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Main article: Startups

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New tweet generator mocks venture capitalists

23:50 | 5 December

“Airbnb’s unit economics are quite legendary — the S-1 is going to be MOST disrupted FASTEST in the next 3 YEARS? Caps for effect.”

Who Tweeted that? Initialized Capital’s Garry Tan? Homebrew’s Hunter Walk? Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham? Or perhaps one of the dozens of other venture capitalists active on Twitter .

No, it was Parrot.VC, a new Twitter account and website dedicated to making light of VC Twitter. The creator of the new tool, which first landed on Twitter in late November, fed 65,000 tweets written by some 50 venture capitalists to a machine learning bot. The result is an automated tweet generator ready to spew somewhat nonsensical (or entirely nonsensical) <280-character statements.

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According to Hacker News, where the creator shared information about their project, the bot uses predictive text to generate “amazing, new startup advice,” adding “Gavin Belson – hit me up, this is the perfect acquisition for Hooli,” referencing the popular satirical TV show, Silicon Valley. 

This isn’t the first time someone has leveraged artificial intelligence to make fun of the tech community. One of my personal favorites, BodegaBot, inspired by the Bodega fiasco of late 2017, satirizes Silicon Valley’s unhinged desire to replace domestic service with technology.

 


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A look at Latin America’s emerging fintech trends

23:28 | 5 December

Thiago Paiva Contributor
Thiago is a fintech entrepreneur, investor, and columnist. He is currently a product leader at Oyster, a neobank for SMEs in Latin America.

Although the 2008 global financial crisis sparked the fintech movement, in Latin America, the rise of ecommerce was responsible for the first wave of fintech startups.

Because digital payments were key to enabling the growth of ecommerce, investors funded companies like Braspag, PagSeguro, PayU, Mercado Pago and Moip in the early 2000s to take advantage of this opportunity.

Payment is still the most relevant segment, with successful cases like Stone and PagSeguro, but after the financial crisis, we started to see the rise of financial technology in lending and neobanking, generating impressive cases like Nubank, Neon, Creditas, Credijusto and Ualá.

As the ecosystem evolves and expands, let’s take a closer look at emerging trends in Latin America that might give us a hint about where to expect its next fintech unicorns.

Financial services for the gig economy

Latin America has seen explosive growth in ride-hailing and food delivery platforms such as Uber, Didi, Rappi and iFood, creating a totally new market opportunity — many gig economy workers can’t access basic financial services such as bank accounts, personal loans and insurance. Even those who have access often struggle with financial products that that don’t suit their needs because they were designed for full-time workers.

Spotting this opportunity, Uber Money launched at Money 2020, focusing on providing drivers with financial services. As 50% of the population in Latin America is unbanked where Uber has more than 1 million drivers, the region is definitely a ripe market. Cabify is going even farther by spinning off Lana, its company that provides financial services, so it can expand its market beyond Cabify drivers to include other gig economy professionals.

Although established players in this sector have a clear advantage, they aren’t the only ones looking to explore this opportunity; Brazilian YC alumni Zippi is offering personal loans to ride-hailing drivers based on their driving earnings. As the gig economy tends to keep growing in the region, I believe we will start to see more solutions for those professionals.

Rethinking insurance

As the banking world has been shaken by fintechs, insurance companies are growing aware that high regulatory barriers won’t protect their industry from disruption.

Insurance penetration in Latin America has been historically low compared to developed markets — 3.1%, compared to 8% — but the insurance market is growing well and tends to close this gap. Adding this to bad services and complex products that insurances provide, insurtech has an immense opportunity to grow.

Because purchasing insurance is historically a complicated and painful experience, the first insurtechs in the region focused on providing a better experience by digitizing the process and using online channels to acquire customers. Those insurtechs worked together with the insurance companies and operating as online broker, but now, we’re starting to see startups providing new insurance products, as well as traditional insurances in different models.

