Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

Volkswagen says a vendor’s security lapse exposed 3.3 million drivers’ details

Volkswagen says more than 3.3 million customers had their information exposed after one of its vendors left a cache of customer data unsecured on the internet.

The car maker said in a letter that the vendor, used by Volkswagen, its subsidiary Audi, and authorized dealers in the U.S. and Canada, left the customer data spanning 2014 to 2019 unprotected over a two-year window between August 2019 and May 2021.

The data, which Volkswagen said was gathered for sales and marketing, contained personal information about customers and prospective buyers, including their name, postal and email addresses, and phone number.

But more than 90,000 customers across the U.S. and Canada also had more sensitive data exposed, including information relating to loan eligibility. The letter said most of the sensitive data was driver’s license numbers, but that a “small” number of records also included a customer’s date of birth and Social Security numbers.

Volkswagen did not name the vendor, and a company spokesperson did not immediately comment.

It’s the latest security incident involving driver’s license numbers in recent months. Insurance giants Metromile and Geico admitted earlier this year that their quote forms had been abused by scammers trying to obtain driver’s license numbers. Several other car insurance companies have also reported similar incidents involving the theft of driver’s license numbers. Geico said it was likely an effort by scammers to file and cash fraudulent unemployment benefits in another person’s name.

Volkswagen’s letter, however, did not say if the company had evidence that the data exposed by the vendor was misused.

 

Commit raises $6M seed round to match senior engineers to startups they want to work for

Commit, a Vancouver, Canada-based startup that has a unique approach to matching up engineers looking for a new job to early-stage startups that want to hire them, today announced that it has raised a $6 million seed round. Accomplice led the round, with participation from Kensington Capital Partners, Inovia and Garage Capital. 

The company, which focuses on working with remote-first startups, launched in 2019, with co-founders Greg Gunn (CEO) and Beier Cai (CTO), who met as early employees at Hootsuite, bootstrapping the company while they worked out the details of how they wanted Commit to work.

“I was an EIR [at Inovia Capital] and I just saw all these amazing founders that were coming in with world-changing ideas. They raised money, but their biggest challenge was getting an engineer to join them,” Gunn explained.

Beier Cai, Co-founder & CTO, Greg Gunn, Co-founder & CEO, , Tiffany Jung, VP, Strategy & Ops Image Credits: Commit

In his experience, founders typically look for senior full-stack tech leads to join their company, but it’s exactly those senior engineers that are often already in very comfortable roles at larger companies and taking a bet on an early-stage startup — or even a succession of early-stage startups — is often not the most pragmatic choice for them.

After talking to dozens of engineers, the founders found that many didn’t want to lose the support network they had built inside their current company, both from fellow engineers but also the kind of institutional support you get through formal and informal mentorship and personal development opportunities that most large tech companies offer. In addition, as Gunn noted, “hiring at early-stage startups sucks.” Senior engineers don’t want to have to go through a bunch of technical interviews anymore that test their whiteboarding skills but say very little about their actual capabilities as an engineer.

So the team decided to figure out ways to remove these barriers. Like a VC firm, it vets the startups and startup founders it works with, so the engineers that come to Commit know that these are serious companies with at least some prospect of raising funding and allowing their engineers to shape their trajectory and grow into what is potentially an early leadership role.

Meanwhile, it vets the engineers by giving them a technical interview so they can get started without having to do another one for every interview with the companies that partner with Commit. As Gunn noted, so far, the average engineer Commit has worked with only met 1.6 vetted founders before they started a pilot project together.

To mitigate some of the fiscal risks of leaving a large tech company, Commit actually pays the engineers it works with a salary until they find a job. Currently, around 90% of the engineers that start pilot projects with their prospective employees end up in full-time employment.

Image Credits: Commit

In addition to matching up founders and engineers, it also offers its community members access to an active remote-first community of fellow engineers for peer support and career advice, as well as coaching and other transition services.

