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Main article: Startups

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How to profit from valuable peer referrals hiding in Slack

23:03 | 18 September

Colin Bendell Contributor
Colin is Senior Director of Analytics and Strategy for Cloudinary, the co co-author of High Performance Images, and passionate about data, web performance and user experience.

Brands are often left to act like the person who searches for their keys under the streetlight simply because that is where the light is better. However, when brand marketers focus only on engaging with the customers they can more easily see — where online activity is visible — they risk overlooking the valuable opportunities hiding in darker spaces.

One of the most valuable of those dark web spaces is in the realm of what we call “microbrowsers” — the messaging apps like Slack, WhatsApp and WeChat. We call them microbrowsers because they display miniature previews of web pages inside private message discussions. These previews, also known as ‘unfurled links’, create your brand’s first impression and play a big role in whether or not the person on the receiving end will click through to buy, or read or engage.

Google Analytics lumps all microbrowser-generated web traffic into the ‘Direct’ bucket, which we often just ignore. This means we look for customers where we know how to create campaigns easily — on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and buying Google Ad Words.

And as more people rely more heavily on messaging apps for primary communication, these link previews from microbrowsers are becoming the leading segment of your direct traffic visitors. In Cloudinary’s 2019 State of Visual Media Report, which drew on data from more than 700 customers and 200 billion transactions, we found that 77% of link sharing in Slack occurs during working hours and that the vast majority of the click-throughs are reported as ‘direct’ traffic. The rise of microbrowsers gives us an opportunity to engage and attract customers through word of mouth discussions.

The good news is that the ‘leads’ that microbrowsers send to your brand site are usually highly qualified and close to the bottom of the traditional sales pipeline funnel. When consumers arrive on your site they are often ready and eager to buy (or read, view and listen to your content).

Whether it be for sneakers, tickets to a concert, a birthday gift idea, or an article to read — a trusted peer recommendation typically happens in that fleeting moment when the appetite to buy is right now. That isn’t just valuable, it’s the holy freaking grail!

Top tips for creating links that engage

GettyImages 952111924

Image via Getty Images / drogatnev

The way to get the most value from microbrowser traffic is by helping along this peer influencing that happens in the dark. By creating compelling, informative links with images, video and text information specifically for microbrowsers, you increase the likelihood that peer-to-peer recommendations in groups convert into sales and reads.

What follows are some top tips to ensure that the links unfurling within microbrowsers have the greatest impact.

First, remember the golden rule: your audience is human. When creating content for microbrowsers, design it for humans, not machines.

 


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LunchClub raises $4M from a16z for its AI warm intro service

22:48 | 18 September

There are apps out there that help you find friends, find dates and find your distant family histories, but when it comes to “growing your professional network,” the options are shockingly bad, we’re talking LinkedIn here.

LunchClub is a startup that’s looking to help users navigate finding new connections inside specific industries. The company has recently closed a $4 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz with other investments coming in from Quora’s co-founder, the Robinhood cofounders, and Flexport’s cofounders.

The app follows in the footsteps of others that aimed to be dating app-like marketplaces for growing out your professional network via 1:1 lunch and coffee meetings. LunchClub is more focused on setting up a handful of meetings for users that have a specific goal in mind rather than just putting its users inside a web of wannabe workfluencers. LunchClub is aiming to be your warm intro and connect you with other users via email that can assist you in your professional goals.

When you’re on-boarded to the service, you are asked to highlight some “objectives” that you might have and this is where the app really makes its goals clear. Options include, “raise funding,” “find a co-founder or parter,” “explore other companies,” and “brainstorm with peers.” These objectives are pretty explicit and complementary, i.e. for every “raise funding” objective, there’s an “invest” option.

There isn’t a ton being asked for on the part of the user when it comes to building up the data on their profile, LunchClub is hoping to get most of the data that they need from the rest of the web.

