It’s still unclear exactly how Apple plans to use Topsy, the social media analytics firm the tech giant acquired on Monday for a reported $200 million. The possible theories are intriguing and numerous; speculation includes improvements to Siri, building social integration into Apple TV, and even the creation of an Apple search engine to rival Google on mobile devices
Regardless of Apple’s motivation, though, other companies that make money by analyzing social data such as public posts and tweets are taking away a major positive from the news: validation.
A company focused on teaching anyone the fundamentals of web development, Bloc, has raised $2 million in seed funding in a round led by Harrison Metal, with First Round Capital, Baseline Ventures, and Learn Capital also participating. What’s interesting about Bloc is that, while it’s offering an online program that can be accessed anywhere a student has a computer and Internet access, it also retains the human element of teaching through a one-on-one connection between a learner and their mentor.
Bloc was founded by fellow University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign grads Roshan Choxi (CEO) and Dave Paola (CTO) who had found themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area after college. The two shared a mutual interest in the education space, and began working together around two years ago on various projects. One of these, an early version of what has become today’s Bloc, debuted in early 2012 at the Launch conference, helping seed the company’s user base with the first few thousand signups.
With today’s version of Bloc, the idea is to connect students directly with an experienced mentor who serves as part teacher, part code reviewer, and sometimes even pair programmer, as need be.
“We believe an online apprenticeship is superior to the classroom model,” says Choxi of Bloc’s apprenticeship angle. “It’s the better way to do advanced skill training, so it’s natural that it could apply to other verticals and other topics,” he adds, hinting at the company’s broader vision as Bloc grows.
HOW IT WORKS
In the subsequent weeks, students plow through a project-based curriculum built in-house, communicating with mentors during office hour sessions and chats along the way. There’s also a chat room staffed by mentors throughout the day and night, in case students are in need of help when their assigned mentor isn’t around.
Throughout the course, students also have to pass through “checkpoints” where mentors review their work, then help them get it right, even if it takes a few times before they succeed.
The co-founders tell us that the program tends to attract those who are involved with the tech industry in some way, but don’t necessarily have technical backgrounds. Around half of the students – and Bloc has seen hundreds so far – come from some major metro area, like San Francisco. But the rest come from suburban or rural areas, which is something that speaks to the accessible nature of the program, thanks to its online nature.
The other thing many students have in common is a desire to build something for themselves. “In our heads, a bootcamp is for getting a job, and Bloc is for becoming an entrepreneur,” says Paola.
The program teaches students skills that would help them in this pursuit, having them build clones of sites like Reddit or Wikipedia, for example. Then mid-way through, the students pick a capstone project to work on for themselves. The idea is that they’ll have something to actually show for their work by the end of the twelve weeks, rather than just a set of skills.
One graduate, Seth Seigler, was a real estate agent who completed Bloc then built an “uber for real estate” which he sold to a real estate firm, where he’s now CTO. Seigler today describes Bloc as the “perfect hybrid between the self-paced tutorials and the full-time bootcamps.”
“At the end of Bloc, I knew how to learn and how to complete any project,” he says.
That being said, not all students complete their training. Over the past 18 months, Bloc has had a 90% graduation rate. But Choxi says that the students who drop out tend to do so because they don’t have the time for a 25-hour per week commitment, and later return to re-enroll a couple of months later. (Bloc offers them pro-rated refunds.) “We work very hard to ensure they have a great experience and have a very good refund policy – we believe we don’t get paid unless they get results,” he says.
For a class that has you diving right into Ruby, those are not bad numbers. But Bloc’s platform makes it appealing to students who probably have some inclination for tech in the first place, and are motivated by what they want to do with their resulting skills.
In addition to the distributed mentors, Bloc has thirteen people based in San Francisco, and will use the new funding, in part to hire software engineers as well as a so-called “guidance counselor,” who will help students and alumni make progress and chose their career paths. The team is also looking into expanding into new courses, like iOS development, for example.
But for the students coming to Bloc, there’s another benefit beyond the skills they learn while attending – their one-on-one relationship with a mentor gives them an in into the tech industry – something those beyond the Bay area and other tech “hotspots” don’t always have access to.
