Monday, July 28, 2014

Leaning Tower Italy

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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Toy Startup Roam And Wander Receives New Funding, Prepares To Expand Its U.S. Retail Presence

Roam & Wander, the Hong Kong and Taipei-based children’s entertainment startup that we profiled in June, is preparing to expand its retail operations into the U.S. just six months after its first plush toy, TuTu, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. Roam & Wander is interesting not just because of its business model, which combines iOS games with real stickers that kids can get in the mail and interactive toys, but also because it’s an example of how Taiwan’s fledgling consumer mobile startup industry can partner with the country’s strong hardware manufacturing infrastructure to deliver unique products. Several programs have launched recently to help bridge between the gap between the two sectors, including hardware incubators from TMI, which Roam & Wander worked with, and Foxconn. Roam & Wander founder Jason Warren tells me that the startup recently secured a new round of funding led by WI Harper, an existing investor, as well as new angel investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. He couldn’t disclose the exact amount, but says it brings the total investment Roam & Wander has raised so far to just under $1 million. (Taipei-based TMI is also one of the company’s early investors.) Members of Roam & Wander’s team are also preparing to head to the Bay Area to participate in an accelerator program. All these things will help Roam & Wander expand its retail operations into the U.S. market. In Asia, Roam & Wander has already signed agreements with Toys R Us, FNAC, and Apple retailer Studio A to get its plush toys into their brick and mortar stores. Online, TuTu can be purchased on Amazon. The company is also negotiating terms with other major retail channels and attending the Hong Kong Game and Toy Fair next Monday. TuTu has already picked up the industry award for Best New Toy, which will be formally announced at the beginning of the event, one of the largest toy industry gatherings in the world. Warren says it will give his startup an opportunity to find more U.S. retail channels, marketing partners, and game companies for potential licensing deals. TuTu was designed to give children growing up in the digital age a more engaging and tactile way of interacting with mobile devices. The bunny’s face is powered by an iPhone or iPod Touch screen and kids can play with her using a set of plastic toys with touch-enabled sensors. Roam & Wander’s retail expansion is well-timed because the release of the latest iPhone and iPad models means that there are a lot of secondhand iOS devices within families, which might give parents an incentive to buy toys like TuTu for their kids. Since I last wrote about Roam & Wander, the company has grown to 16 employees and started working on a larger version of the pink bunny that is one-meter tall and powered by a full-size iPad.
“The iPad speaker can go louder. When you feed her milk, it’s more impactful. When you tell her a story, it’s more fun and seems more real. We authored the game so it’s super high resolution, and having a three-foot tall rabbit is pretty cool,” says Warren. (The photo above shows the bigger version of TuTu sitting with one of Roam & Wander’s developers. The toy is about the size of a toddler and reminds me of an updated, cuter version of the My Buddy and Kid Sister toys that were sold in the late 1980s, when I was a kid). Roam & Wander is also working on another plush toy, DiDi, a teddy bear that will be powered by an iPad Mini. Roam & Wander’s strategy combines its app, Sticker Games, which introduces kids to both of its characters and lets them earn real stickers that they receive in the mail, and its interactive plush toys. The startup released the second version of Sticker Games on Dec. 23 and Warren says the updated app, which is now available in the U.S., Canada, China and Japan in addition to its initial markets Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, has seen strong traction so far, with 7,000 downloads and 400 sticker-filled envelopes shipped in the first week. “We’re hoping that kids will encounter TuTu first through Sticker Games. Then after they play games and win stickers, they will be more interested in taking care of TuTu,” says Warren, referring to the set of touch-enabled toys that come with the plush rabbit and lets them feed her milk and apples or brush her teeth. Warren was a general manager at HTC in Taiwan before founding his startup and he also worked in product management for Motorola. Despite his hardware experience, Warren says TMI Ventures played a key role in helping him locate the right hardware manufacturers to prototype and produce TuTu and her accessories. TMI launched its hardware accelerator program earlier this year, and TuTu’s development is a good example of how the incubator program will work with startups that want to take advantage of Taiwan’s resources. Warren says TMI CEO Lucas Wang helped Roam & Wander find and vet toy and hardware makers and guided the startup through the Taiwanese government’s certification process. “There are probably about nine different companies that we ended up doing business with along the path from concept to getting TuTu into stores. We worked with them for tooling, manufacturing, import and logistics, all of that and every single one of them the TMI guys helped us find,” says Warren.

