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Instagram now lets you share Stories to a Close Friends list – TechCrunch

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No one wants to post silly, racy or vulnerable Stories if they’re worried their boss, parents and distant acquaintances are watching. So to get people sharing more, and more authentically, Instagram will let you share to fewer people. Today after 17 months of testing, Instagram is globally launching Close Friends on iOS and Android over the next two days. It lets you build a single private list of your best buddies on Instagram through suggestions or search, and then share Stories just to them. They’ll see a green circle around your profile pic in the existing Story tray to let them know this is Close Friends-only content, but no one gets notified if they’re added or removed from your list that only you can view.

“As you add more and more people [on any social network], you start not to know them. That’s obviously going to change the things that you’re sharing and it makes it even harder to form very deep connections with your closest friends because you’re basically curating for the largest possible distribution,” said Instagram director of product Robby Stein, who announced the news onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin. “To really be yourself and connect and be connected to your best friends, you need your own place.”

I spent the last few days demoing Close Friends and it’s remarkably smooth, intuitive and useful. Suddenly there was a place to post what I might otherwise consider too random or embarrassing to share. Teens already invented the idea of “Finstagrams,” or fake Instagram accounts, to share feed posts to just their favorite people without the pressure to look cool. Now Instagram is formalizing that idea into “Finstastories” through Close Friends.

The feature is a wise way to counteract the natural social graph creep that occurs as people accept social networking requests out of a sense of obligatory courtesy from people they aren’t close to, which then causes them to only share blander content. Helping people express their wild side as must-see content for their Close Friends could drive up time spent on the app. But there’s also the risk that the launch creates private echo sphere havens for offensive content beyond the eyes of those who’d rightfully report it.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand,” Stein notesThe path to variable sharing privacy winds through a cemetery. Facebook’s “Lists” product struggled to find traction for a decade before being half-shut down. Google+’s big selling point was “Circles” for sharing to different groups of people. But with both, users found it too boring and confusing to make a bunch of different lists they could share to or view feeds from. Snapchat launched its own Groups feature two months ago, but it’s easy to forget who’s in which list and they’re designed around group chat. Most users just end up trying their best to reject, unfollow or mute people they didn’t want to see or share with.

Now after almost 15 years of Facebook, 12 years of Twitter, eight years of Instagram and seven years of Snapchat, that strategy has failed for many, leading to noisy feeds and a fear of sharing to too many. “People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Stein explains. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.”

So Instagram chose to build Close Friends as just a single list in hopes that you won’t lose track of who’s part of it. As the feature rolls out today, there’ll be an explainer Story from Instagram about it in your tray, you’ll get walked through when you hit the Close Friends button on the Story composer, and there’ll be a call out on your profile to configure Close Friends in the Settings menu. You’ll be able to search for your close friends or quickly add them from a list of suggestions based on who you interact with most. You can add or remove as many people as you want without them knowing, they just will or won’t see your green circled Close Friends story. “We’re protecting you and your right to share or not share to certain people. It gives you air cover,” Stein tells me.

From then on, you can use the Close Friends shortcut in the Stories composer to share it with just those people, who’ll see a green “Close Friends” label on the story to let them know they’re special. Instagram will use the signal of who you add to help rank and order your Stories tray, but it won’t automatically pop Close Friends Stories to the front. When asked if Facebook would use that data for personalization too, Stein told me, “We’re the same company,” but said using it to improve Facebook is “not something that we’re actively working on.”

There’s no screenshot alerts, similar to the rest of Instagram Stories, but you won’t be able to DM anyone someone else’s Close Friends Story. That’s it. “We haven’t invented any new design affordances or things you need to know,” Stein beams. For now it’s meant for user profiles, but publishers, social media celebrities and brands would probably love ways to build fan clubs through the feature. Perhaps Instagram would even allow creators to charge users to be admitted to Close Friends. If not, some savvy influencers will probably do it anyways as they try to make Instagram more like Patreon.

Instagram’s Robby Stein (left) tells TechCrunch’s Josh Constine about Close Friends at Disrupt Berlin

The one concern here is that Close Friends could create little bunkers in which people can share objectionable content without consequence. It’d be sad to see it harbor racism, sexism or other stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere on Instagram. Stein says that because you’re talking with friends instead of strangers on a Reddit, “it self regulates what it’s used for. We haven’t seen a lot of that usage in the testing that we’ve done. It’s still a broadcast channel and it doesn’t generate this group discussion. It doesn’t spiral.”

