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Google’s CallJoy phone agent for small businesses gets smarter, more conversational

20:46 | 12 November

Earlier this year, Google’s in-house incubator launched CallJoy, a virtual customer service phone agent for small businesses that could block spammers, answer calls, provide callers with basic business information, and redirect other requests like appointment booking or to-go orders to SMS. Today, CallJoy is rolling out its first major update, which now enables the computer phone agent to have more of a conversation with the customer by asking questions and providing more information, among other improvements.

Originally, CallJoy could provide customers with information like the business hours or the address, or could ask the customer for permission to send them a link over text message to help them with their request. With the update, CallJoy’s phone agent can answer questions more intelligently. 

This begins by CallJoy asking the customer, “can I help you?,” which the customer then responds to, as they would usually. Their answer allows CallJoy to offer more information than before, based on what the caller had said.

For example, if a caller asked a restaurant if they had any vegetarian options, the phone agent might respond: “Yes! Our menu has vegetarian and vegan-friendly choices. Can I text you the link to our online menu?”

This isn’t all done through some magical A.I., however. Instead, the business owner has to program in the sort of customer inquiries it wants CallJoy to be able to respond to and handle. While some, like vegetarian options, may be common inquiries, it can be hard to remember everything that customers ask. That where CallJoy’s analytics could help.

The service already gathers call data — like phone numbers, audio and call transcripts– into an online dashboard for further analysis. Business owners can tag calls and run reports to get a better understanding of their call volume, peak call times, and what people wanted to know. This information can be used to better staff their phone lines during busy times or to update their website or business listings, for example. And now, it can help the business owner to understand what sort of inquiries it should train the CallJoy phone agent on, too.

Once trained, the agent can speak an answer, send a link to the customer’s phone with the information, or offer to connect the caller to the business’s phone number to reach a real person. (CallJoy offers a virtual phone number, like Google Voice, but it can ring a “real” phone line as needed to get a person on the line.)

Another feature launching today will allow business owners to implement CallJoy as they see fit.

Some business owners may prefer to answer the phone themselves and speak to their customers directly, for example. But they could still take advantage of a service like this at other times — like after hours or when they’re too busy to answer. The updated version now allows them to program when CallJoy will answer, including by times of day, or after the phone rings a certain number of times, for example.

The business owner will also receive a daily email recap of everything CallJoy did, so they know how and when it was put to use.

The product to date has been aimed at small business owners, who can’t afford the more expensive customer service phone agent systems. Instead, it’s priced at a flat $39 per month.

A spokesperson for CallJoy says the service has signed up “thousands” of small businesses since its initially invite-only launch in May 2019. 

Google’s Area 120 incubator is a place for Google employees to try out new ideas, while still operating inside Google instead of leaving for a startup. It’s considered a separate entity — some the apps produced by Area 120 don’t even mention their Google affiliation in their App Store descriptions, for instance. CallJoy, however, has received more of a spotlight than some. It’s even being featured on Google’s main corporate blog, The Keyword, today. However, if CallJoy makes the leap to Google — something that hasn’t been decided yet — it wouldn’t be the first Area 120 project to do so.

Area 120’s Touring Bird recently landed inside Google as did learn-to-code app Grasshopper and others.

We understand that joining Google is something that’s still on the table for CallJoy, but it’s not at the point of making that switch just yet.



The case against Grace Hopper Celebration

20:32 | 12 November

Raksha Muthukumar Contributor
Raksha is a software engineer at Google who is passionate about social justice and liberation through technology.

We’ve heard the criticisms that there were fewer black women speakers than white men at Grace Hopper Celebration in the past, but event organizers heard our complaints and created an entire conference pathway and new grants for “women of color from underrepresented groups and women from untapped pathways.”

We feel better now that our panels include hijabi and transgender women. The work done by women of color and others to broaden our understanding of diversity and inclusion in these spaces cannot go without recognition.

But at the end of it all, my question after a long day of panels and handshakes is, why? What are we really doing here? What ideas are we planting and fostering behind our massive paywall? Are we breaking down barriers for future generations, or simply congratulating ourselves for reaching the upper echelons of women who have vaulted them? Are we pushing to change toxic systems, or asking women to change themselves to navigate them?

