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UK military veteran launches crowd-funding for Pixie app to revive local stores – TechCrunch

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What if, instead of sitting on your phone on the sofa ordering stuff from Amazon, you could buy the same things locally from local stores that ultimately enliven and enrich your local neighborhood? What if by doing that, you wouldn’t be walking through deserted main streets, past boarded-up shops, dark alleys and graffiti? What if someone created a marketplace for independent businesses, local events and experiences that kept the money in the local economy rather than being siphoned off into global giants who don’t care about human-scale communities?

That’s the idea behind Pixie, a new take on the “shop-local app” startup model which, although it’s been tried before, has never quite managed to take off. Perhaps Pixie will have more luck?

Here’s how it works: The Pixie app connects people to independent businesses through a curated marketplace, incentivizing them to pay through the app and get rewarded for being loyal customers. Integrated into the app is Pixie Pay, a bespoke payment solution which keeps money in local hands.

The startup has a fascinating background. Whilst serving in the British Special Forces, Pixie’s founder Greg Barden understood that his mission was also to ‘win hearts and minds’ with the local population. Whether by buying bread from the local baker in a village in Afghanistan, or coffee from the market in Baghdad, he and his soldiers could tear down even the most hostile barriers.

He also realized that when more money stayed inside these the local economies rather than being sucked away by organized crime or large scale, globalized businesses, the local economy might flourish and the risk of the societies there becoming yet again destabilized could potentially diminish.

“Whether it was stalls in the bazaars of Baghdad or small boutiques on Bath high-street, I realized independent shop owners are linchpins in their community. They add variety to the mundane and nurture community spirit. Even local guardians need protecting sometimes, which is why we created Pixie.”

The threat to independent stores from globalization and digitization isn’t just happening in Afghanistan. Across the western world, ‘Main Street’ stores are closing at a prodigious rate. In the UK over 1,500 local stores closed in 2018. (And that was BEFORE Brexit…)

Pixie has stress-tested its idea in mid-sized town in the UK, including Bath, Frome and Sherbourne, completing transactions across 250 businesses, ranging from cafes to fashion boutiques, and spinning up 5,000 app users. It’s now going on the fund-raising trail, aiming to raise £500,000 in funding through its ‘Equity for Explorers’ campaign on Crowdcube a UK-based crowd-equity platform. The total addressable market for independent business in the UK is estimated to be £31.5bn in gross transactional value.

Barden — who last year spoke about his startup life at the launch of the military tech non-profit TechVets — says: “There might be thousands of independent businesses across the UK, but at the rate the high-street is disappearing they are severely under threat. Pixie isn’t here to turn people away from the bigger players on the high-street, but create opportunities for enriching discovery. Needless to say, in a world with increasing nationalism, Brexit, Trump and — dare I say it — Amazon, we feel Pixie has a huge part to play in countering the worst aspects of globalization.”

Pixie’s revenue comes from transaction fees taken when people use its ‘Pixie Pay’ payment mechanism. The payment system is designed to bypass Visa/Mastercard at the point of sale, whilst the loyalty scheme unites independent businesses under one umbrella, so the users can earn and spend their loyalty points (as money) across the entire Pixie community. If a store using Pixie is in Australia, a person from Bath could also use their points there. This keeps the money circulating inside local, independent stores, wherever they are on the planet.

Pixie distributes its own payment terminal that sits next to whatever the business has in place to take normal card payments (iZettle etc). The cards are contactless but don’t utilise visa MasterCard. It’s literally their own e-money system. Think PayPal where users can either add money to their balance by debit card or bank and/or link a debit card to Pixie if they don’t have a balance.

Obviously this also creates it an alternative to competitors like iZettle, Square, SumUp and WorldPay, but this time specifically aimed at local independent stores, not huge national and international chains.

The third element of Pixie is its discovery marketplace that gives its community of explorers (users) the ability to discover local businesses across the Pixie footprint of stores.

