The FTC is suing Facebook to unwind its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp

In a bonus episode of The Vergecast, Nilay Patel talks with Verge policy editor Russell Brandom, senior reporter Adi Robertson, and contributing editor Casey Newton about the FTC suing Facebook to unwind its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Further reading:

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Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor for 2021 Android phones / Warner Bros. will release new 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will step down on January 20th

Verge reporter Julia Alexander joins Nilay and Dieter to discuss WarnerMedia’s decision to release all of its new 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max. News editor Chaim Gartenberg explains Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 888 processor for upcoming Android phones in 2021.

Stories from this week:

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Decoder: Alamo Drafthouse CEO on the future of movie theaters

On this episode of Decoder, Nilay talks with Shelli Taylor, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse. Shelli stepped into her new role as CEO during the pandemic.

In the conversation, Nilay and Shelli discuss the steps she had to take to get her company back on solid ground — including justifying high fixed costs of expensive lightbulbs — and how the government has failed to manage the pandemic effectively for business owners. They also talk about what it will take to safely reopen theaters and what the future looks like, especially in the streaming age.

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Tim Cook’s idea of voting on iPhones is ‘preposterous,’ says Ohio Secretary of State

Among the topics discussed in a recent NYT interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook was the idea of voting on iPhones. Cook argued that using smartphones to make voting easier and more convenient could help solve the problems of low voter turnout and voter suppression.

But Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has responded by calling the idea “preposterous” …

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SmartGym universal app adds 330 new band and bodyweight exercises, enhanced ‘Smart Trainer’

SmartGym for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch is getting a big update today. The new version brings over 330 new exercises for bands, loops, TRX, bodyweight, an updated Smart Trainer, more pre-made workouts, new Apple Watch history screen, and more.

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Alyce, an AI-based personalised corporate gifting startup, raises $30M

Swag has a long and patchy history in the world of business. For every hip pair of plaid socks, there are five t-shirts you may never wear, an itchy scarf, a notepad your kids might use, and an ugly mug; and most of all, likely thousands of dollars and lots of time invested to make those presents a reality. Now, a startup that has built a service to rethink the concept behind corporate gifts and make them more effective is today announcing a round of funding to continue expanding its business — and one sign that it may be on to something is its progress so far.

Alyce, a Boston startup that has built an AI platform that plugs into various other apps that you might use to interact and track your relationships with others in your working life — sales prospects, business partners, colleagues — and then uses the information to personalise gift recommendations for those people, has raised $30 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue building out its platform, signing up more users, and hiring more people for its team.

This round is being led by General Catalyst, with Boston Seed Capital, Golden Ventures, Manifest, Morningside and Victress Captial — all previous backers — also participating.

Alyce says that it has grown 300% year-over-year between 2019 and 2020, tackling a corporate gifting and promotional items industry that ASI Market Research estimates is worth around $24.7 billion annually. Its customers today include Adobe’s Marketo, G2, Lenovo, Wex, Invision, DialPad, GrubHub, and 6Sense.

As with so many other apps and services that aim at productivity and people management, Alyce notes that this year of working remotely — which has tested many a relationship and job function, led to massive inbound and outbound digital activity (the screen is where everything gets played out now), and frankly burned a lot of us out — has given it also a new kind of relevance.

“As everyone was flooded with spam last year unsubscribing soared,” Greg Segall, founder and CEO of Alyce, said in a statement. “When a prospect opts out, that’s forever. It’s clear that both brands and customers crave the same thing – a much more purposeful and relatable way to engage.”

Alyce’s contribution to more quality engagement comes in the form of AI-fueled personalization.

Linking up with the other tools people typically use to track their communications with people — they include Marketo, Salesforce, Vidyard and Google’s email and calendar apps — the system has been built with algorithms that read details from those apps to construct some details about the preferences and tastes of the intended gift recipient. It then uses that to come up with a list of items that might appeal to that person from a wider list that it has compiled, with some 10,000 items in all. (And yes, these can also include more traditional corporate swag items like those socks or mugs.) Then, instead of sending an actual gift, “Swag Select”, as Alyce’s service is called, sends a gift code that lets the person redeem with his or her own choice from a personalised, more narrowed-down list of items.

Alyce itself doesn’t actually hold or distribute the presents: it connects up with third parties that send these out. (It prices its service based on how much it is used, and how many more tools a user might want to have to personalise and send out gifts.)

Yes, you might argue that a lot of this sounds actually very impersonal — the gift giver is not directly involved in the selection or sending of a present at all, which instead is “selected” by way of AI. Essentially, this is a variation of the personalization and recommendation technology that has been built to serve ads, suggest products to you on e-commerce sites, and more.

