All posts in “Apps”

Firefox is now a better iPad browser

Mozilla today announced a new iOS version of Firefox that has been specifically optimized for Apple’s iPad. Given the launch of the new iPad mini this week, that’s impeccable timing. It’s also an admission that building a browser for tablets is different from building a browser for phones, which is what Mozilla mostly focused on in recent years.

“We know that iPads aren’t just bigger versions of iPhones,” Mozilla writes in today’s announcement. “You use them differently, you need them for different things. So rather than just make a bigger version of our browser for iOS, we made Firefox for iPad look and feel like it was custom made for a tablet.”

So with this new version, Firefox for iPad gets support for iOS features like split screen and the ability to set Firefox as the default browser in Outlook for iOS. The team also optimized tab management for these larger screens, including the option to see tabs as large tiles, “making it easy to see what they are, see if they spark joy and close with a tap if not.” And if you have a few tabs you want to share, then you can do so with the Send Tabs feature Mozilla introduced earlier this year.

Starting a private browsing session on iOS always took a few extra tabs. The iPad version makes this a one-tap affair as it prominently highlights this feature in the tab bar.

Because quite a few iPad users also use a keyboard, it’s no surprise that this version of Firefox also supports keyboard shortcuts.

If you are an iPad user in search of an alternative browser, Firefox may now be a viable option for you. Give it a try and let us know what you think in the comments (just don’t remind us how you work from home for only a few hours a day and make good money… believe me, we’re aware).

[embedded content]

Gig workers need health & benefits. Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates, and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans, and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to be come an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it’s raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners, and Steve Jang. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance, and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity” recalls Tyrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers, and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern, and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance ‘paid’ time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about what benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose what programs you want, and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off, and retirement balances up 300% in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos, and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. 21 percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of
the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services including Nerdwallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club fonder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn, and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brough on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures, and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

MoviePass parent’s CEO says its rebooted subscription service is already profitable

Two days after MoviePass announced the return of the company’s unlimited ticket plan, Ted Farnsworth, CEO of its parent company Helios and Matheson Analytics, sat down with TechCrunch to offer insight into the state of the beleaguered service.

According to the executive, MoviePass Uncapped is already seeing positive results. While he didn’t share concrete numbers, he says that subscribers have increased “well over 800 percent in the last few days. And that’s conservative.”

Asked what it would take to make the company’s subscription business profitable, Farnsworth says, “Well, it’s profitable right now.” As for when it turned the corner, he added, “I will tell you this, because it’s out there: MoviePass has actually paid Helios back money over the past several months, towards the loans that they have. So, that gives you an idea of when we really started focusing on getting rid of the 20 percent of the abusers.”

The plan marks a return to the initial unlimited model that helped turn MoviePass into a household name in the past year. But that success arrived with a massive price, as the service began hemorrhaging money. MoviePass withdrew the unlimited plan and began reworking its plans on what seemed to be a weekly basis.

In July, at the height of what was supposed to be the Summer of MoviePass, the service experienced an outage as it struggled to pay bills. Helios secured a $5 million loan from creditors Hudson Bay Capital Management in order to turn the lights back on.

Ted Farnsworth

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Ted Farnsworth attends the 27th annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party sponsored by IMDb and Neuro Drinks celebrating EJAF and the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for EJAF)

“I think the big SNAFU there was the credit card company,” the executive explains. “When one company sold to the other, we had been doing business with them for four years. They decided it was too much credit for them and literally call the credit line on a Friday night and I do a personal guarantee on a Saturday.”

However things might have gone down on the back end, the optics of such a situation were clearly less than ideal. MoviePass’ struggles were very public from the beginning, as part of a publicly traded company. A literal shut down for the service appeared to be just the latest sign that the too good to be true service was exactly that.

And while Farnsworth admits that the company would have benefited from a bit more privacy, he claims that he never had any doubts about MoviePass’ future, even as he negotiated with creditors for a fresh cash injection.

“There were no moments in my mind where I thought it would go down. In my mind, I thought it was too big to fail,” he says. “You created a household name in less than a year. I think any time you have something like that, where you’re going to run into issues from sheer growth. Our investors did well investing along the way. The investors believed in us and they still do. We knew we had to slow it down to get in front of the fraud side because there were so many moving parts. It was moving so fast.”

It’s that “fraud” that was at the center of MoviePass’ woes, says Farnsworth. MoviePass’ initial downfall, he believes, was the product of too many users “gaming the system.” He believes the total number of users that fall into that category to have been around 20 percent of the overall subscriber base.

It was a minority, certainly, but still a sizable figure, given that, by June of last year, that total figure had exceeded three million. By that point, the service also comprised around five percent of U.S. box office receipts. Much of the past year has been spent attempting to plug holes in the subscription service as the MoviePass boat began rapidly taking on water.

