As paid newsletters grow in popularity, Snigdha Sur, the founder of South Asian-focused media company The Juggernaut, has no qualms about avoiding the approach entirely. In October 2017, Sur started The Juggernaut as a free newsletter, called InkMango. As she searched for news on the South Asian diaspora, she found that articles lacked original reporting, aggregation was becoming repetitive and mainstream news organizations weren’t answering big questions.
Then InkMango crossed 700 free readers, and Sur saw an opportunity for a full-bodied media company, not just a newsletter.
On the heels of this growth, The Juggernaut announced today that it has raised a $2 million seed round led by Precursor Ventures to hire editors and a full-time growth engineer, and expand new editorial projects. Other investors in the round include Unpopular Ventures, Backstage Capital, New Media Ventures and Old Town Media. Angels include former Andreessen Horowitz general partner Balaji Srinivasan; co-founder of Kabam, Holly Liu; and co-founder of sports-focused publication The Athletic, Adam Hansmann.
Currently, The Juggernaut charges $3.99 a month for an annual subscription, $9.99 a month for a monthly subscription and $249.99 for a lifetime subscription to the news outlet. It also offers a seven-day free trial (with a conversation rate to paid at over 80%) and has a free newsletter, which Sur says will remain free to bring in top-of-the-funnel customers.
The Juggernaut is part of a growing number of media companies trying to directly monetize off of subscriptions instead of advertisements, such as The Information, The Athletic, and even our very own Extra Crunch. If successful, the hope is that paid subscriptions will prove more sustainable and lucrative than advertising, which still dominates in media.
But Sur is purposely pacing herself when it comes to expenses in the early days. The team currently has only three full-time staff, including Sur, culture editor Imaan Sheikh and one full-time writer, Michaela Stone Cross.
Snigdha Sur, the founder of The Juggernaut.
“Sometimes at media companies people over-hire and over-promise, and then don’t deliver on the profitability or return,” she said. For this reason, The Juggernaut largely works with “freelancers who would probably never join any specific publication,” Sur said. While The Juggernaut hopes to have full-time staff writers eventually, the contributor approach helps temper spending.
Beyond pace, The Juggernaut is looking to build up its subscriber base by writing stories that require deep, creative thinking. The publication intentionally does not cover commoditized breaking news, which could have the potential to bring in more inbound traffic, or anything that doesn’t have a South Asian connection.
Sur is living the stories that she is working to tell. Born in Chhattisgarh, India, she grew up in the Bronx and Queens in New York City, and spent time living and working in Mumbai, India. Since founding The Juggernaut, her goal for the publication has been to be a place for not just South Asians, but for “anyone who has a form of curiosity and appreciation” for South Asian culture.
“We try not to translate words we don’t have to do, we’re not trying to dumb this down, we’re not trying to write for the white teen,” she said. “We’re trying to write for the smart, curious person. And we’re going to assume you know stuff.”
A developer’s powerful resignation letter is the latest condemnation of the social network’s attitude to hate speech
At the beginning of last month, a Facebook software engineer, Ashok Chandwaney, resigned and published a blistering public letter, excoriating the company for its failure to tackle hate.
“Facebook is choosing to be on the wrong side of history,” warned Chandwaney in the letter, which was posted on the company’s internal message board. “I can no longer stomach contributing to an organisation that is profiting off hate in the US and globally.”
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.
Estonia-based Sentinel, which is developing a detection platform for identifying synthesized media (aka deepfakes), has closed a $1.35 million seed round from some seasoned angle investors — including Jaan Tallinn (Skype), Taavet Hinrikus (Transferwise), Ragnar Sass & Martin Henk (Pipedrive) — and Baltics early stage VC firm, United Angels VC.
The challenge of building tools to detect deepfakes has been likened to an arms race — most recently by tech giant Microsoft, which earlier this month launched a detector tool in the hopes of helping pick up disinformation aimed at November’s US election. “The fact that [deepfakes are] generated by AI that can continue to learn makes it inevitable that they will beat conventional detection technology,” it warned, before suggesting there’s still short term value in trying to debunk malicious fakes with “advanced detection technologies”.
Sentinel co-founder and CEO, Johannes Tammekänd, agrees on the arms race point — which is why its approach to this ‘goal-post-shifting’ problem entails offering multiple layers of defence, following a cyber security-style template. He says rival tools — mentioning Microsoft’s detector and another rival, Deeptrace, aka Sensity — are, by contrast, only relying on “one fancy neural network that tries to detect defects”, as he puts it.
“Our approach is we think it’s impossible to detect all deepfakes with only one detection method,” he tells TechCrunch. “We have multiple layers of defence that if one layer gets breached then there’s a high probability that the adversary will get detected in the next layer.”
