Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US

Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

Original Content podcast: Apple’s ‘Ted Lasso’ is all about relentless optimism

Your enjoyment of “Ted Lasso” — a sports comedy that debuted on Apple TV+ last year — will probably depend on how you respond to the titular football coach played by Jason Sudeikis.

As we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, the show’s setup is deliberately over-the-top and ridiculous with Rebecca Walton (Hannah Waddingham) taking ownership of the AFC Richmond football (a.k.a. soccer) team after an acrimonious divorce, then recruiting American football coach Ted Lasso as its new manager, despite his complete ignorance of the game.

Anthony and Jordan found Ted to be charming, and they enjoyed the show’s fish-out-water comedy. Anthony also appreciated some of the more emotional moments later in the season — he’s an easy crier, and “Ted Lasso” definitely made him a little teary-eyed.

Darrell, however, had considerably less patience for the character’s blithe naiveté, comparing it to the similar cluelessness of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” and he gave up on the show quickly.

In addition to reviewing the series, we discuss Martin Scorsese’s feelings about the word “content,” and we have some exciting news about the podcast: This will be our last episode on TechCrunch, as Original Content goes independent! So consider subscribing on your favorite podcast app if you’d like to continue listening. (If you’ve already subscribed, there’s no need to do anything.)

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter.

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:26 Podcast news
5:12 “Content” and Martin Scorsese discussion
20:43 “Ted Lasso” review
47:40 “Ted Lasso” spoiler discussion

TikTok’s China twin Douyin has 550 million search users, takes on Baidu

The advance of short videos is reshaping how information is created, disseminated and consumed online. Snappy 15-second videos aren’t just for entertainment. On Chinese short-video apps Douyin and Kuaishou, people can get their daily dose of news, learn to cook, practice English, hunt for jobs, and seek practically any type of information from the platforms’ quickly expanding content library.

While people are increasingly used to being fed by machine-recommended videos, many users still have the urge and need for active searching. Douyin understood that and incorporated a search function back in mid-2018. More than two years later, the feature reached 550 million monthly active users. There’s still room for Douyin’s search feature to grow, as the app last reported 600 million daily users in September, so its monthly user base should be above that.

Kelly Zhang, the young product manager credited for the rise of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, disclosed Douyin’s search user figure for the first time this week on her microblogging account. Search is a territory that had long been dominated by Baidu in China. As of December, Baidu’s flagship app had 544 million monthly active users, so it’s safe to say as many people are searching on Douyin as on Baidu.

Zhang’s remark is telling of Douyin’s ambition in conquering the online video sector, and eventually how people receive information: “I have said this before: I hope Douyin could become the video encyclopedia for human civilization. Video search is, therefore, the index of the book, the gateway to finding answers and reaping new knowledge.”

She further added that Douyin’s search engine is hiring for research and development, product, and operational roles in the upcoming year (China has just observed the Lunar New Year) as the video app continues to ramp up investment in search capabilities.

Short video platforms are already the second-most popular method for Chinese users to search online, trailing only after general search engines like Baidu and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang said in a report last December. Baidu’s command of search is increasingly limited by the walled gardens built up by Chinese tech titans who block one another from free access to its sites and data. The status quo harms user experience but bodes well for vertical search engines on apps like Douyin and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, and consequently revenues from ad sponsorships.

ByteDance cut its teeth on using machine learning algorithms to recommend content through services like Douyin, TikTok and news aggregator Toutiao. The model proved highly efficient and lucrative, prompting its predecessors from Baidu to Tencent to introduce similarly algorithm-powered content feeds. ByteDance’s move into search, a realm with a longer history, is an intriguing yet natural step. The firm is just completing the puzzle for its digital media empire, giving people another option to find information. Users can receive machine recommendations and subscribe to content creators if they want. They can as well put in a search keyword if they have one in mind, the good old way.

How I Podcast: Election Profit Makers’ David Rees

The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs (the latter of which has become a kind of default during the current pandemic).

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Welcome to Your Fantasy’s Eleanor Kagan
Articles of Interest’s Avery Trufelman

First Draft and Track Changes’ Sarah Enni
RiYL remote podcasting edition
Family Ghosts’ Sam Dingman
I’m Listening’s Anita Flores
Broken Record’s Justin Richmond
Criminal/This Is Love’s Lauren Spohrer
Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale
Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

Everyone knows that politics are like sports, only with, you know, real-world consequences that can directly impact the lives of millions. But why deal in abstractions when you can bet actual money? With Election Profit Makers, co-hosts David Rees, Starlee Kine and Jon Kimball put their money where their mouth is, betting on political outcomes with their hard-earned dollars.