In the backend, Commit uses a lot of data to match founders and engineers, but Gunn noted that while the team is very selective and has a tight profile for the people it partners with, it is committed to building a diverse pool of founders and engineers. “The thing we’re combating is the fact that these opportunities have been unevenly distributed,” he said. “Even within the Valley […] you have to be from a socio-economic class to even have access to those opportunities. For us, our whole business model is live where you want to live, but then get access to whatever opportunities you have.” Later this year, Commit plans to launch a project that specifically focuses on hiring diversity.

Commit’s startup partners currently include Patch, Plastiq, Dapper Labs, Relay, Certn, Procurify, Scope Security, Praisidio, Planworth, Georgian Partners and Lo3 Energy. The team started out slowly, working with fewer than 100 engineers so far, but hopes to expand its community to 10,000 engineers within the next 12 months. Starting today, engineers who want to join the program can now get on Commit’s waitlist.

Jeeves emerges from stealth with $131M in debt and equity and a16z as a lead investor

Jeeves, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is emerging from stealth today with $131 million in total funding, including $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

The $31 million in equity consists of a new $26 million Series A and a previously unannounced $5 million seed round.

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) led the Series A funding, which also included participation from YC Continuity Fund, Jaguar Ventures, Urban Innovation Fund, Uncorrelated Ventures, Clocktower Ventures, Stanford University, 9 Yards Capital and BlockFi Ventures.

A high-profile group of angel investors also put money in the round, including NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the founders of five LatAm unicorns — Nubank CEO David Velez, Kavak CEO Carlos Garcia, Rappi co-founder Sebastian Mejia, Bitso CEO Daniel Vogel and Loft CEO Florian Hagenbuch. Justo’s Ricardo Weder also participated in this round and Plaid co-founder William Hockey put money in the $5 million seed funding that closed in 2020 after the company completed the YC Summer 2020 batch.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering is currently live in Mexico — its largest market — as well as Colombia, Canada and the U.S., and is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile. 

Dileep Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Image Credits: Left to right: Jeeves co-founders Dileep Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi

Jeeves claims that by using its platform, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card, noncard payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon said. 

“We’re really building two things — an infrastructure layer that sits across banking institutions in different countries. And then on top of that, we’re building the customer-, or end user-facing app,” he added. “What gives us the ability to launch in countries much quicker is that we own part of that stack ourselves, versus what most fintechs would do, which is plug into a third-party provider in that region.” 

Image Credits: Jeeves

Indeed, the company has seen rapid early growth. Since launching its private beta last October, Jeeves says it has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by 200x and increased revenue by 900% (albeit from a small base). In May alone, Jeeves says it processed more transaction volume than the entire year to date, and more than doubled its customer base. It says that “hundreds of companies,” including Bitso, Belvo, Justo, Runa, Worky, Zinboe, RobinFood and Muncher, “actively” use Jeeves to manage their local and international spend. On top of that, it says, the startup has a waitlist of more than 5,000 companies — which is part of why the company sought to raise debt and equity.

The shift to remote work globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic has played a large role in why Jeeves has seen so much demand, according to Thazhmon.

“Every company is now becoming a global company, and the service to employees in two different countries requires two different systems,” he said. “And then someone’s got to reconcile that system at the end of the month. This has been a big reason why we’re growing so fast.”

One of Jeeves’ biggest accomplishments so far, Thazhmon said, has been receiving approval to issue cards from its own credit BIN (bank identification number) in Mexico. It can also run SPEI payments directly on its infrastructure. (SPEI is a system developed and operated by Banco de México that allows the general public to make electronic payments.)

“This gives us a lot of flexibility and allows us to offer a truly unique product to our customers,” said Thazhmon, who previously co-founded PowerInbox, a
Battery Ventures-backed MarTech company that he says grew to $40 million in annual revenue in three years.

