Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

Link to TechCrunch

Gamification Startup SessionM Raises $20M Led by Charles River Ventures

Posted: 08 May 2012 09:28 AM PDT

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SessionM, a startup led by Quattro Wireless co-founder Lars ALbright, just announced that it has raised $20 million in a Series B round of funding.

The round was led by Charles River Ventures, with participation from past investors Highland Capital Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. CRV partner Jon Auerbach is joining the SessionM board. The company declined to comment on the valuation, but apparently VentureWire is reporting that the round values SessionM at $100 million.

Quattro, of course, was acquired by Apple and became the basis of the company’s iAd program. Albright led business development on iAd until he left to start SessionM, initially raising a $6.5 million round from Kleiner’s iFund and Highland.

When SessionM launched in March, Albright told me his goal was to improve engagement and retention in mobile apps, by adding a lightweight game layer. As users perform different activities in an app, they can unlock different achievements and earn rewards through the company’s mPoints program. The technology also provides a new advertising opportunity for brands.

In the funding press release Albright says that SessionM is increasing app usage by nearly 2x and seeing ad clickthrough rates that are 20x the industry average.



TC/Gadgets Webcast: CTIA, The Samsung Galaxy S III, And Jawbone’s Big Jambox

Posted: 08 May 2012 08:44 AM PDT

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We’re back and ready to attack with another episode of our TechCrunch/Gadgets Weekly webcast. Matt, unfortunately, could not make any time for us as he was in the happiest place on Earth with his family, but we still managed to cover a range of topics including CTIA, the freshly announced Samsung Galaxy S III, and Jawbone’s Big Jambox Bluetooth speaker.

As far as CTIA is concerned, we came to the consensus that it is a snoozefest undeserving of most people’s time and attention. The Wi-Fi Alliance came up with some cool new technology to let you automatically connect to various hotspots around town sans the migraine of repetitive set-up, and of course there were a few new phones to chat about, including the HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE and the Samsung Focus II.

But when matched up against the Galaxy S III, we care very little about these other devices. Samsung’s Galaxy S line is the reason why it’s beat out Apple as smartphone king, and this third iteration is something we’ve been waiting for for a while now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the hardware has improved all that much, especially if the jump from a 4.3-inch display to a 4.8-inch display discourages you as much as it does me. The phone is still plastic, which I’m pretty much sick to death of, but we are somewhat excited by the pop-up play feature.

In other news, Jawbone recently released its Big Jambox, a 2.7lb Bluetooth speaker that can remember up to eight devices (not ten, like I said in the video), and actively pair with two at the same time. The big feature is supposed to be something called “Live Audio,” which basically takes a flat sound and gives it some extra dimension. You can’t really tell the difference unless you’re directly in front of it, but it’s certainly a step up from the usual tinny, Bluetooth sound we’re accustomed to. It costs $299 and is available May 15.



Review: Ernst Benz Officer Collection ChronoLunar

Posted: 08 May 2012 08:43 AM PDT

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As a big watch nerd, I love sharing cool watches with you guys in hopes that my obsession, as unseemly as it is, will be passed from writer to reader like an STD. This time I was lucky enough to be able to handle the new Ernst Benz Officer ChronoLunar, a huge “officer-style” chronograph with day-date-lunar cycle registers and a 24-hour dial.

To be clear, this watch uses the Valjoux 7751 movement found in any number of similarly-featured watches. This includes a number of Omegas, Zenos, Glycines, and, most interestingly, custom watch projects. Think of the movement like an CPU and ETA and Valjoux as Intel and AMD. Many manufacturers use the same movements in multiple watches and the wild fluctuations in price – from a thousand or so to nearly $10 grand, are entirely based on case-type, finish, and (sadly) marketing. In the world of high-end watches, think of Ernst Benz as a boutique manufacturer like Alienware or Falcon Northwest.

What Ernst Benz does best is big watches. This monster is 47mm in width and has a black and white, surprisingly readable face. The watch is almost too big for my wrist, but if you’re looking for something to signal spotter planes with, you could do worse than this shining monster.

The company has fitted all of the complications – the features – in with the face style quite nicely. The big, Gothic hands are quite readable and the lume is excellent and usable at night. The sub-register hands – the 24-hour dial, etc – are unlumed, which makes the watch fairly useless as a date calculator in the pitch dark, but that can be forgiven given the complexity of the dial.

What, exactly, can this thing do? Well, the two pushers on the sides start and stop a chronograph with sweep second, 30 minute, and 12 hour counters. The thin hand with the red tip notes the day of the month while a small window at twelve o’clock notes the month and day of week. The register at nine o’clock shows 24-hour time – AM/PM, essentially – and a running seconds.

In terms of durability I’d only worry about scratching the stainless steel case. The rest of the watch is sufficiently protected and the case is water resistant to 5 ATM or 10 meters. It’s obviously more of a “dress” watch – although it’s huge for a dress watch – so you probably don’t want to go mountain biking in it.

The watch is almost comically large on a thin alligator strap but that doesn’t stop it from being a real looker. Ernst Benz specializes in these sorts of pieces and for them to make timepieces any smaller would be anathema to their designers.

The watch was designed in Michigan by Leonid Khankin and assembled in Switzerland.

Here comes the bad news: expect this model watch to hit about $6,500 in stores, which isn’t that much for this type of watch but is still far out of the range of most calm, rational people. However, if you’re looking for an example of the Valjoux 7751 that looks great on the wrist, this one deserves a chance.

You can find similar pieces online and on eBay for a few thousand, as well, if you’re looking for the style and features but not the high price. Either way, it’s a fascinating artifact of the mechanical age and, if watch collectors Andy Rubin and Tony Fadell are to be believe, an obsession worth pursuing.

Click to view slideshow.


Comcast Subscribers Can Now Connect to WatchESPN, With Service Coming Soon to XfinityTV.com

Posted: 08 May 2012 07:57 AM PDT

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Comcast and ESPN are making good on their promise to bring live sports to iPads and other devices, announcing today that Comcast subscribers can now log in to ESPN’s WatchESPN mobile and web apps. And coming soon, ESPN will be making its live TV streams available through Comcast’s XfinityTV.com web portal.

