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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Prototype early, iterate often

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Letting people talk about you

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Prototype early, iterate often

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

Letting people talk about you

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

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

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

Image Credits: Cappuccino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Instagram

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

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

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

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

 

Twilio to become minority owner in Syniverse Technologies with $750M investment

Syniverse Technologies, a company that helps mobile providers move communications across public and private networks, announced an extensive partnership with Twilio this morning. Under the agreement, Twilio is investing up to $750 million to become a minority owner in the company.

The idea behind the partnership is to combine Twilio’s API communications expertise with Syniverse’s mobile carrier contacts to create this end-to-end communications system. Twilio’s strength has always been its ability to deliver communications like texts without having a carrier relationship. This deal gives them access to that side of the equation.

James Attwood, executive chairman at Syniverse certainly saw the value of the two companies working together. “The partnership will provide Syniverse access to Twilio’s extensive enterprise and API services expertise, creating opportunities to continue to build on Syniverse’s highly innovative product portfolio that helps mobile network operators and enterprises make communications better for their customers,” Atwood said in a statement.

Today’s deal comes on the heels of the company’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Segment at the end of last year as it continues to look for ways to expand its markets. Will Townsend, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy who covers the network and carrier markets, sees this deal giving Twilio access to a broader set of technologies.

“Twilio [gets] access to Syniverse’s significant capabilities in massive industrial IoT and private 4G LTE and 5G cellular networking. Both are poised to ramp significantly given new found enterprise access to licensed spectrum via recent C-Band and CBRS auctions,” Townsend told me. He believes this will help Twilio reach parts of the enterprise not connected by WiFI or where the customers are dealing with “a mishmash of solutions that don’t scale or propagate well.”

As it turns out, it’s not a coincidence the two companies are coming together like this. In fact, Twilio has been a Syniverse customer for some time, according to Chee Chew, chief product officer at Twilio.

It’s a case of an old school company like Syniverse, which was founded in 1987 combining forces with a more modern approach to communications like Twilio, which provides developers with APIs to deliver communications services inside applications with just a couple of lines of code.

The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of this deal, is also reporting the company could go public via SPAC at a value of between $2 and $3 billion some time later this year. That would suggest that it has not gained much value since the 2010 deal.

Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, says the SPAC provides an interesting additional component to the deal. “The high flying stock market creates all kind of new chickens, one of the, being a SPAC, and that’s the financial opportunity that Twilio is likely pursuing with the investment into Syniverse. The more immediate benefit is for Twilio to use the messaging vendor for its services. Call it a partnership with investment upside,” Mueller said.

According to Syniverse, “the company is one of the largest private IP Packet Exchange (IPX) providers in the world and offers a range of networking solutions, excelling in scenarios where seamless connections must cross over networks – either across multiple private networks or between public and private networks.”

The company is currently owned by the Carlyle Group private equity firm, which bought it in 2010 for $2.6 billion. Twilio launched in 2008 and raised over $236 million before going public in 2016 at $15 per share. The stock was up 3.82% in early trading, suggesting that Wall Street approves of the deal.

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Istanbul’s Dream Games snaps up $50M and launches its first game, the puzzle-based Royal Match

On the back of Zynga acquiring Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8 billion last year and then following it up with another gaming acquisition in the country, Turkey has been making a name for itself as a hub for mobile gaming startups, and specifically those building casual puzzle games, the wildly popular and very sticky format that takes players through successive graphic challenges that test their logic, memory and ability to think under time pressure.

Today, one of the more promising of those startups, Istanbul-based, Peak alum-founded Dream Games, is announcing the GA launch of its first title, Royal Match (on both iOS and Android), along with $50 million in funding to double down on the opportunity ahead — the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey to date.

While Dream Games will focus for the moment on building out the audience for puzzle games with more innovative ideas, it also has its sights set on a bigger goal.

“We’re building this as an entertainment company,” CEO Soner Aydemir said in an interview, where he described Pixar as a key inspiration not just for size but for quality in its category. “What they did for animated movies, we want to do for mobile gaming. We are focusing on casual puzzle games first because everyone plays these, but we will also move forward with other genres. We want to be a huge interactive entertainment company that builds high quality games.”

The Series A is being led by Index Ventures, with participation also from Balderton Capital and Makers Fund. The latter two backed Dream Games previously, in a $7.5 million seed round in 2019. Index, meanwhile, is a notable VC to have on board: other successful gaming startups it has backed include Discord, King, Roblox, Supercell and Angry Birds maker Rovio.