Tammekänd says Sentinel’s platform offers four layers of deepfake defence at this stage: An initial layer based on hashing known examples of in-the-wild deepfakes to check against (and which he says is scalable to “social media platform” level); a second layer comprised of a machine learning model that parses metadata for manipulation; a third that checks for audio changes, looking for synthesized voices etc; and lastly a technology that analyzes faces “frame by frame” to look for signs of visual manipulation.
“We take input from all of those detection layers and then we finalize the output together [as an overall score] to have the highest degree of certainty,” he says.
“We already reached the point where somebody can’t say with 100% certainty if a video is a deepfake or not. Unless the video is somehow ‘cryptographically’ verifiable… or unless somebody has the original video from multiple angles and so forth,” he adds.
Tammekänd also emphasizes the importance of data in the deepfake arms race — over and above any specific technique. Sentinel’s boast on this front is that it’s amassed the “largest” database of in-the-wild deepfakes to train its algorithms on.
It has an in-house verification team working on data acquisition by applying its own detection system to suspect media, with three human verification specialists who “all have to agree” in order for it to verify the most sophisticated organic deepfakes.
“Every day we’re downloading deepfakes from all the major social platforms — YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, then there’s Asian ones, Russian ones, also porn sites as well,” he says.
“If you train a deepfake model based on let’s say Facebook data-sets then it doesn’t really generalize — it can detect deepfakes like itself but it doesn’t generalize well with deepfakes in the wild. So that’s why the detection is really 80% the data engine.”
Not that Sentinel can always be sure. Tammekänd gives the example of a short video clip released by Chinese state media of a poet who it was thought has been killed by the military — in which he appeared to say he was alive and well and told people not to worry.
“Although our algorithms show that, with a very high degree of certainty, it is not manipulated — and most likely the person was just brainwashed — we can’t say with 100% certainty that the video is not a deepfake,” he says.
Sentinel’s founders, who are ex NATO, Monese and the UK Royal Navy, actually started working on a very different startup idea back in 2018 — called Sidekik — building a Black Mirror-esque tech which ingested comms data to create a ‘digital clone’ of a person in the form of a tonally similar chatbot (or audiobot).
The idea was that people could use this virtual double to hand off basic admin-style tasks. But Tammekänd says they became concerned about the potential for misuse — hence pivoting to deepfake detection.
They’re targeting their technology at governments, international media outlets and defence agencies — with early clients, after the launch of their subscription service in Q2 this year, including the European Union External Action Service and the Estonian Government.
Their stated aim is to help to protect democracies from disinformation campaigns and other malicious information ops. So that means they’re being very careful about who gets access to their tech. “We have a very heavy vetting process,” he notes. “For example we work only with NATO allies.”
“We have had requests from Saudi Arabia and China but obviously that is a no-go from our side,” Tammekänd adds.
A recent study the startup conducted suggests exponential growth of deepfakes in the wild (i.e. found anywhere online) — with more than 145,000 examples identified so far in 2020, indicating a ninefold year-on-year growth.
Tools to create deepfakes are certainly getting more accessible. And while plenty are, at face value, designed to offer harmless fun/entertainment — such as the likes of selfie-shifting app Reface — it’s clear that without thoughtful controls (including deepfake detection systems) the synthesized content they enable could be misappropriated to manipulate unsuspecting viewers.
Scaling up deepfake detection technology to the level of media swapping going on on social media platforms today is one major challenge Tammekänd mentions.
“Facebook or Google could scale up [their own deepfake detection] but it would cost so much today that they would have to put in a lot of resources and their revenue would obviously fall drastically — so it’s fundamentally a triple standard; what are the business incentives?” he suggests.
There is also the risk posed by very sophisticated, very well funded adversaries — creating what he describes as “deepfake zero day” targeted attacks (perhaps state actors, presumably pursuing a very high value target).
“Fundamentally it is the same thing in cyber security,” he says. “Basically you can mitigate [the vast majority] of the deepfakes if the business incentives are right. You can do that. But there will always be those deepfakes which can be developed as zero days by sophisticated adversaries. And nobody today has a very good method or let’s say approach of how to detect those.
“The only known method is the layered defence — and hope that one of those defence layers will pick it up.”
It’s certainly getting cheaper and easier for any Internet user to make and distribute plausible fakes. And as the risks posed by deepfakes rise up political and corporate agendas — the European Union is readying a Democracy Action Plan to respond to disinformation threats, for example — Sentinel is positioning itself to sell not only deekfake detection but bespoke consultancy services, powered by learnings extracted from its deepfake data-set.
“We have a whole product — meaning we just don’t offer a ‘black box’ but also provide prediction explainability, training data statistics in order to mitigate bias, matching against already known deepfakes and threat modelling for our clients through consulting,” the startup tells us. “Those key factors have made us the choice of clients so far.”