Image Credits: David Rees

As a collector of audio gear (mostly effects pedals, old rim-drive tape machines and 1980s keyboards I’ve modified), I wish I could say my podcasting setup featured equipment that is extremely expensive and hard to come by. I would love to brag about using, say, hand-wired boutique preamps and a rare Soviet condenser microphone I bought at a military auction in Kazakhstan. Nothing would please me more than to share photographs of a massive reel-to-reel tape machine on which I record my ad reads (for “warmth”) before mixing them down on my laptop.

Alas, my podcasting setup is extremely normal. I have a Scarlett two-channel interface I bought at a chain store. I have a Rode microphone because I couldn’t afford a Shure SM7B. I record into GarageBand, which is the spiral-bound notebook of audio interfaces. The only slightly unusual thing about my podcasting setup is that on the rare occasion when I edit an episode I do so in Ableton Live, which I originally bought years ago when I was obsessed with making mashups.

Image Credits: David Rees

The only analog affectation I can claim is a shameful one: My laptop is so old the USB ports seem to be going slack — I’m surprised they don’t have hair growing out of them like old men’s ears — so I have to fix the line from my Scarlett into place using electrical tape.

Election Profit Makers is a podcast about betting on political events using the web site PredictIt.org. (My co-host Jon Kimball made enough money on the 2020 election to buy a new car; I made enough to buy a new tremolo pedal.) The only time we’ve done field recordings was last spring, when Jon and I went on a nerd / comedy cruise in the Caribbean the week COVID hit. We recorded daily dispatches at sea using a Zoom H4N, then wandered around Santo Domingo until we found a university library whose Wi-Fi we could use to upload the files to our co-host and editor Starlee. My phone tells me I walked 24,000 steps that day.

Image Credits: David Rees

Because my podcasting setup is so boring, I have spiced up the photos by including some of my other audio gear in the shots! When the world is ready for cassette-based podcasts saturated in analog delay, I will be more than happy to oblige!

Travel startup GetYourGuide secures $97M revolving credit facility

Many countries hit hard by Covid-19 are beginning to see a glimmer of optimism from the arrival of vaccinations. Now, a promising travel startup that saw its growth arrested by the arrival and persistence of the pandemic is announcing a $97 million financing facility to help it stay the course until it can finally resume normal business.

GetYourGuide, the Berlin startup that curates, organizes and lets travelers and others book tours and other experiences, has secured a revolving credit facility of €80 million ($97 million at current rates). The financing is being led by UniCredit, with CitiGroup, Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank and KfW also participating.

CFO Nils Chrestin said in an interview that the funding will let GetYourGuide come “sprinting out of the gates” when consumers are in a better position to enjoy travel experiences again.

The capital could be used potentially for normal business expenses, for acquisitions or investments, or other strategic initiatives, such as more investment into the company’s in-house Originals tour operations or new services to book last-minute experiences, he added.

And even if a lot of tourism has really slowed down, there are still people taking short-distance trips or buying activities in the cities where they live (and are not leaving). While some metro areas like London are essentially only open for booking well in advance (when the hope is lockdown restrictions might be eased), other cities like Rome or Amsterdam have activities available for booking today.

GetYourGuide’s latest financing news underscores how some startups — specifically those whose business models have not lended themselves well to pandemic living — are getting more creative with their approaches to staying afloat.

GetYourGuide has raised more than $600 million in equity capital since 2009, with its Series E of $484 million in 2019 (before the pandemic) valuing it at well over $1 billion.

But more recently, the startup backed by the likes of SoftBank, Temasek, Lakestar, and others has been shoring up its position with alternative forms of finance.

In October, GetYourGuide closed a convertible note of $133 million. While it has yet to raise the equity round that would covert that note — it could be up to 18 months before another equity round is closed, CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck told me at the time — this latest revolving debt facility is giving the startup another efficient route to accessing money.

