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Rakuten has SoftBank in its sights – TechCrunch

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This week, I’ve tried to do something new at TechCrunch with this experimental column — getting obsessed about a topic broadly in tech and writing a continuous stream of thoughts and analysis about it.

With my research consultant and contributor Arman Tabatabai, we’ve covered two topics: Form Ds, the filing that startups usually submit to the SEC after a venture round closes (although increasingly do not), and SoftBank, which faces all kinds of strategic pressure due to its debt binging. If you missed the other episodes, here are links to the editions from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Today, one final round of thoughts on SoftBank and Rakuten (heavily written by Arman) and a lengthy list of articles for your weekend reading.

The Rakuten factor complicates SoftBank’s strategy

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Understanding SoftBank’s competitive strategy requires a bit of a deep dive into Japanese e-commence giant Rakuten.

Rakuten has been struggling to compete with Amazon and others like SoftBank’s Yahoo! Japan. So at the end of 2017, Rakuten announced it would be entering the telco space, hoping that operating its own network could generate user growth through better incentives around mobile shopping, streaming and payments.

Today, Japan’s telco space is a relatively cozy oligopoly dominated by NTT DoCoMo, au-KDDI and SoftBank. A major reason why Rakuten feels it can succeed where others have failed to break in is because it has the government on its side.

Rakuten’s plan to offer prices at least 30 percent lower than incumbent rates has led to favorable treatment from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has been looking for ways to stimulate market competition to force lower the country’s high phone prices.

Though a new entrant hasn’t been approved to enter the telco market since eAccess in 2007, Rakuten has already gotten the thumbs-up to start operations in 2019. The government also instituted regulations that would make the new kid in town more competitive, such as banning telcos from limiting device portability.

Rakuten’s partnerships with key utilities and infrastructure players will also allow it to build out its network quickly, including one with Japan’s second largest mobile service provider, KDDI.

Just last week, Rakuten and KDDI announced an agreement where Rakuten will help KDDI utilize its payment and logistics infrastructure as KDDI turns its head toward e-commerce and payments, while KDDI will give Rakuten access to its network and nationwide roaming services, allowing Rakuten to provide nationwide service as its builds out its own infrastructure.

The agreement with KDDI is especially scary for SoftBank, the country’s third biggest telco and one of Rakuten’s e-commerce competitors, and whose customers seem most vulnerable to churn. The partnership also makes it seem even more likely that SoftBank’s competitors are looking to push it out of the market or turn into a dud its upcoming mobile segments IPO.

While Rakuten’s head-first dive into the market won’t ease investors into an IPO, it’s important we note that Rakuten is targeting a much smaller market share than the incumbents, targeting 10 million subscribers by 2028, a number lower than the company’s original 15 million subs goal and significantly lower than the 76 million, 52 million and 40 million subscribers NTT, KDDI and SoftBank (respectively) hold currently. And even with its agreements, Rakuten faces a serious and expensive uphill battle in building out its network infrastructure quickly enough to compete.

Ultimately, Rakuten’s telco initiative is a splash, but one that seems like it will merely make its competitors wet and not drown them. For SoftBank, it is an annoying distraction on its telco IPO roadshow, but a distraction that is easily explained to potential investors.

SoftBank growth over the past two decades

Rajeev Misra. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Changing gears from Rakuten, emails from readers this week asked us to look deeper into SoftBank’s performance over the last two decades. As we did so, it became clear that SoftBank has had a long history of price competitions and new entrants across its businesses, and it has proven its ability to operate and consistently grow earnings.

Since 2000, SoftBank has grown earnings at a ~30 percent CAGR and experienced revenue growth in all but one year. When eAccess did enter the telco market and picked up four million subscribers, SoftBank bought it and integrated it into its own system.

As we discussed earlier this week, despite having always held on to a clunky amount of debt, SoftBank has managed to deliver consistent growth by making sure its revenue and operating growth outpaced the upticks in its debt and interest expense.

A great example of this came after SoftBank’s acquisition of Vodafone in 2006, when it saw a huge spike in its interest expense, but also in its operating income.

Over the following five years, SoftBank managed to reduce its interest expense at an annual rate of 12 percent while growing its operating income at 16 percent. And regardless of its debt balances, SoftBank has always seemingly been able to secure funding one way or another, as shown by its ability to raise $90+ billion for the Vision Fund in less than a year from when plans for the fund were first reported.