Asked what he sees as the biggest risks that deepfakes pose to Western society, Tammekänd says, in the short term, the major worry is election interference.
“One probability is that during the election — or a day or two days before — imagine Joe Biden saying ‘I have a cancer, don’t vote for me’. That video goes viral,” he suggests, sketching one near term risk.
“The technology’s already there,” he adds noting that he had a recent call with a data scientist from one of the consumer deepfake apps who told him they’d been contacted by different security organizations concerned about just such a risk.
“From a technical perspective it could definitely be pulled off… and once it goes viral for people seeing is believing,” he adds. “If you look at the ‘cheap fakes’ that have already had a massive impact, a deepfake doesn’t have to be perfect, actually, it just has to be believable in a good context — so there’s a large number of voters who can fall for that.”
Longer term, he argues the risk is really massive: People could lose trust in digital media, period.
“It’s not only about videos, it can be images, it can be voice. And actually we’re already seeing the convergence of them,” he says. “So what you can actually simulate are full events… that I could watch on social media and all the different channels.
“So we will only trust digital media that is verified, basically — that has some method of verification behind that.”
Another even more dystopian AI -warped future is that people will no longer care what’s real or not online — they’ll just believe whatever manipulated media panders to their existing prejudices. (And given how many people have fallen down bizarre conspiracy rabbit holes seeded by a few textual suggestions posted online, that seems all too possible.)
“Eventually people don’t care. Which is a very risky premise,” he suggests. “There’s a lot of talk about where are the ‘nuclear bombs’ of deepfakes? Let’s say it’s just a matter of time when a deepfake of a politician comes out that will do massive damage but… I don’t think that’s the biggest systematic risk here.
“The biggest systematic risk is, if you look from the perspective of history, what has happened is information production has become cheaper and easier and sharing has become quicker. So everything from Gutenberg’s printing press, TV, radio, social media, Internet. What’s happening now is the information that we consume on the Internet doesn’t have to be produced by another human — and thanks to algorithms you can on a binary time-scale do it on a mass scale and in a hyper-personalized way. So that’s the biggest systematic risk. We will not fundamentally understand what is reality anymore online. What is human and what is not human.”
The potential consequences of such a scenario are myriad — from social division on steroids; so even more confusion and chaos engendering rising anarchy and violent individualism to, perhaps, a mass switching off, if large swathes of the mainstream simply decide to stop listening to the Internet because so much online contents is nonsense.
From there things could even go full circle — back to people “reading more trusted sources again”, as Tammekänd suggests. But with so much at shapeshifting stake, one thing looks like a safe bet: Smart, data-driven tools that help people navigate an ever more chameleonic and questionable media landscape will be in demand.
TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report
Founders Dave Zohrob and Harish Agarwal previously worked together at AngelList, and they also created Hacker Daily, a podcast recapping the headlines from Hacker News. Zohrob (Chartable’s CEO) told me that their experience hosting a podcast convinced the pair to create an analytics product.
“Podcasting is a weird market,” he said. “One day, our downloads went from 4,000 a day to 5,000 a day. Why did that happen? We had no idea.”
So they built Chartable to give publishers and advertisers the insights they need to understand their audience and their business.
That means creating industry-wide charts, but also helping publishers aggregate their listening data across different podcast apps and launching products like SmartAds (to measure the effectiveness of podcast advertising), SmartLinks (to track the effectiveness of digital marketing campaigns at driving podcast downloads) and SmartPromos (an attribution product for cross-podcast promotional campaigns).
Founded in 2018, Chartable says it’s now tracking 1 billion podcast downloads and ad impressions every month, compared to 100 million downloads a year ago. While the startup offers a free version for independent podcasters, Zohrob noted that it’s currently working with eight of the 10 biggest podcast publishers globally.
Chartable founders Harish Agarwal and Dave Zohrob
He argued that in some ways, history is repeating itself, and that Chartable serves a similar function for podcasts as analytics companies like App Annie do for the App Store. At the same time, he suggested that podcasting is a very different market.
“It’s more fragmented, it’s not just Apple and Android, and there’s a billion different business models,” Zohrob said. “There’s a lot more complexity.”
As for whether upcoming privacy changes in iOS could affect Chartable’s attribution tools, Zohrob said it shouldn’t make “a huge difference,” because the data for podcast attribution is so limited already.
“Ultimately what’s happening with the rest of digital advertising is that it’s going to start to look like podcast advertising, which is kind of funny,” he said. “Maybe they’ll end up meeting somewhere in the middle.”
The funding was led by Initialized Capital, who also contributed to Chartable’s $1.5 million round last year. Other investors include Naval Ravikant, Greycroft Partners, The Fund, Weekend Fund, Jim Young and Lukas Biewald.
