Krafton announces PUBG India return under Battlegrounds Mobile title

Krafton, the South Korean video game developer of PUBG Mobile, said on Thursday that it is bringing back the popular gaming title to India under the brand name Battlegrounds Mobile India. The new title, which uses the color scheme of the Indian flag, will offer “a world class AAA multiplayer” and free-to-play gaming experience on mobile devices, it said.

The developer said it will open pre-registration for Battlegrounds Mobile India ahead of its launch in the country, but didn’t share a specific date. The title has been exclusively developed for the world’s second largest internet market, Krafton said.

“Krafton will collaborate with partners to build an esports ecosystem while bringing in-game content regularly, starting with a series of India specific in-game events at launch, to be announced later,” it said.

Thursday’s announcement comes months after India banned PUBG Mobile alongside 200 other apps with links to China citing national security concerns. In the months since Krafton has taken several steps — including cutting ties with its publishing partner Tencent, inking a global cloud deal with Microsoft, pledging a $100 million investment in India’s mobile gaming ecosystem, and earlier this year backing local startup Nodwin — to ally New Delhi’s concerns.

“With privacy and data security being a top priority, Krafton will be working with partners, to ensure data protection and security, at each stage. This will ensure privacy rights are respected, and all data collection and storage will be in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in India and for players here,” it said in a statement.

The firm didn’t say whether it had any conversation with New Delhi and if it had received the approval to launch the new title.

Prior to being banned in India, PUBG Mobile was the most popular mobile game in the country. The app had amassed over 50 million monthly active users in the country. PUBG Mobile still had over 10 million users in India last month, according to a popular mobile insight firm. (Many have been using VPN tools and other workarounds to bypass the geo-restriction.)

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Apple expands its ad business with a new App Store ad slot

At the same time as it’s cracking down on the advertising businesses run by rivals, Apple is introducing a new way for developers to advertise on the App Store. Previously, developers could promote their apps after users initiated a search on the App Store by targeting specific keywords. For example, if you typed in “taxi,” you might then see an ad by Uber in the top slot above the search results. The new ad slot, however, will reach users before they search. This can expose the app to a wider audience.

This new and more prominent ad placement is found on the App Store’s Search tab, which sees millions of visits from Apple device owners every month. Today, the Search tab offers two sections below the search box itself: a “Discover” section that highlights current App Store trends, and a “Suggested” section with recommended apps and games to try. The ad will appear in the latter section at the top of the list of Suggested apps.

These new ad placements, which Apple calls “Search tab campaigns,” are being made available as part of Apple’s Search Ads Advanced service, and can take advantage of the assets that developers have already uploaded to their App Store product page — like the app’s name, icon, and subtitle. Because developers are buying a direct placement on the App Store, they don’t need to submit keywords as they would for other App Store ads, nor any other creative assets.

Image Credits: Apple

Like the existing Search results campaigns, there’s no minimum spend required for a Search tab campaign. Developers can spend as little or as much as they want, then start, stop or adjust the campaign at any time, says Apple. Ad pricing is based on a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) model. The actual cost is the result of a second price auction, which calculates what the developer will pay based on what the next closest bidder is willing to pay. Impressions are counted when at least 50% of the ad is visible for one second, Apple notes.

Apple’s decision to expand its advertising business appears to be a calculated move timed with the launch of iOS 14.5, the latest version of the iPhone’s operating system. Through a feature called App Tracking Transparency (ATT), rolling out in iOS 14.5, Apple is cracking down on apps that track users’ data without permission. After updating, users will see a new pop-up box appear in each app, where the developer will ask permission to collect and share the user’s information with data brokers and other third parties, if they previously collected this information without users’ consent. Users can also go into their iOS Settings to turn on or off app tracking for individual apps at any time.

The change is shaking up the $350+ billion digital ad industry, led by Facebook and Google. Facebook has argued the impacts of the change will hurt small businesses, who have historically relied on highly targeted, personalized ads that allow them to reach potential customers without spending a lot of money. Advertisers, meanwhile, have suggested that Apple’s changes will benefit its own bottom line at the expense of their own.

