State AGs tell Facebook to scrap Instagram for kids plans

In a new letter, attorneys general representing 44 U.S. states and territories are pressuring Facebook to walk away from new plans to open Instagram to children. The company is working on an age-gated version of Instagram for kids under the age of 13 that would lure in young users who are currently not permitted to use the app, which was designed for adults.

“It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the coalition of attorneys general wrote, warning that an Instagram for kids would be “harmful for myriad reasons.”

The state attorneys general call for Facebook to abandon its plans, citing concerns around developmental health, privacy and Facebook’s track record of prioritizing growth over the well being of children on its platforms. In the letter, embedded below, they delve into specific worries about cyberbullying, online grooming by sexual predators and algorithms that showed dieting ads to users with eating disorders.

Concerns about social media and mental health in kids and teens is a criticism we’ve been hearing more about this year, as some Republicans join Democrats in coalescing around those issues, moving away from the claims of anti-conservative bias that defined politics in tech during the Trump years.

Leaders from both parties have been openly voicing fears over how social platforms are shaping young minds in recent months amidst calls to regulate Facebook and other social media companies. In April, a group of Congressional Democrats wrote Facebook with similar warnings over its new plans for children, pressing the company for details on how it plans to protect the privacy of young users.

In light of all the bad press and attention from lawmakers, it’s possible that the company may walk back its brazen plans to boost business by bringing more underage users into the fold. Facebook is already in the hot seat with state and federal regulators in just about every way imaginable. Deep worries over the company’s future failures to protect yet another vulnerable set of users could be enough to keep these plans on the company’s back burner.

Tesla supplier Delta Electronics invests $7M in AI chip startup Kneron

Despite a persistent semiconductor shortage that is disrupting the global automotive industry, investors remain bullish on the chips used to power next-generation vehicles.

Kneron, a startup that develops semiconductors to give devices artificial intelligence capabilities by using edge computing, just got funded by Delta Electronics, a Taiwanese supplier of power components for Apple and Tesla. The $7 million investment boosts the startup’s total financing to over $100 million to date.

As part of the deal, Kneron also agreed to buy Vatics, a part of Delta Electronics’ subsidiary Vivotek, for $10 million in cash. The new assets nicely complement Kneron’s business as the startup extends its footprint to the booming smart car industry.

Vatics, an image signal processing provider, has been selling system-on-a-chip (SoC) and intellectual property to manufacturers of surveillance, consumer, and automotive products for many years across the United States and China.

Headquartered in San Diego with a development force in Taipei, Kneron has emerged in recent years as a challenge to AI chip incumbents like Intel and Google. Its chips boast of low-power consumption and enable data processing directly on the chips using the startup’s proprietary software, a departure from solutions that require data to be computed through powerful cloud centers and sent back to devices.

The approach has won Kneron a list of heavyweight backers, including strategic investor Foxconn, Qualcomm, Sequoia Capital, Alibaba, and Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures.

Kneron has designed chips for scenarios ranging from manufacturing, smart homes, smartphones, robotics, surveillance and payments to autonomous driving. In the automotive field, it has struck partnerships with Foxconn and Otus, a supplier for Honda and Toyota.

Following the acquisition, Vatics executives will join Kneron to lead its surveillance and security camera division. The merged teams will jointly develop surveillance and automotive products for Kneron going forward. Image signal processors, coupled with neural processing units, are helpful in detecting objects and ensuring the safety of automated cars.

“This acquisition will allow us to offer full-stack AI solutions, along with our current class-leading NPUs [neural processing units], and will significantly speed up our go-to-market strategy,” said Kneron’s founder and CEO, Albert Liu.

For Trump and Facebook, judgment day is around the corner

Facebook unceremoniously confiscated Trump’s biggest social media megaphone months ago, but the former president might be poised to snatch it back.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, an external Supreme Court-like policy decision making group, will either restore Trump’s Facebook privileges or banish him forever on Wednesday. Whatever happens, it’s a huge moment for Facebook’s nascent experiment in outsourcing hard content moderation calls to an elite group of global thinkers, academics and political figures and allowing them to set precedents that could shape the world’s biggest social networks for years to come.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Trump’s suspension from Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack. It was initially a temporary suspension, but two weeks later Facebook said that the decision would be sent to the Oversight Board. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in January.

Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, a former British politician, expressed hope that the board would back the company’s own conclusions, calling Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”

Trump inflamed tensions and incited violence on January 6, but that incident wasn’t without precedent. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police, President Trump ominously declared on social media “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a threat of imminent violence with racist roots that Facebook declined to take action against, prompting internal protests at the company.