“We think that’s one of the nice things about our community of mentors…we have some who are actually Y Combinator alumni and they also know how to code,” says Choxi. “Students ask them questions than are a little bit tangential to web development, but are still relevant starting a company. That’s something you can only develop when you have a personal relationship with your mentor,” he notes.
Startup AddVenture Summit is a new conference to hit the European circuit. Unusually, it’s run in Kiev, Ukraine, which turns out to be a rather good idea because Russians can easily travel there without a Visa, and so can Western Europeans, as can many people from Central and Eastern Europe and CIS countries. That said, most of the startups were from the CEE/CIS region, which is generating a lot of heat at the moment – a topic I’ll be returning to in due course. And like all tech conferences these days it features a tech startup pitch competition – in this case themed around a boxing match. TechCrunch was there to check the companies out and here’s what we found.
Cutting to the chase: the winner of the event was ￼￼Play Canvas (UK, AngelList). This is a “cloud-hosted game development platform” with is a collaborative editing tool with a rich community site. It’s a pretty spectacular site for creating an sharing games across any platform. Worth checking out. It has been incubated at TechStars London.
The runner up was ￼￼Lead Scanner (Russia/Ukraine, ￼￼￼￼AngelList). This is a lead generation tool which helps small and medium business (SMB) owners find prospective clients in social media and boost sales. Using proprietary algorithms, LeadScanner finds social media users who have an intent to buy specific products or services. It has been incubated at the Skolkovo IT Cluster in Moscow.
Applications to the competition were run through Angel List since April, which indicates that there was some decent filtering going on. The rules were that the companies had to have raised less than $2 million and be a European company.
They got over 500 applications, and after 35 semi finalists were interviewed, 10 finalists were selected. They then went to Kiev a week ago for three days of pitch training with event founder Vitaly Golomb.
Here are the rest of the finalists and how they describe themselves.
￼￼Priceless.ly (Italy – Russian/Ukrainian Team, AngelList)
“Pricelessly is an exposure-producing and fundraising platform that enables influential figures (celebrities) to mobilize their fans to raise funding and awareness for social causes, as well as widely engage and incentivize their fan-base with minimum effort.”
￼￼Jumpido (Bulgaria, AngelList)
“Jumpido is an educational software product that combines primary school maths, game-based learning and natural user interface. It is focused on transforming the way children learn mathematics in school and the approach teachers take to engage their classes with this interesting, but challenging subject.”
￼￼Limk (Turkey, AngelList)
“Limk is a content distribution and discovery platform that helps websites grow traffic while reaching highly engaged audiences. Websites can bring qualified new users—those most likely to engage—to their own sites by exposing their content on contextually similar sites at Limk Shuffle.”
￼￼Advice Wallet (Ukraine, AngelList)
“Advice Wallet is a mobile loyalty program to attract, keep and understand customers. It empowers any local business to create a customized acquisition and loyalty program online in minutes.”
Incubator: Happy Farm
￼￼InHiro (Slovakia, AngelList)
“Professionals don’t browse through job portals – get to them via social networks. With InHiro, you’re able to create an innovative job ad (template creator), share it through social neworks (gamification based mechanics) and manage candidates (funnel talents through each step of your hiring process).”
￼￼Moku (Italy, AngelList)
“Moku provides a common space to store and find documents, take rich notes (highlightings, text annotations, drawings) and collaborate with their classmates (while respecting their privacy, too), just with a browser. A “moku” is a collection of documents, where every document is securely stored on the cloud and available on any devices. It can be annotated on transparent layers (as if they were pieces of tracing paper) that don’t modify the original document. Annotations can stay private or can be shared with other users with read or write permission.”
San Francisco-based startup and Y Combinator Winter 2013 class member Swapbox has raised $800,000 in seed funding, led by Tony Hsieh’s Vegas Tech Fund investment vehicle and including Fuel Capital, YC founder Trevor Blackwell, Base Ventures and Ace & Company. The startup is hoping to cash in on the rise of ecommerce and home delivery, with shared, centrally located delivery lockers so people never miss a package again.
Swapbox isn’t alone with that aim, and it’s pitting itself against some heavy hitters; both Google and Amazon already have delivery pick-up initiatives in place, Amazon via its Lockers programs in select cities, and Google through BufferBox, a Waterloo-based startup it acquired last year. BufferBox recently went live in San Francisco, where it has packages accepted by local businesses. Swapbox co-founder and CEO Neel Murthy thinks there’s still room for a startup in the space, however.