Who are we benefiting and elevating with our efforts?

What we can say about the majority of corporate women is that we are currently wealthy and educated. What we can say about many corporate women in the American tech sector is that we are white or Asian-American, heterosexual, abled and a plethora of other dimensions of privileged. Through most of our women in tech events, we self-select into a space where others are educated like us, or aspire to be educated like us, and erect barriers to the tune of thousands of dollars and up to a week off from work/school. Conferences tout scholarships to offset the cost of attendance for the up and coming generation of tech women, but often times those students are required to show existing proclivities to STEM.

Extending resources to students who already have exposure to STEM biases our outreach to those with privilege already; low-income schools in California are four times less likely to offer AP computer science A courses than high-income schools, according to an independent study done by the Kapor Center. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a case to allocate resources any other way when these events rely on corporate sponsorship and attendance and a business case must be made for return on investment (re: tech talent pipeline).

The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of recommendations for improving the way we build power as women in tech:

1. Increase economic accessibility by supporting smaller conferences

Attending a conference costs more than its ticket price, so increasing accessibility must be more comprehensive than offering scholarships. Some examples of questions to ask ourselves as organizers: will attendees with mobility needs spend more than others for their travel and lodging? Are students who receive financial aid more fearful about taking days off?

At first glance, these questions seem like they can be addressed by throwing money at the problem — more scholarships for disabled and lower-income attendees, easy! But trying to level the playing field in this manner is an exercise in futility; bringing a few lucky underprivileged people into our space does little to address the underlying hierarchy. A better way to look at it is to ask how we can make the benefits available to those of us with privilege equally accessible to those with less.

Smaller, regional events usually cost less to host and attend and spread value more widely. New speakers can practice leadership, attendees can network with professionals in their local area, and students can receive more attention and mentorship. Resources move into local communities and nonprofits instead of into recruiting pipelines for tech giants. Some examples of regional conferences targeting minorities but with more granular goals are CodeNewbies, AfroTech and Take Back Tech. These are the efforts we need to support if we want to effectively grow power in our communities that don’t already have it.

2. Focus on systemic change

If every takeaway from your event is how women can change their actions, then it might be a shallow event. Women and others are not held down because we cry at work, or because we take maternity leave, but because of how those around us perceive those things. Challenging ourselves to change our perceptions is more difficult but ultimately more valuable than stifling our authentic choices and personality to be more convenient.

It’s important to ask ourselves why we, a group of traditionally mistreated professionals, are gathering. Why are we sharing our stories of vulnerability and to what end are we building our collective strength? Marginalized people coming together helps consolidate our power so that we can change the system we’re in. It’s a form of collective action — when dozens of women want maternity leave, their employer is more inclined to provide it than when one woman asks alone. When multiple women talk to each other and realize they’ve been harassed by the same co-worker, they feel empowered to do something about it. We organize and gather so we can change injustices.

Conversations where the whole room may not agree with you can be more impactful than the ones that earn you the most laughs and nods. Challenge your audience; discomfort is where we grow. If you’re holding an event for allies, make them earn the title of ally. Catch yourself when you fall to the instinct of making everyone feel good when your goal is to make a difference.

3. Support grassroots-led change instead of corporate-lead change

Let’s not forget who the greatest winners are after a Women @ Qualcomm weekend, a Microsoft Women in Technology Event or Grace Hopper Celebration — the event organizer.

They recruit from the highly qualified pool of attendees while cultivating positive PR for valuing diversity, gaining much more overall than any one individual, though a single person may stand to gain from the opportunity. Companies have made a major push for students and employees from underrepresented groups to stay in the “tech talent pipeline.” As from any affirmative action, there are positive outcomes from that, but there are also studies that find that the pipeline has not addressed deeper issues with workplace cultures, power asymmetries, and harassment.

Put another way, companies often recruit diversity in ways that bring value to themselves without taking responsibility for the quality of life of those within the pipeline. It’s important to remind ourselves that these are not purely philanthropic goals for corporations and that recruitment and retention are to their benefit. At the very least, we’re entitled to substantive policy change in exchange for our labor.