I’ve seen several startups try and tackle this problem, but it may well be that Pixie, under its charismatic leader, finally has a shot at cracking this idea around local markets.

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IAC’s Teltech acquired encrypted mobile messaging app Confide – TechCrunch

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IAC has acquired Confide, the encrypted mobile messaging that once made headlines for its use by White House staffers during the Trump administration. The deal, which closed on Dec. 1, 2020 but was not publicly announced, sees Confide joining Teltech, the makers of spam call-busting app Robokiller, which itself had joined IAC’s Mosaic Group by way of a 2018 acquisition.

Teltech confirmed the Confide acquisition, but declined to share the deal terms. The confidential mobile messaging app had raised just $3.5 million in funding, according to Crunchbase data, and had been valued between $10 to $50 million, as a result. (Pitchbook put the valuation at ~$14 million around the same time.)

According to Teltech, the deal was for the Confide IP and technology, but not the team.

The company believes Confide makes for a good fit among its growing group of mobile communication apps, including Robokiller and its latest app, SwitchUp, which offers users a second phone number for additional privacy and spam blocking purposes. Other Teletech apps include phone call recorder TapeACall and blocked call unmasker TrapCall.

Confide, however, may end up being one of the better-known additions among that group, thanks to being remembered as a favored tool of choice among frustrated Washington Republicans during the Trump years.

But despite the user growth that news had driven, things slowed in the months that followed, when researchers published a report that claimed Confide wasn’t as secure as it had promised. Confide quickly fixed its vulnerabilities but then a month later was facing a class action lawsuit (later dismissed by the plaintiff) over the security issues.

Teltech says it was aware of the security concerns, but it had conversations with the prior Confide team and understands that the earlier issues had been “quickly and effectively remediated.”

While IAC won’t speak to its specific plans for Confide’s future, the app will continue to offer users a safe and secure way to communicate. What it won’t do, though, is try to directly compete with Telegram or other private apps that offer large channels or group chats that support tens of thousands of people at once.

“I think one kind of key differentiators is that Confide is definitely more for one-on-one and smaller group communication, rather than with Signal and Telegram where there’s some larger chat dynamics,” notes Giulia Porter, Teltech’s VP of Marketing. “One thing that makes us a little bit different is just that we’re more personal,” she says.

Despite having hit some bumps in the road over the years, Confide as of the time of the acquisition, still had around 100,000 monthly active users. There’s now a team of around 10 assigned to work on the app, adding needed resources to its further development, and soon, an updated logo and branding.

Confide’s existing desktop and mobile apps will also continue to be available, but later updated with new features as part of Teltech’s efforts.

Investors and IAC alike have declined to talk about deal price, but that may speak for itself.

“With the absolute explosion in privacy over the past several years, Confide, which started as a side project, has become a mission-critical platform for sensitive communication throughout the world,” said Confide co-founder and President Jon Brod, in a statement shared with TechCrunch about Confide’s exit.

“We’re thrilled that IAC shares our passion for secure communication and recognizes the unique business we have built. IAC has a proven track record of providing fast-growing companies with the support to reach their full potential and we are excited to see IAC take Confide to the next level,” he said.

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Apple just had its best quarter in India – TechCrunch

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When Apple reports its earnings on Wednesday, you can expect mentions of India on the call.

Apple shipped more than 1.5 million iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, up 100% year-on-year, making this its best quarter in the world’s largest smartphone market to date, according to research firms Counterpoint and CyberMedia.

Thanks to the improved sales of older generation iPhone 11, iPhone XR, iPhone 12 and the newer iPhone SE, Apple doubled its market share in India to 4% in the quarter, the research firms said.

Overall, Apple shipped more than 3.2 million iPhone units in India in 2020, up 60% year-on-year, Counterpoint said.

The shipment growth comes months after Apple launched its online store in the country and offered customers a wide-range of financing and upgrade options, AppleCare+, and lucrative perks such as a free set of AirPods with the purchase of iPhone 11. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country later this year.

