Singapore-based Syfe, a robo-advisor with a human touch, raises $18.6 million led by Valar Ventures

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe
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Syfe, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make investing more accessible in Asia, announced today that it has closed a SGD $25.2 million (USD $18.6 million) Series A led by Valar Ventures, a fintech-focused investment firm.

The round also included participation from Presight Capital and returning investor Unbound, which led Syfe’s seed funding last yea.

Syfe serves customers based in 23 countries, but currently only actively markets it services in Singapore, where it is licensed under the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Part of its new funding will be used to expand into new Asian countries. The startup hasn’t disclosed its exact user numbers, but says the number of its customers and assets under management have increased tenfold since the beginning of the year, and almost half of its new clients were referred by existing users.

Other Valar Ventures portfolio companies include TransferWise, Xero and digital bank N26. In a statement about Syfe, founding partner Andrew McCormack said, “The potential of Asia as a region, with a fast-growing number of mass-affluent consumers aiming to grow their wealth, combined with the pedigree of the team and strong traction, makes Syfe a very compelling opportunity.”

Founded in 2017 by chief executive officer Dhruv Arora, Syfe launched in July 2019. Like “robo-advisors” Robinhood, Acorns and Stash, Syfe’s goal is to make investing more accessible. There is no minimum amount required to start investing and its all-inclusive pricing structure ranges from .4% to .65% per year.

Before starting Syfe, Arora was an investment banker at UBS Investment Bank in Hong Kong before serving as vice president of product and growth at Grofers, one of India’s largest online grocery delivery services. While at UBS, Arora worked with exchange-traded funds, or ETFs.

“I could see how a lot of institutions and some ultra-high-net worth individuals who are clients of the bank were using the product, and I thought it was a great tool for individuals, too,” Arora told TechCrunch. “But what I realized was that people are actually not very aware of how to use ETFs.”

In many Asian countries, people prefer to put their money away in bank accounts or invest in real estate. As interest rates and property prices stagnate, however, consumers are looking for other ways to invest. Syfe currently offers three investment products. The first is a global diversified portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and ETFs that is automatically managed according to each investor’s chosen risk level. The second is a REIT portfolio based on the Singapore Exchange’s iEdge S-REIT Leaders Index. Finally, Syfe’s Equity100 portfolio consists of ETFs that include stocks from more than 1,500 companies around the world.
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Other Asia-focused “robo-advisor” services include Stashaway and Kristal.ai, and Grab Financial also recently announced a “micro-investment” product. Arora acknowledges that in the future, there may be more entrants to the space. Right now, however, Syfe’s main competitor is the mindset that banks are still the best way to save money, he added. Part of Syfe’s work is consumer education, because “it was culturally ingrained in a lot of us, myself included, to keep your money in the bank.”

Syfe differentiates with a team of financial advisors, including former employees of Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, who are on hand for user consultations. Arora said most Syfe users talk to advisors when they first join the platform, and about 20% of them continue using the service. Questions have included if people should use a credit card to invest, which Arora said advisors dissuade them from doing because of high interest rates.

“We definitely want to be a tech-first platform, but we understand there is a value, especially as you deal with some of the older audiences who are in their 50s and 60s, who are still adapting to these technologies,” he said. “They need to know that you know there is somebody out there to look after their products.”

While Syfe’s average user is aged between 30 to 45, one growing bracket is people in their 50s who are motivated to save for retirement, or want to create a supplement to their pension plan. Users typically start with an initial investment of about SGD $10,000 (about USD $7,340), and about four out of five users regularly top up that amount.

Some users have tried other investment products, like investment-linked insurance plans, but for many, Arora says Syfe is their first introduction to investing in stocks, bonds and ETFs.

“We’ve realized that a fair number of them are quite well-to-do professionals in their field, in their mid- to late 30s, who amassed a significant amount of wealth but never really had a chance to invest, or the right advice on how to invest,” said Arora. “I think this has been one of the biggest revelations for us and it made us realize we should have a human touch in our platform.”

The platform manages its products with a mix of an investment team and algorithms that help avoid human bias, said Arora. Syfe’s algorithms take into account growth versus value, the market cap of a stock, volatility and sector momentum. To balance risk, it also analyzes how individual assets correlate with other assets in the same portfolio.

