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Decrypted: The block clock tick-tocks on TikTok

In less than three months and notwithstanding intervention, TikTok will be effectively banned in the U.S. unless an American company steps in to save it, after the Trump administration declared by executive order this week that the Chinese-built video sharing app is a threat to national security.

How much of a threat TikTok poses exactly remains to be seen. U.S. officials are convinced that the app could be compelled by Beijing to vacuum up reams of Westerners’ data for intelligence. Or is the app, beloved by millions of young American voters, simply a pawn in the Trump administration’s long political standoff with China?

Really, the answer is a bit of both — even if on paper TikTok is no worse than the homegrown threat to privacy posed by the Big Tech behemoths: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google . But the foreign threat from Beijing alone was enough that the Trump administration needed to crack down on the app — and the videos frequently critical of the administration’s actions.

For its part, TikTok says it will fight back against the Trump administration’s action.

This week’s Decrypted looks at TikTok amid its looming ban. We’ll look at why the ban is unlikely, even if privacy and security issues persist.


THE BIG PICTURE

Internet watchdog says a TikTok ban is a ‘seed of genuine security concern wrapped in a thick layer of censorship’

The verdict from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is clear: The U.S. can’t ban TikTok without violating the First Amendment. Banning the app would be a huge abridgment of freedom of speech, whether it’s forbidding the app stores from serving it or blocking it at the network level.

But there are still legitimate security and privacy concerns. The big issue for U.S. authorities is that the app’s parent company, ByteDance, has staff in China and is subject to Beijing’s rules.

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In conversation with European B2B seed VC La Famiglia

Earlier this month, La Famiglia, a Berlin-based VC firm that invests in seed-stage European B2B tech startups, disclosed that it raised a second fund totaling €50 million, up from its debut fund of €35 million in 2017.

The firm writes first checks of up to €1.5 million in European startups that use technology to address a significant need within an industry. It’s backed 37 startups to date (including Forto, Arculus and Graphy) and seeks to position itself based on its industry network, many of whom are LPs.

La Famiglia’s investors include the Mittal, Pictet, Oetker, Hymer and Swarovski families, industry leaders Voith and Franke, as well as the families behind conglomerates such as Hapag-Lloyd, Solvay, Adidas and Valentino. In addition, the likes of Niklas Zennström (Skype, Atomico), Zoopla’s Alex Chesterman and Personio’s Hanno Renner are also LPs.

Meanwhile, the firm describes itself as “female-led,” with founding partner Dr. Jeannette zu Fürstenberg and partner Judith Dada at the helm.

With the ink only just dry on the new fund, I put questions to the pair to get more detail on La Famiglia’s investment thesis and what it looks for in founders. We also discussed how the firm taps its “old economy” network, the future of industry 4.0 and what La Famiglia is doing — if anything — to ensure it backs diverse founders.

TechCrunch: You describe La Famiglia as B2B-focused, writing first checks of up to €1.5 million in European startups using technology to address a significant need within an industry. In particular, you cite verticals such as logistics and supply chain, the industrial space, and insurance, while also referencing sustainability and the future of work.

Can you elaborate a bit more on the fund’s remit and what you look for in founders and startups at such an early stage?

Jeannette zu Fürstenberg: Our ambition is to capture the fundamental shift in value creation across the largest sectors of our European economy, which are either being disrupted or enabled by digital technologies. We believe that opportunities in fields such as manufacturing or logistics will be shaped by a deep process understanding of these industries, which is the key differentiator in creating successful outcomes and a strength that European entrepreneurs can leverage.

We look for visionary founders who see a new future, where others only see fragments, with grit to push through adversity and a creative force to shape the world into being.

Judith Dada: Picking up a lot of signals from various expert sources in our network informs the opportunity landscape we see and allows us to invest with a strong sense of market timing. Next to verticals like insurance or industrial manufacturing, we also invest into companies tackling more horizontal opportunities, such as sustainability in its vast importance across industries, as well as new ways that our work is being transformed, for workers of all types. We look for opportunities across a spectrum of technological trends, but are particularly focused on the application potential of ML and AI.

