Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers raises $12.5 million

A startup by an Apple alum that has become home to millions of low-skilled workers in India said on Tuesday it has raised an additional $12.5 million, just five months after securing $8 million from high-profile investors.

One-year-old Apna said Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital led the $12.5 million Series B investment in the startup. Existing investors Lightspeed India and Rocketship VC also participated in the round. The startup, whose name is Hindi for “ours,” has now raised more than $20 million.

More than 6 million low-skilled workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians have joined Apna to find jobs and upskill themselves. But there’s more to this.

An analysis of the platform showed how workers are helping one another solve problems — such as a beautician advising another beautician to perform hair dressing in a particular way that tends to make customers happier and tip more, and someone sharing how they negotiated a hike in their salary from their employer.

“The sole idea of this is to create a network for these workers,” Nirmit Parikh, Apna founder and chief executive told TechCrunch in an interview. “Network gap has been a very crucial challenge. Solving it enables people to unlock more and more opportunities,” he said. Harshjit Sethi, principal at Sequoia India, said Apna was making inroads with “building a professional social network for India.”

The startup has become an attraction for several big firms, including Amazon, Flipkart, Unacademy, Byju’s, Swiggy, BigBasket, Dunzo, BlueStar and Grofers, which have joined as recruiters to hire workers. Apna offers a straightforward onboarding process — thanks to support for multiple local languages — and allows users to create a virtual business card, which is then shown to the potential recruiters. Parikh said Apna’s AI understands the cultural nuances, helping recruiters find the best candidates for their needs.

The past six months have been all about growth at Apna, said Parikh. The app, available on Android, had 1.2 million users in August last year, for instance. During this period, there have been 60 million interactions between recruiters and potential applicants, he said. The platform, which has amassed more than 80,000 employers, has a retention rate of over 95%, said Parikh.

“Apna has taken a jobs-centric approach to upskilling that we are very excited about. Lack of accountability has been the core issue with current skill / vocational learning alternatives for grey and blue-collar workers. Apna has turned the problem on its head by creating net-positive job outcomes for anyone who chooses to upskill on the platform,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

Image Credits: Nirmit Parikh

Parikh got the idea of building Apna after he kept hearing about the difficulty his family and friends faced in India in hiring people. This was puzzling to Parikh, as he wondered how could there be a shortage of workers in India when there are hundreds of millions of people actively looking for such jobs. The problem, Parikh realized, was that there wasn’t a scalable networking infrastructure in place to connect workers with employers.

Before creating the startup, Parikh met workers and went undercover as an electrician and floor manager to understand the problems workers were facing. That journey has not ended. The startup talks to over 15,000 users each day to understand what else Apna could do for them.

“One of the things we heard was that users were facing difficulties with interviews. So we started groups to practice them with interviews. We also started upskilling users, which has made us an edtech player. We plan to ramp up this effort in the coming months,” said Parikh, who also started an AI firm more than a decade ago to solve challenges with electricity flux and then another startup to solve for information overload. (The first startup is now being run by family and friends, and the second firm was sold to Intel, Parikh said.)

Parikh said the startup is overwhelmed each day with the response it is getting from its customers and the industry. Each day, he said, people share how they were able to land jobs, or increase their earnings. In recent months, several high-profile executives from companies such as Uber and BCG have joined Apna to scale the startup’s vision, he said, adding that the problem Apna is solving in India exists everywhere and the startup’s hope is to eventually serve people across the globe.

The app currently has no ads, and Parikh said he intends to not change that. “Once you get in the ad business, you start doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said. The startup instead plans to monetize its platform by charging recruiters, and offering upskill courses. But Parikh maintained that Apna will always offer its courses to users for free. The premium version will target those who need extensive assistance, he said. The startup also plans to expand its team.

As is the case elsewhere, millions of people lost their livelihood in India in the past year as coronavirus shut many businesses and workers migrated to their homes. There are over 250 million blue and grey-collar workers in India, and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Sethi.

Google restarts updates for some iOS apps after long pause triggered by lack of privacy labels

Google over the weekend began to update many of its flagship iOS apps after a lengthy delay caused by the company’s failure to add Apple’s newly required privacy labels in a timely fashion. Though Google earlier this year said it would “soon” begin to add the labels to its apps as they were updated, it has still yet to do so for a number of key properties — including Search, Photos, Assistant, Maps, Pay, Chrome, and others.

Per Apple’s policy, developers cannot issue further updates until privacy labels are applied. That prevented Google from updating many of its top apps for a much longer period of time than usual — especially for a company of its size where minor updates containing bug fixes and performance improvements are issued on a regular basis.

Gmail, for example, hadn’t been updated for three months before the update that rolled out this weekend.

According their iOS App Store listings, Slides, Docs, Sheets and Calendar all received updates this weekend, as well. And over the past couple of weeks, updates for other newly labeled Google apps have also been restarted — including YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, Google Tasks, and Google Podcasts, for example.

We’ve been tracking Google’s app updates here in Google Sheets. (Appfigures confirmed our spreadsheet’s accuracy by running it against its own data.)

This weekend’s set of newly updated apps aren’t the only ones from Google to have received their privacy labels in 2021. Labels can be applied without issuing an app update which makes them harder to spot, sometimes.

Across Google’s full suite of iOS apps, those apps with labels now include:

Google One, Google Podcasts, Google Stadia, Google Fit, Google Fi, Google Tasks, Google Chat, Onduo, Project Baseline, YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, YouTube Kids, YouTube Studio, Google Meet, Google Smart Lock, Motion Stills, Google Fiber, Google Ads, Wear OS, Google Calendar, Google Classroom, Google Slides, Google Sheets, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Play Movies, Google Home, Fiber TV, Google Translate, and Google Authenticator.

Google has not said why it taking so long to apply its labels. It initially attributed its delay to add the privacy labels to its annual holiday code freeze — a time of the year when the company pauses updates on its apps while many people take time off.

But as the weeks turned into months, it was clear that Google was taking a much more cautious and methodical approach to applying the labels than other large tech companies. As a result, it’s received increased attention and scrutiny of its app updates.

In fact, every time a new Google app was updated with a label, it made headlines.

Engadget today reported on Gmail and other apps being updated over the weekend, for example.

In mid-January, Google officially responded to the curiosity over its delays with a blog post explaining that its iOS apps would receive privacy labels as it received its next update. But the two have not necessarily gone hand-in-hand. Gmail received its privacy label back on Feb. 22, according to reports, but hadn’t been updated until just now.

And the list of labeled apps is far longer than the list of updated ones.

Google has not responded to a request for comment at this time.

 

Cappuccino lets you share short, intimate audio stories with your friends

You might call Cappuccino the anti-Clubhouse, but the company has been iterating on its app concept for a couple of years — its CEO doesn’t have any strong opinions on Clubhouse. And it’s true that Cappuccino is an interesting social app on its own. It has been attracting a loyal user base, especially after a TikTok video went viral.

The startup says it is building an app that helps you record podcasts with friends. Many people have discovered podcasts over the past few years. Podcasts let you subscribe to audio shows and listen to episodes on demand.

At first, people subscribe to podcasts because of their interests. But if you talk about podcasts with your friends, they’ll tell you that they like a show in particular because of the personalities of the hosts.

Listening to a podcast is a content consumption experience that feels like nothing else out there. You might watch all videos released by a particular YouTuber and you might think you know a lot about someone’s personal life by following them on Instagram.

But listening to someone for hours at a time with earbuds in your ears is a very intimate experience. When a podcast works, it feels like you’re sitting in a room with a few friends and just listening to what they have to say.

And yet, chances are your favorite podcast hosts are not your friends.

This is where Cappuccino fits. The app lets you create groups with your friends or your families. Members of the group can record a short audio message — a bean, as the startup calls it. They talk about what’s on their mind for a couple of minutes. The next morning, group members receive a notification saying that your morning cappuccino has been brewed.

When you hit play, a chill intro music starts playing followed by audio messages from your friends. It isn’t just a succession of voice memos — it feels like a relaxing mix of happy, funny, caring, thoughtful messages from your friends.

While Cappuccino is a social app, it is focused on your close friends and your family. You aren’t trying to get more followers and you are not sharing public posts. Everything is private by design and focused on groups of real-life friends.

In many ways, it reminds me of Snapchat’s group stories. But Snapchat wasn’t the main inspiration for Cappuccino — it was podcasting.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Prototype early, iterate often

I talked with the company’s co-founder and CEO Gilles Poupardin about the origin story of the app. Cappuccino isn’t Poupardin’s first startup. He had worked on Whyd for several years and lived the full startup experience — he raised founding rounds, chose to pivot, attended Y Combinator in San Francisco, parted ways with his company’s CTO and chose to shutter the startup.

Among other things, Whyd worked on a voice-controlled connected speaker before Amazon’s Echo product lineup and Google’s Nest speakers really took off. It’s hard to compete with tech giants, even harder when you’re competing on the hardware front.

