Tag: TechCrunch

Clubhouse voice chat leads a wave of spontaneous social apps

Forget the calendar invite. Just jump into a conversation. That’s the idea powering a fresh batch of social startups poised to take advantage of our cleared schedules amidst quarantine. But they could also change the way we work and socialize long after COVID-19 by bringing the free-flowing, ad-hoc communication of parties and open office plans online. While “Live” has become synonymous with performative streaming, these new apps instead spread the limelight across several users as well as the task, game, or discussion at hand.

The most buzzy of these startups is Clubhouse, an audio-based social network where people can spontaneously jump into voice chat rooms together. You see the unlabeled rooms of all the people you follow, and you can join to talk or just listen along, milling around to find what interests you. High-energy rooms attract crowds while slower ones see participants slip out to join other chat circles.

Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humblebragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.

Clubhouse was built by Paul Davison, who previously founded serendipitous offline people-meeting location app Highlight and reveal-your-whole-camera-roll app Shorts before his team was acquired by Pinterest in 2016. This year he debuted his Alpha Exploration Co startup studio and launched Talkshow for instantly broadcasting radio-style call-in shows. Spontaneity is the thread that ties Davison’s work together, whether its for making new friends, sharing your life, transmitting your thoughts, or having a discussion.

It’s very early days for Clubhouse. It doesn’t even have a website. There’s no telling exactly what it will be like if or when it officially launches, and Davison declined to comment. But the positive reception shows a desire for a more immediate, multi-media approach to discussion that updates what Twitter did with text.

Sheltered From Surprise

What quarantine has revealed is that when you separate everyone, spontaneity is a big thing you miss. In your office, that could be having a random watercooler chat with a co-worker or commenting aloud about something funny you found on the internet. At a party, it could be wandering up to chat with group of people because you know one of them or overhear something interesting. That’s lacking while we’re stuck home since we’ve stigmatized randomly phoning a friend, differing to asynchronous text despite its lack of urgency.

Clubhouse founder Paul Davison. Image Credit: JD Lasica

Scheduled Zoom calls, utilitarian Slack threads, and endless email chains don’t capture the thrill of surprise or the joy of conversation that giddily revs up as people riff off each other’s ideas. But smart app developers are also realizing that spontaneity doesn’t mean constantly interrupting people’s life or workflow. They give people the power to decide when they are or aren’t available or signal that they’re not to be disturbed so they’re only thrust into social connection when they want it.

Houseparty chart ranks via AppAnnie

Houseparty embodies this spontaneity. It’s become the breakout hit of quarantine by letting people on a whim join group video chat rooms with friends the second they open the app. It saw 50 million downloads in a month, up 70X over its pre-COVID levels in some places. It’s become the #1 social app in 82 countries including the US, and #1 overall in 16 countries.

Originally built for gaming, Discord lets communities spontaneously connect through persistent video, voice, and chat rooms. It’s seen a 50% increase in US daily voice users with spikes in shelter-in-place early adopter states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. Bunch, for video chat overlayed on mobile gaming, is also climbing the charts and going mainstream with its user base shifting to become majority female as they talk for 1.5 million minutes per day. Both apps make it easy to join up with pals and pick something to play together.

The Impromptu Office

Enterprise video chat tools are adapting to spontaneity as an alternative to heavy-handed, pre-meditated Zoom calls. There’s been a backlash as people realize they don’t get anything done by scheduling back-to-back video chats all day.

  • Loom lets you quickly record and send a video clip to co-workers that they can watch at their leisure, with back-and-forth conversation sped up because videos are uploaded as they’re shot.
  • Around overlays small circular video windows atop your screen so you can instantly communicate with colleagues while most of your desktop stays focused on your actual work.
  • Screen exists as a tiny widget that can launch a collaborative screenshare where everyone gets a cursor to control the shared window so they can improvisationally code, design, write, and annotate.

Screen

  • Pragli is an avatar-based virtual office where you can see if someone’s in a calendar meeting, away, or in flow listening to music so you know when to instantly open a voice or video chat channel together without having to purposefully find a time everyone’s free. But instead of following you home like Slack, Pragli lets you sign in and out of the virtual office to start and end your day.

Raising Our Voice

While visual communication has been the breakout feature of our mobile phones by allowing us to show where we are, shelter-in-place means we don’t have much to show. That’s expanded the opportunity for tools that take a less-is-more approach to spontaneous communication. Whether for remote partying or rapid problem solving, new apps beyond Clubhouse are incorporating voice rather than just video. Voice offers a way to rapidly exchange information and feel present together without dominating our workspace or attention, or forcing people into an uncomfortable spotlight.

High Fidelity is Second Life co-founder Philip Rosedale’s $72 million-funded current startup. After recently pivoting away from building a virtual reality co-working tool, High Fidelity has begun testing a voice and headphones-based online event platform and gathering place. The early beta lets users move their dot around a map and hear the voice of anyone close to them with spatial audio so voices get louder as you get closer to someone, and shift between your ears as you move past them. You can spontaneously approach and depart little clusters of dots to explore different conversations within earshot.