The Vision Fund itself started as a way for SoftBank to continue to invest while its balance sheet was tight due to nearly back-to-back massive acquisitions of Sprint and Arm. Just look at how Rajeev Misra, who oversees the Vision Fund, discussed its creation in an interview with The Economic Times:

We had just bought ARM in June for $32 billion and Masa felt we are on the cusp of a technology revolution over the next 5-10 years with machine learning, AI, robotics and the impact of that in disrupting every industry – from healthcare to financial services to manufacturing.

We felt the world was going through a new industrial revolution. We were constrained financially given that we just did a $32-billion acquisition.

SoftBank, historically over the last 20 years, has invested from its own balance sheet. So, we had two options.

Either monetise some of the gains we made in Alibaba which we decided has a lot more upside… Alibaba has more than doubled in the last 12 months. So we decided to keep it which turned out to be good decision. The second option was to go out and raise money and co-invest with others. We prepared a presentation, went out, and by god’s grace we raised the fund.

Even before the Vision Fund, SoftBank has always had a strategy to make big bets in industries of the future. And while many have failed, the several that have paid off, like its $20 million investment in Alibaba, had massive cash outs that have driven consistent earnings growth for decades. SoftBank seems to be banking its future on the same strategy and, frankly, it’s unclear how much they even care about how competitive their telco is, as shown by this exchange in the same interview with Misra:

Question: What about sectors like telecom?

Misra: Let the dust settle.

What’s next

Our obsession with SoftBank this week is probably going to subside, and we are in the market for our next deep dive topic in tech and finance. Have ideas? Drop us a line at danny@techcrunch.com and arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com

Thoughts on articles (i.e. weekend reading)

Photo by Darren Johnson / EyeEm via Getty Images

The CIA’s communications suffered a catastrophic compromise. It started in Iran. This is a great follow-up from Yahoo News’ Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin on one of the most important espionage stories this past decade. The CIA, using an internet-based communications system to connect with spies and sources in the field, failed to keep the security of the system intact, leading to the dismantling of its Iranian, Chinese and potentially other espionage rings. This article advances the story as we know it from the New York Times’ original piece, and Foreign Policy’s excellent follow up also written by Zach Dorfman. Definitely worth a read from a security/technical audience. (3,200 words)

The $6 Trillion Barrier Holding Electric Cars Back. Don’t read — the answer is infrastructure. (1,000 words, but should be one)

The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success. A a good reminder that some technologies are much closer to reality than others, and that the key difference between them is our collective experience handling the technology. Rodney Brooks is the right person to cover this subject, although one can’t help but feel that every example is Musk-inspired. (2,800 words)

Uber’s economics team is its secret weapon by Alison Griswold & Soon there may be more economists at tech companies than in policy schools by Roberta Holland, both in Quartz . Griswold does a great job giving an overview of how Uber is using economists not just to improve its product for end users, but also to shape the discussion of public policy around the company. Clearly, Uber is not alone; as Holland notes in her piece, academic economists are very popular in Silicon Valley right now, with salaries that can match the top machine learning experts. (2,750 words and 1,200 words, respectively)

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders. A short piece by Nicholas Carr fighting back against the notion that computing is still “at the beginning.” Many of our devices and pieces of software are already decades old — if they haven’t had an effect on human behavior or productivity, when are they going to? A useful antidote to some ideas we hear from the Valley every single day. (900 words)

The future of photography is code. Yes, yes, I am very late to this — blame Pocket disease. TechCrunch’s own Devin Coldewey writes a candid essay on the transition from improving photography through hardware like lenses to improving photos through computation. The future is looking very bright for beautiful photos, indeed. (2,400 words)

Freedom on the Net 2018 | Freedom House. And if you are looking for some depressing news, Freedom House’s report (which I am also a bit late to) is dreary. China is now increasingly the source of authoritarian internet control technology, and countries across the world are backtracking on internet freedom (including the U.S.). Sobering, but with so much riding on the openness of the internet, we all need to pay attention and build the kind of future for this technology that we want. (32 page PDF with exec summary)

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PortalOne raises $60M as it levels up to launch its hybrid, immersive gaming platform later this year – TechCrunch

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Gaming has been one of the most popular entertainment categories in the last two years of pandemic living. Now, a gaming startup that’s building a new kind of platform that it thinks will be a — wait for it — game changer in the category is announcing some funding as to ride that wave of attention.

PortalOne, which is building an immersive gaming platform that describes itself as hybrid in more ways than one — it mixes games with a game show/talk show format, and it’s designed to work across various devices from mobile through to consoles and VR headsets — has picked up $60 million. The startup — based in Oslo but with a significant presence also in Los Angeles — plans to use the funding to continue building out its platform and operations en route to its first commercial launch: PortalOne Arcade, a journey into a retro “arcade” featuring multiple games.

