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Opal raises $4.3 million for its ‘digital well-being’ assistant for iPhone

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Many people want to develop better screen-time habits, but don’t have a good set of tools to do so. A new startup, Opal, aims to help. The company, now backed by $4.3 million in seed funding, has developed a digital well-being assistant for iOS that allows you to block distracting websites and apps, set schedules around app usage, lock down apps for stricter and more focused quiet periods, and more.

The service works by way of a VPN system that limits your access to apps and sites. But unlike some VPNs on the market, Opal is committed to not collecting any personal data on its users or their private browsing data. Instead, its business model is based on paid subscriptions, not selling user data, it says.

Timed with its public debut, Opal also today announced its initial financing in a round led by Nicolas Wittenborn at Adjacent, a mobile-focused VC fund. Other investors included Harry Stebbings, Steve Schlafman, Alex Zubillaga, Kevin Carter, Thibaud Elziere, Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve, Alban Denoyel, Isai, Secocha Ventures, Speedinvest, and others.

Image Credits: Opal, founder Kenneth Schlenker

The idea for Opal comes from Paris-based Kenneth Schlenker, a longtime technologist who previously founded and sold an art marketplace startup ArtList and later led mobility company Bird’s expansion in France.

Schlenker, who grew up in a small, quiet village in the Alps, says he got into technology at a young age.

“I sort of got obsessed, like many of us, by the potential of technology and its amazing power of attraction — making connections, learning new things, all sorts of incredible opportunities,” he explains. “But I’ve then spent the last 10 years and more trying to seek a balance between this need for connection and this need for disconnection.”

In more recent years, Schlenker came to realize that others were having the same problem, including those outside the tech industry. That drove him to build Opal, with the goal of helping people better achieve balance in their lives so they could reconnect with loved ones, spend time in nature or just generally go offline to focus on other areas of their lives.

At a basic level, Opal’s VPN allows users to block themselves from using dozens of distracting apps and sites for certain periods of time, including social media, news, productivity apps and more.

Social media, in particular, has been a huge problem in recent years, Schlenker says.

“In particular, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — social media is where you feel like you’re learning something, and you feel like you’re connecting with people. So it’s good. But on the other hand, it’s very hard to stay intentional,” he explains. “It’s okay to pick up your phone and go to Instagram, but when you ‘wake up’ 30 minutes later, you usually feel really bad. You feel like, ‘where’s the time gone?’, ‘what did I just do?,’ ” he says.

Opal addresses this problem through a handful of features.

Image Credits: Opal

The free service allows you to block distracting websites and apps and take breaks throughout the day. By upgrading to the paid membership, Opal users can schedule time off from apps to establish recurring downtimes — whether that’s for family dinners or working hours, or anything else. They also can use a more extreme version of this feature called Focus Mode, which locks you out of apps in a way that’s not cancelable.

While the company is using a VPN to make this system work, it’s being transparent and straightforward about its data collection practices.

“There is zero private browsing data that leaves your phone,” Schlenker insists. “Anything you do on your phone outside of Opal’s app stays local on your phone and is never stored on any of our servers or any other servers. That’s very important to us,” he says.

From inside Opal’s app, the company claims it only collects usability and crash information — not browsing data. And the usability data is completely anonymized for another layer of privacy. Opal also doesn’t require an email to begin using the app. It only asks for one if you choose to pay.

Image Credits: Opal

 

These core principles are also documented on Opal’s privacy page, and are why Schlenker believes his app won’t face the challenges that other screen-time apps on the App Store have experienced in the past.

As you may recall, Apple cracked down on the screen time app industry a couple of years ago — a move Apple said was focused on protecting user privacy, but has also been raised as a possible example of anticompetitive behavior. Many of the apps at the time had been using techniques Apple claimed put consumers’ privacy and security at risk, as they gave third-parties elevated access to users’ devices. This was particularly concerning because many of the impacted apps were marketed as parental control services — meaning the end users were often children.

Opal, meanwhile, is targeting adults, and perhaps teenagers, who want to develop better screen-time habits. It is not selling this as a parental control system, however.

Image Credits: Opal

At launch, Opal can block over 100 apps and sites across several categories, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, Gmail, Outlook, Slack, Robinhood, WhatsApp, WeChat and others, including those in the news, adult and gambling categories.

Users can choose to block the apps for short breaks — 5, 10 or 60 minutes — throughout the day. You can also set an intention and set a timer before using an app, to help you avoid the issue of losing track of time. And you can set focus timers or scheduled times to automatically shut off app usage.

You can track your progress by viewing the “time saved” and you can share your successes across social media. In time, Schlenker plans to add more of a scoring mechanism to Opal that will help you stay accountable to your original goals.

Image Credits: Opal

Though work on the app only began in 2020, Opal began attracting attention as it publicized its plans on Twitter and ran its private beta, which grew from hundreds to thousands of users this year, saving its users an average of two hours per day.

