Shadows’ Dylan Flinn and Kombo’s Kevin Gould on the business of ‘virtual influencers’

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 2 of 3: the business of virtual influencers

Today’s discussion focuses on virtual influencers: fictional characters that build and engage followings of real people over social media. To explore the topic, I spoke with two experienced entrepreneurs:

  • Dylan Flinn is CEO of Shadows, an LA-based animation studio that’s building a roster of interactive characters for social media audiences. Dylan started his career in VC, funding companies such as Robinhood, Patreon and Bustle, and also spent two years as an agent at CAA.
  • Kevin Gould is CEO of Kombo Ventures, a talent management and brand incubation firm that has guided the careers of top influencers like Jake Paul and SSSniperWolf. He is the co-founder of three direct-to-consumer brands — Insert Name Here, Wakeheart and Glamnetic — and is an angel investor in companies like Clutter, Beautycon and DraftKings.

Where FaZe Clan sees the future of gaming and entertainment

Lee Trink has spent nearly his entire career in the entertainment business. The former president of Capitol Records is now the head of FaZe Clan, an esports juggernaut that is one of the most recognizable names in the wildly popular phenomenon of competitive gaming.

Trink sees FaZe Clan as the voice of a new generation of consumers who are finding their voice and their identity through gaming — and it’s a voice that’s increasingly speaking volumes in the entertainment industry through a clutch of competitive esports teams, a clothing and lifestyle brand and a network of creators who feed the appetites of millions of young gamers.

As the company struggles with a lawsuit brought by one of its most famous players, Trink is looking to the future — and setting his sights on new markets and new games as he consolidates FaZe Clan’s role as the voice of a new generation.

“The teams and social media output that we create is all marketing,” he says. “It’s not that we have an overall marketing strategy that we then populate with all of these opportunities. We’re not maximizing all of our brands.”

44% of TikTok’s all-time downloads were in 2019, but app hasn’t figured out monetization

Despite the U.S. government’s concerns over TikTok, which most recently led to the U.S. Navy banning service members’ use of the app, TikTok had a stellar 2019 in terms of both downloads and revenue. According to new data from Sensor Tower, 44% of TikTok’s total 1.65 billion downloads to date, or 738+ million installs, took place in 2019 alone. And though TikTok is still just experimenting with different means of monetization, the app had its best year in terms of revenue, grossing $176.9 million in 2019 — or 71% of its all-time revenue of $247.6 million.

Apptopia had previously reported TikTok was generating $50 million per quarter.

The number of TikTok downloads in 2019 is up 13% from the 655 million installs the app saw in 2018, with the holiday quarter (Q4 2019) being TikTok’s best ever, with 219 million downloads, up 6% from TikTok’s previous best quarter, Q4 2018. TikTok was also the second-most downloaded (non-game) app worldwide across the Apple App Store and Google Play in 2019, according to Sensor Tower data.

However, App Annie’s recent “State of Mobile” report put it in fourth place, behind Messenger, Facebook and WhatsApp — not just behind WhatsApp, as Sensor Tower does.

Regardless, the increase in TikTok downloads in 2019 is largely tied to the app’s traction in India. Though the app was briefly banned in the country earlier in the year, that market still accounted for 44% (or 323 million) of 2019’s total downloads. That’s a 27% increase from 2018.

TikTok’s home country, China, is TikTok’s biggest revenue driver, with iOS consumer spend of $122.9 million, or 69% of the total and more than triple what U.S. users spent in the app ($36 million). The U.K. was the third-largest contributor in terms of revenue, with users spending $4.2 million in 2019.

These numbers, however, are minuscule in comparison with the billions upon billions earned by Facebook on an annual basis, or even the low-digit billions earned by smaller social apps like Twitter. To be fair, TikTok remains in an experimental phase with regards to revenue. In 2019, it ran a variety of ad formats, including brand takeovers, in-feed native video, hashtag challenges and lens filters. It even dabbled in social commerce.

Meanwhile, only a handful of creators have been able to earn money in live streams through tipping — another area that deserves to see expansion in the months ahead if TikTok aims to take on YouTube as a home for creator talent.

When it comes to monetization, TikTok is challenged because it doesn’t have as much personal information about its users, compared with a network like Facebook and its rich user profile data. That means advertisers can’t target ads based on user interests and demographics in the same way. Because of this, brands will sometimes forgo working with TikTok itself to deal directly with its influencer stars, instead.

What TikTok lacks in revenue, it makes up for in user engagement. According to App Annie, time spent in the app was up 210% year-over-year in 2019, to reach a total 68 billion hours. TikTok clearly has users’ attention, but now it will need to figure out how to capitalize on those eyeballs and actually make money.