But on the other hand, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of trying to figure out what to get someone, which can be a challenge when you really know a person, and even harder when you don’t, while at the same time helping to create and fulfill a gesture that, at the end of the day, is about being thoughtful of them, not really the gift itself.

(You could also argue, I think, that since the gift lists are based on a person’s observations about the recipient, there is in fact some personal touches here, even if they have been run through an algorithmic mill before getting to you.)

And ultimately, the aim of these gifts is to say “thank you for this work relationship, which I appreciate”, or “please buy more printer paper from me” — not “I’m sorry for being rude to you at dinner last night.” Although… if this works as it should, maybe there might well be an opportunity to extending the model to more use cases, for example brands looking for ways to change up their direct mail marketing campaigns, or yes, people who want to patch things up after a spat the night before.

Notably, for General Catalyst, it’s interested indeed in the bigger gifting category, pointing to the potential of how this service could be scaled in the future.

“At General Catalyst, we are proud to lead the latest round of funding for Alyce as the company has reimagined the gifting category with technology and impact. The ability to deliver products and experiences that both the giver and recipient feel good about is incredibly powerful,” said Larry Bohn, Managing Director at General Catalyst, in a statement.

As working out goes virtual, Moxie raises $6.3M Seed+ round led by Resolute Ventures

With the pandemic sending the planet indoors to workout, the at-home fitness market has boomed. It was only in October last year that three-year-old Future closed $24 million in Series B and Playbook (streaming for personal trainers) raised $9.3 million in a Series A. Into this market launched Moxie, a platform that allowed fitness instructors to broadcast live and recorded classes, access licensed music playlists and deploy a CRM and payment tools. Classes range from $5-$25 and various subscriptions and packages are offered.

Moxie has now raised a $6.3M ‘Seed+’ funding round led by Resolute Ventures with participation from Bessemer Ventures, Greycroft Ventures, Gokul Rajaram, and additional investors. With the $2.1M Seed round from last October, that means Moxie has now raised a total of $8.4M.

With the funding, Moxie now plans to better optimize the user experience with a curated selection of top Moxie classes; new tools that help connect users to instructors; and the ability to preview classes before attending.

The company claims to have experienced “exponential growth” because of its convenience in the pandemic era, with 8,000 classes and 1 million class-minutes completed in March. Moxie’s independent instructors set their own schedules and prices, and get to keep 85% of what they earn on the platform.

The company will also now launch ‘Moxie Benefits’ in partnership with Stride Health, provide instructors with access to health insurance, dental and vision plans, life insurance, and other benefits.

Also planned is ‘Moxie Teams’, enabling groups of instructors to join together to form small businesses on the platform, not unlike the way some Uber drivers form teams.

Jason Goldberg, CEO and founder said in a statement: “Moxie was born during the pandemic alongside thousands of independent fitness instructors who were forced out of gyms and studios and suddenly had to become entrepreneurs and navigate the new frontier of virtual fitness. Now we are seeing widespread adoption of online fitness into people’s lives, and Moxie’s growth proves that these shifts in consumer behavior have staying power. We know that 89% of Moxie users plan to continue virtual workouts post COVID — they love the convenience.”

Resolute Ventures Partner & Co-Founder Raanan Bar-Cohen said: “Our investment theory has always been to identify entrepreneurial founders solving for today’s problems. With Moxie, we saw an experienced operator in Jason, with a product that solved for the issues that instructors and consumers had experienced in the shift to online fitness, as well as a clear roadmap for continued success.”

So why has Moxie managed to cleave to the new virtual workout culture? Goldberg tells me it’s down to a range of factors.

For starters, it’s a two-sided fitness marketplace that has live interactive group fitness classes, unlike VOD apps, and, crucially, unlike Peloton. Additionally, any instructor can teach on Moxie, rather than wait to be picked as a ‘star’ by Peloton. Since 90% of classes are live group fitness classes, they are effectively replacing yoga studios and HIIT classes, rather than personal training. He says many top instructors are now earning $6-figures on the platform.

Certainly, Moxie has managed to capitalize on the fact that while gyms are closed, it’s easy to do virtual classes. Will they still stick around when the pandemic is over? Presumably many will find it more convenient than schlepping to the gym and less intimidating than joining classes in person. Additionally, users can switch classes as easily as switching TV channels.

As Goldberg told me via email: “Covid forced everyone to try virtual fitness for the first time. Guess what? People found it more convenient and more connected than going to offline gyms. And guess what? Peloton is not for everyone.”