Jeeves says it will use the fresh capital to onboard new companies to the platform from its waitlist, scale its infrastructure to cover more countries and currencies as well as do some hiring and expand its product line.

A16z General Partner Angela Strange, who is joining Jeeves’ board as part of the investment, is extremely bullish on the startup’s potential.

Strange says she met Thazhmon about a year ago and was immediately intrigued.

“Not only were they working to provide the financial operating system within a country, starting in Mexico, they were designing their software platform to scale across multiple countries,” she said. “Finally — a multicountry/currency expense management & payouts platform, where increasingly companies have employees and operations in multiple countries from the start and can use a single company to manage their financials.”

Strange, who has been investing in Latin America for the past few years, notes that most companies in the region are unable to get a corporate credit card.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” she told TechCrunch. “It’s cumbersome for companies to make bank to bank payouts, handle wires, and they usually also have expenses in the U.S. (and often other countries) so there is also FX. And they manage multiple bank accounts. Not only is paying hard, reconciliation on the backend takes weeks.”

As such, Strange said, with every country having their own bank transfer system, rules around who can issue a credit card, approved payment processors, currencies and bank accounts — payments and expense management across countries can be complex.

Jeeves, according to Strange, “gets as close to the networks/payment rails as possible” since it has its own issuing credit BIN versus needing to connect through legacy players.

Providing an orchestration layer on top of all the rails gives Jeeves the ability “to handle all the payment and reconciliation complexity” so “their customers don’t have to think about it,” she added.

 

Max Q: Selling space

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

This week actually includes two, since I was out last week for a Canadian national holiday (and back today for the U.S. one, ironically). There’s plenty to cover, including Blue Origin’s bidding process, lunar landers, spaceships launching at sea and the return of our very own space event.

Blue Origin’s big bid

Blue Origin is auctioning off one seat on its first-ever human spaceflight, and the bidding got started at $1.4 million — or at least, the public bidding started there. Before last week, people had been submitting blind bids, but now Blue Origin is posting the top current bid to its website whenever it hits a new high. It’s currently set at $2.8 million, meaning it’s doubled since the bids opened up to public scrutiny, and presumably FOMO.

Everything’s building up to June 12, when the auction will conclude with a live, real-time online competitive bidding round. Seems likely it’ll at least cross the $3 million mark before all’s said and done, which is good news for Blue Origin, since run-of-the-mill tickets for the few minutes in suborbital space going forward will probably end up more in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

The winning bidder will be flying on July 20, if all goes to the current plan, and will be accompanied by other passengers selected by Blue Origin through some other mechanism. We don’t yet know who else will be on the ride. Bezos maybe?

SpaceX’s Deimos spaceport is under construction

ENSCO offshore oil rig like the one SpaceX is converting

ENSCO offshore oil rig like the one SpaceX is converting. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons / Tony Webster

SpaceX is really flexing its sci-fi-made-real muscle with its latest move: The company is turning two offshore oil rig platforms into floating spaceports, and one of the two, codenamed “Deimos” after one of Mars’ moons, is already being worked on. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared that the company is hoping to have it ready for operations next year, meaning it could host actual launches in 2022.

Eventually, Deimos and its twin, Phobos, will provide launch and landing services to SpaceX’s first fully reusable launch vehicle — Starship. Starship only just managed to land successfully after a high, but still very much atmospheric, flight test, however, so it has a way to go before it’s making amphibious departures and arrivals using the converted oil platforms.

Putting these in the ocean presumably helps solve some key issues, not least of which is being mindful of the impact of launching absolutely massive rockets on land anywhere near people. Ditto the landings, which, at least early on, are bound to be risky affairs better carried out with a buffer of surrounding ocean.

Landers; lunar ones

Lander Rover

Concept graphic depicting ispace’s HAKUTO-R lander and rover. Image Credits: ispace

There’s quite a bit of lunar lander news this week, including Japan’s ispace revealing that it’ll provide commercial lunar lander service to both Canada and Japan, with a ride for both provided by SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket. These will be two separate missions, with the first one set for next year, and the second one set to take place in 2023.