After that, the Whyd team worked on a service that lets you create your own voice assistant. That didn’t really take off as expected either.

During the summer of 2019, Olivier Desmoulin reached out to Poupardin. Back then, Desmoulin was heading design for Jumbo, an app that helps you stay on top of your online privacy.

“At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to start a company again — I pivoted 15 times [with Whyd],” Poupardin told me.

But they started discussing about podcasts and AirPods — and audio at large — as the next frontier for social apps. The basic premise was simple. A lot of people were listening to podcasts, but very few people were creating their own podcasts.

There are three reasons why your neighbor doesn’t have its own podcast but sometimes posts stuff on Instagram and Snapchat:

  • Podcasts are long-form content
  • It’s technically complicated to record and release a podcast
  • You are trying to attract an audience of people who don’t know you.

With Cappuccino, the idea is to take a reverse stance on these three points: short content, easy to record and personal. It’s supposed to be a better experience for both people recording audio and people listening to audio.

The first version of Cappuccino isn’t an app, it’s a side project. “We created a group on WhatsApp, we invited 10 to 15 people and we asked them to record voice memos and send them all to Olivier,” Poupardin told me.

Every night, Olivier Desmoulin would fire up GarageBand and create a mix of all voice memos. In the morning, he would send a message to the group conversation on WhatsApp and write: “Hey, your cappuccino is here.”

Image Credits: Cappuccino

After getting some positive feedback from group members, Pouparding and Desmoulin chose to move forward and create something that feels more like an app. But they both knew that creating a social app was incredibly hard when it comes to attracting users. They developed something quickly so that they weren’t wasting time developing something that nobody would use.

“We built the first version of the app in four days by using a hack — we were using Airtable as the backend service,” Poupardin said.

Once again, feedback from beta users was pretty good. They showed the app to some investors and ended up raising $1.2 million from Alexia Bonatsos (Dream Machine, also a former TechCrunch editor), SV Angel, Kevin Carter (Night Capital), Niv Shrug Capital, Jean de La Rochebrochard (Kima Ventures), Kevin Kuipers, Willy Braun, Marie Ekeland, Solomon Hykes (founder of Docker), Pierre Valade (founder of Sunrise and Jumbo Privacy), Moshe Lifschitz (Basement Fund), Anthony Marnell, Bryan Kim and a bunch of others.

Gawen Arab who was the CTO at Whyd teamed up once again with Poupardin, proving that time is a flat circle. He’s now co-founder and CTO at Cappuccino.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Letting people talk about you

The Cappuccino team hasn’t been active when it comes to press relations or ads. It’s been a slow build up with some interesting spikes.

Last summer, Product Hunt super user Chris Messina created a post about Cappuccino. It was a bit of a surprise as the startup wasn’t trying to get featured on Product Hunt. Still, the co-founders diligently answered questions from the Product Hunt community.

The following day, Product Hunt’s newsletter featured Cappuccino. It was titled “The next big audio social network?” That brought some new users to the app.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

But things really started to take off when Brittany Kay Collier shared a video on TikTok about Cappuccino a few weeks ago. She sent a direct message to Poupardin on Instagram, telling him that it was attracting a lot of views. The video ended up attracting around 3.8 million views and 850,000 likes.

Two days later, Poupardin sent her a job offer to join the team. He was secretly hoping she would say yes, and she was secretly dreaming about getting a job at a company like Cappuccino.

Over the past couple of weeks, Cappuccino attracted 225,000 new users. They created 130,000 groups and sent around one million audio stories.

When the team is reading public posts about Cappuccino on Twitter, it feels like the app has found its core user base. The most loyal users seem to be young women in their twenties. They want to keep in touch with long-distance best friends.

They might be graduating from college and moving to a different part of the country. They might be stuck at home because of the current pandemic.

And it seems like new users have no issue hitting the record button and telling stories — everybody is familiar with voice messages on WhatsApp and iMessage after all.

“Something that is interesting with audio messages as a medium is that you tell different stories from what you would tell by taking a photo for Instagram, sending a Snap or creating a video on TikTok,” Poupardin said.

But what about the elephant in the room then? Clubhouse has topped 8 million downloads already. Poupardin listed all the differences in social graph, audio format and user base. According to him, there’s enough room for multiple audio apps.

“With video, you have YouTube, Twitch and TikTok — those are all different formats. Audio is potentially going to follow the same trend,” Poupardin said. Social apps first took advantage of the camera in your smartphone, because the camera was the killer hardware feature. And audio seems like the natural next step.

He feels like he isn’t competing with other audio startups for now. He wants people to wake up and listen to Cappuccino instead of random music on Spotify. “It’s going to help people who feel lonely,” he said.

Cappuccino lets you share short, intimate audio stories with your friends

You might call Cappuccino the anti-Clubhouse, but the company has been iterating on its app concept for a couple of years — its CEO doesn’t have any strong opinions on Clubhouse. And it’s true that Cappuccino is an interesting social app on its own. It has been attracting a loyal user base, especially after a TikTok video went viral.

The startup says it is building an app that helps you record podcasts with friends. Many people have discovered podcasts over the past few years. Podcasts let you subscribe to audio shows and listen to episodes on demand.

At first, people subscribe to podcasts because of their interests. But if you talk about podcasts with your friends, they’ll tell you that they like a show in particular because of the personalities of the hosts.

Listening to a podcast is a content consumption experience that feels like nothing else out there. You might watch all videos released by a particular YouTuber and you might think you know a lot about someone’s personal life by following them on Instagram.

But listening to someone for hours at a time with earbuds in your ears is a very intimate experience. When a podcast works, it feels like you’re sitting in a room with a few friends and just listening to what they have to say.

And yet, chances are your favorite podcast hosts are not your friends.

This is where Cappuccino fits. The app lets you create groups with your friends or your families. Members of the group can record a short audio message — a bean, as the startup calls it. They talk about what’s on their mind for a couple of minutes. The next morning, group members receive a notification saying that your morning cappuccino has been brewed.

When you hit play, a chill intro music starts playing followed by audio messages from your friends. It isn’t just a succession of voice memos — it feels like a relaxing mix of happy, funny, caring, thoughtful messages from your friends.

While Cappuccino is a social app, it is focused on your close friends and your family. You aren’t trying to get more followers and you are not sharing public posts. Everything is private by design and focused on groups of real-life friends.

In many ways, it reminds me of Snapchat’s group stories. But Snapchat wasn’t the main inspiration for Cappuccino — it was podcasting.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Prototype early, iterate often

I talked with the company’s co-founder and CEO Gilles Poupardin about the origin story of the app. Cappuccino isn’t Poupardin’s first startup. He had worked on Whyd for several years and lived the full startup experience — he raised founding rounds, chose to pivot, attended Y Combinator in San Francisco, parted ways with his company’s CTO and chose to shutter the startup.

Among other things, Whyd worked on a voice-controlled connected speaker before Amazon’s Echo product lineup and Google’s Nest speakers really took off. It’s hard to compete with tech giants, even harder when you’re competing on the hardware front.

After that, the Whyd team worked on a service that lets you create your own voice assistant. That didn’t really take off as expected either.

During the summer of 2019, Olivier Desmoulin reached out to Poupardin. Back then, Desmoulin was heading design for Jumbo, an app that helps you stay on top of your online privacy.

“At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to start a company again — I pivoted 15 times [with Whyd],” Poupardin told me.

But they started discussing about podcasts and AirPods — and audio at large — as the next frontier for social apps. The basic premise was simple. A lot of people were listening to podcasts, but very few people were creating their own podcasts.

There are three reasons why your neighbor doesn’t have its own podcast but sometimes posts stuff on Instagram and Snapchat:

  • Podcasts are long-form content
  • It’s technically complicated to record and release a podcast
  • You are trying to attract an audience of people who don’t know you.

With Cappuccino, the idea is to take a reverse stance on these three points: short content, easy to record and personal. It’s supposed to be a better experience for both people recording audio and people listening to audio.

The first version of Cappuccino isn’t an app, it’s a side project. “We created a group on WhatsApp, we invited 10 to 15 people and we asked them to record voice memos and send them all to Olivier,” Poupardin told me.

Every night, Olivier Desmoulin would fire up GarageBand and create a mix of all voice memos. In the morning, he would send a message to the group conversation on WhatsApp and write: “Hey, your cappuccino is here.”

Image Credits: Cappuccino

After getting some positive feedback from group members, Pouparding and Desmoulin chose to move forward and create something that feels more like an app. But they both knew that creating a social app was incredibly hard when it comes to attracting users. They developed something quickly so that they weren’t wasting time developing something that nobody would use.

“We built the first version of the app in four days by using a hack — we were using Airtable as the backend service,” Poupardin said.