Grassroots and community-led change is better than corporate-led change if our goal is to empower and further the opportunities for women. We must create opportunities for leadership and support efforts that truly build our strength. We should be fearless in asking for real change. By all means, do the work within the companies and within the mainstream conferences if that empowers you, but be wary of the ways that you might be keeping power in already powerful communities and keep your goals in sight. Don’t be afraid to ask why, even for things that seem to have the best of intentions. Even well-meaning systems can perpetuate harmful power dynamics if those of us within them aren’t constantly questioning and pushing back.



Where LA’s top consumer VCs are looking to invest

20:32 | 12 November

From a geographical perspective, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles startup ecosystems are no longer separated by a few hundred miles.

Top-tier VCs from SF visit LA regularly, and entrepreneurs raise from investors upstate and downstate in one process. Anecdotally, as an LA resident of 4 years, there’s been a palpable uptick of entrepreneurs from the Bay Area who move down here after exiting to found their next company.

The City of Angels is a hub for a wide range of startups, but it has two major groupings: consumer-facing startups that tap into Hollywood’s marketing culture, and the deep-tech ecosystem created by the city’s role as a hub for aerospace, defense and R&D.

To track how the ecosystem for software and digital media startups here is evolving, I asked eight of the top consumer VCs to share some of the trends they are most excited about investing in right now:

  • Kevin Zhang, partner at Upfront Ventures
  • Mike Palank, managing director at MaC Venture Capital
  • Brett Brewer, partner at CrossCut Ventures
  • Courtney Reum, partner at M13
  • Ron Rofe, partner at Rainfall Ventures
  • Ryan Hoover, partner at The Weekend Fund
  • Dustin Rosen, partner at Wonder Ventures
  • Zach White, principal at Sinai Ventures

The key takeaway is perhaps the diversity of their responses: investors here are going deep into trends across the spectrum of consumer spending. Consumer health and transportation are mentioned, as they were in my surveys of VCs in London and New York, but this group repeatedly predicts a new wave of interactive, social media startups (albeit with different perspectives on what it looks like).

Kevin Zhang, partner at Upfront Ventures

I’m a strong believer it’s the best time to be a game developer now. Every 10 years or so distribution shakes up, now giants like MSFT, Google, Sony, Epic, etc. are rushing in to shift gamers to subscriptions and cloud gaming, which means big exclusive content library building with lots of “non-dilutive” capital for developers. Games themselves are becoming bigger, cross-platform, cheaper to build and more accessible than ever thanks to advancement in game engine and networking tech. Related: there’s a new generation of mobile entertainment brewing at the intersection of short-form video, live, audience participation and social play; it’s marrying what’s worked with UGC and live video with in-app-purchases and retention tactics of casual games to create more accessible and bite-sized entertainment destinations.

Mike Palank, managing director at MaC Venture Capital

While it used to be that great content alone made for a compelling entertainment experience, as we move into the future it will be the blending of great content and amazing tech that will truly capture and retain people’s attention. We’ve seen those funny Youtube videos of babies swiping pictures in physical magazines showcasing their expectations that everything is interactive. I think in much the same way, expectations around filmed media (movies + TV) will trend towards the interactive. We are seeing some truly interesting experimentation around interactive right now from companies like Netflix, Unrd, Eko, CtrlMovie, Playdeo, Hovercast, Aether, Within, Twitch and others.

The winners of the streaming wars understand this and I believe will supplement their content slates with interesting technology to make the viewing experience unique and participatory (Quibi has already announced some examples of this). At MaC, we are looking for those innovative companies that are re-thinking how consumers experience filmed entertainment to make it more experiential, interactive and engaging.



Pan-African e-tailer Jumia grows 3Q revenue, e-payments, and losses

20:23 | 12 November

Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia released its third-quarter financial results today.

The numbers and presentation reflected some of the same past trends, with a dash of new, and nary a mention of a declining share-price.

The results

Jumia — with online goods and service verticals in 14 countries — posted third-quarter revenue growth of 19% (€40 million) and increased its active customer base 56% to 5.5 million from 3.5 million over the same period a year ago.

