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Main article: Spotify

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LocalGlobe partner Julia Hawkins discusses fem tech’s risks and rewards

19:21 | 17 January

London-based seed fund LocalGlobe is incredibly active at the early-stage end of the startup pipeline with a broad focus across multiple sectors and areas, including health.

We interviewed partner Julia Hawkins about the opportunities and risks related to fem tech investing in light of the fund’s early backing for Ferly, a female-founded startup with a subscription app that describes itself as an audio guide to “mindful sex.”

The startup says its mission is to open up conversations around female sexual pleasure and create a place for self-discovery and empowering community — touting “sex-positive” content that it says is “backed by research, written by experts, and personalized to you.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 


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Dear Spotify, add rabbits to your pet playlists

11:00 | 15 January

I there’s one thing I know, it’s that music is the best thing our species has every created. If there are two things I know, it’s the music thing and also that that rabbits aren’t hamsters.

Listen, Spotify, I get the whole pet playlists thing. A curated playlist based on your listening preferences and a few sliders to determine an animal’s mood. It’s cute. But as one of millions of rabbit owners in the U.S. alone, someone needs to speak out for this grave oversight.

This is Lucy:

She enjoys classical piano and jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. She contains multitudes. I’m sorry to speak for her, but she’s napping right now. She’s crepuscular, which means she’s primarily awake during the morning and evening, at which point she like a little Lucinda Williams and the guitar work of John Fahey. Most days, however, it’s John Cage’s 4’33 on repeat. 

Cats and dogs. Sure, totally. Birds and hamsters, check. Iguanas as a catchall for reptiles and amphibians — not great, but points for trying, I guess. No fish on here, but I don’t know, maybe that’s difficult without some sort of underwater speaker.

But no rabbits? Perhaps we’ll see what the fine folks at Apple Music have to say about this oversight.

We’ve reached out to Spotify to inquire whether the service intends to add lagomorphs to the list.

 


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Spotify and Warner Chappell end dispute in India, sign global licensing deal

15:24 | 14 January

Spotify is ending its year-long dispute with Warner Music. The world’s largest music streaming service said on Tuesday that it has inked a global licensing agreement with Warner Music Group’s Warner Chappell for music rights.

The announcement today marks the end of their litigation before the Bombay High Court, which prevented Spotify from offering tens of thousands of music titles in many regions, including India, where it launched its service early last year.

A Warner Chappell spokesperson said the new deal “appropriately values our songwriters’ music and expands our licensed partnership with Spotify to include India.” A Spotify spokesperson said the music streaming business was “pleased” with the outcome.

More to follow…

 


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Lucky coffee, unicorn stumbles, and Sam Altman’s YC wager

17:00 | 10 January

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we had TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm and

on hand to dig into the news, with
on the dials and more news than we could possibly cram into 30 minutes. So we went a bit over; sorry about that.

We kicked off by running through a few short-forms to get things going, including:

  • Alex wanted to talk about his recent story on Lily AI’s $12.5 million Series A. Canaan led the round into the ecommerce-focused recommendation engine that has a cool take on what people care about.
  • Danny talked about the acquisition of Armis Security to Insight for $1.1 billion, the VC round for self-driving forklift startup Vecna, and an outside-the-Valley round for Houston-based HighRadius.

Turning to longer cuts, the team dug into the latest from SoftBank, its Vision Fund, and the successes and struggles of its enormous startup bets. Leading the news cycle this week were layoffs at Zume, a robotic pizza delivery venture that is no longer pursuing robotic pizza delivery. Now it’s working on sustainable packaging. Cool, but it’s going to be hard for the company to grow into its valuation while pivoting.

Other issues have come up — more here — that paint some cracks onto the Vision Fund’s sunny exterior. Don’t be too beguiled by the bad news, Danny says, venture funds run like J-Curves, and there are still winners in that particular portfolio.