But Apple’s response, to date, has simply been that the changes were necessary to protect consumer privacy. People should have a right to know “when their data is being collected and shared across other apps and websites,” the company said, “and they should have the choice to allow that or not.”

According to early data by Flurry Analytics, only around 11% of users are opting in to being tracked after the iOS 14.5 launch. For app publishers looking to acquire new users, that could make this new ad slot look more appealing than it would have, had it launched before ATT rolled out.

Apple’s plans to launch the new ad slot were reported by the Financial Times in April, which noted that ultimately, the changes may be more about money — they could also be about control. In years past, getting featured on the App Store could boost a company’s valuation as new users flooded in. Apple may want to shift that power away from third-parties and back to itself and its own App Store both in terms of app discovery and anointing the next hit apps.

StudySmarter books $15M for a global ‘personalized learning’ push

More money for the edtech boom: Munich-based StudySmarter, which makes digital tools to help learners of all ages swat up — styling itself as a ‘lifelong learning platform’ — has closed a $15 million Series A.

The round is led by sector-focused VC fund, Owl Ventures. New York-based Left Lane Capital is co-investing, along with Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen (ex WhatsApp, Uber and Dropbox; now GP at Balderton Capital), and existing early stage investor Dieter von Holtzbrinck Ventures (aka DvH Ventures).

The platform, which launched back in 2018 and has amassed a user-base of 1.5M+ learners — with a 50/50 split between higher education students and K12 learners, and with main markets so far in German speaking DACH countries in Europe — uses AI technologies like natural language processing (NLP) to automate the creation of text-based interactive custom courses and track learners’ progress (including by creating a personalized study plan that adjusts as they go along).

StudySmarter claims its data shows that 94% of learners achieve better grades as a result of using its platform.

While NLP is generally most advanced for the English language, the startup says it’s confident its NLP models can be transferred to new languages without requiring new training data — claiming its tech is “scalable in any language”. (Although it concedes its algorithms increase in accuracy for a given language as users upload more content so the software itself is undertaking a learning journey and will necessarily be at a different point on the learning curve depending on the source content.)

Here’s how StudySmarter works: Users input their study goals to get recommendations for relevant revision content that’s been made available to the platform’s community.

They can also contribute content themselves to create custom courses by uploading assets like lecture slides and revisions notes. StudySmarter’s platform can then turn this source material into interactive study aids — like flashcards and revision exercises — and the startup touts the convenience of the approach, saying it enables students to manage all their revision in one place (rather than wrangling multiple learning apps).

In short, it’s both a (revision) content marketplace and a productivity platform for learning — as it helps users create their own study (or lesson) plans, and offers them handy tools like a digital magic marker that automatically turns highlighted text into flashcards, while the resulting “smart” flashcards also apply the principle of spaced repetition learning to help make the studied content stick.

Users can choose to share content they create with other learners in the StudySmarter community (or not). The startup says a quarter (25%) of its users are creators, and that 80% of the content they create is shared. Overall, it says its platform provides access to more than 25 million pieces of shared content currently.

It’s topic agnostic, as you’d expect, so course content covers a diverse range of subjects. We’re told the most popular courses to study are: Economics, Medicine, Law, Computer Science, Engineering and school subjects such as Maths, Physics, Biology and English.

Regardless of how learners use it, the platform uses AI to nudge users towards relevant revision content and topics (and study groups) to keep extending and supporting their learning process — making adaptive, ongoing recommendations for other stuff they should check out.

The ease of creating learning materials on the StudySmarter platform results in a democratization of high-quality educational content, driven by learners themselves,” is the claim.   

As well as user generated content (UGC), StudySmarter’s platform hosts content created by verified educationists and publishers — and there’s an option for users to search only for such verified content, i.e. if they don’t want to dip into the UGC pool.

