Coinbase acquires Distributed Systems to build ‘Login with Coinbase’

Coinbase wants to be Facebook Connect for crypto. The blockchain giant plans to develop ‘Login with Coinbase’ or a similar identity platform for decentralized app developers to make it much easier for users to sign up and connect their crypto wallets. To fuel that platform, today Coinbase announced it has acquired Distributed Systems, a startup […]

Coinbase wants to be Facebook Connect for crypto. The blockchain giant plans to develop ‘Login with Coinbase’ or a similar identity platform for decentralized app developers to make it much easier for users to sign up and connect their crypto wallets. To fuel that platform, today Coinbase announced it has acquired Distributed Systems, a startup founded last year that was building identity standard for dApps called the Clear Protocol.

The five-person Distributed Systems team and its technology will join Coinbase. Three of the team members will work with Coinbase’s Toshi decentralized mobile browser team, while CEO Nikhil Srinivasan and one other co-founder are forming the new decentralized identity team that will work on the ‘Login with Coinbase’ product. They’ll be building it atop the “know your customer” anti-money laundering data Coinbase has on its 20 million customers. Srinivasan tells me the goal is to figure out “How can we allow that really rich identity data to enable a new class of applications?”

Distributed Systems had raised a $1.7 million seed round last year led by Floodgate and was considering raising a $4 million to $8 million round this summer. But Srinivasan says “No one really understood what we’re building”, and it wanted a partner with KYC data. It began talking to Coinbase Ventures about an investment, but after they saw Distributed Systems’ progress and vision, “they quickly tried to move to find a way to acquire us.”

Distributed Systems began to hold acquisition talks with multiple major players in the blockchain space, and the CEO tells me it was deciding between going to “Facebook, or Robinhood, or Binance, or Coinbase”, having been in formal talks with at least one of the first three. Coinbase “were able to convince us they were making big bets, weaving identity across their products.” The financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

Coinbase’s plan to roll out the ‘Login with Coinbase’ platform is an SDK that others apps could integrate. That mimics the way Facebook colonized the web with its SDK and login buttons that splashed its brand in front of tons of new and existing users. This made turned Facebook into a fundamental identity utility beyond its social network.

Developers eager to improve conversions on their sign up flow could turn to Coinbase instead of requiring users to set up whole new accounts and deal with crypto-specific headaches of complicated keys and procedures for connecting their wallet to make payments. One prominent dApp developer told me yesterday that forcing users to set up the MetaMask browser extension for identity was the part of their signup flow where they’re losing the most people.

This morning Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong confirmed these plans to work on an identity SDK. When Coinbase investor Garry Tan of Initialized Capital wrote that “The main issue preventing dApp adoption is lack of native SDK so you can just download a mobile app and a clean fiat to crypto in one clean UX. Still have to download a browser plugin and transfer Eth to Metamask for now Too much friction”, Armstrong replied “On it :)”

In effect, Coinbase and Distributed Systems could build a safer version of identity than we get offline. As soon as you give your social security number to someone or it gets stolen, it can be used anywhere without your consent and that leads to identity theft. Coinbase wants to build a vision of identity where you can connect to decentralized apps while retaining control. “Decentralized identity will let you prove that you own an identity, or that you have a relationship with the Social Security Administration, without making a copy of that identity” writes Coinbase’s PM for identity. “If you stretch your imagination a little further, you can imagine this applying to your photos, social media posts, and maybe one day your passport too.”

Considering Decentralized Systems and Coinbase are following the Facebook playbook, they may soon have competition from the social network. It’s spun up its own blockchain team and an identity and single sign-on platform for dApps is one of the products I think Facebook is most likely to build. But given Coinbase’s strong reputation in the blockchain industry and its massive head start in terms of registered crypto users, today’s acquisition well positions it to be how we connect our offline identity with the rising decentralized economy.

To fight the scourge of open offices, ROOM sells rooms

Noisy open offices don’t foster collaboration, they kill it, according to a Harvard study that found the less-private floor plan led to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between employees and a rise in emailing. The problem is plenty of young companies and big corporations have already bought into the open office fad. But […]

Noisy open offices don’t foster collaboration, they kill it, according to a Harvard study that found the less-private floor plan led to a 73 percent drop in face-to-face interaction between employees and a rise in emailing. The problem is plenty of young companies and big corporations have already bought into the open office fad. But a new startup called ROOM is building a prefabricated, self-assembled solution. It’s the Ikea of office phone booths.