“Chartable is the authority on podcast analytics and attribution,” said Initialized co-founder Alexis Ohanian in a statement. (He led the Chartable investment before leaving Initialized.) “We couldn’t be happier to support them as they build the tools that brands and publishers need to advance the podcast industry.”
The tech giant’s monopoly over App Store content will bring a change to data privacy on its devices that has advertisers worried
If in August 2018 you had invested £5,000 in Apple stock, you’d have doubled your money in two years. Nifty, eh? But if you’d bought a single share at the company’s IPO price of $22 in 1980, it would be worth nearly $28,000 (£21,000) today. This is the kind of hindsight that is bad for one’s blood pressure: it merely confirms Warren Buffett’s famous observation, quoting his mentor Ben Graham, that in the short run the stock market may be a betting machine, but in the long run it’s a weighing machine.
Either way, Apple’s market capitalisation now weighs in at $2.2tn. What was once a plucky little outfit battling against the mighty Microsoft has somehow morphed into a corporate behemoth. And the interesting thing is that, until recently, nobody outside of stock exchanges seemed to have noticed the implications of this metamorphosis. When the House judiciary antitrust subcommittee summoned four tech bosses to a critical hearing in Congress, for example, Apple’s Tim Cook got off lightest. Subcommittee members reserved most of their ire for Amazon, Facebook and Google.
I woke up thinking, what is news good for? No, I was not being snarky. It was just a question: what is the purpose of news. After two and a half decades in the media trenches, the way I thought of news and its purpose was simple: one, to inform. And second, to educate the reader (or viewer.) And in doing so, it allowed readers to act upon it. That made news valuable.
For example, in the past, if there is news of wildfires and the news report tells you to evacuate, then the story has done an excellent job. Radio or TV reporters would talk to relevant authorities and relate that information to the people. Today, Twitter accounts of the California authorities of various stripes, brought that information to the people. The media outlets eventually caught up and added their twist on actionable information. However, by then, the information was already widely available.
Want to know about the Democratic Party’s conference? How about the Republican Party’s conference? Guess what — you could see it all on YouTube. You can form your own opinions, talk about them on Twitter, and go to the publication of your political persuasion to read columnists for confirmation bias.
News, as we knew it, is a victim of Dave Winer calls “sources going direct.” Blame it on the increased velocity of our times, the news already feels old in our lives moving at neck-snapping speed. Maybe that is why the news has become a tool of entertainment and titillation. Perhaps that is why it is hard to tell fact from fiction.
In the world of business, bad news used to impact companies’ stock performance. Now, it is merely an opportunity to earn a bigger Christmas bonus for crisis management experts. There was a time when you could glean a lot in the news about a company’s prospects or an idea. Now, not as much. You can’t even get the essential essentials.
Take the example of Palantir S-1 filing today. The total energy of news coverage is spent on what Palantir founder/CEO Alex Karp wrote in his letter included in the S-1 filings. This is an excellent example of today’s business news about being the spectacle. It distracts from the fact that despite doing all the work for the government agencies — dirty and otherwise — the company is still bleeding money. I would love to know why? As a joe-six-pack investor, that would come in handy.
Of course, we live in the Robinhood era. Reality doesn’t matter. The stock market is a video game to keep the players distracted from a crumbling economy. Business news doesn’t matter.
Technology’s news complex is so stage-managed that I don’t think it has any real value. As I pointed out in my post about Yelp and its narrative-driven coverage doesn’t really bring anything meaningful to the conversation. Most of the time, the news about the technology industry doesn’t really inform or educate. It is news about funding that happened many months ago.
Some stories inform, educate, and entertain you at the same time. They are memorable. I will settle for words that inform and educate and make me think better, like this one from the New York Times about Palantir. It doesn’t explain why the company lost almost $575 million two years in a row.
If you pay enough attention, you can see the future. You can learn, adapt, and be ready for a world reshaped by science and technology. My (almost) weekly newsletter is focused on the future — the Near Future, to be precise. (read more)
SlideShare has a new owner, with LinkedIn selling the presentation-sharing service to Scribd for an undisclosed price.
According to LinkedIn, Scribd will take over operation of the SlideShare business on September 24.
Scribd CEO Trip Adler argued that the companies have very similar roots, both launching in 2006/2007 with stories on TechCrunch, and both of them focused on content and document-sharing.
“The two products always had kind of similar missions,” Adler said. “The difference was, [SlideShare] focused on more on PowerPoint presentations and business users, while we focused more on PDFs and Word docs and long-form written content, more on the more general consumer.”
Scribd, meanwhile, launched a Netflix-style subscription service for e-books and audiobooks, but Adler said that both the “user-generated side” and the “premium side” remain important to the business.
“We get people who come in looking for documents, then sign up for our premium content,” he said. “But they do continue to read documents, too.”