“In general, there is no single workflow,” says co-founder and CMO Maurice Khudhir. “We created StudySmarter to adapt to different learner types. Some are very active learners and prefer to create content, some only want to search and consume content from other peers/publishers.”

“Our platform focuses on the art of learning itself, rather than being bound by topics, sectors, industries or content types. This means that anyone, regardless of what they’re learning, can use StudySmarter to improve how they learn. We started in higher education as it was the closest, most relevant market to where we were at the time of launch. We more recently expanded to K12, and are currently running our first corporate learning pilot.”

Gamification is a key strategy to encourage engagement and advance learning, with the platform dishing out encouraging words and emoji, plus rewards like badges and achievements based on the individual’s progress. Think of it as akin to Duolingo-style microlearning — but where users get to choose the subject (not just the language) and can feed in source material if they wish.

StudySmarter says it’s taken inspiration from tech darlings like Netflix and Tinder — baking in recommendation algorithms to surface relevant study content for users -(a la Netflix’s ‘watch next’ suggestions), and deploying a Tinder-swipe-style learning UI on mobile so that its “smart flashcards” can to adapt to users’ responses.

“Firstly, we individualise the learning experience by recommending appropriate content to the learner, depending on their demographics, demands and study goals,” explains Khudhir. “For instance, when an economics student uploads a PDF on the topic of marginal cost, StudySmarter will recommend several user-generated courses that cover marginal cost and/or several flashcards on marginal cost as well as e-books on StudySmarter that cover this topic.

“In this way, StudySmarter is similar to Netflix — Netflix will suggest similar TV shows and films depending on what you’ve already watched and StudySmarter will recommend different learning materials depending on the types of content and topics you interact with.

“As well, depending on how the student likes to learn, we also individualise the learning journey through things such as the smart flashcard learning algorithm. This is based on spaced repetition. For example, if a student is testing themselves on microeconomics, the flashcard set will go through different questions and responses and the student can swipe through the flashcards, in a similar way to Tinder. The flashcards’ sequence will adapt after every response.

“The notifications are also personalised — so they will remind the student to learn at particular points in the day, adapted to how the student uses the app.”

There’s also a scan functionality which uses OCR (optical character recognition) technology that lets users upload (paper-based) notes, handouts or books — and a sketch feature lets them carry out further edits, if they want to add more notes and scribbles.

Once ingested into the platform, this scanned (paper-based) content can of course also be used to create digital learning materials — extending the utility of the source material by plugging it into the platform’s creation and tracking capabilities.

“A significant cohort of users access StudySmarter on tablets, and they find this learning flow very useful, especially for our school-age pupils,” he adds.

StudySmarter can also offer educators and publishers detailed learning analytics, per Khudhir — who says its overarching goal is to establish itself as “the leading marketplace for educational content”, i.e. by using the information it gleans on users’ learning goals to directly recommend (relevant) professional content — “making it an extremely effective distribution platform”, as he puts it.

In addition to students, he says the platform is being used by teachers, professors, trainers, and corporate members — ie. to create content to share with their own students, team members, course participants etc, or just to publish publicly. And he notes a bit of a usage spike from teachers in March last year as the pandemic shut down schools in Europe. 

StudySmarter co-founders, back from left to right: Christian Felgenhauer (co-founder & CEO), Till Söhlemann (co-founder); front: Maurice Khudir (co-founder & CMO), Simon Hohentanner (COO & co-founder). Image credits: StudySmarter

What about copyright? Khudir says they follow a three-layered system to minimize infringement risks — firstly by not letting users share or export any professional content hosted on the platform.

Uploaded documents like lecture notes and users’ own comments can be shared within one university course/class in a private learning group. But only UGC (like flashcards, summaries and exercises) can be shared freely with the entire StudySmarter community, if the user wants to.

“It’s important to note that no content is shared without the author’s permission,” he notes. “We also have a contact email for people to raise potential copyright infringements. Thanks to this system, we can say that we never had a single copyright issue with universities, professors or publishers.”

