All posts in “Apps”

Spotify tests native voice search, groundwork for smart speakers

Now Spotify listens to you instead of the other way around. Spotify has a new voice search interface that lets you say “Play my Discover Weekly”, “Show Calvin Harris”, or “Play some upbeat pop” to pull up music.

A Spotify spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that this is “Just a test for now”, as only a small subset of users have access currently, but the company noted there would be more details to share later. The test was first spotted by Hunter Owens.

Voice control could make Spotify easier to use while on the go using microphone headphones or in the house if you’re not holding your phone. It might also help users paralyzed by the infinite choices posed by the Spotify search box by letting them simply call out a genre or some other category of songs. Spotify briefly tested but never rolled out a very rough design of voice controls a year.

Down the line, Spotify could perhaps develop its own voice interface for smart speakers from other companies or that it potentially builds itself. That would relieve it from depending on Apple’s Siri for HomePod, Google’s Assistant for Home, or Amazon’s Alexa for Echo — all of which have accompanying music streaming services that compete with Spotify.

Spotify is preparing for a direct listing that will make the company public without a traditional IPO. That means forgoing some of the marketing circus that usually surrounds a company’s debut. That means Spotify may be even more eager to experiment with features or strategies that could be future money-makers so that public investors see growth potential. Breaking into voice directly instead of via its competitors could provide that ‘x-factor’.

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

Robinhood hires Josh Elman as VP of product, who’ll stay at Greylock

Zero-fee stock trading app Robinhood is getting some product firepower as it dives into cryptocurrency and weighs platform aspirations. Investor Josh Elman will join Robinhood as its VP of product while remaining a partner at Greylock, though in a reduced capacity.

With 4 million registered users, $176 million raised and a $1.3 billion valuation, the five-year-old fintech startup is shifting from a period of finding product-market fit to building a serious business. Elman’s experience with rapidly rising companies like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn could help guide Robinhood toward maturity.

“In January, I started talking with a few of my partners about how I want to spend the next decade of my professional life. What gets me the most energized is when I can dig in on product with a hyper-growth company. To that end, I’m joining Robinhood to lead product, where we will continue building powerful tools to give everyone broader access to our financial system,” Elman tells TechCrunch. “I am going to continue my role at Greylock as a venture partner, and will continue to represent Greylock on the boards in my portfolio. I am grateful to my partners for their support, and excited for what is next.”

Greylock has always been known as a fund run by veteran operators like Reid Hoffman, who joined as a partner while still the CEO of LinkedIn . A Greylock spokesperson tells me, “Josh is a sharp product-thinker who has backed excellent entrepreneurs and innovative companies that we are proud to have as part of the Greylock portfolio. We are supportive of Josh as he takes on this new operating role, and look forward to continuing our work with him as a venture partner.”

That term ‘venture partner’ typically means someone who won’t lead investments and/or isn’t a full-time permanent member of the firm like a “partner” as Elman previously listed himself. Some might view the shift as a demotion, or the start of a transition out of the firm.

The new role could create some conflicts, though. Greylock recently invested in cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase’s August Series D. But Robinhood just launched its own cryptocurrency trading platform in December, undercutting Coinbase’s 1.5 percent to 4 percent fee on trades in the U.S. by charging zero commission. Coinbase might worry that plans it shares with Greylock could make it back to Robinhood.

Read our post on the roll-out of Robinhood Crypto

Elman has dealt with this before, having hyped text fiction app Hooked whose seed round Greylock funded before it backed competing app Yarn’s parent company Mammoth Media with Elman joining its board. Elman declined to comment about the matter.

Josh Elman at TechCrunch Disrupt SF

An eye for interfaces

Elman began his career after a bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems with a focus on human computer interaction at Stanford in 1997. Elman worked on product for music company RealNetworks, and growth and job boards for LinkedIn before joining custom merchandise startup Zazzle . His big break came working on the launch of the Facebook Connect platform. He was then a PM at Twitter until joining Greylock as a partner in 2011.

In my experience, Elman is one of the best investors at spotting emerging social trends and helping companies find winning product strategies. Despite being in his 40s, he’s quick to dive into teen-focused social apps, understanding and funding them before they blow up. He was on the boards of Musically (sold to Toutiao) and SmartThings (sold to Samsung), plus was one of the few investors in honest feedback app tbh, which sold to Facebook. He’s currently on the boards of Medium, Houseparty and Discord — which are redefining blogging, video chat and video game communities.

Robinhood’s Bay Area HQ

Robinhood could use Elman’s skills as it tries to unite the traditional stock and cryptocurrency worlds using free trades up front while monetizing with subscription bonus features. The way Facebook and Twitter turned friends and thought leaders into a feeds of content to consume, Elman could assist as Robinhood does the same to financial markets.