So when Microsoft and LinkedIn approached Scribd about acquiring SlideShare, Adler saw an opportunity to expand the document side of the business. Specifically, he pointed to SlideShare’s content library of 40 million presentations and its audience of 100 million monthly unique visitors.
The deal, Adler said, is fundamentally about tapping into SlideShare’s “content and audience,” though he said there may be aspects of the service’s technology that Scribd could incorporate as well. Scribd isn’t taking on any new employees as part of the deal; instead, its existing team is taking responsibility for SlideShare’s operation.
He added that SlideShare will continue to operate as a standalone service, separate from Scribd, and that he’s hopeful that it will continue to be well-integrated with LinkedIn.
“Nothing will change in the initial months,” Adler said. “We have a lot of experience with a product like this, both the technology stack and with users uploading content. We’re in a good position make SlideShare really successful.”
Meanwhile, a statement from LinkedIn Vice President of Engineering Chris Pruett highlighted the work that the company has done on SlideShare since the acquisition:
LinkedIn acquired SlideShare in May 2012 at a time when it was becoming clear that professionals were using LinkedIn for more than making professional connections. Over the last eight years, the SlideShare team, product, and community has helped shape the content experience on LinkedIn. We’ve incorporated the ability to upload, share, and discuss documents on LinkedIn.
Skillshare CEO Matt Cooper said 2020 has been a year of rapid growth — even before the pandemic forced large swaths of the population to stay home and turn to online learning for entertainment and enrich.
Cooper (who became CEO in 2017) told me that the company decided last year to “focus on our strength,” leading to a “brand relaunch” in January 2020 to emphasize the richness of its creativity-themed content. At the same time, Cooper said the company defines creativity very broadly, with classes divided into categories like animation, design, illustration, photography, filmmaking and writing.
“It’s not Bob Ross,” he said. “And I love Bob Ross, but that’s a very narrow definition of creativity. Creativity can come in lots of different forms — art, design, journaling, creative writing it can be culinary, it can be crafts.”
Cooper added that daily usage was already up significantly by mid-March, when the pandemic led to widespread social distancing orders across the United States. That created some challenges, particularly for the more polished Skillshare Originals that the company offers alongside its user-generated classes. (For example, Originals include a color masterclass taught by Victo Ngai, a class on “discovering your creative voice” taught by Shantell Martin and a creative nonfiction class by Susan Orlean.)
But of course the pandemic also meant that, as Cooper put it, “A lot more people had a lot more free time at home and were looking for a constructive way to spend it.” In fact, the company said that since its rebranding, new membership sign-ups have tripled, with existing members watching three times the number of lessons.
And Skillshare has continued producing Originals by sending instructors “a huge box of gear” and then supervising the shoot remotely. In fact, Cooper suggested that this has “opened up a whole new world” for the Originals team, allowing them to “look at parts of the world where we probably weren’t going to fly a camera crew to go shoot.”
The company now has 12 million registered members, 8,000 teachers and 30,000 classes — all accessible for $99 a year or $19 a month. And it’s announcing that it has raised $66 million in new funding led by OMERS Growth Equity, with managing director Saar Pikar joining the board of directors. Previous investors Union Square Ventures, Amasia Ventures, Burda Principal Investments and Spero Ventures also participated.
“Skillshare serves the needs of professional creatives and everyday creative hobbyists alike, which presents a highly-innovative value proposition for the online learning market,” Pikar said in a statement. “We look forward to deepening our partnership with Skillshare, and our fellow investors, in order to help Matt Cooper and his team scale up the company’s international reach – and help Skillshare achieve the full potential of its unique approach to online learning.”
Cooper added that the company (which had previously raised $42 million) was cashflow positive for the first half of 2020, so it raised the new round to invest in growth — particularly in the Skillshare for Teams enterprise product, which allows customers like GM Financial, Vice, AWS, Lululemon, American Crafts and Benefit to offer Skillshare as a perk for their employees.
Cooper i also hoping to expand internationally. Apparently two-thirds of new member sign-ups are coming from outside the United States, with India as Skillshare’s fastest growing market, and that’s with “no local language content, no local language teachers.” While Cooper plans to remain focused on English content for the near future, he noted that there are other steps Skillshare can take to encourage global viewership, like accepting payments in different currencies and supporting subtitles in different languages.
“Just by making it a little easier for those international users to get value from the platform, we expect to see dramatic growth in these international markets,” he said.
The Chinese social media platform subject to a banning order by the US president
On Friday, Donald Trump issued twin executive orders that would ban any US transactions with the Chinese companies that own TikTok and WeChat, saying the US must take “aggressive action” in the interest of national security. TikTok, a video-sharing app, has come under fire from US lawmakers and the Trump administration over national security concerns. But what is WeChat?