Jumia’s Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) — the total amount of goods sold over the period — grew by 39% to €275 million. The online retailer nearly doubled its orders from 3.6 million in Q3 2018 to 7 million in Q3 2019.

Jumia also saw growth in its JumiaPay digital finance product, with total payment volume growing 95% to €32 million in Q3 2019 from €16.4 million in Q3 2018.

This is significant, as the company has committed to generate more revenues from digital payment products and offer JumiaPay as a standalone service across Africa.

The overall pattern of growing revenues and customers YoY has been consistent for Jumia.

But so too have the company’s losses, which widened 34% in 3Q 2019 to €54.6 million, compared to €40.6 million. Negative EBITDA increased 26% to €45.4 million from €35.8 over the same period in 2018.

Jumia pegged a large part of the spike in losses to an increase in fulfillment expenses due to more cross-border goods transactions (with higher shipping costs) on its platform in 3Q 2019.

What’s new

Jumia introduced some new methodologies and measures for its results. “We believe the most relevant monetization metrics for us are market-based revenue and gross profit,” Jumia Group CFO Antoine Maillet-Mezerey explained on the call.

“We don’t see revenue as a meaningful metric to assess the monetization of our business as it is impacted by shifts in the revenue mix between first party and marketplace,” he said.

If and when Jumia does get into the black, I suspect revenue will shift back as key.

On its path to profitability, Jumia CEO Sacha Poignonnec reaffirmed the company’s commitment to generate more revenue from higher margin (straight through) products, such as JumiaPay and Jumia’s classified business, over cost intensive (and logistically complicated) online goods sales.

“We are focused on driving the adoption and penetration of Jumia pay within our own ecosystem,” he said — meaning across Jumia’s existing buyer-seller universe.

Since its founding in 2012, the company has been forced to adapt to slower digital payments integration in its core Nigeria and allow cash-on-delivery payments, which are costly and more problematic than digital processing.

Poignonnec highlighted Jumia’s commitment to build a financial services marketplace (and revenues) from consumers and partners using JumiaPay and JumiaLending for products such as loans, third-party credit-scoring and insurance, he explained. This has led to Jumia moving into working-capital services for vendors on its platform.

On the movement of online goods, Jumia highlighted the expansion of its JumiaMall service, which offers brands — such as L’Oreal, Samsung, and Unliver — more tailored selling options on its website around shipping, product positioning and consumer data-analytics.

Jumia also shared info on product mix and diversification, which showed strong upward trends in digital services, the sale of consumer electronics, and beauty products.


Surprisingly absent from Jumia’s earnings call and the subsequent Q&A was any discussion of the company’s share-price.

Today’s reporting was slightly more anticipated, given Jumia has faced a short-seller assault, sales-scandal and significant market-cap drop since its April IPO on the NYSE.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.50 opening share price after the IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. That prompted several securities-related lawsuits against Jumia.

The company’s share price plummeted 43% — from $49 to $26 — the week Left released his short-sell claims, .

Then on its 2nd quarter earnings call in August, Jumia offered greater detail on the fraud perpetrated by some employees and agents of its JForce sales program. 

The company declared the matter closed, but Jumia’s stock price plummeted more after the August earnings call (and sales-fraud disclosure), and has lingered in the $6 range for weeks.

That’s 50% below the company’s IPO opening in April and 80% below its high.

Jumia can offer new metrics to evaluate its performance, but the simplest measure — the ability to generate revenues in excess of costs to turn a profit — will still apply.

The sooner Jumia can go in that direction the faster it can revive its share-price and investor confidence.



Formlabs is making a 3D printer just for dentists

20:18 | 12 November


Back at CES this year, we talked with 3D printer maker Formlabs about its early experimentation in using its printers to make dentures faster and more affordably than existing alternatives.

A few months later, the company is going deep on the concept. They’re releasing a 3D printer meant specifically for dental use, opening up a whole new wing called “Formlabs Dental”, and acquiring their main resin supplier in order to better make materials for the dental industry.