Once again, feedback from beta users was pretty good. They showed the app to some investors and ended up raising $1.2 million from Alexia Bonatsos (Dream Machine, also a former TechCrunch editor), SV Angel, Kevin Carter (Night Capital), Niv Shrug Capital, Jean de La Rochebrochard (Kima Ventures), Kevin Kuipers, Willy Braun, Marie Ekeland, Solomon Hykes (founder of Docker), Pierre Valade (founder of Sunrise and Jumbo Privacy), Moshe Lifschitz (Basement Fund), Anthony Marnell, Bryan Kim and a bunch of others.

Gawen Arab who was the CTO at Whyd teamed up once again with Poupardin, proving that time is a flat circle. He’s now co-founder and CTO at Cappuccino.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Letting people talk about you

The Cappuccino team hasn’t been active when it comes to press relations or ads. It’s been a slow build up with some interesting spikes.

Last summer, Product Hunt super user Chris Messina created a post about Cappuccino. It was a bit of a surprise as the startup wasn’t trying to get featured on Product Hunt. Still, the co-founders diligently answered questions from the Product Hunt community.

The following day, Product Hunt’s newsletter featured Cappuccino. It was titled “The next big audio social network?” That brought some new users to the app.

Image Credits: Cappuccino

But things really started to take off when Brittany Kay Collier shared a video on TikTok about Cappuccino a few weeks ago. She sent a direct message to Poupardin on Instagram, telling him that it was attracting a lot of views. The video ended up attracting around 3.8 million views and 850,000 likes.

Two days later, Poupardin sent her a job offer to join the team. He was secretly hoping she would say yes, and she was secretly dreaming about getting a job at a company like Cappuccino.

Over the past couple of weeks, Cappuccino attracted 225,000 new users. They created 130,000 groups and sent around one million audio stories.

When the team is reading public posts about Cappuccino on Twitter, it feels like the app has found its core user base. The most loyal users seem to be young women in their twenties. They want to keep in touch with long-distance best friends.

They might be graduating from college and moving to a different part of the country. They might be stuck at home because of the current pandemic.

And it seems like new users have no issue hitting the record button and telling stories — everybody is familiar with voice messages on WhatsApp and iMessage after all.

“Something that is interesting with audio messages as a medium is that you tell different stories from what you would tell by taking a photo for Instagram, sending a Snap or creating a video on TikTok,” Poupardin said.

But what about the elephant in the room then? Clubhouse has topped 8 million downloads already. Poupardin listed all the differences in social graph, audio format and user base. According to him, there’s enough room for multiple audio apps.

“With video, you have YouTube, Twitch and TikTok — those are all different formats. Audio is potentially going to follow the same trend,” Poupardin said. Social apps first took advantage of the camera in your smartphone, because the camera was the killer hardware feature. And audio seems like the natural next step.

He feels like he isn’t competing with other audio startups for now. He wants people to wake up and listen to Cappuccino instead of random music on Spotify. “It’s going to help people who feel lonely,” he said.

Instagram launches ‘Live Rooms’ for live broadcasts with up to four creators

Instagram today announced it’s adding a much-requested feature to its app with the launch of “Live Rooms,” which allow up to four people to broadcast live together at the same time. Previously, the app only allowed users to live stream with one other person, similar to Facebook Live. The company says it hopes Live Rooms will open up more creative opportunities in terms of live broadcast formats to allow for things like live talk shows, expanded Q&A’s or interviews, jam sessions for musicians, live shopping experiences, and more.

In addition to the ability to live stream with more people, Instagram also touts how the new feature can help creators to make more money. Last year, in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Instagram introduced badges as a way for fans to support their favorite creators during a live video. Once purchased, the badges appear next to a fan’s name throughout the live video, helping them to stand out in the comments and unlock other special features, like placement on the creator’s list of badge holders and access to a special heart.

Badges became more broadly available last fall, at three price points: $0.99, $1.99, or $4.99.

With Live Rooms, fans can buy badges to support the hosts (one badge per person) as well as use other interactive features like Shopping and Live Fundraisers. The company says it’s also now developing other tools, like moderator controls and audio features that will roll out in the months to come.

To start a Live Room, you’ll swipe left and select the Live camera option, then title the Room and tap the Room icon to add guests. Here, you’ll see a list of people who’ve already requested to go live with you and you’ll be able to search for other guests to add.

Image Credits: Instagram

When you start the Live Room, you’ll remain at the top of the screen while guests are added. The guests can be added all at once or individually, depending on your preference. This allows for opportunities to add “surprise guests” to live streams to keep fans engaged.

The ability to add more guests to a live stream can also help a creator grow their follower base, as all the guests’ followers are notified about the Live Room, in addition to your own.

For safety reasons, any person that’s been blocked by any of the Live Room participants will not have access to join the live stream. Plus, any guests who have previously had their live access revoked due to violations of Instagram’s Community Guidelines won’t be able to join any Live Rooms.

During live broadcasts, the hosts can also report and block comments and use comment filters to maintain a safer experience for all viewers.

Live broadcasts became an increasingly important way for creators, business owners and brands to stay connected with followers during the pandemic, which shut down in-person live events, including concerts, shows, classes, conferences, meetups, and more. Instagram reported a 70% increase in Live views from February to March, for instance, as creators and businesses shifted their work online.

Image Credits: Instagram

As the pandemic wore on throughout 2020 and into 2021, the lack of in-person connection has allowed for other opportunities and even new social networks to grow. Live audio platform Clubhouse, for example, has seen rapid adoption, particularly by the tech and creative crowds, who today use the app to tune into live shows, chat sessions, and even big-name interviews. Twitter is now building a rival, and reportedly, so is Facebook.

But while Clubhouse offers a very different experience, it still operates in the same broader space of allowing fans to connect with high-profile individuals of some sort — entrepreneurs and founders, celebrities, market experts, thought leaders, influencers, and so on. And because users’ time is limited, seeing this type of activity shift to non-Facebook owned platforms is likely of concern to Instagram and its parent.

Meanwhile, in the live video broadcasting space, Instagram today faces a number of competitors, from those focused on a particular niche — like game streaming site Twitch, live shopping apps, and more— as well as general purpose live platforms offered by YouTube and TikTok. (The latter was spotted offering a four-up live stream format just last month, in fact.)

Instagram says Live Rooms are rolling out now to both iOS and Android to all global markets. The company expects the rollout to reach 100% of its user base within the week.

 

Clue gets FDA clearance to launch a digital contraceptive

Clue, an early pioneer in the femtech category with a well-regarded period-tracking app that’s used by around 13 million people, is getting ready to launch a digital contraceptive which will offer users a statistical prediction of ovulation as a birth control tool.

A US launch of Clue Birth Control is slated for “this year”. The team won’t be more specific on the date yet.

Pricing will be “premium” — but they’re also keeping the exact cost under wraps for now.

The Berlin-based company is today announcing that they’ve gained FDA clearance for the forthcoming product, clearing the way for a US launch in 2021.

Europe is the next region on their launch list but the necessary regulatory clearances mean the roll out will be gradual, going market by market.

The startup has also recently made a number of operational changes — including to the leadership of the company — to reflect becoming a medical-device grade regulated entity in the US.

The short version is that founder and CEO, Ida Tin, has moved up to become chairwoman of the board, while Audrey Tsang (who was leading product) and Carrie Walter (formerly general counsel), are now Clue’s co-CEOs.

TechCrunch chatted to all three women — along with Clue’s chief medical officer, Lynae Brayboy — to get the lowdown on its latest news.

Clue Birth Control

Clue is not the first to market with an app offering a statistical prediction of fertility but unlike first mover, Natural Cycles — which gained FDA clearance back in 2018 — its product, Clue Birth Control, is being billed as “all-digital”; aka it will work without the user needing to take their temperature daily.

There’s also no need to track other bodily changes (such as monitoring cervical fluid). The method is based on women inputting a single data point regularly: The start date of their period.

This means it looks like a major step up in ‘ease of use’ vs the earlier-to-market rival — which Clue has achieved within similar efficacy margins (see below).

Clue’s algorithmic prediction is based on Bayesian modelling — with the app displaying a high risk window across a number of days of the user’s cycle, during which having unprotected intercourse could result in the woman getting pregnant. It shows a window of low risk when the opposite is true.

[gallery ids="2118831,2118832,2118830,2118829,2118828"]

The length of these windows is likely to change as the user inputs more data, with the risk-window starting out longer and typically shrinking as the app becomes more personalized to their individual cycle data.

“Bayesian modelling has been used in medicine for a lot of different applications. What that does is it takes population data and it puts that population data into an algorithm — which is a mathematical model — and [that] basically borrows from what has been found in the population in terms of cycling and ovulation,” explains Brayboy, who was appointed as Clue’s first ever chief medical officer last summer.

“Before we had a fertile window [i.e. displayed in the Clue period-tacking app to illustrate the stages of a cycle] — which is not a reliable, nor is it a tested, model of contraception. So now we’re using a bayesian modelling concept,” she says. “It personalizes over time. So as the individual puts in their cycle day one then we’re able to personalize the window of their high risk days vs their low risk days.