WeChat is an immensely popular and all-encompassing Chinese social media platform. In 2018, it surpassed 1 billion users worldwide. Within China people use WeChat for an endless list of services including communication, e-payments, banking, ride-hailing and online shopping, all integrated directly into the service. During the pandemic, it also runs a large portion of the various government-mandated health code apps that designate people as being under quarantine or allowed to travel.
Special is a new startup offering online video creators a way to move beyond advertising for their income.
The service was created by the team behind tech consulting and development firm Triple Tree Software. Special’s co-founder and CEO Sam Lucas told me that the team had already “scrapped our way from nothing to a seven-figure annual revenue,” but when the founders met with Next Frontier Capital (Next Frontier, like Special, is based in Bozeman, Montana) they pitched a bigger idea — an app where creators charge a subscription fee for access to premium content.
While Triple Tree started in the service business, Lucas explained that the goal was also to create “a product company that we could sell for $100 million.” Now Special is announcing that it has raised $2.26 million in seed funding from Next Frontier and other investors.
It’s also built an initial version of the product that’s being tested by friends, family and a handful of creators, with plans for a broader beta test in October.
One of the main ways that creators can ask their viewers for money is through Patreon. Lucas acknowledged Patreon as a “very big inspiration” for Special, but he said that conversations with creators pointed to a few key ways that the service falls short.
Image Credits: Special
For one thing, he argued while contributions on Patreon are framed as “donations” or “support,” Special allows creators to emphasize the value of their premium content by putting it behind a subscription paywall. The existing service supports paywalls as well, but that leads to Lucas’ next point — that Patreon was built built for creators of all kinds, while Special is focused specifically on video, and it’s built a high-quality video player into the experience.
In fact, Lucas described Special’s spin on the idea of a white labeled product as “silver label.” The goal is to create “the perfect balance between a platform and a custom app” — creators get their own customizable channels that emphasize their brand identity (rather than Special’s), while still getting the distribution and exposure benefits of being part of a larger platform, with their content searchable and viewable on web, mobile and smart TVs.
Creators also retain ownership of their content, and they get to decide how much they want to charge subscribers — Lucas said it can be anywhere between “$1 or $999” per month, with Special taking a 10% fee. He added that the team has plans to build a bundling option that would allow creators to team up and offer a joint subscription.
Lucas’ pitch reminded me of startups like Vessel (acquired and shut down by TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon in 2016), which previously hoped to bring online creators together for a subscription offering. In Lucas’ view, Vessel was similar to newer apps like Quibi, in that they directly funded creators to produce exclusive content.
“It’s a billion-dollar arms race, with what used to be a technology play but is now a production studio play,” he said. Special doesn’t have the funding to compete at that level, but Lucas suggested that a studio model also provides the wrong incentives to creators, who say “Hell yeah, keep those checks coming in,” but disappear “the moment the checks stop.”
“I almost think it’s an egotistical play,” Lucas added. “The company thinks they know best what a creator should produce for an audience that doesn’t exist yet. We say: Let them do it on Special. Do whatever you want, as long as you follow our terms of service, and own your creative vision.”
It might also seem like a big challenge to recruit creators while based in Montana, but Lucas replied that Special has more access than you might think, especially since the town has become “such a hotspot for extremely wealthy people to buy their third home.”
More broadly, he suggested that the distance from Hollywood and Silicon Valley “allows us to not follow the trends of every new streaming platform and [instead] truly find those independent creators underneath the woodworks.”
When I first wrote about Radish at the beginning of 2017, the startup was focused on user-generated content. Last year, however, the company launched the Radish Originals program, where Radish is able to produce more content using teams of writers lead by a “showrunner,” and where the startup owns the resulting intellectual property.
“Instead of becoming YouTube or Wattpad for serial fiction, we want to be more like Netflix and create our own originals,” Kim told me. “I got a lot of inspiration from platforms in Korea, China and Japan, where serial fiction is huge and established on mobile.”
One of the ideas Radish took from the Asian markets is rapidly updating its stories. For example, its most popular title, “Torn Between Alphas” (a romance story with werewolves) has released 10 seasons in less than a year, with each season consisting of more than 50 chapters — later seasons have more than 100 chapters — that are released multiple times a day.
“On Netflix, you can binge-watch three seasons of a show at once,” Kim said. “On Radish, you can binge-read a thousand episodes.”
While Radish borrowed the writing room model from TV — and hired Emmy-winning TV writers, particularly those with a background in soap opera — Kim said it’s also taken inspiration from gaming. For one thing, it relies on micro-payments to make money, with users buying coins that allow them to unlock later chapters of a story (chapters usually cost 20 or 30 cents, and more chapters get moved out from behind the paywall over time). In addition, the company can allow reader taste to determine the direction of stories by A/B testing different versions of the same chapter.