Some are partnering with insurance companies while others are competing directly with them; Think Seg and Miituo partnered with larger players to provide a pay-as-you-go model for car insurance, while Mango Life and Kakau are offering a better purchasing experience. On the other end, Crabi and Pier are rethinking the insurance model from the ground up.

As insurtechs emerge as a potential threat, incumbents are more willing to work with startups that can improve their services to enable them to compete on better grounds, which is exactly what companies such as Bdeo, Lisa, and HelloZum are doing.

Although penetrating the insurance industry is more complicated than other financial services due to high regulatory demands and steep initial operating costs, insurtechs fueled by VC investment will without any doubt try to do it. And, if we’ve learned anything from other fintech segments, it’s that entrepreneurs will find ways to overcome initial challenges.

 


0

Daily Crunch: Imgur launches an app for gaming memes

22:38 | 5 December

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. 300M-user Imgur launches Melee, a gaming meme app

Melee, the company’s first app beyond its flagship product, lets users subscribe to the games from which they love to get memes and gameplay clips. You also can scroll through a popular post’s feed if you’re curious about unfamiliar games.

If you’re worried about the risk that gaming communities might turn toxic, Imgur says Melee has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content and won’t tolerate bullying.

2. SpaceX nears milestone on key crew launch system test

SpaceX is keeping relatively close to schedule on one of the bold timelines pronounced by its CEO Elon Musk. Specifically, the company notes that it has now completed seven system tests of the latest, upgraded version of the parachutes it plans to use with its Crew Dragon capsule when it launches with astronauts on-board.

3. Flipkart leads $60M investment in logistics startup Shadowfax

Shadowfax operates a business-to-business logistics network in more than 300 cities in India. The startup works with neighborhood stores to use their real estate to store inventory, and with a large network of freelancers for delivery.

4. A Sprint contractor left thousands of US cell phone bills on the internet by mistake

A contractor working for cell giant Sprint stored hundreds of thousands of cell phone bills for AT&T, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and T-Mobile subscribers on an unprotected cloud server.

5. How to build or invest in a startup without paying capital gains tax

Qualified Small Business Stock (QSBS) presents a significant tax savings opportunity for people who create and invest in small businesses. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Volvo invests in autonomous vehicle operating system startup Apex.AI though its VC arm

Apex.AI is working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Its offerings include a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology.

7. Check out the prizes for TC Hackathon at Disrupt Berlin

One team gets $5,000, but we’ve got additional prizes from a range of sponsors. Also: This is next week!

 


0

Einride to launch commercial pilot of driverless electric pods with Coca-Cola European Partners

21:39 | 5 December

Autonomous robotic road-riding cargo pod startup Einride has signed a new partner for a commercial pilot on Sweden’s roads, which should be a great test of the company’s electric driverless transportation pods. Einride will be providing service for Coca-Cola European Partners, which is the official authorized bottler, distributor, sales and marketing company for Coca-Cola branded products in Sweden.

The partnership will see Einride commercially operating its transportation system between Coca-Cola European Partners’ warehouse in Jordbro outside Stockholm, and retailer Axfood’s own distribution hub, transporting Coca-Cola brand products to the retailer ahead of sending them off to local retail locations in Sweden.

Coca-Cola European Partners is looking to this partnership as part of its goal to continue to reduce emissions, since Einride’s system could potentially cut CO2 output by as much as 90% compared to current in-use solutions. This pilot is set to take place over the next few years, according to the two companies, and Einride says it hopes that it’ll be able to be on the road as early as some time next year, pending approval from the authorities since it’s a trial that will take place on public roads.

Einride announced $25 million in new funding in October, and has been running trials of the Einride Pod electric transport vehicle it created on public roads since May.

 


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Airbnb officially bans all open-invite parties and events

21:35 | 5 December

One month after Airbnb confirmed plans to verify all of its listings, the home-sharing giant has announced additional efforts to protect its hosts and guests.