Interestingly, this is not Index’s first investment in a gaming startup founded by Peak Games alums: in December it led a $6 million round for another Istanbul mobile casual puzzle gaming startup founded by ex-Peak employees: Bigger Games.

Dream Games is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Dream Games raising $57.5 million ahead of launching any games — or proving whether they get any traction — may sound like a risky bet, but there is some context to the story that sets up the odds in this startup’s favor.

The founding team all come from Peak Games, the Istanbul gaming startup that was so nice, Zynga bought it twice — first, in the form of one small acquisition of some specific titles, and then the whole company some years later.

CEO Soner Aydemir is Peak’s former director of product who built the company’s two biggest hits, Toy Blast and Toon Blast. Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam were Peak’s former engineering leads. And Peak product manager Eren Sengul and an ex-Peak 3D artist Serdar Yilmaz round out the rest of the founding team.

(Aydemir notes that the team left and formed Dream Games in 2019, about a year before Zynga’s full acquisition.)

The other indicators that Dream Games is on to something are its metrics for its limited test run of Royal Match.

Royal Match — in which players are tasked with helping King Robert restore his royal castle “to its former glory” by rebuilding it through a series of match-3 levels and obstacles, with new rooms, royal chambers and gardens making up the different levels of the game — was launched first as a limited test on iOS and Android in the U.K. and Canada in July leading up to this launch. In that time, Aydemir said it saw 1 million downloads and 200 daily average users.

“We think the numbers are very promising compared to previous experiences,” he said.

While Aydemir likes to describe Dream as an “entertainment” company, there is a lot of technology going into the product, from the graphics and the mechanics of the puzzles themselves through to the data science behind them.

“If you want to create an iconic game, you need to combine engineering, art and data science together with high quality user acquisition and a strong marketing approach,” he said.

And he believes that when you focus on these it will inevitably lead to quality, which means you no longer have to focus on simply trying to find a hit.

“We don’t like that approach,” he said. “We don’t want to find a hit.”

That was also the mix that Index also wanted to back.

“Building iconic titles requires a harmonious mix of craft, science and flawless execution,” said Index Ventures partner Stephane Kurgan, who led the round together with Index’s Sofia Dolfe. “The Dream Games team has perfected this mix over many years of working together, and has put it on full display in Royal Match. We could not be more excited to work with them in their journey to build the next global casual champion.”

While Dream Games’ long-term ambition is to build out interactive experiences around different audiences and genres, Aydemir said that casual games, and puzzles in particular, have proven to be a huge hit with consumers.

The strength of that trend has up to now meant that puzzle games generally have proven to have more staying power than other genres in mobile games, which have soared in popularity but also somewhat fizzled out.

“Every year we see the bigger market of users growing by 20%,” he said. “It will remain for decades.”

Interestingly, the focus on casual gaming startups in Turkey seems like a perfect storm of sorts. Undeniably, the proven success of Peak has brought in more punters, but it has also shown the way to developers: you can build a successful and global consumer tech startup out of Turkey, and perhaps puzzles — which focus on shapes — are especially good at transcending different language barriers.. Alongside that, Aydemir pointed out that the country is strong on engineers and developers but slim on opportunities with bigger tech companies.

“Mobile gaming is a younger industry, so that presents an opportunity,” he said.

Daily Crunch: Facebook launches rap app

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

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

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

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

The tech giants

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

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

Startups, funding and venture capital

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

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

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

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

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

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

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

Everything else

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

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

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

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

Yelp trust and safety report

Image Credits: Yelp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.

While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.

There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.

Image Credits: Facebook

The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.

Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”

“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.

BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.

TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.

The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has  “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.

However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.

The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.

Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.

Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.

BigCommerce customers can now sell on Walmart’s online marketplace

BigCommerce has partnered with Walmart to allow its customers to sell on the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s ecommerce marketplace, it announced this morning. Shares of Austin-based BigCommerce rose sharply in pre-market trading after the news, gaining around 10% before the bell.

Walmart, best-known for in-person shopping, has proven an ecommerce success story in recent years. For example, in its most recent quarter while Walmart as a whole grew 7.3%, its ecommerce sales advanced 69%.

BigCommerce has also reported strong growth in recent quarters, supported in part by partnerships similar to the one that it announced today. The ecommerce SaaS provider rolled out an integration with Wish last year, for example.

