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Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down – TechCrunch

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Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FoundItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.

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GasBuddy tops the App Store for the first time due to Colonial Pipeline attack – TechCrunch

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The GasBuddy mobile app, which typically helps consumers find the cheapest gas nearby, has now become the No. 1 app on the U.S. App Store for the first time ever, due to the fuel shortages in the U.S. that followed the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline. Americans, fearful that gas would become unavailable, began panic-buying in ways that haven’t been seen since the great toilet paper outage of 2020. As a result, thousands of gas stations ran out of fuel entirely. This dramatic situation has greatly benefitted the GasBuddy app, which includes a crowdsourced feature that helps users locate which local stations still have gas for sale.

As of Wednesday afternoon, GasBuddy says the effects of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown are being felt across 11 U.S. states, largely in the Southeast and Washington, D.C. North Carolina had the highest number of gas stations with fuel outages, with 65% of stations reportedly out of gas as of 2:48 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Kentucky has the lowest at only 2%. Because this data is self-reported by GasBuddy users, it may not represent the most current information, we should note.

Image Credits: GasBuddy app screenshot

During the week, consumers have been turning to GasBuddy to help them find where they can fill up. Yesterday, the app hit No. 1 in the “Travel” category on the App Store, while it steadily climbed its way up the App Store’s Top Overall charts.

This afternoon, GasBuddy became both the No.1 app in the non-games category as well as the highest-ranked app Overall across the U.S. App Store.

According to data from app store intelligence firm Apptopia, GasBuddy yesterday saw 15,203 new downloads — a 59% increase from its average daily downloads, which were 9,560 for the past 30 days. However, third-party data isn’t always accurate for sudden shots in rank — it catches up a few days after the fact.

Image Credits: Apptopia

Reached for comment, GasBuddy says its downloads were actually far higher than the third-party estimates. Across all platforms, including both iOS and Google Play, it saw 20x more downloads yesterday compared with an average day in 2021. The company told TechCrunch it counted 313,001 total downloads yesterday, compared with average daily downloads for the previous 30 days of 15,339.

Broken down by platform, GasBuddy says it saw 104,735 downloads on Android and 208,266 downloads on iOS on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Apptopia also noted that GasBuddy hadn’t been the No. 1 app on the App Store in all the time it’s been recording app store rankings, which goes back to January 1, 2015. However, it noted the app itself launched back in 2010, making it possible (though not likely) that the app had reached No. 1 at some point.

GasBuddy confirmed that’s not the case. Today is the first time it has ever topped the App Store, though it got close once before when it reached No. 2 behind a walkie-talkie app during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot on Wed., May 12, 2021

Consumers can continue to track statewide fuel outages here on GasBuddy’s website as well as where highest prices are being found. In the app, they can report whether gas stations have gas or diesel, as well as current prices.

The Colonial Pipeline, which runs 5,500 miles from the Gulf to the Northeast, shut down on Friday due to a ransomware attack from a criminal hacking network known as DarkSide, which is suspected to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe. The pipeline delivers about 45% of fuel used by the Eastern Seaboard. Reports of the shutdown sent Americans to stock up on gas, worsening the situation further. The U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Colonial Pipeline intends to restore operations by the end of the week.

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The truth about SDK integrations and their impact on developers – TechCrunch

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The digital media industry often talks about how much influence, dominance and power entities like Google and Facebook have. Generally, the focus is on the vast troves of data and audience reach these companies tout. However, there’s more beneath the surface that strengthens the grip these companies have on both app developers and publishers alike.

In reality, software development kit (SDK) integrations are a critical component of why these monolith companies have such a prominent presence. For reference, an SDK is a set of software development tools, libraries, code samples, processes and guides that help developers create or enhance the apps they’re building.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more.

Through a digital marketing lens, SDKs provide in-app analytics, insights on campaign testing, attribution information, location details, monetization capabilities and more. In the case of companies like Google and Facebook, their ability to provide these insights dovetails with their data and reach.

While that does deliver useful capabilities to developers and publishers alike, it also perpetuates the factors contributing to their perceived monopolistic status — and the detriments a lack of competition fosters.

Almost all (90%) ad-monetized Android apps have Google’s Admob SDK integrated, data from Statista showed. Additionally, the Facebook Audience Network SDK is present in 19% of all global Android apps utilizing mobile ads. It’s worth noting that the large majority of alternative “leading” advertising SDKs outside these two players are used less than 13% of the time in Android apps.

As the app ecosystem rapidly expands beyond the borders of mobile, app developers and publishers would benefit immensely from identifying economical and secure ways of adopting more SDKs.

The state of SDK adoption

While there are many SDKs available in the market today, a few key factors contribute to Google and Facebook’s overall dominance. The most basic is around the respective organizations’ reach and industry notoriety. However, a larger component here is the lack of resources and time app developers have.