Airbnb will provide “clear and actionable enforcement framework” for scenarios including excessive noise, major cleanliness concerns, as well as unauthorized guests, parking and smoking. The company, expected to go public next year, is also banning all “open-invite” parties and events from locations booked on its platform.

Unauthorized parties have long been banned from Airbnb homes. The new policy seeks to halt certain guests from hosting events not approved by hosts, such as a recent Halloween party hosted at a California Airbnb rental in which five people were killed.

Finally, Airbnb is launching a new hotline for mayors and city officials to discuss Airbnb’s new policies with the company.

“While home sharing is a time-honored tradition in many cultures around the world, the rise of digital platforms like Airbnb has brought it within reach of more people than ever before,” Airbnb’s vice president of trust Margaret Richardson writes in today’s announcement. “In turn, Airbnb has worked to collaborate with cities around the world and with our host and guest communities to ensure we are creating a framework that allows millions of people to trust one another.”

Airbnb, founded in 2008, has long avoided verifying listings and incorporating stricter guest standards, instead looking to its thousands of hosts to devise individual house rules. As the company matures and crafts its pitch to Wall Street, we can expect to see additional updates to its policy to protect hosts, guests and communities.

Early last month, Airbnb said all properties would soon be verified for accuracy of photos, addresses, listing details, cleanliness, safety and basic home amenities. All rentals that meet the company’s new standards will be “clearly labeled” by December 15, 2020, Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky noted in a company-wide email last month. Beginning this month, Airbnb will rebook or refund guests who check into rentals that do not meet the new accuracy standards.

The company last month also outlined plans to launch a 24/7 Neighbor Hotline to give guests access to a real Airbnb employee from any location at any time. The company will fully roll-out the service next year.

Airbnb’s Richardson developed the above changes alongside Charles Ramsey, a retired police commissioner and co-chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Ronald Davis, the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing’s Services.

 


0

Inside VSCO, a Gen Z-approved photo-sharing app, with CEO Joel Flory

21:29 | 5 December

Long before Instagram toyed with removing “likes,” VSCO, an Oakland-based photo-sharing and editing app, built a community devoid of likes, comments and follower counts. Perhaps known to many only because of this year’s “VSCO girl” meme explosion, the company has long been coaxing the creative community to its freemium platform. Turns out, if you can provide the disillusioned teens of Gen Z respite from the horrors of social media — they’ll pay for it.

VSCO is on pace to surpass 4 million paying users in 2020, up from 2 million paying users in late 2018, the company said. Approaching $80 million in annual revenue, VSCO charges an annual subscription fee of $19.99 for access to a full-suite of mobile photo-editing tools, exclusive photo filters, tutorials and more. For no cost, users can access a handful of basic VSCO filters, standard editing tools and loads of content published by other users in VSCO’s photo feed.

In recent months, the company’s Oakland headquarters has swelled to 150 employees, an increase of 50% from 2018, with a new office in Chicago expected to fit several dozen more. The company, which counts 100 million registered users to date, has also recently inked a partnership with Snap. Together, they’ve launched Analog, VSCO’s first-ever Snapchat lens, in a deal that hints at a future acquisition. Needless to say, VSCO co-founder and chief executive officer Joel Flory is feeling pretty optimistic ahead of his company’s eighth birthday.

“When you walk into a museum, you don’t see the net worth of the artist,” Flory tells TechCrunch. “You don’t see how many people have walked through the museum. There’s not a space for people to write comments and leave stickers. It’s a moment. It’s for you. You get to sit in front of a piece of work, a piece of art. And does it move you? Does it speak to you? Are you able to learn something from it? Does it inspire you to go do something? How can we create a space in which you could do that online? That was our initial insight.”