Another potential pitfall around UGC is quality. And, clearly, no student wants to waste their time revising from poor (or just plain wrong) revision notes.

StudySmarter says it’s limiting that risk by tracking how learners engage with shared content on the platform — in order to create quality scores for UGC — monitoring factors like how often such stuff is used for learning; how often the students who study from it answer questions correctly; and by looking the average learning time for a particular flashcard or summary, etc.

“We combine this with an active feedback system from the students to assign each piece of content a dynamic quality score. The higher the score is, the more often it is shown to new users. If the score falls below a certain threshold, the content is removed and is only visible to the original creator,” he goes on, adding: “We track the quality of shared content on the creator level so users who consistently share low-quality content can be banned from sharing more content on the platform.”

There are unlikely to be quality issues with verified educator/publisher content. But since it’s professional content, StudySmarter can’t expect to get it purely for free — so it says it “mostly” follows revenue-sharing agreements with these types of contributors.

It is also sharing data on learning trends and to help publishers reach relevant learners, as mentioned above. So the information it can provide education publishers about potential customers is probably the bigger carrot for pulling them in.

“We are very happy to say that the vast majority of our content is not created or shared on StudySmarter for any financial incentive but rather because our platform and technology simply make the creation significantly easier,” says Khudir, adding: “We have not paid a single Euro to any user on StudySmarter to create content and do not intend to do so going forward.” 

It’s still early days for monetization, which he says isn’t front of mind yet — with the team focused on building out the platform’s global reach — but he notes that the model allows for a number of b2b revenue streams, adding that they’ve been doing some early b2b monetization by working with employers and businesses to promote their graduate programs or to support recruitment drives. 

The new funding will be put towards product development and supporting the platform’s global expansion, per Khudir.

“We’ve run successful pilots in the U.K. and U.S. so they’re our primary focus to expand to by Q3 this year. In fact, following a test pilot in the U.K. in December, we became the number one education app within 24 hours (ahead of the likes of Duolingo, Quizlet, Kahoot, and Photomath), which bodes well!” he goes on. 

“Brazil, India and Indonesia are key targets for us due to a wider need for digital education. We’re also looking to launch in France, Nordics, Spain, Russia and many more countries. Due to the fact our platform is content-agnostic, and the technology that underpins it is universal, we’re able to scale effectively in multiple countries and languages. Within the next 12 months, we will be expanding to more than 12 countries and support millions of learners globally.”

StudySmarter’s subject-agnostic, feature-packed, one-stop-shop platform approach sets it apart from what Khudir refers to as “single-feature apps”, i.e. which just help you learn one thing — be that Duolingo (only languages), or apps that focus on teaching a particular skill-set (like Photomath for maths equations, or dedicated learn-to-code apps/courses (and toys)). 

But where the process of learning is concerned, there are lots of ways of going about it, and no one that suits everyone (or every subject), so there’s undoubtedly room for (and value in) a variety of approaches (which may happily operate in parallel). So it seems a safe bet that broad-brush learning platforms aren’t going to replace specialized tools — or (indeed) vice versa.

StudySmarter names the likes of Course Hero, StuDocu, Quizlet and Anki as taking a similar broad approach — while simultaneously claiming they’re not doing it in “quite the same, holistic, end-to-end, all-in-one bespoke platform for learners” way.  

Albeit, some of those edtech rivals are doing it with a lot more capital already raised. So StudySmarter is going to need to work smart and hard to localize and grab students’ attention as it guns for growth far beyond its European base.

 

Live video platform Bright lets you Zoom with your favorite creators

What if you could Zoom with your favorite creator and ask them questions? That’s the promise of Bright, the new live video platform launching today from co-founders Guy Oseary and early YouTube product manager Michael Powers. The service, built on top of Zoom, allows fans to engage in live, face-to-face video sessions with creators, ask questions and even join creators on a virtual stage for a more personal and direct learning experience.

