15 May, 2012




Startup Clinic: Don’t write too much code before you have a customer

Posted: 15 May 2012 09:01 AM PDT

Browsemob has worked out some interesting economics but its marketing visuals are off the mark.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of VentureBeat columns by award-winning author and serial entrepreneur Penelope Trunk. She’s going to be our startup critic: She’ll review new companies, point out what they’re doing right, and give them advice (which she’s never shy about anyway) for how they can improve. Her first company is Browsemob.

Browsemob is a site that lets you tell a retailer what you'd be willing to pay for an item they sell.

If you go to Browsemob’s site, the first thing you see is a photo of a woman who looks excited in a touching-herself way.

So look, this is the first sign that there is no one on the management team who knows about marketing. Because in any book about body language, a woman touching herself means, "I want you."

The "I want you" picture, together with the name Browsemob, makes the site look like it's a matching site for hot women and the unruly mobs of boys who want to hire those women for something that will turn out badly, like a Duke lacrosse party.

It's just not good.

But I give the site the benefit of doubt, because it’s about the customer setting the price. I like this because I do tons of coaching and I'm always trying to figure out the right price. I charge $250 for an hour and I get annoyed when I am coaching a millionaire, because I think I should have added a few more zeros. But I also feel bad when I price myself too high for struggling college students. Those are fun people to coach. I am excited for Browsemob to show me how to price my own services.

The problem is that Browsemob is about economics. The founders have identified an inefficiency in the marketplace: There are, I don't know, ten days when a retailer knows they will discount a product but they have not yet done so. During that window, there is a possibility to sell the product at a smaller discount.

There is a lot of math involved in figuring out this inefficiency and optimizing it. But the bottom line is that there is a ton of inefficiency in the world that is not worth confronting, and this is unfortunately an example.

Matt Hurewitz, a founder of Browsemob, is really nice. He lets me cut him off four hundred times. Every time he tells me about the economics I tell him that I'm sure the economics are right. I'm sold. No one is solving the problem he's talking about and he can solve it. I got it.

I want to know: Can he get any large retailer to care enough about this market inefficiency enough to sign up for his site?

No. The answer is no. He only has this beauty product company that is masquerading as a sex shop on his home page.  This will not propel his company to success.

You need a big retailer to succeed, I tell him.

He says he knows.

I say, no retailer will care enough about the problem you are proposing to solve. What did the Gap say?

He says that the Gap said that integration with Browsemob would need to be very sophisticated and…

Wait. What?

He repeats the word “sophisticated,” and I repeat to him that there is no way anyone is going to take the time to make changes in their discounting system in order to save a minuscule amount of money for their company.

This is how our conversation goes: I am obnoxious and impatient. He is nice and sweet. This reminds me that math guys are not good at pitching companies, but they are very good for dating. They are patient and honest. Good qualities. But I digress, and anyway, if you are wondering, he's married. So we are back to the company.

The code is already written. A lot of it. I want to tell you something: Don't do this. Don't write code before you know what you're going to use it for. This company is a perfect example.

Obviously there is a market inefficiency in discounting systems. There is money left on the table. It's up to Matt to show that companies actually care that he can solve this problem.

So, before he writes all the code to solve the problem, he should go to a company and get them to sign up. He can give them a demo that sort of works but only takes about ten minutes to code, in HTML. The prospective customer won’t care, because they are making a business decision, not a coding decision. Once he has got a company signed up, then he can start coding to solve the real customer’s real problem.

You need to look at your startup idea. If the hardest part of the business is showing that the code can work, then you need to write the code first. For instance, if you are trying to allow ten billion people to tweet simultaneously, you’re not going to get very far unless you have already written code that makes that possible. But in most cases, people believe you can write the code and the hardest part of the business is something else. Do that hardest thing first, before you spend time writing the code.

In this case, Matt should cut a deal. Get a company to sign a letter of intent to use the software to unload almost-on-sale items. Then he has reason to believe it's worth building the software.

Another thing: Don't pitch for news coverage if you can't use it. Save PR for when you need more customers or when you need investors. Right now, all Browsemob needs is someone from a large retailer who cares about the problem they are solving. What it needs is to close a sale.

Matt did say something interesting, though. He said he got the idea for this company from his friend who asks for a discount everywhere. He said his friend gets discounts almost every time, at least a few dollars, from stores of all sizes

I say the friend is totally annoying.

Matt says he knows. But maybe this site can give everyone the ability to ask for those discounts without being annoying. 

That's a good vision: It’s fun, and it promises something good in the end. I don't think he's really on the right path yet, but really, all startups are about pivots, so in case he pivots to the point where you can haggle with impunity, you can sign up here:  www.browsemob.com/signup.

Penelope TrunkPenelope Trunk founded Brazen Careerist and two other startups. Her career advice runs in 200 newspapers, and she is the author of a bestselling career advice book. She lives on a farm in Wisconsin and homeschools her sons.

Filed under: Entrepreneur

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CrowdStar expands into China and South Korea with mobile game partners

Posted: 15 May 2012 09:00 AM PDT

CrowdStar is announcing today that it is partnering with China’s Tencent and South Korea’s Gamevil to expand its mobile gaming business into Asia.

Burlingame, Calif.-based CrowdStar recently scaled back its investments in Facebook games, but the company plans to invest heavily in the mobile game business around the world. CrowdStar is creating localized versions of its hit game, Top Girl, for China and Korea through partnerships with the Asian companies.

In China, a mobile market of one billion users, CrowdStar's Top Girl and Tower Town games will be released on iOS and distributed by Tencent. CrowdStar is making localized versions of the two titles, which Tencent will market to its users across China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Tencent has more than 200 million mobile users in China alone.

CrowdStar is also working with Gamevil, which generated $38 million in revenue last year and reached more than 100 million downloads. Gamevil will also localize the Android version of Top Girl and promote it on three major Korean carriers: SK Telecom, KT, and LG. CrowdStar recently partnered with Japan’s Gree as well.

“We’re excited to publish the top-global, female, social game in Korea,” said Kyu Lee, vice president and head of Gamevil USA. “We’re confident that Top Girl will be a huge success, leveraging our large user base, and will also strengthen our leading position in the South Korean market.”

CrowdStar recently raised $11.5 million to focus on mobile gaming efforts worldwide.

"Crowdstar is excited about the new consumer markets it plans to enter through today's partnerships," said Randy Lee, CrowdStar's head of global business development. "In the U.S., Top Girl for Android debuted as an exclusive on the Amazon App Store in December after the iOS version of the game saw enormous popularity, surpassing 1 million downloads in 10 days. We're optimistic about seeing more impressive results with our new partners in Asia."

Founded in 2008, CrowdStar has 100 employees. Its investors include The9, Intel, and Time Warner. CrowdStar has raised $35 million to date.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Google traces the journey of an e-mail with the Story of Send (video)

Posted: 15 May 2012 08:37 AM PDT


If you’ve ever wanted to see how a single e-mail travels from your account to someone else’s, Google has you covered with its new “Story of Send” site.

While the site appears to mostly be a push by Google to show off its green credentials, the site is still cool in that it shows the actual process of something many of us do hundreds of times a week. E-mail travels from our computer browser over cables to Google’s data centers. There the e-mail is copied, scanned for viruses, and sent back out over cables to the right e-mail account.

Google Green team member Erin Reilly writes on Google’s blog:

“We've included videos and photos throughout the journey so you can explore certain areas more deeply. For example, if you're curious what data center servers look like, we've included some photos. Or you can watch a video to learn about how we purchase clean energy from wind farms near our data centers. And because technology doesn't always have to be serious, you might find a vampire or two lurking around or uncover other surprises on the journey.”

Check out the “Story of Send” video below:

Filed under: cloud, green

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Made In New York: Mayor Bloomberg shows off NYC’s vibrant tech scene with an online map

Posted: 15 May 2012 08:27 AM PDT

Made in New York Digital Map, announced by NYC Mayor Bloomberg

If there’s a significant week-long event occurring in New York City, you can bet that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will make a showing at some point. So it was no surprise when I got a call last night about a mysterious Bloomberg press conference scheduled for this morning at Internet Week New York.

