Maverick leverages deepfakes for real e-commerce connection

In a world full of mass messages, trying to be different and send out 20,000 personalized messages can be pretty daunting.

Maverick Lab, a business-to-business personalized video messaging startup, aims to help e-commerce entrepreneurs send more personalized messages using deepfakes.

Deepfake tech isn’t new. Debarshi Chaudhuri, co-founder of Maverick, told TechCrunch that companies like Bonjoro, Vidyard and Tavus have developed video technology in this space and are considered competitors.

However, he points out that these companies offer features, for example, where someone manually records each video, that are focused on sales only or personalization is “like showing a slide with your name.”

Instead, Maverick is focused on the e-commerce niche, which Chaudhuri says has some more specific needs, especially once a company scales past a certain number of orders per day. In addition, the company decided to go with humans rather than avatars like others are doing.

“We think it works best when the real person is behind the brand and the message is augmented for the customer name,” he added. “In addition, videos are driving revenue, so you are investing in not just content creation, but data analytics attribution and how these videos perform compared to other content.”

Customers record a 30-second video once, and the company’s technology uses the voice samples to generate thousands of videos that are personalized to each customer using deep learning models and audio/video processing techniques.

It can be any message, for example, a “thank you,” something to win them back or welcome them as a new customer, Maverick co-founder Eitan Winer said. The founders are seeing return on investment anywhere between $10 and $40 for every dollar by sending out the videos, which are typically used to address abandoned carts, first-time conversions and loyalty campaigns.

“We just need a voice sample, an automated notification and know when to send a video,” he added. “Customers can integrate it into their shopping platform and send us a notification when someone places an order. After that, they can set it and forget it.”

The company also built an analytics and attribution platform so that brands can understand what engagement looks like with these videos and how much revenue is being driven by them.

The market for personalized marketing was likely to grow 40% more in revenue for those who use it versus those who didn’t, according to a 2021 McKinsey report.

Chaudhuri and Winer are seeing some of that growth already since founding Maverick a year ago. The company has a few dozen paying customers already, many of whom have stuck around since Maverick launched, and has sent out 200,000 personalized videos to date.

Maverick’s approach has also turned some investor heads. The company closed on a $2.7 million round of seed funding in March led by Signia Venture Partners. Joining them was participation from Global Founders Capital, Unpopular Ventures, Hack VC and a group of angel investors that included founders and executives from companies like Benchling, Shogun, Pocket Gems, Salesforce, AppLovin, Made Renovation, Dover, Memmo and Ebates.

The company is building out its team, which currently has found people and is doubling down on product and growth. Continuing to add to the workforce is what Winer says will be the near-term focus as well as onboarding customers and product development.

“We want to show them as much value as possible,” he added.

Maverick leverages deepfakes for real e-commerce connection by Christine Hall originally published on TechCrunch

Russia’s App Store lost nearly 7K apps since its invasion of Ukraine, but some Big Tech apps remain

The Russian App Store has lost 6,982 mobile apps since the start of the Ukraine invasion, as numerous companies have now pulled their apps and games from Apple’s iPhone and iPad App Stores in the country, according to data shared with TechCrunch by app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

To date, those apps had been downloaded around 218 million times in Russia, representing a little over 3% of their total 6.6 billion global lifetime installs. Amid the widespread exits, several Big Tech companies’ apps continue to rank highly on the Russian App Store, though the Top Charts currently are filled with VPN apps.

While Apple routinely removes outdated and abandoned apps from its App Store, the Russian App Store app removals post-invasion (February 24 through March 14) represent a 105% increase in the number of apps removed from the store when compared with the first two weeks of February 2022 (February 1 to 14). During that earlier period, Russia’s App Store had seen only 3,404 app removals — a figure that was in line with the number of apps pulled from Apple’s App Stores in other markets, including the U.S., where 3,422 apps were removed. These pre-invasion app removals were likely related to Apple’s ongoing cleanup efforts, Sensor Tower noted.

Russia is not the only country being impacted in this way. Many publishers also removed their apps and games from the App Store in Belarus, Russia’s neighbor and ally. That country has now seen a loss of 5,900 apps since the invasion’s start — a figure that increased by 73% when compared with the 3,418 apps removed from February 1-14.

By comparison, other app markets had seen smaller increases in app removals, perhaps also related to Apple’s App Store maintenance efforts.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

As a result of Russia’s decision to wage war against Ukraine, the country has been cut off from the global economy as the U.S. and its allies coordinated to enact broad economic sanctions. Large companies have also stopped doing business in Russia, including some of the world’s best-known brands, like McDonald’s, Apple, Microsoft, Disney, IKEA, H&M, Adidas and Starbucks, as well as payments giants Visa, Mastercard and Amex, among others.