Both will use ispace’s Hakuto-R lander, which it originally developed to take part in the Google-backed Lunar XPRIZE competition. That ended without a winner, but some companies, including ispace, continued to work on their landers with an eye to commercialization. The Hakuto-R being sent on behalf of JAXA will carry an adorable ball-shaped moon robot which looks like a very novel take on a rover.

Meanwhile, GM announced this past week that it’s working with space industry veteran Lockheed Martin to develop a next-gen moon rover that will provide future lunar astronauts with more speed and greater range. GM and Lockheed will still have to win a NASA contract in order to actually make the thing, but they’re clearly excited about the prospect.

TC Sessions: Space is back in December

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join.

We had an amazing line-up of guests and speakers at last year’s event, including Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck, NASA’s Kathy Lueders and more, and we’re already working on a fantastic follow-up agenda that’s sure to thrill all kinds of space fans.

You can already get tickets, and if you get in early, you save $100.

WalletsClub wants to be the ‘Visa for e-wallets’ across the world

Digital payments are going mainstream around the world. By the end of 2020, there were more than 300 mobile money providers with over 100,000 active users, according to a report published by GSMA, an industry association for mobile network operators. Altogether, over 300 million mobile money accounts were active every month around the world.

Mobile money providers — more commonly known as e-wallets — are used to transfer money, pay and receive payments through mobile phones without the need for a traditional bank. They are useful so long as they enjoy wide adoption and a strong network effect. But even a popular service like Ant Groups’s Alipay, which has over one billion annual users, is practically unusable outside China due to its low penetration in most countries.

The problem is there is no interoperability between most wallets as there is between traditional banks, suggested Xue Zhixiang, who worked on the basic infrastructure for Alibaba’s cloud unit and Alipay before starting WalletsClub.

Registered in Hong Kong in 2019 with a small operational team in mainland China, WalletsClub sets its sights on becoming the Visa for digital wallets, making money transfers possible between the world’s hundreds of electronic money services.

“We are like a clearinghouse for digital wallets,” said Xue, the company’s CEO.

A clearing system is an intermediary for two parties engaged in a financial transaction. It’s designed to ensure the efficiency and security of a transfer by validating the availability of the funds and logging the transfer between two transacting parties. Payments can be sent and received in real-time using WalletsClub, Xue claimed, and its technology is based on the “ISO 20022” standard, a common language for financial institutions to exchange data across the globe.

In other words, WalletsClub is going after the hundreds of e-wallets around the world rather than individual end-users. Its vision is to let people pay with any mobile wallet anywhere as long as the sender’s service provider or financial institution and the receiver’s equivalent services are members of WalletsClub, similar to how Visa and Mastercard process credit cards issued by different banks that are in their networks. The company plans to monetize by charging a flat fee per transaction.

By adding interoperability to electronic wallets, even small, regional players can thrive because they gain compatibility wherever a clearing system is in place.

Instead of challenging the traditional financial system, WalletsClub wants to provide a way for unbanked individuals to easily move money around through digital wallets, which are easier to obtain than a bank account. A big demand will come from overseas migrant workers who need to send money back to their home countries, such as the millions of Southeast Asian workers abroad.

WalletsClub is potentially encroaching on the territory of a few players. Expatriate workers sending money home currently revert to longstanding remittance services like Western Union or MoneyGram, which have large networks of “agent” locations where users go send or collect money. In 2018, Alipay began allowing users in Hong Kong to send money to GCash accounts in the Philippines, but “the focus of Ant Group is payments rather than remittance,” Xue observed.

In 2019, money sent home from diaspora workers became the largest source of external financing in low- and middle-income countries excluding China, according to World Bank data. The money flows amounted to over $500 billion and surpassed the levels of foreign direct investment in these regions.