At the event’s swanky SoHo headquarters, Bloomberg announced a new online map — the Made in New York Digital Map — that makes it easy to find the city’s tech startups and job opportunities. Given that new NYC startups and incubators are seemingly popping up every day, the map will be a useful way to make sense of everything tech going on in the city. And it looks to be a killer tool for landing a startup gig.

“Creative people want to be around other creative people,” Bloomberg said. “Creativity is driving the tech industry,” just as it is fashion, entertainment, and other industries in the city.

From the map’s site: “The Made in NY Digital Map is a visual testament to the vibrant state of New York’s digital industry – showing a powerful constellation of over 600 homegrown startups, investors and coworking spaces across the five boroughs. Browse by neighborhood, review job postings, or add your own startup to the digital landscape – the Made in NY Map is a living resource that reflects New York City’s dynamic innovation ecosystem.”

“The message is loud and clear: that New York is open for business,” said NYC’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne.

Bloomberg pointed to the map as one way to encourage more engineers to come to New York City. That will also become less of a problem once NYC’s new tech schools are up and running in a few years. Cornell and Technion are working on building a tech school in Roosevelt Island, and NYU is targeting a new tech campus in downtown Brooklyn.

The Made in New York map was created by Internet Week New York, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the NYC Economic Development Corporation. Sterne credits Commissioner Katherine Oliver with coming up for the original map idea.

Developing, refresh for updates.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Conversion rates up, spending habits down among social gamers

Posted: 15 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

According to the market researchers at SuperData, spending by social gamers has dropped compared to last year. Measuring average revenue per paying user (ARPPU), Superdata reports that average US social gamers spent $37.59 in April, which is about $8 less than a year ago when they spent $45.58. While this drop may seem small in terms of dollars spent per user, consider that amount spread across thousands of social gamers, and it starts to make sense. Any business losing almost 18 percent of revenue has cause for concern, and a North American market worth an expected $1.8 billion in 2012 might have more concern than most.

Of course, not all is doomed, according to Janelle Benjamin, SuperData's vice-president of research. Even though we see an overall decline in revenue per user, more social gamers are becoming paying users. According to the data, 2.5 percent of social gamers have converted to paying users, up from 1.4 percent last year.

"Mid-core social games are clearly driving the current momentum," said Benjamin. "This emerging genre represents a different gaming demographic that spends substantially more." She notes that while spending on farming games has declined recently, strategy and combat games are showing more than three times as much income per paying user.

SuperData provides market intelligence on online and free-to-play social games to a variety of customers and media outlets.

Filed under: games, gbunfiltered, VentureBeat

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Share batches of photos discretely & free of charge with the all-new Kicksend

Posted: 15 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

“Oversharing can happen way too easily,” said my friend, a new parent.

“I’m guessing when [my daughter] is 16, she won’t want whatever person is trying to date her to be able to stalk her through time. ‘Hey girl, I liked that swimsuit you wore to the beach when you were 10 months old.’”

This guy and the millions like him are directly in the crosshairs of Kicksend, an app for sharing large batches of photos and videos with small, specific groups of people. For all the reasons you’d want to share your most precious memories with just a few rather than the unwashed many, the Kicksend premise works and is welcome in a world that’s just about shared-out.

Today, the company is relaunching its web app and is making all its applications — including mobile, web, and desktop — free of charge.

"Over the past few years, it's gotten easier to take large numbers of high quality photos and videos and blast them out to everyone you know," said Pradeep Elankumaran, CEO of Kicksend, in a release this morning.

"However, sharing those photos with a subset of your contacts or sending full quality personal images to just your family members is still remarkably difficult. That's where we come in."

The company got its start at Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most hallowed incubator program. With the relaunched app, the team is now giving its users a new UI and a new set of features.

Here’s a sneak peek at the new interface:

Photos and videos can be sent to friends and family privately, and contacts can be sorted into lists for faster, easier sharing. The app also brings baked-in commenting, and it lets you send any type of file to any email address.

Also, it’s all free. Previously, the startup had tested out a freemium model; users got to send up to one gigabyte each month free of charge. Now, you can send as much as you like, also free of charge.

The Mountain View-based startup was founded in 2011. In addition to a small amount of YC money, the team has also received seed funding led by True Ventures with participation from Digital Garage, Ron Conway’s SV Angel, Start Fund, and Milo.com CEO Jack Abraham.

Image courtesy of Hasloo Group Production Studio & Rido, Shutterstock

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Sweet music: Smule brings popular Songify app to Android

Posted: 15 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

Mobile app development nowadays seems to be be following a fairly regular pattern: Create an infectious iOS app, wait until it gets insanely popular, then launch an almost identical version for Android.

And that’s exactly what Smule is doing with Songify, its popular iOS music creation app. To use the app. users speak into their phones and Songify turns their words into songs, bending and layering them over a variety of instrumental tracks.

The recipe is simple, entertaining, and successful: Songify has been downloaded 9 million times by iOS users who’ve used the app to create 120 million songs.

Songify itself is free, but offers users the ability to buy a variety of  beats packs to expand their options. (Hello, monetization.)

Smule picked up the rights to Songify last year when it acquired Khush, Songify’s original creators. The move was a smart one, as it combined the efforts of two very like-minded, music-focused teams.

As Khush CEO Prerna Gupta told CNET last year, the strategy behind the pre-acquisition Khush is ”to make less money but from more people.” And launching on Android is probably the best way to do that.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Facebook’s Instagram buy no longer expected to close in Q2

Posted: 15 May 2012 07:19 AM PDT


Facebook no longer expects its $1 billion acquisition of photo-sharing startup Instagram to close by the end of the second quarter, according to the latest version of Facebook’s S-1.

The social networking titan is facing much scrutiny this week as it readies for its IPO. The S-1 document, as revealed earlier, indicates Facebook has offered up 50.6 million extra shares with a price range of $34 to $38 per share.

Facebook’s buy of Instagram was seen as a hasty by some and others questioned whether Instagram was worth $1 billion. But Facebook’s biggest risk in its IPO is mobile penetration and making sure it can generate revenue from its mobile experience. Instagram, with its more than 40 million users and strong interest from iOS and Android owners shows Facebook is thinking about mobile. Facebook also overhauled its mobile apps yesterday.

The last S-1 issued by Facebook suggested that the Instagram buy would close in the second quarter of 2012, with language saying:

This acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions, including the expiration or early termination of all applicable waiting periods under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvement Act of 1976, as amended (HSR), and is currently expected to close in the second quarter of 2012.

The just-released S-1 filing says:

This acquisition is subject to customary closing conditions, including the expiration or early termination of all applicable waiting periods under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvement Act of 1976, as amended (HSR), and is expected to close in 2012.

While closing the Instagram deal might not go over as smooth as Facebook wanted, there’s almost no doubt it will be worth it to the company to have more opportunities to sell ads to mobile users.

Mark Zuckerberg photo: Jolie O’Dell/VentureBeat

Filed under: deals, social

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Imgur doubles monthly page views to 2B in just 5 months

Posted: 15 May 2012 07:08 AM PDT

Imgur Office

Image hosting service Imgur is now serving up more than 1 billion images per day and has doubled its monthly page views to 2 billion in less than six months, the company announced today.

Imgur branded itself as the “simple image hosting service” because its tailor-made for social news sharing sites like Reddit and Digg. (In fact, a large percentage of total links submitted to Reddit are from Imgur). Imgur’s main selling point is the speed to which you can share a photo or goofy image. Without needing an account, users can upload a single image or group of images to the site by dragging and dropping the files directly on the webpage. Each image has a unique URL that users can then send to friends or share on social networks. It’s probably faster to use Imgur in most cases than it is to send a file over email.

“Speed is a huge priority to us, because Imgur is all about instant gratification,” Imgur founder Alan Schaaf told VentureBeat in an interview. “So, we need to be able to serve our pages and our images as quick as possible.”