Overall, I think Close Friends will be a hit. When it started testing a prototype called Favorites in June 2017 it worked with feed posts too, but Instagram decided the off the cuff posts wouldn’t fit right next to your more widely broadcasted highlights. But confined to Stories, it feels like a natural and much-needed extension of what Instagram was always supposed to be but that’s gotten lost in our swelling social networks: giving the people you love a window into your life.

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How Ryan Reynolds and Mint Mobile worked without becoming the joke – TechCrunch

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In the past decade, celebrity interest and investment in tech companies has significantly increased. But not all celebrity investments are created equally. Some investors, like Ashton Kutcher, have prioritized the VC pursuits. Some have invested casually without getting overly involved. Others have used their considerable platforms to market their portfolio to varying degrees of success.

It’s been a little over a year since Ryan Reynolds bought a majority stake in Mint Mobile, a deal that has already had a dramatic impact on the the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator).

The four-year-old company has seen a tremendous amount of growth, boosting revenue nearly 50,000% in the past three years. However, the D2C wireless carrier has seen its highest traffic days on the backs of Reynolds’ marketing initiatives and announcements.

There is a long history of celebrities getting involved with brands, either as brand ambassadors or ‘Creative Directors’ without much value other than the initial press wave.

Lenovo famously hired Ashton Kutcher as a product engineer to help develop the Yoga 2 tablet, on which I assume you are all reading this post. Alicia Keys was brought on as BlackBerry’s Global Creative Director, which felt even more convoluted a partnership than Lady Gaga’s stint as Polaroid’s Creative Director. That’s not to say that these publicity stunts necessarily hurt the brands or the products (most of the time), but they probably didn’t help much, and likely cost a fortune.

And then there are the actual financial investments, in areas where celebrities fundamentally understand the industry, that still didn’t get to ‘alpha.’

Even Jay-Z has struggled to make a music streaming service successful. Justin Bieber never really got a selfie app off the ground. Heck, not even Justin Timberlake could breathe life back into MySpace. Reynolds seemingly has an even heavier lift here. It’s hard to imagine a string of words in the English language less sexy than, “mobile virtual network operator.”

Reynolds tells TechCrunch that he viewed celebrity investments as a kind of “handicapping,” prior to the Mint acquisition.

“I’ve just sort of seen how most celebrities are doing very, very well,” he explains. “We’re generally hocking or getting behind or investing in luxury and aspirational items and projects. Then George and I had a conversation about a year-and-a-half ago, maybe longer, about what if we swerved the other way? What if he kind of got into something that was hyper practical and just forget about the sexy aspirational stuff.”

Mint isn’t Reynolds’ first entrepreneurial venture. He bought a majority stake in Portland-based Aviation Gin in 2018, which recently sold for $610 million. He also cofounded marketing agency Maximum Effort alongside George Dewey, which has made its own impact over the past several years.

Maximum Effort was founded to help promote the actor’s first Deadpool film. Reynolds and Dewey had come up with several low-budget spots to get people excited about an R-rated comic book movie. The bid appears to have worked. The film raked in $783.1 million at the box office — a record for an R-rated film that held until the 2019 release of Joker.

Maximum Effort (and Reynolds) was also behind the viral Aviation Gin spot, which poked fun at the manipulative Peloton ad that aired last year around the holidays. The same actress who portrayed a woman seemingly tortured by her holiday gift of a Peloton sits at a bar with her friends, shell-shocked, sipping a Martini.

The original ad on YouTube, not counting recirculation by the media, has more than 7 million hits. Reynolds calls it ‘fast-vertising’.

“We get to react,” he told TechCrunch. “We get to acknowledge and play with the cultural landscape in real time and react to it in real time. There isn’t any red tape to come through, because it’s just a matter of signing off on the approval. So in a way, it’s unfair, in that sense, because most big corporations, they take weeks and weeks or months to get something approved. Our budgets are down and dirty, fast and cheap.”

He explained that this type of real-time marketing is only possible because he’s the owner of Maximum Effort (and in some cases of the client businesses, as well), but because there is no red tape to cut through when a great idea presents itself.

Reynolds has brought this marketing acumen to Mint Mobile in a big way. Last year during the Super Bowl, Reynolds took out a full page ad in The New York Times, explaining that the decision to use a print ad instead of a Super Bowl commercial would enable the prepaid carrier to pass the savings on to consumers — $300,000 in savings, for those counting.