Though Schlenker had connections with many of the angel investors who have since backed Opal, he says the interest from institutional and larger investors was all inbound.

“It was not our intention to raise so much, so early,” Schlenker notes.

The funds will be used to help Opal grow its team, particularly engineering, design as well as product. The company will also soon launch a version of Opal for Chrome and later, Android, and will experiment with more social features around sharing and hosting group sessions.

The app is currently a free download on the App Store with an optional $59.99/year subscription plan.

 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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EV rivals Tesla, Rivian unite to target direct sales legislation

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Tesla, Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Lucid Motors — potential rivals in the burgeoning EV market — are working together to pass laws that would allow direct sales in at least eight states with another batch of proposed legislation likely being introduced this year.

Passage of such legislation would clear the way for EV giants like Tesla, along with newcomers Lucid and Rivian, which have yet to bring a vehicle to market, to sell directly to consumers. However, Tesla’s cooperation could also cost the company its monopoly on direct sales in some states.

Tesla and a growing number of new EV companies have a different business model than legacy automakers like GM, Ford and Stellantis. Tesla sells vehicles through their own branded stores — similar to how Apple sells its products — and do not have franchised dealerships. The direct sales model has attracted the ire of auto dealers, who benefit from long-established rules in all 50 states that prevent manufacturers with existing franchisees from opening their own dealerships to compete with them. Tesla and other allies argue that because they don’t have franchise dealers, they should be allowed to sell directly to consumers.

“We support our other EV-only manufacturers and their desires to sell direct-to-consumers, to invest, to create jobs and to do that unfettered as we are allowed,” Thad Kurowski, senior policy manager at Tesla, said while testifying in the state of Washington during the House’s Consumer Protection and Business Committee. Washington is one of many states where such legislation is being considered. Tesla has six retail locations in the state.

Similar legislation is being considered in Connecticut, Nebraska, Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Some of these states ban all EV manufacturers from directly selling to customers; some only permit Tesla, at the exclusion of other companies, but cap the number of retail stores it can open.

It’s a rare moment of cooperation for EV manufacturers, companies that must contend not only with each other but with legacy automakers for market share. Relations between the companies have not always been so copacetic: Tesla last July filed a lawsuit against Rivian alleging theft of trade secrets and talent poaching. Rivian responded that two of the three claims in the case were nothing more than an attempt to smear its reputation.

Tesla is a veteran of battles with state legislatures over direct sales. At least a dozen states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah have reversed bans that prevented Tesla from selling directly to consumers either through new legislation or via the courts.

Michigan, home to major automakers GM and Ford, has been a longtime battleground.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in 2014 that was initiated and backed by the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, banning Tesla from selling directly to consumers in the state. Two years later, Tesla sued the state of Michigan when it denied Tesla a dealership license. The Michigan Legislature last December considered a bill that would have banned all direct sales except for Tesla, an arrangement that allowed the automaker to deliver cars to customers, so long as the vehicle sale and title transfer didn’t occur in the state. That special exception for Tesla was removed from the proposed legislation, a move that would have threatened what little progress it had in the state. At the end, though, the legislation died, leaving Tesla’s arrangement intact.

Lucid is leading the charge in some states where direct sales legislation is being considered, according to Daniel Witt, who worked at Tesla before joining the new EV entrant as a public policy lead. Witt emphasized the bills are the result of efforts from the coalition of EV companies, grassroots lobbying from EV owners and EV enthusiasts and consumer groups. The legislation has also found support from environmental and clean energy groups, which argue that consumer choice and ease of access are key to helping people transition away from internal combustion engine cars.

“Any situation where the door got closed behind Tesla was not a matter of trying to gain a market advantage so much as it was just a product of the negotiations in a given legislature,” Witt said. “By and large, whether it’s New York, or Washington or Connecticut, we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said franchised dealers support the transition toward zero-emission vehicles and want to sell them at their locations. But it said the direct sale bill is a “battle of Main Street vs. Wall Street.”

“Electric vehicle manufacturers perpetuate [the] myth of the middleman when the reality is that they would bear the same costs if they built their own stores, but would ship their revenue to their billionaire investors out of state after the sale is made instead of reinvesting in the community,” the group said.

The organization pointed out that Rivian has garnered $500 million in funding from Ford.

“What would stop Ford from abandoning its dealer network, and shifting the profits dealers generate for the company out of Ford and into greater ownership of Rivian? Or GM from spinning off an EV subsidiary?” the group said in its statement.

EV manufacturers have a long legislative road ahead of them. Bills generally must clear legislative committees and receive majority votes from both the House and Senate before being sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

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Netflix launches ‘Fast Laughs,’ a TikTok-like feed of funny videos

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Late last year, Netflix began experimenting with a new TikTok-like feed of funny videos inside its mobile app, which it called “Fast Laughs.” Today, the company announced the new feature is now rolling out on iOS, allowing users to watch, react, or share the short clips as well as add the show or movie to your Netflix watchlist. You can also push a “Play” button to start watching the program immediately.