Reached for comment, TikTok confirmed it doesn’t share its own stats on installs or revenue, so third-party estimates are the only way to track the app’s growth for now.

Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised some $35 billion in 2019. Felix Capital, the London firm founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 

Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.

As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.

Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.

That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).

It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 

This is not all that the company has focused on, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content), as well as increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.

Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.

The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.

“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”

The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs. They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.

“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”

Facebook won’t ban political ads, prefers to keep screwing democracy

It’s 2020 — a key election year in the US — and Facebook is doubling down on its policy of letting people pay it to fuck around with democracy.

Despite trenchant criticism — including from US lawmakers accusing Facebook’s CEO to his face of damaging American democracy the company is digging in, announcing as much today by reiterating its defence of continuing to accept money to run microtargeted political ads.

Instead of banning political ads Facebook is trumpeting a few tweaks to the information it lets users see about political ads — claiming it’s boosting “transparency” and “controls” while leaving its users vulnerable to default settings that offer neither.  

Political ads running on Facebook are able to be targeted at individuals’ preferences as a result of the company’s pervasive tracking and profiling of Internet users. And ethical concerns about microtargeting led the UK’s data protection watchdog to call in 2018 for a pause on the use of digital ad tools like Facebook by political campaigns — warning of grave risks to democracy.

Facebook isn’t for pausing political microtargeting, though. Even though various elements of its data-gathering activities are also subject to privacy and consent complaints, regulatory scrutiny and legal challenge in Europe, under regional data protection legislation.

Instead, the company made it clear last fall that it won’t fact-check political ads, nor block political messages that violate its speech policies — thereby giving politicians carte blanche to run hateful lies, if they so choose.

Facebook’s algorithms also demonstrably select for maximum eyeball engagement, making it simply the ‘smart choice’ for the modern digitally campaigning politician to run outrageous BS on Facebook — as long time Facebook exec Andrew Bosworth recently pointed out in an internal posting that leaked in full to the NYT.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s defence of his social network’s political ads policy boils down to repeatedly claiming ‘it’s all free speech man’ (we paraphrase).

This is an entirely nuance-free argument that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen expertly demolished last year, pointing out that: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

Facebook responded to the take-down with a denial that hate speech exists on its platform since it has a policy against it — per its typical crisis PR playbook. And it’s more of the same selectively self-serving arguments being dispensed by Facebook today.

In a blog post attributed to its director of product management, Rob Leathern, it expends more than 1,000 words on why it’s still not banning political ads (it would be bad for advertisers wanting to reaching “key audiences”, is the non-specific claim) — including making a diversionary call for regulators to set ad standards, thereby passing the buck on ‘democratic accountability’ to lawmakers (whose electability might very well depend on how many Facebook ads they run…), while spinning cosmetic, made-for-PR tweaks to its ad settings and what’s displayed in an ad archive that most Facebook users will never have heard of as “expanded transparency” and “more control”. 

In fact these tweaks do nothing to reform the fundamental problem of damaging defaults.

The onus remains on Facebook users to do the leg work on understanding what its platform is pushing at their eyeballs and why.

Even as the ‘extra’ info now being drip-fed to the Ad Library is still highly fuzzy (“We are adding ranges for Potential Reach, which is the estimated target audience size for each political, electoral or social issue ad so you can see how many people an advertiser wanted to reach with every ad,” as Facebook writes of one tweak.)

The new controls similarly require users to delve into complex settings menus in order to avail themselves of inherently incremental limits — such as an option that will let people opt into seeing “fewer” political and social issue ads. (Fewer is naturally relative, ergo the scale of the reduction remains entirely within Facebook’s control — so it’s more meaningless ‘control theatre’ from the lord of dark pattern design. Why can’t people switch off political and issue ads entirely?)

Another incremental setting lets users “stop seeing ads based on an advertiser’s Custom Audience from a list”.

But just imagine trying to explain WTF that means to your parents or grandparents — let alone an average Internet user actually being able to track down the ‘control’ and exercise any meaningful agency over the political junk ads they’re being exposed to on Facebook.

It is, to quote Baron Cohen, “bullshit”.

Nor are outsiders the only ones calling out Zuckerberg on his BS and “twisted logic”: A number of Facebook’s own employees warned in an open letter last year that allowing politicians to lie in Facebook ads essentially weaponizes the platform.

They also argued that the platform’s advanced targeting and behavioral tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech” — accusing the company’s leadership of making disingenuous arguments in defence of a toxic, anti-democratic policy. 

