08 April, 2012



Stop procrastinating and do your taxes already! (With these mobile apps)

Posted: 08 Apr 2012 08:38 AM PDT

It’s April 8 and I haven’t started on my taxes yet. They’re due in about a week, but a combination of travel, the workload here at VentureBeat, and the general fear of what I owe have kept me from taking the first step.

Thankfully, it’s now easier than ever to tackle my taxes, courtesy of a slew of new mobile tax apps. Computers have simplified taxes beyond the dark days of pen and paper, first with boxed software, then with online solutions that were able to keep information from the previous year’s taxes. But now, if you’re lucky, you can get the job done simply by snapping a photo of your W2 with your phone.


If your taxes are fairly simple, and you normally file a 1040EZ form, then Snaptax is the easiest way to get the ordeal over with. The app lets you snap a photo of your W4 form to instantly populate the relevant information. I tried the app on my forms and all the information, including complicated numbers like my employer’s federal ID, was accurate.

Sure, it doesn’t take much time to fill in your W4 information into a typical tax program or site, but there’s a certain wow factor to being able to file your taxes from your phone. (For an alternative app that works similarly, check out H&R Block at Home 1040EZ.)

Free for iPhone, Android (pay to file federal and state)


If you’re curious about what you owe in taxes, or will receive as a refund, Taxcaster lets you quickly plug in your income and financial situation to get an estimate. It’s certainly not as accurate as a full-fledged tax program, but for a quick guess, it’s enough to steer you away from big purchases until your taxes are done.

Free for iPhone, Android, Amazon Kindle (Also available online)

Turbotax for iPad

If you need something more than SnapTax, Intuit has brought pretty much all of the features of its popular TurboTax desktop software over to the iPad. This year, for the first time, the company is also offering free tax advice through the app via a network of 700 tax specialists.

The app can also import your previous year’s tax information. If you have old tax files stored on your computer, you can import them into the Turbotax iPad app via iTunes.

Free for iPad (pay to file federal and state)


It’s terribly named, but the official IRS app offers a ton of useful features. You can use it to track your return and when you can expect a check, plus you can also request a previous year’s tax return.

Free for iPhone, Android

Other tax apps worth mentioning

EITC Finder (free) will make sure you don’t miss out on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which could grant you up to $5,700 if you make under $49,000. And if you still need time to file your taxes, Easy Extension (free) offers the simplest way to file a tax extension with the IRS.

Tax piggy bank image via Shutterstock

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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What does all the bad press mean for Groupon?

Posted: 07 Apr 2012 12:30 PM PDT

Groupon faced a deluge of bad press and unfavorable comparisons this week following its accounting restatement on March 30. This morning, I searched for Groupon and got this on Google News:

Google News algorithms put the Enron logo next to a story about Groupon
Notice that Google News algorithms put the Enron logo next to a story about Groupon. I think I’ve made the Groupon and Enron comparison myself. In both cases, you had high-flying companies that focused on short-term growth while ignoring the underlying risks of what they were creating.

Delving in to Google News this morning, I found story after story of bad news about Groupon.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Five months after going public with much fanfare, daily deals site Groupon Inc. is facing fresh doubts on several fronts concerning its credibility and long-term viability.

Time wrote:

Groupon's headaches are growing more serious. Just days after an accounting snafu forced the discount website to reveal a greater-than-reported fourth-quarter loss, the company was slapped with a shareholder lawsuit accusing its top executives of a "fraudulent scheme" that "deceived the investing public" about the company's prospects and business. As if that wasn't enough, Groupon's stock hit an all-time low Wednesday and it faces a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In an editorial in the Chicago Tribune titled “Face plant of the day,” the company’s hometown paper was critical, but eschewed the Enron comparison:

Enron revisited?


What matters most is what happens next. Groupon’s executives need to repair their damaged credibility. They need to be forthright and provide a lot more information to allay the legitimate concerns of the investing public. In the filing for its public offering, the company admitted that its management team had “limited experience” with regulatory compliance.

Groupon has a lot of splainin’ to do. We’re hopeful that it will, with authority and integrity, thereby paving the way for more of the growth that Chicago and Illinois so desperately need.

One of the challenges of negative press like this is that Groupon is dependent on cash flow from selling new deals to pay off merchants from old deals.

The right way to think about Groupon is as a currency. Such constant bad press could create a confidence crisis in the Groupon currency. Small businesses who do the most basic due diligence (Google “Groupon”) will see the negative news and refuse to run new deals. It will exacerbate Groupon’s adverse selection problem, meaning only shakier and shakier businesses will run Groupons, increasing Groupon’s refund liabilities. (If you were on the fence about running a Groupon, the bad press will sway you toward not running one.)

Consumers will also stop buying deals. It could also lead payment processors like Chase Paymentech and American Express to terminate their merchant relationships, which would lead to cash-flow issues for Groupon.