Though the startup has some similarities to voice chat apps like Clubhouse, as it also democratizes access to big-name talent at times, the co-founders explain that Bright’s focus will be very different. Besides being a video-on experience, Bright is solely focused on educational content — that is, learning from people who are sharing their expertise with the community. In addition, the sessions hosted on Bright are ticketed events, where the creator decides how many tickets they want to sell and how much they’re charging.

Image Credits: Bright

“Twenty percent of the content on YouTube was learning. It was the second-biggest area next to music. And that was true the first year of YouTube and it’s true now at scale,” explains Bright CEO Michael Powers, as to why Bright has chosen to focus on learning. Powers knows the creator industry firsthand, having launched the YouTube Channels feature while at YouTube, and later managed YouTube’s first revenue-generating opportunities for creators. More recently, he served as SVP and GM at CBS Interactive.

Powers says he saw how powerful educational and learning content could be, but also how difficult it was for creators earning a rev share off an ad network, like YouTube’s, to become self-sustainable.

“I watched that over the past five years, especially, as the different platforms have scaled up,” Powers says, and became inspired to launch a better way for creators to monetize their expertise. “We’ve got to empower [creators] so they can go beyond just being a personal brand or social brand, and be an actual business,” he adds.

Oseary, meanwhile, was tooling around with a similar concept, having also had direct experience with creators in the music industry and through his investments. The founder of Maverick music management company, Oseary continues to manage Madonna and U2, but these days has his hands in numerous startups as the co-founder of Sound Ventures and A-Grade Investments with actor Ashton Kutcher.

Though Oseary and Powers have yet to meet in person, they connected over the web — much like Bright’s creators will now do — to get the new startup off the ground during a pandemic.

With today’s launch, Bright is promising a lineup of more than 200 prominent creators, many from the arts, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Naomi Campbell, Shawn Mendes, Amy Schumer, D-Nice, the D’Amelio Sisters, Laura Dern, Judd Apatow, Deepak Chopra, Diplo, Kenny Smith, Kane Brown, Drew and Jonathan Scott (Property Brothers), Lindsey Vonn, Rachel Zoe, Diego Boneta, Tal Fishman, Ryan Prunty, Demi Skipper, Charlotte McKinney, Jason Bolden, Yris Palmer, Cat & Nat, Ronnie2K, Chef Ludo Lefebvre and Jonathan Mannion, among others.

And it has another 1,500 creators on a waitlist, ready to begin hosting their own sessions when Bright opens up further.

Image Credits: Bright session example

Although Bright’s lineup implies it’s aiming at a high-profile creator crowd, Oseary insists Bright will be for anyone with an audience of their own — not just famous names.

“This is not elitist…If you’ve got an audience and you have something to offer your audience, we would like you on the platform,” he says.

Today, creators can go to other social networks, like Facebook Live or Instagram Live, if they want to just chat with fans more casually. But people will come to Bright to be educated, Oseary notes. And short of getting a creator to FaceTime you directly, he believes this will be the next best way to reach them — and one people are familiar with using, thanks to the Zoom adoption that grew out of the pandemic’s impact to business culture and remote work.

“The best way to connect is to use a platform that we’ve all learned how to use this last year,” Oseary says, referring to Bright’s Zoom connection. “We all already have the app. We already know how to navigate through it. We’ve added a bunch of features to make it more interesting,” he adds.

Image Credits: Bright

At launch, fans will be able to visit Bright’s website, view the array of upcoming events and purchase tickets. Some of the first sessions include Laura Dern leading a “Tell Your Story” session about personal growth; Kenny Smith will interview favorite athletes and discuss their mindsets at turning points in their careers; Property Brothers Jonathan & Drew Scott will host “Room by Room,” focused on home improvement; recording artist Kane Brown will host “Record This: Nashville Edition” about the country music industry; and Ronnie2K will host a series about building a career in gaming.