Robinhood founders Baiju Bhatt (left) and Vladamir Tenev (right)

“I’ve known Josh for a couple years now and he’s always struck me as one of the most thoughtful product builders,” says Robinhood co-founder and co-CEO Baiju Bhatt. (Disclosure: I know Bhatt and his co-founder Vlad Tenev from

college). “We’re lucky to have him lead our product initiatives and join our leadership team as we take Robinhood to the next level.” Robinhood now has 170 team members across the Bay Area and Orlando, Florida. It’s planning to hire a VP for engineering and for customer support while scaling those teams, as well as legal and biz dev.

Having jumped the regulatory and engineering hurdles to offer cost-efficient stock trading, Robinhood has a huge opportunity to become the backbone of a new generation of fintech apps. The company declined to comment, but the startup could one day build APIs so other products could interact with your Robinhood balance and bank account. Elman worked with Facebook to let partners piggyback on your identity, and he might have ideas for turning Robinhood into a fintech platform.

Pilot raises $15M to bring bookkeeping into the modern era

The first time Waseem Daher, Jessica McKellar, and Jeff Arnold worked together on a startup, they built one that allowed administrators to patch security updates to a system without having to restart it.

So it might come as a bit of a surprise that the next big technical challenge the three MIT graduates want to tackle is bookkeeping . But after selling Ksplice to Oracle back in 2011, it was actually the financial software they had built internally that made the jaws of the finance teams at Oracle drop, Daher said. They had created a continuously-updating internal version of QuickBooks, keeping a close eye on their spending and accounting and not having do hire a bookkeeper to do so, out of pure frustration with the process. And today that’s basically launching as Pilot, a startup that has now raised $15 million in a financing round led by Index Ventures.

“If you look at the history of bookkeeping, it goes back to the 1400s,” Daher said. “Probably the oldest written records were of transactions. Around 1400s, we invented double-entry bookkeeping, a system for how money moves into and out of various accounts of companies. That system, as articulated in 1400 in Venice, is basically still what people do in every American business today. You hire a bookkeeper or bookkeeping firm, you send them all your stuff and they track and produce the set of books. The way it’s done today is the same way it’s done in the 90s, the 40s.”

When a company starts working with Pilot, the actual core experience on the customer side doesn’t really change all that much: they still work with a human on the other end. But the bookkeeper from Pilot is working with the internal tools they have built to bring in the data from the company, organize it and structure it, and produce a set of books that are more accurate than someone might have produced than just doing it by hand. Customers will get the kinds of questions you might expect from a normal bookkeeper as they look to clarify what’s happening, but in the end the process happens much more seamlessly. They can integrate directly with their existing services like Expensify or Gusto (or ask Pilot to help out with that) and then go from there.

That kind of human-software mix is something that’s increasingly common in services businesses — like Pilot — as the tech industry figures out what should be automated and what should still be handled by a person. There are still a lot of things that a person can catch, but there’s also the actual human relationship, which isn’t a kind of repetitive task you’d want to automate with an algorithm. To begin, Pilot isn’t trying to force companies to completely rip out their bookkeeping software and start from scratch, and instead start to collect the electronic information they already have.

“Uber’s like that, the drivers are humans but the software makes them much more effective,” Index Ventures’ Mike Volpi said. “You can see it in a lot of applications where in IT support there’s a few businesses like this, you troubleshoot using software, and when you can’t you fix it pass it to humans. In customer service chats, a lot of times it’s an AI, and when the questions get tricky enough it rolls over to humans. It’s interesting because there are tasks which humans are fundamentally needed and there are tasks that are mundane that software can do and the human can avoid doing. It’s an interesting thesis around this hybrid.”

Prior to Pilot, the team sold another company to Dropbox called Zulip, and spent some time at the company as it continued to scale up (Dropbox is now in the process of going public). Some of the challenge alone was somehow assembling a team that found some fascination with the intersection of accounting, machine learning and working directly with customers, but so far McKellar said that they’ve been able to put one together thus far. And, more importantly, now that they are starting to roll out their service they can start getting some perspective on the industry as a whole.

“I think people can get motivated by almost any problem if you know you’re tackling a big problem for many people,” McKellar said. “But there’s quite a lot of subtlety to what we’re building. The rules and principles of bookkeeping are well define but the real world is really messy, and designing the right systems to automate bookkeeping at scale is actually a tricky thing. We have an incredible engineering team that is able to tackle this with the right mindset it. The analogy you can draw is self-driving cars — that’s a system normally done by a human, everyone understands what it takes to drive a car, what actions you should take. It’s difficult for people to put into words, what are the rules given a set of inputs, but it needs to work and be reliable.”

As more and more of this information comes in, and more and more companies start to work with Pilot, they can start spotting trends in the industry. For example, if a 17th SaaS business with a similar business model to other Pilot companies signs up, they could down the line take a look at their info and spot potential discrepancies based on anonymized trend data picked up from other comparables in the industry — or do a better job of spotting inefficiencies or others. And there are some obvious funnels for this already, like getting the right information for tax purposes to accountants.