Nothing in what Facebook has announced today resets the anti-democratic asymmetry inherent in the platform’s relationship to its users.

Facebook users — and democratic societies — remain, by default, preyed upon by self-interested political interests thanks to Facebook’s policies which are dressed up in a self-interested misappropriation of ‘free speech’ as a cloak for its unfettered exploitation of individual attention as fuel for a propaganda-as-service business.

Yet other policy positions are available.

Twitter announced a total ban on political ads last year — and while the move doesn’t resolve wider disinformation issues attached to its platform, the decision to bar political ads has been widely lauded as a positive, standard-setting example.

Google also followed suit by announcing a ban on “demonstrably false claims” in political ads. It also put limits on the targeting terms that can be used for political advertising buys that appear in search, on display ads and on YouTube.

Still Facebook prefers to exploit “the absence of regulation”, as its blog post puts it, to not do the right thing and keep sticking two fingers up at democratic accountability — because not applying limits on behavioral advertising best serves its business interests. Screw democracy.

“We have based [our policies] on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Facebook writes, ignoring the fact that some of its own staff already pointed out the sketchy hypocrisy of trying to claim that complex ad targeting tools and techniques are open to public scrutiny.

Why the world must pay attention to the fight against disinformation and fake news in Taiwan

On Saturday, Taiwan will hold its presidential election. This year, the outcome is even more important than usual because it will signal what direction the country’s people want its relationship with China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, to move in. Also crucial are efforts against fake news. Taiwan has one of the worst disinformation problems in the world and how it is handled is an important case study for other countries.

Yesterday, Twitter said in a blog post that it has held trainings for the two main political parties in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), and Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, in addition to setting up a portal for feedback during the election. Late last month, the state-owned Central News Agency reported that Facebook will set up a “war room” to counteract disinformation before the election, echoing its efforts in other countries (the company previously established a regional elections center at its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore).

But the fight against disinformation in Taiwan started years before the current presidential election. It now encompasses the government, tech companies and non-profit groups like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, and will continue after the election. As in other countries, the fake news problem in Taiwan takes advantage of complex, deep-rooted ideological, cultural and political rifts among Taiwan’s population of 24 million, and it demonstrates that fake news isn’t just a tech or media literacy problem, but also one that needs to be examined from a social psychological perspective.

How Fake News Spreads in Taiwan

This year’s election is taking place as the Chinese government, under President Xi Jinping, makes increasingly aggressive efforts to assert control over Taiwan, and as the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong underscore the fissures in China’s “one country, two systems” model. The two leading candidates are incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the DPP, and opponent Han Kuo-yu of the KMT, who favors a more conciliatory relationship with China.

The Chinese government has been linked to disinformation campaigns in Taiwan. Last year, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden researched foreign influence in domestic politics and placed Taiwan in its “worst” category, along with Latvia and Bahrain, as the countries where foreign governments most frequently use social media to spread false information for “all key political issues.” By comparison, the United States ranked 13th worst on the list, despite being targeted by Russian disinformation operations.

But disinformation also comes from many other sources, including Taiwanese politicians from different parties and their supporters, “cyber armies” whose aim is to influence voters, and content farms that sensationalize and repost content from media outlets. It is spread through platforms including Facebook, Twitter, messaging app Line, online bulletin board PTT and YouTube.

The problem has escalated over the past five years, according to an April 2019 report by CommonWealth magazine reporters Rebecca Lin and Felice Wu. During the previous presidential election, cyber armies consisting of supporters for some politicians, or workers for political parties and public relations companies, began engaging in online information wars, creating an opportunity for foreign influence. Wu Hsun-hsiao, former legal counsel to PTT, told the magazine that in 2015, more dummy accounts entering from China began to appear on the bulletin board and Facebook. “The rise of emerging online media has generated a considerable amount of noise, and China has discovered the influence it has,” he told CommonWealth.

Over the last two years, YouTube has also become an increasingly potent way to spread disinformation, often through short videos that take clips and photos from news outlets and re-edit them to present misleading narratives about major news events. “They take advantage of the myth that ‘to see is to believe’ by massively disseminating false information in the run-up to the election,” Wang Tai-li, a professor in National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism told the Liberty Times.

Earlier this month, Taiwan’s legislature passed the DPP-backed Anti-Infiltration Bill, meant to stop Chinese influence in Taiwanese politics. The legislation was opposed by KMT politicians, including former president Ma Ying-jeou, who made controversial statements comparing the bill to restoring Taiwan’s four decades of martial law, which ended in 1987.

But part of the challenge of fighting fake news in Taiwan is lack of awareness. After local elections in November 2018, Wang conducted a survey that found 52% of respondents did not believe there was foreign interference, or said they did not know enough to judge.