“We accept any packages from anywhere. Shop online, we give you a new address and you just ship to that address,” he said in an interview. “It’s an independent platform that works for all the other ecommerce players.”
The service is piloting in SF, where it has 15 locations currently. Each consists of heavily modified gym lockers located at businesses around the city, and Murthy says they’ve paid special attention to industrial design with their physical hardware, in order to help with branding. The plan is to expand to surrounding areas near SF within the next year, and then look further afield soon after. Swapbox has different arrangements with its location partners, but most involve some kind of rev share of the service fee paid for by its users.
The business as it stands looks like a prime target for some other online retailer hoping to keep up with Amazon and Google to gobble up, but Murthy says they’ve built Swapbox as a long-term play. There’s plenty they’re planning to add later on, and the intent is to hopefully move the burden of cost from the consumer to the ecommerce players once they get enough scale. There’s also a plan to use Swapbox’s capabilities to essentially build in a type of escro for small merchants and private sale deals, Murthy says.
That would work by allowing sellers, on Craigslist for example, to use the Swapbox locations to exchange goods, with a seller controlling access for a buyer based on when payment clears. It takes out any of the uncertainty around meeting a total stranger online with a wad of cash or expensive gadget in their pocket. The escrow play could extend beyond just the private exchange scenario in theory, too.
Swapbox chose its investors mostly for their value as strategic partners, according to Murthy, and Zappos founder Tony Hsieh is a very strategic one indeed for a company this tied to online commerce. Google and Amazon may have a head start on automated delivery, but there’s definitely room for an open platform to serve everyone else, and Swapbox could be the one to step up in that role.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…to build another social network around users’ recent shopping purchases. Trace is the latest startup to give social commerce a go, with a new iPhone app, launching now, which allows users to share what they’ve just bought with a network of friends.
Today, Instagram users will sometimes post their recent shopping purchases as an expression of joy over a new find (or bragging, if they’re rich kids). And Pinterest users like to collect items they plan to buy later. But Ryan Stevens, Trace founder and CEO, thinks photos of your favorite new things deserve their own, standalone destination.
It’s an idea that’s been tried before.
“Things get lost on social networks,” says Stevens of how Trace competes with existing social networks and photo-sharing sites. You may remember seeing a friend post a great new pair of shoes on Instagram, for example, but there’s a challenge in trying to retrieve that image weeks or months later when it comes to mind, he explains. “It’s very complicated. We’re trying to make Trace an aggregate of things that you buy.”
Sound familiar? If not, you must be new here.
The idea for a shopping-based social network of sorts has been tried in the past, most prominently with Blippy, a failed startup that dug into users’ credit card purchases to find their purchases and share them. Users were hesitant to provide their credit card details, though, and when dollar amounts are involved, sharing purchases feels a bit gauche. Then, more recently, a startup called Mine used an email importer to perform a similar task.
But Mine quickly closed up shop after launch, apparently the result of a small acquisition by Twitter for team and tech after it failed to grow as quickly as the company had hoped. (Mine raised $600K, and two of its co-founders are now Twitter engineers.)
Says Stevens, Trace is not auto-sharing purchases and dollar amounts, or trying to build a product database like Mine was, nor is it immediately focused on sending users directly to e-commerce sites to generate affiliate revenues (though that may come later on). Instead, he just wants Trace to serve as a “live feed of the cool things people are buying.”
Stevens, along with co-founder Sudhir Navalapakam, got started on the idea for Trace a little over a year ago, following their stint at now-shuttered mobile payments service ZipPay. At ZipPay, they noticed then that a number of users were already sharing their purchases out to other social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. “We started talking about ways to make that a better experience for them,” says Stevens.
For the past 14 weeks, the app has been in private beta testing with around 1,500 users. Predominantly, the crowd is young, professional women, generally post-college grads now with a little extra income to spend.
Trace: A Pleasant App, But Busy Space
As for the app itself, there’s a familiar user interface involving a way to post and tag a product photo, a feed, a favoriting option, a friend finder, some suggested users to get you started, and a way to browse and explore through various categories.