Unlike equity rounds (or notes that can convert into equity), revolving debt facilities are non-dilutive, flexible lines of credit, where companies can quickly draw down funds as needed up to the full value of the facility. After repaying with interest, they can re-draw up to the same limit again.

In that regard, revolving debt facilities are not unlike credit cards for consumers, and similarly, they are a sign of how banks rate GetYourGuide, and perhaps the travel industry more generally, as strong candidates for paying back, and eventually bouncing back.

“We are very happy to help GetYourGuide continue its growth trajectory during this extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in”, says Jan Kupfer, head of corporate and investment banking, Germany, at UniCredit, in a statement. “The successful financing also shows once again our unique tech advisory approach, where we combine our deep tech expertise with the broad product range of a pan-European commercial bank.”

“Extraordinary situation” is perhaps an understatement for the rough year that travel businesses have had.

There do remain parts of the industry that have yet to make the leap to digital platforms — experiences, the focus of GetYourGuide, is very much one of them — and that makes for very interesting and potentially big businesses.

But between government-imposed travel restrictions, and people reluctant to venture far, or mix and mingle with others, startups like GetYourGuide have essentially found themselves treading water until things get moving again.

Last October, GetYourGuide said it had passed 45 million ticket sales in aggregate on its platform, but that figure was only up by 5 million in 10 months. As we pointed out at the time, that speaks both to a major slowdown in growth and to the struggles that companies like it are facing, and it is very likely far from the projections the startup had originally made for its expansion before the pandemic hit.

It’s not the only one: air travel, hotels, and other sectors that fall into the travel and tourism industries have largely been stagnating or in freefall or decline this year. Many believe that those who will be left standing after all of this will have to collectively brace themselves for potentially years of financial turmoil to come back from it.

Interestingly, Airbnb presents an alternative reality, at least for the moment. It appears to have captured investors’ attention and since going public in December has been on a steady upswing.

Analysts may say that there hasn’t been a lot of news coming out about the company to merit that rise, but one explanation has been that the optimism has more to do with its longer-term potential and for how tech-savvy routes to filling travel needs will indeed be the services that people will use before the rest.

That could be part of the pitch for GetYouGuide, too. Chrestin said that the company believes that travel in the U.S. market, a key region for the startup, is looking like it might rebound in Q2 or Q3. Yet even if it doesn’t, the company has the runway to wait longer.

Chrestin noted that GetYourGuide has “reinvented internal processes” and is operating much more efficiently now. “If it weren’t for the global hardship this crisis is causing, we would look back and say it was quite transformational,” he said.

“The company is very well capitalized and fully funded to profitability. Even if the current travel volume stayed like this for three years, we would not run out of capital,” he continued. “We have sufficient capital even for that scenario, but we don’t think that will happen.”

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Lupin’ is a twisty delight

The new Netflix series “Lupin” is a loose adaptation of the Arséne Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc, but it’s set in the present day, with a hero who’s inspired by the exploits of Leblanc’s fictional “gentleman thief.”

Through flashbacks, we meet Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) as a young Senegalese immigrant who has recently arrived in Paris with his father. As an adult, he’s transformed himself into an impossible-to-catch thief and master of disguise.

While some of Assane’s schemes have a satisfying clockwork intricacy, others rely more on his willingness to walk into any room and act as if he belongs there. As the series’ five episodes continue (with more to come), Assane is pulled into a mystery around the crime that put his father in prison.

As we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, enjoying “Lupin” requires some suspension of disbelief — Assane’s success depends on both an astonishingly incompetent police force and his ability to disappear in a way that’s hard to imagine in contemporary society. But if you can go that far, the show is a joy to watch, thanks in large part to Sy’s charismatic performance, as well as the character’s delightful confidence and ingenuity.

We open the episode by discussing a very different show with the same setting, “Emily in Paris,” which was recently (and controversially) nominated for two Golden Globes.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Lupin review
0:34 Golden Globe discussion
18:08 Lupin review
34:57 Lupin spoiler discussion

How I Podcast: Welcome to Your Fantasy’s Eleanor Kagan

The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs (the latter of which has become a kind of default during the current pandemic).