To be clear, “gaming the system” doesn’t just mean watching a lot of movies — Farnsworth says he’s happy to have “hardcore” users, even if they’re buying way more than $9.95 or $14.95 worth of tickets. Instead, his concern is users who are doing things like sharing their subscription or just using a MoviePass ticket to use the theater’s restroom — something surprisingly common in places like Times Square, where public bathrooms are hard to come by.

One of the primary fixes, Farnsworth says, is utilizing mobile tracking to ensure that subscribers are, in fact, using the service as intended, and looking for “red flags” like constantly changing the device using the app. Users are already required to enable location-based tracking in order to enable ticket purchase. This will utilize that to ping the ticket purchaser’s location, in order to make sure that they’re actually attending the movies for which they’ve purchased tickets.

HMNY moviepass parent chart

“For instance, another issue is where people would go to the theater, they’ll pick up the ticket, they’ll hand their ticket to the kid or their child or their friend or whatever it is … and the person that’s paying the subscription goes back home or whatever they do,” he says. The new strategy: “When the movie starts, 30 minutes later [we’re] able to ping them inside the theater, just to make sure they still are at that theater.”

Looking ahead, Farnsworth says that the days of constantly changing pricing and restrictions are over, and that the company is committed to the unlimited plan. In fact, in his telling, the goal was always to get back to the unlimited plan — it was just that MoviePass had to figure out how to cut down on fraud to make the plan work.

At the same time, he says MoviePass’ film studio will also be an important part of the business. It has been overshadowed by the headlines about the company’s subscription struggles, but MoviePass Films has titles starring Bruce Willis, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone scheduled for this year.

MoviePass also invested in “Gotti,” and although the film was reviled by critics and only grossed $4.3 million at the box office, Farnsworth doesn’t see it as a failure.

“We never looked at Gotti as a money-maker” he says. “They only projected that it would do a $1.3 million in the box office here. Because then, when we pushed it with MoviePass, we took that up to five million. So, I mean, when you can take a movie — I gotta be careful here, but when you take a movie that might not be that great or perfect, and you can move that needle, [that] was always our theory of subscription.”

Check back later for our full interview with Farnsworth. 

MoviePass co-founder’s new startup PreShow gives you free movie tickets for watching ads

As founding CEO of MoviePass, Stacy Spikes has already changed the way we think about paying for movie tickets. Now he’s pursuing a new approach — providing a free ticket to people who watch 15 to 20 minutes of ads.

Spikes told me that when it comes to watching movies outside the theater, there are three basic business models — pay-per-view, subscription and ad-supported. MoviePass brought a subscription approach into theaters, but Spikes (who stepped down as MoviePass CEO in 2016) said he kept wondering, “Well, why can’t you have an ad-supported version that will allow you to go to movies for free?”

It’s hard to imagine digital advertising being worth enough to really pay for that ticket, but Spikes insisted, “You’re paying your way. This is not going to be a loss leader model. It’s an ad-revenue based business.”

To make that work, he said the new service, called PreShow, is bringing a couple innovations to the table. First, there’s facial recognition technology that ensures you’re actually present and watching the ad.

Spikes demonstrated this feature for me last week, showing me how his face unlocked the PreShow app. Once he’d chosen the film he wanted to watch, he was presented with a package of video ads that were specifically selected to run with that movie — and any time he looked away from the screen or moved too far away from his phone, the ads would stop playing. (Apparently the sensitivity can be dialed up or down depending on user feedback.)

PreShow facial recognition

Spikes also said the ads should tie into the film in some way, whether that’s thematically, or by highlighting products that are also featured in the movie. And they’ll always include an opportunity to further engage with the advertiser.

So although 15 to 20 minutes might sound like a long time to watch ads,  it should be more interesting for the viewer than just watching a random collection of promotional videos. And for the advertisers who are already paying for product placement in a film, this could be a way to reinforce their message with consumers who are actually watching the movie. (Spikes also compared this to the marketing packages that usually play before showtime in theaters — hence the company name.)

By watching one of these 15- to 20-minute packages, you should earn enough points to purchase a ticket at the theater using a virtual credit card provided by PreShow. Technically, those points can be used to buy any movie ticket, but Spikes said you won’t be able to earn more than two tickets at once, “so people don’t stockpile.”

As for whether PreShow is competing with his old company, Spikes said, “I don’t think they’re competitive in any way. If you compare a subscription platform to an ad platform to a pay-per-view platform, they’re different animals.”

Stacy Spikes

Stacy Spikes

The plan is to start testing the service with a select group of users in the next three to six months, and to find those users, PreShow is launching a Kickstarter campaign today. Pledge levels range from $15 to $60, with the amount you pay determining how early you get access, and how many friend invites you receiving.

Spikes said he’s less interested in raising money (which is why the campaign’s official goal is only $10,000) and more in attracting film lovers who want to try out the app.

“It’s a way to have innovation happen more organically, versus if you just open it up for the general public,” Spikes said.

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo-editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays, though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35, and those younger than 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”picsart

PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. Image: PicsArt via WeiboThe app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serves as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s libraryWhen people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram . It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArt lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photosA hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.picsart 1

PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. Image: PicsArt via Weibo”In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”