After that, we turned to China, in particular its venture slowdown. The bubble, in Danny’s view, has burst. The story discussed is here, if you want to read it. The short version for the lazy is that not only has China’s venture scene slowed down dramatically, but startups — even those with ample capital raised — are dying by the hundred. But one highly caffeinated Chinese startup continues to find growth in the world’s greatest tea market.

Finally we hit on the Sam Altman wager and the latest from Sisense, which is now a unicorn. All that and we had some fun.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

 


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Sisense nabs another $100m at a $1B+ valuation for its big data business analytics solutions

18:59 | 9 January

Sisense, an enterprise startup that that has built a business analytics business out of the premise of making big data as accessible as possible to users — whether it be through graphics on mobile or desktop apps, or spoken through Alexa — is announcing a big round of funding today and a large jump in valuation to underscore its traction. The company has picked up $100 million in a growth round of funding that catapults Sisense’s valuation to over $1 billion, funding that it plans to use to continue building out its tech, as well as for sales, marketing and development efforts.

For context, this is a huge jump: the company was valued at only around $325 million in 2016 when it raised a Series E, according to PitchBook. (It did not disclose valuation in 2018, when it raised a venture round of $80 million.) It now has some 2,000 customers, including Tinder, Philips, Nasdaq, and the Salvation Army.

This latest round is being led by the high-profile enterprise investor and PE firm Insight Venture Partners, with Access Industries, Bessemer Venture Partners, Battery Ventures, DFJ Growth, and others also participating. The Access investment was made via Claltech in Israel and it seems that this led to some details of this getting leaked out as rumors in recent days.

Mature enterprise startups proven their business cases are going to be an ongoing theme this year fundraising stories, and Sisense is part of that theme, with annual recurring revenues of over $100 million speaking to its stability and current strength. The company has also made some key acquisitions to boost its business, such as the acquisition of Periscope Data last year (coincidentally also for $100 million, I understand).

Its rise also speaks to a different kind of trend in the market: in the wider world of business intelligence, there is an increasing demand for more digestible data in order to better tap advances in data analytics to use it across organizations. This was also one of the big reasons why Salesforce gobbled up Tableau last year for a slightly higher price: $15.7 billion.

Sisense, bringing in both sleek end user products but also a strong theme of harnessing the latest developments in areas like machine learning and AI to crunch the data and order it in the first place, represents a smaller and more fleet of foot alternative for its customers. “We found a way to make accessing data extremely simple, mashing it together in a logical way and embedding it in every logical place,” explained CEO Amir Orad to us in 2018.

“We have enjoyed watching the Sisense momentum in the past 12 months, the traction from its customers as well as from industry leading analysts for the company’s cloud native platform and new AI capabilities. That coupled with seeing more traction and success with leading companies in our portfolio and outside, led us to want to continue and grow our relationship with the company and lead this funding round,” said Jeff Horing, Managing Director at Insight Venture Partners, in a statement.

To note, Access Industries is an interesting backer who might also potentially shape up to be strategic, given its ownership of Warner Music Group, Alibaba, Facebook, Square, Spotify, Deezer, Snap and Zalando.

“Given our investments in market leading companies across diverse industries, we realize the value in analytics and machine learning and we could not be more excited about Sisense’s trajectory and traction in the market,” added Claltech’s Daniel Shinar in a statement.

 


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Spotify brings streaming ad insertion technology to podcasts

19:00 | 8 January

2019 was a breakout year for Spotify’s podcasting efforts, and now the company is turning up the dial on its ability to monetize this popular form of audio programming. Today, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Spotify is announcing Streaming Ad Insertion (SAI), its new, proprietary podcast ad technology for Spotify Podcast Ads.

The technology makes key data — like actual ad impressions, frequency, reach, plus anonymized age, gender and device type — available to podcasters and advertisers for the first time.

In previous years, podcasts have been delivered by way of downloads from RSS feeds, which would make this sort of data collection difficult if not impossible. The shift to streaming changes that, as Spotify can tap into its suite of planning, reporting and measurement capabilities, as it does for streaming music.