Unfamiliar with Formlabs? The main thing to know is that their printers use Stereolithography (SLA) rather than the Fused Deposition Modeling (or FDM) that most people probably think of when it comes to 3d printing; in other words, they use carefully aimed UV lasers to precisely harden an otherwise goopy resin into whatever you want to print, whereas FDM printers heat up a solid material until its malleable and then push it through a hot glue gun style nozzle to build a model layer by layer. SLA tends to offer higher accuracy and resolution, whereas FDM tends to be cheaper and offer a wider variety of colors and material properties.

Formlabs calls its new dentistry-centric printer the “Form 3b” — which, as the name suggests, is a slight variation on the Form 3 printer the company introduced earlier this year. The base package costs about a thousand bucks more per unit over the non-dental Form 3, but comes with software meant to tie into a dental team’s existing workflow along with a year of Formlab’s “Dental Service Plan”, which includes training, support, and the ability to request a new printer if something needs repairing (rather than waiting for yours to get shipped back and forth.) The company also says the 3b has been optimized to work with its dental resins, but doesn’t say much about how.

Speaking of resins: Formlabs is acquiring Spectra, which has been its primary supplier of resins since Formlabs started back in 2012. While the company isn’t disclosing any of the terms of the deal, it does say it’s put over a million dollars into building an FDA-registered clean room to make medical-grade resins. Formlabs says that anyone who already buys materials and resin from Spectra can continue to do so.

The company’s new “Formlabs Dental” division, meanwhile, will focus on figuring out new dental materials and ways to better tie in to existing dentist office workflows. Right now, the company says, the Form 3b can be used to print crowns and bridges, clear retainers, surgical guides to help during dental implant procedures, custom mouth guards (or “occlusal splints”), and dentures.



Work collaboration startup Notion Labs cozies up to Silicon Valley’s top accelerators

20:05 | 12 November

Startups building work software for other startups have been a huge focus of investment in Silicon Valley as eager VCs hope to grab a piece of the next Slack. Notion Labs, a profitable work tools startup that recently hit a reported $800 million valuation, isn’t making it easy for VC firms to give them money, but they are partnering with some of them alongside top accelerators like Y Combinator in an effort to become another household name in work software.

Notion has north of 1 million users and has attracted thousands of young startups to its platform, which combines notes, wikis and databases into a versatile tool that can help small teams cut down on the number of enterprise software subscriptions they’re paying for. Notion charges startups $8 per employee (when billed annually) to use the service.

Over half of the startups from Y Combinator’s most recent batch are Notion customers, the company tells TechCrunch, and the startup seems intent to accelerate their adoption among small teams. They have approached and partnered with dozens of accelerators around the globe including Y Combinator, 500 Startups and TechStars to bring their portfolio startups onto Notion’s platform, offering admitted startups $1,000 in free services each.

The new program is part of the company’s efforts to embed their platform as an “operating system” for startups early-on and then scale as their customers do.

“I think we find ourselves in a really interesting spot where I think YC startups know about us and start with it,” COO Akshay Kothari says. “Our goal with the new program is getting to the point where if you’re a new company, you don’t even think about it, you just start with Notion.”

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Notion COO Akshay Kothari

Kothari says their platform seems to work best for startups in the sub-50 and sub-100 employee range, but they do have larger customers like UK banking startup Monzo which has organized their 1,300+ employees around the platform. Notion itself is unsurprisingly a power user of its product, running everything but internal and external communications on its own software.

The company offers a couple pricing tiers depending on size, but individuals can also use the software for $5 per month, something that Kothari believes offers it advantages over other tools in driving adoption inside companies. “There are a lot of similarities between us and the early stages of Slack in terms of engineering and product design people loving it, tech and media loving it, but one unique thing about us is that you can use Notion alone. Slack alone would be a bit lonely.”

The company is pitching customers a vision of consolidated workplace services that are built so end-users can customize them to their needs. Notion’s pitch contrasts pretty heavily with the overarching enterprise SaaS trends which has seen a wealth of specialized software tools hitting the market.

Notion is working on tools to help it court larger enterprise customers as well, including offline access, better permission systems and an API that can help developers connect their services to the platform. Notion has been iterating its product rather quickly for a company that has 9 engineers and no PMs, but Kothari says that they don’t believe piling more money or doubling employees is going to be the key to scaling more quickly.