The availability of TV streams online is part of a larger initiative on the part of cable networks and distributors, called TV Everywhere. And while in the long term it should mean that cable subscribers will get more access to all their favorite channels and shows online, in the short term pay TV providers and all the different networks have to do new deals that give them access to those online and mobile streams.

That’s what happened in the case of WatchESPN, which launched a year ago, but for a while was only available to customers of Time Warner Cable. But in its latest deal with Comcast, ESPN parent Disney did a wide-ranging deal that will provide more access not just to ESPN online and on mobile devices, but also to kid-focused Disney Channel sites and apps, as well as ABC video-on-demand titles.

All in all, it’s good news for Comcast subscribers. Not so much for everyone else with a cable or satellite subscription who has to wait for their TV provider to re-up with Disney or ESPN to do their own deals.



Viewbix Raises $2M to Bring Interactive Videos to SMBs

Posted: 08 May 2012 07:56 AM PDT

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Israeli-based Viewbix is announcing a Round A of $2M led by Canaan Partners, with participation by Longfellow Venture Partners.

Viewbix makes it really easy and quick to create interactive videos that are augmented by various features such as eBay listings, Skype buttons, and Twitter feeds.

From our previous review of Viewbix, here’s a recap of how it works:

Step one is to select an existing video. ViewBix currently supports YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook video.

Step two is to customize the player in terms of colors, size, call to action, etc.

Step three is really where the promise of ViewBix resides: interactive features that can be easily added to videos, including music, additional videos, photos from services such as Facebook, Flickr & Picasa, and more. The ones I found most compelling for small businesses are the ability to include a Twitter feed, eBay auctions, coupons, and Skype integration.

Once the player is created, it can be embedded and shared anywhere, including inline on Facebook. It will even display in HTML5 on mobile devices (iOS and Android).

Checkout a demo they created for TechCrunch Disrupt, here.

The premium version of Viewbix, which includes additional customization options and apps, is priced at $19.95/mo. The first 250 TechCrunch readers who want to try the premium version for free should go, here.

Also, for those of you planning to attend Disrupt in NYC, Viewbix will be demo’ing in the Israeli Pavilion.



Credictive Wants To Be The IMDB For Creative Content And People

Posted: 08 May 2012 07:55 AM PDT

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Credictive, which just went into invite-only beta, wants to solve the problem of crediting who did what online. It’s pitched as an “IMDB for creative content” where people who create videos or music or other kinds of content or just appear in that media can also be connected. Think LinkedIn for creatives. Given that the Internet is like one big giant photocopier, this is a big problem. They might also be on-trend: Jason Calacanis recently asked where is the “Kickstarter meets LinkedIn for talent“.

So say you’re watching a video online and want to know who created it without having to go to their page, then click on the username, find their original web site/blog or Twitter handle etc etc. That’s where Credictive comes in. In a similar manner to the way Pinterest will tell you where an image was re-pinned from, that’s what Credictive wants to do. By installing a bookmarklet (a browser extension is coming) Credictive tags up the content you’re looking at with who did it.

But whereas with Pinterest you can only add stuff via the bookrmarklet, with Creditive you can view an additional layer of information when you click on it. The service plans to help discover people with both niche skills and people with a combination of skills

The problem out there is the lack of transparency on who does what online. If you are a company that wants to recruit talent, how do you know someone isn’t simply cutting and pasting the work of others? Sure you might find out they are copiers after you’ve hired them, but you don’t want to get to that stage.

Most crowd funding sites are built assuming the people putting up the projects are genuine. Looks where that’s got us: a startup that pulls in cash and then disappears.

It would be better if people and the works they produce were more discoverable. Books have acknowledgements, movies have closing credits. Where is this on the Internet and how can it be verified? Ever emailed someone asking “Who did your logo? They should do ours”. Yeah, that.

I asked them how they are join got stop people gaming the system so they fool Credictive? Right now it’s a closed community to try and keep quality high but their idea is to build a community-based and community-enforced reputation system employing verification, flagging and blocking users.

The founder team is led by Ela Madej who previously co-founded a boutique web and mobile consultancy Applicake (seed investor in Credictive), and Chicago-based Future Simple, a CRM and sales tracking SaaS platform.



Virgin Mobile Gets Its First Taste Of WiMax With The $299 EVO V 4G

Posted: 08 May 2012 07:49 AM PDT

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While Sprint customers wait with bated breath for their new LTE network to go live, the nation’s third largest wireless carrier has just announced that their no-contract subsidiary Virgin Mobile will soon launch their first 4G phone. Starting on May 31, customers will be able to pick up their very own Evo V 4G from Virgin Mobile’s website, with a wider release to come in June.

Despite the device’s name, the Ice Cream Sandwich-powered EVO V 4G isn’t actually a WiMax-friendly version of HTC’s chintastic One V (bummer, I know). In fact, if the specs are any indication — it features a 4.3-inch qHD display, 1GB of RAM, and a 5-megapixel camera capable of “3D HD imaging” — we’re actually looking at a slightly revamped version of the EVO 3D.

As such, you can also expect the device to come preloaded with an 8GB microSD card, an HDMI out port, and mobile hotspot functionality for up to five devices, though it seems to lack the stereoscopic display that earned its forebear some acclaim. Also gone is the older version of the Sense UI that the EVO 3D ran — the EVO V 4G instead sports the slightly new, slightly sleeker Sense 3.6 overlay, though I’m sure some people were hoping against hope for the full Sense 4.0 treatment.

Alright fine, it’s not the hottest handset on the market anymore, but this EVO 3D variant is still the nicest that Virgin has ever offered and the MVNO’s cheapo rate plans only make the deal even sweeter. Just don’t go in expecting too much, because even though Virgin’s “unlimited data” rate plans start off at $35/month, you’ll soon find that 4G connection running much slower once you tiptoe over the 2.5GB mark.



Brazil’s Startup Industry: Impressions, Insights & Lessons from Israel (Part I)

Posted: 08 May 2012 07:09 AM PDT

Brazil

This post is co-written with Daniel Cunha, my partner at Initial Capital.

Initial Capital was launched in 2011 as an investment firm targeting early stage startups in Israel and Brazil. The unlikely investment focus is the result of three friends — two Israeli and one Brazilian — turned professional investors.