The $3495 ROOM One is a sound-proofed, ventilated, powered booth that can be built in new or existing offices to give employees a place to take a video call or get some uninterrupted flow time to focus on work. For comparison, ROOM co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen says “Most phone booths are $8,000 to $12,000. The cheapest competitor to us is $6,000 — almost twice as much.” Though booths start at $4,500 from TalkBox and $3,995 from Zenbooth, they tack on $1,250 and $1,650 for shipping while ROOM ships for free. They’re all dividing the market of dividing offices.

The idea might seem simple, but the booths could save businesses a ton of money on lost productivity, recruitment, and retention if it keeps employees from going crazy amidst sales call cacophony. Less than a year after launch, ROOM has hit a $10 million revenue run rate thanks to 200 clients ranging from startups to Salesforce, Nike, NASA, and JP Morgan. That’s attracted a $2 million seed round from Slow Ventures that adds to angel funding from Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen. “I am really excited about it since it is probably the largest revenue generating company Slow has seen at the time of our initial Seed stage investment” says partner Kevin Colleran.

“It’s not called ROOM because we build rooms” Meisner-Jensen tells me. “It’s called ROOM because we want to make room for people, make room for privacy, and make room for a better work environment.”

Phone Booths, Not Sweatboxes

You might be asking yourself, enterprising reader, why you couldn’t just go to Home Depot, buy some supplies, and build your own in-office phone booth for way less than $3,500. Well, ROOM’s co-founders tried that. The result was…moist.

Meisner-Jensen has design experience from the Danish digital agency Revolt that he started befor co-founding digital book service Mofibo and selling it to Storytel. “In my old job we had to go outside and take the class, and I’m from Copenhagen so that’s a pretty cold experience half the year.” His co-founder Brian Chen started Y Combinator-backed smart suitcase company Bluesmart where he was VP of operations. They figured they could attack the office layout issue with hammers and saws. I mean, they do look like superhero alter-egos.

Room co-founders (from left): Brian Chen and Morten Meisner-Jensen

“To combat the issues I myself would personally encounter with open offices, as well as colleagues, we tried to build a private ‘phone booth’ ourselves” says Meisner-Jensen. “We didn’t quite understand the specifics of air ventilation or acoustics at the time, so the booth got quite warm – warm enough that we coined it ‘the sweatbox.'”

With ROOM, they got serious about the product. The 10 square foot ROOM One booth ships flat and can be assembled in under 30 minutes by two people with a hex wrench. All it needs is an outlet to plug into to power its light and ventilation fan. Each is built from 1088 recycled plastic bottles for noise cancelling so you’re not supposed to hear anything from outsides. The whole box is 100 percent recyclable plus ith can be torn down and rebuilt if your startup implodes and you’re being evicted from your office.

The ROOM One features a bar-height desk with outlets and a magnetic bulletin board behind it, though you’ll have to provide your own stool of choice. It actually designed not to be so comfy that you end up napping inside, which doesn’t seem like it’d be a problem with this somewhat cramped spot. “To solve the problem with noise at scale you want to provide people with space to take a call but not camp out all day” Meisner-Jensen notes.

Booths by Zenbooth, Cubicall, and TalkBox (from left)

A Place To Get Into Flow

Couldn’t office managers just buy noise-cancelling headphones for everyone? “It feels claustrophobic to me” he laughs, but then outlines why a new workplace trend requires more than headphones. “People are doing video calls and virtual meetings much, much more. You can’t have all these people walking by you and looking at your screen. [A booth is] also giving you your own space to do your own work which I don’t think you’d get from a pair of Bose. I think it has to be a physical space.”

But with plenty of companies able to construct physical spaces, it will be a challenge for ROOM to convey to subtleties of its build quality that warrant its price. “The biggest risk for ROOM right now are copycats” Meisner-Jensen admits. “Someone entering our space claiming to do what we’re doing better but cheaper.” Alternatively, ROOM could lock in customers by offering a range of office furniture products. The co-founder hinted at future products, saying ROOM is already receiving demand for bigger multi-person prefab conference rooms and creative room divider solutions.

The importance of privacy goes beyond improved productivity when workers are alone. If they’re exhausted from overstimulation in a chaotic open office, they’ll have less energy for purposeful collaboration when the time comes. The bustle could also make them reluctant to socialize in off-hours, which could lead them to burn out and change jobs faster. Tech companies in particular are in a constant war for talent, and ROOM Ones could be perceived as a bigger perk than free snacks or a ping-pong table that only makes the office louder.