Index closes $200 million dedicated seed fund to intensify multi-stage thesis

The once quiet world of seed investing became frenetic a few years ago as dedicated seed funds and angel networks increased in scale and velocity. That environment has now crescendoed into the present world of the seed capital hurricane: funds galore, solo capitalists splurging streams of rolling-capital dollars wherever they can find a cap table crevice, crowdfunding cash sloshing around — and in the eye of the storm are the founders looking to just snag a term sheet for their companies and get back to work.

Into that maelstrom comes Index Ventures, which today announced the close and launch of a new $200 million dedicated seed investing vehicle it’s dubbed Index Origin. The fund’s name pays homage to the firm’s long-standing commitment to seed and first-check investing, where it has backed companies as diverse as Robinhood, Figma, Deliveroo and Wise (aka the rebranded TransferWise) at the seed state.

“Our view is that seed investing is truly the essence of venture capital,” said Nina Achadjian, a partner at Index who joined in early 2020. “It’s when you as an investor have to take the biggest leap of faith.”

She noted that the firm “in the last 18 months, I think we’ve made over almost 35 seed investments.” The new Index Origin fund would be a ramp up in terms of volume.

There’s extreme competition for cap tables at the earliest stages of startups today, and Index is focusing on a few offerings to maximize its sales pitch to founders.

The first emphasizes flexibility. Achadjian noted that there has been a sort of a devil’s bargain for founders on which type of funds to take at the seed stage. “Do you want a dedicated seed fund who is phenomenal at what they do, or do you want a multi-stage fund that might not have seed-specific resources but they can do a quick follow up [round],” she asked rhetorically. “There hasn’t really been the right product in the market to help founders have the best of both worlds, and so that was kind of our inspiration for Index Origin.”

Fitting its multi-stage thesis, all Index partners can write seed checks out of the new fund and they can invest in any vertical of interest to them in any geography (primarily the United States and Europe although it’s not explicitly limited to those markets). Achadjian noted that since the firm can potentially double down on later-stage rounds, the fund is more flexible in working with other firms, angels, and the whole coterie of funders at the seed stage.

That solves the capital component. As for providing more dedicated resources for seed founders, Index is offering a trilogy of programs to make it easier to scale businesses. They include a “First Hires” program designed to help with early hires at startups; an Early Adopter Network to help companies connect with potential design customers to find and accelerate product-market fit; and finally, The Index Network, an expert network of specialists (think DevOps, SalesOps, or technical architecture) that startup founders can consult on when they run into roadblocks. These programs and the seed fund writ large will have a dedicated team to help find and grow seed-stage companies.

“Our philosophy has been: we never say it’s too early for Index,” Achadjian said.

Part of the impetus for these new programs is the diverging mix of founders that have started companies in recent years. “We’ve actually found that a lot of founders, they used to have technical backgrounds, but in the last couple of years, it’s shifted to more business-background founders,” she said. That has meant helping these founders find technical talent and building up a network of technical expertise to help them grow.

Secondly, Index wants to increase the diversity of founders in its investment pipeline. “That’s another driver for why we wanted to do seed, because it gives us a broader access to the very, very top of funnel,” Achadjian explained. “I think if you want to make an impact for diversity, that’s actually the stage where you can make the biggest impact.”

Index’s approach matches that of Sequoia, which announced earlier this year that it raised $195 million for a seed fund, also focused on the U.S. and Europe. Most other firms in the multi-stage investing game tuck seed bets inside their early-stage funds, rather than creating standalone investing vehicles. With potentially dozens of checks to write in the coming months, expect to see Index bring even more activity into the white-hot seed market.

Tines raises $26M Series B for its no-code security automation platform

Tines, a no-code automation platform co-founded by two senior cybersecurity operators, today announced that it has raised a $26 million Series B funding round led by Addition. Existing investors Accel and Blossom Capital participated in this round, which also includes strategic investments from CrowdStrike and Silicon Valley CISO Investments. After this round, which brings the total funding in the company to $41.1 million, Tines is now valued at $300 million.

Given that Tines co-founders Eoin Hinchy and Thomas Kinsella were both in senior security roles at DocuSign before they left to start their own company in 2018, it’s maybe no surprise that the company’s platform launched with a strong focus on security operations. As such, it combines security orchestration and robotic process automation with a low-code/no-code user interface.

“Tines is on a mission to allow frontline employees to focus on more business-critical tasks and improve their wellbeing by reducing the burden of ‘busy work’ by helping automate any manual workflow and making existing teams more efficient, effective, and engaged,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The idea here is to free analysts from spending time on routine repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on those areas where they can have the most impact. The tools features pre-configured integrations with a variety of business and security tools, but for more sophisticated users, it also features the ability to hook into virtually any API.