Schaaf said the site is experiencing average traffic and upload growth of about 20 percent per month, which started happening after the company began using content delivery network EdgeCast to speed up its delivery of images back in June 2011. In addition to its massive page view traffic growth, Imgur also sees about half a million images uploaded daily, and over three million unique visitors per day. To give you some perspective on where the company stands against other dedicated image services, Imgur’s Alexa U.S. traffic rank is 29 compared to professional photo service Flickr’s rank of 37.

But probably the most interesting thing about Imgur is that its managed to turn a profit soon after launching in 2009 — with five employees and no outside funding raised. The company was named the best bootstrapped startup at the 2011 Crunchies Awards. That doesn’t mean the startup isn’t interested in taking on some funding at some point, but for now it isn’t necessary, Schaaf told me.

“We don’t exactly need funding right now,” he said, adding that its more than capable of funding itself with the direction the company is going. Schaaf said his startup has already been approached by a handful of firms and angel investors that are interested, and that “we’re totally open to taking on money when the need arises.”

Schaaf didn’t specifically mention what that “need” might be, but did acknowledge that funding would be necessary if Imgur ever decided to take on Yahoo-owned professional photo service Flickr. Imgur currently offers a pro account option for $24 annually, which gives you more storage space for images, image compression limits of up to 5MB, and no advertisements. However, Schaaf said this isn’t Imgur’s main focus, nor is it interested in competing with Flickr more directly at this time.

The majority of Imgur’s revenue comes from advertising. Last month, the company reached an agreement with ThoughtLeadr to bring a self-serve advertising to the site. In addition to speeding up Imgur’s performance, the San Francisco-based company is also focused on growing its own community of image sharer.

Photo via Imgur

Filed under: media, social, VentureBeat

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Adobe adds time-saving and money-making features to tablet publishing suite

Posted: 15 May 2012 06:30 AM PDT

Adobe announced a handful of new features for producing, publishing, and promoting tablet publications created with its Digital Publishing Suite on Tuesday, including the ability to publish to the iPhone, tightly controlled sharing options, and a little something that could make every digital-magazine designer cry tears of joy.

Major publishers use Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) to craft digital versions of their InDesign print publications for tablets and smartphones. It began when Adobe teamed up with Condé Nast publication Wired to create a digital version of its magazine for the then brand-new iPad. Now many big brands use DPS, including multiple Condé titles, National Geographic, and Wenner Media.

Designers will be most excited about the new Alternative Layout feature, which makes it possible to re-purpose a single InDesign layout for multiple devices without having to start from scratch. They should be able to create one layout for an iPad, then use it for a Kindle Fire, iPhone, or any other screen with a different aspect ratio.

This labor-saving feature is just in time — Adobe also announced that DPS can now publish to the iPhone and iPod touch with its new Content Viewer. The New Yorker was the first publication to show what a magazine designed for the iPhone might look like using the new feature at Adobe’s Digital Publishing Summit in New York this morning.

Sharing is a sticky spot for these digital publications. The full issues usually cost a flat fee, but how do you make money off sharing, especially when audiences are so used to free content shared from websites? When so much traffic comes from articles being posted on Facebook and Twitter, it would be silly to prohibit it altogether. The first stab at a solution is tightly controlled sharing features. Publishers can decide what content is sharable, set up a paywall, and control how many times a person can read articles from an issue before being prompted to buy the app.

Other tweaks to the suite include improved analytics tools, integration with new CS6 custom-animation tool Edge, and a bevy of new fonts in the Adobe library that publishers can use in tablet publications without dropping money on additional licenses and per-use fees.

In addition to the changes, Adobe has landed a big new client, Meredith, which was previously using DPS’s now-neutralized former competitor Woodwing. Meredith publishes Fitness, Better Homes and Gardens, and Parents, and claims it is the largest publisher in the world based on total circulation.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Lenddo uses social networks to give loans and improve credit

Posted: 15 May 2012 06:02 AM PDT

Lendo social network credit scoreLenddo, which helps people build credit with small loans and a social-based Klout-like scoring system, raised an $8 million first round of funding Tuesday.

The brains behind Lenddo, co-founders Jeff Stewart and Richard Eldridge and chief scientist Dr. Naveen Agnihotri, think a person’s social graph can be a better indicator of trustworthiness than a credit score. Anyone who’s ever tried to get a loan or credit card without prior credit knows it’s a circular problem, one that is infinitely more difficult in emerging economies. Lenddo helps individuals in these countries break out of the cycle with small loans up to one month’s pay.

The company takes the wealth of data from your many social networks (including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter), looks at the people in your Lenddo Trusted Network (family, friends, co-workers), verifies you have a full-time job, and uses predictive algorithms to confirm your identity and calculate if you are a risk. There are three types of algorithms it uses: Bayesian (pattern matching), validators (verifying your identity and the information you’ve given), homophily (you’re likely to associate with people similar to you).

“It turns out, who is willing to endorse you is a powerful indicator of your trustworthiness,” a Lendoo spokesperson told us in an email. “As more people pay back, the network grows, and the borrowing capacity of the community grows.”

Currently, Lenddo only offers loans in the Philippines and Colombia, though it has tens of thousands of members in over 35 countries. The company won’t say how many loans or how much cash it has given out to date, but the average loan is $400 the Philippines and near $800 in Columbia, and the total amount is growing at close to one percent a day. The loans are most frequently used for education, but can also be put towards health care or repairs after a natural disaster, such as the recent devastating floods in the Philippines.

The company plans to use this $8 million round of funding to hire more engineers, ramp up growth, and eventually expand into other emerging markets, a process it says will be driven by its members.

Started in early 2011, Lenddo has employees in Manila, Bogotá, and New York City. Accel Partners, Blumberg Capital, Omidyar Network, iNovia Capital and Metamorphic Ventures participated in this round of funding, as did angel investors Geoff Judge, David Kidder, Scott Heiferman, and Barry Silbert.

Filed under: Entrepreneur, VentureBeat

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Sean Parker’s Airtime gets competition from Rounds, a social video matchmaker

Posted: 15 May 2012 06:00 AM PDT

By now, the cat is somewhat out of the bag on Sean Parker’s mysterious Airtime, a stealthy application for social video that some testers have found snooze-worthy.

According to Airtime beta testers, the app is a sort of Chatroulette clone with a layer of interest mapping — all in all, it sounds a lot like Rounds, a Tel Aviv-based startup that’s been doing roughly the same thing for some time.

Rounds is a bit like Chatroulette, a bit like a Google+ Hangout, and it’s all tied together by Facebook’s social graph connections. Today, the company is announcing a new algorithm that, like Airtime’s, will match you up with people like you for video chats, game play, and more.

Rounds reps tell us the startup can mine your Facebook likes, your social graph, your location, and your basic and not-so-basic demographics to find a video chat buddy who might be the perfect match for you — at least as close a match as a social software algorithm can make.

The Rounds team also said it’s gathered data from more than 250 million sessions and uses that data to “tweak and customize” each user’s account until he or she reaches video chat nirvana, whatever that looks like.

And that body of data alone, Rounds spokesfolks claim, raises this startup head and shoulders above Airtime.

Here’s a demo/explanation/cartoon about how the app works:

"With our new social matching algorithm, we are allowing our users to easily broaden their social circles and actually meet new people that we know will be of interest to them, as opposed to just randomly friending someone that Facebook recommends,” said Rounds CEO and co-founder Dany Fishel in a release this morning.

“This is a very powerful feature that sets us apart from any competitor and will allow us to continue our explosive user base growth."

Still, whose app has the better algo — and whose app is actually going to be more fun to use — is still very much up in the air.

Rounds was founded in 2008 and has raised a total of $5.5 million in funding from a range of investors, including a $3 million Series A late last year from Rhodium, Verizon Ventures, DFJ’s Tim Draper, and other angels.

Image courtesy of Cienpies Designs

Filed under: social

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Starting with a graphic novel, The Inventor will chronicle the life of Nikola Tesla (exclusive)

Posted: 15 May 2012 05:00 AM PDT

When we last checked in with Helios Interactive, it was creating GameCore design tools for cross-platform games. But the division of a big transportation company, Mehta Group, got run over by Unity Technologies, a rival maker of 3D game tools.

