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Charlie launches a mobile app that ‘gamifies’ getting out of debt

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Charlie, a personal finance app that began as a chatbot, is relaunching today with a revamped experience focused on the larger goal of helping everyday Americans get out of debt. To do so, Charlie presents users with a full picture of their current debt and how long it will take them to pay it off. Users then connect their bank account to Charlie for personalized assistance in reducing their bills. It also “gamifies” saving money to make the process of setting money aside for paying down debt more fun.

According to Charlie CEO Ilian Georgiev, the idea to turn saving into more of game arose from his prior experience in the mobile gaming industry. At a company called Pocket Gems, he helped scale apps that generated millions of dollars in revenue growth from across millions of users.

Image Credits: Charlie; CEO and co-founder Ilian Georgiev

“A really well-designed mobile game gets people to obsessively manage a virtual economy,” he explains. “And what I was curious about was how do we get people to do better in the real-world economy by using the same kind of tools?”

To help on that front, Charlie’s team includes people with backgrounds in not only computer science and engineering, but also in psychology. Using similar psychological tricks as found in gaming — rules, progress bars and reward mechanisms — the app helps nudge its users towards saving.

The original version of the Charlie app, launched in 2016, worked a little differently, however. It would analyze transaction data to look for areas where the user could improve their finances. It also worked over texting and through Facebook Messenger — platforms Charlie adopted with the idea that users needed a simpler way to connect with their finances.

“But the thing that we kept hearing over and over again, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is that the biggest concern that our users had is ‘how do I get out of debt? So then we said, instead of casting this really wide net…let’s laser focus on this one particular problem,” says Georgiev.

Today, the chatbot still lives on as a feature inside the new Charlie app, but it’s not the core experience.

Image Credits: Charlie

Instead, users begin by providing the app with information about their debt. Georgiev stresses that many Americans often know their debt down to the penny — whether that’s how much they have left on student loans, how much left on their car, how much credit card debt they have, and so on.

The app then calculates how long it would take to pay off this debt if you only made minimum payments. This number helps shock people into action, as they’ll often discover they’re going to be in debt for another 40 or 50 years.

“For most users, that’s an epiphany because they’ve never seen these numbers before, and the math required — even if you do it in Excel — the math required to figure that out is beyond most people,” Georgiev says.

The app then encourages users to learn how they can reduce the time it would take them to get out of debt by paying more than the minimums. By clicking a button, they can visualize the what happens if you pay, for example, $20 or $50 more per month.

The final step is to help users find that extra cash. In part, this may come from savings the app locates on users’ behalf. But it also comes from the money-saving “game.”

Charlie helps users create autosave rules which, when applied, auto-transfer money from the user’s connected bank account to Charlie’s digital wallet (an account held at partner bank, Evolve). These can be fun rules or even sort of ridiculous ones. For example, you could create “Guilty Pleasures” rules where Charlie will put away 10% every time you eat McDonalds, or it could save $1 for you every time a contestant on “The Bachelor” says they’re “here for the right reasons.”

Image Credits: Charlie

As those rules apply, money is saved and a little progress bar fills. The app rewards you with rainbow confetti as you achieve, also similar to some mobile gaming experiences.

At the end of the month, the user can take that saved money to make a larger payment towards their debt. Currently, Charlie doesn’t manage the bill pay aspects itself — which is a limitation. You have to transfer the funds back to your bank. But a bill pay feature is due to arrive in a couple’ months time, we’re told.

Later this year, Charlie plans to offer debt refinancing services to users. In this case, the team believes they can give the users lower interest rates because Charlie users will have proven, through their use of the app, that they’re lower risk.

Further down the road, Charlie aims to move more into neobank territory by issuing a debit card to users that works with users’ Charlie account. To differentiate from the growing number of neobanks, Charlie will continue to focus on paying down debt and savings.

Georgiev notes that the app’s business model is not built around user data collection, however. Data that’s ingested is sanitized and encrypted, and the app has a strict privacy policy. Plus, Charlie mainly helps people save money, but those funds are actually stored with a partner bank, not in Charlie itself. And because it’s involved in the act of moving money, it has to adhere to regulations around security and fraud prevention.

Today, Charlie charges a $4.99 per month subscription, which the company aims to make up for by helping people reduce their larger debt loads more quickly. However, even that small amount could give money-sensitive users pause, despite Charlie’s perks and successes.

To date, Charlie has registered a half million users for its older chatbot experience. It hopes to now grow that figure with its new tools.

The app is available on iOS and Android.

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

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Freemium isn’t a trend — it’s the future of SaaS

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As the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded around the world last spring, companies large and small saw demand slow to a halt seemingly overnight. Enterprises weren’t comfortable making big, long-term commitments when they had no clue what the future would hold.

Innovative SaaS companies responded quickly by making their products available for free or at a steep discount to boost demand.