Flory, a 40-year-old former wedding photographer, wears a grey Oakland Roots sweatshirt and a black Oakland Athletics hat when I meet him at VSCO’s offices on Oakland’s Broadway Avenue in November. He doesn’t look like the Gen Z whisperer I expected to meet, and his responses to my questions about the “VSCO girl” meme paint a picture of a CEO who’s inadvertently connected with a generation 20 years his junior. “It’s a sense of caring about the environment and kind of caring about causes that have a meaning and impact,” Flory said of “VSCO girls,” who have more-oft been described as 21st century valley girls or “annoying, white hopeless romantics.”

On one hand, we were ahead of the curve. But I think we were just being true to who we are. VSCO CEO Joel Flory

Regardless of Flory’s ability to decode Gen Z, VSCO continues to be beloved by millions of teenagers and young adults worldwide. Without selling ads or customer data, VSCO has developed a sustainable subscription-based business and written a new playbook for social media businesses in a world where Facebook’s advertising-based model is king. For those fed up with platforms that have facilitated bullying and failed to prioritize privacy, VSCO may be a protective corner of the internet.

“The creator always wins, the community always wins, who’s paying us wins and VSCO wins,” Flory said. “It sounds simple, but this creates a business model in which our business is not extracting value from any one group to give to someone else. It’s this direct relationship with who’s paying us.”

VSCO CEO Joel Flory speaks to attendees while teaching phone photography class during The Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. Photographer: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A sense of belonging

Hot off the heels of a rare moment in the spotlight, VSCO, reportedly valued at $550 million, is ripe for a new round of funding. Flory, naturally, remained mum on any plans to sell the company or raise additional capital. But he was ready and willing to speak to the company’s untraditional path and the unique connection it has fostered with its users.

Flory tells me 75% of VSCO’s registered users and 55% of its paying subscribers are younger than 25, giving the company a small foothold into the most coveted demographic. On top of that, the hashtag #VSCO has been viewed 4 billion times on the immensely popular video sharing app Tik Tok, again according to the company’s own statistics, and another 450 million times on Instagram. With 40 million monthly active users Facebook had 2.45 billion monthly active users as of September, for context VSCO is by no means a competitor to Facebook, Facebook-owned Instagram, Snap or Twitter. What it is, however, is a leader in the new era of social media, in which users demand more transparent, equitable relationships with social platforms.

“[Gen Z] knows what each platform is good for and what the downfalls of each are,” Flory said. “They are actively making investments in creativity and in their mental health, and they are seeking out a space where they can be who they are. And the fact that they’re even talking about mental health, anxiety, depression and compare culture — it took me so long in life to be able to articulate what I was feeling … They’re putting their money and time in brands and causes that they care about. And so for us, that’s why I think we’ve seen a lot of our growth.”

Flory and VSCO co-founder Greg Lutze, a long-time creative director-turned-chief experience officer, began building VSCO, an acronym for Visual Supply Co., in 2011. Facebook was more than six years old and mere months from hitting the 1 billion monthly active user milestone when VSCO launched its first product, a photo-editing plug-in for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Instagram, for its part, was a burgeoning photo-based social network that had launched the year before to “ignite communication through images.” Unlike Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who famously created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, or Instagram’s founding CEO Kevin Systrom, a former Google employee, Flory and Lutze had absolutely no experience in the tech or startup world. The pair banded together to build something focused around the creative community — not to construct a venture-backed startup.

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“We wanted to provide the tools for you to express yourself and then a space for you to do that, one that was void of the pressures around likes and comments that create this compare culture, which wasn’t even prevalent yet,” Flory said. “Now we’re seeing this played out on a large scale. So on one hand, we were ahead of the curve. But I think we were just being true to who we are.”

The business is growing in a way that we’ve never seen before. VSCO CEO Joel Flory

After launching VSCO as an Adobe plug-in, improved camera capabilities on smartphones motivated the business to change course. In the spring of 2013, the business launched its mobile app, a free photo-editing tool with in-app purchases and an affiliated community. The app reached 1 million downloads one week later and would eventually adopt a freemium model to earn money from its power users. Since its app launch, VSCO has remained a top-five grossing photo app on Apple’s App Store.