Haloband Lets You Control Your Smartphone With A Tap On Your Wrist

The rise of mobile has given me so much: 24/7 connections with friends around the world, information exactly when I need it, the ability to track my fitness and health goals. Unfortunately, it’s also given me a complex about my giant sausage fingers and their constant inability to navigate the tiny keys on my smartphone’s slippery touchscreen. Sometimes I think I should have just bought a BlackBerry. When I read about Haloband on their Kickstarter page, I felt like the Shanghai-based startup was speaking directly to me: “Everyone has trouble in locking and unlocking smartphones. The frequency usually hurts phones’ screen and keys, as well as our hearts. So we decided it’s time to do something.” Haloband is a silicone wristband that is embedded with NFC chip and lets you operate your choice of functions by tapping your Android smartphone on your wrist. It’s also linked to a cloud account, which means you can save your ID as well as information to share with other mobile devices. After setting up your wristband with the Haloband app, you can use it to unlock your phone, take photos or send emergency alerts, among other options. To get an idea of what Haloband can do, watch their hilarious Kickstarter video embedded above (“I’m from the future. If you scan my wrist, you can get my business card information. This is my information, from my wrist, on your phone. Because I’m from the future.”)
The project has already raised almost double its $10,000 goal on Kickstarter and its early bird specials are closed, but you can still select from several options, starting from just $25 for a black or white Haloband. Funding closes on Jan. 16 and the bands are scheduled to ship in February. Haloband was developed by a Shanghai-based team that includes a former Intel engineer and focuses on NFC technology. They plan to release an open API so other developers can create their own Haloband apps and help smartphone users wrist easy (rimshot).

Iconic ZX Spectrum Home Computer Of The ’80s To Be Reborn As Retro Gaming Keyboard For iOS

In the U.K., the iconic 8-bit home computer of the 1980s was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Few keyboards have surely been pounded as hard as the Spectrum’s rubberised complement of grey rectangles. Released in 1982, the 48K computer-in-a-keyboard was last produced in 1990. But if this Kickstarter campaign (from veteran Spectrum games dev Elite) hits its funding target then the ZX Spectrum will be reborn as a Bluetooth keyboard for iOS, initially, with plans to add support for Android, Windows Phone, PCs and Macs down the line. Elite is seeking £60,000 (~$99,000) in crowdfunding to fund production of the first 1,000 units and bring the Spectrum back to life. The Bluetooth ZX Spectrum will be able to be used, not so much as a tough-to-type-on Bluetooth keyboard, but to recreate that authentic rubbery Spectrum gaming experience in conjunction with future app releases from Elite that will be available to buy from the iTunes App Store (and later from Google Play, Amazon’s App Store and Microsoft’s Windows Store). The Bluetooth ZX Spectrum keyboard will also be backwards compatible with Elite’s existing ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection apps — which feature Spectrum gaming classics such as Jet Set Willy, Manic Miner, Cybernoid, Monty on The Run and Skool Daze (to name a few). The apps will be sold separately to the keyboard — which is being priced at £50 to early Kickstarter backers (which includes Elite app credit and delivery in the U.K.). The Bluetooth ZX Spectrum keyboard may also work with some third party apps — so you could use it for other keyboardy functions, albeit the form factor was never designed for speedy touch-typing — but Elite notes that compatibility cannot be guaranteed. Elite is licensing the ZX Spectrum trademark and has been granted the right to replicate the Spectrum’s form factor — and says it’s the only company that has been granted that right from the IP holder. Nostalgia fans should direct their clicks to Elite’s Kickstarter page. The company has raised £17,000 of its £60k target so far — from more than 280 backers, and with 28 days left to run on the campaign. If successful they are aiming to ship the Bluetooth ZX Spectrum keyboard to backers next September.