At launch, Spotify’s SAI technology will only be made available to its original and exclusive shows. That’s because Spotify can control this content and knows what its backend looks like, making the new technology easier to implement.

Podcast listeners are already more engaged with advertising often because the ads included in a podcast are read by the host or hosts themselves, making them feel less like an unwelcome interruption and more like a form of influencer marketing. SAI aims to improve the ad experience even more because the ads will be better-targeted and data-driven, like other modern-day digital marketing.

Early adopter Puma was the first partner to try out SAI by running host-read ads during the Spotify Original podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.” The ads resulted in ad recall lift of over 180%, Spotify says.

Today, Spotify has hundreds of originals and exclusives where it can leverage this technology at a time when podcast listening on its platform is growing. Podcast hours streamed jumped up 39% quarter-over-quarter in Q3 2019, and Spotify now touts over 500,000 podcasts on its platform.

“The problem we’re solving with Spotify podcast ads is really on the advertiser’s side — advertisers have no idea how they’re ads are working. They don’t even know whether or not an ad they purchase is being consumed by a listener,” said Jay Richman, VP, Head of Global Advertising Business & Platform, speaking about the new ad technology at a press event during CES this week. The new technology, he continued, was a “first of its kind.”

“It introduces new targeting measurements and interactivity, which is a big step change for the industry,” he said.

Streaming ad insertion technology will give Spotify a way to better compete with the default podcast apps from Apple and Google. The former, Apple Podcasts, still claims the majority of podcast app market share — but that’s been slipping as Spotify gains. While Apple is rumored to be working on its own podcast originals, Spotify is speeding ahead to the next step of turning its shows into new revenue drivers.

Spotify’s new ad tech launch also comes at a time when the podcast industry itself is changing. Many podcasts today are really just audio programs, as they’re only accessible to a streaming service’s users — not the wider web.

General interest in podcasts is climbing, too. The number of people who are monthly podcast listeners in the U.S. is expected to climb to 106 million by 2023, Spotify notes. Meanwhile, ad revenue for podcasts is projected to reach over $1 billion in 2021. Spotify doesn’t disclose its revenue from podcasts, specifically but in Q3 2019 its ad revenue grew 29% year-over-year to $189 million — a boost many attributed to podcasts.  

 


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Spotify to ‘pause’ running political ads, citing lack of proper review

22:29 | 27 December

Ever since the run up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (and, arguably, well before that), political ads have become a major sticking point on social media sites looking to crack down on misinformation. Facebook has grappled with the issue to the satisfaction of virtually no one, while Twitter has shut them down altogether.

Ad Age noted this week that Spotify is going to follow in the footsteps of the latter — for the time being. The world’s premier music streaming service is pumping the breaks on political amid the 2020 presidential rate.

The company confirmed the (in)decision in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Beginning in early 2020, Spotify will pause the selling of political advertising. This will include political advertising content in our ad-supported tier and in Spotify original and exclusive podcasts. At this point in time, we do not yet have the necessary level of robustness in our processes, systems and tools to responsibly validate and review this content. We will reassess this decision as we continue to evolve our capabilities.

There’s certainly something to be said for knowing one’s limitations. And since so much of the company’s revenue arrives from ads run on its free offering, Spotify should be commended for opting to pull the plug on a solid revenue stream, as the campaign is entering the primary season. Spotify wouldn’t comment on how much money is being left on the table, but as Ad Age notes, political organizations ranging from the Bernie Sanders campaign to the RNC use to platform to get the word out. 

 


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No, Spotify, you shouldn’t have sent mysterious USB drives to journalists

21:29 | 23 December

Last week, Spotify sent out a number of USB drives to reporters with a note: “Play me.”

It’s not uncommon for reporters to to receive USB drives in the post. Companies distribute USB drives all the time, including at tech conferences, often containing promotional materials or large files, such as videos that would otherwise be difficult to get into as many hands as possible.