Our Israeli investment network was rather mature when we launched, so we were able to hit the ground running and in the eleven months since our launch, Initial has invested in six Israeli-based startups. In Brazil, however, we spent our first months developing a similar network from scratch. Slowly but surely learning and embracing the state of, and the challenges facing, the Brazilian startup industry.

A few months ago we embarked on a week long, 50-meeting tour across São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro. Here are our insights:

Local Matters: If you’re an investor and don’t have a local on the ground in Brazil, don’t bother considering any professional investment activities in the country.

Brazilians are very much a face-to-face culture. Speaking the language and being within a 1-1.5hr flight away, are not only assets, they’re absolute musts. In Initial Capital’s case, the first thing we did was set-up the local HQ in São Paulo.

Entrepreneurs: The most important piece of the puzzle—high quality entrepreneurs—is already in place.

Out of a sample-set of 50 startup teams we met, only two spoke broken English (we don’t perceive translation to be an issue btw). Ability to effectively communicate value propositions was quite high as well (especially at Rio de Janeiro based accelerator 21212).

We found Brazilian entrepreneurs to have a tight grasp of contemporary Internet in terms of real-time, geo, and eCommerce. We were also fortunate to come across hustler-DNA. All very reassuring.

Experience: While the entrepreneur potential is high, we’d be negligent not to address a deficiency in experience.

Consider that most entrepreneurs we met never worked at a startup other than their own. Most do not know what ‘comes next’. We felt this was particularly poignant when it came to paid media campaigns and user acquisition strategies.

Also, Brazil is not a ‘fail fast & iterate’ culture. Failing is both frowned upon, and painful bureaucratically – for instance, closing a company in Brazil can be a Kafka-esque experience for those who try.

Business Strategies: Given the still limited supply of venture capital, young entrepreneurs tend to avoid capital-intensive businesses such as eCommerce. Considering its large and fast growing middle-class, this means there are still great gaps (read: opportunities) in areas where Brazil has a huge potential for growth in.

The ‘me too’ mentality was another recurring theme. While we have no qualms with this type of approach, and indeed support it as a way to reduce learning curves in a country like Brazil, entrepreneurs must be diligent in recognizing trends that can be consistent in the long run, and avoid those that are already showing signs of doubt in other markets.

That said, we feel that Brazil beckons best-of-breed local alternatives to existing plays in other geographies.

Ecosystem: If we had to identify one major critical issue it would be the thin supporting ecosystem currently available for Brazilian startups.

There’s a very short supply of entrepreneurs that have ‘done this before,’ commercial lawyers that have negotiated startup investment deals and advised on tax structures, and of course, a pool of private and institutional investors to do business with.

Charting startup waters is difficult enough, doing it alone is orders of magnitude more difficult.

Taxation & Bureaucracy: Whether you are an investor, and especially if you are an entrepreneur, this is no doubt a major downside and one of the more challenging aspects of doing business in Brazil.

The Brazilian tax system is heavy, hugely cumbersome, and at times very unclear, resulting in unknown liabilities.

Labor costs are very high both on hiring and firing, and the legislation is inflexible and hardly supportive of entrepreneurship.

Take for example a recent decision by a major multinational company to block email distribution to its workforce in non-working hours and on vacations, after having lost a an ‘overtime’ labor suit for this reason.

Imagine the potential liabilities, and restrictions to productivity, of such a legal decision(!)

Brazil is laden with these ‘mines’ and unfortunately considerable time has to be spent dealing with bureaucracy rather than building great businesses.

This ends Part I, and to sum-up: Brazil’s potential is massive. At the same time, the current challenges and shortcomings must be embraced and tackled one-by-one, both on the individual level of each start-up, and as a community as a whole.

In Part II we’ll suggest a possible course of action for the Brazilian startup community, and how an umbilical cord with the Israeli startup community can be established for mutual benefit.



Nokia Adds Apps To The Lumia: Rovio, EA, ESPN, Groupon, Box Among Them; Some Exclusive

Posted: 08 May 2012 06:43 AM PDT

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Windows Phone is way behind Android and iOS when it comes to apps — only about 80,000 apps compared to 500,000-600,000 each at the other two — too far behind to possibly ever catch up in actual numbers any time soon. So it makes sense that Windows Phone players cherry pick to ensure the best and most popular apps out there are on their platform. Today Nokia did just that:  it announced deals with a raft of companies, including Box, Groupon, EA, ESPN, Rovio and more to add their apps exclusively to Windows Phone for Nokia’s new range of Lumia devices.

Announced at the CTIA event, the deals are an instance of Nokia leveraging the Windows Phone platform to offer content exclusive to users of its devices: services like Nokia Maps get rolled out to the rest of the Windows Phone footprint.

“We are focused on delivering great, locally relevant apps, and importantly, those which offer unique, exclusive and original experiences,” Marco Argenti, SVP, Nokia Developer Experience, said in a statement.

The move is a significant one for Nokia to take, as it looks to grow the number of sales of the device and demonstrate that it is not just another OEM on the platform but bringing its own unique value to the proposition.

Apps, of course, are a huge part of what drives consumers to use one smartphone over another. Just yesterday, we revealed that Google had passed the 15 billion download mark for apps on its Android platform; Apple has now seen downloads of 25 billion.

Among the apps that are included in today’s announcement, made at CTIA, are several under exclusive terms. They include several in the sport category, such as the PGA Tour app (12 month exclusive) and a variety of ESPN apps (exclusive to May 2013). Additionally, there is a Groupon app (exclusive for six months); the Tripdots travel app (three month exclusive); and the AOL Entertainment Hub (six month exclusive).

In addition, Nokia notes that Rovio has assembled a dedicated team of developers who will be making apps for Lumia devices specifically and the WP platform more generally — a quick recovery after the debacle the other month when an executive dismissed the Windows Phone platform for future games, Angry Birds or otherwise.

It sounds from Nokia’s press release that it is actually investing money in Rovio’s developer effort. Some of that will be for exclusive content as well:

“Nokia and Rovio will partner to develop innovative new consumer products and content exclusively for Nokia Lumia smartphones, alongside cross platform multi-channel integrated marketing initiatives,” the company notes in its statement.

It looks like there may be a similar arrangement in place with EA as well, covering a variety of games.

Other apps announced today include apps for Time, Newsweek, PayPal and Box — all of these with no Lumia exclusivity, it appears.