“Unity exploded, and I felt like that was a losing battle to take them on in game development tools,” said Ravé Mehta (pictured at bottom), chief executive of Helios Interactive, in an interview with GamesBeat.

So now he has pivoted in a new direction, and he hopes it will be just as innovative. He has created a sister division, Helios Entertainment, that is using those game tools to produce internal, multi-platform interactive media. The first project is a graphic novel-like non-fiction story, a 150-page comic book called The Inventor, about the life of late 19th-century scientist Nikola Tesla. If The Inventor takes off, it could become a game world, an app, and possibly a movie; in effect, it could become a “transmedia” entertainment property.

“We are testing the concept to see if it will catch on, and then we will take it across multiple platforms,” Mehta said. “It’s a personal passion of mine because Tesla is one of my heroes.”

Tesla is known in Silicon valley as one of the greatest engineers who ever lived. A contemporary and rival of Thomas Edison, Tesla came up with innovations such as short-range wireless communications and alternating current electricity. But in contrast to Edison, whose work led to the formation of the great company General Electric, Tesla’s contributions fell into obscurity until recently.

These days, Tesla has seen a resurgence in popularity among engineers, and Mehta wants to ride that wave. He notes that there are more than 2.75 million Google searches a month about Tesla, compared to about 3.25 million for Justin Timberlake.

Larry Page, chief executive of Google, has mentioned Tesla as an inspiration, and VentureBeat’s own innovation award at its MobileBeat conference is named after Tesla. Nvidia named its graphics card division after Tesla. Mehta thinks Tesla ought to be more popular, and he wants to contribute to the resurgence.

The Inventor comic book doesn’t have blood and guts. Rather, it is a more adult tale that highlights the tension between Tesla and Edison as well as financier J.P. Morgan.

Over time, Mehta hopes to turn The Inventor series into stories about mystical inventors throughout history, particularly the forgotten ones. Helios Entertainment has partnered with comic publisher Arcana to release the graphic novel, which includes six episodes, this summer. The release will be timed for the ComicCon 2012 convention in July.

“We’ll leverage the game brand into multiple social platforms and mobile devices,” Mehta said. “Many films start out as top-down efforts, with the movie coming first. We’re starting from the bottom up, testing the idea as a relatively inexpensive comic book before we invest more heavily.”

This is similar to Marvel’s approach with its superhero characters, who have only in the last 10 years or so starred in numerous, Hollywood studio films after decades of only appearing in the pages of comics and children’s cartoons. Mehta said the company is in talks with various potential partners to expand The Inventor series.

Mehta has funding from the company’s parent firm, and Helios Entertainment has eight people working for it now. If the game world and other media move forward, the company will hire more people.

“We want to create a game world that will educate, absorb and empower people,” Mehta said.

[Image credits: Helios Entertainment]

Filed under: games, gbunfiltered, media, VentureBeat

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Financial services startup sector continues solid growth (analysis)

Posted: 15 May 2012 05:00 AM PDT

Photo of an ATM machine illustrates financial services startups

The venture-backed financial services industry continues to evolve and grow at a rapid pace as investors continue to fuel industry change. There are several recent VC investment trends in financial services, including trying to capitalize on the social media phenomenon, as well as online services that help later-stage start-ups gain liquidity outside the sometimes difficult IPO process and market.

Recent History

Payment Cards: Though mobile payment technology is up and coming, VC investors continue to show interest in smart card payments. Alpharetta, Georgia-based Paymetric, for example, raised $12 million in venture capital in 2009 and 2011. Paymetric employs SAP to integrate smart card and token e-payments in enterprise systems.

Presque, Maine-based MiCash raised $1.7 million in capital in an undisclosed 2008 round of funding for its smart cards, which can be used to make bank ATM withdrawals, as well as make electronic cash purchases across a growing network of retailers.

Personal Finance: Washington, D.C.-based HelloWallet raised $3.6 million in a 2010 Series A funding round. The company provides an online financial advisory service that includes money and investment management, as well as a financial products and services comparison shopping engine.

Chicago’s YCharts combines financial markets data and proprietary, high-end company and stock market analytics with graphical data visualization that aims to provide online investors and traders with sophisticated, in-depth investing tools that are intuitively easy to use. The company followed up a 2010 Series A round of funding with a Series B round in 2011.

Business Finance: New Orleans-based The Receivables Exchange has raised more than $40 million for an online system and service that provides small and medium-sized businesses access to competitively priced working capital by bringing factoring services traditionally provided by banks online.


Financial services startups are rapidly incorporating social media and networking into online financial services, as well as continuing to try to enhance the quantity, quality, presentation and ease of use of company and financial market data, research and analytics.

On the infrastructure side, efforts to expand smart card e-payments systems and networks and integrate them with enterprise systems are ongoing. VCs are showing interest in start-ups that have developed online comparison shopping systems for financial products and services, while mobile banking systems are continuing to emerge.

Most recently, with the passage of the JOBS Act, the crowdfunding potential of early-stage startups received a significant boost. While there is significant disagreement among knowledgeable observers about the potential effects on the technology startup ecosystem from this legislation, it is likely that startups requiring smaller amounts of money (less than $1 million), with easily understandable business plans and shorter time frames to achieve market traction, will benefit most from these new sources of capital.


After a dip in activity during 2009 as a result of the severe recession, the number of financial services companies receiving venture capital funding has increased dramatically.

Chart: the number of companies receiving VC funding in the financial services sector

California and the mid-Atlantic regions have accounted for the lion's share (54.9%) of companies funded. Surprisingly, the Northeast, despite its concentration of large financial firms, only accounted for 10.9%.

Pie chart showing regions receiving VC funding for financial services startups

Aggregate funding amounts dropped in 2011, even as the number of companies funded rose significantly.

Bar chart showing the amount of funding received by financial services startups

VC investments in an increasingly broad and diverse online financial services industry held up well even in the midst of the 2008-2009 recession and near collapse of the U.S. financial system. Deal numbers hit a five-year peak in 2011. The total dollar amount invested however, even though it has averaged well over $400 million over the past two years, has yet to reach the levels seen in 2007 and 2008.

VentureTrends is a research service of VentureDeal, a national venture capital database based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Top photo credit: Darwin Bell/Flickr

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The Top 10 Russian internet entrepreneurs you need to know about

Posted: 14 May 2012 11:00 PM PDT

Russia is now the largest internet market in Europe, with more than 55 million online users. Russian internet market leaders, Yandex and London-listed Mail.ru Group, both reported a year-over-year revenue growth of 50 percent for the first quarter of 2012.

The Russian market is growing at a supersonic rate and provides excellent exit opportunites for investors in Russian online ventures to create a brand-new breed of Russian internet entrepreneur.

So who are the trailblazers to watch in this new web frontier? Yankov Sadchikov, Russian startup blogger at Quintura.com, talks us through the hottest Russian entrepreneurs to watch right now…

oskar hartmannOskar Hartmann, founder and CEO, KupiVIP.ru

After launching online shopping club KupiVIP.ru in fall 2008, the Russian-German Oskar Hartmann added an e-commerce platform for Russian retailers and launched online fashion store ShopTime.

In Russian online shopping, KupiVIP is growing bigger than established brand OZON.ru by racking $200 million revenues last year. In 2010, Hartmann partnered with the French businessman Pascal Clément to set up a Moscow-based internet business incubator, Fast Lane Ventures, which has already started eighteen internet businesses to date, of which two were already exited.

marinaMarina Kolesnik, founder and CEO, Oktogo.ru

Following a consulting career at McKinsey and management role at DataArt, where she headed complex software development projects, Marina Kolesnik has leveraged her Harvard MBA to launch her own online venture Oktogo.ru two years ago. Since then, Marina raised $15 million in venture capital from European and Russian investors to make Oktogo.ru into Russia's leading online hotel booking and travel site or "Booking.com of Russia".

pavelPavel Cherkashin, co-founder, Krible and Kuznech

Having been Russian manager for Adobe and Siebel as well as Microsoft Russia's general manager of consumer and online businesses, Pavel Cherkashin made a number of angel investments in online businesses in Russia. He now works for his investee companies: online customer support service Krible and image search Kuznech as well as helping other investees: online video site Tvigle.ru and mobile advertising network AdWired.

chumachenkoAlisa Chumachenko, founder and CEO, Game Insight

In online gaming, marketing is key. The former head of marketing at Astrum Online, which was merged into Mail.ru Group in 2008, Chumachenko started her own  social game publisher and developer Game Insight in late 2009. In 2011, she moved into mobile gaming to make Game Insight one of the leading gaming companies on Android.