The former president skirted or crossed the line with Facebook any number of times over his four years in office, but the platform stood steadfastly behind a maxim that all speech was good speech, even as other social networks grew more squeamish.

In a dramatic address in late 2019, Zuckerberg evoked Martin Luther King Jr. as he defended Facebook’s anything goes approach. “In times of social turmoil, our impulse is often to pull back on free expression,” Zuckerberg said. “We want the progress that comes from free expression, but not the tension.” King’s daughter strenuously objected.

A little over a year later, with all of Facebook’s peers doing the same and Trump leaving office, Zuckerberg would shrink back from his grand free speech declarations.

In 2019 and well into 2020, Facebook was still a roiling hotbed of misinformation, conspiracies and extremism. The social network hosted thousands of armed militias organizing for violence and a sea of content amplifying QAnon, which moved from a fringe belief on the margins to a mainstream political phenomenon through Facebook.

Those same forces would converge at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 for a day of violence that Facebook executives characterized as spontaneous, even though it had been festering openly on the platform for months.

 

How the Oversight Board works

Facebook’s Oversight Board began reviewing its first cases last October. Facebook can refer cases to the board, like it did with Trump, but users can also appeal to the board to overturn policy decisions that affect them after they exhaust the normal Facebook or Instagram appeals process. A five member subset of its 20 total members evaluate whether content should be allowed to remain on the platform and then reach a decision, which the full board must approve by a majority vote. Initially, the Oversight Board was only empowered to reinstate content removed on Facebook and Instagram, but in mid-April began accepting requests to review controversial content that stayed up.

Last month, the Oversight Board replaced departing member Pamela Karlan, a Stanford professor and voting rights scholar critical of Trump, who left to join the Biden administration. Karlan’s replacement, PEN America CEO Susan Nossel, wrote an op-ed in the LA Times in late January arguing that extending a permanent ban on Trump “may feel good” but that decision would ultimately set a dangerous precedent. Nossel joined the board too late to participate in the Trump decision.

The Oversight Board’s earliest batch of decisions leaned in the direction of restoring content that’s been taken down — not upholding its removal. While the board’s other decisions are likely to touch on the full spectrum of frustration people have with Facebook’s content moderation preferences, they come with far less baggage than the Trump decision. In one instance, the Oversight Board voted to restore an image of a woman’s nipples used in the context of a breast cancer post. In another, the board decided that a quote from a famous Nazi didn’t merit removal because it wasn’t an endorsement of Nazi ideology. In all cases, the Oversight Board can issue policy recommendations, but Facebook isn’t obligated to implement them — just the decisions.

Befitting its DNA of global activists, political figures and academics, the Oversight Board’s might have ambitions well beyond one social network. Earlier this year, Oversight Board co-chair and former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt declared that other social media companies would be “welcome to join” the project, which is branded in a conspicuously Facebook-less way. (The group calls itself the “Oversight Board” though everyone calls it the “Facebook Oversight Board.”)

“For the first time in history, we actually have content moderation being done outside one of the big social media platforms,” Thorning-Schmidt declared, grandly. “That in itself… I don’t hesitate to call it historic.”

Facebook’s decision to outsource some major policy decisions is indeed an experimental one, but that experiment is just getting started. The Trump case will give Facebook’s miniaturized Supreme Court an opportunity to send a message, though whether the takeaway is that it’s powerful enough to keep a world leader muzzled or independent enough to strike out from its parent and reverse the biggest social media policy decision ever made remains to be seen.

If Trump comes back, the company can shrug its shoulders and shirk another PR firestorm, content that its experiment in external content moderation is legitimized. If the board doubles down on banishing Trump, Facebook will rest easy knowing that someone else can take the blowback this round in its most controversial content call to date. For Facebook, for once, it’s a win-win situation.

 

Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

Gatheround raises millions from Homebrew, Bloomberg and Stripe’s COO to help remote workers connect

Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.

A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.

“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.” 

So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.

“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”

Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.

The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.

Image Credits: Gatheround

Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.

All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.

Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky. 

Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle. 

The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.

“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.

Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.

“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”

He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”

“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.” 

James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.

“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”

The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.

“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”

Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft  launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”

What3Words sends legal threat to a security researcher for sharing an open-source alternative

A U.K. company behind digital addressing system What3Words has sent a legal threat to a security researcher for offering to share an open-source software project with other researchers, which What3Words claims violate its copyright.

Aaron Toponce, a systems administrator at XMission, received a letter on Thursday from a law firm representing What3Words, requesting that he delete tweets related to the open source alternative, WhatFreeWords. The letter also demands that he disclose to the law firm the identity of the person or people with whom he had shared a copy of the software, agree that he would not make any further copies of the software, and to delete any copies of the software he had in his possession.