An unofficial mockup of High Fidelity’s early tests. Image Credits: DigitalGlobe (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

High Fidelity is currently using a satellite photo of Burning Man as its test map. It allows DJs to set up in different corners, and listeners to stroll between them or walk off with a friend to chat, similar to the real offline event. Since Burning Man was cancelled this year, High Fidelity could potentially be a candidate for holding the scheduled virtual version the organizers have promised.

Houseparty’s former CEO Ben Rubin and Strivr VR employee training startup founder Brian Meek are building a spontaneous teamwork tool called Slashtalk. Rubin sold Houseparty to Fortnite-maker Epic in mid-2019, but the gaming giant largely neglected the app until its recent quarantine-driven success. Rubin left.

His new startup’s site explains that “/talk is an anti-meeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations. We believe most meetings can be eliminated if the right people are connected at the right time to discuss the right topics, for just as long as necessary.” It lets people quickly jump into a voice or video chat to get something sorted without delaying until a calendared collab session.

Slashtalk co-founder Ben Rubin at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015

Whether for work or play, these spontaneous apps can conjure times from our more unstructured youth. Whether sifting through the cafeteria or school yard, seeing who else is at the mall, walking through halls of open doors in college dorms, or hanging at the student union or campus square, the pre-adult years offer many opportunities for impromptu social interation.

As we age and move into our separate homes, we literally erect walls that limit our ability to perceive the social cues that signal that someone’s available for unprompted communication. That’s spawned apps like Down To Lunch and Snapchat acquisition Zenly, and Facebook’s upcoming Messenger status feature designed to break through those barriers and make it feel less desperate to ask someone to hang out offline.

But while socializing or collaborating IRL requires transportation logistics and usually a plan, the new social apps discussed here bring us together instantly, thereby eliminating the need to schedule togetherness ahead of time. Gone too are the geographic limits restraining you to connect only with those within a reasonable commute. Digitally, you can pick from your whole network. And quarantines have further opened our options by emptying parts of our calendars.

Absent those frictions, what shines through is our intention. We can connect with who we want and accomplish what we want. Spontaneous apps open the channel so our impulsive human nature can shine through.

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Molotov partners with SchoolMouv to offer video lessons

Schools have been closed for the past month in France. That’s why French startup Molotov is leveraging its over-the-top TV service to offer content for children of all ages. In particular, the company has partnered with SchoolMouv, a company that offers videos, exercises and more.

Dubbed “Molotov for School”, the new section lets you find videos that are appropriate for your kid. It aggregates all TV content related to education from France 4, Arte, TF1, M6, etc.

In addition to that curation effort, users can browse SchoolMouv videos from the app. There are around 1,000 lessons that cover all grounds in middle school and high school. SchoolMouv usually charges €30 per month for its service (currently on sale at €15).

Molotov is offering SchoolMouv videos for free until May 15. You can’t access interactive exercises but you can still view all of the company’s videos for the next month. You don’t have to enter your credit card information.

Finally, Molotov also offers a selection of documentaries about historical events and science topics. While many parents spend a lot of time interacting with teachers to make sure that their children stay on track, Molotov could be useful when parents are just too busy.

Molotov is using this opportunity to report that it now has 10 million registered users. Last year, when Altice announced that it would acquire a majority stake in Molotov, the startup had 7 million registered users. The deal with Altice fell through and Molotov remains an independent company.

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Trade Republic, a German Robinhood, raises $67M led by Accel and Founders Fund

In the US, Robinhood has led the charge in upending the stock investing model through its mobile-first, minimal-step, commission free trading platform. Now, a startup out of Germany built on a similar premise is announcing a big round of funding from some top investors to continue its growth.

Trade Republic — which lets people buy and sell shares, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and derivatives by way of a mobile app, paying just €1 ($1.09) in fees (no commission) — is today announcing the it has closed €62 million ($67 million at today’s rates) in funding to expand its business into more markets in Europe and to move into adjacent business lines in the near future.

The Series B is being co-led by Accel and Founders Fund, and is brings the total raised by the Berlin-based startup to just over €80 million. (Its Series A last year was led by Creandum.) It’s not disclosing valuation right now.

This is one of the largest Series B rounds for a fintech startup in the region, and comes on the heels of the company’s commercial launch last year. It has picked up more than 150,000 customers in that time collectively managing more than €1 billion through the app. It’s currently available in Germany and Austria, with plans to add more countries soon.

“We want to be the one-stop shop for trades and we want to grow that as a safe space,” said Christian Hecker, co-founder and CEO of Trade Republic, in an interview this week. “We plan to introduce a sequence of savings features in the next couple of months. We see saving as our biggest growth path in the years to come.”

Even without the milestone of this being a big Series B, this is a significant round of funding for another reason.

