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YC-backed Blabla raises $1.5M to teach English through short videos

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Short, snappy, entertaining videos have become an increasingly common way for young people to receive information. Why not learn English through TikTok-like videos too? That was what prompted Angelo Huang to launch Blabla.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang relocated to Shanghai in 2019 to start Blabla after working in Silicon Valley for over a decade. A year later, Blabla was chosen as part of Y Combinator’s 2020 summer cohort. The coronavirus had begun to spread in the U.S. at the time, keeping millions at home, and interest in remote learning was reviving.

“It was my eighth time applying to YC,” Huang, who founded two companies before Blabla, told TechCrunch during an interview.

This week, Blabla announced it has raised $1.54 million in a seed round led by Amino Capital, Starling Ventures, Y Combinator, and Wayra X, the innovation arm of the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. While Y Combinator wasn’t particularly instrumental in Blabla’s expansion in China — one of the biggest English-learning markets — the famed accelerator was of great help introducing investors to the young company, said the founder.

The Blabla app pays native English speakers by the hour to create short, engaging videos tailored to English-learning students around the world. The content creators are aided by Blabla’s proprietary software that can recognize and tag their scenes, as well as third-party translation tools that can subtitle their videos. The students, in turn, pay a subscription fee to receive personalized video recommendations based on their level of proficiency. They can practice through the app’s built-in speech recognition, among other features like speaking contests and pop quizzes.

The startup is in a highly crowded space. In China, the online English-learning market is occupied by established companies like VIPKID, which is backed by Tencent and Sequoia Capital. Compared to VIPKID’s one-on-one tutoring model, Blabla is more affordable with its starting price of 39 yuan ($6) a month, Huang noted.

“The students [on mainstream English learning apps] might have to spend several thousands of RMB before they can have a meaningful conversation with their teachers. We instead recycle our videos and are able to offer lessons at much cheaper prices.”

The app has about 11,000 weekly users and 300-400 paid users at the moment, with 80-90% of its total users coming from China; the goal for this year is to reach 300,000 students. The funding will allow Blabla to expand in Southeast Asia and Latin America while Wayra X can potentially help it scale to Telefónica’s 340 million global users. It will be seeking brand deals with influencers on the likes of TikTok and Youtube. The new capital will also enable BlaBla to add new features, such as pairing up language learners based on their interests and profiles.

Blabla doesn’t limit itself to teaching English and has ambitions to bring in teachers of other languages. “We want to be a global online pay-for-knowledge platform,” said Huang.

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Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Buzzy live voice chat app Clubhouse has confirmed that it has raised new funding – without revealing how much – in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz through the firm’s partner Andrew Chen. The app was reported to be raising at a $1 billion valuation in a report from The Information that landed just before this confirmation. While we try to track down the actual value of this round and the subsequent valuation of the company, what we do know is that Clubhouse has confirmed it will be introducing products to help creators on the platform get played, including subscriptions, tipping and ticket sales.

This funding round will also support a ‘Creator Grant Program’ being set up by Clubhouse, which will be used to “support emerging Clubhouse creators” according to the startup’s blog post. While the app has done a remarkable job attracting creator talent, including high-profile celebrity and political users, directing revenue towards creators will definitely help spur sustained interest, as well as more time and investment from new creators who are potentially looking to make a name for themselves on the platform, similar to YouTube and TikTok influencers before them.

Of course, adding monetization for users also introduces a method for Clubhouse itself to monetize. The platform is free to all users, and doesn’t yet offer any kind of premium plan or method of charging users, nor is it ad-supported. Adding ways for users to pay other users provides an opportunity for Clubhouse to retain a cut for its services.

The plans around monetization routes for creators appear to be relatively open-ended at this point, with Clubhouse saying it’ll be launching “first tests” around each of the three areas it mentions (tipping, tickets and subscriptions) over the “next few months.” It sounds like these could be similar to something like a Patreon built right into the platform. Tickets are a unique option that would go well with Clubhouse’s more formal roundtable discussions, and could also be a way that more organizations make use of the platform for hosting virtual events.