In October, Reynolds spun Mint’s 5G launch into another light-hearted spot. He brought on the head of mobile technology to explain what 5G actually is, and after hearing the technical explanation, happily said “We may never know, so we’ll just give it away for free.”

Mint also released a holiday ad just a couple of weeks ago warning of wireless promo season, wherein large wireless carriers may try to lure customers into expensive contracts using new devices. Standing over a bear trap, Reynolds dryly states: “At Mint Mobile, we don’t hate you.”

Reynolds enjoys nearly 17 million Twitter followers and more than 36 million Instagram followers. He uses both platforms to promote his various brands without alienating his followers. Moreover, he doesn’t exclusively promote his brands on social media, but weaves in his own funny personal commentary or gives followers a peek into his marriage with Blake Lively, which we can all agree is #relationshipgoals.

Mint Mobile partners exclusively with T-Mobile to provide service, and unlike some other MVNOs, it uses a direct-to-consumer model, foregoing any physical footprint. Plans start at $15/month and top out at $30/month. CEO Aron North says that Reynolds’ ownership and involvement with Mint Mobile is “absolutely critical.”

“Ryan is an A plus plus celebrity, and he’s very funny and entertaining and engaging,” said North. “His reach has given us a much bigger platform to speak on. I would say he is absolutely critical in our success and our growth.”

We asked Reynolds if he has any specific plans for further tech investment, or if there are any trends he’s keeping an eye on. He explained that his motivations are not purely capitalistic.

“I’m really focused on community and bringing people together,” said Reynolds. “We think it’s super cool to bring people together, particularly in a world that is very divisive. Even in our marketing, we try to find ways to have huge cultural moments without polarizing people without dividing people without saying one thing is wrong.”

In one of the company’s more notable recent spots, Reynolds enlisted the help of iconic comedian, Rick Moranis. It was an impressive coup, given the actor’s seeming retreat from the public eye, turning down two separate Ghostbusters film reboots.

“It’s funny what happens when you just ask,” says Reynolds. “I explained that people genuinely miss him and his performances and his energy. And he, for whatever reason, said yes, and the next thing I know, six days later, we were out of there in 15, 20 minutes and we shot our spot.”

Of course, it didn’t escape the internet’s notice that two well-known Canadian actors were standing in a field, selling a U.S.-only wireless service.

“I would love to see [Mint] in Canada,” Reynolds says. “There’s a Big Three here that’s challenging to crack. I don’t pretend to know the telecom business well enough to say why, how or what the path forward would be there. I see basically a tsunami of feedback from Canada, asking ‘why can’t we have this here?’ I think it’s sexy. It’s pragmatic and sexy. That’s why I got involved with it.”

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Proxyclick visitor management system adapts to COVID as employee check-in platform – TechCrunch

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Proxyclick began life by providing an easy way to manage visitors in your building with an iPad-based check-in system. As the pandemic has taken hold, however, customer requirements have changed, and Proxyclick is changing with them. Today the company announced Proxyclick Flow, a new system designed to check in employees during the time of COVID.

“Basically when COVID hit our customers told us that actually our employees are the new visitors. So what you used to ask your visitors, you are now asking your employees — the usual probing question, but also when are you coming and so forth. So we evolved the offering into a wider platform,” Proxyclick co-founder and CEO Gregory Blondeau explained.

That means instead of managing a steady flow of visitors — although it can still do that — the company is focusing on the needs of customers who want to open their offices on a limited basis during the pandemic, based on local regulations. To help adapt the platform for this purpose, the company developed the Proovr smartphone app, which employees can use to check in prior to going to the office, complete a health checklist, see who else will be in the office and make sure the building isn’t over capacity.

When the employee arrives at the office, they get a temperature check, and then can use the QR code issued by the Proovr app to enter the building via Proxyclick’s check-in system or whatever system they have in place. Beyond the mobile app, the company has designed the system to work with a number of adjacent building management and security systems so that customers can use it in conjunction with existing tooling.

They also beefed up the workflow engine that companies can adapt based on their own unique entrance and exit requirements. The COVID workflow is simply one of those workflows, but Blondeau recognizes not everyone will want to use the exact one they have provided out of the box, so they designed a flexible system.

“So the challenge was technical on one side to integrate all the systems, and afterwards to group workflows on the employee’s smartphone, so that each organization can define its own workflow and present it on the smartphone,” Blondeau said.

Once in the building, the systems registers your presence and the information remains on the system for two weeks for contact tracing purposes should there be an exposure to COVID. You check out when you leave the building, but if you forget, it automatically checks you out at midnight.