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Robinhood raises $200M more at $11.2B valuation as its revenue scales

Robinhood announced this morning that it has raised $200 million more at a new, higher $11.2 billion valuation. The new capital came as a surprise.

Astute observers of all things fintech will recall that Robinhood, a popular stock trading service, has raised capital multiple times this year, including an initial $280 million round at an $8.3 billion valuation, and a later $320 million addition that brought its valuation to $8.6 billion.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Those rounds, coming in May and July, now feel very passé in the sense that they are frightfully cheap compared to the price at which Robinhood just added new funds. D1 Partners — a private capital pool founded in 2018 — led the funding.

The unicorn’s new nine-figure tranche, a Series G, values the firm at $11.2 billion. A $2.6 billion bump in about a month is an impressive result, one that points to an inescapable conclusion: Robinhood is still growing, and fast.

How fast is the question. There are three things to bring up in this regard: Trading growth at Robinhood, the company’s soaring incomes from selling order flow to other financial institutions, and, oddly enough, crypto. Let’s peek at each and come up with a good why as to the new Robinhood valuation.

After all, we’re going to see an IPO from this company before the markets get less interesting, if it’s smart.

Growth

Robinhood is currently walking a line between enthusiasm that its trading volume is growing and conservatism, arguing that its userbase is not majority-comprised of day traders. The company is stuck between the need for huge revenue growth and keeping pedestrian users from tanking their net worth with unwise options bets.

It’s worth noting that Robinhood spent a lot of its funding round announcement email to TechCrunch talking about its users safety and education work. It makes sense given that we know that the company is seeing record trades, and record incomes from options themselves. After a Robinhood user killed themself after misunderstanding an options trade on the platform, Robinhood pledged to do better. We’re keeping tabs on how well it manages to meet the mark of its promise.

But back to the revenue game, let’s talk volume. On the trading front Robinhood has lots of darts. And by darts we mean daily average revenue trades. Robinhood had 4.31 million DARTs in June, with the company adding that “DARTs in Q2 more than doubled compared to Q1” in an email.

The huge gain in trading volume does not mean that most Robinhood users are day trading, but it does imply that some are given the huge implied trading volume results that the DARTs figure points to. Robinhood saw around 129,300,000 trades in June, which is 30 days. That’s a lot!

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How tech can build more resilient supply chains

Over the past two years, the global supply chain has been hit with two major upheavals: the United States-China trade war and, more cataclysmically, COVID-19.

When Reefknot Investments launched its $50 million fund for logistics and supply chain startups last September, the industry was already dealing with the effects of the tariff war, says managing director Marc Dragon. Then a few months later, the COVID-19 crisis began in China before spreading to the rest of the world, disrupting the supply chain on an unprecedented scale.

Almost all industries have been impacted, from food, consumer goods and medical supplies to hardware.

Reefknot, a joint venture between Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign fund, and global logistics company Kuehne + Nagel, focuses on early-stage tech companies that use AI to solve some of the supply chain’s most pressing issues, including risk forecasting, financing and tracking goods around the world.

In March, around the time the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic, Reefknot surveyed nine shippers about the challenges they face. While there are other macroeconomic factors at play, including Brexit and the oil price war, the survey’s main focus was on the combined effect of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war on the supply chain and logistics industry.

According to the study, the main things shippers want is the ability to dynamically manage supply chain risks and operations and optimize cash flow between corporate buyers and their suppliers, who often struggle with working capital.

Many of the current solutions used in the supply chain involve a lot of manual tasks, including spreadsheets to predict demand, phone calls to confirm capacity on planes and ships and checking goods to make sure orders were fulfilled properly.

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Unpacking Duck Creek Technologies’ IPO and hoped-for $2.7B valuation

Tech stocks retain their highs as the second quarter’s earnings season begins to fade into the rearview mirror, and there are still a number of companies looking to go public while the times are good. It looks like a smart move, as public investors are hungry for growth-oriented shares — which is just what tech and venture-backed companies have in spades.