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Articles of Interest’s Avery Trufelman
First Draft and Track Changes’ Sarah Enni
RiYL remote podcasting edition
Family Ghosts’ Sam Dingman
I’m Listening’s Anita Flores
Broken Record’s Justin Richmond
Criminal/This Is Love’s Lauren Spohrer
Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale
Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

Eleanor Kagan, Senior Producer, “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” Pineapple Street Studios. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

Launching today from Spotify and Pineapple Street Studios (in association with Gimlet), “Welcome to Your Fantasy” explores the true crime tale behind the Chippendales phenomenon of the 1980s. Historians and “Past/Present” hosts Natalia Petrzela, Nicole Hemmer and Neil J. Young will unravel the tale over the course of an eight-episode series. The show took 18 months to create, bolstered by considerable resources from Spotify. Pineapple Street Senior Producer Eleanor Kagan (Another Round, See Something Say Something and Thirst Aid Kit) runs us through the gear the team used to create the series both in-person and remotely, once the pandemic hit. 

Dancer Scott Layne walks host Natalia through one of his routines during an interview. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

For in-person interviews not recorded in Pineapple’s Brooklyn studio, my basic reporting kit includes a Zoom H5, which has two XLR channels and allows me to give one Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic to the host Natalia and the other to the interviewee. (On mic stands, of course — the mic itself is prone to handling noise.) I’ve got a Rode pistol grip for when we, say, knock on doors in the neighborhood of the former Chippendales club in LA, looking for people who had been around when the party scene at the club was supposedly causing wars between the owners, neighbors and the police. (Luckily, we found Naomi, 94, who had been there since 1972 and had stories for days. She’s in the podcast.) Christine showed me how she brilliantly uses a cross-body camera strap attached to her recorder so she can hang it comfortably around her. For gear bags I used to swear by the Lowepro Passport Sling, but now that I’m older (lol), one-strapping isn’t comfortable for a long day in the field, so I use a regular backpack. My kit also includes Sony MDR-7506 headphones, an assortment of three- and six-foot XLR cables (always have backups), a deadcat, extra SD cards, an Electro Voice RE50/B mic, pens, snacks, release forms and batteries. So many batteries.

Producer Christine records historian Neil describing the LA neighborhood where the original Chippendales club opened. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

Then the pandemic hit. We all went on lockdown. We had done most of our interviews but there were a few we still needed, plus all the host tracking for the series. So we shipped Natalia a kit: a Zoom H6, a Shure SM7B cardioid dynamic announcer microphone, a CloudLifter CL-1 Microphone Activator, a broadcast arm, XLR cables and a windscreen. Natalia set up shop in her closet, surrounded by clothes, a fleece blanket on the floor, and as many cushions as she was willing to pull off her couches and chairs. (Sound bounces off of hard surfaces. The soft materials absorb it so the recordings won’t sound echoey or “roomy.”) We sent our amazing engineer Hannis Brown mic tests so he could diagnose the set-up from afar and suggest tweaks. And Natalia, bless her, was incredibly game to essentially become her own recording engineer ON TOP OF hosting an entire show. We quickly got accustomed to doing everything remotely and over Zoom, as all of us everywhere did.

Natalia’s closet studio. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

When it came to remote interviewing, we would connect over Zoom, and both Natalia and our interviewee would record themselves. (We always recorded the Zoom as a backup too.) It was up to us producers to talk our interviewees through self-syncing. Experience and teamwork was of the utmost importance here. Interviewees only had so much time, and explaining how to set up a recording on a smartphone (or iPod!, yes, really) and transfer a test recording quickly, and then troubleshooting any audio problems in their location was important to getting a high-quality interview without taxing anyone’s patience. There are several useful guides and graphics out there that walk through the set-up. There’s something a little bit lost, of course, when we don’t get to walk into people’s homes for interviews, or even when former Chippendales dancers can’t produce their original costume in the middle of the interview — as one guy did. But everyone was incredibly kind and patient and willing to do this for us, for which we are very, very grateful.

In the end, we interviewed about 70 people for this series. We wrote 26 drafts of our first episode. We reviewed 100+ hours of archival footage. And I believe there are still more stories to be told when it comes to Chippendales.

Thankfully, no matter where in the world anyone is, we have the tools to do it.

Nigeria’s IROKO plans to go public on the London Stock Exchange AIM in 2022

IROKO, a Nigerian-based media company, could file to go public in the next 12 months on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) Alternative Investment Market.

Founded by Jason Njoku and Bastian Gotter in 2011, IROKO boasts the largest online catalog of Nollywood film content globally.

