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To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself – TechCrunch

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Evan Spiegel has finally found a way to fight back against Mark Zuckerberg’s army of clones. For 2.5 years, Snapchat foolishly tried to take the high road versus Facebook, with Spiegel claiming “Our values are hard to copy”. That inaction allowed Zuckerberg to accrue over 1 billion daily Stories users across Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook compared to Snapchat’s 186 million total daily users. Meanwhile, the whole tech industry scrambled to build knock-offs of Snap’s vision of an ephemeral, visual future.

But Snapchat’s new strategy is a rallying call for the rest of the social web that’s scared of being squashed beneath Facebook’s boot. It rearranges the adage of “if you can’t beat them, join them” into “to beat them, join us”. As a unified front, Snap’s partners get the infrastructure they need to focus on what differentiates them, while Snapchat gains the reach and entrenchment necessary to weather the war.

Tinder lets you use Snapchat Stories as profile photos

Snapchat’s plan is to let other apps embed the best parts of it rather than building their own half-rate copies.

Why reinvent the wheel of Stories, Bitmoji, and ads when you can reuse the original? A high-ranking Snap executive told me on background that this is indeed the strategy. If it’s going to invent these products, and others want something similar, it’s smarter to enable and partly control the Snapchatification than to try to ignore it. Otherwise, Facebook might be the one to platform-tize what Snap inspired everyone to want.

The “Camera company” corrected course and took back control of its destiny this week at its first ever Snap Partner Summit in its hometown of Los Angeles. Now it’s a camera platform thanks to Snap Kit. Its new Story Kit will implant Snapchat Stories into other apps later this year. They can display a more traditional carousel of your friends’ Stories, or lace them into their app in a custom format. Houseparty’s Stories carousel shares what your buddies are up to outside of the group video chat app. Tinder will let you show off your Snapchat Story alongside your photos to seduce potential matches. But the camera stays inside Snapchat, with new options to share out to these App Stories.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel presents at the Snap Partner Summit

This is how Snapchat colonizes the native app ecosystem similarly to how Facebook invaded the web with the Like button. Snap’s strong privacy record makes these partners willing to host it where now they might fear that Facebook and its history with Cambridge Analytica could tarnish their brand.

Instead of watching these other apps spin up mini competitors that further fragment the Stories world, Snap saves developers the slow and costly hassle while instantly giving them best-in-class tools to boost their own engagement. Each outpost makes your Snapchat account a little more indispensable, grants its camera new utility, and reminds you to visit again. It’s another reason to stick with Snap rather than straying to other versions of Stories.

If Spiegel knows what’s up, he’ll douse the Story Kit partnerships team with resources so they can sign up as many apps as possible before Facebook can copy this idea too. For now, Snap isn’t injecting ads into App Stories, but it could easily do so and split the cash with its host. This would attract partners, generate revenue, and give Snap’s advertisers more reach.

Houseparty embeds Snapchat Stories

Either way, Snap will score those benefits with its new Ad Kit. Later this year the Snapchat Audience Network will launch allowing partners to host Snap’s full-screen vertical video ads and earn an as-yet-undisclosed revenue share. They won’t have to build up an ad sales force or build an auction and delivery system, but just drop in an SDK to start displaying ads to both Snapchat users and non-users. The company’s message again is that it’s becoming easier to cooperate with Snapchat than copy it.

Snap’s new ad network

Giving its advertisers more reach and reusability for Snap’s somewhat proprietary ad unit format helps Snap address its core challenge: scale. Snap’s 186 million total users can look small in comparison to Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, especially since that count sank in Q2 and Q3 before stabilzing in Q4 of last year. That makes it tougher for advertisers to justify the chore of spending on Snapchat. Ad Kit and potentially Story Kit give Snap more reach even without user growth.

Added size could tip the cards in Snap’s favor given it’s already popular with an extremely important demographic. Snapchat now reaches 75 percent of 13 to 34-year olds in the US, and 90 percent of 13 to 24-year olds there. It claims to now reach more of that younger age group than Facebook in the most lucrative countries: the US, Canada, UK, France, and Australia.

Facebook has massively neglected this segment. Case in point: Facebook Messenger’s Stickers feature that’s popular with kids has hardly improved since its launch in 2013, which I hear was a fight to get approved internally. Meanwhile, Snapchat keeps growing its lead on virtual identity with Bitmoji. Now Snap will let you put your personalized Bitmoji avatar on your FitBit smart watch face, use them to joke about Venmo purchases, and even represent yourself with one in Snap’s new multiplayer games platform.

Again, Snap wants partners to integrate the real thing rather than try to build some half-assed facsimile of Bitmoji. Surprisingly, Facebook’s Avatars have been mired in development for over a year and Apple’s Memoji can’t escape iMessage and FaceTime yet. That’s why Snapchat would be wise to double-down on trying to make Bitmoji the ubiquitous way to represent yourself without a photograph. Facebook’s lack of design cool and Bitmoji’s massive headstart with this differentiated product is a powerful way for Snap to wedge itself into partnerships.

Snap needs all the help it can get if the underdog is going to carve out a substantial and sustainable piece of social networking. Teaming up was the theme of the rest of the Snap Partner Summit. It’s built ways for Netflix, GoFundMe, VSCO, and Anchor to share stickers and for publishers like the Washington Post to share articles back to Snapchat. It’s got Zynga and ZeptoLab building real-time multiplayer Snap Games that live inside chat and are a clever way of slipping ads into messaging.

Snapchat’s new Scan augmented reality utility platform has signed up Giphy and Photomath as well as former partners Shazam and Amazon to let you squeeze extra interactivity out of your surroundings. And since the physical world is too vast for any one developer to fill with AR experiences, Snap beefed up its Lens Studio platform with new templates and creator profiles so developers add to its warchest of 400,000 special effects. Facebook may be able to clone Snap’s features, but not its developer army.

“If we can show the right Lens in the right moment, we can inspire a whole new world of creativity” says Snap co-founder Bobby Murphy . From partnerships to utilities to toys, all the new announcements drive attention back to Snapchat’s camera. That makes it ripe to become the augmented reality brower of the world.

It all feels like a coming of age moment for Snapchat, punctuated by the glitzy press event where media bigwigs gnoshed on Chinese steak buns and played with AR art installations in West Hollywood.

Spiegel has discovered a method of capitalizing on his penchant for inspiring mobile product design. With this strategy in place and Snap’s reengineered Android app and new languages rolling out now, I believe Snapchat will grow again, at least in terms of deeper engagement if not also total user count. Perhaps it will need a little bit more funding to get it over the hurdle, but I expect it will reach profitability before the end of 2020. 

During a pre-event press briefing with a dozen Snap executives including Spiegel and Murphy (that was on ‘background’ so we can’t quote or specify who said what), one Snap higher-up joked that Facebook has been copying it for seven years so it’s started to feel normal. Zuckerberg recently declared he wanted to reorient Facebook around privacy, ephemerality, and messaging — the core tenets of Snapchat. But a Snap leader used some colorful language to describe how they don’t care what Facebook says its philosophy is until it fixes the 2 billion-user product that keeps doing harm.

Subtly throwing shade from the stage, Spiegel concluded that “Our camera lets the natural light from our world penetrate the darkness of the Internet . . . as we use the Internet more and more in our daily lives, we need a way to make it a bit more human.” That apparently means making other apps a bit more Snapchat.

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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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