VSCO’s Oakland offices.

New opportunities

Though seldom mentioned on the venture capital and startup blogs, VSCO is indeed supported by VC dollars. Before its subscription revenue could sustain the business, the company brought in $90 million in VC funding from Accel, Glynn Capital Management, Obvious Ventures and Goldcrest Investments, closing its most recent round in 2015.

Flory and Lutze never sought venture funding. The former photographer and creative director didn’t have connections to venture capitalists or an in at a particular firm. Instead, Accel partners Vas Natarajan and Ryan Sweeney approached VSCO with “a thesis around the importance of design and creativity in the future,” Flory said, and quickly formed an alliance. Today, VSCO isn’t profitable, though it has been in the past, Flory said. It did, however, operate at “near break-even” last year — an accomplishment today as startups often lose hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis. With a valuation of $550 million, which Flory would neither confirm or deny, VSCO plans to invest heavily in growth next year.

As for the “VSCO girl” meme explosion, largely a mockery of white middle-class, social-media-savvy teenagers, it provided a jolt of publicity for a nearly decade-old company lost in the shadow of the giants. Though the meme entered the internet’s zeitgeist many months ago, the company is still riding a wave of press (and likely downloads) tied to its popularity. For many, the VSCO girl was their first encounter with VSCO, while for others, the photo-editing and sharing tool has been a fixture of their home screen for years.

As Instagram explores hiding likes in a bid to promote user health and other social media companies realize the importance of safety, security and mental wellness, VSCO may see its unique identity fade. Regardless, Flory says he wants other platforms to realize the impact of likes: “I honestly hope everyone thinks about what’s good for people’s mental health and builds more products that have a positive impact than a negative impact.”

Instagram’s experiments aside, VSCO is gearing up for another banner year, packed with plans for new features and products entirely. In our chat last month, Flory mentioned video design, publishing and editing, as well as illustration, as areas of interest for the now established photo-editing tool.

“The business is growing in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Flory said. “And what it’s doing is opening all of these new areas of opportunity. We’re focused on not only how you create content and how you edit content, but ultimately, how you tell a story with that content.”

 


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Uniform Teeth raises $10 million for its teeth-straightening operations

20:00 | 5 December

Uniform Teeth, the teeth straightening startup that helped me figure out I needed a root canal, has just raised a $10 million round of funding led by Canaan Partners. This brings Uniform Teeth’s total funding to $14 million.

With the new funding, Uniform Teeth plans to open two more locations, one in Seattle and one in Chicago, early next year. Uniform Teeth currently operates two locations in San Francisco. By the end of next year, Uniform Teeth plans to open more locations throughout the U.S.

The startup takes a One Medical-like approach in that it provides real, licensed orthodontists to see you and treat your bite. Ahead of the first visit, patients use the Uniform app to take photos of their teeth and their bite. During the initial visit, patients receive a panoramic scan and 3D imaging to confirm what type of work needs to be done.

The reason Uniform Teeth requires in-office visits is because 75% or more of the cases require additional procedures.

“There really is a need that is not being addressed in the market,” Uniform Teeth CEO Meghan Jewitt told TechCrunch. “We see so much of the activity in the space targeting simple vanity cases, but that’s just a small fraction of the market. We’re focused on the moderate to full-spectrum cases, which is like 75% of the market.”

Uniform Teeth faces a number of competitors, most notably SmileDirectClub and Candid. SmileDirectClub, which recently went public amid concerns from dental associations, provides an at-home teeth-straightening service. In its S-1, SmileDirectClub addressed those concerns as risk factors, saying, “national and state dental associations have issued statements discouraging use of orthodontics using a teledentistry platform.”

Uniform Teeth’s in-person approach doesn’t allow it to reach as many customers as the likes of SmileDirectClub and Candid, but perhaps customers will opt to meet with an orthodontist in person rather than not at all.