Bright’s model will see it taking a 20% commission on creator revenue, which is lower than the traditional marketplace split of 30/70 (platform/creator), but higher than the commission-free payments on Clubhouse (at least for the time being!). Further down the road, Bright envisions building out more tools to help creators with other aspects of their business — like the sale of physical or digital goods, for example.

Though there are numerous creator platforms to choose from these days, Bright aims to give creators direct access to their own analytics about their biggest fans, their content and fans’ contact information, like names and emails. This allows them to continue their relationship with their community beyond Bright into other areas of their business — whether that’s email newsletters or Shopify stores.

To make all this work, LA-based Bright has recruited a team with deep expertise in both the creator economy and tech.

This includes Bright’s VP of Talent & Partnership, Kaitlyn Powell, former head of Talent at Caffeine; Bright’s lead Creator & Product Strategy, Sadia Harper, formerly a UX Strategist at Instagram; Bright’s director of Creative Programming, Jeben Berg, previously of YouTube & Maker Studios; Design lead Heather Grates, previously of Pinterest; and Bright’s finance lead Jarad Backlund, previously in roles at Apple and Facebook.

The startup has raised an undisclosed amount funding from Oseary’s own Sound Ventures, as well as RIT Capital, Norwest, Globo and other investors.

Indian online teaching platform Teachmint raises $16.5 million

An Indian startup that began its life after the global pandemic broke last year said on Tuesday it has concluded its third financing round as it enables hundreds of thousands of teachers in the world’s second largest internet market run classes online and serve their students.

Bangalore-based Teachmint said today it has raised $16.5 million in its Series A financing round. The round was led by Learn Capital, the San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered venture capital firm that focuses on edtech firms and has backed some of the world’s most promising online learning startups including Coursera, Udemy, Nerdy, Minerva, and Brainly.

Existing investors Better Capital, which first invested in Teachmint before the startup had even registered itself, and Lightspeed India Partners also participated in the new round, which brings the Indian startup’s to-date raise to $20 million.

Teachmint helps teachers conduct classes online through an app on their Android smartphone or iPhone or through web. The startup has built an all-in-one product that allows teachers to kickstart a live class, do doubt-clearing sessions, take attendance, conduct webinars, collect fees, find new students, offer support via phone calls, and take tests among other tasks.

“When the pandemic broke, teachers were struggling with several tools including Google Meet, Zoom and even Youtube/Facebook Live to teach online. They were using additional tools like Google Forms for tests and WhatsApp for communication. It was a difficult and disconnected experience for most teachers as none of these tools were productised for teaching. That’s when we decided to build a mobile-first video-first solution specifically for teaching,” said Mihir Gupta, co-founder and chief executive of Teachmint, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The product, available in 10 local languages, is highly localised for India-specific needs, said Gupta.

More than 700,000 teachers from over 1,500 cities and towns have signed up on the platform in less than 10 months since the launch of Teachmint’s product, said Gupta.

“From the Learn Capital team’s first meeting with Teachmint’s co-founders several months ago, it was clear that their collective team had meticulously architected an end-to-end, multi-modal, and best-in-class solution enabling teachers in India to instantly and seamlessly digitize their classrooms,” said Vinit Sukhija, Partner at Learn Capital, in a statement.

“Now with over 700,000 teachers, Teachmint has become India’s leading online teaching platform,” he said, adding that Learn Capital believes that Teachmint can eventually expand its offering outside of India.

Gupta said Teachmint is currently not monetizing its product, and doesn’t intend to do so in the immediate future as it is currently priortizing reaching more teachers in India and also expand its offerings.

He said most teachers have learned about Teachmint from their friends and without any investment in marketing. Teachmint is open to exploring any strategic acquisition opportunities with smaller startups, he said.

alt.bank, Brazil’s latest fintech targeting the unbanked, raises $5.5M

It looks like everyone and their mother is trying to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. Earlier this year we wrote about Nubank’s $400 million Series G, last month there was the PicPay IPO filing and today, alt.bank, a Brazilian neobank, announced a $5.5 million Series A led by Union Square Ventures (USV).