The letter gave him until May 7 to agree, after which What3Words would “waive any entitlement it may have to pursue related claims against you,” a thinly-veiled threat of legal action.

“This is not a battle worth fighting,” he said in a tweet. Toponce told TechCrunch that he has complied with the demands, fearing legal repercussions if he didn’t. He has also asked the law firm twice for links to the tweets they want deleting but has not heard back. “Depending on the tweet, I may or may not comply. Depends on its content,” he said.

The legal threat sent to Aaron Toponce. (Image: supplied)

U.K.-based What3Words divides the entire world into three-meter squares and labels each with a unique three-word phrase. The idea is that sharing three words is easier to share on the phone in an emergency than having to find and read out their precise geographic coordinates.

But security researcher Andrew Tierney recently discovered that What3Words would sometimes have two similarly-named squares less than a mile apart, potentially causing confusion about a person’s true whereabouts. In a later write-up, Tierney said What3Words was not adequate for use in safety-critical cases.

It’s not the only downside. Critics have long argued that What3Words’ proprietary geocoding technology, which it bills as “life-saving,” makes it harder to examine it for problems or security vulnerabilities.

Concerns about its lack of openness in part led to the creation of the WhatFreeWords. A copy of the project’s website, which does not contain the code itself, said the open-source alternative was developed by reverse-engineering What3Words. “Once we found out how it worked, we coded implementations for it for JavaScript and Go,” the website said. “To ensure that we did not violate the What3Words company’s copyright, we did not include any of their code, and we only included the bare minimum data required for interoperability.”

But the project’s website was nevertheless subjected to a copyright takedown request filed by What3Words’ counsel. Even tweets that pointed to cached or backup copies of the code were removed by Twitter at the lawyers’ requests.

Toponce — a security researcher on the side — contributed to Tierney’s research, who was tweeting out his findings as he went. Toponce said that he offered to share a copy of the WhatFreeWords code with other researchers to help Tierney with his ongoing research into What3Words. Toponce told TechCrunch that receiving the legal threat may have been a combination of offering to share the code and also finding problems with What3Words.

In its letter to Toponce, What3Words argues that WhatFreeWords contains its intellectual property and that the company “cannot permit the dissemination” of the software.

Regardless, several websites still retain copies of the code and are easily searchable through Google, and TechCrunch has seen several tweets linking to the WhatFreeWords code since Toponce went public with the legal threat. Tierney, who did not use WhatFreeWords as part of his research, said in a tweet that What3Words’ reaction was “totally unreasonable given the ease with which you can find versions online.”

We asked What3Words if the company could point to a case where a judicial court has asserted that WhatFreeWords has violated its copyright. What3Words spokesperson Miriam Frank did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

DigitalOcean says customer billing data accessed in data breach

DigitalOcean has emailed customers warning of a data breach involving customers’ billing data, TechCrunch has learned.

The cloud infrastructure giant told customers in an email on Wednesday, obtained by TechCrunch, that it has “confirmed an unauthorized exposure of details associated with the billing profile on your DigitalOcean account.” The company said the person “gained access to some of your billing account details through a flaw that has been fixed” over a two-week window between April 9 and April 22.

The email said customer billing names and addresses were accessed, as well as the last four digits of the payment card, its expiry date, and the name of the card-issuing bank. The company said that customers’ DigitalOcean accounts were “not accessed,” and passwords and account tokens were “not involved” in this breach.

“To be extra careful, we have implemented additional security monitoring on your account. We are expanding our security measures to reduce the likelihood of this kind of flaw occuring [sic] in the future,” the email said.

DigitalOcean said it fixed the flaw and notified data protection authorities, but it’s not clear what the apparent flaw was that put customer billing information at risk.

In a statement, DigitalOcean’s security chief Tyler Healy said 1% of billing profiles were affected by the breach, but declined to address our specific questions, including how the vulnerability was discovered and which authorities have been informed.

Companies with customers in Europe are subject to GDPR, and can face fines of up to 4% of their global annual revenue.

Last year, the cloud company raised $100 million in new debt, followed by another $50 million round, months after laying off dozens of staff amid concerns about the company’s financial health. In March, the company went public, raising about $775 million in its initial public offering. 

Alchemy raises $80M at a $505M valuation to be the ‘AWS for blockchain’

Blockchain developer platform Alchemy announced today it has raised $80 million in a Series B round of funding led by Coatue and Addition, Lee Fixel’s new fund. The company previously raised a total of $15.5 million, so the latest financing brings its total raised to $95.5 million since it launched in 2017.

The latest round caught our attention for a few reasons.