“[The high risk window] will start out long… Usually it’ll be 16 days within the cycle — but it’ll shorten over time. It probably won’t shorten to more than nine days.”

For the product to work as a contraception, users must either abstain from sex on high risk days or use additional protection (such as condoms). That’s why it’s a more involved method than some established birth control alternatives (especially vs an IUD; intrauterine device). On low risk days Clue users are relying on the app’s statistical prediction of their (low) fertility risk to not get pregnant.

Clue says the product has been shown to be 92% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy under ‘typical use’ and 97% effective under ‘perfect use’ — referencing the standard research terminology for measuring contraception effectiveness (the latter meaning the product is used exactly as instructed every time the woman has sex vs ‘typical’ use which accounts for some usage slip-ups).

What those percentages mean in practice is that under typical use, eight couples out of 100 would be predicted to get pregnant over a year of use of Clue’s digital birth control. While — in the perfect use scenario — the failure rate would be three out of 100 over a year’s use.

(For comparison, Natural Cycles says its product is 93% effective under typical use and 98% effective under perfect use; while — per the Guttmacher Institute‘s US study — the pill is 93% effective under typical use and 99% effective under perfect use; and male condoms are 87% effective under typical use vs 98% effective under perfect use.)

Clue isn’t disclosing how many users it’s expecting to sign up — but the length of time it’s taken to bring the product to market suggests it’s confident Clue Birth Control will find a sustainable user base. (It’s been quietly working on the development since at least 2019 — but will only say the product has been “a long time” in the works when we ask.)

The extra time Clue’s taken to bring its digital contraceptive to market does look like time well spent. The statistical method underlying Clue Birth Control has, for example, undergone rigorous pre-market clinical testing — via a prospective effectiveness trial which reported results back in 2019.

“It’s been in development for a long time because work like this and proving the efficacy of something like this takes a long time,” says Tsang. “From a product perspective as well we want to make sure that these are experiences [that are] easy to understand and that matches the safety and efficacy of this type of product. So that as well.

“It takes a long time to make sure that we develop something that is also usability validated on that front and that we put that out with confidence and with an exact understanding of how well users will understand that.”

The ovulation prediction algorithm was put through a year-long, full-scale, representative (of the US population), independent clinical trial involving more than 700 women. This was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) at Georgetown University in partnership with a third company, called Cycle Technologies — using a research app, called DOT (Dynamic Optimal Timing), for the purpose of the trial.

Clue says it acquired the assets of DOT — both the algorithm and the app — in summer 2019 and it’s that clinically validated technology which it’s implementing into its own app now, as Clue Birth Control.

“This was a ‘proper’, full scale clinical trial that was designed to be a clinical trial — rather than put a product out there, see if it works and collect the data,” says Walter. “This was done by academics. We then bought the algorithm and the app and we implemented the features of the app into Clue Birth Control which is a feature of Clue.”

“The clinical trial shows you both what the algorithm does and how the user interacts with the app. Because the algorithm is only part of the story — the main part is can a woman understand what’s going on, track and check and then act on the information,” she adds.

The FDA clearance process for Clue Birth Control involved scrutiny of the efficacy of the algorithm’s statistical predictions and also how Clue presents the information to users. So the whole package has been examined by the regulator. (To be clear the DOT app was not FDA cleared; rather Clue implemented that clinically tested algorithm in its own app and submitted the package for FDA clearance.)

“When you get FDA clearance as a medical device that is for a very specific product — you don’t then get to just take it away and tinker with it,” says Walter. “So I’m sure that there will be further iterations. This is iteration one of a new kind of birth control — but as of right now the thing that is going into our app is the thing that FDA saw and cleared. So the only piece… that we put significant creative work into was making sure that the usability interface is totally user tested and safe.”

Going forward, Clue’s business processes will be subject to ongoing regulatory scrutiny — a considerable switch for the startup that Tin describes as a “huge maturing process”.

“Another big part of the work that happened is to live and be a regulated company,” she tells TechCrunch. “That in itself is a very big change and a huge amount of work… So that’s another thing that has to happen. So one thing is what you put out in the market that users see but as a company you really have to operate in a completely new way — it’s a huge maturing process that we have gone through.”

“It feels like the baby can walk and talk and is actually more like a teenager and now it’s like leaving home — and I say you can do this!” she adds when asked what it feels like to see her femtech startup becoming FDA regulated.

Suitability

No method of contraception — except for abstinence — is 100% effective, of course. But just comparing the varying efficacy percentages of different contraception methods may not be super helpful given how personal birth control choices are.

A digital contraceptive certainly has a bunch of pros and cons that need to be considered. And Clue is being up front that its product is not suitable for everyone.

Top line: Clue says Clue Birth Control is only suitable for women, aged between 18-45, who have regular periods. (It also says: Users must also be able to track their period; check the app each day they have sex; and be prepared to use a condom or avoid sex that may result in pregnancy on high-risk days.)

Clearly there are various additional considerations beyond having a regular cycle that potential users should weigh up before signing up. Not least being comfortable with the stated degree of pregnancy risk.

That’s also true of all FABM (fertility awareness based methods) of birth control — including the old fashioned, non-digital/manual-tracking version (sometimes referred to as the rhythm or calendar method). But app-based products like Natural Cycles and Clue Birth Control are undoubtedly making FABM accessible to more women. Which means that communicating — and even enforcing — suitability is a key component of responsible product development in this category.

This is because the level of commitment and attention to detail required to act on changing fertility information makes FABM more complex than some birth control options. An IUD, for example, works without a woman needing to do anything once it’s been inserted. The pill is also more simplistic — in the sense that it only requires a woman to remember to take a tablet daily.

At the same time, it’s clear that hormonal contraception isn’t for everyone — or may not be accessible to everyone (Brayboy points to rising difficulty for US women specifically to access contraception as a relevant point here, for instance). And the convenience of an app-based form of personalised contraception has quickly convinced a new generation of women to try an alternative. (Natural Cycles’ reported some 1.5 million users worldwide last year.)

App-based convenience can invite missteps too, though. After its launch in Europe in 2017 Natural Cycles quickly attracted criticism over misleading and aggressive social media marketing. It was also investigated in Sweden after a hospital in its home market reported a number of unintended pregnancies from women who had been using the app. Although that probe confirmed the number of pregnancies was within the claimed margin of efficacy Natural Cycles agreed with the regulator to clarify the risk of its product failing.

So how digital birth control is presented is a vital consideration.

Clue doesn’t look like it’s taking any risks with how it communicates suitability for Clue Birth Control — prospective users have to go through an eligibility process which requires them to not just say they’re eligible but demonstrate eligibility by being able to provide key information, including about their own cycle.

If the user can’t show eligibility the app will “boot them out”, as Tsang puts it. She says they’ll also then be locked out for a period of time so they can’t just go back in and try different answers. While users whose cycle becomes too irregular for the product to work properly will similarly be prevented from continued use.

“There is a very detailed assessment process as soon as you try to sign up for Clue Birth Control,” she says. “It asks you a series of questions that really even in the questions themselves and how you answer — it’s like a question with a drop-down underneath it — even in how we’ve set those up it makes it so that users actually have to explicitly say that they are eligible. It’s not a true/false kind of situation. It’s ‘how are old are you’?… We ask these explicit questions so what that does is it actually draws the information out of the user in a way where we can be sure that they are actually eligible to use this feature as it is regulated to be used.”

“That process itself was scrutinized in detail by FDA,” adds Walter. “This is a device that you can use in the privacy of your phone — nobody else has to be involved in it — so it’s really important that that funnel is correct and so that is something that we talked about in a lot of detail.

“And one thing that you do need to be aware of is that you’re not going to be able to answer these questions unless you have some awareness of your cycle going in. Because you’ve got to know is your cycle typically this long or this long. What does your longest cycle look like? What’s your shortest cycle look like over the last 12 months?”

“The [FDA] clearance is related to the product as presented. The product — because it relies purely on one data input and statistical predictions — there’s obviously some level of… ‘irregularity’,” Walter adds. “If your periods are wildly unpredictable this isn’t going to work. What our science team says is… about 70-80% of currently cycling women fall within the bandwidth that could be covered by it.

“It’s 20-40 day cycles and 9 days or less of variation between them. So it’s not like you have to know to the day.”

“We know that it’s impossible to be perfect and so we make sure to tell people that typical use is 92% and so we don’t at all try to oversell ourselves. And that this is better than doing many things which are commonly done by users in the US,” says Brayboy.

“The pill and the IUD have very very defined risks,” she adds. “So we essentially explain that we are not as effective as those methods but our users potentially would have benefits because some of them cannot tolerate those methods for whatever reason.”

“Unfortunately a lot of people do rely on coitus interruptus and a lot of people do rely on condoms which are great but you have to use condoms every single time in order to be effective. And so those individuals might really benefit from having some idea of where they are in their cycle and it’s not only some idea — it’s a rigorously looked at algorithm that they can use in the privacy of their home,” Brayboy goes on.