In some cases, the Russian App Store removals are related to those big brand exits. For instance, Coca-Cola pulled its iOS loyalty and rewards-focused app out of the Russian App Store, as the company recently vowed to suspend its business in Russia. Retailers like H&M and American Eagle Outfitters also pulled apps, along with Ebates’ shopping platform ShopStyle.

In sports, apps from the NFL, NBA, WWE and Eurosport have disappeared from the Russian App Store following the invasion. Also gone are health apps from MyFitnessPal, Kaiser Permanente, and numerous smaller fitness, meditation and yoga apps. Of these, MyFitnessPal had been fairly popular in Russia, having seen some 4.2 million installs to date, including those across both iOS and Android.

Mobile gaming giants leave Russia

Games are the largest category seeing removals in Russia and represent some huge departures. The Russian App Store has lost a number of top games from publishers including Zynga, Supercell, Take-Two (Rockstar Games), and others — many of which have publicly announced their exits.

For instance, Supercell on March 9 tweeted that, in response to the ongoing war, “new downloads are halted and access for existing players will be suspended with the next update. The company’s games that were pulled from the App Store in Russia included Brawl Stars, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale and Hay Day. These are sizable exits — Clash of Clans alone has seen 36 million installs across both iOS and Android to date in Russia, for example.

Rockstar Games pulled over a half dozen titles from its Grand Theft Auto series, among others. Its parent company, Take-Two, had announced its intentions to exit Russia on March 7, noting it had watched the events unfolding in Ukraine with “concern and sadness.” It said it would stop new sales, installations, and marketing in both Russia and Belarus.

Zynga, meanwhile, said on March 8 it’s been watching the events in Ukraine with “great concern” and would exit Russia and Belarus as well as donate to relief organizations. The publisher has now pulled dozens of its casual games from those countries’ App Stores, including many bigger titles like Farmville 3, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, Empires & Puzzles, Solitaire, Zynga Poker, and others from its 2020 acquisition, Rollic Games.

Netflix has also delivered on its promise to leave Russia with the removal of its streaming app in the country. Dating apps Bumble and Badoo are gone, too. Bumble (Badoo’s parent) said during its Q4 2021 earnings on March 8 that it would leave both app stores in Russia and Belarus. The combined revenue it saw from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was approximately 2.8% of total Bumble annual revenue in 2021, the company added.

Other notable removals from the Russian App Store include Amazon’s IMDb, travel app Trivago, The Weather Channel (IBM), Playtika and Big Fish Games (games), Hily’s dating app, Citizen, DAZN sports live streaming, AllTrails, and Google Home. (AllTrails had not yet released a public statement, but told TechCrunch it has now “indefinitely suspended” services in Russia. “We stand with the people of Ukraine, and refuse to associate with Russia as they wage this tragic war,” the company said.)

In terms of removal by categories, the types of apps that have seen the largest number of removals from the Russian App Store include those in Games, Productivity, Utilities, Music, Business, Education and Health. As a point of reference, more than 860 games were removed across impacted App Stores, including those in Russia, Belarus and, to some extent, Ukraine. (Only a handful were pulled in the latter, however.)

Tech giants’ apps still top the charts

However, not all tech giants have fully exited Russia’s App Store at this time.

Microsoft on March 4 announced it was halting all new sales of products and services in Russia and has since pulled apps like Solitaire, Majong, Wordament and, notably, Minecraft from the Russian App Store. But still ranking at the top of the Productivity charts in Russia are Microsoft’s Word, Office, Excel, Powerpoint, Teams and Outlook, per Sensor Tower data. (See below).

Image Credits: Sensor Tower. Russian App Store’s Top Charts for Productivity apps on March 15, 2022.

Microsoft is not alone. Google took several actions against Russia, including the suspension of its advertising business in the country, but its productivity apps are still available in Russia. Currently ranking highly on the Top Productivity apps chart are Google’s Docs, Sheets, Slides, Assistant, Calendar, Drive, One and Keep, for instance.

Adobe, too, committed to leaving Russia, saying on March 4 it would “halt all new sales” of Adobe products and services in Russia, “effective immediately.” It also said it would terminate access to Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Document Cloud and Adobe Experience Cloud for all Russian state media outlets and pledged money toward the refugee and humanitarian aid.

In the days since, Adobe has pulled some of its apps from the Russian App Store, like Photoshop and Illustrator, but others remain available for download, including a top-ranked productivity app, Adobe Reader. It’s currently at No. 9 in the Top Productivity apps chart.

Microsoft, Google and Adobe did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Social apps still highly ranking, despite blocks

At present, Russia’s Top Chart for its overall App Store is pointing to apps that no longer work or where content is heavily restricted.