Arora said Syfe is currently in advanced talks with regulators in several countries and expects to be in at least two new markets by the end of next year. It also plans to double the size of its team and create more consumer financial products.

During COVID-19, Arora said Syfe’s portfolios experienced significantly lower corrections than indexes like the S&P, so only a few users withdrew their money. In fact, many invested more.

“I feel people have been rethinking their finances and the future,” he said. “As banks cut interest rates across the world, including in Singapore, many of them have started looking at other options.”

TransferWise reports accelerating revenue growth to 70% in its March, 2020 fiscal year

TransferWise, a European fintech unicorn, announced the financial results of its fiscal year ending March, 2020.

The company posted strong growth, continued profit and new customer records. TransferWise was most recently valued at $5 billion during a secondary sale worth $319 million in July of this year.

On the results front, we can compare the company’s March 2020 year to its March 2019 year, the results of which we also have available. Here are the nuts and bolts, picking from the provided metrics to share the most material:

  • TransferWise fiscal 2020 revenue: £302.6 million, up 70% from its fiscal 2019 result of £179 million. That’s a venture-level revenue result from a mature company that is self-powering.
  • TransferWise grew more quickly in its March 2020 year than in its March 2019 year, when it managed a slower 53% growth rate per the company. Accelerating revenue growth at this scale is very valuable.
  • TransferWise managed a fourth year of consecutive profitability, generating £21.3 million in “net profit after tax” for the March 2020 fiscal year. The company first started generating profit “since 2017” per its own release, which we presume means the year ending March 2017.
  • The company reported that it now has 8 million worldwide customers, up from 6 million in the preceding fiscal year. That’s 33% growth.
  • The pace at which business customers sign up for TransferWise appeared to include slower growth, moving from 10,000 per month in the March 2019 year to “over 10,000” in its most recent release.
  • TransferWise processed £42 billion in “cross currency transfers,” or around 63% of its total processing volume of £67 billion.

Instead of merely shouting at this point that TransferWise should go public, as it is providing granular data on its performance we’re already somewhat sated. More notes on gross margins would be good, for example, but this level of transparency is still welcome.

Turning to future growth, TransferWise stated in a release that APAC is the company’s “fastest growing region.” Its U.S. business was worth around a fourth of its March 2020 year’s revenue. Europe was just over half for the same period.

The company’s ability to pay for its own growth means that it has not raised money for some time. Indeed, the last equity round that we have on the company is its November, 2017 investment. That capital was $280 million raised at a $1.3 billion pre-money valuation in a deal led by Merian Global Investors and IVP. Since then the company has sold secondary shares from time to time.

That should lessen internal demands for a traditional liquidity event, but not quash them altogether. The unavoidable question is why not go public when the firm already reports so much public performance data. On the other hand, when a company needs no capital, it need not accept advice, either.

Regardless, TransferWise shows that fintech can make money after all.

Papa raises $18 million to expand its business connecting older adults with virtual and in-person companions

The Miami-based startup Papa has raised an additional $18 million as it looks to expand its business connecting elderly Americans and families with physical and virtual companions, which the company calls “pals.”

The company’s services are already available in 17 states and Papa is going to expand to another four states in the next few months, according to chief executive Andrew Parker.

Parker launched the business after reaching out on Facebook to find someone who could serve as a pal for his own grandfather in Florida.

After realizing that there was a need among elderly residents across the state for companionship and assistance that differed from the kind of in-person care that would typically be provided by a caregiver, Parker launched the service. The kinds of companionship Papa’s employees offer range from helping with everyday tasks — including transportation, light household chores, advising with health benefits and doctor’s appointments, and grocery delivery — to just conversation.

With the social isolation brought on by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic there are even more reasons for the company’s service, Parker said. Roughly half of adults consider themselves lonely, and social isolation increases the risk of death by 29%, according to statistics provided by the company.

“We created Papa with the singular goal of supporting older adults and their families throughout the aging journey,” said Parker, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately only intensified circumstances leading to loneliness and isolation, and we’re honored to be able to offer solutions to help families during this difficult time.” 

Papa’s pals go through a stringent vetting process, according to Parker, and only about 8% of all applicants become pals.