“It’s really getting difficult… for a lot of American women to actually access birth control. One because of job loss; two because of a recent supreme court ruling in 2020 about opting out of contraceptive coverage. And so this is something they can do in collaboration with their healthcare providers but they don’t have to go out to a pharmacy and hopefully people will see that it’s easy to use. It really is easy to use. You never [don’t] leave your phone at home so you can’t lose this contraception.”

Another major consideration for users of digital contraception is that unprotected sex offers no protection against STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) — rates of which have been increasing in the US in recent years.

Clue therefore recommends its product for women who are in stable relationships — and/or are getting regularly screened, along with their partner/s — i.e. rather than for those who don’t know the sexual history of the people they’re sleeping with.

“It was sort of a premise from the beginning that we only want people to use this product for whom it’s really truly a good product,” says Tin. “It’s like we’re building this product because we think many people will benefit from it and we’ve seen many people needing it and so that’s the core. We want to be helpful. We don’t want people to use it for whom it’s not a good solution. And that’s how we’ve built it.”

Asked who the ‘perfect/ideal’ user for Clue Birth Control, Brayboy puts it like this: “This is someone who — as I envisage as a physician — potentially wants to get pregnant in the next couple of years but is not ready and does not want to use hormonal birth control for whatever reason and is already using condoms.

“So this is someone who wants to not get pregnant just now but is preparing, is planning — and they don’t want something that’s long acting.”

She also points out that many of the most effective methods of contraception (“like the levonorgestrel IUD or the Mirena”, which are ~99.9%) have draw-backs too — in that they have to be placed and removed from the woman’s uterus. They may also, she suggests, have a long term effect on the endometrium.

“So [Clue Birth Control] is something where if you decide okay in the next few years you want to get pregnant you absolutely can stop [following the regime] and you can get pregnant. And you also have a better idea of your cycles at the same time — so it gives you that added benefit,” she adds. “Again, our indication’s 18-45 but a lot of people who are in their late 20s and 30s would be ideal candidates for this.”

Tin also points to the “staggering amount of unwanted pregnancies” in the US and around the world — noting that many women currently still don’t use any birth control, for whatever reason. So an app-based fertility prediction might be an alternative that works for them.

Brayboy notes that unintended pregnancy in the US is about 45% but can be as high as 69% in some ethnic groups, per figures from the American College of OBGYN.

“Unintended pregnancy is also hard to study because people don’t typically plan to become pregnant — and so it makes it difficult. But this [app-based FABM] is a way — also people could really think about how do I want to plan my family in the next couple of years? And so it really is a lovely way for people to start really thinking about becoming parents.”

The marketing for Clue Birth Control will reflect that it’s a “serious choice” people are making to opt for a digital birth control, per Tsang.

“We make sure that people understand that no form of birth control is 100% effective. And that this is a choice — and this is a serious choice that they make,” she says. “In our marketing we plan to help people make that choice — make a choice that’s right for them. And be transparent about the risks and how it works and what it means.”

“I would say that we don’t have huge plans to do social media and influencer marketing,” she adds. “But again we do have these standard operating procedures that make sure that we both speak about the labelling, we speak about our product in a way that reflects exactly what it is.”

Retooling to be regulated

The aforementioned changes to Clue’s leadership team are coupled with a wider retooling of its internal processes — reflective of its new status as a regulated company.

“Something that a lot of people aren’t aware of is that to be allowed to have a medical device on the market you have to operate a quality management system that covers your entire company. And as you know if you cover tech startups that’s not how tech startups tend to work!” says Walter. 

“Which is why it’s incredibly important if you’re going to use an app to make important life decisions about your health you want to make sure they’re building their product in a quality controlled way. And of course any app that you find out there on the market that is not a regulated medical device pretty much 100% will not be working in this way. And so one of the things that we had to do — and that we will be audited for once we have the product in the market — is to show that all of our processes, from design over software development, testing, user testing, all of these things are quality controlled every step of the way. So that’s the big change that we’ve gone through in the last two years.”

“It’s a really big change,” adds Tin. “And for us it’s been important to get the team along in a really good way — not lose who we are. We think of it as acquiring a new ninja skill — something new that we’re learning to do that we’re adding to who we are — so that we can still be user focused and maintain all the qualities that we care about and always have cared about but now doing it sort of at a higher level under this quality management system.

“I think it’s very well aligned with who we are because essentially a quality management system’s about quality and risk and care, essentially, for users — and we feel a lot of responsibility putting out a product that help people navigate really big, important things, like getting pregnant, not getting pregnant, so we feel good about making sure that our processes match that level of responsibility. So in that way it’s been easy to get the team along but I will say it’s been a huge amount of work.

“I don’t know how many thousands of pages of technical documentation that we have submitted etc. It’s really like a huge rehaul. So the fact that we can maintain still feeling like Clue while operating in a very new way I’m pretty happy about. Because we could also become very boring — big, corporate-ish — but that isn’t who we are and that’s important because of course we want to keep caring about users.”

For all the extra paperwork, Tsang says Clue’s mission as a company hasn’t — and isn’t — changing.

“It’s just very value-aligned. We’re here to put something out that’s high quality and where we have a clear procedure and clear processes for evaluating risk and mitigating risk. And that’s all completely values aligned with being a femtech company that empowers women to make healthy choices,” she says.

“Nobody is going to go out there and say well we play fast and loose with people’s health. Nobody wants to do that but it helps to have a third party watch you — and that’s what it means to be a regulated company. It means that there are democratically accountable government institutions looking over your shoulder and checking,” adds Walter.

“And I think if you’re looking at some of the criticism that femtech has come into recently — legitimately — because there are all kinds of apps out there that are completely unregulated, no one knows where they’re coming from, no one knows what their business models are, no one knows what they’re really doing. And this is a strong move in the opposite direction.

“We take the constraints that flow from that seriously… As Ida says we’re going to try not to lose our fun in the process.”

The team does also see wider opportunities flowing from being a regulated entity.

“I think this broadens our mission too,” says Brayboy. “Period tracking is really important in overall health but I think this allows individuals to use FABM in a modern way — and FABM itself can help individuals take in things in their cycles that might actually affect their fertility long term and also some diagnosis that might be important to speak with their physician about early, so they present to care early. So we hope to have that partnership with users and their healthcare providers.”

“We don’t have plans to do [comparative studies with other types of contraception] but what I’d like to say is that we have a post-market surveillance plan and we’ll be doing studies with collaborators — we’ve already started to collaborate with academia before Clue Birth Control came out so it’s something that we’ll continue to do,” she also says. “What we’ll be doing in future is we’ll be going to clinical meetings, and presenting and allowing people to collaborate with us. And I think that’s really important that our doors are open for physician scientists and scientists and contraceptive researchers to continue to look at us. And we want to do that because we’re all about science — we’re based on science. And I came to Clue because of that mission.”

“For us it’s also an ability to keep doing more and more advanced things with the data, if you like,” adds Tin. “Which of course is important because people have many needs that if you are to answer them it has to be regulated. It’s right that they’re regulated. Now we learn how to operate as a regulated company — we are operating as a regulated company — that gives us an ability to keep meeting these needs that are deeper.”

Walter also emphasizes the competitive advantage of being a consumer app that’s subject to regulatory surveillance as a medical device — in a sea of unregulated apps.

“A really important thing is that if you look at your average health and fitness app or whatever, their main KPI is let’s get a tonne of users through the door and make money off them. And I’m not going to say we don’t want a tonne of users through the door and to be profitable — we do want that. But because we are regulated we also have this post-market surveillance obligation that we will be audited on. That’s a KPI now. That’s not a nice to have. And I think that’s a big difference. And that’s something that consumers should think about when they’re using an app — like what KPIs are those people working to.

“And you might want to ask yourself what other apps is that developer putting out? Do they have 15 gaming apps and one period tracker? And what’s their business model?”

“And who’s leading the company,” Brayboy chips in. “Look around this Zoom room you can see that we have all potentially had periods and continue to have them and so have had to make these decisions and so I think it puts us in a very unique position because we have a level of empathy and understanding that really comes from a personal space.

“And I wanted to say on the global health [potential] — I’m really excited about that. And that’s another of the reasons why I joined the company because I started my career in the Republic of Mali in West Africa and I saw how difficult it was for individuals to get contraception and a lot of things that are culturally pushed to people in those areas. And so this to me really represents an exciting prospect… I think there’s just limitless possibilities in other countries — we haven’t really thought about the cultural practices and the tendencies that people want to use something that is hormone free.”

Asked about the new co-CEO structure, Tin says it’s a natural continuation of the collaborative leadership style she encouraged at Clue.

“The big two things that Clue is going to care about is being a regulated company and building a sustainable business and I could’t think of two better people than Carrie and Audrey to mind these two parts of the business… We have had a very collaborative leadership style at Clue, always, because that’s how I like doing things — and it feels again also like an upgrade. Now two people get to do this in a pair and I think that’s a really great reflection of what I think is the future of leadership. So on that level it’s also an expression of who we are to choose to have co-CEOs.”