The other type of business that a clearinghouse for mobile wallets could threaten is cross-border payment aggregators, which save merchants from having to integrate with various digital payment methods.

The biggest challenge for the nascent startup is to establish trust with clients. At this stage, WalletsClub in talks with electronic money services founded by Chinese entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. Chinese-made wallets are especially plentiful in emerging markets, thanks to these founders’ learning from China’s fintech boom over the decade. Many of them found it hard to compete with behemoths like Tencent and Ant, let alone China’s tightening regulations around fintech.

“If we reach 20 members and have several hundreds of transactions between every pair of members on a daily basis, we are basically profitable,” said Xue, adding that the goal is to onboard a dozen customers by this year.

Pinterest introduces Idea Pins, a video-first feature aimed at creators

Pinterest is expanding further into the creator community with today’s launch of a video-first feature called “Idea Pins,” aimed at creators who want to tell their stories using video, music, creative editing tools and more. The feature feels a lot like Pinterest’s own take on TikTok, mixed with Stories, as the new Pins allow creators to record and edit creative videos with up to 20 pages of content, using tools like voiceover recording, background music, transitions and other interactive elements.

The company says Idea Pins evolved out of its tests with Story Pins, launched into beta in September 2020, after various stages of development beginning the year prior. At the time, Pinterest explained that Story Pins were different from the Stories you’d find on other social networks, like Snapchat or Instagram, because they focused on what people were doing — like trying new ideas or new products, not giving you snapshots of a creator’s personal life.

Another notable differentiator was that Story Pins weren’t ephemeral. That is, they didn’t disappear after a certain amount of time, but rather could be surfaced through search and other discovery mechanisms.

Over the past eight months since their debut, Pinterest has worked with Story Pin creators on the experience. That’s led to the new concept of the Idea Pin — essentially a rebranded Story Pin, which now offers a broader suite of editing tools than what was previously available.

Video is a key element in Idea Pins, as the Pins target the increased consumer demand for short-form video content of a creative nature — like what’s being delivered through TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and elsewhere. The videos in the Pins can be up to 60 seconds on iOS, Android and web for each page, with up to 20 total pages per Pin.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Creators can edit their videos by adding their own voiceover or using a “ghost mode” transition tool to better showcase their before-and-afters by overlaying one part of a video on another. And they can save drafts of their work in progress.

But Idea Pins still include a number of features common to Stories, like adding stickers or tagging other creators with an @username, for instance. Pinterest says it will start with over 100 stickers featuring hand-drawn illustrations focused on top categories and behaviors it expects to see, like food-themed illustrations, stickers for before-and-afters, seasonal moments, and more.

Pinterest is also working with the royalty-free music database Epidemic Sound to offer a catalog of free tracks for use in Idea Pins.

And because many creators will use Idea Pins to inspire people to try a recipe or project of some sort, they can include “detail pages” where viewers can find the ingredient list or instructions, which is handy.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pins are shared to Pinterest, where the company says they help the creator build an audience by being distributed in several places across its platform, including in some markets, by locating Pins for creators you follow right at the top of the home page.

Creators can also apply topic tags when publishing to ensure they’re surfaced when people are seeking that sort of content. Each Idea Pin can have up to 10 topic tags, which help to distribute the content in a targeted way to users via the home feed and search, the company says.

While Pins can help creators build an audience on Pinterest, they can use Idea Pins to grow their audience on other platforms, too. The company says it will offer export options that let people share their Pins across the web and social media. To do so, they download their Pin as a video which includes a Pinterest watermark and profile name — a trick learned from TikTok. This can then be reshared elsewhere.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest users, meanwhile, can save Idea Pins like any other Pin on the platform.

“We believe the best inspiration comes from people who are fueled by their passions and want to bring positivity and creativity into the world,” said Pinterest co-founder and Chief Design and Creative Officer Evan Sharp, in a statement about the launch. “On Pinterest, anyone can inspire. From creators to hobbyists to publishers, Pinterest is a place where anyone can publish great ideas and discover inspiring content. We have creators with extraordinary ideas on Pinterest, and with Idea Pins, creators are empowered to share their passions and inspire their audiences,” he added.