What we will still have to see is how and if the Barnes & Noble deal that Microsoft announced last week will play out for other players in its mobile ecosystem: will it mean more content — more exclusive content? We asked Nokia for its take on that and it declined to comment.

The Lumia devices are now on sale in 48 different markets; up to now Nokia has sold some two million Lumia handsets, according to its latest quarterly earnings.



Mobile Payments Platform Square Finds A Foothold At Art Fairs And Farmers’ Markets

Posted: 08 May 2012 06:42 AM PDT

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Mobile payments processing platform Square has been used by a variety of individuals and businesses, from charities to taxis to food trucks to political campaigns. Next up—art fairs and farmers’ markets.

The company says that at Etsy’s New York's Spring Handmade Cavalcade last weekend in Brooklyn, over 90% of the vendors used Square to accept payments. And this weekend, Square says that many vendors at Unique LA, the largest independent fashion market in the country, will use Square to process card payments. Unique LA expects over one and a half million dollars to be spent in its market over the weekend.

It’s not surprising that Square is being used by independent purveyors at fairs and markets. The company’s smartphone dongle and companion payments app makes taking credit cards easy. The payments app has been a favorite amongst independent workers, merchants and small businesses for the past few years.

As reported a few weeks ago, Square is now processing $5 billion in annual payments (or around $416 million in payments per month), which is up from $4 billion in annual payments in March. And payment volume is up 25 percent over the past month. The company also just started making funds available in merchants' bank accounts the next business morning (for any sales made before 5 pm), while other merchant processors can take 2 to 5 business days to get merchants their money.



Nearing The 1M User Mark, Expensify Adds ‘Trips’ Feature To Mobile Apps

Posted: 08 May 2012 06:00 AM PDT

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I’ve heard quite a few people describe the first time they use Expensify as almost unnervingly impressive. Compared to what most of us are used to, Expensify’s super slick web and mobile apps make it seem almost too easy to file expense reports. Where before maybe you were very likely to just personally swallow the cost of a few work-related lunches and taxi rides per month to avoid the time-consuming expense filing process, it quickly becomes ridiculously simple to send them right along to your employer with the click of a button.

But even with that already solid user experience, it seems that Expensify is not done with its mission of making “expense reports that don’t suck” quite yet. Today, the San Francisco-based startup will launch new features aimed at making the whole process even easier. Expensify has updated its entire suite of mobile apps with a new feature called “Trips,” which lets people file work-related travel expenses and itineraries with Expensify as they book their trips.

This lets people keep all their work travel expenses — from pre-ordered things such as flights and hotels, to on-the-spot things such as taxis and meals — in one place, organized by trip. Once the trip is done, a user can send the full itinerary off for employer reimbursement from his or her mobile device with one click.

The Overall State Of Expensify

On the whole, Expensify’s founder and CEO David Barrett tells me that the company’s growth has been quite strong since the product first launched to the public several years ago. It now has 950,000 users across 140,000 companies, and is processing $2 million in expense reports each day. The company, which counts hot companies such as Square, Evernote and Uber among its customers, expects to become profitable by the end of 2012.

At four years old, backed with a relatively modest $6.7 million in outside funding (much of which Barrett says is still in the bank), and 17 full-time employees, Expensify seems to punch above its weight in a lot of ways.

So we were pleased to sit down with Barrett at TechCrunch TV to get the rundown in person on Expensify’s growth thus far and its plans for the future. Watch the video embedded above to hear about the new mobile updates, why Expensify prefers to hire engineers that are generalists instead of specialists, why starting Expensify in a relative state of ignorance ended up leading to the company’s current bliss, and more.



This Real RC Car Transformer Is Ready To Roll Out

Posted: 08 May 2012 06:00 AM PDT

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If you watch one homemade Japanese RC car transformer video today, make it this one. This amazing little roadster switches from sports car to dancing robot in a few seconds and it can even walk while in robot mode, and, more important, transform back into a car in the blink of an eye.

Made by Kenji Ishida, the robot has 22 servos that help it take on the Decepticons and/or your cat. Apparently this is the fourth version of the robot and the creator is expecting to make more over the next year. It is, in short, amazing.

via HobbyMedia



ComiXology Announces 65M Downloads, Inks Exclusive Multi-year Deal With Marvel To Distribute Digital Comics

Posted: 08 May 2012 05:59 AM PDT

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Comics on the iPad. A match made in nerd heaven, right?

Well, today it gets even better with the announcement that ComiXology and Marvel Entertainment have entered into a multi-year deal that sees the former exclusively distributing the latter’s digital catalog of English language single issues. Though the deal was actually signed on May 1, the announcement was delayed to make way for a particular movie premiere that some of you may have participated in over the weekend, Peter Phillips SVP and General Manager of Marvel Digital Media, told TechCrunch. Neither company would elaborate on the length of the deal but both agreed that the partnership would allow them to advance the art of digital storytelling.

“This partnership will allow us to innovate and advance the digital storytelling and reading experience,” said ComiXology co-founder and CEO David David Steinberger.

Phillips added that ComiXology’s “technology is by far the best.”

Though the ComiXology-powered Marvel app has been in the App Store since 2010, Marvel appears to be making a real push into the digital arena this year. This past March at SXSW, the Disney owned subsidiary announced its digital-only line of comic books called Infinite Comics, a mix of both a traditional reading experience with bits of digital magic like moving graphics, and even demoed an augmented reality companion experience. Marvel also says that by June of this year every $3.99 issue will be made available day-and-date in digital form.

But just how big is the digital comics space? To date, Steinberger says over 65 million issues have been downloaded across all ComiXology’s platforms, including mobile and desktop. Up from the 50 million mark announced by the company just this past January. To put that number into context, the digital comics distributor says it has experienced a 450% growth year over year in Q1. With Marvel seeing a boost in print sales of about 16 percent in the same period. And no surprise here, Apple’s iPad has the largest penetration of mobile devices but Android is coming on strong, says Steinberger.

While Marvel would not disclose the number of downloads (“many, many millions” was the answer given to me) for its branded iPad app, Phillips did say that the success of its latest universe shattering story arc, Avengers vs. X-Men, has kickstarted a download frenzy with close to 10 percent of print buyers redeeming digital download codes. Which is apparently “pretty high.”