“I don’t think the solution is to go back to a world of cubicles and corner offices” Meisner-Jensen concludes. It could take another decade for office architects to correct the overenthusiasm for open offices despite the research suggesting their harm. For now, ROOM’s co-founder is concentrating on “solving the issue of noise at scale” by asking “How do we make the current workspaces work in the best way possible?”

HQ Trivia downloads spiral downward as it hits Apple TV

HQ Trivia’s app store ranking has continued to sink the past three months, but it’s hoping a new version on your television could revitalize growth. HQ today launched an Apple TV app that lets users play the twice-daily live quiz game alongside iOS Android players. “Everything about the game is still the same – same […]

HQ Trivia’s app store ranking has continued to sink the past three months, but it’s hoping a new version on your television could revitalize growth. HQ today launched an Apple TV app that lets users play the twice-daily live quiz game alongside iOS Android players. “Everything about the game is still the same – same questions, same time, same rules” says a spokesperson, except you’ll play with the Apple TV remote instead of their phone’s screen. But that might not be enough to get HQ’s player count rapidly growing again.

According to App Annie’s app store ranking history, on iOS HQ has fallen from the #1 US Trivia game to #10, from the #44 game to #196, and from the #151 overall app to #585. It’s exhibited a similar decline on Android. Analytics firm Sensor Tower estimates HQ has seen 12.5 million lifetime installs by unique users, with abou 68% on iOS. “Installs have been on the decline. For last month, we estimate them with about 560K, which is down from their height of more than two million per month back in February” Sensor Tower’s head of mobile insights Randy Nelson tells TechCrunch.

 

The question is whether this is just a summer lull as people spend time outside and students aren’t locked in the schedule of school, or if HQ is in a downward spiral beyond seasonal fluctuations. But if we zoom out, you can see that HQ has been in dropping down the charts through the school year since peaking in January. At one point it climbed as high as the #3 game and #6 overall app. The app’s record high of concurrent players has also declined from a peak of 2.38 million in late March.

Meanwhile, new clones keep popping up. After the initial wave of Chinese live trivia apps, now US television studios are getting into the mix. This week Fox unveiled ‘FN Genius’ which looks and works almost exactly that same as HQ. One of HQ’s long-time rivals Trivia Crack where users play asynchronously over the course of days, also declined earlier this year but has bucked HQ’s trend and started rising on the App Store charts again. There are also new 1-on-1 trivia games like ProveIt that let players bet real money on whether they can outsmart their opponent.

Fox’s FN Genius. Image via Deadline

With themed games, celebrity hosts, big jackpots like a recent $400,000 prize, and new features like the ability to see friends’ answers, HQ has tried to keep its app novel. But it’s also encountered cheaters and people playing with multiple phones that make normal players feel like they’ll never win. While the live aspect adds urgency, it can also feel interruptive with time as users aren’t always available for its noon and 6pm pacific games. HQ may need to launch a second game app, come up with some new viral hooks, or find ways to revive lapsed players if it’s going to make good on the $15 million its parent company raised in March.

 

Facebook buys Vidpresso’s team and tech to make video interactive

Zombie-like passive consumption of static video is both unhealthy for viewers and undifferentiated for the tech giants that power it. That’s set Facebook on a mission to make video interactive, full of conversation with broadcasters and fellow viewers. It’s racing against Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat to become where people watch together and don’t feel […]

Zombie-like passive consumption of static video is both unhealthy for viewers and undifferentiated for the tech giants that power it. That’s set Facebook on a mission to make video interactive, full of conversation with broadcasters and fellow viewers. It’s racing against Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat to become where people watch together and don’t feel like asocial slugs afterward.

That’s why Facebook today told TechCrunch that it’s acqui-hired Vidpresso, buying its seven-person team and its technology but not the company itself. The six-year-old Utah startup works with TV broadcasters and content publishers to make their online videos more interactive with on-screen social media polling and comments, graphics and live broadcasting integrated with Facebook, YouTube, Periscope and more. The goal appears to be to equip independent social media creators with the same tools these traditional outlets use so they can make authentic but polished video for the Facebook platform.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but it wouldn’t have taken a huge price for the deal to be a success for the startup. Vidpresso had only raised a $120,00 in seed capital from Y Combinator in 2014, plus some angel funding. By 2016, it was telling hiring prospects that it was profitable, but also that, “We will not be selling the company unless some insane whatsapp like thing happened. We’re building a forever biz, not a flip.” So either Vidpresso lowered its bar for an exit or Facebook made coming aboard worth its while.

