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Step targets teens and parents with a no-fees mobile bank account and Visa card – TechCrunch

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A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though they, too, want to spend their money on things that require a payment card, like Amazon.com purchases or mobile gaming, for example.

That’s where Step comes in.

The company aims to address the needs of what it believes is an underserved market in mobile banking — the 75 million children and young adults under the age of 21 in the U.S., who are still being forced to use cash.

This market isn’t the “unbanked,” it’s the “pre-banked,” explains Step CEO CJ MacDonald, whose previous startup, mobile gift card platform Gyft, sold to First Data several years ago.

Above: Step CEO, CJ MacDonald

“We’re building an all-in-one banking solution that primarily focuses on teens and parents,” he says. “We want it to be a teen’s first bank account. We want to be a teen’s first spending card. And we want to teach financial literacy and responsibility firsthand.”

MacDonald, along with CTO Alexey Kalinichenko, previously of Square and financial services startup Token, founded Step in May 2018. The 10-person team also includes several prior Gyft employees.

Last summer, Step closed on $3.8 million in seed funding from Sesame Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Collaborative Fund. Crosslink general partner Eric Chin sits on the board.

While there are a number of mobile banking apps out there today — like Chime, Monzo, Simple, Revolut and others — Step will specifically target teens, 13 and up, and other young adults with its marketing. Teens under 18 still need parents’ approval to sign up, of course. But the goal is to encourage the teens to bring the idea to their parents — not the other way around.

Step’s focus on this younger demographic puts it in a different space, where there are fewer competitors. Its more direct rivals are not the bigger mobile banks, but rather startups like teen debit card and bank app Current, or the parent-managed debit card for kids from Greenlight.

The mobile banking service Step provides will also aim to be more comprehensive than just a debit card. It will offer a combination of checking, savings and a Visa card that works as both credit and debit.

The card includes Visa’s Zero Liability Protection on all purchases from unauthorized use, and allows parents to set spending limits.

Parents will also be able to connect their own bank accounts to Step to instantly transfer in funds, which can then be distributed to kids’ accounts for things like allowances and chores, or other everyday spending needs. Step’s bank account itself is backed by Evolve Bank, so it’s FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Unlike Current, which charges a subscription to use its service, Step aims to be a fee-free bank for consumers. Users don’t have to pay for their account, and there are no fees for things like overdrafts. Instead, Step’s plan is to generate revenue through traditional means — like interchange fees and by way of lending practices, once it has established a deposit base.

The company pays a 2.5 percent interest rate on deposits, offers a round-up savings feature and a range of budgeting tools and supports free instant transfers between Step accounts. It also provides access to a network of 35,000 ATMs with no fees.

Beyond simply facilitating mobile banking, Step’s bigger goal is to teach teens to become financially responsible.

“Schools do not teach kids about money. A lot of families don’t talk about money. And it’s a crucial life skill that’s not really addressed properly when people are growing up,” says MacDonald, who says he was lacking in life skills in this area, even as a young college grad.

“There were ‘Money 101’ skills that I had not learned — that no one had talked to me about. Things like building credit, how many credit cards you should have, debt to income ratio,” he continues. “A lot of people get released into the real world without experience [in those areas],” he says.

Long-term, after solving the needs associated with everyday banking transactions, Step wants to layer on other products and services — like tools that allow a family to save together for college, for example.

The company is launching the banking service under an invite-only system to scale up.

Today, it’s opening a waitlist and referral program. When you invite a friend, you each receive one dollar. Access will then be rolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis this spring. Users can join Step through the website, iOS or Android application.

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Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products – TechCrunch

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Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

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News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion – TechCrunch

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SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

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iPhone users will receive iOS 15 update on September 20 – TechCrunch

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Shortly after today’s virtual conference, Apple announced that the next major version of iOS will be ready for prime time very soon. iPhone users will be able to update to iOS 15 on September 20. The company first unveiled iOS 15 earlier this year at its Worldwide Developer Conference.

The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to “Do not disturb,” you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.

There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime, and more. Safari also has a brand-new look. At first, it was a bit controversial. Since then, Apple has listened to feedback and improved its new take on Safari.

The new version of iOS also scans your photos for text. Called Live Text, this feature lets you highlight, copy and paste text in photos. It could be a nice accessibility feature as well. iOS is going to leverage that info for Spotlight. You can search for text in your photos directly in Spotlight and it’ll pull out relevant photos. These features are handled on-device directly.

You’ll be able to update to iOS 15 if you have an iPhone 6s and later, any model of iPhone SE or the most recent iPod touch model. It’ll be available as a free download.

For users running the iOS 15 beta, the release candidate is rolling out now, ahead of Monday’s public launch.

If you like your iPhone the way it is, Apple has also said that you don’t have to update to iOS 15. For the foreseeable future, the company will still update iOS 14 with security patches.

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