Spredfast Raises $32.5M For The “Third Wave” In Social Marketing

Social marketing company Spredfast is announcing that it has raised $32.5 million in Series D funding. The round was led by Lead Edge Capital with participation from Austin Ventures, InterWest Partners, and OpenView Partners. The company has now raised more than $60 million. Spredfast was founded back in 2008, and CEO Rod Favaron acknowledged that the social media landscape has changed dramatically since then. He said the first group of products was focused on social media “listening” and aggregating comments about a company. The second wave consisted of social publishing tools and agencies like Buddy Media and Vitrue, which were “acquired en masse.” Favaron argued that Spredfast is really part of a third wave: “The whole time, what we’ve been focused on, we don’t think social is about building another web page for your company. It’s about having conversations with people who care about your brand.” For Spredfast, among other things, that means building a product that allows a larger group of people across the entire company to get involved in social media efforts, rather than a small, isolated team. (Features include audience targeting, social filters, shared calendars, and integration with other products for web analytics, social listening, ad optimization, and more.) The company says it works with more then 300 brands including General Mills, AT&T, and REI. The average customer has nearly 120 employees who are managing the social presence of “40 brands or initiatives across 200 accounts.” In addition to continued product development, Favaron said his goals for 2014 include international growth — he said that while Spredfast has customers in more than 20 companies, the team is entirely US-based, and that’s going to change. Favaron also suggested that the social marketing industry still has a lot of room to grow, and it sounds like he wants to keep Spredfast as an independent company to take advantage of that growth. “We wouldn’t go raise if we were thinking short term,” he said. “We’re obviously thinking long term.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

India May Relax E-Commerce Rules, Opening The Door Further For Amazon And Other Global Giants

As India prepares to reconsider the ban on foreign investments in the country’s e-commerce sector, two of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies — Amazon and eBay — are anxiously hoping to conquer what they refer to as their last frontier. India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) has put out a note inviting various stakeholders to share feedback on the existing regulations restricting foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail e-commerce. Sources at Amazon India and eBay’s operations in the country have told us that both the companies are aggressively preparing their pitches urging the policymakers to revoke the e-commerce ban. So far, both Amazon and eBay have had no choice but to operate as online marketplaces in India, limiting their ability to compete effectively with local rivals such as Flipkart. In the marketplace model, companies such as eBay do not own any inventory, or sell any of their own merchandise to Indian shoppers. They are only allowed to offer products from third-party sellers. In February 2013, Amazon’s global vice president, Paul Misener, had also met with an Indian trade minister, seeking amendments in the laws restricting e-commerce. This is what the Indian laws say on foreign investment in e-commerce: E-commerce activities refer to the activity of buying and selling by a company through the e-commerce platform. Such companies would engage only in Business to Business (B2B) e-commerce and not in retail trading, inter-alia implying that existing restrictions on FDI in domestic trading would be applicable to e-commerce as well. India’s nearly $3.1 billion e-commerce market (excluding online travel industry) is dwarfed in size by China’s nearly $200 billion market for online sales, but it’s expected to grow by over seven times to $22 billion in five years, according to a CLSA report published in November 2013. While existing regulations don’t allow foreign companies to run full e-commerce businesses in India, companies like eBay have become active investors in local startups that can. EBay beat Amazon and Wal-Mart in April 2013 to lead a $50 million funding round in Snapdeal. Meanwhile, Amazon started its India site in June 2013: it is based on marketplace model that does not engage in any kind of direct sales to comply with the local regulations. Up to now, the Indian government has kept companies like Amazon at bay as a kind of protectionist move, to encourage local business development. In September 2012, the Indian government allowed 100% foreign investment in single-brand retail, and up to 51% in multi-brand retail. However, the new policy excluded foreign investment norms in the country’s e-commerce sector. But today, India is struggling to cope with its slowest economic growth since 2005, and is increasingly seeking ways to attract more foreign investment. Wooing offline companies like Tesco — the world’s biggest retailer — was a part of this strategy; and now it appears that the state is ready to give online companies the same freedom to trade. However, in a bizarre move, the country has yet not okayed foreign investment in e-commerce despite allowing the same for offline retail operations of Wal-Mart and Tesco. The Business Standard newspaper reported on December 31 that India could actually allow FDI in e-commerce by April this year. To be sure, it’s not just Amazon and eBay praying anxiously for the current e-commerce ban to be lifted. Even Flipkart, India’s biggest e-commerce company, had to establish a separate subsidiary, Flipkart Holdings Singapore, to get around the Indian regulations. Flipkart also created WS Retail, a separate entity that owns and delivers over 90% of the products sold on its site. It’s not just US e-commerce giants that could stand to benefit if at all India allows foreign investment in the sector. China’s biggest e-commerce company Alibaba could benefit too. However, Alibaba has kept a low profile in India, and it intends to keep it that way. Since the beginning of 2010, venture capital worth $1.3 billion has been invested in Indian e-commerce startups. However, not every e-commerce startup in India has benefited from these investments. In 2013 alone, nearly 150 e-commerce startups in the country had to shut shop, with some 70-80% of those still around being in dire need of funds. By allowing foreign investments in e-commerce, India could trigger a fresh wave of excitement among the e-commerce startups and their investors waiting nervously for the exits. The question mark will be whether the government will manage to take such a bold decision ahead of the upcoming general elections later this year.