The company was founded in 2010 and has raised $19.6 million. The most recent raise was a $18.5 million Series B in January.

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Lime touts a 2020 turnaround and 2021 profitability – TechCrunch

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Micromobility company Lime says it has moved beyond the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a milestone that seemed unthinkable earlier this year.

In short, the company is now largely profitable.

Lime said it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021.

During the WSJ Future of Everything event Thursday, Lime CEO Wayne Ting painted a far rosier picture of the company’s future than one might have expected.

There was a time when Bird and Lime, competing domestic scooter rental companies, were raising capital at a torrid pace, fighting for market share, regulatory breathing room and sidewalk real estate. Then, the pandemic hit and the companies had to take shelter.

Lime underwent a round of layoffs in April, taking on capital from Uber the next month in a down-round that brought its valuation under the $1 billion mark. As it announced in a blog post that TechCrunch reviewed before publication, it paused most of its operations for a month during the early COVID-19 days.

“It was certainly a very, very tough decision for us earlier this year and I know we weren’t the only company during COVID,” Ting said during the event.I think it’s been in so many ways helpful to us to realize how hard these choices can be. We’re going to be growing headcount again. We’re going to do so in a careful way so that we’re not going have to make hard choices like the ones we made earlier this year.”

Now things are better, Lime says. Much better. Indeed, the company claims that it is the “first new mobility company to reach cash-flow positive for a full quarter.”

Cash flow positivity, in general, is an important threshold for a startup to reach as it implies that the company can largely self-fund from that point forward, limiting its dependency on external cash for survival.

Lime also claims that it “reached EBIT positive at the company level over the summer.” The specifics of the phrase “EBIT positive” are important. Was the company employing strict EBIT on its math and not discounting share-based compensation, or was it measuring using adjusted EBIT as many startups do, removing the cost of share-based compensation that shows up in GAAP results? According to the company the number did exclude share-based compensation, making the news slightly smaller.

Perhaps the most bullish data point from Lime is that it expects to be full-year profitable in 2021. TechCrunch asked for specifics because again how one measures profitability matters. It turns out, Lime is basing this projection on EBIT, as opposed to more traditional net income. For a startup this is not a surprising decision, but before we declare Lime fully “profitable,” we’ll want some more GAAP metrics.

Still, it appears that Lime is not going to die, and is, importantly, putting capital into developing new products. The company provided the first example of that new product pipeline on Thursday with the launch of the Gen4 scooter in Paris. It also teased a so-called “third and fourth mode” in the first quarter of 2021 as well as the addition of a swappable battery.

The scooter company wouldn’t give TechCrunch much information about what these third and fourth modes will be. The first two modes are bikes and scooters, which leaves skateboards, cars, flying cars and boats?

Lime did give TechCrunch a little bit of clarification, stating that “move beyond,” means the company will be operating an additional mode, accessed through the Lime app, in line with its goal to serve any trips under five miles. These modes will build on the Lime Platform play, but this will be operated by Lime rather than a partner.

Lime has long discussed reaching profitability. Perhaps because it and its competitor Bird were infamous for their losses during their early unicorn period.

By November of 2019, Lime was talking about reaching EBIT positivity in 2020. But the start of 2020 was not kind on the company, with 100 of its staff losing their jobs and 12 markets getting dropped. At the time TechCrunch wrote that “Lime is hoping to achieve profitability this year by laying off about 14% of its workforce and ceasing operations in 12 markets,” with the company itself writing at the time that “financial independence [was its] goal for 2020, and [that it was] confident that Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to reach profitability.”

Depending on how you measure profitability, that could be true.

Things didn’t get easier for Lime later in the year. Its competitor Bird underwent layoffs, and Lime cut more staff in April. At the time, Lime said that it was focused on coming “back stronger than ever when this is over.”

The company is certainly in better shape than it was in April and May. So, how did Lime come back from the brink? In its own estimation, the company took time during its pause to “drill down on getting the business right, narrowing [its] focus and strengthening [its] fundamentals.” That might sound like corporate babble, but by taking a nearly full stop in its operating business, Lime could probably see a bit more clearly what was working and what was not. And with some cuts to what wasn’t, it could set up a future in which its operations were leaner, and more unit-economically positive.

And, now, here we are asking niggling questions about just what sort of profit Lime is really making. Instead of, you know, who might buy its leftover office furniture. It’s a nice turnaround.

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