Kim pointed to the fall of 2019 as Radish’s “inflection point,” where the model really started to work. Now, the company says its most popular story has made more than $4 million and has received more than 50 million “reads.” Radish stories are mostly in the genres of romance, paranormal/sci-fi, LGBTQ, young adult, horror, mystery and thriller, and Kim said the audience is largely female and based in the United States.
By raising a big round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early stage investment arm of troubled SoftBank Group) and Kakao Pages (which publishes webtoons, web novels and more, and is part of Korean internet giant Kakao), Kim said he can take advantage of their expertise in the Asian market to grow Radish’s audience in the U.S. That will mean accelerating content production in the hopes of creating more hit titles, and also spending more on performance marketing.
“With its own fast-paced original content production, Radish is best positioned to become a leading player in the global online fiction market,” said SoftBank Ventures Asia CEO JP Lee in a statement. “Radish has proven that its serialized novel platform can change the way people consume online content, and we are excited to support the company’s continued disruption in the mobile fiction space. Leveraging our global SoftBank ecosystem, we hope to support and accelerate Radish’s expansion across different regions worldwide.”
Data privacy rights have been backed by a new ruling, the latest twist in a nine-year campaign to limit surveillance by US agencies
A ruling of the court of justice of the European Union (CJEU) could prevent tech companies like Facebook from sending data from the trading bloc to the US, after finding that there are not enough protections against snooping by American intelligence agencies. It is the latest ruling in a long-running European legal saga.
July 2000: EU and US develop the Safe Harbour Privacy Principles, which allow personal information to be transferred between the two without breaching the EU’s data protection rules. Under the principles, US companies can self-certify that they comply with the EU data protection directive.
Tech companies like Facebook could be prevented from sending data back to the US, after the latest ruling in a long-running European legal saga found that there are not enough protections against snooping by US intelligence agencies.
The ruling of the court of justice of the European Union (CJEU) does not immediately end such transfers, but requires data protection authorities (DPAs) in individual member states to vet the sending of any new data to make sure people’s personal information remains protected according to the EU’s data protection laws (GDPR).
Two-year audit praises some decisions but criticises lack of action over Trump posts
Facebook’s decisions over the last nine months have resulted in “serious setbacks for civil rights,” according to the damning conclusion of a two-year-long audit commissioned by the social network to review its impact on the world.
The final report, which focuses primarily on decisions made since June 2019, praises Facebook’s move to ban American advertisers from using its tools for housing and employment discrimination, and the company’s belated decision to ban explicit support for white nationalism.
Other forms of publisher income, like events, have also been reduced. But the pain of 2020’s media downturn hasn’t been felt equally in the industry. Publications that had built subscription revenue bases were in a better position to weather declines in other media incomes than peers who hadn’t; revenue diversification can provide real shelter when the economy rapidly shifts.
Subscription incomes are not enough for publications to avoid all pain; The Atlantic’s subscription base famously surged during the early months of COVID-19, but the company still saw layoffs. The Athletic’s subscription business was predicated on sports events taking place — it too underwent cuts despite a membership-first model.
In this era, the healthiest publications tend to have a subscription component. The paywalled New York Times and Wall Street Journal are hiring, as is Business Insider, which launched a membership service in 2017. But not all subscription publications that are succeeding are large. Indeed, thanks to a growing set of publisher-friendly subscription services, there are a number of options in the market for supporting publications as small as a single author.
Perhaps most famously, Substack has seen good growth in the last year. The venture-backed newsletter-and-blogging service provides authors with the ability to charge for their writing. But other startups are competing in the space, helping publications derive more income directly from readers.
Pico, which provides paid-subscription tooling for publishers, has seen strong growth in the COVID-19 era. TechCrunch caught up with its co-founder Jason Bade to chat about what his company has seen in recent months. A few months ahead of COVID-19’s arrival, publishing platform Ghost launched its paid subscription product into beta. TechCrunch asked Ghost about the reception, and growth of the membership portion of its business to better understand today’s media market.
What emerges from data and conversations concerning the startup-supported media membership landscape is something hopeful. Some writers are going to build micro-pubs that can finance their existence. Larger publications have never had more available help to wean their businesses off of ads, pageviews and Google’s favor.
Calls follow Mark Zuckerberg’s dismissal of anti-hate-speech campaign in meeting with staff
Campaigners are calling for an advertising boycott of Facebook in the US to be extended to Europe, after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, dismissed the effects of the campaign in a meeting with staff.
A growing number of companies have halted advertising on Facebook after criticism that the platform was not doing enough to counter hate speech on its sites.
If the combined might of brands like Unilever and Coca-Cola don’t scare Mark Zuckerberg, who can hold the social media platform to account?
There is no power on this earth that is capable of holding Facebook to account. No legislature, no law enforcement agency, no regulator. Congress has failed. The EU has failed. When the Federal Trade Commission fined it a record $5bn for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, its stock price actually went up.