There’s going to be a lot of increasing activity in this space, though. Already you’re seeing some funded projects like botkeeper, which are looking to find some ways to automate a bookkeeping service. There’s nothing quite so formalized and an obvious tool that looks to take out QuickBooks (and, again, a lot of these seem to be playing nice for now), and there’s always the chance that Intuit could try to take on the space itself. But at the end of the day, Volpi says it’s based on the team that they’ve assembled — and that combination of humans and algorithms — that gives them a shot at succeeding.

“If you look at a fundamental level, the bookkeeping for the doctor’s office or florist, it is really all following the same underlying principles,” McKellar said. “One of the engineering challenges is to build the tooling and systems and software in a way that’s intelligent. It has to be a set of processes that can flexibly accommodate every vertical over time. In some sense this company, why we raised this, was to validate a huge hypothesis — it’s possible to automate bookkeeping at scale across a range of industries.”

Here’s the rest of the investors in this round, since it’s a long list: Patrick and John Collison, Drew Houston, Diane Greene, Frederic Kerrest, Hans Robertson, Adam D’Angelo, Paul English, Howard Lerman, Joshua Reeves, Tien Tzuo, as well as many others.

Interfaith social network raises $14M Series A to add new features to its mobile app, an interfaith social networking app for members of religious communities, has raised a $14 million Series A led by TPG Growth. Previous investors Science Inc. and Greylock Partners also returned for the round, which brings the Santa Monica-based startup’s total funding, including a seed round announced last June, to $16 million.

Founded in 2016, the app was created to give faith communities who had previously relied on Facebook groups, group texts or email chains to stay in touch a tailor-made place to chat, request prayers and donate money to non-profits and religious organizations. Religious leaders also get access to analytics to gauge how many people they reach through so they can grow their community’s membership.’s newest funding will be used for product development, including the addition of live audio and video, which can be used to broadcast sermons and music performances, and features to help communities fundraise for causes and events. founder and chief executive officer Steve Gatena told TechCrunch in an email that it also wants to build “the world’s largest directory of faith organizations.”

Since its seed round, Gatena says has signed up users in more than 185 countries and now has more than 20,000 religious communities on the app. It also participated in a recent hackathon hosted by the Vatican.

Even though one might expect’s users to be mostly younger people who already rely on social networks to stay connected with almost everyone in their lives, Gatena says covers a wide range of demographics because many people invite their families and friends to the app to join groups. So far, users have created groups dedicated to youth sports, mission trips, addiction recovery, cancer treatment and mental health issues like depression and recovery, among other topics.

“While the youth might have been some of the first to find us, we see our most vibrant activity from women across the country and around the world who are active in their local communities and want to strengthen offline connections through digital prayer requests, praise reports and words of encouragement,” Gatena said.

In a press statement, Science Inc. chief executive officer Michael Jones said “We’re blown away by the continued impact has had on its members and are excited to see how the platform will scale to inspire more people to connect with their faith leaders, unite and heal through prayer and give back to their communities.”

YouTube’s mobile app gets a dark mode

YouTube’s mobile app is getting a dark mode. The company announced this morning its dark theme first introduced on its desktop site last year, is launching today on the YouTube iOS app and arriving soon after on Android. With the setting enabled, YouTube’s background turns from white to black throughout the YouTube experience as you navigate, search and browse its app.

The setting is meant to give YouTube a more cinematic feel, but it has other advantages as well.

It can be a bit easier on the eyes to use a dark theme when you’re staring at a screen for a long period of time, for example, and it can help you to better focus on the content, not the controls. Some tests have also shown dark themes to save battery life – that’s helpful for an app like YouTube where users are spending more than an hour per day watching videos on mobile devices.

YouTube says its dark theme will cut down on glare and allow viewers to take in the true colors of the videos they watch on mobile.

The option to turn YouTube dark was first introduced among a series of updates to the YouTube desktop experience in May 2017, when YouTube’s cleaner, simpler and Material Design-inspired interface also rolled out. The option to enable a similar dark theme on mobile soon became a top request.

It appeared that YouTube was toying with the option of a dark mode on mobile, when several users spotted the feature in testing in January. YouTube didn’t confirm at the time whether or not the company was planning to release dark mode to mobile, but it looked likely.

With the launch of YouTube’s dark theme on mobile, YouTube is the latest high-profile app to offer this option. A number of apps today have embraced dark mode, including Twitter; Twitter clients Tweetbot 4 and Twitterific 5; Reddit and the Reddit clients Beam, Narwhal, and Apollo; podcast player Overcast; calendar app Fantastical 2; Telegram X; Instapaper; Pocket; Feedly, and many more.

To enable the dark theme on iOS, you’ll tap the account icon, then go to Settings and “Dark theme” to turn the setting on and off.

The option is available today on iOS and will arrive soon on Android.