“We definitely want to create a large company, a company that could eventually go public or whatever is the right — you know it’s too early for a lot of that stuff. Our preference is to stay small,” he says. “[Notion] doesn’t have a board, it doesn’t have a whole lot of external voices, pretty much everyone in this office decides what we’re doing next.”

Notion has raised millions in funding from investors like First Round Capital, Ron and Ronny Conway, Elad Gill and most recently Daniel Gross. The Information‘s Amir Efrati reported earlier this year that Notion had raised a $10 million “angel round” at an $800 million valuation. The round was less about raising more cash than it was about closing convertible notes, Korthari tells TechCrunch, noting that Notion has been profitable for the last 12-18 months.

“I guess we were profitable before profitability became cool. I think profitability helps you to control destiny a lot better because you’re not out fundraising every year or 18 months,” Kothari says. “Interestingly now, I think it’s cool to be profitable again. When I joined Notion I would tell VCs or investors ‘Oh, we’re profitable,’ and they would be like ‘Oh, so you’re building a lifestyle company.'”

Kothari himself was an investor that dumped money into Notion founders Ivan Zhao and Simon Last’s idea to create a platform that would help non-engineers build software. That was 6 years ago after Kothari sold his previous startup to LinkedIn, he joined about a year ago as COO.

Some VCs may have been skeptical early-on, but the story of Notion over the past year has been VCs fighting to score a spot on their cap table. In January, The New York Times‘s Erin Griffith reported that VCs had “dug up Notion’s office address and sent its founders cookie dough, dog treats and physical letters” to court their interest. The unrequited VC yearning has earned Notion the reputation for being venture averse, something Kothari pushed back on a few times.

“So, again, for the record, we don’t hate venture capitalists.”



New York’s Boldstart Ventures has raised $157 million across two funds to back nascent enterprise startups

19:30 | 12 November

Eight years after raising a $1.5 million proof-of-concept fund, Boldstart Ventures, a New York-based venture firm whose portfolio companies have been enjoying some serious momentum lately, just closed two new funds with $157 million in capital commitments.

One fund is $112 million seed- and early-stage vehicle– the fourth of its kind. Boldstart also raised an opportunity fund for the first time to continue funding its best-performing startups. It was closed with $45 million in commitments from investors.

We talked late last week with cofounder Ed Sim yesterday about the small firm, which also includes cofounder Eliot Durbin; Jeffrey Leventhal, a partner who was previously a venture partner; Shomik Ghosh, who is joining the firm as a principal from a role as a senior associate with Top Tier Capital Partners; Max Heald, an investor who joined the outfit as a analyst in 2017; and its office head, Charlotte Chapanoff.

What we gathered from that conversation was three things. Boldstart’s focus on enterprise software is paying off, as is an extended network on which it relies heavily. The firm has also demonstrated a talent for picking smart founders, some of whom have come to Boldstart more than once for their very first institutional capital.

Consider Rahul Vohra. Backed by Boldstart, his email company Rapportive was eventually acquired by LinkedIn. A couple of years later, in late 2014, he spun up Superhuman, again with financial support from Boldstart. It’s an invitation-only email management service that costs $30 and received a glowing review in the New York Times this year.  It has also raised significant funding, including a $33 million Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz that closed in early summer.

Another example? Guy Podjarny, founder of four-year-old, London-based Snyk, a company that helps organizations find and fix vulnerabilities in open source dependencies and container images and which has now raised $102 million altogether. Podjarny’s last company, — backed in part by Boldstart — sold to Akamai Technologies. When Podjarny started Snky, Boldstart’s office was one of his first stops.

Even lone founders — who VCs are often hesitant to fund —  are welcome by Boldstart if it believes in their vision. Among these is Pankaj Chowdhry, the founder of San Francisco-based FortressIQ, a two-year-old startup that wants to bring a new kind of artificial intelligence to process automation called imitation learning and whose $16 million Series A round was led last year by Lightspeed Venture Partners. According to Sim, Chowdhry was introduced to the firm through an advisor when he had not a lot to show. Chowdhry now oversees 50 people. Says Sim: “We told him, ‘It’d be great if you [find] a cofounder,’ but we just never got there.”