For more than a decade, Apple has struggled to sell its handsets in India because of the expensive price tags they carry. Most smartphones that ship in India are priced between $100 to $200. Samsung, and a group of Chinese smartphone vendors including Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo flooded the market in the past decade with their affordable smartphones.

None the less, in recent years Apple has visibly grown more interested in the country that is also one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble a range of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted more than two years ago. (A recent violent event at an Indian facility of Wistron, one of Apple’s contract manufacturers, however, underscored some of the challenges Apple will grapple with as it looks to scale its local production efforts in the country.)

That move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some older generation iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed import duty charges to customers. The starting price of the iPhone 12 Pro Max is $1,781 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (Apple has yet to start locally assemble the iPhone 12 units.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch. AirPods Max, similarly, is priced at $815 in India, compared to $549 in the U.S. (It doesn’t help that an average person in India makes $2,000 a year.)

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at Convergence Catalyst, told TechCrunch.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.

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‘Anti-superficial’ dating app S’More raises $2.1M – TechCrunch

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S’More, a dating app that’s focused on helping users find more meaningful relationships, announced today that it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding.

S’More (short for “something more”) ensures that users can’t focus on physical appearance, because photos are  initally blurred — they gradually un-blur as you interact with someone. The startup has introduced new features like video chat (also blurred initially), and it launched a redesigned app of the beginning of this month — CEO Adam Cohen-Aslatei said it’s a “completely rebuilt product” with new features like real-time conversation prompts and the ability to pay to promote your profile.

Cohen-Aslatei also said that S’More’s focus on “anti-superficial relationships” is attracting a real audience, with 160,000 downloads in its first year and “thousands” of paying users, including a 50% increase in subscriptions after launching the new app in January.

Looking at how dating will evolve after the pandemic, Cohen-Aslatei suggested, “I don’t think we’re going back to the way things were.” He pointed to a recent survey of S’More users in which 80% of respondents said they hadn’t gone on a single live, in-person date in 2020.

“Do you want to meet for casual encounter on Tinder, or do you have to want to have a conversation get to know a real person on S’More?” he said. Assuming that many people will choose the latter, the next question is: “How do you make discovery fun? There’s got to be multimedia, video, audio, games, all of those features are part of our product roadmap … S’More will feel like Hinge meets Nextdoor.” (Apparently, there’s “a huge cohort” of users on Nextdoor who are single and looking for relationships.)

Image Credits: S’More

The new funding comes from a long list of investors: Benson Oak Ventures, Mark Pincus’ Workplay Ventures, Gaingels VC, Loud Capital/Pride Fund
SideCar Angels, AppLovin Chairman Rafael Vivas, Joshua Black of Apollo Management, Plus Grade CEO Ken Harris, Harvard geneticist George Church, former Meet Group CEO John Abbott, former IMAX CEO Brad Weschler, Aaron and Sharon Stern, Justen Stepka/Enterprise Fund, Boston Harbor Angels, Grit Daily CEO Jordan French, Kind.Fund founder Marty Isaac, Craig Mullett and Dating Group.

Cohen-Asletai told me the funding has already allowed him to hire what he’s calling a “founding team,” including chief architect Long Nguyen, head of operations Sneha Ramanchandran, head of product and design Regina Guinto and senior developer David Lichy.

S’More is also announcing that it has signed a production deal with producers Elvia Van Es Oliva and Jack Tarantino, who have worked on shows like “90 Day Fiancé.” Cohen-Asletai said the startup will work with them to create “anti-superficial” dating content for digital platforms and TV networks.

This deal builds on the success of S’More Live, the startup’s celebrity dating show on Instagram Live, which has aired 60 episodes so far.

“We’re using that show to build our brand, to gain awareness and then …
we’re actually able to leverage all of the viewers and retarget them with content from S’More, which has made our cost to acquire a user [very affordable],” Cohen-Asletai said.

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