For now, Vidpresso clients and partners like KTXL, Univision, BuzzFeed, Turner Sports, Nasdaq, TED, NBC and others will continue to be able to use its services. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that customers will work with the Vidpresso team at Facebook, who are joining its offices in Menlo Park, London and LA. That means Facebook is at least temporarily becoming a provider of enterprise video services. But Facebook confirms it won’t charge Vidpresso clients, so they’ll be getting its services for free from now on. Whether Facebook eventually turns away old clients or stops integrating with competing video platforms like Twitch and YouTube remains to be seen. For now, it’s giving Vidpresso a much more dignified end than the sudden shutdowns some tech giants impose on their acquisitions.

We’ve had a lot of false starts along the way . . . We finally landed on helping create high quality broadcasts back on social media, but we still haven’t realized the full vision yet. That’s why we’re joining Facebook,” the Vidpresso team writes. “This gives us the best opportunity to accelerate our vision and offer a simple way for creators, publishers, and broadcasters to use social media in live video at a high quality level . . . By joining Facebook, we’ll be able to offer our tools to a much broader audience than just our A-list publishing partners. Eventually, it’ll allow us to put these tools in the hands of creators, so they can focus on their content, and have it look great, without spending lots of time or money to do so.”

Facebook already has some interactive video experiments out in the wild. It recently rolled out its Watch Party tool for letting Groups view and chat about videos together. It’s also trying new games like Lip Sync Live and a Talent Show feature where users submit videos of them singing. Facebook Live has also built tools to help publishers pull in social media content, let streamers earn tips and for fans to subscribe to donating money to their favorite video makers like on Patreon. It’s even got an interactive video API that it’s developing to allow developers to launch their own HQ Trivia-game shows.

But the last line of Vidpresso’s announcement above explains Facebook’s intentions here, and also why it didn’t just try to build the tools itself. It doesn’t just want established news publishers and TV studios making video for its platform. It wants semi-pro creators to be able to broadcast snazzy videos with graphics, comments and polls that can aesthetically compete with “big video” but that feel more natural.

Every internet platform is wising up to the fact that web-native creators who grew up on their sites often create the most compelling content and the most fervent fan bases.

Whichever platform offers the best audience growth, creative expression tools and monetization options will become the preferred destination for their work, and their audiences will follow. Facebook couldn’t risk another tech giant buying up Vidpresso and gaining an edge, or wasting time trying to build interactive video technology and expertise from scratch.

Wonderschool raises $20M to help people start in-home preschools

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in. Any time there’s a lousy […]

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in.

Any time there’s a lousy experience people have an emotional connection to and spend a lot of money on, there’s an opportunity for a startup. Enter ‘Wonderschool‘, a company that lets licensed educators and caretakers launch in-home preschools or daycares. Wonderschool helps candidates get credentialed, set up their programs, launch their websites, boost enrollment, and take payments in exchange for a 10 percent cut of tuition. The startup is now helping run 140 schools in the SF Bay, LA, and NYC where parents are happy to pay to give their kids an advantage.

That chance to fill a lucrative gap in the education market has attracted a new $20 million Series A for Wonderschool led by Andreessen Horowitz . The round brings the startup to $24.1 million in total funding just two years after launch. With the cash and Andreessen partner Jeff Jordan joining its board, Wonderschool is looking to build powerful lead generation and management software to turn teachers into savvy entrepreneurs.

Finding good childcare has become one of the most difficult experiences for families. I’ve seen parents who are making a livable wage in urban cities like San Francisco and New York still struggle to find and afford quality childcare” says co-founder and CEO Chris Bennett. “We wanted to deliver a solution for parents that also had the potential to create jobs and empower the caregiver — that’s Wonderschool.”

By spawning and uniting programs across the country, Wonderschool could scale as the way software eats preschool. But without vigorous oversight of each educator, Wonderschool is also at risk of a safety mishap at one of its franchises ruining the brand for them all.

Airbnb For Schooling

Wonderschool started when co-founder Arrel Gray was having trouble finding childcare for his daughter close to home. “My little sister went to an in-home preschool, so I suggested he check them out” says Bennett. “But he wasn’t very satisfied with the options – the majority were full and some didn’t meet the expectations for his family. We also found that they didn’t use the internet much so they were hard to find and contact.”