In a call concerning its earnings, which were announced before the Walmart news was announced, BigCommerce CEO Brent Bellm told TechCrunch that his company had been impressed with customer uptake of the Wish integration. Regarding the Walmart partnership, in a second interview Bellm told TechCrunch that it was overdue on the BigCommerce side; given the historical success of the Wish deal, it will be curious to dig into how many of the ecommerce platform’s customers opt to sell on Walmart, and how quickly they do so.

TechCrunch also spoke with Walmart exec Jeff Clementz about the arrangement. He stressed Walmart’s online customer monthly-actives — 120 million, per his company — and the breadth of their demand; BigCommerce customers selling on Walmart could expand its product diversity, helping the traditionally physical retailer possible continue its rapid growth.

The two companies are incentivizing adoption of the deal amongst BigCommerce customers by waiving certain fees for a month for retailers that sign up to sell on Walmart; Clementz described it as the first time that his company had offered a “new-seller discount.”

TechCrunch has had its eye on BigCommerce for some quarters now, thanks in part to its 2020 IPO. But the company is also interesting as its regular earnings results provide a lens into the world of ecommerce growth amongst independent digital retailers. Shopify, a chief BigCommerce rival, provides a similar view into the ecommerce world.

Shopify previously integrated with Walmart in the middle of 2020.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see if the Walmart partnership helps BigCommerce continue its improving revenue growth. The company is in a marketshare race with Shopify. But while BigCommerce’s rival has posted impressive growth from its integrated solutions, like its payments service, the Austin-based company stresses what it calls a more open model. Shopify charges many customers a percentage of their transaction volume for using a third-party payment solution over its own, for example, which Bellm described as a “tax” during an interview.

“Merchant Solutions” revenue at Shopify, which it generates “principally” from “payment processing fees from Shopify Payments,” grew 116% in 2020 to a little over $2 billion.

So with BigCommerce collecting a partnership with Walmart to match Shopify’s own, we’re seeing not merely two ecommerce platforms go toe-to-toe on providing their customers with as much market access as they can, but two different business philosophies compete. Akin to Microsoft Teams and Slack, it’s a competition to spectate.

Emotive raises $50M to make text marketing more conversational

While more businesses are turning to text messages as a marketing channel, Emotive CEO Brain Zatulove argued that most marketers are just treating it as another “newsletter blast.”

“The reason the channel performs so well is it’s not saturated,” Zatulove said. But that’s changing, and as it does, companies will have to do more to “cut through the noise.”

That’s what he said Emotive provides, by enabling text marketing that feels like a real conversation with another human being, rather than just another email blast. He compared it to the sales associate who would greet you when you first walked into a department store, pre-COVID.

“The online sales associate really didn’t exist,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide.”

Emotive saw 466% year-over-year revenue growth in 2020 and is announcing today that it has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round that values the company at $400 million. It was led by CRV with participation from Mucker Capital, TenOneTen Ventures and Stripes.

Emotive screenshot

Image Credits: Emotive

“Never underestimate the importance of building a product that your customers, and your customers’ customers adore,” said CRV general partner Murat Bicer in a statement. “One of the things that struck us about Emotive is the sheer amount of customer love Brian and Zack get from meal delivery services, manufacturing companies and even toddler shoe brands. Small businesses find it easy to set up campaigns and their customers genuinely prefer communicating with someone over text rather than email.”

Zatulove said he founded the company with Zachary Wise after they’d worked together on cannabis loyalty startup Reefer, eventually deciding there was a bigger opportunity here after their early successes with text marketing. He explained that while Emotive works with larger customers, its sweet spot is mid-sized e-commerce businesses on Shopify, Magento, Bigcommerce and Woocommerce.

Since those businesses usually don’t have any salespeople of their own yet, Emotive serves that function. It can start conversations around shopping cart abandonment and promote promote sales and new products, resulting in what the company says are 8% to 10% conversion rates (compared to 1% or 2% for a standard text marketing campaign). Zatuolove said the platform largely relied on human responders at first, and although it’s become increasingly automated over time, Emotive still has an internal team handling responses when necessary.

“We never plan on losing that human touch as part of the dialogue,” he added. “We see ourselves as a human-to-human platform. That’s our biggest differentiator.”

Emotive had previously raised $8.2 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Zatulove said this new round will allow the company to continue developing the product, to grow its headcount to more than 200 people and to open offices in Atlanta and Boston. Eventually, it could also expand beyond texting.

“Longer term, we see ourselves more as a conversation platform, not just as a text message platform,” he said.