Photos can also be shared out more broadly to Facebook or Twitter, and they do have their own dedicated, though not fully fleshed out, web pages which could later become the basis for Trace’s web version.
The app itself is pleasant enough to use, but it’s going to be tough for it to truly differentiate itself from other social commerce applications already out there. Though it’s focused on a user’s own purchases (at least in theory), more people are drawn to services like this not for the content creation aspects, but the consumption – that is, to see what others have shared. They browse Pinterest looking for ideas, or check out what’s trending on Wanelo or Svpply. Meanwhile, they’re still connecting with friends on Instagram, and shopping on a number of modern e-commerce sites on web and mobile, which have “popular” feeds of their own.
But Stevens though thinks there’s still room for something that’s solely focused on purchased items, and the resulting conversations around them. His team is working with bloggers and video bloggers (especially those doing the “haul videos“) to establish Trace’s core user base, he says.
The company has a small amount of seed funding ($250K) from Kae Capital and Tandem Entrepreneurs. They’re currently working out of Tandem’s auxiliary offices in Burlingame, California, after a fire destroyed Tandem’s main offices over the holidays. Fortunately for Trace, nothing was lost as they were working out of Hacker Dojo just before, and hadn’t yet set up shop. (Other teams weren’t so lucky).
Trace is a free download, here on iTunes.
Houzz, the popular online platform for home remodeling and design, is launching a completely redesigned iOS app for iPhone and iPad today. The new version features an updated look and feel in line with Apple’s iOS 7 design guidelines, but also improved navigation, support for AirDrop and an emphasis on full-screen photos.
As Alon Cohen, Houzz‘s president and co-founder, told me, the team considered quickly releasing a new version after the launch of iOS 7. In the end, however, Houzz decided to hold back and use the switch to the new flat design language on iOS to give the app more than just a facelift.
“iOS 7 came along and we had the option to either just do a quick update, or use this opportunity to overhaul the UI completely and support some of the iOS 7 specific features,” he told me. This means the app now features many of the new graphical effects iOS 7 introduced, for example, and makes use of dynamic type and the new, and relatively little utilized, AirDrop capability in the updated OS.
Cohen was especially excited about the AirDrop functionality. This now allows somebody in a tile showroom, for example, to quickly share an image (or anything else) from Houzz with a designer there, something that was previously a bit more cumbersome.
As he stressed, though, an app that’s as popular as Houzz, which has reached over 12 million downloads now and streams over 600 terabytes of data every month, always has to ensure that it doesn’t alienate its users with an update that’s too radical. “We’ve seen incredible adoption of our mobile apps with 55 percent of users remodeling their homes with Houzz from a mobile device,” Cohen said, and the team obviously doesn’t want to upset these users with a bad redesign. The new version definitely streamlines the navigation, though, and with the addition of full-screen images, it also often hides it almost completely when necessary.
The team made another major change, though. In the new app, Cohen told me, the focus of the navigation has changed. Now the team has tried to put the content before the navigation. This means you don’t have to select a room first when you are browsing the app, for example. Instead you see the images first and then narrow your selection by room, style and location.
Cohen also noted that finding reviews of contractors, designers, landscapers and other professionals is now easier in the new design. The service currently features over 300,000 professionals on the site and they have uploaded over 2.4 million photos. For Houzz, this is also a major source of income, as many of these pros sign up for its paid Pro+ service to highlight their work for users in a specific area.
What’s better than drones delivering your stuff?
Drones delivering your food*.
According to ATD, Amazon may be ready to announce the San Francisco launch of AmazonFresh, the online retailer’s grocery delivery service, on December 10.
As it stands now, Amazon is already running the AmazonFresh program in Seattle (the company’s home base) and Los Angeles. Alongside ATD’s unnamed sources, there is additional evidence pointing toward the forthcoming SF launch.
Users are already enjoying buying non-fresh grocery items on Amazon, and some even get two-day delivery with an Amazon Prime membership. AmazonFresh, on the other hand, will offer users fresh items like produce, meats, milk, etc. with either same- or next-day delivery. Pretty sweet, huh?
For existing members of the AmazonFresh program, the service costs $299/year.
Amazon may not make amazing margins in grocery delivery, but the move makes sense considering that Amazon wants to own the entire shopping experience, from electronics to clothes to household essentials and back again.