The new Idea Pin format is rolling out today to all creators (users with a business account) in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest says, during tests, it found that Idea Pins were more engaging than standard Pins, with 9x the average comment rate. The number of Idea Pins (previously known as Story Pins) has also grown by 4x since January, as more creators adopted the format.

To help creators track how well Pins are performing, Pinterest is expanding its Analytics feature to include a new Followers and Profile Visits-driven metric to show creators how their Idea Pins have driven deeper engagement with their account.

The company says the next step is to make Idea Pins more shoppable, which it’s doing now with tests of product tagging underway.

Pinterest has been increasing its investment in the creator community in recent months, with the launch of its first-ever Creator Fund last month, and this month’s test of livestreamed events with 21 creators. It’s also now testing creator and brand collaborations with a select number of creators, including Domonique PantonPeter Som and GrossyPelosi, it says.

Image Credits: Pinterest

While Idea Pins seem like a natural pivot from Pinterest’s founding as an inspiration and idea board, it will face serious competition when it comes to wooing the professional creator community to its platform. Other big tech companies are outspending Pinterest, whose new Creator Fund of $500K falls short of the $1 million per day Snap paid creators or the $100 million fund for YouTube Shorts creators, TikTok’s $200 million fund or the deals Instagram has been making to lure Reels creators. These platforms, as well as a host of startups, are also giving creators a way to directly monetize their efforts through features like tips, donations, subscriptions and more.

What Pinterest may have in its favor, though, is its reach. The company claims 475 million users, which makes it a destination some creators may not want to overlook in their bid for growth, and later, e-commerce.

With new owner Naver, Wattpad looks to supercharge its user-generated IP factory

Toronto-based Wattpad is officially part of South Korean internet giant Naver as of today, with the official close of the $600 million cash and stock acquisition deal. Under the terms of the acquisition, Wattpad will continue to be headquartered in, and operate from Canada, with co-founder and Allen Lau remaining CEO of the social storytelling company and reporting to the CEO of Naver’s Webtoon, Jun Koo Kim.

I spoke to Lau about what will change, and what won’t, now that Wattpad is part of Naver and Webtoon. As mentioned, Wattpad will remain headquartered in Toronto — and in fact, the company will be growing its headcount in Canada under its new owners with significant new hiring.

“For Wattpad itself, last year was one of our fastest growing years in terms of both in terms of revenue and company size,” Lau said. “This year will be even faster; we’re planning to hire over 100 people, primarily in Toronto and Halifax. So in terms of the number of jobs, and the number of opportunities, this puts us on another level.”

While the company is remaining in Canada and expanding its local talent pool, while maintaining its focus on delivering socially collaborative fiction, Lau says that the union with Naver and Webtoon is about more than just increasing the rate at which it can grow. The two companies share unique “synergies,” he says, that can help each better capitalize on their respective opportunities.

“Naver is one of the world’s largest internet companies,” Lau told me. “But the number one reason that this merger is happening is because of Webtoon. Webtoon is the largest digital publisher in the world, and they have over 76 million monthly users. Combined with our 90 million, that adds up to 166 total monthly users — the reach is enormous. We are now by far the leader in this space, in the storytelling space, in both comics and fiction: By far the largest one in the world.”

The other way in which the two companies complement each other is around IP. Wattpad has demonstrated its ability to take its user-generated fiction, and turn that into successful IP upon which original series and movies are based. The company has both a Books and a Studios publishing division, and has generated hits like Netflix’s The Kissing Booth out of the work of the authors on its platform. Increasingly, competing streaming services are looking around for new properties that will resonate with younger audiences, in order to win and maintain subscriptions.