“We’re new at this but it’s been really fun the last couple of weeks but at the heart of it are these values of being disciplined about being transparent,” adds Tsang. “Being collaborative and being equal. And it allows us to hold each other accountable for all of those things which are at at the heart of Clue’s values. So I completely agree with Ida — I’d love to see more leadership look like this moving forward and I personally have been enjoying it quite a bit.”

“Who needs another ‘hero CEO’,” adds Walter. “My starting point was that every conversation I have is actually better when Audrey’s in it — so let’s make my head conversations that way. Let’s upgrade the thinking process to a dialogue. And I think once you accept that most decisions are better made in some form of collaboration — let’s get real, right; we’re not that much of a genius that all of us don’t ever need to talk to other people — so once we accept that then the only question is how do you collaborate?

“As Ida said, we’ve always had a pretty collaborative management team but actually we found that — it’s like in the arts. Where are the most productive, most creative collaborations — they’re in really tight micro teams. And so let’s put that at the heart. And of course there’s a management team and of course there are other expertise and having Lynae in the company is wonderful and having the science component, and data science component, and all of this expertise, but I really like this generative heart of two. This dialogue as being the decision making process. There’s no reason to me why that wouldn’t make us more bold and more thoughtful.”

“I want to second this and maybe it’s also worth saying that I founded Clue together with a bunch of great guys — one of them my life partner, and in a way we have, for many years, also been a very closed pair,” adds Tin. “And working on understanding equality and living from that place and now it’s, in a way, just an even more clear part of the structure. It’s like a good next step on something we’ve been learning about — basically since the beginning of Clue.”

 

Paytm claims top spot in India’s mobile payments market with 1.2B monthly transactions

Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, said on Monday it processed 1.2 billion transactions in the month of February, illustrating the level of penetration it has made in one of the world’s fastest-growing payments markets where it competes with Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Flipkart-backed PhonePe.

Paytm said its users made 1.2 billion transactions last month across several payments modes including wallets, plastic cards, internet banking, and UPI. This is the largest volume of transactions reported by any payments firm in India and Paytm claimed that it has consolidated its leadership position.

A Paytm spokesperson told TechCrunch that the startup clocked over 1 billion transactions in the month of January as well. A PhonePe spokesperson told TechCrunch that its app crossed a billion transactions in December, and its last month’s transacting volume was “over a billion” across UPI, wallet, and credit and debit cards.

Paytm’s figure shows how the SoftBank-backed startup has continued to grow despite not being a dominant player in the UPI ecosystem.

A payments railroad built by a coalition of retail banks and backed by the government, UPI has emerged as the most popular way users transact online in recent years though it does not offer any business model.

Last month, UPI services processed 2.29 billion transactions, the governing body NPCI said on Monday. PhonePe and Google Pay are the dominant UPI players in India, commanding over 85% of the person-to-person payments market. PhonePe processed about 970 million UPI transactions in February. (NPCI has said that it will enforce a market share cap on its member firms.)

Unlike Paytm, which leads among wallet players, and PhonePe, Google Pay and relatively new entrant WhatsApp solely operate on UPI.

Paytm has expanded to cater to merchants in recent years as several international firms launched their offerings to solve person-to-person payments in India. The startup claimed that its service dominates in offline merchant payments and is growing 15% month-on-month. The startup, led by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, said it serves over 17 million merchants. PhonePe told TechCrunch it serves over 17.5 million merchants.

Paytm said it has been “the main driving force behind building and expanding digital villages and now empowers over 6 lakh (600,000) villages in India with digital payments.” The startup said over 50% of its merchant partners have an account with Paytm Payments Bank — the startup’s digital bank — and it also commands the market with its digital wealth management service, Paytm Money.

At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next three years, up from about $200 billion last year, according to Credit Suisse.

“We are humbled by the trust India has shown in us & made Paytm their preferred digital payments & financial service provider. We have consistently maintained industry-leading market share & growing at an impressive rate,” said Narendra Yadav, Vice President of Paytm, in a statement.

“We have been promoting all digital payment methods giving multiple-choices to consumers that have helped us in consolidating our leadership position. In fact, a large percentage of our users who started their digital journey with Paytm, have now adopted & embraced our financial services.”

This Week in Apps: Twitter targets creators, Clubhouse security, Spotify’s plans for paid podcasts

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. A new forecast this week expects consumer spend to grow to $270 billion by 2025.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into what’s next for the future of one of the top social apps (Twitter), as well as Spotify’s latest announcements around its future plans for podcasts and subscriptions, along with other top stories, including the Clubhouse security problem.

Top Stories

Twitter wakes up

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter over the years has been slow to roll out new features that dramatically impact its platform — even going so far at one time to build an entirely separate app just to test a new way to link together conversation threads. Its slow momentum and failure to build features users actually want, like an edit button, has left Twitter feeling a lot like the same experience it was in its earlier years — a public SMS of sorts (albeit one with more utilities for tweet discovery and management).

This has also contributed slow user growth, which opened up Twitter last year to pressure from activist investors to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, who was then planning to move to Africa, while also still running Square. (He decided not to go because of the pandemic… and, well, to keep his job, we’d guess.) Following this more intensive scrutiny of Twitter’s operations, the company in recent months has begun to speed things up on the product front.

Last year, it rolled out to its global audience a stories-like feature called Fleets, offering a place for more ephemeral content to live on its platform. It began development on a Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, which is surging ahead with updates and new features. And it’s working on a community-led misinformation debunking effort, Birdwatch.

Twitter also began to make a series of acquisitions to build out its product teams, with additions like social app Squad, stories template maker Chroma Labs and podcasting app Breaker. And more recently, it bought newsletter platform Revue, which is already integrated on the Twitter website.

And it’s not done. This week, Twitter announced even more new products were in the works.

One, a new product called “Super Follow,” represents Twitter’s first-ever paid feature. The idea with the Super Follow is to turn Twitter into a platform where creators can monetize their fan base — with a “Super Follow” subscription, fans can access member-only perks. These can include whatever the creator wants — newsletters, videos, deals, community access and even paywalled content like tweets, fleets and audio chats in Twitter Spaces.

Along with this, Twitter introduced “Communities,” which, in addition to allowing social networking around interests, give Super Follow-using creators a place to organize their own private networks.

And it’s finally working on tools to auto-block and mute the trolls, too. 🙌

To put it mildly, this strategy represents one of the more radical shake-ups to Twitter’s platform to date. It not only challenges other networks — like Facebook, Discord, Patreon, Substack and Clubhouse — it positions Twitter’s slew of new features not just as fun add-ons, but rather as general-purpose tools that allow anyone to build and grow their own communities whichever way they want.

The one big miss on this front is that Twitter no longer has its own social video app to throw in the mix, too. Sadly, the company shut down both Vine and now, Periscope. Though Twitter itself supports video, Vine’s closure led to a hole in the market that’s since been filled by TikTok. And unfortunately, sharing TikTok links on Twitter is poor experience — they just display as previews that take you to a new TikTok tab when clicked. To get TikTok videos to play in-line, you have to download them first — something not all creators permit.

Nevertheless, Twitter is expecting the changes to help it to double its revenues by 2023, and grow its daily user base to 315 million, up from the 192 million it has today.

Spotify looks to new subscriptions for revenue growth

Image Credits: Spotify/Anchor

Twitter isn’t the only one looking to new subscriptions to make more money. Spotify this week also announced a good handful of updates, including a high-end Premium add-on for higher-quality music streams, called Spotify HiFi.

The company also confirmed its plans to test paid podcast subscriptions. The big bet here is that some podcasts are so compelling and have such a loyal fanbase that listeners will pay for their content, or maybe just their extras. These, of course, will no longer really be “podcasts” at this point — they’re paid audio programs. The feature will be introduced to Spotify’s creation app Anchor this spring.

But overeager adoption of paywalls by podcasters (who can’t make a living from their ad sales) could push more users to new social audio platforms, like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, where content is free and conversations are more participatory. Anchor’s solution for audience engagement is to roll out Q&As and polls. But why bother clicking, when you can hit up a Clubhouse room and talk?

Clubhouse’s exclusivity leads to discovery of security problems

The demand for Clubhouse access is becoming so high that people are figuring out ways to reverse-engineer the experience, TechCrunch reported this week. A developer found a way to broadcast Clubhouse audio feeds in real time to users who couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an invite or an iPhone. Though Clubhouse blocked the effort later in the week, the fact that a developer was able to gain access to Clubhouse audio feeds in the first place was an indication that the app isn’t as locked down as one might think.

In addition, other researchers have figured out ways to “ghost listen” to rooms without displaying user profiles — essentially, eavesdropping. And users in China appear to be able to listen to a room conversation facilitated by Clubhouse’s service provider Agora by using a VPN — even though they can’t technically “join” a room due to the app itself being banned.