Which is what makes this moment so interesting and, possibly, epochal. If the boycott of Facebook by some of the world’s biggest brands – Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks – succeeds, it will be because it has targeted the only thing that Facebook understands: its bottom line. And if it fails, that will be another sort of landmark.
Especially as post-pandemic problems pile up, many media companies blame the Internet giants as the cause of all their troubles. Of course, almost nobody blames their own short-sightedness in ignoring the foreseeable opportunities and threats of the network.
At the turn of the century, I witnessed the birth of the Napster revolution. It was magical, and the energy behind it merged two trends that would dominate the Internet in the future: network effects and the insurgency of the people against the established order.
Thus began a two-decades-long erosion of the biggest barriers to entry in the media business — distribution and excessive pricing power of the media companies. In everything from music, video, news, and magazines, people and their networks have upended the entrenched interests.
Many of us confuse media companies as creators of media and content. In reality, their barrier to entry was ownership of distribution platforms. Just as telecoms of the past maintained their near-monopoly by controlling the last mile of the network, the media companies maintained their money machine by controlling the distribution network: trucks, radio waves, and television frequencies. The arrival of cable loosened their grip, but not as much. Then came the Internet, which meant the distribution network was no longer under control of a select few.
It started with upstarts like CNet setting up shop. It increased momentum with bloggers like myself, who went into business for themselves. The velocity increased with the Huffington Posts of the world, but eventually, we ended up at the point of people-powered media and their mediums: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can see the same story arc in other types of content.
Students embraced Napster, not because they were born criminals. Instead, they just didn’t care much for the business models of record labels.
And the people trading files were pissed at the record companies. They did studies back then. Labels were some of the most hated entities extant, down there with cable companies. People were sick and tired of paying ten-plus bucks for a CD with one good track. The labels thought they were winning, by eliminating the single, but they were wrong.
The eventual emergence of Spotify and streaming music has led to the resurgence of the music industry revenues. We see similar behaviors in video streaming. And yet, there is a holdout — the news industry is behaving as if nothing has changed and is defiantly delaying attempts to adapt its business models.
The news industry is still set up as a business as if I’m going to get my news the way I did in the 70s. And how are they going to convince me to do this? A paywall. The price for reading the article that’s caught my eye is to give them my credit card and the right to charge me $10 per month for perpetuity. No. The answer is no. Always no.
Dave makes a very good point. I would like to pay for more content, but I don’t want to sign up for more subscriptions for publications that aren’t my daily reads. I spend roughly $100 a month on various publications. I would be willing to add another $25 a month, but only for articles I actually want to read. I had high hopes for Apple News, but that has been a mess from day one. I hope Tony Haile’s Scroll gets traction, because it is on the right path. As Winer says:
I’ve read so many stories about how news orgs feel about their role, maybe it’s time for the news orgs to try to find out how their readers see their roles? Basic business. Know the people who pay your bills and do things that delight them.
If you pay enough attention, you can see the future. You can learn, adapt, and be ready for a world reshaped by science and technology. My (almost) weekly newsletter is focused on the future — the Near Future, to be precise. (read more)
Stringr, a video-focused startup that says it can help news organizations adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, is announcing that it’s raised $5.75 million in new funding.
When I wrote about the the company at the end of 2015, it was creating a marketplace that connected news organizations with videographers who could provide them with news footage. Since then, co-founder and CEO Lindsay Stewart (a former TV news producer herself) told me the network has grown to more than 100,000 videographers.
At the same time, Stringr has added new tools for things like live streaming, transcription and editing, creating what Stewart described as “the most efficient video production platform.”
And she suggested that media companies need a platform like this more than ever. Yes, some Stringr customers are just using the service when they need footage, but she said others see Stringr as a purely cloud-based solution for producing news programming “when nobody’s coming into the office.”
And speaking of footage, newsrooms are going to need help on that front too, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic having a dramatic impact on the media industry’s bottom line.
“I don’t think it’s lost on anyone that media companies … the business model, even more than before COVID, has been challenged,” Stewart added. So those companies are turning to Stringr for help in figuring out “how they become as cost effective as they possibly can, while still providing a valuable service to society overall.”
Stringr has also launched a division called Embed Studios that taps into the startup’s videographer network to create content for brands including Corcoran, Zillow, HBO Max, Amazon, Lightworkers, TikTok, Mastercard, United Way and MGM.
The company has now raised a total of $7.25 million. The new funding comes from Thomson Reuters, as well as previous investors G5 Capital and Advection Growth Capital.
It sounds like the Reuters investment is part of a broader partnership where the wire service’s customers can request video footage from Stringr. In fact, Stewart said that the startup’s work with Reuters is also pushing it to recruit videographers globally, starting in western Europe. (It was previously focused on the United States and the United Kingdom.)