“Our view is that there’s tons of data already out there,” LunchClub CEO Vlad Novakovski told TechCrunch in an interview. “Anything that comes from the existing social networks, be in things like Twitter, be it things that are more specific to what people might be working on, like Github or Dribble or AngelList — all of those data sources are in the public domain and are fair game.”

LunchClub’s sell is that they can learn from what matches are successful via user feedback and use that to hone further matches. Novakovski most previously was the CTO of Euclid Analytics which WeWork acquired in 2017. Previous to that, he led the machine learning team at Quora.

The web app, which currently has a lengthy-waitlist, is available for users in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London.

 


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Out of the box influencer strategies to accelerate awareness for your startup

22:01 | 18 September

Kamiu Lee Contributor
Kamiu Lee is CEO at Activate, an influencer marketing technology platform and agency that partners with brands and influencers to tell engaging and compelling stories across social media at scale.

For new brands, growing awareness and gaining the trust and credibility of consumers are two of the most important yet challenging marketing objectives. As an added constraint, most startups don’t have the budgetary flexibility to activate mega-influencers and celebrities that have national attention at their fingertips. However, new research from ACTIVATE found that smaller-tier, more accessible influencers are a top choice for marketers – they enable brands to tap into niche communities and offer superior engagement rates.

Surveying over 110 brand marketers, PR professionals, social media managers and agency executives, we found that 64 percent of marketers are choosing to utilize micro-influencers very often, as opposed to larger creators, mega influencers and celebrities. We also found that more than 44 percent of marketers are repurposing influencer-created content following a sponsorship, a practice that extends the ROI of an influencer campaign and can help startups attain valuable visual assets for future marketing use.

While mega-influencer content rights are often negotiated to steep rates, those of smaller tier influencers are more affordable, as the influencers themselves also benefit from the added exposure.

With this in mind, when developing an influencer campaign, it’s critical not to feel constrained to the most popular creators, and instead think out of the box and consider what factors will be most important to the audience you’re specifically trying to reach. When being thoughtful about how you’re implementing influencers, smaller creators can be just as impactful as their larger counterparts.

Let’s go through some of the most impactful emerging influencer strategies, to grow awareness, without growing debt.

Key influencer casting strategies to drive targeted impact

 


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Video ad company Eyeview names Rob Deichert as its new CEO

20:20 | 18 September

After 13 years at the helm of video advertising company Eyeview, founder Oren Harnevo is stepping down as CEO.

The company’s new chief executive is Rob Deichert, who was most recently COO at digital advertising company 33Across. The company is also announcing two other new hires — Sean Simon as senior vice president of sales and Risa Crandell as vice president of sales.

Harnevo, meanwhile, will remain on Eyeview’s board of directors.

“It’s been a long and incredible ride for the last 13 years since I co-founded Eyeview, and I feel it’s time to let a new leader help propel Eyeview to its next chapter,” he said in a statement. “2019 has been a great year for Eyeview. With strong revenue growth, and seasoned additions to our leadership team, it’s the perfect time to bring on [ad] industry veterans like Rob, Sean and Risa to accelerate our business as I depart to work on my next venture while supporting Eyeview on the board of director.”

Deichert acknowledged that it can be challenging to step into the shoes of a company’s founder, but he said he consulted with Harnevo before taking the job.

“I was just emailing with him today,” he added. “He’s going to be a great partner going forward.”

Rob Deichert

Rob Deichert

Deichert also said he has a standard on-boarding process when he joins a new company, which involves holding 30-minute, one-on-one meetings with every single person. (In this case, that means holding nearly 100 meetings.)

And while Eyeview has been around for more than a decade, Deichert suggested that there’s still plenty of room for its “outcome-based video marketing” (its specialty is video ads that are personalized based on viewer data) to grow.

In particular, he predicted that as direct-to-consumer brands are “maxing out on Facebook,” they’ll start turning back to traditional ad channels like television. With Eyeview, they can do that without losing the measurement and customization of online video.

 


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Stephen Curry Brings SC30 Inc. to Disrupt SF

20:09 | 18 September

Startup founders are hard-pressed to find the right investors — not only to fund their businesses but to help their businesses grow. These days, investors represent a variety of backgrounds and industries — traditional venture capital, Hollywood even the NBA.

When Golden State Warriors point guard and two-time MVP Stephen Curry isn’t playing basketball, he’s working with his business partner and former college basketball teammate Bryant Barr. Together, Barr and Curry run SC30 Inc, which manages Curry’s investment, media, philanthropy and brand partnership interests.

SC30 Inc.’s third investment came in December 2018, when the fund participated in hotel-booking platform SnapTravel’s $21.2 million Series A round.

Curry’s foray into the tech ecosystem started when he co-founded marketing automation platform Slyce. Since then, Stephen has taken a more structured approach to investing through SC30 Inc., where the portfolio has grown to eight investments in companies such as TSM and Palm.

It’s worth noting Curry is not the only baller in the tech investment game. There are his former teammates Andre Igoudala, an investor in Lime and board member of Jumia, and Kevin Durant, an investor in a number of startups through his fund Thirty Five Ventures.

At Disrupt SF 2019, listen as the three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry and SC30 Inc. President Bryant Barr discuss SC30 Inc. Investments, featuring SnapTravel CEO Hussein Fazal as he shares how he determined SC30 Inc. would make a good strategic investor. We’ll also talk to Curry about his general investment strategy and overall ambitions in tech.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 – 4 at the Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco. Passes are available here.

 


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Hear how to hire at breakneck speed at TechCrunch Disrupt SF

19:00 | 18 September

Nothing can get built without talented people with the right skillsets, which is why startups hitting their growth phases have to go from hiring a smattering of employees to building systems that can hire dozens to hundreds of people per year. How can startups double and triple headcount year after year in a sustainable way, all while not losing the culture that made them what they are in the first place?

We’ve got an incredible discussion lined up on the Extra Crunch stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year that answers that prompt from some of the most knowledgeable people in the business.

First, we have Harj Taggar of Triplebyte, a platform designed to accelerate the hiring of quality and vetted engineers for tech startups. Taggar was the first partner to join Y Combinator, where he spent five years helping some of the most successful startups in the world grow from humble origins to debuting at the New York Stock Exchange. Taggar brings a wealth of experience of observing high-growth companies hire, and also brings significant expertise from Triplebyte on what works and what doesn’t at scale for startup hiring.

Next, we have Liz Wessel, CEO and co-founder of WayUp, a platform for student professionals to connect with new jobs and opportunities that has raised more than $27 million in venture capital from Trinity and General Catalyst. Wessel brings a deep operational background to the discussion, not just hiring dozens of people for her own startup, but also seeing how hiring operates horizontally across industries and sectors through her employment platform.

Finally, we have Scott Cutler, CEO and co-founder of StockX, an ecommerce platform for buying and selling sneakers as well as streetwear, handbags and more. StockX has raised $160 million across several rounds of venture capital, and has hundreds of employees. Before he founded StockX, Cutler was head of the Americas for eBay and president of StubHub. He brings both a large tech and a rapidly-growing startup perspective to the discussion.

We’re amped for this conversation, and we can’t wait to see you there! Buy tickets to Disrupt SF here at an early-bird rate!

Did you know Extra Crunch annual members get 20% off all TechCrunch event tickets? Head over here to get your annual pass, and then email extracrunch@techcrunch.com to get your 20% discount. Please note that it can take up to 24 hours to issue the discount code.

 


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Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

18:00 | 18 September

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. - Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

 


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North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

17:36 | 18 September

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, and then return once they’re ready for a pick-up and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later – essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

 


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Indonesia’s Julo raises $10M to expand its P2P lending platform

17:35 | 18 September

Julo, a peer-to-peer lending platform in Indonesia, said on Wednesday it has extended its $5 million Series A raise to $15 million as it looks to scale its business in the key Southeast Asian market.