PortalOne Arcade has been running in a closed beta since last year, and the company is running a sign-up list for those interested to try it out, but what the team has built and its plans for the future are enough to be attracting some very big names.

Tiger Global is leading this round, a Series A, with Scooter Braun’s TQ Ventures, Temasek, Avenir Growth, Founders Fund, Talis Capital, Connect Ventures, Animoca Brands, Access industries, and Coatue Management also participating, along with “a number of high-profile angel investors”, the company said. This round comes about eight months after PortalOne raised a $15 million seed round, also notable for its size and the backers. It included games icon Atari, which is working with PortalOne to include some of its brands and IP in that Arcade launch.

Bård Anders Kasin, PortalOne’s CEO who co-founded the startup with his brother Stig Olav, said in an interview that the company plans to release PortalOne Arcade sometime later this year, but in closed beta the startup has now produced some 200 shows. He said this proves out its belief that the technology that it has assembled — which brings together cutting-edge games design, live broadcast, interactivity, and a low-cost approach to capturing and processing video all in the cloud — is scalable.

“It’s a very high number of shows, considering the complexity involved,” he said.

Stig has been spending time in LA building out the company’s studio there and the plan will be to set up more of these across other cities globally.

PortalOne is building its business in the midst of a perfect storm.

First of all, gaming, like other streamed entertainment, has been a lifesaver for many a consumer confined to staying at home during the pandemic. That has led to record levels of interest and engagement in games, and that has in turn resulted in a host of new entrants into the space (including some from other entertainment verticals, like Netflix).

This has also resulted in the category becoming of the hottest among tech startups at the moment, with investors rushing to put money into what they believe are the most promising players in the field. Just in the last couple of weeks, Yahaha and Spyke respectively announced that they’d raised $50 million and $55 million — with neither of them having yet actually launched anything. (Both are running closed betas and other pilot projects, costly efforts in themselves in this sphere.) Meanwhile, a more established, but still very young (it launched last year), startup called Dream Games, has now reached a paper valuation of $2.75 billion after its round, which also was announced earlier this month.

Second of all, PortalOne is fitting squarely into a zeitgeist. “Metaverse” has become one of the buzzy catchphrases of the moment, and while it is leaning dangerously close to getting overused and rendered meaningless (or has that already happened?), for the moment it is driving a lot of interest among bigger and smaller companies considering how and if they can fit into that new realm. 

PortalOne seems almost custom made to fill a gap in the metaverse: one of the big issues with VR and AR (two of metaverse’s precursor concepts and industry efforts) has been a decided lack of compelling content, along with other hurdles involving hardware and more. With its “hybrid” mantra, PortalOne positions itself as supremely flexible, there to be used on whichever platform a user might have to hand.

And its focus on creating both lean-back (broadcast) entertainment mixed with engaging game play, leveraging a lot of familiar gaming brands alongside completely new titles, is a mix that will, again, be potentially poised to appeal to different demographics, different users, and the different states of mind that consumers might have when turning to their screens.

Bard tells me that the startup has been talking to a pretty wide range of companies in the gaming and social ecosystems — from those operating platforms, through to console giants and those publishing content, and companies building tech to make it all happen. But to be clear, the company for now at least is very focused on building its own walled garden of sorts, the Arcade, where people will play. That is to say, even if or when PortalOne creates an experience to be used in someone else’s metaverse (or more prosaically a third-party console) it will hold on to bringing people into its own “metaverse” world.

Part of that is because of how PortalOne has built out its platform.

“One of the big things we solved early on was how to scale this,” Bard said, “being able to produce the amount of content we can in a modular and efficient platform. It’s a cost efficient breakthrough: producing our hybrid games comes in way below industry standards.” The modular approach has both to do with how video and play is captured, but also with how PortalOne re-uses components across different games (with all those components in the cloud). “This is part of our secret sauce.”

That sauce is something that investors think will be to mass-market taste.

“We believe PortalOne is building an innovative experience at the intersection of gaming and entertainment. We are excited to back the Kasin brothers and their talented team as they continue to build and grow the business!” said Evan Feinberg, partner, Tiger Global, in a statement.

“PortalOne is building a platform that converges the most popular forms of entertainment into one seamless experience that will appeal to every category of performer,” added Scooter Braun. “This is the next place to be in the world of immersive gaming, with unlimited content possibilities.”

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Recipe app Pestle helps you organize, plan, and cook hands-free or with friends on FaceTime – TechCrunch

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A newly launched recipe app called Pestle aims to do more than provide a place to save and organize your favorite recipes. The app, from indie developer Will Bishop, also helps you plan meals, create shopping lists, keep up with new recipes from creators, and even cook hands-free or with friends and family remotely over Apple’s SharePlay feature for FaceTime.