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Sanlo raises $3.5M to help apps and games gain access to financial insights and capital – TechCrunch

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Having a great idea for an app or game is one thing, but scaling it to become a successful business is quite another. A new fintech startup called Sanlo aims to help. The company, which is today announcing an oversubscribed $3.5 million seed round, offers small to medium-sized game and app companies access to tools to manage their finances and capital to fuel their growth.

To be clear, Sanlo is not an investor that’s taking an equity stake in the apps and games it finances. Instead, it’s offering businesses access to technology, tools, and insights that will allow them to achieve smart and scalable growth while remaining financially healthy — even if they’re a smaller company without time to sit down and structure their finances. Then, when Sanlo’s proprietary algorithms determine the business could benefit from the smart deployment of capital, it will assist by offering financing.

The idea for Sanlo hails from co-founders Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu, who both have backgrounds in fintech and gaming.

Caliujnaia began her career in venture capital in one of the first mobile-focused funds, before moving to operator roles in gaming, stock photography, and fintech, at EA, Getty Images, and SigFig, respectively. She later joined early-stage fintech and enterprise fund XYZ.vc as an Entrepreneur in Residence.

Liu, meanwhile, had also worked in gaming at EA, but later switched to fintech, working at startups like Earnest and Branch.

After reconnecting in San Francisco, the co-founders realized they could put their combined experience to work in order to help smaller businesses just starting out recognize when it’s time to scale, what areas of the business to invest in, and how much capital they need to grow.

Image Credits: Sanlo’s Olya Caliujnaia and William Liu

Caliujnaia has seen how the app and gaming market has evolved over the years, and she realized the difficulties new developers now face.

“You have this explosion of the app economy that’s growing insanely,” she says. “That’s the exciting part of it. That creativity. That passion and that desire to build — that’s so admirable.”

Today, companies benefit from having access to better development tools, broader access to talent, consumer demand, and other forces, she notes, compared with those in the past. But on the flip side, it’s become incredibly difficult to scale a consumer app or game.

“I think a lot of that comes down to, one, that there are dynamics around the free-to-play model — how you monetize and therefore, what kind of players and users you bring on board,” Caliujnaia says. “And then the second aspect is that it’s just harder to get noticed. So, ultimately, it comes down to marketing.”

Many of the decisions that a company has to make on this front are predictable, however. That means Sanlo doesn’t have to sit down with businesses and consult with them one-on-one, the way a financial advisor working in wealth management would do with their clients.

Instead, Sanlo asks companies for certain types of data to get started. This includes product data about how well the app or game monetizes and customer acquisition and retention, for example, as well as marketing data and a subset of financial data. Its predictive algorithms then continually monitor the company’s growth trajectory to surface insights to identify where and how the business can grow.

This concept alone could have worked as a services business for mobile studios, but Sanlo takes the next step beyond advice to actually provide companies with access to capital. The amount of financing provided will vary based on the life stage of the company and risk profile, but it’s non-dilutive capital. That is, Sanlo takes no ownership stake in the companies it finances.

Image Credits: Sanlo

Caliujnaia said it made more sense to go this route rather than return to the VC world, because of potential to reach a wider group.

“There’s this long tail of developers and it’s more about enabling them, rather than producing more hits,” she says. “It’s very different mindsets, different markets that we’re going for.”

Sanlo doesn’t have a lot of direct competitors beyond perhaps, Silicon Valley Bank and other financial lenders, as well as mobile gaming publishers. But the publisher model often implies some sort of ownership, which is a significant differentiating factor. In some cases, you may see a larger gaming company extending debt financing to a smaller one. That was the case with Finnish mobile games company Metacore which recently raised another debt round from gaming giant Supercell, for example.

Caliujnaia points out that most smaller companies don’t have that kind of access to financing. Now they could, through Sanlo.

“The idea is to have a healthier layer of companies that are able to survive for the long-term,” she says.

That means more companies that won’t have to stress about their futures, leading to them to aggressively monetize their users, and later, scrambling for an exit when their financial runway comes to an end.

Sanlo is currently pilot testing its system with a small group of mobile game studios who will serve as its initial customer base, but plans to later support consumer apps, which have similar struggles with customer acquisition costs and growth.

The San Francisco-headquartered startup itself was founded in 2020 and began raising money. It has now raised a total of $3.5 million in seed funding co-led by Index Ventures and Initial Capital, with participation from LVP, Portag3 Ventures, and  XYZ Venture Capital. Angel investors include Kristian Segestrale (Super Evil Megacorp CEO), Gokul Rajaram and Charley Ma. 

Initial Capital co-founder and partner Ken Lamb became a board director with the fundraise, while Index partner Mark Goldberg and XYZ managing partner Ross Fubini joined as board observers.

“Sanlo cracked the code to help mobile gaming and app companies reach maturity with a new level of speed, scale, and fiscal wellbeing,” said Goldberg, in a statement. “The company is building a very sophisticated fintech offering that will give those companies superpowers.”

Sanlo plans to use the funds to grow its team and product suite ahead of its public launch later this year.

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