These pals get paid an hourly rate of around $15 per hour and have the opportunity to receive bonuses and other incentives, and are now available for virtual and in-person sessions with the older adults they’re matched with.

“We have about 20,000 potential Papa pals apply a month,” said Parker. In the company’s early days it only accepted college students to work as pals, but now the company is accepting a broader range of potential employees, with assistants ranging from 18 to 45 years old. The average age, Parker said, is 29.

Papa monitors and manages all virtual interactions between the company’s employees and their charges, flagging issues that may be raised in discussions, like depression and potential problems getting access to food or medications. The monitoring is designed to ensure that meal plans, therapists or medication can be made available to the company’s charges, said Parker.

Now that there’s $18 million more in financing for the company to work with, thanks to new lead investor Comcast Ventures and other backers — including Canaan, Initialized Capital, Sound Ventures, Pivotal Ventures, the founders of Flatiron Health and their investment group Operator Partners, along with Behance founder, Scott Belsky — Papa is focused on developing new products and expanding the scope of its services.

The company has raised $31 million to date and expects to be operating in all 50 states by January 2021. The company’s companion services are available to members through health plans and as an employer benefit.

“Papa is enabling a growing number of older Americans to age at home, while reducing the cost of care for health plans and creating meaningful jobs for companion care professionals,” said Fatima Husain, principal at Comcast Ventures, in a statement. “

Tech must radically rethink how it treats independent contractors

Despite a surging stock market and many major tech players having record quarters, we’re still seeing layoffs throughout tech and the rest of corporate America. Salesforce recorded a huge quarter, passing $5 billion in revenue, only to lay off around 1000 people. LinkedIn is laying off 960 people one day after reporting a 10% increase in revenue.

These layoffs may seem like a contraction in size for these huge enterprises, but it’s actually the beginning of something I call The Great Unbundling of Corporate America. They still need to grow, they still need to innovate, they still need to get work done and they’re not simply canceling projects and giving up on contracts.

Just as COVID-19 has accelerated the move to remote work, our current crisis has accelerated the trend toward hiring independent contractors. Back in 2019 a New York Times report found that Google had a shadow workforce of 121,000 temporary workers and contractors, overshadowing their 102,000 full-timers. ZipRecruiter reported in 2018 that tech, along with its record employment growth, was showing an increasing share of listings for independent contractors.

A study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between 6.9% and 9.6% of all workers are now independent contractors, and according to Upwork, that may be as high as 35%. Mark my words — companies are using this time as an opportunity to swing the pendulum toward independent contractors and trimming the fat, justifying it with a vague gesture toward “an unprecedented time.”

That’s why, in my opinion, you’re seeing the NASDAQ hitting record highs despite everyone’s turmoil — depressingly, investors can see that large companies are tightening up and cleaning up waste, while finding an affordable workforce at will. As they have unbundled themselves from our physical offices, large enterprises are going to unbundle themselves from having to have a set number of employees.

When Square allowed its entire workforce to work remotely permanently. It wasn’t just because they wanted them to feel more creative and productive, but was likely a move away from having quite as much expensive, needless office space.

Similarly, if there is work that a full-time employee does that could be done by a flexible, independent contractor, why not make that change too? And it’ll be a lot easier to make without as many people at the office.

The argument I’m making is not anti-contractor, though.

I can’t think of any point in history where it’s been better to create a freelance business — the startup costs are significantly lower, and as companies move toward remote work, you can theoretically take business nationally (or internationally) like never before. Companies’ moves toward replacing W-2 workers with contractors is an opportunity for people to create their own miniature freelance empires, unbundling themselves from corporate America’s required hours, and potentially creating a way to weather future storms by taking away any single company’s leverage on their income.

The rush to remote work is also likely to push more workers into the freelance economy too. By having to create a remote office, with a remote presence in meetings and having to manage and organize our days, the average worker has all but adjusted to the life of a freelancer.

Where some might have gone to an office and had things simply happen to them, the remote world requires an attention to your calendar and active outreach to colleagues that, well, models how one might run a freelance business. Those with core skillsets that can be marketed and sold to multiple clients should be thinking about whether being a wage slave is necessary anymore, and with good reason.

That said — corporate America, and especially tech, has to treat this essential workforce with a great deal more empathy and respect than they have thus far.