 


0

Figma launches Auto Layout

19:30 | 5 December

Figma, the design tool maker that has raised nearly $83 million from investors such as Index Ventures, Sequoia, Greylock and Kleiner Perkins, has today announced a new feature called Auto Layout that takes some of the tedious reformatting out of the design process.

Designers are all too familiar with the problem of manually sizing content in new components. For example, when a designer creates a new button for a web page, the text within the button has to be manually sized to fit within the button. If the text changes, or the size of the button, everything has to be adjusted accordingly.

This problem is exacerbated when there are many instances of a certain component, all of which have to be manually adjusted.

Auto Layout functions as a toggle. When it’s on, Figma does all the adjusting for designers, making sure content is centered within components and that the components themselves adjust to fit any new content that might be added. When an item within a frame is re-sized or changed, the content around it dynamically adjusts along with it.

Auto Layout also allows users to change the orientation of a list of items from vertical to horizontal and back again, adjust the individual sizing of a component within a list or re-order components in a list with a single click.

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It’s a little like designing on auto-pilot.

Auto Layout also functions within the component system, allowing designers to tweak the source of truth without detaching the symbol or content from it, meaning that these changes flow through to the rest of their designs.

Figma CEO Dylan Field said there was very high demand for this feature from customers, and hopes that this will allow design teams to move much faster when it comes to user testing and iterative design.

Alongside the launch, Figma is also announcing that it has brought on its first independent board member. Lynn Vojvodich joins Danny Rimer, John Lilly, Mamoon Hamid and Andrew Reed on the Figma board.

Vojvodich has a wealth of experience as an operator in the tech industry, serving as EVP and CMO at Salesforce.com. She was a partner at Andreesen Horowitz, and led her own company Take3 for 10 years. Vojvodich also serves on the boards of several large corporations, including Ford Motor Company, Looker and Dell.

“I’ve never brought on an investor that I haven’t heavily reference checked, both with companies that have had success and those who don’t,” said Field. “A good board can really help accelerate the company, but a challenging board can make it tough for companies to keep moving.”

Field added that, as conversations progressed with Vojvodich, she continually delivered value to the team with crisp answers and great insights, noting that her experience translates.

 


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Design may be the next entrepreneurial gold rush

18:37 | 5 December

Ten years ago, the vast majority of designers were working in Adobe Photoshop, a powerful tool with fine-tuned controls for almost every kind of image manipulation one could imagine. But it was a tool built for an analog world focused on photos, flyers and print magazines; there were no collaborative features, and much more importantly for designers, there were no other options.

Since then, a handful of major players have stepped up to dominate the market alongside the behemoth, including InVision, Sketch, Figma and Canva.

And with the shift in the way designers fit into organizations and the way design fits into business overall, the design ecosystem is following the same path blazed by enterprise SaaS companies in recent years. Undoubtedly, investors are ready to place their bets in design.

But the question still remains over whether the design industry will follow in the footprints of the sales stack — with Salesforce reigning as king and hundreds of much smaller startup subjects serving at its pleasure — or if it will go the way of the marketing stack, where a lively ecosystem of smaller niche players exist under the umbrella of a handful of major, general-use players.

“Deca-billion-dollar SaaS categories aren’t born everyday,” said InVision CEO Clark Valberg . “From my perspective, the majority of investors are still trying to understand the ontology of the space, while remaining sufficiently aware of its current and future economic impact so as to eagerly secure their foothold. The space is new and important enough to create gold-rush momentum, but evolving at a speed to produce the illusion of micro-categorization, which, in many cases, will ultimately fail to pass the test of time and avoid inevitable consolidation.”

I spoke to several notable players in the design space — Sketch CEO Pieter Omvlee, InVision CEO Clark Valberg, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Adobe Product Director Mark Webster, InVision VP and former VP of Design at Twitter Mike Davidson, Sequoia General Partner Andrew Reed and FirstMark Capital General Partner Amish Jani — and asked them what the fierce competition means for the future of the ecosystem.

But let’s first back up.