First, the company, which describes itself as the backend technology behind the blockchain industry, went from public launch to a $505 million valuation in a matter of just eight months. During that time, Alchemy says it powered over $30 billion in transactions for tens of millions of users all over the world. Second, the startup says it also already powering the majority of the NFT industry.

And finally, its investors in the round include a high-profile mix of institutions and individuals such as DFJ Growth, K5 Global, the Chainsmokers, actor Jared Leto and the Glazer family (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United). They joined existing backers including Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, Pantera Capital, Coinbase, SignalFire, Samsung, Stanford University, Google chairman and Stanford University President John L. Hennessy, Charles Schwab, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and others.

Sources with inside knowledge of Alchemy’s operations tell TechCrunch that the company has already grown its business more than eightfold since it signed the Series B term sheet. They also said Alchemy had over $300 million of investor demand wanting to enter the round and is being inbounded to do another financing at “many times” the current valuation.

TechCrunch talked with Alchemy co-founders Nikil Viswanathan (CEO) and Joe Lau (CTO) about the raise and their passion for the startup’s mission was clear. As is its explosive growth.

“We realized that in order for space to thrive and build to its full potential, we needed to build a developer platform layer for blockchain,” Viswanathan told TechCrunch.

Alchemy’s goal is to be the starting place for developers considering to build a product on top of a blockchain or mainstream blockchain applications. Its developer platform aims to remove the complexity and costs of building infrastructure while improving applications through “necessary” developer tools.

The startup powers a range of transactions across nearly every blockchain vertical, including financial institutions, exchanges, billion-dollar decentralized finance projects and multinational organizations such as UNICEF. It has also quickly become the technology behind every major NFT platform, including Makersplace, OpenSea, Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and CryptoPunks.  

“Every time you open DoorDash, you’re using Amazon’s infrastructure,” Lau said. “Every time you interact with an NFT, you’re using Alchemy. It’s being powered by Alchemy underneath the hood.”

While the pair would not provide hard revenue figures, the company – which operates as a SaaS business – says it increased its revenue by 600% in 2020.

For inside players, Alchemy’s efforts are paving the way for the whole industry. 

“The cryptoeconomy is innovating faster than any technological movement that came before it, and Alchemy has been a key driver of that,” said Coinbase President and COO Emilie Choi. “Alchemy enables developers to build the rich ecosystem of applications necessary for mainstream blockchain adoption.”

Pantera Capital’s Paul Veradittakit describes Alchemy as “the Amazon Web Services (AWS) of the blockchain industry” that is “enabling the vision of a decentralized web.”

“While in Web 2.0, Microsoft, Apple and AWS are three of the most valuable companies in the world because they are the developer platform powering the computer and internet industries, Alchemy is primed to do the same for the blockchain,” he said.

The company believes the comparison to AWS is fair, noting that: “Just as AWS provides the platform that powers Uber, Netflix and much of the technology industry, Alchemy powers infrastructure for many large players in the blockchain industry.”

Alchemy plans to use its new capital to expand its developer platform to new blockchains, fuel global expansion and to open new offices in the U.S. and globally. The startup is based in San Francisco and is planning to open an office in New York.  

“We are going to use the funds to support new chains with our developer platform,” Viswanathan said. “We also expect to 5x the team this year.”

But to be clear, Alchemy prides itself on being lean and mean.

“We just went from 14 to 22 employees,” Lau said. “We have intentionally wanted to keep the team as small as possible.”

The blockchain space has been the subject of increased investor interest as of late.

In March, BlockFi, which describes itself a financial services company for crypto market investors, announced it had closed on a massive $350 million Series D funding that valued it at $3 billion. Also last month, Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis company, revealed the close of $100 million in Series D financing, which doubled its valuation to over $2 billion.

Social networking app for women Peanut adds live audio rooms

Mobile social networking app for women, Peanut, is today becoming the latest tech company to integrate audio into its product following the success of Clubhouse. Peanut, which began with a focus on motherhood, has expanded over the years to support women through all life stages, including pregnancy, marriage and even menopause. It sees its voice chat feature, which it’s calling “Pods,” as a way women on its app can make better connections in a more supportive, safer environment than other platforms may provide.

The pandemic, of course, likely drove some of the interest in audio-based social networking, as people who had been stuck at home found it helped to fill the gap that in-person networking and social events once did. However, voice chat social networking leader Clubhouse has since seen its model turned into what’s now just a feature for companies like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Discord, and others to adopt.