Albert PopkovAlbert Popkov, founder, Sravni.ru

Popkov capitalised on the social networking boom in Russia. Back in 2006, he launched the social network company Odnoklassniki.ru. He then raised funding from DST and sold his startup to it later. Odnoklassniki, which is part of Mail.ru Group, has some 25 million monthly users. In 2009, Albert launched consumer banking comparison site Sravni.ru, which is now the leader in its category.

russian entYulia Mitrovich, Entrepreneur in Residence, Svyaznoy Group

A graduate of the University of British Columbia, Mitrovich was a McKinsey consultant before going to Web Media Group in Moscow to head its online video site Zoomby.ru.

In 2012 Mitrovich joined Svyaznoy Group, the leading mobile phone retailer in Russia, as Entrepreneur in Residence. No surprise, Svyaznoy founder Maxim Nogotkov was named Russia's Entrepreneur of The Year 2010 by Ernst & Young.

igorIgor Matsanyuk, founder, IMI.VC

If the internet incubators are the new black, then mobile-focused business accelerators are the new, new black. Entrepreneur-turned-VC Matsanyuk has made a fortune by cashing out shares in Mail.ru Group during its IPO in late 2010.

One year before, he merged his online gaming company Astrum Online Entertainment into Mail.ru. Igor currently seeds mobile startups viaFarminers business incubator and own investment company IMI.VC.

elenaElena Masolova, co-founder and CEO, Pixonic

The Higher School of Economics graduate, Masolova co-founded the AddVenture seed-stage fund in Moscow in 2008 and was a founding member of coupon site Darberry, which became Groupon Russia. She currently heads social gaming company Pixonic, a portfolio company of AddVenture. She also eager to make angel investments in online startups and lead them later.

Anna Znamenskaya, founder, Workingmama


Following a ten-year executive career including CEO of Digital Access (online video portal ivi.ru), Rambler's commercial director and B2B Media CEO, Znamenskaya has ventured into entrepreneurship with her own online project for mothers, Workingmama.ru in late 2011. She is also receiving Master in Digital Marketing from Instituto de Empresa in Madrid this year.

Olga Steidl, partner, dots'n'spaces


The St. Petersburg State University graduate Steidl has headed marketing at mobile software maker SPB Software before it was acquired by Yandex last November. After a short stint withYandex, she has settled in Zurich to help mobile startups via dots'n'spaces and organize mobile industry events. Steidl is also startup CEO herself and mentor at Seedcamp where Yandex recently invested.


This article originally appeared on Venture Village, one of VentureBeat's editorial partners.

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AMD contends its split-personality PC brains are better than Intel’s

Posted: 14 May 2012 09:01 PM PDT

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is introducing a new generation of chips that combine graphics and processors on a single integrated circuit. Code-named Trinity, the new chips are supposed to stop Intel from dominating the consumer Ultrabook laptop and all-in-one desktop chip markets.

The A-series accelerated processor unit (APU) chip family is speedy, and so it goes to show that five brains are better than one. AMD also intends to show that its hybrid chips are better than Intel’s latest hybrid processor-graphics chips, code-named Ivy Bridge. The timing of both families of chips arriving at the same time is a coincidence and a happy one for consumers shopping for PCs.

The new chips have double the performance-per-watt of power consumed. They enable high-performance laptops with as much as 12 hours of battery life.

Trinity has two dual-core processors embedded in it for a total of four processing brains. It also has a high-end graphics core that is more capable than the Ivy Bridge graphics, said John Taylor, director of global product marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD. The central processing unit (CPU) portion of the chip is 29 percent faster than last year’s Llano-based APUs while the graphics render 56 percent faster.

“We’ve boosted the CPU and graphics architecture over last year’s Llano chips,” Taylor said. “This is the best-in-class, all-in media performance from gaming to high-definition video.”

While Llano chips had 1.178 billion transistors, or basic computing components, Trinity has 1.303 billion. The Trinity chips are slightly bigger at 246 square millimeters, compared to 228 for Llano. And they operate on about the same amount of wattage, from 35 to 100 watts. A dual-core version of the A series chip family runs on 17 watts, while a quad-core version runs on as little as 25 watts.

Like Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips, which were formally unveiled last month, the AMD chips are aimed at high-performance but thin laptops. Intel calls these laptops Ultrabooks, and it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars marketing them this year in the hopes of staving off the encroachment of smartphones and tablets on the PC market. AMD believes that laptops based on Trinity will be less expensive than the $700 to $1,000 prices that computer makers are charging for Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabooks.

“We’ve got a clear value leadership position in this ultrathin category,” Taylor said.

Trinity also represents a threat to Nvidia, which makes stand-alone graphics chips. AMD is trying to make the hybrid graphics in its APUs so good at running 3D graphics that consumers won’t see the need for the extra Nvidia chips anymore. The AMD graphics core is based on the AMD Radeon Northern Islands graphics technology. On games such as Crysis, AMD’s graphics will render 40 percent faster. Games will run 20 percent to 50 percent faster on AMD compared to Intel, Taylor said.

From May 15 through the launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system this fall, AMD believes more than 100 computers based on Trinity will debut. Trinity chips will compete head to head against Intel’s Core i7 and Core i5 microprocessors. Taylor contends that AMD chips will provide laptops with a couple of more hours of battery life in some usage scenarios. AMD’s chips will be priced below Intel’s Core i7 chips.

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More foldy e-readers on the way. This one’s in color

Posted: 14 May 2012 07:10 PM PDT

Plastic Logic flexible, color e-reader

Plastic Logic demo-ed its flexible, color e-reader today — another screen to support the notion that e-readers may one day act like paper.

According to Engadget, Plastic Logic received a funding round of $700 million from Rusnano to create the new screen. The can display over 4,000 colors and has 1.2 million plastic transistors. The company used part of the funding to deploy its e-textbook reader to schools in Russia.

Flexible e-reader screens are gaining popularity. Flexible e-ink screens create that reading-a-magazine-or-newspaper feel that, honestly, just looks cool.  They can bend and fold like paper, although you won’t be able to fold your e-reader like a soft cover book just yet. What’s more impressive is that these new screens, Plastic Logic’s in particular, are being designed to keep images true and not distort them as folding a screen might otherwise do.

In March, LG released details of its flexible e-reader screen, which stands about six inches tall and sports 1024×758 pixels. The screen can be bent to a 40 degree angle and can weigh half as much as its glass counterpart. . LG referred to the screen as an electronic paper display. LG believes these flexible, plastic displays will be cheaper to produce than glass.

Check out the video of Plastic Logic’s color, flexible screen below:

via Engadget

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Facebook shares’ starting price will be between $34 and $38

Posted: 14 May 2012 06:45 PM PDT

Facebook is likely preparing to increase its starting price for shares of Facebook stock. The previously announced price range was $28 to $35; new reports are pegging the starting price range between $35 and $40.

UPDATE 6:45pm Pacific: The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook in fact raised its target price to $34 to $38 per share late today, putting the company’s valuation at $93 billion to $104 billion.

CNN Money reporter Maureen Farrell writes that the social network’s cadre of underwriters for the deal are slated to bump up the price range as soon as tomorrow.

At its earlier range, the Facebook IPO could have raised up to $11.88 billion. At $40 per share, Facebook stands to raise $13.5 billion.

In private trading on secondary markets, Facebook shares sold just last month for around $44 each shortly before the company halted private trades in preparation for its IPO.