The two were seeking to pivot their social commerce startup Soldsie after Facebook algorithm changes curtailed its growth. Their research led to the discovery of just how much lower preschool and daycare workers’ wages were. “When we had the idea we thought, ‘what the best way to test this?’ Why don’t we start a preschool ourselves'” says Bennett. “So we rented a home in the Berkeley Hills, hired an amazing educator, set up a school and started one. The school ended up being a huge success. Five-star reviews on Yelp. A high NPS. Parents loved the place.” It also netted the teacher a 3X higher salary than before.

With that proof, Wonderschool went on to raise $4.1 million from Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Omidyar Network, Cross Culture Ventures, Uncork Capital, Lerer Ventures, FundersClub, and Edelweiss. That let Bennett and Gray flesh out the business. Wonderschool would recruit existing teachers and caregivers or guide people to get licensed so they could become “directors” of in-home schools. Wonderschool acts almost like Airbnb by turning them into small businesses earning money from home.

Teachers can pick whatever schedule, curriculum, or format they want, like Montesori or nature-focused learning. Wonderschool now has over 500 directors working with its software, with some making as much as $150,000 or $200,000. In exchange for its 10 percent cut of tuition, Wonderschool provides directors with a “bootcamp” to prep them for the job. It pairs them with a mentor, then helps them build their website and figure out their pricing options. Coaching guides train the directors to scout for new leads, offer appealing tours, and track their fledgling business.

The $20 million from Andreessen, OmidyarGary Community Investments, and First Round will go to expanding the Wonderschool software. Each student slot it can help director fill, the more it earns. The startup will also have to compete with  companies like Wildflower Schools, which Bennett admits has a similar business model but he says “We are focused on in home and they also focus on Montessori while we are curriculum agnostic.” There’s also Cottage Class which powers homeschooling for students up to age 18, Tinkergarten that concentrates on short-term outdoor education, and VIPKid connects kids in China with U.S. teachers over video chat.

They, like Wonderschool, are trying to scale up to meet the massive existing demand. “The challenge is that there aren’t enough programs for the number of children needing public or private schooling – 1st grade or earlier – and our goal is to provide enough supply for every child” Bennett explains.

Still, safety remains a top concern. Bennett notes that “Wonderschool has a support team that helps school Directors prepare their homes for operation. With regard to safety, each state’s licensing office covers this in their approval process for being granted a license to operate.” But could a problem at one school shake the businesses of all the rest of its franchises? “We have a system of checks in balances in place that we feel confident would allow us to anticipate any potential issues, including regular, weekly check-ins with Directors and a feedback loop with parents. We also email parents on a regular cadence to get feedback from parents and we step in and work with the Director if we find that there are issues” Bennett insists.

If Wonderschool can keep its brand clean through thorough oversight, it could both create better paying jobs in a field rife with undercompensated heroes, and open early schooling to a wider range of students. Bennett’s parents moved to the U.S. from Honduras, pouring their efforts into supporting his and his sister’s education. Now he’s building the next generation of teachers the tools to give more kids a head start in life.

Facebook now deletes posts that financially endanger/trick people

It’s not just inciting violence, threats and hate speech that will get Facebook to remove posts by you or your least favorite troll. Endangering someone financially, not just physically, or tricking them to earn a profit are now also strictly prohibited. Facebook today spelled out its policy with more clarity in hopes of establishing a […]

It’s not just inciting violence, threats and hate speech that will get Facebook to remove posts by you or your least favorite troll. Endangering someone financially, not just physically, or tricking them to earn a profit are now also strictly prohibited.

Facebook today spelled out its policy with more clarity in hopes of establishing a transparent set of rules it can point to when it enforces its policy in the future. That comes after cloudy rules led to waffling decisions and backlash as it dealt with and finally removed four Pages associated with Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The company started by repeatedly stressing that it is not a government — likely to indicate it does not have to abide by the same First Amendment rules.

“We do not, for example, allow content that could physically or financially endanger people, that intimidates people through hateful language, or that aims to profit by tricking people using Facebook,” its VP of policy Richard Allen published today.

Web searches show this is the first time Facebook has used that language regarding financial attacks. We’ve reached out for comment about exactly how new Facebook considers this policy.

This is important because it means Facebook’s policy encompasses threats of ruining someone’s credit, calling for people to burglarize their homes or blocking them from employment. While not physical threats, these can do real-world damage to victims.