But anyone with basic security training under their hat — which here at TechCrunch we do — will know to never plug in a USB drive without taking some precautions first.

Concerned but undeterred, we safely examined the contents of the drive using a disposable version of Ubuntu Linux (using a live CD) on a spare computer. We examined the drive and found it was benign.

On the drive was a single audio file. “This is Alex Goldman, and you’ve just been hacked,” the file played.

The drive was just a promotion for a new Spotify podcast. Because of course it was.

The USB drive that Spotify sent journalists. (Image: TechCrunch)

Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker and founder of Rendition Infosec, called the move “amazingly tone deaf” to encourage reporters into plugging in the drives to their computers.

USB drives are not inherently malicious, but are known to be used in hacking campaigns — like power plants and nuclear enrichment plants — which are typically not connected to the internet. USB drives can harbor malware that can open and install backdoors on a victim’s computer, Williams said.

“The files on the USB itself may contain active content,” he said, which when opened can exploit a bug on an affected device.

A spokesperson for Spotify did not comment. Instead, it passed our request to Sunshine Sachs, a public relations firm that works for Spotify, which would not comment on the record.

Plugging in random USB drives is a bigger problem than you might think. Elie Bursztein, a Google security researcher, found in his own research that about half of all people will plug in random USB drives into their computer.

John Deere earlier this year caused a ruckus after it distributed a promotion drive that actively hijacked the computer’s keyboard. The drive contained code which when plugged in ran a script, opened the browser, and automatically typed in the company’s website. Even though the drive was not inherently malicious, the move was highly criticized as malware often acts in an automated, scripted way.

Given the threats that USB drives can pose, Homeland Security’s cybersecurity division CISA last month updated its guidance about USB drive security. Journalists are among those who are frequent targets by some governments, including targeted cyberattacks.

Remember: always take precautions when handling USB drives. And never plug one in unless you trust it.

 


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Spotify prototypes Tastebuds to revive social music discovery

20:59 | 18 December

Spotify is prototyping a new way to see what friends have been listening to, called “Tastebuds”. Despite how discovering music is inherently social, Spotify has no features for directly interacting with friends within its mobile app after axing its own inbox in 2017 and keeping its Friend Activity ticker restricted to desktop.

It seemed like Spotify was purposefully restricting social features to force users to rely on the company’s own playlists and discovery surfaces. This gave Spotify the power to play king-maker, massively influencing which artists got featured and rose to stardom. This in turn gave it leverage in its combative negotiations with record labels, which worried their artists might get left off playlists if they don’t play nice with Spotify in terms of sustainable royalty rates and access to exclusives.

That strategy seems to have paid off with Spotify improving its licensing deals and becoming a critical promotional partner for the labels, paving the way to its IPO. Spotify’s shares sit around $152, up from its direct listing price of $132 though down from its first day pop that saw it rise to $165. More comfortable in its position, now Spotify seems ready to relinquish more control of discovery and enable users to be better inspired by what friends are playing.

Tastebuds is designed to let users explore the music taste profiles of their friends. Tastebuds lives as a navigation option alongside your Library and Home/Browse sections. Anyone can access an non-functioning landing page for the feature at https://open.spotify.com/tastebuds. The feature explains itself with text noting “What’s Tastebuds? Now you can discover music through friends whose taste you trust.

The prototype feature was discovered in the web version of Spotify by reverse engineering sorceress and frequent TechCrunch tipster

, who gave us some more details on how it works. Users tap the pen icon to “search the people you follow”. From there they can view information about what users have been playing most and easily listen along or add songs to their own library.

Without Tastebuds, there are only a few buried ways to interact socially on Spotify. You can message friends a piece of music through buttons for SMS, Facebook Messenger, and more or post songs to your Instagram or Snapchat Story. Spotify used to have an in-app inbox for trading songs but removed it in favor of shuttling users to more popular messagin apps. On the desktop app but not mobile or web, you can view a Friend Activty ticker of songs your Facebook friends are currently listening to. Or you can search for specific users and follow them or view playlists they’ve made public, though Spotify doesn’t promote user search much.