Facebook stock is likely to enjoy a quick growth spurt in share price, especially in the first few days and months of trading. Analysts have compared this initial public offering to Google’s in 2004. Google’s share price started at $85 and currently sits at around $600, with the company recently announcing a stock split.

However, newer tech IPOs can also be more vulnerable to volatility in the general market, as we’ve seen recently with Groupon and LinkedIn stock during March’s downturn.

We recently went around the VentureBeat office and asked everyone, from execs to reporters, what they thought a fair price for the shares would be; here’s their analysis.

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Best Buy cleans house in aftermath of scandal, sends founder to retirement

Posted: 14 May 2012 06:34 PM PDT

Former Best Buy CEO Brian DunnIt’s not a good week to be the head of a publicly-traded company — if you like playing fast and loose with the rules, that is.

The same weekend that Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson resigned after a false claim on his résumé, Best Buy announced that it would be replacing its founder and chairman, Richard Schulze. Schulze’s departure follows the April news that former Best Buy chief executive Brian Dunn had resigned.

In Schulze’s place, Hatjim Tyabji, currently a board director, will become chairman of the company. Schulze will retain the purely honorary title “Founder and Chairman Emeritus,” according to a Best Buy press release.

Schulze was brought down by a scandal involving Dunn. An independent investigation by the Best Buy board found, according to the press release, that:

  • Dunn violated Best Buy policy by “engaging in an extremely close personal relationship with a female employee that negatively impacted the work environment.”
  • Dunn’s relationship “demonstrated extremely poor judgment and a lack of professionalism.”
  • Schulze should have brought the affair to the board when he first heard about it.

However, the company added, “the inquiry revealed no misuse of Company resources. The inquiry also revealed no misuse of aircraft.” (Thank goodness, because we all know how naughty it is to misuse the corporate jet.)

According to a WSJ report, both Dunn and the female employee said their relationship wasn’t a romantic one, but it was remarkably close, with the two sharing hundreds of messages via phone, many private meetings, and tickets to seven sporting events and concerts. The investigation found that the relationship did damage employee morale by giving the impression that different rules applied to the CEO than to other employees.

The company detailed that Dunn would be receiving about $6.6 million in stock, bonus money, and severance as part of his departure package from the company.

Tyabji is a longtime board member for Best Buy and other companies, and was chairman, president, and CEO of VeriFone from 1986 to 1998.

Brian Dunn’s LinkedIn page lists him as the “former CEO of Best Buy” and notes that he’s interested in consulting offers, new ventures, business deals, and job inquiries, among other things.

Photo credit: Profile page for Brian Dunn/LinkedIn

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Dressed in Metro, LinkedIn looks good on Windows Phone (screenshots)

Posted: 14 May 2012 04:59 PM PDT

Good news, Windows Phone owners. Professional social network LinkedIn, in its quest to master mobile, has released another stunning mobile application — but this one is just for you.

The application, the company’s first official release for the platform, is a full-featured release that plays perfectly with the Windows Phone operating system, and even incorporates the unique Microsoft Metro style and design. (Check out our gallery of screenshots below.)

And, as a little bonus gift, LinkedIn said that the Windows Phone application offers users more functionality in the companies and jobs sections than it offers in its apps for iOS and Android.

“You can find and connect with millions of professionals worldwide, quickly access a real-time update stream with news and information from your professional connections, read timely news impacting your industry, keep up-to-date with your professional groups, search for jobs, and follow your favorite companies' news,” LinkedIn’s mobile product manager Tomer Cohen said.

LinkedIn for Windows Phone is out now and works on devices running version 7.5 or higher of the operating system.

The professional social network now has more than 150 million members and is performing well on the public market. The company recently reported strong first quarter earnings of $188.5 million in revenue and $5 million in net income.

Here’s our slideshow of screenshots from the app:

Photo credit: coletivomambembe/Flickr

Filed under: mobile, social

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Scott Thompson’s short stint at Yahoo earned him a mere $7M

Posted: 14 May 2012 04:46 PM PDT

Although Scott Thompson joins the jobless after recently resigning from his CEO position at Yahoo, don’t look for him on any unemployment lines. Yahoo stated in a filing today Thompson would be receiving nearly $7 million in make-good cash from Yahoo.

That’s a pretty good payout for about five months’ work, though it’s much less than it could have been if Thompson had received a full severance. Yahoo won’t be paying a larger sum, however, because it is terminating him “with cause.” Thompson was hired from eBay’s PayPal division on January 4 of this year, and resigned May 13 after a growing scandal over a false claim on his résumé that he had a degree in computer science.

In a filing from Yahoo, which AllThingsD reported today, Yahoo wrote that "Yahoo! and Mr. Thompson agreed to terminate all other agreements between them, including Mr. Thompson's offer letter, all outstanding but not fully vested equity awards and Yahoo!'s other plans and arrangements for the benefit of employees, with no severance compensation." Although Thompson claimed he was innocent, evidence obtained from Yahoo's board confirmed his counterfeit academic record.

Thompson could have received more under different circumstances, but Yahoo declared it had "cause" per its Code of Ethics and Yahoo! Policies. In the end, Yahoo saved a large severance payment due to its claim. Thompson, however, isn't leaving empty-handed. Along with the $7 million and vested stock options, the former president of PayPal drew a salary in 2010, prior to moving to Yahoo, that added up to nearly $10.4 million.

In a statement from Yahoo’s press room, the company promoted Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo's executive vice president,  as the interim CEO, and Fred Amoroso as the chairman of the board.

Prior to resigning, VentureBeat reported that the 54-year-old disclosed to Yahoo's board of directors that he has thyroid cancer. He is currently undergoing treatment. To date, Thompson has yet to refute the board’s presented evidence.

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Funding daily: Get answers for your most pressing questions

Posted: 14 May 2012 04:17 PM PDT

Happy Monday, funding news enthusiasts. We’ve got a few stories for you today, from question and answer site Quora to data intelligence startup InsightSquared.

If you’re hankering more funding news throughout the day, you can subscribe to our Deals Channel RSS feed by either clicking the red RSS icon at the top of this page or adding the Deals Channel feed link to your favorite reader. And as always, send funding news our way at tips@venturebeat.com.

Quora nabs $50 million to answer your questions

Question and answer site Quora raised $50 million at a $400 million valuation. The site hopes to gather as much information as possible to create a large database of information, similar to Wikipedia. Facebook board member Peter Thiel led the round, and former Facebook employee and partner at Northbridge Venture Partners Jonathan Heiliger participated.

Behance shows off your creative side and a new investment

Creative work portfolio-building startup Behance has grabbed $6.5 million in its first round of funding. Behance is a marketplace for creatives — artists, graphic designers, web designers, writers, and the like — to showcase their work for companies that are looking for talent. Union Square Ventures led the round, with participation from angel investors including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Path's Dave Morin, Yves Behar, Chris Dixon, Dave Tisch, Dave McClure's 500 Startups, Alexis Ohanian, and Garrett Camp.

Starboard Storage Systems manages your crazy data, gets funded

Mixed data workload manager Starboard Storage Systems has raised a $13 million second round of funding from German venture capital firms JP Ventures GmbH and Grazia Equity GmbH. The company works with unstructured, structured, and virtualized data, also known as mixed data, which is often hard for IT departments to manage.

Business intelligence startup InsightSquared grabs $4.5 million

InsightSquared has closed a $4.5 million investment from Bessemer Venture Partners, NextView Ventures, and Salesforce.com. The company helps small and medium businesses gather insights from their data from places such as Salesforce or Quickbooks.

Woman with question marks image via Shutterstock

Filed under: deals

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Apple adding photo sharing and social features to iCloud, report says

Posted: 14 May 2012 04:09 PM PDT


Apple will soon unveil an update to its iCloud storage service that will add photo sharing and social features, the Wall Street Journal reports.

While Dropbox, Box, Microsoft, and Google have dominated the cloud storage conversation in recent months, Apple has mostly stayed out of comparisons because it offers the dumbest (maybe “easiest” is the right word) cloud storage. It syncs your media across all iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), Macs, and PCs, but there is no way to manage what exactly goes where.