Uber and Lyft were ordered to treat drivers as employees in part due to the fact that they never treated their contractors like parts of the company. Other than the obvious lack of benefits (paid time off, health insurance, etc.), Uber, like many large enterprises, treats contractors as disposable rather than flexible, despite them being the literal driving force of the company. When Uber went public, they gave a nominal bonus for drivers that had completed 2500 to 40,000 trips, with a chance to buy up to $10,000 of stock — at the IPO price. These drivers, that had been the very reason that many people became millionaires and billionaires when Uber went public, were given the chance to maybe make money, if they sold the stock quickly enough.

It’s an abject lesson on how to not build loyalty with independent contractors. It’s also a lesson on what the next big company that wants to build themselves off the back of the 1099’er should do.

What I’m suggesting is a radical rethinking of freelance contracting. I want you to see independent contractors as a different kind of worker, not as a way of skirting getting a full-time employee. A freelancer, by definition, is someone that you don’t monopolize, and someone that you should actively give agency and, indeed, part of the network you’re building. One of the issues of corporate America’s approach to freelance work is an us-versus-them approach to employment — you’re either part of us or you’re simply a thing we pick up and put down. What I’m suggesting is treating your freelancers as an essential part of your strategy, and compensating them as such. Freelancers should own equity and should have skin in the game — they may be working with you on a number of projects and take literal ownership of vast successes throughout your history.

Contracted work has only become mercenary through the treatment of the freelance worker. Where tech has succeeded in creating hundreds of thousands of independent contractor positions, it also has to lead the way in reimagining how we may treat them and reward them for their work. And corporate America needs to take a step beyond simply seeing them as a cheaper, easier way to do business. They’re so much more.

Despite a rough year for digital media, Blavity and The Shade Room are thriving

Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt, TechCrunch media and advertising reporter Anthony Ha sat down with Blavity CEO Morgan DeBaun and The Shade Room CEO Angelica Nwandu to chat about their respective media companies, 2020 in the media world and how they view a recent conversation inside of media to hire and retain more diverse workforces.

Blavity is a network of online publications focused on Black audiences across verticals like politics, travel and technology. To date, the company has raised $9.4 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The Shade Room is an Instagram-focused media company that publishes hourly updates on national news, celebrity updates and fashion. Focused on the Black perspective, The Shade Room has attracted more than 20 million followers on Instagram and comments on issues of importance during key national moments.

During her conversation with Ha, Nwandu said that during the Black Lives Matters protests, The Shade Room was akin to a Black CNN.

With both companies founded in 2014, both CEOs have kept their media startups alive during a particularly difficult period. In the last six years, many media brands have shuttered, sold, slimmed or slunk away to the ash heap of history.

Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

Introducing the Expo Pass for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Don’t let budget woes keep you from participating in TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. We’re dedicated to making this event accessible to as many members of the mobility community as possible. Case in point: today we’re announcing the new Expo Ticket for just $25.

Pro tip: Get your Expo ticket today. The price jumps to $50 once the conference begins on October 6.

What can you do with an Expo ticket? The short answer is plenty. You’ll have access to all the Mobility 2020 breakout sessions, which take a deeper dive into specific topics. We’ll be announcing those breakout sessions soon. Watch for our announcement, and be sure to check out the Mobility 2020 agenda.

“I learned a lot from the breakout sessions. An official from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spoke about the city’s plan to build pathways for micro mobility vehicles. Access to experts sharing that kind of information is essential for anyone launching a micro mobility startup.” — Parug Demircioglu, CEO at Invemo and partner at Nito Bikes.

Plus, you can explore 40+ startups — both early stage and more established companies — exhibiting during the conference. Think of “Expo” as an alternative way to spell “opportunity.” Connect with the exhibiting founders, hear their product stories and watch their demos. You might find your next customer, partner, investment or employer.

We’ve got your back in the networking department with CrunchMatch. Our AI-powered platform helps you find and connect with the people who align with your business goals. Answer a few simple questions when you register and CrunchMatch will be ready to do the heavy lifting for you. Peruse the offerings and schedule 1:1 video calls with the folks who can help you take your startup dream to the next level. It’s the perfect tool to help organize and simplify your expo exploration.