With Marvel seemingly posting fantastic numbers, is the other big pub, DC Comics, scared? Not likely. ComiXology has been the sole digital distributor for DC Comics. But Steinberger did have this to say: “We’ll be working closely with Marvel to ensure their branded experience is a unique experience. It will be different than the DC Comics branded experience.” Take that, Batman!

Sadly, Phillips nor Steinberger would divulge any details about the possibility of a subscription model, both stating that the business model is still unclear. Interestingly enough, Phillips did say that his biggest concern was actually addressing the influx of traffic to Marvel’s website from mobile devices. Digital comics on Marvel.com are currently being served through a Flash player, which we all know aren’t viewable on iOS devices.

Marvel Comics [iTunes]



Remember: The New York Mini Meet-Up Is Happening Tonight At 6pm

Posted: 08 May 2012 05:43 AM PDT

And we’re off: the TC New York Mini Meet-Up is on for tonight, May 8, from 6pm-10pm at Bar 13 on 13th St. and University Pl. It will be a Blastoise.

Special thanks to our volunteers and good old Jordan for spearheading the entire operation. A special thank you goes out to our sponsors. And thank you for making this a potential success.

You can RSVP on our PlanCast page for the Meet-Up.

Remember: don’t give us paper. Give us a small card with your website on it and prepare a 40 second elevator pitch. Also, we are the ones with the free drink tickets so look for folks in TechCrunch T-shirts and/or Jordan, Peter Ha, Chris, Matt Burns, or I.

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TouchTunes Interactive Networks is the largest interactive out-of-home entertainment network in North America. TouchTunes provides entertainment and marketing solutions to 52,000 bars and restaurants. Founded in 1998, the network has become the largest of its kind with 54M monthly users who played more than 900 million songs in 2011. The TouchTunes mobile app allows consumers in bars, restaurants, hotels, retail and arenas to play any song from our catalog without having to leave their seat and is socially integrated. TouchTunes network is the largest digital out-of-home advertising network in the US (Nielsen) and includes TouchTunesTV, a unique screen-within-a-screen interactive television experience that provides custom advertising capabilities, venue promotions and social networking opportunities. TouchTunes is a privately held U.S. corporation with offices in New York City, Arlington Heights, Illinois and Montreal, Canada. For further information, please visit us at touchtunes.com.

MyPizza.com, is an interactive menu and marketing portal for local pizza restaurants which allows users to order their favorite local pizza online or by phone. MyPizza.com is a free service that makes it very easy for pizza lovers to order their favorite meal. Customers enter their address and zip code in the MyPizza.com homepage and are presented with a complete list of local pizza restaurants that provide take-out and delivery in their area, along with live menus. After customers make their meal selection and enter their payment information, an automated order is generated to the pizza restaurant.

YourPartyHub.com is a social search engine that allows users to find nightlife events and bar venues based on location. It serves as a platform as well for bar owners, party promoters and DJ’s to upload their event/party information for the users to find. With YourPartyHub.com you will never be out of the loop concerning nightlife events and deals in your area.


JumpTap: Kindle Fire Usage Has Declined After Holiday Boost, iPad Back To Pre-Fire Launch Levels

Posted: 08 May 2012 05:33 AM PDT

Kindle Fire -1

The Kindle Fire from Amazon has stolen a march in the tablet world, with some estimating that it now makes up more than half of all Android tablets in use in the U.S. today. But the latest monthly figures from mobile ad network JumpTap today paint a different picture in terms of usage.

JumpTap noted that in the months after its launch, Amazon’s device rapidly picked up market share, reaching 33 percent of all traffic on its network in January 2012. But since then, the figure has gradually been in decline and is now at 22 percent. Meanwhile, Apple’s iPad — which had lost share to the Kindle Fire — is now back to 65 percent, or where it was before Amazon launched its tablet.

JumpTap, which bases its numbers on ad impressions on its network, noted that the Fire tablet came its closest to the iPad’s traffic share in January, when the iPad’s share of traffic had declind down to 48 percent.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tablet market seems to be stalling out: collectively, the others currently account for 14 percent of all traffic on JumpTap’s network, the same proportion they had for the past three months.

In fact, the rest of the tablet market, excepting the iPad, seems to have been hit the worst by the rise of the Kindle Fire: together, they made up 31 percent of all traffic on JumpTap’s network back in November 2011 — in other words, their share has more than halved.

So why the decline for the Kindle Fire, and the growth for the iPad? JumpTap attributes it to strong sales of the newest iPad. But it could also be that while the Kindle saw a big boost in purchases after its launch and during the holiday period, it could be that some of the novelty of the product has worn off and people are now using it less.

However, important to note that JumpTap says that even as the Kindle’s share of traffic has declined, in real terms usage has actually increased three-fold over Q4 2011 as a result of the overall growth in tablet usage. It doesn’t give comparative traffic numbers for other devices.

Other research released by JumpTap in the same report covers some other interesting stats that get a bit more granular, and others that are slightly oddball. They include: which cities have the highest concentration of platforms and what are the most popular cars (example: San Francisco has the highest concentration of Prius cars in the U.S., and an astounding 68 percent penetration of iOS devices on Jumptap’s network).

 



Crowdfunding: $1.5B Raised, 1M Campaigns Funded In 2011; Figures Set To Double In 2012

Posted: 08 May 2012 05:20 AM PDT

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Well, it’s been quite a year already for the crowdfunding industry. With the JOBS Act becoming law, the tech industry (and the economy at large) are headed for some big changes. Namely, the legalization of crowdfunding in startups for non-accredited investors has come to pass. Yes, now even your mom can invest in your startup. While many of the consequences (positive or negative) of the legalization will play out over the next few years, the most well-known crowdfunding platform has been busy racking up a blockbuster season. If it weren’t there already, Kickstarter hit the tipping point in February, as it saw a number of record-breaking projects and landed squarely in mainstream consciousness thanks to a slew of media coverage.

Yet, as crowdfunding prepares for its stampede, many have been asking just how active the industry has been to this point, collectively, especially as it may indicate what’s in store. Luckily, Massolution, a research firm that specializes in crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, is today providing an answer with the first-ever Crowdfunding Industry Report. Having compiled data from more than 170 crowdfunding platforms (about 38 percent of the total number of platforms), Massolution found that, collectively, these portals raised $1.5 billion and successfully funded more than 1 million campaigns in 2011.

