All posts in “Apps”

Stock trade app Robinhood raising at $5B+, up 4X in a year

By adding a cryptocurrency exchange, a web version, and stock option trading, Robinhood has managed to quadruple its valuation in a year, according to a source familiar with a new round the startup is raising. Robinhood is closing in on around $350 million in Series D funding led by Russian firm DST Global, the source says. That’s just 11 months after Robinhood confirmed TechCrunch’s scoop that the zero-fee stock trading app had raised an $110 million Series C at a $1.3 billion valuation. The new raise would bring Robinhood to $526 million in funding.

Details of the Series D were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The astronomical value growth shows that investors see Robinhood as a core part of the mobile finance tools the next generation will rely upon. The startup also just proved its ability to nimbly adapt to trends by building its cryptocurrency trading feature in less than two months to make sure it wouldn’t miss the next big economic shift. One million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced.

The launch completed a trio of product debuts. The mobile app finally launched a website version for tracking and trading stocks without a commission in November. In December it opened options trading, making it a more robust alternative to brokers like E*Trade and Scottrade. They often charge $7 or more per stock trade compared to zero with Robinhood, but also give away features that are reserved for Robinhood’s premium Gold subscription tier.

Robinhood won’t say how many people have signed up for its $6 to $200 per month Gold service that lets people trade on margin, with higher prices netting them more borrowing power. That and earning interest on money stored in Robinhood accounts are the startup’s primary revenue sources.

Rapid product iteration and skyrocketing value surely helped recruit Josh Elman, who Robinhood announced yesterday has joined as VP of product as he transitions to a part-time roll at Greylock Partners. He could help the company build a platform business as a backbone for other fintech apps, they way he helped Facebook build its identity platform.

In effect, Robinhood has figured out how to make stock trading freemium. Rather than charge per trade with bonus features included, Robinhood gives away the bare-bones trades and charges for everything else. That could give it a steady, scalable business model akin to Dropbox, which grew by offering small amounts of free storage and then charging for extras and enterprise accounts. From a start with free trades, Robinhood could blossom into a hub for your mobile finance life.

Google adds a wheelchair-accessible option for transit maps

Google Maps has a pretty solid set of data for taking transit from here to there, but anyone with a physical disability knows it isn’t quite that simple. Some stations may be wheelchair-unfriendly, have out-of-service elevators, that kind of thing. A new update to the service adds an option for you to specify a wheelchair-accessible route — though that’s just a start on what’s really needed.

Transit riders in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston and Sydney will now have the option to select “wheelchair accessible” in their route options in the same way they might opt to have fewer transfers or minimal walking. More are on the way.

No doubt this will make life easier for disabled folks, people with strollers or even anyone lugging around something heavy.

But maps, even Google’s extremely detailed ones, are still extremely short on information critical to anyone with a physical disability. Walking routes that take into account sidewalk condition and grade, curb cuts, pedestrian crossing zones or buttons, wheelchair-accessible entrances to buildings and much more could be better integrated into the world’s most popular mapping platform.

We know it can be done because a handful of students did it on their own for a summer project. AccessMap uses a combination of manually generated and publicly available data to label sidewalks as safe or risky for people who have trouble getting around. It’s limited to Seattle at present (can’t expect undergrads to map the country) but the concept is more than sound.

Here’s hoping Google dedicates a bit more of its considerable resources to improving this aspect of the product. Millions will thank them.

Facebook launches Express Wi-Fi app for its local-operated hotspots

Facebook wants you to pay for internet. This week TechCrunch was tipped off that Facebook had quietly launched an Express Wi-Fi Android app in the Google Play store that lets users buy data packs and find nearby hotspots as part of Facebook’s distributed Wi-Fi network. The company’s Express Wi-Fi program is live in five developing countries that see local business owners operating Wi-Fi hotspots where people can pay to access higher-speed bandwidth via local telecoms instead of paying steep prices for slow cellular data connections.

Previously, Express Wi-Fi users had to dig out a mobile website, or directly download an app from a telecom that required reconfiguring a phone’s settings. There wasn’t any way to look up where hotspots were located. The new Google Play app can be downloaded the normal way. It’s now live in Indonesia with bandwidth from telecom partner D-Net, and in Kenya through Surf. The app can also tell if a user’s Wi-Fi is turned on to help with set up, and they can file reports to Facebook about connectivity or retailer issues.

The launch signals Facebook expanding its pursuit of developing world audiences that first need internet access before they can become lucrative Facebook users. Unlike its much-criticized zero-rating program called Free Basics (formerly, Express Wi-Fi offers a full, unrestricted version of the web for a price instead of only low-bandwidth services approved by Facebook. This strategy could help it achieve its mission of getting more disconnected people in the developing world online without the net neutrality concerns. Making Express Wi-Fi an actual business might save Facebook from backlash about it masking a user growth driver inside a philanthropic initiative.

Facebook confirmed the launch to TechCrunch, with a spokesperson telling us, “Facebook is releasing the Express Wi-Fi app in the Google Play store to give people another simple and secure way to access fast, affordable internet through their local Express Wi-Fi hotspots.” Sensor Tower first tipped us off to the app.

Weak or expensive connectivity is a huge barrier to Facebook deepening its popularity in the developing world at a time when it’s reaching saturation or even shrinking in some developed world nations. Facebook saw its first user loss ever in the U.S. and Canada region in Q4, with daily active users decreasing by 700,000 in part because of News Feed changes that reduced the presence of engagement-drawing viral videos.