Everyone is watching how tech startups, fintech, and investing overall — remember, stock markets the world over have taken a nosedive in the wake of COVID-19, catching their own form of the virus — will fare right now. With everyone staying indoors, some losing jobs, and many businesses being asked to remain closed to contain outbreaks, the measures have led to a slump in the economy, and it’s hard to see right now how much of that effect will be temporal or permanent.

This round, in that context, is a vote of confidence for Trade Republic that speaks to what shape fintech and how we as consumers interact with it might take in the years to come.

There has long been a theme in European startup land around the idea of “clones.” These are businesses that are founded more or less based very closely or even exactly on the same model as a slightly older and successful US counterpart, sometimes built with the aim of creating a regional leader that the US counterpart might eventually even acquire to save itself the hassle of organic international expansion.

There was even a “startup factory”, Rocket Internet, led by the Samwer brothers, set up to found and grow multiple companies on this principle. (They succeeded to some extent, selling companies to Groupon, eBay and others over the years.)

I’d argue that fintech, and Trade Republic, is not quite in that category, though. The company was founded five years ago and spent the first four of those in stealth, obtaining licenses to trade and operate as a bank, and building its platform.

It’s very squarely focused on European growth and doing so in a way that will not fall afoul of strict financial regulations. Expanding into new countries is one of the toughest things for a fintech to do, and that may well be compounded in cases where the platform is potentially leading to billions of dollars of trading.

“On paper the offering might look similar but the positioning is very different,” Hecker said, pointing to the stable asset classes that Trade Republic focuses on, and the fact that it will be moving into savings. Also, there are no plans for crypto-trading, he added. “We focus on more mature and secure asset classes.”

There is also a bit of open water right now. Notably, Robinhood has not expanded outside the US and seems to have pushed back its plans for its UK launch, which would have been its first international move. (It launched a waiting list for the service last year.) It’s not the only company in this area, though: Revolut, another fintech leader out of Europe, also launched trading in a limited release last August.

The opportunity is ripe for the taking, and investors believe startup’s bid to be one to take it is a viable one.

“Trade Republic’s team impressed us with its vision, beautiful product, strong traction, and clear potential to become the European leader for mobile smart investing,” said Luca Bocchio, a partner at Accel, in a statement. “We are particularly excited about the strong focus on long-term savings and better access to the capital markets, which Trade Republic makes easier and more affordable.”

Peter Thiel, the storied investor that backs Founders Fund, is a prolific supporter of fintech startups, stretching back to his early days as part of the so-called PayPal Mafia, so his support also signals a strong play.

“Trade Republic’s rapid growth in Germany testifies to the superiority of its technology platform over legacy offerings,” said Peter Thiel, partner at Founders Fund, in a statement. “The company is poised to become a major player in European finance.”

 

 

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NASA reveals ambitious multi-spacecraft plan to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth

That NASA intends to collect a sample from Mars and return it to Earth is well known — they’ve said so many times. But how would they go about scooping up soil from the surface of a distant planet and getting it back here? With a plan that sounds straight out of sci-fi.

Described by the project’s lead scientist in a virtual meeting reported by Nature, NASA and the European Space Agency’s proposed Mars sample retrieval program is perhaps the most ambitious interplanetary mission ever devised. (I’ve asked NASA for more details and will update this post if I hear back.)

The first part of the plan is already public: It relies on the Mars Perseverance rover, which is currently being prepared, despite the pandemic, for its launch in July. Perseverance will perform sampling using a drill and soil scoop, filling 30 small tubes with the results of its Martian delvings and storing them on board.

The next step is where things start to get wild.

A second spacecraft will travel to Mars, launching in 2026 and arriving in 2028, and land near Perseverance in Jezero crater. It will deploy a second rover, which will roll over to Perseverance, collect the sample tubes, and deposit them in the “Mars ascent vehicle” that also came with it. This small rocket will launch itself and the samples into orbit — the first time a spacecraft will have taken off from the surface of Mars.

At this point, a third spacecraft waiting nearby will synchronize its orbit with the sample retrieval craft, collect it, and return to Earth with it, where it will make its — controlled, one hopes — reentry in 2031.

“This is by no means a simple task,” said head of NASA’s Mars exploration program Jim Watzin in the meeting, uttering perhaps the greatest understatement of the 21st century so far. “But we have kept it as simple as possible.”

Indeed, it is hard to think of a simpler process given the restrictions of travel to Mars. Naturally Perseverance can’t shoot the samples back on a ballistic trajectory itself for a variety of reasons. That necessitates a second surface vehicle. And engineering that vehicle to fill the roles of outbound spacecraft, lander, rover, ascent vehicle, and return spacecraft may simply be impossible. So a third spacecraft is needed as well.

Keep in mind that this is the mission profile, but the actual spacecraft don’t exist yet, and likely won’t for years to come. Still, it’s a mind-blowing plan that NASA has just revealed.

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