The $10 million Series A2 round for the Jakarta-headquartered startup was led by Quona Capital, with Skystar, East Ventures, Provident, Gobi Partners, and Convergence participating in it. The two-year-old startup, which has raised about $16 million to date, is now closing the round, Adrianus Hitijahubessy, co-founder and CEO of Julo, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Through its eponymous Android app, Julo provides loans of about $300 to users at aggressively competitive rate of 3-5% per month — one of its key differentiating factors. Julo has managed to keep its interest rate low because its credit scoring system is more efficient than those of its rivals, claimed Hitijahubessy, who has amassed more than a decade of experience in credit scoring system using alternative data from his previous stints.

“There are lots of players in this market. Not just Indonesia, but globally. But it comes down to who actually knows what they are doing. The bar is becoming higher and it is increasingly becoming difficult for digital lending companies to just launch an app and charge high interest rate,” he said.

Julo works with banks and individuals to finance loans to customers. It says it has disbursed about $50 million to date.

Hitijahubessy said Julo will use the fresh capital to expand the team and enhance its credit score system. The startup intends to focus on growing its business in Indonesia itself.

In a statement, Ganesh Rengaswamy, co-founder and partner of Quona Capital, said, “a significant majority of JULO’s loans are used for productive purposes that can enhance the economic well-being of families and small businesses — driving financial inclusion in Indonesia, which is a cornerstone of Quona’s focus.”

Digital lending is becoming an increasingly crowded space in South Asian markets. In India, for instance, a growing number of digital mobile wallets including Paytm and MobiKwik have recently started to offer credits to customers.

 


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PlayVS picks up $50 million Series C to build out high school esports

17:00 | 18 September

PlayVS, the platform that allows high school students to compete on varsity esports teams through their school, has today announced the close of a $50 million Series C led by existing investor NEA. Battery Ventures, Dick Costolo and Adam Bain of 01 Advisors, Sapphire Sport, Michael Zeisser, Dennis Phelps of IVP and cofounder of CAA Michael Ovitz.

This brings the startup’s total funding to $96 million, the vast majority of which was raised in the last 13 months.

PlayVS launched in April of 2018 under founder and CEO Delane Parnell, who believes that the opportunity of esports is fundamentally broken without high school leagues. Through an exclusive partnership with the NFHS (the NCAA of high schools), PlayVS allows schools across the country to create esports teams and participate in leagues with their neighboring schools, just like any other varsity sport.

PlayVS also partners with the game publishers, which allows the platform to pull in stats and track players performance across every game directly from the PlayVS website.

The startup charges either the player, parent/guardian or school $64 per player to participate in ‘Seasons’, PlayVS’s first product. It was launched in October of 2018 in five states and expanded to eight states this spring.

Since launch, 13,000 schools have joined the waitlist to get a varsity esports team through PlayVS, which represents 68 percent of the country. PlayVS says that just over 14,000 high schools in the United States have a football program, marking the idea of varsity esports as a relatively popular one.

With the upcoming fall Season for 2019, all 50 states will have access to the PlayVS platform, with 15 states competing for an actual State Championship in partnership with their state association. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington D.C.

States that have not gotten an endorsement from their state association will still compete regionally for a PlayVS championship. PlayVS supports League of Legends, Rocket League and SMITE with plans to support other games in the future.

Not only does PlayVS offer high school students the chance to play organized esports, but it also gives colleges and esports orgs a recruitment tool to scope and scoop young talent.

But what about that funding? Well, Parnell says that the new round gives the company a war chest to not only hire aggressively — the company has gone from 18 to 41 employees in the last year — but also to consider mergers and acquisitions as a means of growth.

Perhaps most importantly, the company will use the funding to explore products outside of high school, with eyes squarely focused on the collegiate market. With esports still in its infancy, there is a huge opportunity to provide the infrastructure of these leagues early on, and PlayVS is looking to capture that.

 


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