If the Groupon currency market were as efficient as bond markets, this news would cause Groupon to collapse overnight like Lehman Brothers. Fortunately for Groupon, the market is not that efficient.

Groupon customers outside of the United States and Canada will also be hurt because Groupon generally holds onto their money until a Groupon is redeemed.

When Groupon collapses, it will cause some serious pain for Chase Paymentech and possibly American Express. I estimate that Chase has at least $500 million in chargeback liabilities if Groupon goes under. But because Groupon doesn’t accurately track which Groupons were redeemed, this liability could be much higher. Any consumer who has purchased a Groupon could claim they didn’t get what they paid for. I called on credit card companies to take a look at their exposure from Groupon months ago in a Bloomberg West appearance.

The biggest losers in a Groupon collapse would be the small businesses who run Groupons. As of the end of the 4th quarter, Groupon owed small businesses $520 million. The real figure is likely at least $100 million higher. These are people who can hardly afford to take a hit of several thousand dollars.

The other potential loser is Ernst & Young, the auditor that signed off on revision after revision of Groupon’s bogus financial statements. (Though I don’t expect Groupon to take down Ernst & Young like Enron took down Arthur Andersen.) I’m not ordinarily one to call for Congressional hearings, but E&Y deserves to be raked over the coals for sanctioning Groupon’s financials.

Oh, and a note to the Los Angeles Times: I fully expected this.

See my worst-case scenario of what happens if Groupon collapses. Also see my collection of Groupon stories following the restatement.

Disclosure: I have investments and several ongoing bets related to Groupon.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org; and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

[Top image credit: Robbi/Shutterstock]

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Why and how Etsy is targeting women programmers

Posted: 07 Apr 2012 10:30 AM PDT

This week, we told you about Etsy’s new grant program to get women into a summer school for hackers.

Marc Hedlund (pictured) is Etsy’s vice president in charge of all things engineering-related, and he’s actually the one who spearhearded the initiative. Hedlund first approached Hacker School co-founder Nick Bergson-Shilcock earlier this year with the idea of providing financial support to women who wanted to attend Hacker School’s intensive summer session.

“Marc’s idea was awesome: Etsy would host and sponsor the next batch of Hacker School and provide scholarships to get as many qualified women into the batch as possible,” Bergson-Shilcock wrote on the Hacker School blog.

The idea isn’t immune from controversy. On aggregation site Hacker News, commenters expressed concerns about the grant program, writing things like, ” I dislike the implicit message being sent by offering money specifically to women to go into engineering/computer science” and “How [is] giving money to women because they are women [not] sexism?”

So, to clarify the grant program’s premise and to get the information straight from the horse’s mouth, we went to Hedlund for a frank chat about why and how Etsy is singling out women for financial aid in their programming educations.

VentureBeat: Why does Etsy think it’s important to specifically reach out to women?

Marc Hedlund: While I’ve seen very small numbers of women in engineering departments elsewhere, it seems like Etsy has both a huge amount to gain from employing female developers who love and use the site, and a great platform with which to recruit women, whether engineers or otherwise. The company has historically had many very strong and talented women working with us, but not enough of them in Engineering and Operations. We felt that we had a better shot at making a meaningful difference on this issue than almost anyone out there, and that in some ways we stood to benefit more, too.

VB: What role to women play in the larger Etsy community?

MH: Women make up the majority of Etsy members, both as buyers and sellers. Hundreds of thousands of women run their businesses on Etsy. Within the company as a whole, we are fairly well balanced. Although the Engineering and Operations teams are mostly male, many of the other teams are heavily female. It’s safe to say that women play a vital part in everything that happens on the site.

I would say that this makes Etsy a great place to begin to address the larger problem across the industry.

VB: What will the summer program be like?

MH: Unlike most schools, there are no grades, teachers, or formal curricula. Instead, Hacker School is entirely project-based. Two of these rules are “No well-actuallys” and “no feigning surprise.” We don’t have these rules to make Hacker School “female-friendly.” We have these rules because we think they make Hacker School human-friendly. We have them because they help remove the ego and fear of embarrassment that so frequently get in the way of education.

Students have written Ruby gems, Python web frameworks, JavaScript libraries, and code in everything from Erlang to Haskell. Everyone writes free and open source software, because it would be antithetical to Hacker School to write code that couldn’t be read, used, and improved by others.

VB: What skill level do you need to apply? What languages do you need to know?

MH: Applicants should love programming. That’s most important. The Hacker School program spends time talking about technical problems and writing code, not working on startups and products.

They look for curiosity, passion, raw intelligence and a desire to build things. The best way to show this is to have a track record of writing code and learning new things.