But with new functionality that is Apple is likely to announce at its WWDC conference on June 11, iCloud could take a leap forward with more fleshed-out features. First up will be easy photo sharing so others can access and download your photos. You’ll also be able to comment on these photos like you do on Facebook and other social sites.

The iCloud update will also reportedly let you sync notes and reminders using new web apps. That would tie iCloud with the release of iOS 6 and its many new features, including the dropping of Google Maps in favor of Apple’s own Maps software.

Let us know in the comments if you use iCloud now and if you’re looking forward to new features from the service.

Filed under: cloud, mobile

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Rdio redesigns site, looks a heck of a lot like iTunes

Posted: 14 May 2012 03:16 PM PDT


Popular streaming-music site Rdio has launched a new redesign that clearly takes a ton of cues from iTunes, the company announced today on its blog.

“Change is good,” the company wrote on its blog. “Which is why we're pleased to share that starting today, the new Rdio is available to all. We've taken everything that already makes Rdio the best way to discover and listen to music and redesigned it to be even faster, simpler and more social.”

While Rdio has not attracted as much attention as Spotify in recent months, it still has quite a few fans. The company continues to battle it out with MOG, Rhapsody, and a host of other streaming radio services. Rdio gives listeners a limited amount of free use or you can listen to unlimited music for $5-to-$10 per month depending on whether you want mobile app access.

Just looking at the screenshot above, you can see that the new design takes a healthy amount of influence from Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes player. The left-hand bar features playlists and navigation and the center shows songs and albums. The right-hand bar, with social activity and connections, appears to borrow from streaming music competitor Spotify. Unlike iTunes, which is steeped in years of minor tweaks and updates, Rdio’s web-based player is probably much faster for many users.

Compare that to the old, more colorful Rdio, below.

Here’s Rdio’s list of new features:

• A new look and feel — More than just a boring spreadsheet of songs, new Rdio puts music and people front and center.
• All in one place — Spend less time navigating. Music, playlists and your network are in one view.
• Add entire albums to playlists — One of Rdio's most-requested features is now a reality.
• Browse even faster — Find music at lightning speed because pages remember your place. Browse a continuous stream of albums, explore one and easily return to the place you left off.
• Listen with your network — From the People Sidebar, see what your network is listening to in real-time and listen along with one-click.
• Let your network inspire your listening — Wondering if you'll like an album in the charts or why it appeared in your Heavy Rotation? Under every album, hover over photos to see exactly who listened to it.
• Sharing made simple — Drag and drop music into playlists or collection and share with others on Rdio without missing a beat. Music can also be shared on Facebook, Twitter or via email.
• Create private playlists – In addition to public and collaborative playlists, now private playlists can be created and shared with just a select few.
• Easily discover people to follow — Check out Rdio's latest music influencers in the People Sidebar and find others to follow such as artists, critics, record labels and brands.

You can watch Rdio’s redesign introduction video below for more details.

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Q: Which company raised $50 million? A: question-and-answer site Quora

Posted: 14 May 2012 02:58 PM PDT

quora raises $50 millionCurrent Facebook employees aren’t the only ones making deals this week. Two former Facebook execs raised $50 million at a $400 million valuation for question-and-answer site Quora, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever founded Quora after leaving Facebook in its early days. The site is a slicker version of Yahoo Answers and allows multiple people to edit answers for helpfulness and accuracy. Quora hopes to gather as much information as possible to create a large database of information, similar to Wikipedia. The company competes with a ton of other question-and-answer services, such as the Ask Reddit subreddit, Ask on Google+, and even Facebook Questions.

The funding round came largely from the Facebook family. Facebook board member Peter Thiel led the round, and former Facebook employee and partner at Northbridge Venture Partners Jonathan Heiliger participated.

Founded in 2009, Quora raised $11 million at a $86 million valuation in 2010. Since then, it’s released an iPhone app to find location-specific answers.

Question mark image via Flickr user Michael Coghlan

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LG shows off the best Google TV yet, with motion controls, dual-core CPU, 3D

Posted: 14 May 2012 02:42 PM PDT

When we first learned LG would be launching its crop of Google TV sets this month, I asked “will anyone care?” — now after seeing LG’s G2 series in action, I’m surprised to report that plenty of consumers just may.

With slick motion control technology and a speedy dual-core CPU, LG’s G2 sets are certainly the most powerful Google TV devices so far. LG also has the privilege of offering the first 3D-capable Google TVs. Even better, the sets are passive 3D, so you can use cheaper plastic 3D glasses instead of the expensive rechargeable variety.

The Korean TV-maker debuted its G2 Google TVs today at Internet Week New York, an annual event where NYC celebrates technology and digital culture. I chatted with Georg Rasinski, director of LG’s home electronics brand management, who was kind enough to demonstrate the G2 series for us (see below).

What truly differentiates LG’s Google TV entries is the company’s motion-control “Magic Remote.” Waving LG’s remote around felt smoother than using Sony or Logitech’s Google TV trackpads, and it was surprisingly accurate. The remote communicates with an infrared device embedded at the front of the television, similar to the Nintendo Wii’s sensor bar. The Magic Remote supports gestures and it also has a built-in microphone for voice commands.

The Magic Remote itself feels nice, with a rounded portion that makes it comfy in your hand. There is a scroll wheel on the front, along with the most commonly used Google TV buttons, and a full QWERTY thumb keyboard on the back.

LG’s Google TV interface also looks dramatically different from the GTV devices I’ve used from Sony and Logitech. They’re running Google TV 2.0, but LG has also heavily customized the home screen with a 3D interface. It gives you quick access to a variety of apps and bookmarks.

The Google TV experience was noticeably faster on LG’s sets, which I mostly attribute to the company’s fast dual-core CPU. The G2 series is powered by LG’s custom ARM-based L9 processor, the first dual-core chip in a Google TV device. Eventually, the L9 will make its way to LG’s other flagship sets, but it’s making its debut on the G2 series.

Rasinski said that Internet Week ended up being perfectly timed for the Google TV launch. Last week, an LG exec announced that the company would begin building the sets this week, with retail availability to follow next week. That’s a fast turnaround for any company, but Rasinski tells me that LG wanted to roll out its Google TV offering as quickly as possible.

LG’s G2 Series Google TVs will be available in 47-inch and 55-inch models beginning next week at $1,699 and $2,299 respectively.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat, video

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Windows 8 may cost just $15 to upgrade — but should you?

Posted: 14 May 2012 01:54 PM PDT


If you buy a Windows 7 PC this year, you’ll get an offer to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro OS for just $15 when it comes out, according to Windows blogger Paul Thurrott.

On its face, this is a great offer in line with what Microsoft has done in the past. Basically, Microsoft wants to make sure Windows 7 PC sales don’t slip in the second quarter as people wait for Windows 8 to come out later this year. To make sure they buy in, Microsoft offers a cheap upgrade option to the next version of the OS that they will get when the OS is released.

Thurrott says the upgrade option will run $15 and will give any Windows 7 PC buyer the Pro version of Windows 8 even if they only get Windows 7 Home or Basic versions. This might be because the Pro version lines up the most with the traditional desktop experience, but at this time we don’t know the exact differences between Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The upgrade offer should be out around the time Microsoft drops the last pre-release version of Windows 8, called Release Preview.

While the $15 price is quite good, you should look closely at what Windows 8 offers before you buy in. Windows 8 looks and feels radically different from Windows 7, Vista, 2000, 98, and 95 editions. It takes many cues from Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system and attempts to bridge the gap between desktop PCs and tablets.

As someone who loves the Windows 7 experience on the PC, I would hesitate about taking that upgrade, even at $15. Using Windows 8 on a laptop or desktop, it takes me longer to do everyday things like browsing and multi-tasking than it does when using Windows 7. Tablets are another story, and using Windows 8 on a tablet or hybrid laptop/tablet can be extremely smooth.

Microsoft will no doubt make many OS tweaks before Windows 8 launches to the public later this year, but based on its current state, consumers should get educated on how Windows 8 works before upgrading.