Similarly, the position against trickery for profit gives Facebook a wide berth to fight against spammers, scammers and shady businesses making false claims about products. The question will be how Facebook enforces this rule. Some would say most advertisements are designed to trick people in order for a business to earn a profit. Facebook is more likely to shut down obvious grifts where businesses make impossible assertions about how their products can help people, rather than just exaggerations about their quality or value.

The added clarity offered today highlights the breadth and particularity with which other platforms, notably the wishy-washy Twitter, should lay out their rules about content moderation. While there have long been fears that transparency will allow bad actors to game the system by toeing the line without going over it, the importance of social platforms to democracy necessitates that they operate with guidelines out in the open to deflect calls of biased enforcement.

Soundcloud on the blockchain? Audius raises $5.5M to decentralize music

Audius wants to cut the middlemen out music streaming so artists get paid their fair share. Coming out of stealth today led by serial entrepreneur and DJ Ranidu Lankage, Audius is building a blockchain-based alternative to Spotify or SoundCloud. Users will pay for Audius tokens or earn them by listening to ads. Their wallet will […]

Audius wants to cut the middlemen out music streaming so artists get paid their fair share. Coming out of stealth today led by serial entrepreneur and DJ Ranidu Lankage, Audius is building a blockchain-based alternative to Spotify or SoundCloud.

Users will pay for Audius tokens or earn them by listening to ads. Their wallet will then pay out a fraction of a cent per song to stream from decentralized storage across the network, with artists receiving roughly 85 percent — compared to roughly 70 percent on the leading streaming apps. The rest goes to compensating whoever is hosting that song, as well as developers of listening software clients, one of which will be built by Audius.

Audius plans to launch its open sourced product in beta later this year. But it’s already found some powerful investors who see SoundCloud as vulnerable to the cryptocurrency revolution. Audius has raised a $5.5 million Series A led by General Catalyst and Lightspeed, with participation from Kleiner Perkins, Pantera Capital, 122West and Ascolta Ventures. They’re betting that Audius’ token will grow in value, making the stockpile it keeps worth a fortune. It could then sell chunks of its tokens to earn revenue instead of charging artists directly.

Audius co-founders (from left): Head of product Forrest Browning, CEO Ranidu Lankage, CTO Roneil Rumburg

“The biggest problem in the music industry is that streaming is taking off and artists aren’t necessarily earning a lot of money. And it can take 3 months, or up to 18 months for unsigned artists, to get paid for streams” says Lankage. “That’s what crypto really solves. You can pay artists in near real-time and make it fully transparent.”

The big question will be whether Audius can use the token economy to crack the chicken-and-egg problem of getting its first creators and listeners on a platform that might be less functionally robust than its traditional competitors. There are a lot of moving parts to decentralize, but there are also plenty of disgruntled musicians out there waiting for something better.

From Sri Lankan Hip-Hop Star To Serial Entrepreneur

Most startup guys don’t have Billboard charting singles on their bio, but Lankage does. Born in Sri Lanka, his hip-hop songs in his native tongue of Sinhalese were the first of the language to be played on the BBC and MTV. He got signed to Sony and even went platinum, but left the label seeking greater control over his work. After going to Yale, he applied his music business knowledge to build a Reddit for dance music called The Drop with Twitch’s Justin Kan back in 2015.

The two teamed up again on a video version of Q&A app Quora called Whale, but that fizzled out too. Lankage’s next venture Polly, a polling tool built as a complement to Snapchat, inspired that now super-popular Instagram Stories polls and questions stickers. But after an acquihire by Reddit fell through, he returned to first love: music.

“I’ve always been passionate about building tools for creators” says Lankage. But this time, he wanted to focus on helping them turn their art into a profession. He teamed up with CTO Roneil Rumburg, an engineering partner at Kleiner Perkins who’d build a crypto wallet called Backslash, and head of product Forrest Browning, who’d sold his software metering startup StacksWare to Avi Networks.

Their goal is to build a blockchain streaming music service where listeners don’t have to understand blockchains. “A user wouldn’t even know that they have a wallet” says Rumburg. They’ll just hear an ad every once in a while, get a subscription, or pay per stream. Since Audius is open sourced, developers will be able to build their own listening clients on top which could specialize in discovery of certain types of music or offer their own payment schemes.

“I have known Ranidu, Forrest, and Roneil for a long time, and have always been impressed with their ability to blend art, technology and business together” says investor Niko Bonatsos of General Catalyst. “In Audius, they bring together all three skills, with a deep technical heart and a compelling solution for a very big marketplace.”