Spotify has a few other social features it’s experimented with but never launched. Those include a Friends Weekly playlist spotted last year by The Verge’s Dani Deahl. Then this May, we reported Wong had spotted a shared-queue Social Listening feature that let you and friends play songs simultaneously while apart. Back in 2014, I wrote that Spotify should move beyond blog-esque browsing to create a “PlayFeed” playlist that would dynamically update with algorithmic recommendations, new releases from your top artists, and friends’ top listens. It’s since launched Discovery Weekly and Release Radar, and Tastebuds could finally bring in that final social piece.

Spotify’s simultaneous social listening prototype

The result is that you can only see either a myopic snapshot of friends’ current song, the few and often outdated playlists they manually made public, or you message them songs elsewhere. There was no great way to get a holistic view of what a friend has been jamming to lately or their music preferences overall.

We’ve reached out to Spotify seeking more information about how Tastebuds works, how privacy functions around who can see what, and if and when the feature might launch. We’re also interested to see if Spotify has any deal in place with a music dating startup called Tastebuds which launched way back in 2010 to help people connect and flirt through song sharing. Neither of the companies responded to requests for comment.

Social is a huge but undertapped opportunity for Spotify. Not only could social recommendations get users listening to Spotify for longer, thereby hearing more ads or becoming less likely to cancel their subscription. It also helps Spotify lock in users with a social graph they can’t find elsewhere. While competitors like Apple Music or YouTube might offer similar music catalogs, users won’t stray from Spotify if they become addicted to social discovery through Tastebuds.

 


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Is a direct listing the right choice for your company?

18:23 | 18 December

Ran Ben-Tzur Contributor
Ran Ben-Tzur is a corporate partner at Fenwick & West. Ran’s issuer-side initial public offerings include Facebook, Fitbit, Upwork, Zuora and Peloton Interactive.
Jamie Evans Contributor
Jamie Evans is the co-chair of Fenwick & West's Capital Markets & Public Companies group. Jamie's representative initial public offerings include Smartsheet, Redfin, Fitbit and Facebook.

Spotify did it. Slack did it. Many other late-stage private technology companies are reported to be seriously considering it. Should yours?

If you are a board member of a late-stage, venture-backed company or part of its management team, you likely have heard of the term “direct listing.” Or you may have attended one or all of the slew of recent conferences being hosted by big-name investment banks and others, including tech investor guru Bill Gurley, who recently debated the pros and cons of choosing a direct listing over a traditional IPO.

Before you decide what’s right for your company, here are a few things you need to know about direct listings.

Direct listings vs. IPOs

For people not familiar with the term, a direct listing is an alternative way for a private company to “go public,” but without selling its shares directly to the public and without the traditional underwriting assistance of investment bankers. 

In a traditional IPO, a company raises money and creates a public market for its shares by selling newly created stock to investors. In some instances, a select number of pre-IPO investors, usually very large stockholders or management, may also sell a portion of their holdings in the IPO. In an IPO, the company engages investment bankers to help promote, price and sell the stock to investors. The investment bankers are paid a commission for their work that is based on the size of the IPO—usually seven percent for a traditional technology company IPO.  

In a direct listing, a company does not sell stock directly to investors and does not receive any new capital. Instead, it facilitates the re-sale of shares held by company insiders such as employees, executives and pre-IPO investors. Investors in a direct listing buy shares directly from these company insiders. 

Does this mean that a company doing a direct listing doesn’t need investment banks? Not quite. Companies still engage investment banks to assist with a direct listing and those banks still get paid quite well (to the tune of $35 million in Spotify and $22 million in Slack). 