Filed under: mobile

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Groupon rebounds with $559M in Q1 revenue

Posted: 14 May 2012 01:11 PM PDT

Still reeling from a disastrous fourth quarter, Groupon beat Wall Street’s expectations and reported $559.3 million in revenue and $39.6 million in operating income for the first quarter of 2012. Monday’s earnings report is Groupon’s second since opening on the NASDAQ in November.

The company, which now has 36.9 million active customers, reported earnings Monday after market close and said that revenue increased 89 percent year-over-year. The company’s operating income of $39.6 million compares with a $117.1 million operations loss in the first quarter 2011. Groupon also reported gross billings, or the total collected from sold Groupons, of $1.35 billion for the quarter, which is more than double its gross billings of $668.2 million for the same period last year.

“We are pleased to report a record quarter that demonstrates our progress in unlocking the opportunity in local commerce for merchants and customers worldwide,” CEO Andrew Mason said in a statement.

The company performed especially well in Q1 in North America, where revenue grew 75 percent year-over-year. Groupon, Mason said in a call with investors, was able to leverage “smart deals” technology to provide better targeting and deliver performance improvements in North America. The personalization technology is in the process of being rolled out to international markets, Mason said.

Groupon said it served a total of 100,000 unique merchants in the first quarter and surpassed 1.5 million Groupons sold via Groupon Now during the quarter.

Analysts predicted a strong quarter for the deals company and pegged revenue at $530 million and operating profit, or earnings after operating costs, at $32.7 million. Groupon beat their estimates, and the company’s net loss for the quarter improved to $11.7 million (from $146.5 million in Q1 2011), or a loss of $0.02 per share.

In late March, Groupon revised its fourth quarter earnings to report revenue of $492.2 million (down $14.3 million from its original report) and an operating loss of $15 million for the quarter. Wall Street was stunned by the news and punished the company with a downward spiraling market capitalization. Groupon said at the time that it still anticipated pulling in between $510 million and $550 million during the first quarter of 2012.

Last week, Groupon made its punchcard-alternative Groupon Rewards loyalty program available to all U.S. businesses. Mason has touted the program, previously piloted in Philadelphia, as one of four key initiatives that will transform the deals giant into an “operating system for local commerce.”

Valued as high as $17.8 billion on its first day of trading, Groupon's market capitalization plummeted to around $6 billion in recent weeks but has today jumped back into the $7 billion to $8 billion range. The stock got off to a strong start Monday morning and was trading up as high as 20 percent in anticipation of today’s earnings report. Shares are up more than 13 percent in after-hours trading at the time of this report.

Groupon said revenue for the second quarter of 2012 is expected to be between $550 million and $590 million, and operating income should be between $25 million and $45 million.

For a look at how Groupon’s stock compares with Yelp and Pandora, two other consumer internet companies that recently went public, have a look at the chart below.

GRPN Chart

GRPN data by YCharts

Photo credit: swanksalot/Flickr

Filed under: deals

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AmEx’s new local offers pose threat to Groupon

Posted: 14 May 2012 12:46 PM PDT

American Express is releasing a new version of its iPhone app today that lets users find offers at nearby businesses. The new feature, dubbed “My Offers,” represents a threat to Groupon, which has tried to entice merchants to market through its mobile product, Groupon Now. (Full disclosure: I have a very small stake in AmEx and a variety of short positions in Groupon.)

Since the new app shows AmEx wants to move beyond payments into performance-based marketing, it shows AmEx could also become a threat to companies like Google and Facebook.

The app will go live at 3 p.m. Pacific.

For consumers, AmEx’s My Offers holds the promise of better targeted offers. The app uses a cardholder’s spending history (the “spend graph”) and location to determine the most relevant offers. For merchants, it offers the ability to reach new customers without discounting to existing customers. Merchants can choose to exclude consumers who have made a purchase at their business within the last year from a promotion.

Cannibalization of existing full-price customers is one of the biggest reasons Groupons can be unprofitable for small businesses. Targeting is, in general, a much better approach to discounting than blanket discounts, and using transaction history is one of the most effective ways to do it.

Merchants can also choose to extend the offer to everyone on the network or create loyalty-based offers for repeat customers. That’s a level of targeting that hasn’t typically been available to small businesses.

Most of AmEx’s offers to date have been focused on national merchants. “It’s time now to get into helping more of the local merchants and to make sure that we have the tools that work for them,” said Ed Gilligan, vice chairman of American Express. “It’s a very cluttered space for small merchants, and we want to make sure we’re learning and that this works for them.”

“It’s less about trying to say can we do a Groupon Now or replicate what someone else is doing,” Gilligan said. “It’s more of a continuation of what we started, which is connect cardmembers to the right merchant. And help both.”

Because the processing of the discounts happens on the back end by AmEx’s computers, there is no staff training required for local merchants. That’s often an obstacle to running deals. On the consumer side, the consumer just has to swipe the card to pay; there’s no coupon or paperwork required.

AmEx is not charging small merchants initially.

“We made the decision that we didn’t want price to get in the way of small merchants starting to get involved,” said Luke Gebb, VP, global network marketing. “Where we are now is just trying  to attract as many small businesses as possible, prove that we can add value to them.”

AmEx is initially focusing the local offers on New York and Los Angeles. It will be reaching merchants through a variety of channels, including feet on the street. Some of the initial local offers include Amy's Bread and Clinton Gourmet Market in New York and Trust! Hair Salon and Freebird's in Los Angeles.  Tonight, there should be hundreds of offers in New York and LA. A few national offers are also available, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and FedEx.

The company expects to launch an Android app eventually but hasn’t announced timing on that yet.

Unlike Groupon Now, merchants can’t currently use AmEx’s platform for yield management.

“If, over time, [small merchants] want to go to more of a yield management system, we will adjust and adapt with them,” Gilligan said. “We wanted to launch with tools that are pretty simple to use.”

In addition to seeing offers from the AmEx app, consumers will be able to see offers that have been loaded onto their cards via AmEx’s partnerships with Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.

Although the technology and the thinking behind it is exciting, it’s a challenging problem that requires winning the attention of both consumers and merchants.

According to Gilligan, US users have downloaded the AmEx app more than 3 million times. That’s still a small number compared with others in the space. Foursquare claims 20 million registered users. Looking at the number of active users, which is more meaningful, Yelp has 6.3 million monthly active users and Facebook has 488 million monthly active users.

To date, there really hasn’t been much reason to download the AmEx app. The functionality has focused primarily on account servicing: viewing transaction history, looking at Membership Rewards points, and paying bills. These are relatively infrequent tasks that many accomplish on the Web. Adding offers to the app will give users another reason to download.

If it saves me from seeing yet another ad for laser hair removal, I’m all for it.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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LightSquared goes dark, files for bankruptcy

Posted: 14 May 2012 12:41 PM PDT

Troubled wireless-startup LightSquared filed for bankruptcy Monday, according to documents filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

LightSquared listed debt and assets of over $1 billion in the documents. The company filed under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows it to continue operating without having to pay debt owed to creditors. The company previously tried and failed to negotiate with its lenders for an extension of time for repaying its massive debt, with LightSquared founder Philip Falcone even agreeing to step back.

LightSquared's business strategy involved building out a high-speed wireless network that would generate revenue by selling network access to outside companies, such as Walmart, Best Buy, and others. But over the last several months, the company has run into many problems.

Those problems began in February, after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rejected LightSquared's plans to launch its LTE network due to concerns that it would interfere with both commercial and military GPS technology. Because of this development, Leap Wireless has decided to buy future LTE connectivity for its Cricket prepaid service from Clearwire, another troubled wireless company (of which Sprint is the largest stakeholder). Earlier this year, LightSquared client FreedomPop also decided to go with Clearwire. But by far the biggest setback for LightSquared came in March after its $9 billion 15-year agreement with Sprint-Nextel to build and host its LTE network fell through.

Falcone’s New York-based hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners has invested about $3 billion in LightSquared to date, and stands to lose the most if the company ends up completely dying. LightSquared still owns a valuable portion of spectrum, which it can sell off off to recuperate some of those losses.

Via Bloomberg

Filed under: deals, mobile, VentureBeat

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