While Zoom gets all the attention, there were hundreds of free SaaS tools to help folks through the pandemic. Pluralsight ran a #FreeApril campaign, offering free access to its platform for all of April. Cloudflare made its Teams product free from March until September 1, 2020. GitHub went free for teams in April and slashed the price of its paid Team plan.

A selection of new free, free trial and low-priced offerings from leading SaaS companies. Image Credits: Kyle Poyar/OpenView.

The free products were aimed squarely at end users — whether it be a developer, individual marketer, sales rep or someone else at the edge of an organization. These end users were stuck at home during the pandemic, yet they desperately needed software to power their working lives.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them. Many end users want to jump straight into a product, no hassle or credit card or budget approval required.

After they’ve set up an account and customized it for their workflow, end users have essentially already made a purchase decision with their time — all without ever feeling like they were in an active buying cycle.

An end user-focused free offering became an essential SaaS survival strategy in 2020.

But these free offerings didn’t go away as lockdowns loosened up. SaaS companies instead doubled down on freemium because they realized that doing so had a real and positive impact on their business. In doing so, they busted the outdated myths that have held 82% of SaaS companies back from offering their own free plan.

Myth: A free offering will cannibalize paying customers

GoDaddy is a digital behemoth, known for being a ’90s-era pioneer in web domains as well as for their controversial Super Bowl ads. The company has steadily diversified into business software, now generating roughly $700 million in ARR from its business applications segment and reaching millions of paying customers. There are very few businesses that would see greater potential revenue cannibalization from launching a free product than GoDaddy.

But GoDaddy didn’t let fear stop them from testing freemium when lockdowns set in. Freemium started out as a small-scale experiment in spring 2020 for the websites and marketing product. GoDaddy has since increased the experiment to 50% of U.S. website traffic, with plans to scale to 100% of U.S. traffic and open availability to other markets in 2021.

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Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

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This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

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Snap to launch a new Creator Marketplace this month, initially focused on Lens Creators

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Snap on Wednesday announced its plan to soon launch a Creator Marketplace, which will make it easier for businesses to find and partner with Snapchat creators, including Lens creators, AR creators and later, prominent Snapchat creators known as Snap Stars. At launch, the marketplace will focus on connecting brands and AR creators for AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022.

The company had previously helped connect its creator community with advertisers through its Snapchat Storytellers program, which first launched into pilot testing in 2018 — already a late arrival to the space. However, that program’s focus was similar to Facebook’s Brand Collabs Manager, as it focused on helping businesses find Snap creators who could produce video content.

Snap’s new marketplace, meanwhile, has a broader focus in terms of connecting all sorts of creators with the Snap advertising ecosystem. This includes Lens Creators, Developers and Partners, and then later, Snap’s popular creators with public profiles.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will open to businesses later this month to help them partner with a select group of AR Creators in Snap’s Lens Network. These creators can help businesses build AR experiences without the need for extensive creative resources, which makes access to Snap’s AR ads more accessible to businesses, including smaller businesses without in-house developer talent.

Lens creators have already found opportunity working for businesses that want to grow their Snapchat presence — even allowing some creators to quit their day jobs and just build Lenses for a living. Snap has been further investing in this area of its business, having announced in December a $3.5 million fund directed toward AR Lens creation. The company said at the time there were tens of thousands of Lens creators who had collectively made over 1.5 million Lenses to date.

Using Lenses has grown more popular, too, the company had noted, saying that more than 180 million people interact with a Snapchat Lens every day — up from 70 million daily active users of Lenses when the Lens Explorer section first launched in the app in 2018.

Now, Snap says that over 200 million Snapchat users interact with augmented reality on a daily basis, on average, out of its 280 million daily users. The majority (over 90%) of these users are 13 to 25-year-olds. In total, users are posting over 5 billion Snaps per day.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will remain focused on connecting businesses with AR Lens Creators throughout 2021.

The following year, it will expand to include the community of professional creators and storytellers who understand the current trends and interests of the Snap user base and can help businesses with their ad campaigns. The company will not take a cut of the deals facilitated through the Marketplace, it says.

This would include the creators making content for Snap’s new TikTok rival, Spotlight, which launched in November 2020. Snap encouraged adoption of the feature by shelling out $1 million per day to creators of top videos. In March 2021, over 125 million Snapchat users watched Spotlight, it says.

Image Credits: Snapchat

Spotlight isn’t the only way Snap is challenging TikTok.

The company also on Wednesday announced it’s snagging two of TikTok’s biggest stars for its upcoming Snap Originals lineup: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio. The siblings, who have gained over 20 million follows on Snapchat this past year, will star in the series “Charli vs. Dixie.” Other new Originals will feature names like artist Megan Thee Stallion, actor Ryan Reynolds, twins and influencers Niki and Gabi DeMartino, and YouTube beauty vlogger Manny Mua, among others.

Snap’s shows were watched by over 400 million people in 2020, including 93% of the Gen Z population in the U.S., it noted.

 

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