Clubhouse’s appeal has a lot to do with how its social audio spaces aren’t recorded, so people can be themselves. There’s an expectation that you are only speaking to a group who’s listening and there’s no way to go back for a transcript or recording later. In other words, it’s not a podcast — it’s live. It’s social. And it’s semi-private.

These security breaches prove that’s not entirely true.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple added guidance for app developers to help them complete App Store privacy labels. Specifically, it added information about data types, like email and messages, and gameplay content. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Google added a privacy label to Gmail this week, too.

Apple’s “Sign in with Apple” button is now a part of the U.S. DoJ antitrust investigation against the company, reports The Information. Apple requires the option on all apps that offer sign-in buttons from other companies, like Facebook and Google, which has upset some developers. Investigators are looking to better understand how use of the button makes it more difficult for Apple device users to switch to other platforms.

Apple Entrepreneur Camp applications opened up for female founders and developers. The camp will run online July 20-29, 2021, offering attendees code-level guidance, mentorship, plus access to Apple engineers.

Apple tweaked the subscription “buy sheet” in iOS 14.5 beta. The new screen aims to make the price of an app’s subscription more clear to end users.

Apple hid an Easter egg in its Apple Store app to celebrate its 10-year anniversary.

Platforms: Google

Google this week announced the next set of features coming to Android in its spring 2021 release. Flagship items include a password checkup tool and a way to schedule your texts (!!!). The latter means you can compose a message at any time, then pick the time you want it to send. iMessage, your turn! Other improvements included updates to the screen reader TalkBack, Maps (which gets a dark mode default option), Assistant and Android Auto.

Google launches an Android Sleep API for use in health and wellness apps. The new API will use the phone’s light and motion sensors in combination with an onboard API model to generate information like a “sleep confidence” determination and daily sleep segments.

Food & Drink

Food delivery app DoorDash stock falls after its first earnings. The company reported $970 million in revenue versus $938 million expected and a loss per share of $2.67. But shares dropped as much as 13% on DoorDash’s forecast, which said some of the earlier tailwinds it saw under stay-at-home orders in the U.S. will turn around as the country gets the vaccine under control.

Food delivery apps got a boost during the Lunar New Year holiday week in China, thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions that kept people at home and prompted more remote gift deliveries, in particular food orders from services like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me.

Augmented Reality

An iPhone app called Museum Alive, reviewed by The Verge, includes narration from Sir David Attenborough as an extension of his Natural History Museum Alive film. The app includes interactive AR exhibits with extinct animals in their own habitats.

Fintech

Mobile investing app Robinhood reports seeing 6 million new customers on Robinhood Crypto just this year. By comparison, the number peaked at 401,000 customers in a single month in 2020, with a monthly average of 200,000 customers trading on Robinhood Crypto for the first time.

Google emailed users of the old Google Pay app and website that they’ll lose transactional capabilities on April 5 and will need to switch to the updated Google Pay app instead.

Social

Image Credits: Snap

At Snap’s investor day, the company projected 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years. The company spoke of the app’s main features — Camera, Map, Chat, Stories and Spotlight — each which it believes to be multibillion-dollar revenues streams in the long-term. It also talked about its investments in AR, Snap Ads, Shows, Stories and its TikTok rival, Spotlight. Investors responded favorably to the news, with shares up 11% on Tuesday, pushing the company’s valuation over $100 billion.

Instagram adds its TikTok rival, Reels, to its slimmed-down Instagram Lite app aimed at emerging markets. Some are already dubbing it “bloatware.”

TikTok partners with Portland Timbers and Thorns FC in its first U.S. soccer deal. The multi-year deal will have the clubs distributing video content in collaboration with TikTok, and will see the clubs featuring the TikTok logo on their jerseys.

TikTok owner ByteDance agrees to $92 million privacy settlement with U.S. TikTok users after a year of litigation. The claims in the lawsuits said TikTok was using a broad array of biometric data and content from user devices for ad targeting and profit. TikTok said it disagrees with the assertions but wanted to put an end to the lengthy litigation.

TikTok’s latest transparency report for H2 2020 said the app removed over 300,000 election misinformation videos, and another 400,000 from the For You page. The percentage of deletions were in line with the prior report, despite the busy election season it covered.

The Washington Post reports conservative backer Rebekah Mercer, whose family also funds Breitbart, now controls two of the three board seats at right-wing Twitter alternative, Parler. The app’s founding CEO John Matze was pushed out last month, and Mercer has since exerted more control over the company’s direction.

Twitter banned 100 accounts linked to Russian troll farms. The accounts were caught up in part of a larger enforcement action Twitter took against 373 accounts with connections to Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Russian accounts were being used to amplify talking points in favor of the Russian government.

Facebook tests new tools to combat child exploitation. One tool will pop up a message for people who use search terms linked to child exploitation that reminds them of the consequences and points them to resources to get help from offender diversion organizations. Another will alert users to the legal ramifications of sharing viral, meme child exploitative content. The company also updated its child safety policies and updated its reporting menu across FB and IG to include a section for a report that “involves a child.”

Top social apps including TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest added new features to support those with eating disorders as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 22-28). Among the changes, TikTok and Instagram added features to encourage body inclusivity; TikTok now redirects some eating disorder searches to point to support resources; Instagram added links to local helplines in Australia, Canada and the U.K.; Pinterest donated credits to encourage people to tune into NED Awareness events; and more.

Photos

Flickr rolled out a widget for both iOS and Android devices. The widget lets you enjoy a rotating selection of photos from Explore on your home screen — great for someone looking for variety, instead of a static home screen.

Messaging / Communications

Telegram adds an auto-delete option for all messages, which lets users automatically delete messages after either 24 hours or seven days. The feature was previously available only for its encrypted Secret Chats. It also added expiring invite links and an option to create broadcast-only groups.

WhatsApp details what will happen when users don’t agree to the privacy changes by the May 15, 2021 deadline. It said for a short time (a few weeks), the users will be able to receive calls and notifications, but won’t be able to read or send messages, to give them more time to agree.

More Google Hangouts users are being migrated over to the Google Chat “preview” experience. The company had said it would split Hangouts into two services, Chat and Meet. The transition began last year, but personal account holders had only been told “early 2021” for their migration date. Early reports (see below) say the new experience is lacking when it comes to video call integration and lack of SMS support.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: YouTube

YouTube announced it will roll out parental control features for families with tweens and teens that will allow them to graduate more safely from the YouTube Kids app to “real YouTube.” Parents will be able grant kids more access through their “supervised” Google Account, then choose from one of of three levels of YouTube access ranging from a selection that’s more tween-friendly to another that’s more appropriate for older teens. By using the account, parents are also agreeing to allow YouTube to collect personal data from the kids — something it couldn’t do in YouTube Kids.

Disney’s adult-friendly Star channel launched outside the U.S. to Disney+ subscribers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The additional channel combines content from Disney Television Studios, FX, 20th Century Studios and 20th Television, and bumps Disney+ price up by a small amount (a few pounds in the U.K., e.g.). Parental controls were also added to block kids from accessing the more adult fare.

South Korean media reported the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has joined Clubhouse, making him the most senior political leader to join the growing app.

Gaming

Image Credits: GameSnacks

Google’s mobile-friendly online games, GameSnacks, developed by its Area 120 in-house incubator, are being integrated into Chrome on iOS and Android Pay in select emerging markets. The HTML5-powered games are a way that Google is routing around app stores, and instead delivering gaming content to users without the associated app store fees. It’s also a more lightweight model for gaming, which helps in some markets where storage space and bandwidth are concerns. The company is experimenting with bringing the games to Google Assistant next.

Chinese mobile games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in $5.8 billion during Q24 2020, up 34.3% from a year ago, and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, per Sensor Tower data. Top titles include big names like Call of Duty (a collaboration between Tencent and Activision) and Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. as well as those from smaller studios such as Mihoyo’s Genshin Impact and Magic Tavern’s Project Makeover.

In the ongoing Epic Games versus Apple legal showdown in the U.S., Epic is now trying to locate former iOS software chief Scott Forstall to testify, after Apple said Forstall didn’t respond to its request to appear.

Meanwhile, a U.K. court blocked Epic Games from challenging Apple’s Fortnite ban. The court said Epic’s lawsuit against Apple would be better to pursue in the U.S., but allowed the suit against Google to continue.

Epic Games is sending players V-Bucks to settle its Fornite loot box class action lawsuit. The settlement is supposed to be for U.S. players only, but Epic is offering the V-Bucks to global players.

Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service, which lets users stream games across platforms including Windows, Mac, Android, web browsers on iPhone and iPad and desktop, has now arrived on Amazon’s Fire TV devices in an expansion of its early access program.

App Annie announces new features to help customers discover gaming launches, as well as measure and visualize performance of games. The features include RPD (revenue per download), Align Apps by Launch, Cumulative Downloads and Cumulative Revenue, and a Soft Launches Report.