A large part of Boldstart’s secret sauce ties to the type of advisor who connected Chowdry to the firm. It’s all part of Sim calls a “leveraged model,” meaning that Boldstart relies heavily on decision-makers like Fortune 500 CTOs who are invited to invest in Boldstart and not charged management fees in exchange for their council. “Their deep understanding of what large companies are doing [and our] understanding of what founders are doing” is a powerful combination, he suggests. (Worth noting: many other firms are using the same smart model, including YL Ventures and Illuminate Ventures.)

Of course, the question begged is whether more capital will make it necessary for Boldstart to write slightly larger checks and thus move away from funding founders with little more than idea. On this front, Sim insists the answer is no. “We’re not going upstream. [More money] just gives us more flexibility. The idea is still to write early checks of between $250,000 to $2 million in a founder with a vision, mostly at the pre-product stage, where we can even help founders start their companies.”

It certainly helps if the founder already knows well the pain point they are chasing, as has been at the case at a number of its other portfolio companies that have been nailing down follow-on funding. Some of these other bets include Kustomer, a SaaS platform focused on customer service that closed a Series D round in May led by Tiger Global; BigID, a company whose software helps companies meet privacy regulations around customer data and closed a Series C round in September led by Bessemer Venture Partners; and SecurityScorecard, a cybersecurity risk-monitoring platform that closed a Series D round in June.

“If you’re a college student, you don’t understand how enterprises work,” says Sim. “You have to have launched or acquired and implemented new products. We back a lot of people who come out of industry for that reason. You kind of need to have lived that experience.”



New 5G flaws can track phone locations and spoof emergency alerts

19:30 | 12 November

5G is faster and more secure than 4G. But new research shows it also has vulnerabilities that could put phone users at risk.

Security researchers at Purdue University and the University of Iowa have found close to a dozen vulnerabilities, which they say can be used to track a victim’s real-time location, spoof emergency alerts that can trigger panic or silently disconnect a 5G-connected phone from the network altogether.

5G is said to be more secure than its 4G predecessor, able to withstand exploits used to target users of older cellular network protocols like 2G and 3G like the use of cell site simulators — known as “stingrays.” But the researchers’ findings confirm that weaknesses undermine the newer security and privacy protections in 5G.

Worse, the researchers said some of the new attacks also could be exploited on existing 4G networks.

The researchers expanded on their previous findings to build a new tool, dubbed 5GReasoner, which was used to find 11 new 5G vulnerabilities. By creating a malicious radio base station, an attacker can carry out several attacks against a target’s connected phone used for both surveillance and disruption.

In one attack, the researchers said they were able to obtain both old and new temporary network identifiers of a victim’s phone, allowing them to discover the paging occasion, which can be used to track the phone’s location — or even hijack the paging channel to broadcast fake emergency alerts. This could lead to “artificial chaos,” the researcher said, similar to when a mistakenly sent emergency alert claimed Hawaii was about to be hit by a ballistic missile amid heightened nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. (A similar vulnerability was found in the 4G protocol by University of Colorado Boulder researchers in June.)

Another attack could be used to create a “prolonged” denial-of-service condition against a target’s phone from the cellular network.

In some cases, the flaws could be used to downgrade a cellular connection to a less-secure standard, which makes it possible for law enforcement — and capable hackers — to launch surveillance attacks against their targets using specialist “stingray” equipment.

All of the new attacks can be exploited by anyone with practical knowledge of 4G and 5G networks and a low-cost software-defined radio, said Syed Rafiul Hussain, one of the co-authors of the new paper.

Given the nature of the vulnerabilities, the researchers said they have no plans to release their proof-of-concept exploitation code publicly. However, the researchers did notify the GSM Association (GSMA), a trade body that represents cell networks worldwide, of their findings.

Although the researchers were recognized by GSMA’s mobile security “hall of fame,” spokesperson Claire Cranton said the vulnerabilities were “judged as nil or low-impact in practice.” The GSMA did not say if the vulnerabilities would be fixed — or give a timeline for any fixes. But the spokesperson said the researchers’ findings “may lead to clarifications” to the standard where it’s written ambiguously.