It’s no secret that the Brazilian banking system has been poised for disruption, considering the sector’s little attention to customer service and exorbitant fee structure that’s left most Brazilians unbanked, and alt.bank is just the latest company trying to take home a piece of the pie.

Following Nubank’s strategy of launching a bank with colors that are very un-bank-like, signaling that they do things differently, alt.bank similarly launched its first financial product in 2019 — a fluorescent-yellow debit card which the locals have endearingly dubbed, “o amarelinho,” meaning, “the little yellow card.”

The company, founded by serial entrepreneur Brad Liebman, follows the founder’s $480 million exit of Simply Business, which was acquired by U.S. insurance giant Travelers in 2017.

Unlike many fintechs, alt.bank has a strong social mission and pays commissions for referrals that last for the customer’s lifetime. 

“Most fintechs just help wealthy people get wealthier, so I thought let’s do something with a social mission,” Liebman told TechCrunch in an interview.

To drive home the mission, and really target the unbanked, Liebman and his team of 80 employees have designed an app that can be used by the illiterate. Instead of words, users can follow color-coded prompts to complete a transaction. The company also plans to launch credit products soon.

According to the company, close to a million people have downloaded the android app since launch, but Liebman declined to disclose how many active users the company actually has.

Today, the company’s core offerings include the debit card, a prepaid credit card, Pix (similar to Zelle), a savings account and even telemedicine visits via a partnership with Dr. Consulta, a network of healthcare clinics throughout the country. The prepaid credit card is key because online stores in Brazil don’t accept debit card purchases.

In addition to the perk of ongoing commissions, alt.bank has also partnered with three major drugstores, allowing their users to get 5-30% off any item at the stores, including medication.

While the company is based in São Paulo and São Carlos, Liebman and his family are currently based in London due to regulations around the pandemic.

The investment in alt.bank marks USV’s first investment in South America, solidifying a trend by other major U.S. investors such as Sequoia who only in the last several years have started looking to LatAm for deals.

“The bar was high for our first investment in South America,” said Union Square Ventures partner John Buttrick. “The combination of the alt.bank business model and world-class management team enticed us to expand our geographic focus to help build the leading digital bank targeting the 100 million Brazilians who are currently being neglected by traditional lenders,” he added in a statement. 

 

Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

Twitter expands Spaces to anyone with 600+ followers, details plans for tickets, reminders and more

Twitter Spaces, the company’s new live audio rooms feature, is opening up more broadly. The company announced today it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users. It also officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements, and more.

Along with the expansion, Twitter is making Spaces more visible on its platform, too. The company notes it has begun testing the ability to find and join a Space from a purple bubble around someone’s profile picture right from the Home timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter says it decided on the 600 follower figure as being the minimum to gain access to Twitter Spaces based on its earlier testing. Accounts with 600 or more followers tend to have “a good experience” hosting live conversations because they have a larger existing audience who can tune in. However, Twitter says it’s still planning to bring Spaces to all users in the future.

In the meantime, it’s speeding ahead with new features and developments. Twitter has been building Spaces in public, taking into consideration user feedback as it prioritizes features and updates. Already, it has built out an expanded set of audience management controls, as users requested, introduced a way for hosts to mute all speakers at once, and added the laughing emoji to its set of reactions, after users requested it.

Now, its focus is turning towards creators. Twitter Spaces will soon support multiple co-hosts, and creators will be able to better market and even charge for access to their live events on Twitter Spaces. One feature, arriving in the next few weeks, will allow users to schedule and set reminders about Spaces they don’t want to miss. This can also help creators who are marketing their event in advance, as part of the RSVP process could involve pushing users to “set a reminder” about the upcoming show.