Like many of the Clubhouse clones to date, Peanut’s Pods offer the basics, including a muted audience of listeners who virtually “raise their hand” to speak, emoji reactions, and hosts who can moderate the conversations and invite people to speak, among other things. The company, for now, is doing its own in-house moderation on the audio pods, to ensure the conversations don’t violate the company’s terms. In time, it plans to scale to include other moderators. (The company pays over two dozen moderators to help it manage the rest of its app, but this team has not yet been trained on audio, Peanut notes.)

Though there are similarities with Clubhouse in its design, what Peanut believes will differentiate its audio experience from the rest of the pack is where these conversations are taking place — on a network designed for women built with safety and trust in mind. It’s also a network where chasing clout is not the reason people participate.

Traditional social networks are often based on how many likes you have, how many followers you have, or if you’re verified with a blue check, explains Peanut founder CEO Michelle Kennedy.

“It’s kind of all based around status and popularity,” she says. “What we’ve only ever seen on Peanut is this ‘economy of care,’ where women are really supportive of one another. It’s really never been about, ‘I’ve got X number of followers.’ We don’t even have that concept. It’s always been about: ‘I need support; I have this question; I’m lonely or looking for a friend;’ or whatever it might be,” Kennedy adds.

In Peanut Pods, the company says it will continue to enforce the safety standards that make women feel comfortable social networking. This focus in particular could attract some of the women, and particularly women of color, who have been targeted with harassment on other voice-based networking platforms.

“The one thing I would say is we’re a community, and we have standards,” notes Kennedy. “When you have standards and you let everyone know what those standards are, it’s very clear. You’re allowed an opinion but what you’re not allowed to do are listed here…Here are the things we expect of you as a user and we’ll reward you if you do it and if you don’t, we’re going to ask you to leave,” she says.

Freedom of speech is not what Peanut’s about, she adds.

“We have standards and we ask you to adhere to them,” says Kennedy.

In time, Peanut envisions using the audio feature to help connect women with people who have specific expertise, like lactation consultants for new moms or fertility doctors, for example. But these will not be positioned as lectures where listeners are held hostage as a speaker drones on and on. In fact, Peanut’s design does away with the “stage” concept from Clubhouse to give everyone equal status — whether they’re speaking or not.

In the app, users will be able to find interesting chats based on what topics they’re already following — and, importantly, they can avoid being shown other topics by muting them.

The Pods feature is rolling out to Peanut’s app starting today, where it will reach the company’s now 2 million-plus users. It will be free to use, like all of Peanut, though the company plans to eventually launch a freemium model with some paid products further down the road.

Mailchimp moves into e-commerce

Over the course of the last few years, Mailchimp morphed from a basic newsletter platform to a fully-fledged marketing company. And while the service already offered integrations with a number of e-commerce sites, it is now launching its own online stores for small and medium businesses, as well as a new appointment booking service.

These new services will be part of MailChimp’s new ‘Websites & Commerce’ plans, which starts with a free tier that offers most of the basic functionality. Users on the free plan will pay a 2% transaction fee. For $10/month, Mailchimp will remove its own branding and users will get access to email and chat support and only pay a 1.5% transaction fee, while those who opt for the ‘Plus’ plan at $29/month will only pay a 0.5% transaction fee per order.

All plans will let users build sites with unlimited pages and without bandwidth restrictions, and include SEO tools and integration with Google Analytics. As for the stores, users will be able to build their product catalogs and manage their orders, taxes and shipping configurations. All of this, as well as the appointments functionality, is obviously deeply integrated with the rest of the Mailchimp stack.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

These new plans are currently in beta and the new e-commerce features will become available to all Mailchimp customers in the U.S. and UK by May 18, while the appointments booking feature will go live for all users on April 27.

This addition of built-in commerce features marks a major step in Mailchimp’s evolution. But it also makes sense. The company says about 40% of its customers over fourteen million customers are in the commerce space already and many of them have been asking for more native commerce features. Almost 30% of its users are also using its existing commerce features and integrations and the company saw its revenue for e-commerce customers grow 61% from 2019 to 2020.

Since Mailchimp already offers websites, domains and other adjacent services, adding these new features feels like a natural next step, whether that’s selling directly from a Mailchimp store or taking appointment bookings for a service business.

The company stresses that while it is entering a new space, it is not walking away from its existing products and customers. “Rest assured, we’re not abandoning our smart marketing solutions,” Mailchimp CEO and co-founder Ben Chestnut writes in today’s announcement. “In fact, our goal is still to have the best email marketing in the world. We know our customers and partners demand consistency and continuity as much as they demand new features and functionality, so we’re refining and nurturing existing tools, too. We continue to work on making the process of designing emails as easy as possible, and in a few months we’re adding new beautiful email templates.”

Image Credits: Mailchimp