The startup also announced that it will be starting work on its Android app (it’s been iOS only for now) and that it will also invest in more backend scaling to keep up with demand, as well as support team growth and tools for detecting and prevuing abuse. Clubhouse has come under fire for its failure in regards to moderation and prevention of abuse in the past, so this aspect of its product development will likely be closely watched. The platform will also see changes to discovery aimed at surfacing relevant users, groups (‘clubs’ in the app’s parlance) and rooms.

During a regular virtual town hall the app’s founders host on the platform, CEO Paul Davison revealed that Clubhouse now has 2 million weekly active users. It’s also worth noting that Clubhouse says it now has “over 180 investors” in the company, which is a lot for a Series B – though many of those are likely small, independent investors with very little stake.

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SpaceX sets new record for most satellites on a single launch with latest Falcon 9 mission

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SpaceX has set a new all-time record for the most satellites launched and deployed on a single mission, with its Transporter-1 flight on Sunday. The launch was the first of SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions, in which it splits up the payload capacity of its rocket among multiple customers, resulting in a reduced cost for each but still providing SpaceX with a full launch and all the revenue it requires to justify lauding one of its vehicles.

The launch today included 143 satellites, 133 of which were from other companies who booked rides. SpaceX also launched 10 of its own Starlink satellites, adding to the already more than 1,000 already sent to orbit to power SpaceX’s own broadband communication network. During a launch broadcast last week, SpaceX revealed that it has begun serving beta customers in Canada and is expanding to the UK with its private pre-launch test of that service.

Customers on today’s launch included Planet Labs, which sent up 48 SuperDove Earth imaging satellites; Swarm, which sent up 36 of its own tiny IoT communications satellites, and Kepler, which added to its constellation with eight more of its own communication spacecraft. The rideshare model that SpaceX now has in place should help smaller new space companies and startups like these build out their operational on-orbit constellations faster, complementing other small payload launchers like Rocket Lab, and new entrant Virgin Orbit, to name a few.

This SpaceX launch was also the first to deliver Starlink satellites to a polar orbit, which is a key part of the company’s continued expansion of its broadband service. The mission also included a successful landing and recovery of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster, the fifth for this particular booster, and a dual recovery of the fairing halves used to protect the cargo during launch, which were fished out of the Atlantic ocean using its recovery vessels and will be refurbished and reused.

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Watch SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare rocket launch live, carrying a record-breaking payload of satellites

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SpaceX is set to launch the very first of its dedicated rideshare missions – an offering it introduced in 2019 that allows small satellite operators to book a portion of a payload on a Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX’s rocket has a relatively high payload capacity compared to the size of many of the small satellites produced today, so a rideshare mission like this offers smaller companies and startups a chance to get their spacecraft in orbit without breaking the bank. Today’s attempt is scheduled for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) after a first try yesterday was cancelled due to weather. So far, weather looks much better for today.

The cargo capsule atop the Falcon 9 flying today holds a total of 143 satellites according to SpaceX, which is a new record for the highest number of satellites being launched on a single rocket – beating out a payload of 104 spacecraft delivered by Indian Space Research Organization’s PSLV-C37 launch back in February 2017. It’ll be a key demonstration not only of SpaceX’s rideshare capabilities, but also of the complex coordination involved in a launch that includes deployment of multiple payloads into different target orbits in relatively quick succession.

This launch will be closely watched in particular for its handling of orbital traffic management, since it definitely heralds what the future of private space launches could look like in terms of volume of activity. Some of the satellites flying on this mission are not much larger than an iPad, so industry experts will be paying close attention to how they’re deployed and tracked to avoid any potential conflicts.

Some of the payloads being launched today include significant volumes of startup spacecraft, including 36 of Swarm’s tiny IoT network satellites, and eight of Kepler’s GEN-1 communications satellites. There are also 10 of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites on board, and 48 of Planet Labs’ Earth-imaging spacecraft.

The launch stream above should begin around 15 minutes prior to the mission start, which is set for 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) today.

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