However, the investment banks play a very different role in a direct listing. Unlike a traditional IPO, in a direct listing, investment banks are prohibited under current law from organizing or attending investor meetings and they do not sell stock to investors. Instead, they act purely in an advisory capacity helping a company to position its story to investors, draft its IPO disclosures, educate a company’s insiders on process and strategize on investor outreach and liquidity.   

Understanding the current direct listings trend

The concept of a direct listing is actually not a new one.  Companies in a variety of industries have used similar structures for years. However, the structure has only recently received a lot of investor and media attention because high-profile technology companies have started to use it to go public. But why have technology companies only recently started to consider direct listings? 

The rise of massive pre-IPO fundraising rounds

With an abundance of investor capital, especially from institutional investors that historically hadn’t invested in private technology companies, massive pre-IPO fundraising rounds have become the norm. Slack raised over $400 million in August 2018—just over a year prior to its direct listing. Because of this widespread availability of capital, some technology companies are now able to raise sufficient capital before their actual IPO to either become profitable or put them on a path to profitability. 

Criticism of current IPO process

There has been increasing negative sentiment, especially amongst well-known venture capitalists, about certain aspects of the traditional IPO process—namely IPO lock-up agreements and the pricing and allocation process. 

IPO lock-up agreements. In a traditional IPO, investment bankers require pre-IPO investors, employees and the company to sign a “lock-up agreement” restricting them from selling or distributing shares for a specified period of time following the IPO—usually 180 days. The bankers put these agreements in place in order to stabilize the stock immediately after the IPO. While the merits of a lock-up agreement can certainly be debated, by the time VCs (and other insiders) are allowed to sell following an IPO, oftentimes the stock price has fallen significantly from its highs (sometimes to below the IPO price) or the post lock-up flood of selling can have an immediate negative impact on the trading price.  

In a direct listing, there is no lock-up agreement, which allows for equal access to the offering to all of the company’s pre-IPO investors, including rank-and-file employees and smaller pre-IPO stockholders.

IPO pricing and allocation: In a traditional IPO, shares are often allocated directly by a company (with the assistance of its underwriters) to a small number of large, institutional investors. Traditional IPOs are often underpriced by design to provide large institutional investors the benefit of an immediate 10-15% “pop” in the stock price. Over the last few years, some of these “pops” have become more pronounced. For example, Beyond Meat’s stock soared from $25 to $73 on its first day of trading, a 163% gain. This has fueled a concern, particularly shared amongst the VC community, that investment banks improperly price and allocate shares in an IPO in order to benefit these institutional investors, which are also clients of the same investment banks that are underwriting the IPO. While the merits of this concern can also be debated, in instances where there is a large price discrepancy between the trading price of the stock following the IPO and the price of the IPO, there is often a sense that companies have left money on the table and that pre-IPO investors have suffered unnecessary dilution. If the IPO had been priced “correctly,” the company would have had to sell fewer shares to raise the same amount of proceeds. 

Because a company is not selling stock in a direct listing, the trading price after listing is purely market driven and is not “set” by the company and its investment bankers. Moreover, since no new shares are issued in a direct listing, insiders do not suffer any dilution. 

The Spotify effect

Before Spotify’s direct listing, technology companies hadn’t used the direct listing structure to go public. Spotify was, in many ways, the perfect test case for a direct listing. It was well known, didn’t need any additional capital and was cash flow positive. In addition, prior to its direct listing, Spotify had entered into a debt instrument that penalized the company so long as it remained private. As a result, it just needed to go public. After clearing some regulatory hurdles, Spotify successfully executed its direct listing in April 2018. After Spotify’s direct listing, Slack (relatively) quickly followed suit. Slack’s direct listing was notable because it represented the first traditional Silicon Valley-based VC-backed company to use the structure. It was also an enterprise software company, albeit one with a consumer cult following. 

Is a direct listing right for my company?

While a direct listing offers many benefits, the structure does not make sense for every company. Below is a list of key benefits and drawbacks:

 


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