Hacker School will be selecting female students the same way they’ll be selecting the men. They’re looking for people who are passionate about writing code, playing with technology, and learning in a collaborative, group environment. The Etsy grants will be given based on financial need, which will be determined on the honor code. It’s important to note that Hacker School is free. The scholarship money is meant to cover living expenses. New York City can be pricey!

Image courtesy of James Duncan Davidson, Flickr

Filed under: dev

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What we learned from VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit: history repeats itself in mobile

Posted: 07 Apr 2012 10:29 AM PDT

Executives networking at VentureBeat's Mobile Summit 2012 at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Calif.
Source: Heather Kelly/VentureBeat

Executives networking at VentureBeat's Mobile Summit 2012 at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Calif.

If there’s one big takeaway from our Mobile Summit this week, it’s that mobile is facing all of the problems the web faced in the ’90s.

Consider: security is once again a major concern, now that users have significant amounts of personal data on their phones; mobile shopping is causing traditional retailers to freak out; and the platform war between iOS and Android is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of the Mac versus Windows war.

The screens may be smaller, but the issues aren’t all that different. By keeping that in mind, we can better prepare to tackle the issues facing mobile, and even discover some new opportunities.

And with our next MobileBeat conference coming up in July, we’ll be taking a close look at the lessons learned from the Summit to push the discussion forward even more.

Here are just a few of our revelations from the Summit, and how they remind us of the past:

Mobile shopping: retailers need to adapt, once again

As the Internet began to trickle into homes in the 90s, it finally made sense for companies to host their storefronts entirely online. The Internet economy had its sceptics, as well as its fair share of failures (remember Pets.com?), but it proved to be an unstoppable force once more homes got online and broadband became standard.

At the time, physical retailers were obviously not too pleased to be replaced by virtual storefronts — worries that were validated as plenty of major retailers shut their doors, or massively downsized, over the past decade. But at the same time, retailers that learned to take advantage of the web thrived.

The same story is repeating itself in mobile shopping today, as retailers worry about the likes of PayPal, Google, and apps like ShopSavvy extending their influence into stores.

At the Mobile Summit, we brought together Google's head of mobile Jason Spero, PayPal's mobile head Hill Ferguson, and the founder of NeuAer Dave Mathews to discuss the state of mobile shopping. Not surprisingly, they all saw huge potential in mobile commerce, but they also had some familiar advice for retailers: play to your strengths.

The panelists pointed to high-end retail store experiences like the Apple Store, which offers knowledgeable sales people, the chance to try out products, and (more recently) the ability to check out directly from your phone.

The rise of services like Square, PayPal Here, and Intuit’s GoPayments also enables small businesses to simplify their payments. So while bigger stores take a hit, there could be a new rise of small and local businesses thanks to mobile payments.

Mobile platform wars: it’s Mac vs. PC all over again

When it comes to the current state of mobile platforms, iOS is to Mac, as Android is to Windows.

Apple’s platform is the closed and stylish option that only runs on the company’s hardware, while Android runs on a variety of hardware with fewer restrictions. Just like Windows, this strategy has led to Android dominating smartphone market share, though it means that the overall quality of the OS and its device isn’t as high as Apple’s.

Ironically, Microsoft’s own platform is still too small to compete, but that’s certainly not stopping Microsoft and Nokia from trying. Talk of Windows Phone and Blackberry was noticeably absent from our platform wars panel, but given my own experience with the Lumia 900 (I called it the best $100 smartphone yet in my review), I wouldn’t write Microsoft out entirely yet.

Mobile media: content and ad issues feel familiar

We had two big breakaway discussions surrounding mobile media, but as is the custom at our Mobile Summit, those discussions were off the record. But I can mention some general findings: everyone appears to be struggling with how to best take advantage of mobile devices (in particular, the iPad), as well as how to monetize.

One person mentioned specifically that finding mobile advertisers now feels exactly like trying to sell Madison Avenue agencies on Internet ads in 1999. The Mad men were initially hesitant, but now the web is one of the biggest advertising targets around.

Effective advertiser targeting is one of the biggest advantages that mobile has right now, but attendees at the breakout session were vocal about being transparent with how they target users. They’re more worried about the perception of insecurity than actually breaking the law. And of course, being able to opt out would certainly assuage consumer fears.

With mobile, it’s time to learn from the past

As mobile is on the cusp of the mainstream — a recent Nielsen report found that smartphones now account for 50 percent of all U.S. mobile devices — it’s especially important that we don’t make the same mistakes we did in the past.

That means retailers and traditional media companies need to worry less about how the rise of mobile affects their bottom line, and more about how they can take advantage of the new mediums. And as for the platform wars, it’s a sign that software companies need to keep innovating, and that we shouldn’t count out viable competition like Microsoft with Windows Phone and Windows 8.

Top Photo: Heather Kelly/VentureBeat

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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