Fighting Back

Much of the work, however, is being done by volunteers and private citizens. Last month, Los Angeles Times’ reporter Alice Su wrote about organizations like the Taiwan FactCheck Center, a non-profit that does not receive funding from the government, political parties or politicians. In July 2018, the group began collaborating with Facebook, where posts flagged as containing false information bring up a screen with a link that takes users to a Taiwan FactCheck Center report before they are allowed to view the content.

Su also covered other groups like DoubleThink Labs, which monitors Chinese disinformation networks in Taiwan, and CoFacts, a crowdsourced database that operates a factchecking Line chatbot. But these groups and social media platforms are up against thousands of posts containing disinformation each day, including in private chat groups that can’t be monitored.

Last month, Facebook said it had removed 118 fan pages, 99 groups and 51 accounts, including an unofficial fan page for Han called “Kaohsiung Fan Group” that had more than 150,000 members, for rules violations.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson said “Over the last three years, we have dedicated unprecedented resources to fighting malicious activity on our platform and, in particular, to protecting the integrity of elections on Facebook–including this week’s election in Taiwan. Our approach includes removing fake accounts, reducing the spread of misinformation, bringing transparency to political advertising, disrupting information operations and working with Taiwan’s Central Election Commission to promote civic engagement. We have teams of experts dedicated to protecting Taiwan’s election, and we look forward to ensuring that Facebook can play a positive role in the democratic process.”

The Pervasiveness of Fake News

Efforts to combat fake news often results in more disinformation spread by people who believe their views have been unfairly targeted. According to the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), by the time the Kaohsiung Fan Group was removed, it had 109 admins and moderators, a number the SIO said was “unusually high compared to the average admin and moderator counts for Taiwanese political groups of either affiliation (pro-Han Kuo-yu groups averaged 27, and pro-Tsai Ing-wen Groups, 10).” Furthermore, several moderators had “suspicious” profiles, including zero or one friend, profile photos that were not of people and “minimal human engagement” on their posts.

But despite that evidence, the SIO also noted that the mass removal “prompted conspiratorial theories about why they were taken down in the first place,” with posts in other pro-KMT groups speculating that it had been done in coordination with the DPP.

An illustration of how sticky fake news can be once it takes root is disinformation about the validity of Tsai’s PhD from the London School of Economics, which continue to circulate through Taiwan even though the university issued a statement confirming the degree.

As in other countries, disinformation in Taiwan also highlight and widen existing political social and cultural rifts. In the United States, for example, fake news campaigns by Russian agents capitalize on already highly polarizing issues, including race, immigration and gun control.

In Taiwan, the specific issues may be different, but the objective is the same. As Su wrote in the Los Angeles Times, many posts “try to stir emotions on hot-button issues–for example, false claims that Tsai’s government has misused pension funds to lure Korean and Japanese tourists to make up for a drop in visitors from the mainland, and that organizers of Taiwan’s annual gay-rights parade received stipends to invite overseas partners to march with them.”

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage last year, despite aggressive efforts by conservative groups to stop it. Before it was passed, CoFacts documented viral posts that linked same-sex marriage with the spread of of HIV. Creators of fake news continue to take advantage of the issue by spreading homophobic disinformation, including claims that the DPP spent NT$30 million (about $980,000) to organize Taipei’s Pride Parade, even though the event is funded by its organizers and does not receive sponsorship from political parties.

Disinformation is difficult to combat and the use of online platforms to spread it is rapidly emerging as one of this century’s most serious problems. But online tools, vigilance by social media platforms and observers, and understanding the social and cultural issues exploited by disinformation, can also be used to fight it. Taiwan’s rampant fake news and disinformation problem has reached the point of crisis, but it may also reveal what solutions are most effective at combating it around the world.

Twitter offers more support to researchers — to ‘keep us accountable’

Twitter has kicked off the New Year by taking the wraps off a new hub for academic researchers to more easily access information and support around its APIs — saying the move is in response to feedback from the research community.

The new page — which it’s called ‘Twitter data for academic researchers’ — can be found here.

It includes links to apply for a developer account to access Twitter’s APIs; details of the different APIs offered and links to additional tools for researchers, covering data integration and access; analysis; visualization; and infrastructure and hosting.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked with many of you in the academic research community. We’ve learned about the challenges you face, and how Twitter can better support you in your efforts to advance understanding of the public conversation,” the social network writes, saying it wants to “make it even easier to learn from the public conversation”.

Twitter is also promising “more enhancements and resources” for researchers this year.