Uber’s Denial Of Liability In Girl’s Death Raises Accident Accountability Questions

A six-year old girl named Sophia Liu was tragically killed last night when an SUV driver confirmed to be an Uber-contracted driver struck her in a San Francisco crosswalk. Uber has essentially denied liability, noting in a statement that “this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system”. Uber’s insurance does not cover drivers between rides, but the accident raises questions of whether it should. Uber’s Denial Of Liability In Girl’s Death Raises Accident Insurance Questions The San Francisco Police Department told local news channel KTVU that just before 8pm on New Year’s Eve, a mother and her two young children, Sophia and her brother, were crossing the street at Polk and Ellis in SF’s Tenderloin district. Supervisor Jane Kim said an SUV driver that Uber confirms was one of their contractors turned right into the crosswalk without yielding to the pedestrians who had the green light, and struck the entire family. Sophia was brought to SF General Hospital where she sadly passed away. Sophia’s brother is expected to survive but her mother was recently listed in critical condition due to life threatening injuries from the accident. Above in a screenpic from KTVU’s coverage, you can see the grey Honda Pilot vehicle in the crosswalk at Polk and Ellis.
Uber-contracted driver Syed Muzzafar involved in fatal acciddent Officer Gordon Shyy tells SFAppeal that the driver was 57-year old Union City man Syed Muzzafar. Muzzafar stayed on the scene and was cooperative with police. He was later arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter. The SF Superior Court told VentureBeat that Muzzafar posted $300,100 for bail yesterday, and will return to court on January 7. Uber posted a “Statement On New Year’s Eve Accident” on its blog, offering condolences to the victim and her family, but also distancing itself from any cuplability: “Our hearts go out to the family and victims of the accident that occurred in downtown San Francisco last night. We work with transportation providers across the Bay Area, but we can confirm that this tragedy did not involve a vehicle or provider doing a trip on the Uber system. Our policy is to immediately deactivate any Uber partner involved in a serious law enforcement matter. For that reason, we urge the police to release information about the driver in question as soon as possible. If the driver is a partner of Uber, his or her Uber account will immediately be deactivated. UPDATE: We thank law enforcement for the quick release of information. We can confirm that the driver in question was a partner of Uber and that we have deactivated his Uber account. The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident. We again extend our deepest condolences to the family and victims of this tragic accident. The statement implies that Uber is not liable for the accident as it did not occur during an official Uber ride. It may have occurred either between Uber rides, when the driver was on his way to start giving rides, on his way home or to another personal destination, or providing a ride not booked through Uber. Uber typically requires drivers to buy their own commercial car insurance, and provides an additional $1 million in insurance above and beyond the driver’s. But in California, the Public Utilities Commission has given Uber permission not to require drivers to have commercial insurance. Either way, since this accident didn’t occur during an active ride, it’s not eligible to be covered by Uber’s insurance. Muzzafar may be covered by additional insurance from a third-party car fleet operator if he rented the SUV.
Scene of the accident, from Google Street View. The arrow marks the location of Muzzafar’s vehicle