“Wattpad is the IP factory for user generated content,” Lau said. “And Webtoons also have a lot of amazing IP that are proven to build audience, along with all the data and analytics and insight around those. So the combined library of the top IPs that are blockbusters literally double overnight [with the merger]. And not just the size, but the capability. Because before the acquisition, we had our online fiction, we have both publishing business, and we have TV shows and movies, as well; but with the combination, now we also have comics, we also have animation and potentially other capabilities, as well.”

The key to Wattpad’s success with developing IP in partnership with the creators on its platform isn’t just that its’ user-generated and crowd-friendly; Wattpad also has unique insight into the data behind what’s working about successful IP with its fans and readers. The company’s analytics platform can then provide collaborators in TV and movies with unparalleled, data-backed perspective into what should strike a chord with fans when translated into a new medium, and what might not be so important to include in the adaptation. This is what provides Wattpad with a unique edge when going head-to-head with legacy franchises including those from Disney and other megawatt brands.

“No only do we have the fan bases — it’s data driven,” Lau said. “When we adapt from the fiction on our platform to a movie, we can tell the screenwriter, ‘Keep chapter one, chapter five and chapter seven, but in seven only the first two paragraphs,’ because that’s what the 200,000 comments are telling us. That’s what our machine learning story DNA technology can tell you this is the insight; where are they excited? This is something unprecedented.”

With Naver and Webtoon, Wattpad gains the ability to leverage its insight-gathering IP generation in a truly cross-media context, spanning basically every means a fan might choose to engage with a property. For would-be Disney competitors, that’s likely to be an in-demand value proposition.

Facebook launches Neighborhoods, a Nextdoor clone

Facebook is launching a new section of its app designed to connect neighbors and curate neighborhood-level news. The new feature, predictably called Neighborhoods, is available now in Canada and will be rolling out soon for U.S. users to test.

As we reported previously, Neighborhoods has technically been around since at least October of last year, but that limited test only recruited residents of Calgary, Canada.

On Neighborhoods, Facebook users can create a separate sub-profile and can populate it with interests and a custom bio. You can join your own lower-case neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods and complain about porch pirates, kids these days, or whatever you’d otherwise be doing on Nextdoor.

Aware of the intense moderation headaches on Nextdoor, Facebook says that it will have a set of moderators dedicated to Neighborhoods to will review comments and posts to keep matters “relevant and kind.” Within Neighborhoods neighborhoods, deputized users can steer and strike up conversations and do some light moderation, it sounds like. The new corner of Facebook will also come with blocking features.

As far as privacy goes, well, it’s Facebook. Neighborhoods isn’t its own standalone app and will naturally be sharing your neighborly behavior to serve you targeted ads elsewhere.

How 4 New Jersey pools turned into a startup that just raised $10M

As the oldest of 12 children, Bunim Laskin spent much of his teen years looking for ways to help keep his siblings entertained. Noticing that a neighbor’s pool was often empty, Laskin reached out to ask if his family could use her pool. To make it worth her while, he suggested that they could help cover her expenses for maintaining the pool.

Soon after, five other families had made the same arrangement with her and the pool owner had six families covering 25% of her expenses. This meant that the neighbor was actually making money off her pool. The arrangement sparked a business idea in Laskin’s mind. At the age of 20, he founded Swimply, a marketplace for homeowners to rent out their underutilized pools to local swimmers, with Asher Weinberger.

The Cedarhurst, New York-based company launched a beta in 2018, starting with four pools in the New Jersey area. 

“We used Google Earth to find houses, and then knocked on 80 doors with a pool,” Laskin recalls. “We got to 100 pools organically. Word of mouth really helped us grow.” The site was pretty bare bones, he admits, with potential customers only able to view photos of the pools and connect with the pool owner by phone.

That year, Swimply did around 400 reservations and raised $1.2 million from friends and family.