It’s likely no accident the platform is putting a fresh lick of paint on its offerings for academics given that 2020 is a key election year in the U.S. — and concerns about the risk of fresh election meddling are riding high.

Tracking conversation flow on Twitter also still means playing a game of ‘bot or not’ — one that has major implications for the health of democracies. And in Europe Twitter is one of a number of platform giants which, in 2018, signed up to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation that commits it to addressing fake accounts and online bots, as well as to empowering the research community to monitor online disinformation via “privacy-compliant” access to platform data.

“At Twitter, we value the contributions of academic researchers and see the potential for them to help us better understand our platform, keeping us accountable, while helping us tackle new challenges through discoveries and innovations,” the company writes on the new landing page for researchers while also taking the opportunity to big up the value of its platform — claiming that “if it exists, it’s probably been talked about on Twitter”.

If Twitter lives up to its promises of active engagement with researchers and their needs, it could smartly capitalism on rival Facebook’s parallel missteps in support for academics.

Last year Facebook was accused of ‘transparency-washing’ with its own API for researchers, with a group of sixty academics slamming the ad archive API as as much a hinderance as a help.

Months later Facebook was still being reported to have done little to improve the offering.

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

Finding the right reporter to cover your startup

Pitch the wrong reporter or publication, and your story won’t see the light of day.

Before you start seeking press, you’ll need to look for reporters who have reach, respect and expertise when you choose who to talk to. You’ll also need to be prepared to accept the truth about your business, even if it hurts. It’s critical that you find a writer who’s a good fit for the business you’re building and the audience you’re seeking.

If you don’t use a strategic approach when reaching out to journalists, you’ll get few responses, fewer meetings, and articles that either misrepresent you, shortchange you, or blow up in your face. The goal isn’t just to secure positive coverage, because no one will believe it; startups are tough. There are challenges and setbacks and scary looming questions. But an honest article from a respected voice with a big enough audience can legitimize a business as it tries to turn vision into impact.

Here we’ll discuss how to find the publication and reporter who understands you and can tell the story that aligns with your objectives. In part one of this series, we detailed why you should (or shouldn’t) want press coverage and how to know what’s newsworthy enough to pitch.

In future ExtraCrunch posts, I’ll explore how to hire PR help, formulate a pitch, deliver it to reporters, prepare for interviews and conduct an announcement. If you have more questions or ideas for ExtraCrunch posts, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter or elsewhere.

Why should you believe me? I’m editor-at-large for TechCrunch, where I’ve written 4,000 articles about early-stage startups and tech giants. For 10 years, I’ve reviewed startup pitches via email and Twitter, at demo days for accelerators like Y Combinator and on stage as a judge of startup competitions. From warm introductions to cold calls, I’ve seen what gets reporters’ attention and why stories become enduring narratives supporting companies as they grow.

Deciding which publications to target

Which publications do you currently read and respect?

Starting here ensures that you’re approaching PR from a place of knowledge with personal context rather than going by what someone else tells you. But you also have to consider which publications appeal in that way to your target demographic. For example, if you’re aiming to reach teens, parents, or Chief Information Officers, you’ll have very different target publications.

If you appeal to a niche audience aligned with a specific publication, you can definitely score some leads and installs, priming the pump so when users hear about you again, they already have a positive association for your brand. You can score SEO to help your get discovered when people search for keywords related to your business, but if you’re looking for user growth or SEO, be sure to work with a publication that links to the websites and apps they write about, as many don’t. But if you’re hoping for ‘the servers are on fire we’ve got so much traffic’ attention, you need to first build network effects and viral loops directly into your product.

Once you identify a realistic objective for gaining press coverage, you can figure out which reporters and outlets will best help you achieve your goals.

Typically, you’ll aim to work with more prestigious publications and writers first, as they can inspire other outlets to write up follow-on coverage. It rarely works the other way around, since top publishers want to be seen as first to a story and forging trends rather than following them with late coverage. These outlets often have greater reach in terms of home page traffic, social following, SEO and shareability.

The exception to this strategy: if there’s a specific writer at a less-prestigious publisher who’s renowned as the expert in your space whose word has more weight, or if that publication better aligns with your overall goals. For example, you might want to work with a transportation expert like Kirsten Korosec if you’re an electric car company, or a publication focused on startups like TechCrunch if you’re trying to stoke fundraising. If you’re a more general mainstream consumer business or are seeking maximum growth, you might instead choose a popular national newspaper with a big circulation.

Who should tell your story?

After you’ve set goals and have an idea regarding the kind of publication or journalist you want to work with, it’s time to build a ranked list of specific reporters. Here, expertise is key.