The result is a well-built recipe app that provides a better experience for the end user, and one which tries to respect the creator content it organizes by offering source links, tools to discover more recipes from the same creator as they’re published, and a feature that encourages repeat visits to recipe sites. But some of Pestle’s other features make it almost too easy to bypass creators’ websites, which could cause concerns.

Like many people who use the web to find cooking inspiration, Bishop grew frustrated with the clutter common to today’s recipe websites where you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the actual recipe steps — a format designed to capture more Google Search traffic. Also like many home chefs, Bishop found himself copying and pasting recipes into Apple’s Notes app so he could annotate them with his own tweaks and tips. This wasn’t the ideal solution, of course — as it involved many manual steps and resulted in a disorganized system, given that Notes isn’t designed to be a recipe database. So he decided to create his own solution with Pestle.

The app integrates with Safari, so you can save any recipe you find on the web by tapping on the “Share” button from your iOS browser, like Safari or Chrome, then tapping on Pestle from the list of apps that appears. Pestle will then automatically import the recipe, including the list of ingredients and instructions. This is similar to how other popular recipe-saving apps work, like Whisk or Paprika, for instance.

However, where other apps may highlight the source directly on the recipe’s page, making it obvious who to credit, Pestle’s attribution link is tucked under its 3-dot “more” menu at the top of the recipe’s page. This isn’t likely an issue for the end user, who can easily seek out the link if they need to refer back to the website for more information. But it could cause complaints from the recipe’s creator, given that it takes an extra tap to get to the link, and feels a bit hidden.

In addition, while competitor Whisk even goes so far as to not import a recipe’s instructions — forcing users to visit the recipe site, where they can then choose to copy and paste instructions into the app for later reference — Pestle automatically imports the instructions alongside the ingredient list and nutritional info. Again, handy for the end user; less so for the creator.

Finally, while premium users can enjoy smart suggestions of new recipes from the recipe sites they like to visit, these can also be browsed and saved without a website.

Bishop, however, says he tried to be careful about the implementation here with regard to creator content.

Image Credits: Pestle

“Ultimately I think Pestle compliments recipe websites as opposed to simply taking. Firstly, when you share a recipe to Pestle, you have to already be on their page. Meaning you’ve loaded their ads, their ranking improves, etc,” he explains. “Pestle is akin to clicking the print button in recipe websites.”

Plus, he notes, the sources are attributed and linked to, and the app also prompts you to revisit the website after you finish cooking to leave a review, which is an interesting idea in terms of recirculating traffic from the app back to the creator’s original content.

“Additionally, recipes are not redistributed en-mass,” Bishop adds. “Pestle users can share recipes with one another, but if they share the recipe to someone who doesn’t have Pestle it’ll simply load the original site.”

From the end user’s perspective, there are few complaints as Pestle offers an easy-to-use app with a lot of helpful features. Though you can create your own folders, Pestle will automatically organize recipes for you by category and cuisine, so you can quickly find recipes without having to come up with your own foldering system.

As you cook, you can switch into a guided experience where you move through the recipe on a step-by-step basis. You can also set multiple timers along the way, and tap on links within each to be reminded of the quantities you need. Many other apps force you to switch back and forth between ingredient lists and the steps, which can complicate matters when the recipe’s steps have to be implemented quickly or when hands are messy.

And if dirtying your screen is a concern, you can also navigate the app hands-free using voice commands like “Back” and “Next.”

Image Credits: Pestle

Pestle also supports Apple’s SharePlay, so you can place a FaceTime call with family or friends, and cook together while using the app.

Premium users gain access to a few more features, like the discover section for finding new cooking inspiration, handoff and sync between iPhone and iPad devices, 14-day meal planning support, and shopping lists with Apple Reminders integration. (It won’t go so far as to help you order the ingredients through a shopping site like Instacart, however).

The paid subscription is on sale during its launch where a “lifetime” subscription will cost just $4.99, rather than the $9.99 per year (or $0.99/mo) subscription that will otherwise be available. After launch, the lifetime subscription will later cost $25.

Bishop, a 19-year old indie developer and former WWDC scholar, had built other apps before Pestle, including an Apple Watch Reddit app Nano for Reddit and an Apple Watch Twitter app, Chirp, among others. But Pestle is his main focus as the others are largely self-sufficient.

He’d like to bring Pestle to other platforms, but for the time being, that may not be possible as a one-person operation, he says.

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Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch

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Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.

The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.

Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.

Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.

“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.

Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”

Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”

“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”

“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”

Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.

Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.

Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.

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