Hussain told TechCrunch that while some of the fixes can be easily fixed in the existing design, the remaining vulnerabilities call for “a reasonable amount of change in the protocol.”

It’s the second round of research from the academics released in as many weeks. Last week, the researchers found several security flaws in the baseband protocol of popular Android models — including Huawei’s Nexus 6P and Samsung’s Galaxy S8+ — making them vulnerable to snooping attacks on their owners.



Instacart is under fire for how it compensates shoppers

19:18 | 12 November

The Tech Workers Coalition and Gig Workers Rising are outside the company’s headquarters in San Francisco this morning in support of shoppers, who demand Instacart reinstate the $3 quality bonus, implement a 10% default tip and eliminate its service fees.

Last week, Instacart got rid of the $3 quality bonus shortly after thousands of shoppers participated in a 72-hour strike where workers demanded a better tip and fee structure. By protesting outside of Instacart’s SF HQ, shoppers are hoping to reach employees and get them on their side.

“We’re asking that Instacart employees urge management to reverse this decision,” organizers wrote in a handout…”As a worker who builds the product, you have a say over how it’s used.”

Back in 2016, Instacart removed the option to tip in favor of guaranteeing its workers higher delivery commissions. About a month later, following pressure from its workers, the company reintroduced tipping. Then, in April 2018, Instacart began suggesting a 5% default tip and reduced its service fee from a 10% waivable fee to a 5% fixed fee.

“We take the feedback of the shopper community very seriously and remain committed to listening to and using that feedback to improve their experience,” an Instacart spokesperson told TechCrunch last month.

The protest was on the heels of a class-action lawsuit over wages and tips, as well as a tipping debacle where Instacart included tips in its base pay for shoppers. Instacart, however, has since stopped that practice and provided shoppers with back pay. Though, Fast Company recently reported that Instacart delivery drivers’ tips are mysteriously decreasing.

Following Instacart’s post-protest move to eliminate the $3 quality bonus, #DeleteInstacart and #BoycottInstacart started making waves on Twitter. California Assemblyperson Lorena Gonzalez, the one who authored gig worker bill AB 5, joined in.

TechCrunch has reached out to Instacart and will update this story if we hear back.


0 sites can now accept subscriptions with new ‘Recurring Payments’ feature

19:11 | 12 November

The subscription model is today sustaining a number of businesses, including artists, creators, news publishers, game developers, entertainment providers and more. Now, top publishing platform is making it easier for any creator or web publisher to add a subscription feature to their own website, so they can begin to generate repeat contributions from their supporters, readers, fans, or customers.

The feature is available to any of the millions of sites on a paid plan as well as the millions of self-hosted WordPress sites using Jetpack, the company says. It’s also fairly flexible in nature.

Once enabled, website owners could charge for weekly newsletters, accept monthly donations, sell yearly access to exclusive content, or charge for anything else where they want to be able to bill their supporters on a set schedule. partnered with internet payment processor Stripe on the new feature, which means blog publishers will also need to set up a Stripe account of their own before using Recurring Payments. Then, they’ll head to the “Earn” page on and click on “Connect Stripe to Get Started” to be walked through the setup process.

Users are able to create as many different payment plans as they like — including those that support different currencies, payment frequencies, and names — which enables them to offer different tiers or types of subscriptions to their customers, readers, or fans.

They’ll also be able to put a Recurring Payments button on their website.

Subscribers, meanwhile, can cancel their subscriptions at any time from their account.

Being able to quickly and easily add subscriptions to any website could convince some creators to move their subscription plans off larger platforms, like Patreon, for example, in order to save on fees and revenue share. However, they would miss out on the other platform resources by doing so. Instead, many may choose to simply add as another channel where they collect subscription revenue.

The feature isn’t necessarily only for creators — it could also be put to use by clubs and organizations who have to collect their own recurring membership fees and dues or anyone else who needs to be able to collect money easily on a regular basis. notes that some people even collect rent through recurring payments, for example.

The launch could have a major impact on the prevalence of subscriptions across the web, given the size of’s footprint. The company today touts that over 409 million people view 20 billion pages on its platform every month, and publishers produce around 70 million new posts per month.


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