The companies currently looking to go public are diverse. China-based real-estate giant KE Holdings — a hybrid listings company and digital transaction portal for housing — is looking to raise as much as $2.3 billion in a U.S. listing. Xpeng, another China-based company that builds electric vehicles, is looking to list in the U.S as well. Xpeng has the distinction of being gross-margin negative in every key time period detailed in its S-1 filing.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


And then there’s Duck Creek Technologies, a domestic tech company looking to go public on the back of growing SaaS revenues. This morning let’s quickly spin through Duck Creek’s history, peek at its financial results, calculate its expected valuation and see how its pricing fits compared to current norms.

Duck Creek is a Boston-based software company that serves the property and casualty (P&C) insurance market. Its customers include names like AIG, Geico and Progressive, along with smaller players that aren’t as well known to the American mass market.

The KE IPO will be a big affair because the company is huge and profitable with $3.86 billion in H1 2020 revenue leading to $227.5 million in net income. The Xpeng IPO will be interesting because Tesla’s strong share price has given float to a great many EV boats. But Duck Creek is a company slowly letting go of perpetual license software sales and scaling its SaaS incomes while still generating nearly half its revenues from services. It’s a company we can understand, in other words.

So let’s get under the skin of the Boston-based company that also claims low-code functionality. This will be fun.

Duck Creek by the numbers

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Conversational analytics are about to change customer experiences forever

Companies have long relied on web analytics data like click rates, page views and session lengths to gain customer behavior insights.This method looks at how customers react to what is presented to them, reactions driven by design and copy. But traditional web analytics fail to capture customers’ desires accurately. While marketers are pushing into predictive analytics, what about the way companies foster broader customer experience (CX)?

Leaders are increasingly adopting conversational analytics, a new paradigm for CX data. No longer will the emphasis be on how users react to what is presented to them, but rather what “intent” they convey through natural language. Companies able to capture intent data through conversational interfaces can be proactive in customer interactions, deliver hyper-personalized experiences, and position themselves more optimally in the marketplace.

Direct customer experiences based on customer disposition

Conversational AI, which powers these interfaces and automation systems and feeds data into conversational analytics engines, is a market predicted to grow from $4.2 billion in 2019 to $15.7 billion in 2024. As companies “conversationalize” their brands and open up new interfaces to customers, AI can inform CX decisions not only in how customer journeys are architected–such as curated buying experiences and paths to purchase–but also how to evolve overall product and service offerings. This insights edge could become a game-changer and competitive advantage for early adopters.

Today, there is wide variation in the degree of sophistication between conversational solutions from elementary, single-task chatbots to secure, user-centric, scalable AI. To unlock meaningful conversational analytics, companies need to ensure that they have deployed a few critical ingredients beyond the basics of parsing customer intent with natural language understanding (NLU).

While intent data is valuable, companies will up-level their engagements by collecting sentiment and tone data, including via emoji analysis. Such data can enable automation to adapt to a customer’s disposition, so if anger is detected regarding a bill that is overdue, a fast path to resolution can be provided. If a customer expresses joy after a product purchase, AI can respond with an upsell offer and collect more acute and actionable feedback for future customer journeys.

Tap into a multitude of conversational data points

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Decrypted: How a teenager hacked Twitter, Garmin’s ransomware aftermath

A 17-year-old Florida teenager is accused of perpetrating one of the year’s biggest and most high-profile hacks: Twitter.

A federal 30-count indictment filed in Tampa said Graham Ivan Clark used a phone spearphishing attack to pivot through multiple layers of Twitter’s security and bypassed its two-factor authentication to gain access to an internal “admin” tool that let the hacker take over any account. With two accomplices named in a separate federal indictment, Clark — who went by the online handle “Kirk” — allegedly used the tool to hijack the accounts of dozens of celebrities and public figures, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and former president Barack Obama, to post a cryptocurrency scam netting over $100,000 in bitcoin in just a few hours.

It was, by all accounts, a sophisticated attack that required technical skills and an ability to trick and deceive to pull off the scam. Some security professionals were impressed, comparing the attack to one that had the finesse and professionalism of a well-resourced nation-state attacker.

But a profile in The New York Times describes Clark was an “adept scammer with an explosive temper.”

