All posts in “marvel”

Party City invests $4 million in Punchbowl, which now powers its digital invites platform


Party City, the party goods supplier and retail chain, has taken a minority stake in digital invitations platform Punchbowl, the companies announced today. The deal will see Punchbowl’s technology used to power an online invitation platform on Party City’s e-commerce site, opening up Punchbowl to an influx of new customers.

While the official announcement didn’t disclose the size of the round, an SEC filing listing Party City Retail Group president Ryan Vero points to an infusion of an additional $4 million. Vero has also joined the board as a result of the deal, meaning Party City will be working more closely with Punchbowl going forward.

According to Punchbowl CEO Matt Douglas, Party City’s investment and commercial partnership was only one of the options on the table for his company.

Starting in mid-2016, Punchbowl began to see a lot of inbound interest, leading to what he described as “several alternatives” that the company could have pursued. But Douglas, not looking to sell, saw the potential in working with the large party supply retailer as a means of growing Punchbowl’s own business.

Party City sees around $2.3 billion in annual revenue and operates some 900 retail locations – which is how most consumers know of the business today. But Party City is also a vertically integrated company, meaning they’re often the manufacturer of party goods sold in other party stores, too. Meanwhile, its e-commerce business accounts for around 10 percent of the company’s retail revenue today.

Punchbowl, on the other hand, never focused on physical goods. Founded in early 2007, the service is one of the early competitors in the digital invites and e-cards space, and a rival to others like Evite.

The company, which now sees tens of millions of customers per year, had bet on the demise of paper cards for things like party invitations and greeting cards. It translated the paper card format to digital – including with virtual envelopes that opened to reveal your card, and even an option for including digital gift cards inside its online cards.

Douglas admits Punchbowl’s growth has been a slow climb. “We’re not a rocket ship,” he says. “We’ve been really slow and steady,” he notes, adding that “we’ve been profitable for several years now.”

In other words, Punchbowl wasn’t in need of investment, but rather chose to work with Party City as more of a strategic business decision.

“These guys are smart, they get it, and they really respect our expertise in [the area of digital cards.],” Douglas noted, as to why he decided to work with Party City, despite the longer path to launch due to it being a publicly traded company. (The two companies had first started talking a couple of years ago, he said.)

The Party City deal focuses only on Punchbowl’s online invitations business for now, but may expand to other cards in the future. The ability to add Punchbowl cards to your order for just a few dollars is marketed on the website, and will be promoted in retail stores, too, at a later point.

Punchbowl has done other platform integrations like this over the years, not all of which have lasted. Douglas can’t detail those due to the nature of the deals, but notes that it had worked with the Oriental Trading Company, TIME, RealSimple, and it powered the backend of an unnamed service for selling parties.

Along with the Party City deal, Punchbowl also today announced a new deal with Disney-owned Marvel, which will allow it to offer the only digital collection of invites featuring Marvel characters. The company previously disclosed a partnership with Disney back in 2014, which included Disney artwork for Punchbowl’s invites. (That deal has been renewed for several more years.)

But Marvel’s deal is not an expansion on the earlier Disney deal – the Marvel organization is a separate entity, involving a separate contract and team.

The Marvel collection – which includes characters from Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy – is live now, as is the Party City integration.

Punchbowl had raised $5.8 million in previous investments, according to Crunchbase.

Featured Image: John Eder/Getty Images

Sphero’s new toy is a chatty Spider-Man

Sphero continues its partnership with Disney today, with the launch of a new toy based on the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. But where BB-8 and Lightning McQueen could move around the room, Spider-Man is more stationary — his real power involves holding conversations.

The simplest thing this Spider-Man can do is tell jokes — he seems to have an infinite simply of eye-rollers. If you just ask him to chat, he’ll start a conversation about random topics like school or dating. And as Sphero co-founder and Chief Software Architect Adam Wilson put it, he’s also “a storyteller,” describing his adventures to kids and asking them to participate in key moments.

You can see a few of my interactions with Spider-Man in the video above. Users are encouraged to try out different prompts and discover new modes of interaction — though there were plenty of times where Spider-Man would answer a different question from the one I asked, or he would just sit there silently.

The toy includes expressive LCD eyes, a microphone, a speaker and an accelerometer — so he’ll offer enthusiastic commentary if you pick him up and pretend to fight with him. There’s even an infrared sensor, allowing Spider-Man to go into “guard mode,” warning off any intruders who enter his owner’s bedroom.

Sphero's Spider-Man

Aside from using third-party speech recognition technology, Wilson said Spider-Man’s conversational engine was built “from scratch” — in essence, he’s “a full Android device” inside a superhero-shaped toy. (While your main interactions will be through voice, you’ll also need either an iOS or an Android app to control him.)

Wilson also emphasized the importance of privacy and security. He said Spider-Man is only listening when the spider on his chest lights up, and the user’s voice is never stored or shared. (The security measures are certified by AppliedTrust.)

It’s worth noting that while Spider-Man’s launch is timed to just a few weeks before the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming on July 7, he isn’t supposed to represent the movie version of the character, and he’s not voiced by Homecoming actor Tom Holland. (The fact that Homecoming will be distributed by Sony Pictures, not Disney, may have something to do with the toy’s lack of movie ties.) Still, Wilson said this Spider-Man comes with more than “100 comic books worth of content” and will also offer “tons of Easter Eggs.”

As for price, the toy costs $149.99.