It also seems that North America is the geography that is most cuckoo for crowdfunding, representing the largest market for fundraising at $837 million. As for the snapshot of the industry, as of April 2012, there were 452 active crowdfunding platforms worldwide, a number that the research firm expects to increase to 530 by the end of 2012. And, if I may interject, if my inbox is any indication, I would say it’s not unreasonable to expect that number to be higher.

In terms of its compound annual growth rate (CAGR), the crowdfunding industry is growing at a rate of 63 percent in terms of the total amount of funds raised. To break the crowdfunding market down into bite-sized chunks, the research firm has identified and grouped the industry’s platforms into four major categories.

Equity-based platforms grew at 114 percent CAGR, with the largest growth primarily taking place in Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the equity-based category also raised the largest sums per campaign, as over 80 percent raised over $25K+.

The second category, donation-based platforms, defined by philanthropic or sponsorship incentives, raised the most funds at $676 million but were the slowest growing of the categories at 43 percent CAGR.

Lending-based platforms, or person-to-person, person-to-business, and social models were the second largest category, raising $552 million and growing at 78 percent. Lastly, reward-based platforms, or non-monetary rewards portals, grew by a staggering 524 percent CAGR. However, the base from which lending-based platforms started (as these platforms are, of all, youngest) was fairly low, beginning at approximately $1.6 million in 2009.

The report gives a very solid indication of just how much the crowdfunding industry has changed over the last few years (and will continue to change). It’s now more true than ever that these portals are being used to raise large sums of money, as crowdfunding itself has become a viable alternative for capital formation for new commercial ventures, said Carl Esposti, the CEO of Massolution and founder of Crowdsourcing.org.

Driven in particular by equity-based and reward-based crowdfunding, he said, the firm is projecting that the total amount of funds raised will double in 2012. Naturally, there is little doubt that, with the passage of the JOBS Act, this growth is just beginning and that the new legislation will have, as Esposti says, a “profound effect” on the nature and incidence of crowdfunding in the U.S.

With the SEC currently working out how it will regulate crowdfunding under new JOBS Act Era, Massolution expects securities-based crowdfunding to increase significantly in 2013 and will begin creating a host of new funding sources for many startups and early-stage businesses over the course of next year.

In this kind of report, it would obviously be very interesting to see how the various crowdfunding players stack up against each other, and it leaves one jones-ing for some comparative analysis. Sites like KickStarter, RocketHub, IndieGoGo, Kiva, MicroVentures, buzzentrepreneur, and many more contributed to the report, so it would interesting to see what percentage of the total each represent, especially for the bigs like Kickstarter. But, in order to entice these platforms to participate, the research was conducted under strict non-disclosure rules — the reason why no company-specific data is mentioned. Perhaps next year…

For more on Massolution’s research methodology, or to view the report in full, click here.

Check out an abridged version of the report below:



Wi-Fi Alliance Pushes Passpoint As A Solution For Customer And Carrier Data Woes

Posted: 08 May 2012 05:00 AM PDT

WiFi_Alliance_logo

Smartphone and tablet owners are clamoring for access to more Wi-Fi on the go, or so a new study from the Wi-Fi Alliance claims.

Out of 1,000 US-based smartphone and tablet owners, 87% of them indicated that they wanted greater Wi-Fi availability for their mobile devices, and 85% said they preferred Wi-Fi over cellular data “for at least one common online activity.”

That’s all well and good (and not a surprise in the slightest), but what would these people actually do in order to gain access to more Wi-Fi hotspots? Well, 72% of respondents said they would be willing to pay their wireless service providers more and 70% said they would switch providers just to get access to them.

With carriers pushing smartphones and the wireless data access that accompanies them like crazy, network congestion and management issues can lead to some downright flaky user experiences.

That’s where the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint program comes into play. Simply put, the Passpoint program (which the working group announced last February) aims to make the process of transitioning from a mobile network to a Wi-Fi access point as frictionless as possible, most notably by stripping out the need for users to whip out their login credentials.

Instead, a user’s mobile device will be able to connect to a secure Passpoint-friendly network without the user having to lift a finger thanks to some nifty authentication techniques. There’s a pretty extensive list, but some of them (like SIM authentication) seem to have drawn more attention than others.

The idea of a Wi-Fi network allowing access because of a device’s SIM card is not only thoughtful, it also helps to blur the line between that Wi-Fi connection and the carrier’s own wireless data network. Assuming the hand-off works without a hitch, users get a better data experience without having to do anything, although plenty of the specifics (how users are billed, when carrier partners will implement Passpoint, etc.) are still up in the air.

Of course, the carriers get something out of this too. The more users they’re able to offload onto their privately-owned or authorized Wi-Fi hotspots means they’ll be able to ease the strain on their own wireless data networks. Beyond that, there are some more concrete financial gains to be had — carriers could more easily bolster the strength of their offerings by lighting up new Wi-Fi hotspots in needed areas, not to mention the possibility of inking roaming deals with other Wi-Fi networks that could be pitched subscribers with the promise of quick and easy access.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to kick things off more officially in June with the launch of their certification program for mobile devices and wireless infrastructure equipment.



Want To Know What Apple Will Do Next In Mobile Commerce? Check Out The Pirq It’s Giving To Employees

Posted: 08 May 2012 04:42 AM PDT

Pirq screenshot

As device makers like RIM, Samsung and Nokia incorporate NFC technology into their mobile devices, Apple has been radio silent on what its plans will be in mobile commerce and payments. But a deal that is getting announced today could be a clue to one area where Apple might see a big opportunity.

Apple has signed on with Pirq, a startup from Seattle, to offer food and drink daily deals to its employees in the Bay Area, with the service working by way of an iPhone app, location-based technology, and a Microsoft Tag code to redeem the discounts. A source tells TechCrunch that this is the first part of a potential “four phase” implementation that could see Apple offering a deals service out to all iPhone users.

The deal with Apple being announced today will see discounts of between 20 percent and 50 percent at nearly 50 venues in Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and Mountain View, and it is Pirq’s jumping-off point for offering a wider service in San Francisco further down the line — within the next 12 months, according to Pirq. To date, the company’s service has only been available in Seattle, where it launched in September 2011.

