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Spotify prototypes Tastebuds to revive social music discovery – TechCrunch

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Spotify is prototyping a new way to see what friends have been listening to, called “Tastebuds.” Despite how discovering music is inherently social, Spotify has no features for directly interacting with friends within its mobile app after axing its own inbox in 2017 and keeping its Friend Activity ticker restricted to desktop.

It seemed like Spotify was purposefully restricting social features to force users to rely on the company’s own playlists and discovery surfaces. This gave Spotify the power to play king-maker, massively influencing which artists got featured and rose to stardom. This in turn gave it leverage in its combative negotiations with record labels, which worried their artists might get left off playlists if they don’t play nice with Spotify in terms of sustainable royalty rates and access to exclusives.

That strategy seems to have paid off with Spotify improving its licensing deals and becoming a critical promotional partner for the labels, paving the way to its IPO. Spotify’s shares sit around $152, up from its direct listing price of $132, though down from its first-day pop that saw it rise to $165. More comfortable in its position, now Spotify seems ready to relinquish more control of discovery and enable users to be better inspired by what friends are playing.

Spotify Tastebuds code via Jane Manchun Wong

Tastebuds is designed to let users explore the music taste profiles of their friends. Tastebuds lives as a navigation option alongside your Library and Home/Browse sections. Anyone can access a non-functioning landing page for the feature at https://open.spotify.com/tastebuds. The feature explains itself, with text noting “What’s Tastebuds? Now you can discover music through friends whose taste you trust.”

The prototype feature was discovered in the web version of Spotify by reverse engineering sorceress and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, who gave us some more details on how it works. Users tap the pen icon to “search the people you follow.” From there they can view information about what users have been playing most and easily listen along or add songs to their own library.

Without Tastebuds, there are only a few buried ways to interact socially on Spotify. You can message friends a piece of music through buttons for SMS, Facebook Messenger and more, or post songs to your Instagram or Snapchat Story. Spotify used to have an in-app inbox for trading songs, but removed it in favor of shuttling users to more popular messaging apps. On the desktop app, but not mobile or web, you can view a Friend Activity ticker of songs your Facebook friends are currently listening to. Or you can search for specific users and follow them or view playlists they’ve made public, though Spotify doesn’t promote user search much.

Spotify has a few other social features it has experimented with but never launched. Those include a Friends Weekly playlist spotted last year by The Verge’s Dani Deahl. Then this May, we reported Wong had spotted a shared-queue Social Listening feature that let you and friends play songs simultaneously while apart. Back in 2014, I wrote that Spotify should move beyond blog-esque browsing to create a “PlayFeed” playlist that would dynamically update with algorithmic recommendations, new releases from your top artists and friends’ top listens. It has since launched Discovery Weekly and Release Radar, and Tastebuds could finally bring in that final social piece.

Spotify’s simultaneous social listening prototype

The result is that you can only see either a myopic snapshot of friends’ current songs, the few and often outdated playlists they manually made public or you message them songs elsewhere. There was no great way to get a holistic view of what a friend has been jamming to lately, or their music preferences overall.

We’ve reached out to Spotify seeking more information about how Tastebuds works, how privacy functions around who can see what and if and when the feature might launch. We’re also interested to see if Spotify has any deal in place with a music dating startup called Tastebuds.fm which launched way back in 2010 to help people connect and flirt through song sharing. [Update: A Spotify spokesperson confirms that “We’re always testing new products and experiences, but have no further news to share at this time.” They also said this is not related to the Tastebuds.fm startup.] 

Social is a huge but under-tapped opportunity for Spotify. Not only could social recommendations get users listening to Spotify for longer, thereby hearing more ads or becoming less likely to cancel their subscription, it also helps Spotify lock in users with a social graph they can’t find elsewhere. While competitors like Apple Music or YouTube might offer similar music catalogs, users won’t stray from Spotify if they become addicted to social discovery through Tastebuds.



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Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US – TechCrunch

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Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well as Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

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RecargaPay closes a $70 million Series C – TechCrunch

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RecargaPay, a Brazil-based fintech that allows users to top off their prepaid cell phones online, announced this morning that they’ve closed their $70 million Series C. The company, which operates solely in Brazil, was launched in 2010 by Miami-based serial entrepreneur Rodrigo Teijeiro, who is co-founder and CEO. 

Unlike in the U.S. where most people have a cell phone plan through a major carrier, in Brazil — a country where the minimum wage is currently $1,100 reals per month (roughly $202 USD) — many people must buy calling cards at local shops to add credit to their phones, which allows them to avoid a monthly recurring bill.

“Most people were using prepaid [phones] for control because they didn’t trust the telephone companies — they didn’t want roaming fees or fees for going over etc.,” said Teijeiro. Many of us can relate to the days when we’d come home from an international trip and have an astronomical phone bill because of roaming fees, but imagine if that were a monthly occurrence?

In 2014, Teijeiro and his co-founders — one of whom is his brother, Alvaro, the CTO — turned the RecargaPay website into an app.

“Before RecargaPay, if your cell phone ran out of credits and it was 10 p.m. and you needed to make a phone call, you’d have to go out and find a shop that sold the prepaid cards to add the credits to your phone — it was super inconvenient,” Teijeiro added. Cell phones caught on quickly in Brazil because it has traditionally been difficult to obtain a landline — an ordeal that often took several months to solidify.

RecargaPay originally had operations in various Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Brazil, as well as in Spain and the U.S. But in 2016 the company decided to focus on the Brazilian market, because not only is it the biggest in LatAm, but it also has the highest penetration of credit cards. 