The more users Amazon can wrangle into a membership, such as Prime or AmazonFresh, the more opportunities Amazon has to sell those members items they wouldn’t normally get. If you pay a relatively high yearly fee for free delivery from a retailer, you’ll make sure to use that retailer for as much as possible. Gotta get your money’s worth.
Groceries are a great factor in this strategy as… well, a girl’s gotta eat.
*And, to be clear, AmazonFresh in San Francisco will not come with drone delivery.
Social Travel App Jetpac Ditches Facebook, Pivots To Instagram-Based “City Guides” For At-A-Glance Recommendations
Facebook-based social travel apps may have run their course. Jetpac, a gorgeous but ultimately slow-to-grow travel app for iPad, which last year raised $2.4 million in Series A funding, is shifting its focus today with the launch of its new Jetpac City Guides for iPhone. These visual guides cover millions of venues in 5,000 cities worldwide, but in a different way than you might expect: by analyzing Instagram photos.
Social travel apps were growing in popularity when Jetpac first launched, with a number of competitors like Trippy and social travel planner Gogobot also tied to Facebook’s social network to improve their usefulness. The space was buzzy. These days? Not so much.
At the core of Jetpac’s earlier product, which relied on friends’ shared Facebook photos, were image processing capabilities that allowed the app to automatically understand where images were taken, even when they weren’t geo-tagged. The company then curated all the photos from any given travel destination, and showed you just the top 10% in terms of quality.
Likewise, Jetpac’s new Instagram-based City Guides also lean on the company’s image analysis algorithms. The system looks for faces in the photos, determines if they’re happy or sad, makes style judgements (mustache? could be a hipster! lipstick? people get dressed up to visit here!), and more. Jetpac also determines if a shot is outdoors or indoors, if there are plates or cups in view, and makes a call about the image’s overall quality.
The end result are clever mini-guides like “bars women love,” “coffee shot spots,” “happiest places in town,” “hipster hangouts,” and others, as well as more traditional lists like “galleries and museums,” “places to stay,” or just “restaurants,” for example.
There are billions of Instagram photos to pull from these days, and the highly visual format makes sense for a generation which is more interested in communication via photos, rather than status updates or lengthy text. Coupled with the photos is basic venue info, like name, location, phone number and map. And instead of user reviews, the app tells you about “who goes there” – like “wine lovers,” “dog people,” “outdoorsmen,” “students,” etc.
Farewell To Facebook, Hello To Instagram
While the company’s original vision was to give people better travel recommendations and visual inspiration, which the iPad app achieves through trusted friends’ recommendations via their shared travel photos, that didn’t really pan out, explains Jetpac CEO Julian Green.
“What we learned from the iPad app, is that your friends’ haven’t been everywhere, and people want specific venue recommendations rather than just which friend has been to a city, and their photos,” he admits. With the ability to process the public Instagram photos from around the world, Jetpac’s guides can offer users more recommendations than before.
“You can now search for places to go to in the way that you naturally visualize it, rather than reading through an amenities list or parsing text reviews,” says Green. “People use it to quickly get a sense of a place and the people who go there – photos don’t lie,” he adds.
Going forward, the plan is to build out the social functions in the app, so you can layer on places your friends are into over top the wisdom of the crowds aspect. To some extent, there are similarities here with Foursquare, which leveraged check-in data to point you to places your friends visit, and the photos shot there. But instead of relying the check-in, which is seeing declining user interest forcing Foursquare to prompt users to provide data in other ways, Jetpac is taking advantage of an activity which users are doing anyway — taking Instagram photos.
That being said, while the guides may be good for a quick visual take on popular spots, lacking user or critics’ reviews limits their practicality for serious vacation planners who would want more detailed data about a venue, including pricing, recommendations, overall ambience, quality of service, travel times to key areas (like the city center, or the airport), and more.
Instead, the guides come across as less of a way to plan a trip, and more of a way to explore your own backyard.
The Facebook-based Jetpac iPad app is not going away immediately, Green says, but it will no longer be the focus. The app drew in only hundreds of thousands of App Store downloads, not millions, we’re told. Eventually, it, too, will be transitioned over to this new experience…well, assuming Jetpac is able to raise a new round, which Green says the company needs to do next year.