Image Credits: Tines

The company argues that even non-technical employees should be able to learn the ins and outs of its platform within about three hours (sidenote: it’s nice to see a no-code platform acknowledge that users will actually need to spend some time with it before they can become productive).

“If software is eating the world, automation is eating the enterprise,” Hinchy said. “Yet, the majority of progress in this space still requires non-technical teams to depend on software engineers to implement their automation. Other platforms are generally either too hard to use, not flexible enough or not sufficiently robust for mission-critical workflows like cybersecurity. Tines empowers enterprise teams to automate any of their own manual workloads independently, making their jobs more rewarding while simultaneously delivering enormous value for their organizations.”

Current Tines customers include the likes of Box, Canva, OpenTable and Sophos.

The company, which was founded in Dublin, Ireland and recently opened an office in Boston, plans to use the new funding to double its 18-person team in order to support its product growth.

“Tines has quickly established itself as a market leader in enterprise automation,” said Lee Fixel, founder of Addition. “We look forward to supporting Eoin and the Tines team as they continue to scale the business and enhance their product — which is beloved by their unmatched customer base.”

Image Credits: Tines

Spend management startup Ramp confirms $115M raise at a $1.6B valuation

This morning, Ramp, which provides corporate cards and spend management software, announced that it has closed $115 million across two investments, the latter of which valued the company at $1.6 billion.

The Information first reported that Ramp was raising new capital. TechCrunch confirmed the news prior to the company’s announcement earlier today. Ramp raised the capital in two tranches, the first of which, a $65 million investment led by D1 Capital Partners, valued the startup at $1.1 billion. A $50 million investment led by Stripe, the online payments giant, pushed its valuation to $1.6 billion.

On a call with TechCrunch, Ramp CEO and co-founder Eric Glyman was demure about the valuation differential between the two investments, only noting that different investing groups can have different assessments of the value of a company. TechCrunch’s read of the two-part fundraising event is that Stripe likely saw Ramp’s growing scale and wanted to put capital into it but had to pay a higher price for coming in after D1 had already written a check.

Regardless, Ramp’s latest capital raises are a multiple of the amount it last raised when it pursued primary funds, namely its $30 million December, 2020 round. The company raised twice in 2020, and once in 2019. More recently, Ramp secured a $150 million credit facility to help it support growing spend volume from its corporate customers.

Ramp provides corporate cards to customers, wrapped in software that helps companies track and manage overall spend. As part of its news today, the startup shared that it is “nearing” a transaction run rate of $1 billion. Glyman confirmed to TechCrunch that the metric was calculated on a month’s volume multiplied by 12, a reasonable method of determining the figure.

The company’s spend run rate grew by around 400% in the last half year.

Ramp’s new capital, debt and valuation gains that it has managed thus far in 2021 may help it navigate competitive waters. Its rivals — Brex, TeamPay, Divvy, Airbase and others — are also well-capitalized and hungry to take an ever-larger chunk of the world of corporate expense under their belts.

Ramp, like many of its rivals, makes money by collecting a small slice of customer spend as revenue via interchange incomes. TechCrunch asked Glyman if he has plans to start charging for the software that Ramp currently provides its customers for free, as some of its rivals do. The CEO declined to guide us further than our own hunches.

TechCrunch reckons that while growth remains strong at Ramp and its fellow zero-cost corporate spend providers, they’ll stick with their current model. In time, however, we expect surviving players to ask their customers to pony up for at least part of the software stack that they currently receive for free.

The possibility is accentuated by the fact that Glyman told TechCrunch that his customers are removing existing software like Expensify in favor of Ramp’s own code in some instances. That means that those companies have spend budgeted that Ramp and others are not accreting to their own books.

And Ramp is not slowing down its product work. Almost all of its new capital, per Ramp’s CEO, will go into product work. The roughly 100-person company closed 2020 with around 65 people, and plans to continue doubling its headcount every six or eight months, according to Glyman.

Finally, what to make of Stripe on the Ramp cap table? Stripe itself has a corporate card and spend management product, and was picky when one of its backers put capital into a company that it construed as a rival. According to Glyman, the decision to take investment from Stripe came down to whether his team wanted to work with the larger company — they did — and whether they trusted the payments giant. He decided to. Stripe did not receive a board seat as part of its investment.

Perhaps we’ll see Ramp move its backend off of Marqueta and over to Stripe’s own? Or perhaps Stripe subsumes Ramp at some point in the future. We’ll see.