Past

Sketch launched in 2010, offering the first viable alternative to Photoshop. Made for design and not photo-editing with a specific focus on UI and UX design, Sketch arrived just as the app craze was picking up serious steam.

A year later, InVision landed in the mix. Rather than focus on the tools designers used, it concentrated on the evolution of design within organizations. With designers consolidating from many specialties to overarching positions like product and user experience designers, and with the screen becoming a primary point of contact between every company and its customers, InVision filled the gap of collaboration with its focus on prototypes.

If designs could look and feel like the real thing — without the resources spent by engineering — to allow executives, product leads and others to weigh in, the time it takes to bring a product to market could be cut significantly, and InVision capitalized on this new efficiency.

In 2012, came Canva, a product that focused primarily on non-designers and folks who need to ‘design’ without all the bells and whistles professionals use. The thesis: no matter which department you work in, you still need design, whether it’s for an internal meeting, an external sales deck, or simply a side project you’re working on in your personal time. Canva, like many tech firms these days, has taken its top-of-funnel approach to the enterprise, giving businesses an opportunity to unify non-designers within the org for their various decks and materials.

In 2016, the industry felt two more big shifts. In the first, Adobe woke up, realized it still had to compete and launched Adobe XD, which allowed designers to collaborate amongst themselves and within the organization, not unlike InVision, complete with prototyping capabilities. The second shift was the introduction of a little company called Figma.

Where Sketch innovated on price, focus and usability, and where InVision helped evolve design’s position within an organization, Figma changed the game with straight-up technology. If Github is Google Drive, Figma is Google Docs. Not only does Figma allow organizations to store and share design files, it actually allows multiple designers to work in the same file at one time. Oh, and it’s all on the web.

In 2018, InVision started to move up stream with the launch of Studio, a design tool meant to take on the likes of Adobe and Sketch and, yes, Figma.

Present

When it comes to design tools in 2019, we have an embarrassment of riches, but the success of these players can’t be fully credited to the products themselves.

A shift in the way businesses think about digital presence has been underway since the early 2000s. In the not-too-distant past, not every company had a website and many that did offered a very basic site without much utility.

In short, designers were needed and valued at digital-first businesses and consumer-facing companies moving toward e-commerce, but very early-stage digital products, or incumbents in traditional industries had a free pass to focus on issues other than design. Remember the original MySpace? Here’s what Amazon looked like when it launched.

In the not-too-distant past, the aesthetic bar for internet design was very, very low. That’s no longer the case.

 


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Volvo invests in autonomous vehicle operating system startup Apex.AI though its VC arm

18:00 | 5 December

Volvo is making an investment in Palo Alto-based Apex.AI, a startup working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Apex.AI, founded by automated systems engineers Jan Becker and Dejan Pangercic, raised $15.5 million in a Series A last November, and revealed that its focus is on developing an enterprise-focused version of the Robot Operating System open-source middleware.

Apex.AI currently lists two products on its home page: Apex.OS and Apex.Autonomy. The former aims to provide a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology, while the latter is more focused on specific elements and components for those looking to make use of specific elements of autonomous technology, including perception, localization, path planning and more.

Volvo Group Venture Capital acting CEO Anna Westerberg, who is also the automaker’s SVP of Connected Solutions, said in a press release announcing the news that Volvo Group is “excited to invest in a company that enables easier development of safety-certified systems.” In providing systems that comply with industry-standard safety requirements, Apex.AI could potentially help speed the process of getting autonomous driving systems into production vehicles, across both its commercial and consumer offerings.

The financial details of the investment were not disclosed, with publicly traded Volvo Group saying only that it “has no significant impact” on the overall company’s “earnings or financial position,” which doesn’t mean much, except that it’s not material enough to require a detailed disclosure just now. That still could mean a lot of money coming in for Apex.AI, given the relative yardstick of “material” for a huge multinational automaker, and a two-year-old Silicon Valley startup.

 


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