According to this report, the media company will raise between $20 million and $30 million valuing the company at $80 million to $100 million

In October 2019, Njoku hinted that the company was going public either on the London Stock Exchange or a local exchange on the continent. However, the CEO kept mute about the whole process the following year due to how tumultuous it was for the company.

In 2020, the company had plans to increase its average revenue per user (ARPU) in Africa for its video-on-demand service, iROKOtv, from $7-8 to $20-25. Through the first four months of the year, it seemed IROKO was set to achieve that. But amid pandemic-induced lockdown fears, consumer discretionary spending reduced in Nigeria and other African markets. What followed was a 70% drop in subscription numbers, and in May, 28% of the company’s staff went on unpaid leave. But unlike the numbers iROKOtv local markets put up, its international subscribers grew 200% during the lockdown, hitting a $25-30 ARPU range.

However, more bad news came in August when the CEO announced that the company was laying off 150 people. Njoku cited the naira devaluation, regulatory onslaught by the country’s broadcast regulator, and a reduced outbound marketing team as reasons behind this decision.

With the company spending $300,000 or more every month on growth, it decided to halt any scaling efforts on the continent. IROKO instead focused on its international market, primarily the U.S and the U.K where it has been able to execute a 150% price increase from $25 per year to $60 per year. Njoku said to this decision set the company straight leaving it in a stronger cash position than it had been for years.

“The costs of pursuing Africa growth is what was really resized dramatically. We were so focused on defending Africa and basically ended up doing nothing. Zero marketing or anything to drive that,” he told TechCrunch. “We pulled back to focus on where our economics actually makes sense. Our international business organically grew double-digit in 2020 and we expect it to continue this way for the foreseeable future.”

IROKO isn’t entirely giving up on the African market, instead, think of it in stealth mode. Due to its dominance over the past eight years as one of the strongest independent SVOD companies in Africa, it is hard not to see the company in pole position to benefit from any improvements made on the continent.

That said, IROKO makes 80% of its revenue outside Africa and listing on a foreign exchange will help consolidate its efforts. For Njoku, the Nigerian Stock Exchange or other local exchanges do not have a history of listing early-stage tech companies; therefore, the London Stock Exchange makes more sense in the short term.

IROKO is also seeking a market cap of about $100 million, which is small for the primary market. This is why the media company is choosing to list on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the LSE. A sub-market of the LSE, the AIM is built specifically for small-cap companies. Still, there are plans in the future for IROKO to progress to the main market as its valuation grows — something U.K sports betting company, GVC and online fashion retailer, ASOS have done in the past.

Most companies when going public, tend to raise more money than their private equity days. But it’s quite different with IROKO. The company which secured around $30 million in total with its last priced round (Series E) in January 2016, plans to raise less or a similar amount when going public in 2022. In what seems like a down round, I asked Njoku why the company isn’t planning to raise more?

“We don’t need more. To be honest, $10 million to $15 million will be for corporate development; the rest will be secondaries for shareholders. As a private company, IROKO’s valuation was never priced above $70 million so anything in our target range wouldn’t be a down round at all,” he said. “Especially if you consider in that time we exited ROK for close to the total amount of capital we raised for IROKO; we have returned $11 million to early investors and shareholders already. We still have material capital left from the ROK-Canal+ acquisition coming in every 6 months until 2023.”

When IROKO sold ROK Studios to Vivendi-owned Canal+ in July 2019, the terms of the deal remained undisclosed. But from the CEO’s statement, an estimate of the acquisition could be around $30 million. What’s particularly impressive is that the proceeds from the deal likely sustained the company through a rough patch in 2020 and might well do so after its IPO in 2022

Joining IROKO in plans to go public within the next two years is Interswitch, a Nigerian-based payments company valued at $1 billion. But unlike Interswitch, which was founded in 2002, IROKO has been operating for just 10 years. Within that time, the only internet company to have gone public is Jumia, and it did so after seven years. IROKO is expected to achieve this feat in its 11th year of operation and Njoku, who holds an 18% stake in the company, believes it’s enough time to take the next step.

“What we can achieve in private, we can equally achieve as a public company. We will likely open up the IPO to our loyal members too so they can capture the value too, which I am super excited about. One thing about IROKO is that we have always been pioneers and we’re okay being super experimental. I plan to open-source the entire process so any other African company coming behind — if we’re successful — will benefit from our experience,” he said of the journey ahead. 