Facebook needs user growth more than ever, and the developing world is where it can find it. That’s why it’s developing advanced technologies like the Aquila solar drone and satellites that can beam down connectivity. It’s also working with telecoms that use microwave towers to beam backhaul bandwidth to its Express Wi-Fi units.

Monetizing the international market has been a big focus for the company. It’s launched new region-specific and low-bandwidth ad units like click-to-missed-call and slideshows. It’s paid off. From 2012 to 2016, average revenue per user grew 4X in the Rest of World region. And that revenue grows even faster when people can load Facebook quickly and cheaply thanks to strong Wi-Fi access. The more accessible Facebook makes this program, the more it could see those internet users turn into social networkers.

PUBG soft-launches on mobile in Canada with Android release

Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, the ‘battle royale’ style game where everyone tries to be the last player standing while scrounging for supplies to keep them alive, has launched on Android in Canada MobileSyrup reports, which could presage a future release in the U.S.

The arrival of the mobile version of the game more generally known as PUBG coincides with it reaching the 5 million player milestone on Xbox, where it’s been available since late last year after debuting on the PC in early access earlier in 2017. It’s not cross-play compatible, unlike Fortnite, however, so if you’re playing the Android version you’ll be matched up against others with the app, which is published by Chinese Internet giant Tencent.

This Android port wasn’t developed by original PUBG studio Bluehole, but they say they oversaw the creation of this mobile version. Based on early testing with a Pixel 2 XL, it looks and feels a lot like the original.

PUBG doesn’t have quite the hype of Fortnite right now, since that’s begun a cross-platform play mobile beta and also Drake just played a session with one of the most popular professional esports players in the world. But a mobile version close at hand (and available now, if you’re Canadian) is reason to get excited.

Here’s why Spotify will go public via direct listing on April 3rd

Spotify explained why it’s ditching the traditional IPO for a direct listing on the NYSE on April 3rd today during its Investor Day presentation. With no lockup period and no intermediary bankers, Spotify thinks it can go public without all the typical shenanigans.

Spotify described the rationale for using a direct listing with five points:

  • List Without Selling Shares  – Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow
  • Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in
  • Equal Access – Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.
  • Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings
  • Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Spotify won’t wait for the direct listing, and on March 26th will announce first quarter and 2018 guidance before markets open. It also announced today that there will be no lock-up period, so employees can start selling their shares immediately. This prevents a looming lock-up period expiration that can lead to a dump of shares on the market that sinks the price from spooking investors.

It’s unclear exactly what Spotify will be valued at on April 3rd, but during 2018 its shares have traded on the private markets for between $90 and $132.50, valuing the company at $23.4 billion at the top of the range. The music streaming service now has 159 million monthly active users (up 29 percent in 2017) and 71 million paying subscribers (up 46 percent in 2017.

During CEO Daniel Ek’s presentation, he explained that Spotify emerged as an alternative to piracy by convenience to make paying or ad-supported access easier than stealing. Now he sees the company as the sole leading music streaming service that’s a dedicated music company, subtly throwing shade at Apple, Google, and Amazon. “We’re not focused on selling hardware. We’re not focused on selling books. We’re focused on selling music and connecting artists with fans” said Ek.

Head of R&D Gustav Soderstrom outlined Spotify’s ubiquity strategy, opposed to trying to lock users into a “single platform ecosystem”. He says Spotify does “what’s best for the user and not for the company, and trying to solve the users’ problems by being everywhere.” That’s more shade for Apple, who’s HomePod only works with Apple Music despite customers obviously wishing they could play other streaming services through it.

By now being baked into a wide range of third-party hardware through the Spotify Connect program, Soderstrom says Spotify gets a more holistic understanding of its listeners. He declared that Spotify has 5X as much personalization data as its next closest competitor, and that allows it to know what to play you next. He cheekily calls this “self-driving music”.

By directing what people listen to, Spotify becomes the new top 40 radio — the hit-maker. That gives it leverage over the record labels so Spotify can get better licensing deals and favorable treatment. Now over 30 percent of Spotify listening is based on its own programming through featured playlists, artists, and more.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek giving the Investor Day presentation

Wall Street loves a two-sided marketplace, so Spotify is positioning itself in the middle of artists and fans, with each side attracting the other. It’s both selling music streaming services to listeners, and selling the tools to reach and monetize those listeners to musicians. That’s both on its platform, and using its targeting and analytics info to deliver efficient ticket and merchandise promotions elsewhere. Ek discussed the flywheel that drives Spotify’s business, explaining that the more people discover music, the more they listen, and the more artists that become successful on the platform, and the more artists will embrace the platform and bring their fans.

Yet with music catalogues and prices mostly similar across the industry, Spotify will have to depend on its personalized recommendations and platform-agnositic strategy to beat its deep pocketed competitors. Music isn’t going away, so whoever can lock in listeners now at the dawn of streaming could keep coining off them for decades. That’s why Spotify not raising cash for marketing through a traditional IPO is a strange choice. But with its focus on playlists and suggestion data, Spotify could build melodic handcuffs for its listeners who wouldn’t dream of starting from scratch on a competitor.

You can follow along with the presentation here.

For more on Spotify’s not-an-IPO, check out our feature piece: