boasts 27 million customers across a network of 136,000 agents.

Through in-house development and partnerships, the company continues to add consumer and small business-based products to its mobile and fintech network. These include digital TV, the M-Kopa solar-powered lighting kit, and Lipa-Na bill pay service.

This week Safaricom will offer Bonga to a test group of 600 users, before updating the product, allowing the initial group to refer it to friends, and then extending the platform in three phases.

Bonga Sasa will facilitate messaging and money transfer between individuals, “enabling users to send or receive money while conversing with each other,” according to a Safaricom release. For example, through Bonga Sasa a parent can send money to the child without having to leave the platform to access another money transfer tool.

Bonga Baraza, expected in mid-2018, will allow users to collect money for purpose driven events, including Kenya’s harambee collective fundraising drives.

Bonga Biashara will build on this use of social networks for commerce. Digitizing Kenya’s extensive informal trading commerce is at play here. Alpha’s research found roughly “2.5 million people doing side-hustles with a smartphone in Kenya” and 12.5 million total running small businesses on smart and USSD devices, according to Gitau.

Bonga will channel Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, PayPal, and eBay in one platform. Users will be able to create business profiles parallel to their personal social media profiles and M-Pesa accounts and sell online. Bonga will also include space for Kenya’s creative class to upload, shape, and distribute artistic products and content.

As for Safaricom’s Bonga monetization plan, it’s not an immediate priority, according to the Alpha team members I spoke to. “We’ll offer it for free for now, and it’s connected to M-Pesa, which is already monetized,” said Gitau. “The more these services grow and grow small businesses the more they grow M-Pesa..which is already profitable.”

Safaricom is exploring how to take Bonga beyond Kenya’s borders, which could include markets where both M-Pesa and Vodafone are present: currently 10 in Europe, Africa, and South Asia.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/WorldRemit

Seattle’s new venture firm, Flying Fish, holds a first close on its targeted $80 million fund

The founding partners of the new Seattle-based venture firm Flying Fish  met as angel investors deploying capital in the talent-heavy, cash-light region around Amazon and Microsoft’s corporate headquarters.

“We’ve underperformed relative to the talent pool,” is how Heather Redman, one of the firm’s three founding partners describes the region.

Well, now Flying Fish has held a first close of $23 million on a targeted $80 million fund to bring some much needed institutional capital at the seed and Series A stage to a geography that’s seen a number of successful exits and a wealth of talented engineers crop up, but little in the way of regional investor talent to support it.

Seattle’s success extends beyond Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. headquarters and Amazon’s downtown death star. There’re travel behemoths like Expedia, real estate riches pouring from Zillow and Redfin, titans of visualization and business intelligence software like Tableau, and up and coming success stories like Avalera.

All of those companies are bringing in talent from elsewhere to complement Seattle’s growing reputation as a hub for artificial intelligence and machine learning research and engineering talent thanks to programs at the University of Washington .

Joining Redman, a former executive at AtomShockwave, Inc., Getty Images, Inc., and PhotoDisc, Inc.; are two former Microsoft employees Geoff Harris, who served as General Manager for the Speech and Natural Language team, and Frank Chang. Harris and Chang met while working on natural language processing and machine learning for the gargantuan that Gates built before Chang absconded to Jeff Bezos’ Amazonian environs.

With its $28 million first close, Flying Fish is well on its way to joining a host of other investment firms that have launched or closed new investment funds in the Pacific Northwest since the beginning of the year. In all, at least $140 million in new capital has been committed to venture firms in the region like PSL Ventures, the venture capital firm started by development studio Pioneer Square Labs, and Founders Co-op, a longtime early stage investor on the Seattle scene.

 

“What we believe is that with the additional VC [firms] beginning to be formed here… that is going to increase the number of company starts geometrically,” says Redman. “The talent is here, the entrepreneurial spirit is here and the use is here… but [entrepreneurs] want to do it where there is the capital to support them.”

The firm is targeting around 25 investments for its $85 million first fund with a focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence and software services. Investments will range between $500,000 and $5 million, according to the firm’s partners.

Already, Flying Fish has put money to work in seven new deals.

  • Ad Lightning – Provides publishers a tool to manage bad ads on their sites
  • Otto Robotics – Robotic automation for the fast food industry. (still in stealth – no website)
  • MessageYes (Sold to Nordstrom) – Developers of an ecommerce chatbot over SMS, Facebook messenger etc.
  • Element Data – Developers of a decision engine that takes into account human emotion in the decision-making process
  • Tomorrow – Providing financial planning services such as wills, trusts and insurance 
  • Finn.ai – Pitching a financial services chatbot to engage with banks over Facebook messengers and other like platforms
  • Streem – Offering an augmented reality application connecting consumers with professionals in the home improvement and maintenance market

Chatbot startup founder sees Southeast Asia potential despite slow start worldwide

 Chatbots may have underwhelmed thus far, but the impact of the technology still has bags of potential in international markets where mobile messaging has been mainstream for years. That’s the view of one startup that’s working to bring the benefit of bots to the mainstream in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and the largest economy in the growing region… Read More