A floating gaming toolbar has been found in the code of the Android 12 Developer Preview. Full details are not available but one button is a picture of a game controller while the other is suspected to be some sort of option to record your current gaming session.

Social casino game Coin Master from Moon Active tops $2 billion in lifetime player spending, reports Sensor Tower. The title booked $1.2 billion in 2020 alone, up 122.4% year-over-year, boosted by pandemic boredom and in-game spending.

Zynga is creating its own first-party walled garden for ad tech, due to Apple’s push for app tracking transparency. More companies could do the same, argues Mobile Dev Memo.

Health & Fitness

The New York Department of Financial Services said in an investigative report that Facebook has now taken steps to prevent it from collecting unauthorized data about people’s medical conditions, The WSJ reported. The company had been collecting the data through its SDK installed in numerous apps, then matches the sensitive, personal data to users’ Facebook accounts for ad targeting. One app involved, period tracker Flo, separately settled with the FTC in January over its involvement.

Media

Australia’s ABC News app hit the top of the App Store following the upheaval related to Facebook’s ban of Australian news sources on its platform. The app become No. 1 in News and No. 2 Overall, ahead of Facebook and its other apps, including Messenger and Instagram.

Funding and M&A

💰 YouTuber David Dobrik’s retro photo app raised $20 million in a Series A round led by Spark Capital. The app’s gimmick is that it allows you to snap photos in an old-fashioned camera interface where photos don’t “develop” until the next morning. The TestFlight, capped at 10,000 users, was full within a weekend of launching.

💰 Celebrity video platform memmo raised $10 million Series A, in a round led by Left Lane Capital. The concept is similar to U.S.-based Cameo, but Stockholm-based memmo’s strategy is both global and localized.

💰 Snack, a TikTok-like dating app, raised $3.5 million in a round led by Kindred Ventures and Coelius Capital. The startup was founded by early (Match Group-owned) Plenty of Fish exec Kimberly Kaplan, and targets Gen Z by way of a video feed with likes and comments that lead to DMs.

💰 AI-powered transcription service Otter, available on web and mobile, raised $50 million ($40 million in new funds) Series B. The service got a boost from the pandemic and its Zoom integration.

💰 Spain’s Wallapop raised $191 million at an $840 million valuation for its classifieds marketplace. The funding was led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver. The app was previously going to merge with U.S.-based LetGo, but later shelved those plans. (LetGo instead was bought by OfferUp.)

🤝 Austrian app marketer App Radar acquired Spanish rival TheTool. At the time of the deal, TheTool provided data insights for some 400 app marketing clients. The assets-only deal will allow App Radar to expand its presence across Europe.

💰 Indian edtech startup Doubtnut raised $31 million for its website and app that help students learn math and science. The app lets students take a photo of the problem, then uses ML and image recognition to deliver the answer in the form of short videos.

🤝 Design platform Canva, which works on both web and mobile, acquired Kaleido, the maker of a drag-and-drop background removal service, remove.bg, for photos and videos. It also bought Smartmockups in the Czech Republic, which lets anyone create mockups for t-shirts, mugs and other items.

🤝 Podcast host and ad network Acast bought RadioPublic, a maker of tools for podcasters, including a website maker, marketing tools, and the RadioPublic podcast app. The latter will remain live and the team will stay in the U.S.

💰 Copenhagen-based Podimo, a subscription service for podcasts, raised €11.2 million in funding. The app offers access to over 600 exclusive shows, and shares its revenue from subscriptions with its creators.

❓Beijing-based tutoring app Yuanfudao is said to be raising funding at a $20 billion+ valuation. The funding would follow a prior $2.2 billion round that valued the business at $15.5 billion.

📈 Roblox shares to begin trading March 10. The cross-platform gaming service, which is popular on mobile, has opted for a direct listing instead of an IPO.

Downloads

Quill

Image Credits: Quill

A new Slack competitor, Quill, launched out of stealth this week, TechCrunch reported, with its apps for the web, Mac, Windows, Linux and Android and iOS on mobile. Like Slack, Quill lets co-workers communicate through channels, video and voice. But it also addresses some of the issues Slack overlooks. One, “structured channels,” lets admins enforce threads, for example. It also automatically moves up active conversations, limits notifications, has improved pinning, supports moving threads between channels and places video and chat side-by-side, to name a few. You can even interact with Quill via SMS and email.

ANDY’s apps

Image Credits: ANDY

Andy Allen, former head of Product at WeTransfer, teamed up with Mark Dawson, the lead graphics engineer from Allen’s former prior company Fifty Three, to create a new set of “default” apps with ANDY. That is, the company’s new apps aim to update your basic set — like weather, calculator and timer.

“Most of the default apps haven’t changed over the last 10 years. Yet we’re still using them. I see that as a sign that we’ll still need basic apps like weather, calculator and timer in another 10 years,” notes Allen.

Image Credits: ANDY

What makes ANDY apps different is that they’re built inside a game engine to unlock new experiences that makes them feel more like games themselves. They’re also skinnable, with three skins available at launch and more to come every few months. The apps require a subscription to work — either $14.99/yr for all apps and basic skins or $69.99/yr for all apps plus basic and limited-edition skins, as well as limited-edition collector cards. The company plans to expand its app collection over time.

YouWidget

Image Credits: YouWidget

Spotted this week by the folks at iMore, the new YouWidget delivers a YouTube iOS widget that puts a live video feed on your home screen along with other stats. For YouTubers and fans alike, the app could be useful in helping to track a specific channel’s releases and their other subscriptions. But even if you don’t need live videos, the app offers a widget with statistics for any channel — including subscriber counts, views and video counts.

Daily Crunch: Facebook launches rap app

Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.

This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.

The tech giants

Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn —  If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.

Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.

Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.

AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.

How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.

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 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight

Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

With focus on local business reviews and information, you might think Yelp would be relatively free of the types of misinformation that other social media platforms struggle with. But of course, Yelp reviews are high stakes in their own way, since they can have a big impact on a business’ bottom line.

Like other online platforms, Yelp relies on a mix of software and human curation. On the software side, one of the main tasks is sorting reviews into recommended and not recommended. Group Product Manager for Trust and Safety Sudheer Someshwara told me that a review might not be recommended because it appears to be written by someone with a conflict of interest, or it might be solicited by the business, or it might come from a user who hasn’t posted many reviews before and “we just don’t know enough information about the user to recommend those reviews to our community.”

“We take fairness and integrity very seriously,” Someshwara said. “No employee at Yelp has the ability to override decisions the software has made. That even includes the engineers.”

He added, “We treat every business the same, whether they’re advertising with us or not.”

Yelp trust and safety report

Image Credits: Yelp

So the company says that last year, users posted more than 18.1 million reviews, of which 4.6 million (about 25%) were not recommended by the software. Someshwara noted that even when a review is not recommended, it’s not removed entirely — users just have to seek it out in a separate section.

Removals do happen, but that’s one of the places where the user operations team comes in. As Vice President of Legal, Trust & Safety Aaron Schur explained, “We do make it easy for businesses as well as consumers to flag reviews. Every piece of content that’s flagged in that way does get reviewed by a live human to decide whether it should should be removed violating our guidelines.”

Yelp says that last year, about 710,000 reviews (4%) were removed entirely for violating the company’s policies. Of those, more than 5,200 were removed for violating the platform’s COVID-19 guidelines (among other things, they prohibit reviewers from claiming they contracted COVID from a business, or from complaining about mask requirements or that a business had to close due to safety regulations). Another 13,300 were removed between May 25 and the end of the year for threats, lewdness, hate speech or other harmful content.

“Any current event that takes place will find its way onto Yelp,” acknowledged Vice President of User Operations Noorie Malik. “People turn to Yelp and other social media platforms to have a voice.”

But expressing political beliefs can conflict with what Malik said is Yelp’s “guiding principle,” namely “genuine, first-hand experience.” So Yelp has built software to detect unusual activity on a page and will also add a Consumer Alert when it believes there are “egregious attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews.” For example, it says there was a 206% increase in media-fueled incidents year-over-year.

It’s not that you can’t express political opinions in your reviews, but the review has to come from first-hand experience, rather than being prompted by reading a negative article or an angry tweet about the business. Sometimes, she added, that means the team is “removing content with a point of view that we agree with.”

One example that illustrates this distinction: Yelp will take down reviews that seem driven by media coverage suggesting that a business owner or employee behaved in a racist manner, but at the same time, it also labeled two businesses in December 2020 with a “Business Accused of Racism” alert reflecting “resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee.”

Beyond looking at individual reviews and spikes in activity, Someshwara said Yelp will also perform “sting operations” to find groups that are posting fraudulent reviews.

In fact, his team apparently shut down 1,200 user accounts associated with review rings and reported nearly 200 groups to other platforms. And it just rolled out an updated algorithm designed to better detect and un-recommend reviews coming from those groups.