In 2019, Swimply launched what he describes as a “proper” website and app with an automated platform. It grew “4 to 5 times” that year, again mostly organically. In an episode that aired in March 2020, the company appeared on Shark Tank but went home without a deal.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Swimply, Laskin said, pivoted right into the pandemic.

“We were the perfect solution for people when the world was falling on its head,” he said. The company restructured its offering to ensure that pool owners did not have to interact with guests. “It was the perfect, contact-free, self-serve experience to hang out and be with people you quarantined with.”

The CDC then came out to say that it was safe to swim because chlorine could help kill the virus, and that proved to be a big boon to its business.

“On one end, it was a way for people to have a normal day and on the other, it helped give owners a way to earn an income, at a time when many people were being affected financially,” Laskin told TechCrunch.

Business took off in 2020 with revenue growing 4,000% and now Swimply is announcing a $10 million Series A round. Norwest Venture Partners led the financing, which also included participation from Trust Ventures and a number of angel investors such as Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra; Rob Chesnut, former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb; Ancestry.com CEO Deborah Liu and Michael Curtis. 

Swimply is now operating in a total of 125 U.S. markets, two markets in Canada and five markets in Australia. It plans to use its new capital in part to expand into new markets and toward product development.

Image Credits: Swimply

The way it works is pretty straightforward. Swimply simply connects homeowners that have underutilized backyard spaces and pools with those seeking a way to gather, cool off or exercise, for example. People or families can rent pools by the hour, ranging in price from $15 to $60 per hour (at an average of $45/hour) depending on the amenities. New markets that Swimply has recently expanded to include Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, NC and the California cities of Oakland, San Luis Obispo and Los Gatos. 

“The shifting mindset from younger generations about ownership is a huge contributor to increased growth of the Swimply marketplace,” said co-founder Weinberger, who serves as Swimply’s COO. “Swimming is the third most popular activity for adults and number one for children, and yet no other company has tackled the aquatic space to make swimming more affordable and accessible…until now.”

While the company declined to provide hard revenue figures, Laskin said Swimply was seeing “7 digits a month in revenue” and 15,000 to 20,000 reservations a month. Families represent the most popular reservation.

“People can book and pay through our platform, and only 20% of hosts ever meet their guests,” Laskin said. “We’re enabling a new kind of consumer behavior with what we’re doing.”

The company is planning to use its new capital to also rebuild much of its tech infrastructure and boost its customer support team to be more “readily available.”

It is also now offering a complimentary up to $1 million worth of insurance per booking for liability as well as $10,000.

Swimply has a little over 20 employees, up 10 times from 2 people in December of 2020. It plans to double that number over the next few months.

The company’s model has proven quite lucrative for some owners, according to Laskin.

“Last year, there were some owners who earned $10,000 a month. One owner in Denver earned $50,000 last year and he had signed up toward the end of the summer. He should make over $100,000 this year,” Lasken projects.

Its only criteria is that owners offer a clean pool. Eighty five percent of hosts offer restrooms as well. If they don’t, they are limited to one-hour reservations with a max of five guests. Swimply has also partnered with local pool companies, and if they pay one of its owners a visit and certify that pool, that owner gets a badge on the site “so guests get an additional level of security,” Laskin said.

Ed Yip of Norwest Venture Partners admits that when he first heard of the concept of Swimply, he “didn’t know what to make of it.”

But the more he heard about it, the more excited he got.

“This is the holy grail for a consumer investor. We’re not changing consumer behavior, but rather productize the experience and make it safer and easier on both sides,” Yip told TechCrunch.

What also gets the investor excited is the potential for Swimply beyond just swimming pools in the future.

“We’re seeing a ton of demand from hosts wanting to list hot tubs and tennis courts, for example,” Yip said. “So this can turn into a marketplace for shared outdoor resources and that’s a huge market opportunity that adds value on both sides.”

Indeed, the concept of monetizing underutilized space is a growing concept. Earlier this year, we reported on Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, raising $53 million in a Series B round of funding. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.