“The number one mistake investors make when investing in LatAm is that they think that LatAm is one whole market. But especially in fintech, all the regulations are very different. That’s why it’s hard to scale in LatAm,” he said.

The company makes money by charging a monthly fee of $19.99 reals. When a customer makes an online top-off on the app, they get 4% cash back because the cell phone carriers pay RecargaPay the equivalent amount, which it then passes on to the user.

The company, which is EBITDA positive according to Teijeiro, has raised just over $100 million in capital to date and plans to use the $70 million to “expand its financial services offerings to small businesses and consumers, including further development of its popular subscription program Prime+,” the company said in a statement.

Already, RecargaPay offers much more than the ability to top off your cell phone. Other features include the ability to buy gift cards, apply for and receive microloans, refill your public transportation cards and pay bills. Teijeiro explained that RecargaPay and Nubank, LatAm’s largest digital bank, are not direct competitors, but rather operate in the same ecosystem. A lot of Nubank customers who now have a credit card, thanks to the bank’s no-fee cards, can use RecargaPay to top off their cell phones, he added.

According to a 2020 report by TechnoBlog, a Brazilian media outlet, in 2010 about 83% of cell phones in Brazil were prepaid. Today, that number is smaller, but it’s still a whopping 49%. The change started in 2012 with the advent of smartphones in Brazil and the popularization of WhatsApp. While this may sound insane, previously, Brazilians could only call others who used their same cell phone carrier — if they called people in other networks they’d incur a hefty fee.

To get around this problem, Brazilians bought multiple cell phone chips from different carriers and they would have to top off these chips individually. You’d also have to remember which of your contacts used which carrier — mind-blowing, I know. So when WhatsApp launched, it eliminated that problem altogether, hence its massive penetration in the Brazilian market.

(l-r) Renato Camargo: country manager & CMO; Alvaro Teijeiro: co-founder & CTO; Gustavo Victorica: co-founder & COO; Rodrigo Teijeiro: founder & CEO; Diego Escobar: CFO. Image Credits: RecargaPay

RecargaPay’s Series C was co-led by Miami-based Fuel Ventures and Madrid-based IDC Ventures, with additional participation from LUN Partners, Experian Ventures and ATW Partners.

“RecargaPay is a pioneer in the payments sector as one of the first all-in-one platforms to serve such a wide array of everyday needs of Brazilians,” said Maggie Vo, Fuel Venture Capital managing general partner and chief investment officer. “We are thrilled to back a company that is actively improving the lives of so many people by giving them more control over their finances, all the while challenging the status quo of banking systems.”

“Often people think that RecargaPay is for the unbanked, but it’s actually for the unbanked and the banked,” Teijeiro added. “What we always had in mind was to build — in the long-term — a mobile money ecosystem. Our approach was to solve problems one-by-one, and now we have a vertically integrated payment platform that offers financial services.”

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BigCommerce customers can now sell on Walmart’s online marketplace – TechCrunch

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BigCommerce has partnered with Walmart to allow its customers to sell on the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s ecommerce marketplace, it announced this morning. Shares of Austin-based BigCommerce rose sharply in pre-market trading after the news, gaining around 10% before the bell.

Walmart, best-known for in-person shopping, has proven an ecommerce success story in recent years. For example, in its most recent quarter while Walmart as a whole grew 7.3%, its ecommerce sales advanced 69%.

BigCommerce has also reported strong growth in recent quarters, supported in part by partnerships similar to the one that it announced today. The ecommerce SaaS provider rolled out an integration with Wish last year, for example.

In a call concerning its earnings, which were announced before the Walmart news was announced, BigCommerce CEO Brent Bellm told TechCrunch that his company had been impressed with customer uptake of the Wish integration. Regarding the Walmart partnership, in a second interview Bellm told TechCrunch that it was overdue on the BigCommerce side; given the historical success of the Wish deal, it will be curious to dig into how many of the ecommerce platform’s customers opt to sell on Walmart, and how quickly they do so.

TechCrunch also spoke with Walmart exec Jeff Clementz about the arrangement. He stressed Walmart’s online customer monthly-actives — 120 million, per his company — and the breadth of their demand; BigCommerce customers selling on Walmart could expand its product diversity, helping the traditionally physical retailer possible continue its rapid growth.

The two companies are incentivizing adoption of the deal amongst BigCommerce customers by waiving certain fees for a month for retailers that sign up to sell on Walmart; Clementz described it as the first time that his company had offered a “new-seller discount.”

TechCrunch has had its eye on BigCommerce for some quarters now, thanks in part to its 2020 IPO. But the company is also interesting as its regular earnings results provide a lens into the world of ecommerce growth amongst independent digital retailers. Shopify, a chief BigCommerce rival, provides a similar view into the ecommerce world.

Shopify previously integrated with Walmart in the middle of 2020.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see if the Walmart partnership helps BigCommerce continue its improving revenue growth. The company is in a marketshare race with Shopify. But while BigCommerce’s rival has posted impressive growth from its integrated solutions, like its payments service, the Austin-based company stresses what it calls a more open model. Shopify charges many customers a percentage of their transaction volume for using a third-party payment solution over its own, for example, which Bellm described as a “tax” during an interview.

“Merchant Solutions” revenue at Shopify, which it generates “principally” from “payment processing fees from Shopify Payments,” grew 116% in 2020 to a little over $2 billion.

So with BigCommerce collecting a partnership with Walmart to match Shopify’s own, we’re seeing not merely two ecommerce platforms go toe-to-toe on providing their customers with as much market access as they can, but two different business philosophies compete. Akin to Microsoft Teams and Slack, it’s a competition to spectate.

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