On Monday, Instagram was blocked in Russia, impacting 80 million users. But the app still ranks at No. 34 overall in the country today, as it wasn’t actually removed from the App Store. (That means users can still download the app, but can’t access the service, except, perhaps, via a VPN). Russia has also restricted other social media, including Facebook and Twitter, while TikTok suspended users’ ability to livestream and post new content in Russia and has blocked all non-Russian content.

But TikTok is still ranking well, as the No. 18 overall app on Russia’s App Store, followed by YouTube at No. 27. YouTube, like other platforms, has banned Russian state media outlets and paused advertising and payments.

But VPNs dominate the Russian App Store’s Top Charts

The downranking of these social apps can only partly be attributed to the bans and restrictions. Another factor is the VPN apps, which now dominate the Top Charts.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

The top 10 VPN apps collectively reached 4.2 million installs from February 24 through March 13, up 2,286% from the prior period, when the top 10 apps hit about 176,000 installs, Sensor Tower data indicated. The firm noted it also saw apps like Cloudflare’s and Psiphon appear in the Top 10, though the app dubbed isn’t only a VPN; it advertises privacy and security, which likely appeal to Russian users at this time.

ShopBack, a cashback startup in Asia Pacific, raises $45M from Rakuten and others

ShopBack, a Singapore-based startup that offers cashback and consumer rewards in Asia Pacific, has closed a $45 million round led by new investors Rakuten Capital and EV Growth.

Founded in 2014, the startup had been relatively under-the-radar until late 2017 when it announced a $25 million investment that funded expansion into Australia among other things. Now, it is doubling down with this deal which sees participation from another new backer, EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board. Shopback has now raised close to $85 million from investors, which also include Credit Saison Blue Sky, AppWorks, SoftBank Ventures Korea, Singtel Innov8 and Qualgro.

The investment will see Amit Patel, who leads Rakuten-owned cashback service Ebates, and EV Growth managing partner Willson Cuaca, join the board. Cuaca is a familiar face since his East Ventures firm, which launched EV Growth alongside Yahoo Japan Capital and SMDV last year, was an early investor in Shopback, while the addition of Patel is potentially very significant for the startup. Indeed, when I previously wrote about ShopBack, I compared the startup directly to Ebates, which was bought by Rakuten for $1 billion in 2014.

Ebates brings operating experience in the cashback space,” Henry Chan, ShopBack co-founder and CEO told TechCrunch in an interview.

“A lot has changed in the last year and a half, Ebates has a very strong focus on the U.S… given that we’re not competing, it makes sense to partner and to learn,” he added.

The obvious question to ask is whether this deal is a precursor to a potential acquisition.

So, is it?

“It is squarely for learning and for growth,” Chan said in response. “It makes sense for us to partner with someone with the know-how.”

ShopBack operates in seven markets in Asia Pacific — Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia and Indonesia — with a core rewards service that gives consumers rebates for spending on areas like e-commerce, ride-hailing, food delivery, online travel and more. It has moved offline, too, with a new service for discovering and paying for food which initially launched in Singapore.

ShopBack said it saw a 250 percent growth in sales and orders last year which translated to nearly $1 billion in sales for its merchant partners. The company previously said it handled $400 million in 2017. It added that it typically handles more than 2.5 million transactions for upwards of seven million users.

(Left to right) Henry Chan, co-founder and CEO of ShopBack, welcomes new board member Amit Patel, CEO of Rakuten -owned Ebates [Image via ShopBack]

Chan said that, since the previous funding round, ShopBack has seen its business in emerging markets like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines take off and eclipse its efforts in more developed countries like Singapore. Still, he said, the company benefits from the diversity of the region.

Markets like Singapore and Taiwan, where online spending is more established, allow ShopBack to “learn ahead of time how different industries will develop” as the internet economy matures in Southeast Asia, Chan — who started the company with fellow co-founder Joel Leong — explained.

Outside of Southeast Asia, Chan said that ShopBack’s Australia business — launched nearly one year ago — has been its “most phenomenal market in terms of growth.”

“We’re already superseding incumbents,” he said.

ShopBack claims some 300,000 registered users in Australia, where it said purchases through its platform have grown by 1,300 percent between May 2018 and March 2019. Of course, that’s growth from a tiny initial base and ShopBack didn’t provide raw figures on sales.

For its next expansion, ShopBack is looking closer to home with Vietnam its upcoming target. The country is already home to one of its three R&D centers — the other two are located in Singapore and Taiwan — and Chan said the startup is currently hiring for a general manager to head up the soon-to-launch Vietnam business.

Already, though, the company is beginning to think about reaching beyond Asia Pacific. Chan maintained that the company already has a proven playbook — particularly on the tech side — so it “can enter a Western market” if it chooses, but that isn’t likely to happen in the immediate future.

“We could [expand beyond Asia Pacific] but we have a fair bit on our plate, right now,” said Chan with a laugh.