“CrunchMatch, which is basically speed-dating for techies, was very helpful. I scheduled at least 10 short, precise meetings. I learned about startups in stealth mode, what big corporations were up to — things not yet picked up by the press. It was great, and I followed up on three or four of those connections.” — Jens Lehmann, technical lead and product manager, SAP.

Join mobility’s brightest minds, makers and investors at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. Set aside your budget concerns and buy an opportunity-packed Expo Pass — before October 6 — for just $25. We can’t wait to “see” you there!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Event discovery network IRL raises $16M Series B after refocusing on virtual events

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way a number of companies have had to do business. For the event discovery startup, IRL, it meant pivoting into the virtual events space. This April, the startup quickly reacted to government lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gatherings to focus on helping people find their online counterparts and other virtual events, like live-streamed concerts, Zoom parties, esports tournaments, and more. Today, those efforts are paying off as IRL announces $16 million in Series B funding and the expansion of its social calendaring app to colleges.

The new round was led by Goodwater Capital with participation from Founders Fund, Floodgate, and Raine, and comes on top of the $11 million IRL had previously raised, including its $8 million Series A last year.

The coronavirus pandemic, surprisingly, may have made IRL relevant to a wider audience. Before, IRL was mostly useful to those who lived in areas where there were a lot of events to attend, or who could afford to travel. But with the refocusing on “remote life” instead of “real life,” more people could launch the app to find something interesting to do — even if it was only online.

In fitting with its new focus, IRL redesigned its app earlier this year to create a new homescreen experience where users could discover events they could attend remotely. This design continues to be tweaked, and now features a colorful “discover” tab in the app where you can tap into various event categories, like gaming, music, tv, wellness, sports, podcasts, lifestyle, and more, including those sourced from partners like TikTok, Meetup, Twitch, Spotify, SoundCloud, HBO, Ticketmaster, Eventbrite, and others.

There are also dedicated sections for events you’re following and a curated Top Picks. The IRL in-app calendar, meanwhile, lets you easily see what’s happening today and in the weeks and months ahead.

Since its refocusing on virtual events, IRL has brought people together for online happenings like Burning Man’s Multiverse and TikTok Live’s The Weekend Experience, for example.

According to TikTok, IRL had helped it gauge early interest in its The Weekend Experience event, with some 52,000 IRL RSVPs and 1.1 million followers on its IRL profile.

Image Credits: IRL screenshot via TechCrunch

“IRL has been an amazing platform for us to engage with more of our audience and meet new potential users,” said Jenny Zhu, Head of Integrated Marketing U.S. at TikTok. She also added that TikTok sees “major traffic coming from IRL” and is “excited to continue our partnership.”

In terms of growth, IRL claims its users are now tracking over 1 million hours per spent daily in “Time Together” — a metric that tabulates the number of hours users are spending together at the events they RSVP’d to, virtual or otherwise. In addition, IRL says it has seen 10x growth in daily active users and a total of 300 million “Time Together” hours since last June. It also claims 5.5 million MAUs.

While IRL doesn’t share its download figures, app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower estimates the app has seen a total of 7.7 million installs across iOS and Android.

With the additional capital, IRL is expanding with the launch of a college network.

Its goal is to improve upon the Facebook experience for the younger, student demographic by helping college users find, share, and attend academic and social events, both physical and virtual. However, just this month Facebook launched its own college network, Facebook Campus, which allows students to privately network and track student events on the Facebook platform, outside of their main Facebook profile.

IRL says it’s starting its college network with 100 colleges and universities across the North America, including Harvard, Columbia and NYU. Facebook Campus, meanwhile, launched with 30 schools.

“IRL is the only social platform that helps users find the best ways to spend their time and actually encourages them to get off the platform,” said IRL founder and CEO Abraham Shafi, Founder, about the launch of the new network. “Colleges and universities, in particular, need a way to build and foster a sense of community, whether their students are away from campus remote learning or on campus practicing hybrid learning,” he explained.

For IRL’s investor, Chi-Hua Chien, a Managing Partner at Goodwater Capital, the potential in IRL is its focus on real connections and community-building.

“We believe IRL will grow to become one of the major social networks powering communities on the Internet and in the real world,” Chien said. “IRL delivers on the promise to make social media less isolating, by helping drive authentic connection between friends and family around events they care about,” he added.