Tokens, Not Record Labels

For starters, Audius is focusing on signing up independent electronic musicians. These are the types that might be popular on SoundCloud but actually have to pay for hosting there while not getting much back due to the platform’s weak monetization options. Don’t expect U2 and Ariana Grande on Audius, at least not yet. But the startup could differentiate by offering access to content you can’t find elsewhere.

To get artists on board, Lankage tells me Audius plans “to use token incentives”. Those willing to jump on first before there are many listeners could get a bonus allotment of tokens that might be worth more if they help popularize the service. And where artists go, their fans will follow. Audius is hoping artists will share its links first because that’s where they’ll earn the most money.

Audius has also lined up a legion of big-name advisors to help it develop its blockchain product and artist relationships. Those include Augur co-founder Jeremy Gardner, EDM artist 3LAU, EA Co-Founder Bing Gordon, and more it can’t announce just yet.

The linchpin of Audius will be the user experience. If the system feels too complicated, listeners and artists will stay elsewhere. A DJ might earn more per stream from Audius, but if Spotify or SoundCloud offer better ways for fans to subscribe to them and generate more plays long-term, they’ll still direct supporters there. But if Audius can hide the nerdy bits while solving the music industry’s problems, it has the potential to be one of the first mainstream consumer blockchain projects that treats the tech as a utility, not just a new stock market to bet on.

Patreon buys Memberful but keeps it indie as patronage consolidates

Patreon is forming a patronage empire. Today it acquired white-labeled subscription membership platform Memberful, which lets creators sell exclusive access to content through their own site instead of a centralized platform like Patreon. Rather than being folded into a Patreon feature, Memberful will run as an independent brand maintaining its tiered pricing structure, though new […]

Patreon is forming a patronage empire. Today it acquired white-labeled subscription membership platform Memberful, which lets creators sell exclusive access to content through their own site instead of a centralized platform like Patreon. Rather than being folded into a Patreon feature, Memberful will run as an independent brand maintaining its tiered pricing structure, though new sign-ups will get a rate closer to Patreon’s low 5 percent rake.

Terms weren’t disclosed for the deal that brings Memberful’s whole seven-person team and 500 paying clients aboard. But Patreon clearly sees rolling up competitors and complements in the patronage space as a worthy use of its $60 million raise at a $450 million valuation late last year that brought it to $105 million in funding. In June, Patreon bought Kit to let creators bundle in merchandise with their perks for paying monthly subscribers. It also bought out competitor Subbable back in 2015.

By teaming up, Patreon and Memberful will be able to provide subscription patronage services for creators, whether they want their fan community to live on Patreon, or through Memberful on their own WordPress or website with integrations of Stripe and MailChimp. Patreon already has 2 million patrons paying an average of $12 each to a total of 100,000 creators, and it expects to pay out $300 million in 2018 alone. The acquisition could let Patreon move up market, recruiting comedians, illustrators, game developers, and vloggers that already have an established audience elsewhere.

“I think membership is on the up and is going to grow for the next decade” says Patreon VP of Product Wyatt Jenkins. “Our strategy is to be an open, neutral platform” as opposed to a focusing on one type of content like YouTube with videos or Twitch with streaming where you’re locked into that platform’s tools. Memberful, launched in 2013, has bootstrapped the creation of its white-labeled tools without the need for venture funding.

Memberful gives creators like Stratechery’s Ben Thompson and podcast producer Gimlet Media full control over branding with no Patreon chrome. But it’s more expensive and also requires more work since creators have to manage their own site, customer service, and payment processing. Memberful takes a 10 percent cut with no monthly fee for its limited basic tier, or $25 per month plus 4.9 percent for the full-featured pro version, though it also offers enterprise pricing. That pricing will remain for existing users, but “new customers will see a transaction fee closer to Patreon’s”, which is a flat 5 percent a Patreon spokesperson tells me. Patreon does basically everything for a creator, but it also ropes them into the Patreon-branded ecosystem that promotes other content makers too.

Sometimes Patreon handling everything can be a problem, though. Last week it experienced a higher-than-normal volume of declines from banks of charges to patrons. That left some creators without their expected income, and required patrons to deal with the chore of calling their bank to tell them paying $1, $5, or $20 per month to their favorite creator wasn’t fraud. Patreon now tells me that “as of Friday, we let everyone know that we were back to normal decline rates, and were going to continue retrying the rest of the cards like we normally do.”