At launch, the feature will include short clips from Netflix’s comedy catalog, including films like “Murder Mystery,” series like “Big Mouth,” sitcoms like “The Crew,” as well as snippets from stand-up comedians like Kevin Hart and Ali Wong.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the feature will tap into its full catalog, not just its own original programs. However, the company couldn’t says how many total shows or movies would be featured in the new experience.

Image Credits: Netflix

The new feature has been given prominent placement in the Netflix app, where it’s accessible from the bottom navigation menu on its own tab, next to “Coming Soon.” This is no small experiment, then — but rather an indication of how successful the early tests of the “Fast Laughs” feature must have been in terms of engaging users and connecting them to Netflix content.

This is not the first time Netflix has borrowed concepts from social media to help users discover new shows or movies to watch in its app. A few years ago, Netflix introduced its own short-form video “Stories” feature, called Previews, for example. But times have changed. Now users are drawn to short-form vertical video feeds, like those popularized by TikTok.

Image Credits: Netflix

“Fast Laughs” heavily borrows from the TikTok format, as its feed also features full-screen videos that you can swipe through vertically, and places the engagement buttons on the right side of the screen. These buttons let you react with an “LOL” (crying/laughing) emoji to the clip or share it via iMessage or social media apps, like WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. You can also start watch the show immediately or save it for later viewing by adding it to “My List.”

During tests, “Fast Laughs” clips ranged in length anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds. Today, Netflix says there’s no exact clip length for these video snippets.

Image Credits: Netflix

The company is positioning the feature as a discovery tool.

“We wanted to give members a fun, fast, and intuitive way to discover our catalog by letting these comedic moments across genres speak for themselves in a mobile-native, full screen experience,” said Product Designer Kim Ho, previously worked on product design at both Facebook, Instacart, and Coin. “We worked hard to cut to just what was necessary in an intentional and minimalist UI design, from the transparent tab bar to ways to react in the moment (‘LOL’) and plan their next laugh by adding to their list,” she added.

But though “Fast Laughs” is focused on finding new things to watch, the feature could, in fact, help Netflix compete with TikTok in terms of time spent on mobile devices, as it caters to the growing demand for shorter, more “snackable” video content.

Netflix says the feature is rolling out now to iOS and will begin testing on Android in the months to come.

 

 

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First impressions of AppLovin’s IPO filing

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AppLovin released its S-1 filing yesterday, bringing the Palo Alto-based mobile app-focused software company a step closer to joining the public markets.

The business results detailed in the document are generally impressive. While some companies going public in recent months have detailed pandemic-fueled growth to lean against or membership in a sector hotter than individual results, AppLovin’s filing tells the story of a rapidly growing company that has managed to scale adjusted profit as it has grown.

And now, with annual revenue north of $1 billion, AppLovin is also a very large company, meaning that its IPO will be widely watched.


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


So this morning we’re rifling through its IPO filing and yanking out what matters as we add one more name to our IPO lists.

The Exchange has a lengthy list of non-IPO topics that we’d like to get to. If everyone could stop going public for a few days, we’d love to write about something else! OK, let’s get into it!

Most of the news is good

As a short introduction, the company’s products are designed to help developers find users and monetize their apps. And AppLovin has its own in-house suite of mobile apps, what its S-1 calls a “globally diversified portfolio of over 200 free-to-play mobile games run by 12 studios.” Those apps have 32 million global daily actives, the document added.

It’s a pretty neat company to dig into if you’re into mobile apps at all. Regardless, what we care about today are its numbers. So let’s talk growth, revenue quality, profits, cash consumption and capital structure. Most of the news is good, even if there are some downsides to AppLovin’s capital structure.

Recall that KKR bought a chunk of AppLovin back in mid-2018 at a valuation of around $2 billion. That number appears comically low, given that the company posted $483.4 million in revenue that year, a figure that it roughly doubled in 2019 to $994.1 million. Growth slowed in percentage terms in 2020, when AppLovin saw total revenues of $1.45 billion, though the company managed similar growth in gross-dollar terms.

In percentage terms, AppLovin grew 106% from 2018 to 2019, and 46% from 2019 to 2020. How KKR got to buy into the company at 4x revenues when it was growing at 100% is not clear.

The company is growing well, but is AppLovin accreting revenue of high quality? Yes, but we need to scrape some grime off the numbers to understand them. Turning to the company’s yearly results, AppLovin’s cost of revenue rose steadily as a percentage of revenue from 2018 to 2020. Indeed, the numbers went from 11% in 2018 to 24% in 2019 and 38% in 2020. That’s an awful progression, and if we lacked more information we’d posit that the company’s overall revenue quality was sharply declining.

It’s not that bad. There’s about $1 million in share-based compensation inside the 2020 cost of revenue figure and $228.3 million of “amortization expense related to acquired intangibles.” If we yank out those from the cost-of-revenue line item, AppLovin’s gross margin for 2020 grows from 62% to 77.5%. That’s much better.

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