Original Content podcast: Pixar’s ‘Soul’ offers a lively visit to pre-pandemic New York

For the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we looked back at “Soul,” which was released on Disney+ at the end of last year.

The new Pixar film tells the story of Joe Gardner, a high school music teacher and jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe seems to be on the verge of his big break when he accidentally falls down an open manhole, sending him to a distinctly Pixar-ish twist on the afterlife, and eventually on a metaphysical quest to return to his body before an important concert..

Anthony has been wanting to talk about “Soul” for a while — it was easily his favorite movie of 2020, but he watched it right after we recorded our discussion of the best streaming content of 2020.

And if you’re worried that this is nothing more than 40 minutes of praise, well … you’re not entirely wrong. Both of us liked it a lot, appreciating both its vibrant (and in retrospect, melancholy) portrayal of New York City life before pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, as well as its inventive portrayal of the worlds our souls go to before we’re born and after we die. (It was so inventive that Jordan had to wonder whether any unusual substances may have been involved in its genesis.)

Still, we did acknowledge some of the criticism of “Soul,” particularly certain viewers’ disappointment that even though it’s the first Pixar film with a Black protagonist, Joe actually spends a large portion of the film as a disembodied blue spirit — entertaining from a story perspective, but not quite an unambiguous victory for representation.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:20 “Soul” review
18:35 “Soul” spoiler discussion

Todd Rundgren is about to launch a geofenced virtual tour

The idea of a virtual concert tour might seem tailor-made for the pandemic, but musician Todd Rundgren said he’s actually been thinking about something like this for years.

Rundgren told me that he’d become frustrated with our “collapsing” air travel system — exacerbated by hurricanes and climate change — that increasingly left him “sitting somewhere, unable to get to my next gig.” So he was already convinced that he needed to “start imagining other ways” to reach audiences.

But it was in the context of COVID-19 that Rundgren finally decided to make it happen, with his Clearly Human Tour kicking off on February 14. He’d been planning for a traditional tour, but the dates kept getting pushed back due to the pandemic, until he finally told the organizers, “You have to let me do this. I can’t be committed to you and go two years without touring.”

Rundgren and his band will be performing entirely from Chicago, where they’ll play songs from across his career, as well as the entirety of his album “Nearly Human.” But the tour is taking place virtually across 25 U.S. cities, starting in Buffalo on February 14 and ending on March 22 in Seattle.

Rundgren said he found this more appealing than the idea of performing “one show and then blast it out to everybody.”

“People plan weeks or months in advance for this particular event, it attracts people from all over the metropolitan area or a particular region,” he said. “It’s a social event as much as anything else, and that’s what we are trying to do with the localization.”

That means performing live shows at 8 p.m., according to whatever the local time zone might be. Rundgren said the band will also try to “self-hypnotize” to get into the proper spirit: “We’ll dress all the walls with posters, sports team memorabilia … We’ll get food flown in from familiar local eateries.”

Other features include virtual meet and greets with local fans, as well as placing video screens around the concert venue to display virtual audience members. (There are a limited number of in-person tickets for sale as well, but obviously those attendees will need to be in Chicago.)

The concerts will be geofenced, although Rundgren said the approach has evolved — it’s less about limiting the Buffalo concert to Buffalo attendees, and more about enforcing geographic restrictions based on Rundgren’s contractual obligations. Or as he put it, “It’s less about enclosing an audience, and more about fencing them out.”

Clearly Human poster

Image Credits: Todd Rundgren

Rundgren is staging the tour with support from NoCap, the livestreaming concert startup founded by musicians Cisco Adler and Donavon Frankenreiter. NoCap has been around for less than a year, and Adler said that while it sold 700 tickets for its first show, it’s now selling “30, 40, 50 thousand tickets” per show. And he predicted that virtual concerts won’t be going away when the pandemic ends.

“There are all these underserved markets that you can visit once every five years, if that,” he said. “The future of this becomes a hybrid model.”

After all, he noted that televising sports has only made them “bigger and more global.” Similarly, when Adler was thinking about livestreaming concerts, he said, “I didn’t look at it as: How do we build a Band Aid and help everyone through this gap? It was more: How do we build a bridge to the other side of what music can be?”