In the teenager’s defense, the attack could have been much worse. Instead of pushing a scam that promised to “double your money,” Clark and his compatriots could have wreaked havoc. In 2013, hackers hijacked the Associated Press’ Twitter account and tweeted a fake bomb attack on the White House, sending the markets plummeting — only to quickly recover after the all-clear was given.

But with control of some of the world’s most popular Twitter accounts, Clark was for a few hours in July one of the most powerful people in the world. If found guilty, the teenager could spend his better years behind bars.

Here’s more from the past week.


THE BIG PICTURE

Garmin hobbles back after ransomware attack, but questions remain

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Even as cloud infrastructure growth slows, revenue rises over $30B for quarter

The cloud market is coming into its own during the pandemic as the novel coronavirus forced many companies to accelerate plans to move to the cloud, even while the market was beginning to mature on its own.

This week, the big three cloud infrastructure vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their earnings, and while the numbers showed that growth was beginning to slow down, revenue continued to increase at an impressive rate, surpassing $30 billion for a quarter for the first time, according to Synergy Research Group numbers.

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Without desks and a demo day, are accelerators worth it?

As a result of the pandemic, accelerators have moved operations fully remote to abide by social distancing. The shift has forced well-known programs like 500 Startups, Y Combinator and Techstars to go fully online, while encouraging existing venture capital firms to launch new digital-only fellowships like Cleo Capital and NextView Ventures.

Before the pandemic, accelerators could advertise their value by lending desk space once used by Airbnb, Twilio and Brex’s co-founders, plus a glitzy demo day. Now, stripped of their in-person element, the actual value of an accelerator program — and the network they provide — is being tested in new ways.

So a question remains for participating founders: Are they getting the benefits of what they thought they signed up for?

In the Zoom where it happened

The last thing Michael Vega-Sanz wanted to do was was join another Zoom get-together for entrepreneurs. But the car-sharing company he co-founded with twin brother Matthew was in the middle of a pivot, so they joined NextView Ventures’ inaugural remote accelerator program.

“I envisioned an accelerator with awkward happy hours, mass Zoom calls,” Vega-Sanz said. Fast-forward one month into the program, he says it “has been quite the opposite.”

Before joining NextView’s accelerator, Vega-Sanz did an in-person incubator at Babson College in Boston, but there’s “a lot less fluff” in being virtual, he told TechCrunch.

“[With in-person] the reality was you’d go to lunch, and by the time you drove over there and had all your side talk, small talk, chit-chat and actually got into the nitty-gritty of the event, there was a lot of time loss,” he said. “You could have been working for your company during that time.”

If possible, Vega-Sanz still recommends that first-time founders attend a physical accelerator instead of a virtual one for the energy it brings, even with the downside of useless events.

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Edtech startups flirt with unicorn-style growth

When Quizlet became a unicorn earlier this year, CEO Matthew Glotzbach said he’d prefer to distance the company from the common nomenclature for a startup valued at or above $1 billion.

“The way Quizlet has gotten to this point is by building and growing a very responsible business,” he said. “It’s the result of the hard work of the team for a decade. We’re much more like a camel.”

It’s clear, though, that the tides might be changing. In edtech, the rich are getting richer. Last week, Mountain View-based Coursera announced it had raised a $130 million Series F round a day after The Information broke a story about Udemy reportedly raising new financing at a $3 billion valuation.

For anyone who has been following my edtech coverage in recent few months, this momentum is hardly surprising. Earlier in the pandemic, MasterClass raised $100 million, Quizlet became a unicorn and Byju’s became India’s second-most-valuable startup.

While edtech’s boom is predictable, the industry is known — to the chagrin of founders and to the benefit of long-time investors — for being conservative. Today we’ll look to understand how a boost in late-stage funding may impact the market on a broader scale.

High-flying camels

Ian Chiu, an investor at Owl Ventures, tells TechCrunch that the rise of big rounds brings a “watershed moment” to the $6 trillion education market. Owl Ventures was founded in 2014 and is one of the biggest edtech-focused firms out there, but Chiu says the recent strong capital flow shows that the sector is finally emerging as a sector other investors are noticing.

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