Twitter Spaces’ rival, Clubhouse, also just announced a reminders feature during its Townhall event on Sunday as well at the start of its external Android testing. The two platforms, it seems, could soon be neck-and-neck in terms of feature set.

Image Credits: Twitter

But while Clubhouse recently launched in-app donations feature as a means of supporting favorite creators, Twitter will soon introduce a more traditional means of generating revenue from live events: selling tickets. The company says it’s working on a feature that will allow hosts to set ticket prices and how many are available to a given event, in order to give them a way of earning revenue from their Twitter Spaces.

A limited group of testers will gain access to Ticketed Spaces in the coming months, Twitter says. Unlike Clubhouse, which has yet to tap into creator revenue streams, Twitter will take a small cut from these ticket sales. However, it notes that the “majority” of the revenue will go to the creators themselves.

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter also noted that it’s improving its accessibility feature, live captions, so they can be paused and customized, and is working to make them more accurate.

The company will be hosting a Twitter Space of its own today around 1 PM PT to further discuss these announcements in more detail.

Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

Clubhouse begins externally testing its Android app

Clubhouse, the voice-based networking app that’s now being knocked off by every major tech platform, is bringing its service to Android. The company announced during its weekly townhall event that its Android version has entered beta testing with a handful of non-employees who will provide the company with early feedback ahead of a public launch.

In its release notes, Clubhouse referred to this test as involving a “rough beta version” that’s in the process of being rolled out to a group of “friendly testers.” That means there’s not a way for the broader public to sign up for the Android app just yet.

The lack of an Android client combined with its invite system initially gave Clubhouse an aura of exclusivity. You had to know someone to get in, and then you would need an iOS device to participate. But the delay to provide access to Android users also gave larger competitors time to catch up with Clubhouse and court users who were being left behind. One of the largest of the rivals, Facebook, recently challenged Clubhouse across all its platforms and services, in fact.

Facebook announced a full audio strategy that included a range of new products, from short-form audio snippets to a direct Clubhouse clone that works across Facebook and Messenger. It also announced a way for Instagram Live users to turn off their video and mute their mics, similar to Clubhouse. Even Facebook’s R&D division tested a Clubhouse alternative, Hotline, which offers a sort of mashup between the popular audio app and Instagram Live, with more of a Q&A focus.

Meanwhile, Twitter is continuing to expand its audio rooms feature, Twitter Spaces, and there are Clubhouse alternatives from Reddit, LinkedIn, Spotify, Discord, Telegram and others, in the works, too.

For Clubhouse, that means the time has come to push for growth — especially as there are already some signs its initial hype is wearing off. According to app store intelligence firm Apptopia, Clubhouse has seen an estimated 13.5 million downloads on iOS to date, but the number of daily downloads has been falling, mirroring a decline in the number of daily active users.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Apptopia’s data shows that Clubhouse’s daily active users are down 68% from a high in February 2021, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Clubhouse is over — it’s just becoming less of a daily habit. But if the company is able to build out its creator community and establish a number of popular shows, which it’s aiming to do via its accelerator, it could still see users tuning in on a weekly and monthly basis. And those sessions would be longer in comparison with some other social apps, as Clubhouse users often tune into shows that run over an hour — even leaving the app open as they do other tasks.

For example, Clubhouse’s average session time per user is about 125% higher than Snapchat or Instagram. But compared with a streaming app like Spotify, sessions are shorter. Spotify’s average session per user is about 63% higher than Clubhouse, Apptopia data indicates.

However, Clubhouse is taking aim at the challenges around re-engaging people whose usage may have dwindled in recent days. Also during its townhall, the company announced it would introduce a bell icon for events that will allow users to be notified about the events to which they’ve RSVP’d. This will be important for creators who are advertising their events, as well.

Clubhouse didn’t give a specific time frame as to when its Android app would reach more testers or the wider public, only noting that it’s looking forward to welcoming more Android users in the “coming weeks.” In March, Clubhouse said the Android launch would take a couple of months.