 

Mailchimp launches new AI tools as it continues its transformation to marketing platform

Mailchimp may have started out as an easy to use newsletter tool, but that was almost 20 years ago. Today’s company still does email, but at its core, it is now a marketing automation platform for small businesses that also offers a website builder, basic online stores, digital ad support and analytics to make sense of it all. Like before, though, the company’s main goal is to make all these features easy to use for small business users.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

Today, Mailchimp, which has never taken outside funding, is taking the next step in its own transformation with the launch of a set of AI-based tools that give small businesses easy access to the same kind of capabilities that their larger competitors now use. That includes personalized product recommendations for shoppers and forecasting tools for behavioral targeting to see which users are most likely to buy something, for example. But there’s now also a new AI-backed tool to help business owners design their own visual asset (based in part on its acquisition of Sawa), as well as a tool to help them write better email subject lines.

There’s also a new tool that helps businesses choose the next best action. It looks at all of the data the service aggregates and gives users actionable recommendations for how to improve their email campaign performance.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“The journey to get here started about four years ago,” Mailchimp’s founding CEO Ben Chestnut told me. “We were riding high. Email was doing amazing for us. And things look so good. And I had a choice, I felt I could sell the business and make a lot of money. I had some offers. Or I could just coast, honestly. I could just be a hero in email and keep it simple and just keep raking in the money. Or I could take on another really tough challenge, which would be act two of  Mailchimp. And I honestly didn’t know what that would be. To be honest with you, that was four years ago, it could have been anything really.”

But after talking to the team, including John Foreman, the head of data analytics at the time and now Mailchimp’s CPO, Chestnut put the company on this new path to go after the marketing automation space. In part, he told me, he did so because he noted that the email space was getting increasingly crowded. “You know how that ends. I mean, you can’t stay there forever with this many competitors. So I knew that we had to up our game,” he said.

And that meant going well beyond email and building numerous new products.

Image Credits: Mailchimp

“It was a huge transformation for us,” Chestnut acknowledged. “We had to get good at building for other customer segments at the time, like e-commerce customers and others. And that was new for us, too. It’s all kinds of new disciplines for us. To inflict that kind of change on your employees is very, very rough. I just can’t help but look back with gratitude that my employees were willing to go on this journey with me. And they actually had faith in me and this release — this fall release — is really the culmination of everything we’ve been working on for four years to me.”

One thing that helped was that Mailchimp already had e-commerce customers — and as Chestnut noted, they were pushing the system to its limit. Only a few years ago, the culture at Mailchimp looked at them as somewhat annoying, though, Chestnut admitted, because they were quite demanding. They didn’t even make the company a lot of money either. At the time, non-profits were Mailchimp’s best customers, but they weren’t pushing the technology to its limits.

Despite this transformation, Mailchimp hasn’t made a lot of acquisitions to accelerate this process. Chestnut argues that a lot of what it is doing — say adding direct mail — is something that was more or less and extension of what it was already good at. But it did make some small AI and ML acquisitions to bring the right expertise in-house, as well as two e-commerce acquisitions, including Lemonstand. Most recently, Mailchimp acquired Courier, a British magazine, newsletter and podcast, marking its first move into the print business.

With this new set of products and services, Mailchimp is now aiming to give small businesses access to the same capabilities the larger e-commerce players have long had, but without the complexity.

To build tools based on machine learning, one needs data — and that’s something Mailchimp already had.

“We’ve been doing marketing for decades,” Mailchimp CPO Foreman said. “And we have millions of small businesses on the platform. And so not only do we build all these tools ourselves, which allows us to integrate them from a visual design perspective — they’re not necessarily acquisitions — but we have this common data set from years and years of doing marketing across millions of businesses, billions of customers we’re talking to, and so we thought, how can we use intelligence — artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. — to also sand down how all of these tools connect.”

Chestnut says he isn’t likely to put the company on a similar transformation anytime soon. “I really believe you can only take on one major transformation per decade,” he said. “And so you better pick the right one and you better invest it. We’re all in on this all-in-one marketing platform that’s e-commerce enabled. That is unique enough. And now what I’m trying to get my company to do is go deep.”