Jetpac’s City Guides are here.
Homejoy, a startup that makes it easy and relatively affordable ($20 an hour) to sign up for a home cleaning, is announcing that it has raised $38 million in new funding.
The money was actually raised across two rounds — a Series A led by Google Ventures and a Series B led by Redpoint Ventures. The rounds were raised within “a couple months of each other,” said co-founder and CEO Adora Cheung, which is why they’re being announced at the same time.
Max Levchin, First Round Capital, Oliver Jung, and Mike Hirshland (most of whom had invested previously) also participated. Altogether, Homejoy says it has now raised a total of $40 million.
The Y Combinator-incubated startup first launched its service under the name Pathjoy last year. It says it’s now available in 30 markets in the United States and Canada and employs more than 100 people who work with “thousands of professional service providers” (i.e., cleaners). Cheung told me that the company’s revenue and other metrics have been growing by double digits every month.
Homejoy also recently established a foundation to support veterans and military families in need.
Moving forward, Cheung said her biggest worry is “scaling with quality”: “It’s great to grow fast, but you also want to grow fast and maintain that quality.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve been a pretty regular Homejoy customer since I first wrote about the company, and I’m usually happy with the service — my only complaint has been the fact that the wait for a cleaning can sometimes be several weeks.) Behind the scenes, the company says it has built a fairly sophisticated technical infrastructure to manage its workforce.
Beyond funding overall growth, Cheung said the money could also help Homejoy expand into areas beyond cleaning that are also related to home services and tie into the company’s goal of “making happier homes.”
“We’re definitely thinking about it,” she said. “Honestly, there’s no timeline for us right now. We don’t have any hard set dates, but you’ll see something in 2014.”
It’s interesting to compare Homejoy, which (despite the possible expansion discussed above) has been focused on cleaning since its public launch, with more general on-demand task services like Exec and TaskRabbit. Exec has since shut down its errand service to focus on cleaning (and lowered its prices as well) while TaskRabbit also “realigned” (with some layoffs) to focus on its enterprise and mobile offerings.
[Photo via Homejoy]
San Francisco-based Fleksy offers predictive text typing that’s so intuitive it can be used without even a glance at a screen, and now the app is finally exiting beta on Android. Fleksy works by analyzing a user’s typing pattern, no matter how sloppy, and making predictions about what keys they’re trying to hit, and it does this so well it enables even users with impaired or no vision to use a touchscreen keyboard.
Fleksy founders Kosta Eleftheriou and Ioannis Verdelis have been building Fleksy and refining it for years now, and Eleftheriou previously built an app called BlindType that offered similar functionality, which he later sold to Google in 2010. Fleksy exiting beta is a big milestone for the startup, and the company is also introducing multiple language support to the beta version of Fleksy, which will exist alongside the $3.99 full version.
“We have adjusted a lot of the gestures, user interface, tutorial, menus, as well as the algorithms themselves based on user feedback,” Verdelis explained in an interview, when asked what’s changed between when Fleksy first launched in beta and now. “We have a very active community of about 35,000 members and we engage them regularly.”
As for the multi-lingual support, that’s a key differentiator for any kind of software replacement keyboard, and Verdelis says that Fleksy can add new ones quickly and with improved accuracy versus their competitors.
“Due to our unique approach to the task of typing, we can roll out languages much quicker than others have expanded,” he said. “We will be launching four new languages in the beta program simultaneously with the Google play launch, but we have 25 languages under development in total, including Asian languages, right now.”
Aside from the Android launch and beta improvements, Fleksy is also getting closer to officially launching its iOS SDK with partners who have incorporated the software. The SDK, which we covered previously, will allow devs on Apple’s mobile platform to build Fleksy into their apps as a replacement for Apple’s own native keyboard. It’s not quite as convenient as letting the user replace their keyboard system-wide, but Apple doesn’t allow that kind of access for third-party devs, and so this workaround is the best possible solution, akin to what Google has done with Chrome on iOS.
Verdelis says that we’ll hear more about iOS and the first apps to use the SDK “soon,” so it’ll be interesting to see who they’ve signed up. The company has come a long way on the back of its existing funding of just under $4 million, and looks poised to continue its product growth quickly now that it’s out of closed beta.