Pirq’s deal with Apple is partly the result of an existing relationship that both companies have with Passport Unlimited, which has been working with Apple for the past six years offering eating discounts to its employees. Pirq’s chairman, Roger Blier, is the founder and CEO of Passport Unlimited.

Although Pirq was getting ready to announce this news itself today, we actually heard about it first from a tipster at Apple, who got in touch, enthusiastically, to say how great the service was.

As the tipster pointed out, the difference between what Pirq does and what, say, Groupon offers is that Pirq pre-sets the discounts with restaurants and doesn’t require users to pay for the service upfront before redeeming it.

“I just think it’s really cool that our family gets deals like 50% without ever having to buy them like Groupon,” the anonymous tipster noted to me. (A screen shot of how the Apple offering looks is the illustration for this post.)

The app lets users find deals near their current location, and then reserve a deal with no pre-payment needed. Pirq says it’s able to bypass pre-payment because of a bit of proprietary technology that lets restaurants adjust deal offerings in real-time based on peak and off-peak hours for better “yield management”.

The ‘second course’. Offering deals to Apple employees sounds like it could be the tip of the iceberg, if the service proves successful in its initial phase.

Another source we contacted described the deal with Pirq as part of a “four phase” rollout. Again, assuming all progresses as planned, the intention is to offer the service in a progression of circles: “First the Apple community, then the blogger community, then the community of users who get notices of Apple products early, and then finally the wider community of iPhone users.”

It’s not clear yet whether that would mean a pre-loaded app with pre-determined offers especially for iPhone users, or simply a matter of promoting the app a bit on the App Store.

Apple has declined to comment for this story, and James Sun, the CEO of Pirq, also would not comment on how its relationship with Apple would develop. But he did note something else that makes the possibility of this service as a commerce play by Apple even more interesting: longer term Pirq will add monetary transactions into the app — in addition to coupon redemption.

“We will be doing payment on the phone using coupons,” he said. “We can easily do this now but vendors are not that comfortable with it.” He said that this is because most restaurants want to “see” the transaction to make sure that it’s actually going through to their systems. Sun calls point-of-sale systems “the Golden Goose Egg” of mobile payments.

Apple, of course, could have a very interesting role to play in transactions because it already has payment details for so many of its iPhone users, courtesy of the App Store.

That connection is not one that has been explored yet by the company, but potentially you can see how it could be linked into a service like Pirq’s to automatically pay for a meal or drink using your Apple ID, much as you do now to buy an app or a music track.

Regardless of whether or when Apple incorporates NFC into the mix, there’s a chance that users might eat up such as service if it ever came to pass.



Pathwright Launches Platform To Let Anyone Create, Sell Branded Online Courses

Posted: 08 May 2012 04:34 AM PDT

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Online education has been around for years, but they were largely viewed as experiments. Over the last year, things have changed. Elite universities are not only taking online education seriously, they’re building it into their 10-year plans. Harvard and MIT’s EdX is one example, Coursera another, while startups like CodeAcademy, Treehouse, StraighterLine, Khan Academy, Lynda.com, Udacity, and Udemy (among others) are carrying the torch for the flipped classroom.

Interestingly, what unites these platforms, aside from the fact that that they’re all in some way educators, is that each has built their own custom software and infrastructure to deliver their content. Are any using traditional learning management systems, like Blackboard or Moodle? Nope. That’s because viable, interactive online education requires software that can meet a new generation of demands: Social, mobile, rich multimedia, flexibility, and scale.

Yet, while these well-funded startups have the resources and capital to build custom platforms, there are thousands of traditional schools, education providers, learning coaches, etc. producing stellar learning content that lack the tools necessary to share their awesome content with the masses.

That’s where Pathwright comes into play. Greenville, South Carolina-based Pathwright was founded by a team of hackers (and educators) who have set out to build a platform for “the next wave of educators” — a simple, DIY content management system that lets any and all educators create, distribute, and sell online courses under the banner of their own branded, online schools.

Today, those looking to take advantage of online classes basically have two options. Hack together an LMS like Moodle or Blackboard, or build their own education software. It was the same problem that led to open source CMSes, or DIY mobile app software, and white label solutions of all stripes. Moodle and Blackboard are notoriously bad, and taking the former route generally leads to poor design, UX, and suffers from a lack of branding options. In terms of the latter, if you have the time/resources to build your own great, but it’s not for everyone.

So Pathwright worked with educators and students to fine tune and simplify the process of building a DIY tool for educators. The startup beta tested with an early client, which has already delivered 8K courses and growing, Pathwright Co-founder Paul Johnson tells us.

The co-founder says that the big vision is, like that of Udemy, to give educators direct access to students anywhere in the world and to make a living without the need for institutions or legacy tech. Johnson sees a coming increase in the number of niche education options, with the best courses being offered by practitioner teachers, a la Lynda.com, as the lines between educational publisher, institution, and teacher are blurred. A tool that makes Lynda-style distribution possible (the model itself is hard to mimic as Lynda has professional studios to produce its video content) will be in an advantageous position.

That’s why Pathwright allows users to teach anything by way of creating interactive learning paths, create a single course, or build an entire online school, train employees and customers, offer courses as curricula, and coach or mentor people in any location.

How does it work? Users create a simple path of action steps to guide their students through each course on a single page. These pages can include video or audio lectures, assessments, readings, exercises, or any other type of learning action, and offer the ability to easily upload, create, or embed content from YouTube or Scribd, etc.

Each course comes with a built-in social network for every student taking the course, allowing students to share notes, ask or answer discussion questions, and receive grades and feedback from teachers. Teachers can then publish their courses is a built-in, branded catalog and sell them directly, make them invitation-only, or offer monthly subscriptions that unlock all the courses. Educators can also offer online-only or location-based courses, or both, may be self-paced, or on a schedule with varying degrees of teacher interaction.

While the increase in scalable, online learning options is good news for the soaring price of education, some online education startups suffer from undercooked business models or stifled revenue streams. In the end, this is a business, so taking a cue from the popular software startup pricing scheme, Pathwright makes its platform cheap to get started, with pricing increasing with scale and users.

There are no setup or fixed fees, but once a user has over 10 course registrations, Pathwright charges $7 per registration, plus four percent of sales made through the startup’s built-in catalog. If the school isn’t selling courses using their Pathwright account, then the four-percent fee is removed, and schools can pre-purchase registration credits in bulk to lower the per-registration fee. Find more here.