It makes sense for Patreon to race to consolidate the patronage industry as it’s being invaded by giant incumbents. Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook all offer their own versions of paid subscriptions to creators that get patrons extra perks like exclusive content or badges so they stick out in chat rooms full of fans. While those platforms are all focused on video streamers, they still pose a threat to Patreon that needs to maximize the number of successful creators it hosts in order to earn enough from its tiny cut of payments. Facebook especially could muscle in, since many creators already run their own Facebook Pages.

Asked about competition from those platforms, Jenkins said “I think there’s a strong chance it’s a tailwind. The concept of membership is pretty new. If those big companies are going to drop millions of dollars into marketing the concept of membership I think that’s great. He stressed the question of “Do you want to own your fan base? On YouTube, those aren;t your fans, they’re YouTube users. YouTube is incentivized to keep them watching videos so it can show ads.”

That might lead fans to unsubscribe from a creator as YouTube promotes other similar ones they could watch instead. “You don’t own the relationship.” Facebook Page admins have found that out the hard way as algorithm changes prioritizing friends over public figures, making it tough to reach the followers they spent years begging to like them. If Patreon can offer creators audience growth through discovery on its interconnected network without cannibalizing anyone’s member counts, its neutrality and focus could make it a leader in this new wing of the digital economy.

Facebook builds its own AR games for Messenger video chat

Facebook is diving deeper into in-house game development with the launch of its own version of Snapchat’s multiplayer augmented reality video chat games. Today, Facebook Messenger globally launches its first two AR video chat games that you can play with up to six people. “Don’t Smile” is like a staring contest that detects if you […]

Facebook is diving deeper into in-house game development with the launch of its own version of Snapchat’s multiplayer augmented reality video chat games. Today, Facebook Messenger globally launches its first two AR video chat games that you can play with up to six people.

“Don’t Smile” is like a staring contest that detects if you grin, and then users AR to contort your it’s an exaggerated Joker’s smirk while awarding your opponent the win. “Asteroids Attack” sees you move your face around the navigate a space ship, avoiding rocks and grabbing laser beam powerups. Soon, Facebook also plans to launch “Beach Bump” for passing an AR ball back and forth, and a “Kitten Craze” cat matching game. To play the games, you start a video chat, hit the Star button to open the filter menu, and then select one of the games. You can snap and share screenshots to your chat thread while you play.

The games are effectively a way to pass the time while you video chat, rather than something you’d ever play on your own. They could be a hit with parents and grandparents who are away and want to spend time with a kid…who isn’t exactly the best conversationalist.

Facebook tells me it built these games itself using the AR Studio tool it launched last year to let developers create their own AR face filters. When asked if game development would be available to everyone through AR studio, a spokesperson told me “Not today, but we’ve seen sucessful short-session AR games developed by the creator community and are always looking out for ways to bring the best AR content to the FB family of apps.”

For now, there will be no ads, sponsored branding, or in-app purchases in Messenger’s video chat games. But those all offer opportunities for Facebook and potentially outside developers to earn money. Facebook could easily show an ad interstitial between game rounds, let brands build games to promote movie releases or product launches, or let you buy powerups to beat friends or cosmetically upgrade your in-game face.

Snapchat’s Snappables games launched in April

The games feel less polished than the launch titles for Snapchat’s Snappables gaming platform that launched in April. Snapchat focused on taking over your whole screen with augmented reality, transporting you into space or a disco dance hall. Facebook’s games merely overlay a few graphics on the world around you. But Facebook’s games are more purposefully designed for split-screen multiplayer. Snapchat is reportedly building its own third-party game development platform, but it seems Facebook wanted to get the drop on it.

The AR video chat games live separately from the Messenger Instant Games platform the company launched last year. These include arcade classics and new mobile titles that users can play by themselves and challenge friends over high-scores. Facebook now allows developers of Instant Games to monetize with in-app purchases and ads, foreshadowing what could come to AR video chat games.

Facebook has rarely developed its own games. It did build a few mini-games like an arcade pop-a-shot style basketball game and a soccer game to show off what the Messenger Instant Games platform could become. But typically it’s stuck to letting outside developers lead. Here, it may be trying to set examples of what developers should build before actually spawning a platform around video chat games.

Now with over 1.3 billion users, Facebook Messenger is seeking more ways to keep people engaged. Having already devoured many people’s one-on-one utility chats, it’s fun group chats, video calling, and gaming that could get people spending more time in the app.