Additionally, the startup recently launched an option for schools to sell their courses on a subscription basis (a la Treehouse) as well as offering courses for other teachers to use in their own private classes. Pathwright also provides related services for a fee, like video hosting and encoding, branded, custom themes, curriculum conversion, etc.

While Pathwright’s suite of tools are going to make it an appealing option, the startup is not alone in this market. Under its current model, Pathwright will certainly have overlap with Udemy, which also allows anyone to build and sell online courses, as well as Litmos, an LMS that is more focused on business training but offers basic course building and selling options — to name a few.

Both companies are well established and have been in the game for several years at least (Litmos was acquired by Callidus Software last year) and are profitable, so Pathwright has some ground to make up. While we’re seeing a flood of new online ed players entering the space, the landscape is still largely emergent, and I’d say there’s still plenty of room for each to scale before they’re competing directly for customer acquisition. There are just too many entities looking for easy ways to offer, sell, and distribute their own courses, and the market is still largely under-served.

Pathwright hasn’t raised any funding to date and remains focused on product and marketing, but will likely look to begin fundraising later this year.

For more, check out Pathwright at home here. What do you think?



Customer Loyalty And Rewards Platform For Local Businesses Belly Raises $10M From Andreessen Horowitz

Posted: 08 May 2012 04:29 AM PDT

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Chicago-based Belly, a startup that is a fast-growing contender in the local business customer loyalty and rewards space, has raised $10 million in Series B funding from Andreessen Horowitz. The company also announced that Andreessen Horowitz partner Jeff Jordan, former chairman and CEO of OpenTable and former president of PayPal, will join the Board. This latest round of funding adds to a seven-figure round raised by the startup from Lightbank, the venture firm founded by Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell.

Belly wants to reinvent customer loyalty rewards through gamification, digital check-ins and a iPad setup for businesses. But the startup has a slightly different take on how to achieve this. Belly offers a quick-setup, plug-and-play rewards platform to merchants. Part of this is an in-store iPad (which Belly supplies) that is used to validate paying customers right at the point of sale, and serves as a check-in point. Belly will also train employees to encourage them to participate in the program.

Merchants pay a monthly subscription for unlimited Belly cards to hand out to customers, in-store marketing materials and secure access to customer data that reveals sales, points and redemption data, as well as insights into foot traffic and card usage patterns. Businesses can even use Belly data to send out push-notifications about exclusive promotions and other rewards to Belly customers.

On the consumer side, to check in, customers can scan their smartphone at an in-store iPad POS and with each check-in, you get closer to a specific milestone, and reward (as stipulated by the business). You simply scan a Belly card (provided by the merchant), or use Belly’s iPhone or Android Apps on the businesses’ Belly iPad app (which sits next to the register). Once you check-in you accumulate points, and can start earning rewards.

On the Belly mobile apps themselves, you can simply open the app and see a list of merchants that are Belly users by your location. The app completely replaces the merchant card at all of these businesses. With the Belly card, you have one universal rewards card (that is attached to your email) which can be used at all participating Belly merchants.

The premise, says co-founder and CEO Logan LaHive, is that consumers don't want to carry several different cards, and businesses need a loyalty system that everyone can use. “We’re eliminating overstuffed wallets,” says LaHive.

Jordan has high hopes for Belly, “We are optimistic that the startup has huge potential to revolutionize loyalty for businesses,” he says. “Now customer loyalty programs can be digitized with the web, data analytics, and smartphone. This used to be an inefficient system but Belly makes this is highly efficient and gives merchants great information on who their best customers are.”

He also adds that the talented team, elegant product execution with the iPad, and the backing from Lightbank all made the investment attractive for Andreessen Horowitz. In particular, Jordan feels that the loyalty market is fragmented and Belly is in a prime position to scale its business.

Of course, as CEO of OpenTable, Jordan has insight on how to scale a business catering to small restaurants and merchants. He says that Belly will need to build a sales team, fast. “The key is to get in as many cities as fast as you can,” he says.

Even in the past 9 months, Belly has been scaling fairly fast. Launched in August 2011, Belly has over 200,000 active users who have checked in over 800,000 times. Belly currently partners with 1,400 merchants and adds 100-plus new businesses each week. And starting today, Belly is available in New York and Boston, in addition to its existing roster of businesses in Chicago, Austin, Milwaukee, Madison, Wis., Washington D.C. and Phoenix.

One of the differentiating factors for Belly from its many competitors, says LaHive, (which include LevelUp, Perka, PerkVille, and PunchTab) is that businesses are able to tailor their rewards program.

Currently rewards at businesses range from a comic book store that offers customers a chance to punch the owner in the stomach, to a bakery that rewards customer 10 minutes of all you can eat cupcakes. You can arm wrestle a sandwich restaurant owner or ride along in a food truck that will let its best customers "egg" the truck as it drives by. Dog-A-Holic will post a "Portrait Of You And Your Dog On Our Wall and Red 7 Salon allows customers to "Shave Our Heads With A 1-On-1 Owner Buzz Cut." Belly works closely with each individual business to ensure the rewards are unique and personalized to that business’ brand and culture.

Another added bonus for businesses is that they can see when each customer is checking-in, how often and more. Businesses can get a clear view of their most loyal and valuable customers. another data area where Belly may expand into is transaction data. Currently the app doesn’t track what the customer actually bought but is looking to integrate with Point of Sale systems in the future.

“We’re moving beyond the buy ten get one free program to work closely with each merchant to try to uniquely appeal to their customers,” says LaHive. “Businesses want to create personal relationships, and take what is offline and put it online, and analytics on how to manage customer behavior, communications tools, email and social media allows these business to have an ongoing relationship with customers.

The new funding will be used to build and staff a larger sales team to expand to other markets. While many of these sales people will be based in Chicago, others will be located in the local markets as well.

LaHive is also focused on product development and will be looking to transition all the startup’s apps to HTML5. The company will also being making a number of speed, and UI improvements as well as redesigning the experience.

As for location, LaHive plans to stay in Chicago. “For an earlier stage startup in Chicago, raising funding from a firm like Andreessen Horowitz is validating,” he says. “We feel that we are best scaled to roll out a quality loyalty program for businesses.”



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