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Why these co-founders turned their sustainability podcast into a VC-backed business

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When Laura Wittig and Liza Moiseeva met as guests on a podcast about sustainable fashion, they jibed so well together that they began one of their own: Good Together. Their show’s goal was to provide listeners with a place to learn how to be eco-conscious consumers, but with baby steps.

Wittig thinks the non-judgmental environment (one that doesn’t knock on a consumer for not being zero-waste overnight) is the show’s biggest differentiator. “Then, people were emailing us and asking how they can be on our journey beyond being a listener,” Wittig said. Now, over a year after launching the show, the co-hosts are turning validation from listeners into the blueprint for a standalone business: Brightly.

Brightly is a curated platform that sells vetted eco-friendly goods and shares tips about conscious consumerism. While the startup is launching with more than 200 products from eco-friendly brands, such as Sheets & Giggles and Juice Beauty, the long-term vision is to start their own commerce brand of Brightly-branded products. The starting lineup will include two to four products in the home space.

To get those products out by the holiday season, Brightly tells TechCrunch that it has raised $1 million in venture funding from investors, including Tacoma Venture Fund, Keeler Investments, Odile Roujol (a FAB Ventures backer and former L’Oréal CEO) and Female Founder’s Alliance.

The funding caps off a busy 12 months for Brightly. The startup has gone through Snap’s Yellow accelerator, an in-house effort from the social media company that began in 2018. As part of the program Snap invests $150,000 in each Yellow startup for an equity stake. The company also did Ready Set Raise, an equity-free accelerator put on by Female Founders Alliance, in the fall.

With new funding, Brightly is seeking to take a Glossier-style approach to become the next big brand in commerce: gather a community by recommending great products, then turn the strategy on its head and make your superfans buy in-house products under the same brand.

“We have access to a community of women who are beating our door down to shop directly with us and have exclusive products made for them,” Wittig said.

Brightly wants to be more than a “boring storefront” one could quickly whip up on Shopify or Amazon, Wittig says.

The company’s curation process, which every product goes through before being listed on the platform, is extensive. The startup makes sure that every product is created with sustainable and ethical supply chain processes and sustainable material. The team also interviews every brand’s founders to understand the genesis of any product that lives on the Brightly platform. The co-founders also weigh the durability and longevity of products, adopting what Wittig sees as a “Wirecutter approach.”

“It’s more like, ‘why would we pick an ethically produced leather handbag over something that might be made not from leather but wouldn’t last too long necessarily,’ ” she said. “These are the conversations we have with our audience, because the term eco-friendly is very much our grayscale.”

Image Credits: Brightly

More than 250,000 people come to Brightly, either through their app or website, every day, according to Wittig. The startup monetizes largely through brand partnerships and getting those users in front of paid products.

Image Credits: Brightly

The monetization strategy is similar to what you might find a podcast use: affiliate links or product placement mid-episode. But while the co-founders are relying on this strategy right now, they see the opportunity to create their own e-commerce company as larger and more lucrative.

“The billion-dollar opportunity is not with that,” Wittig said. “The value will be going direct commerce and selling our picks of ethical sustainable goods.”

Marking the transition from podcasting about eco-friendly goods to creating them in-house is a strong pivot. The co-founders consider creating a distribution commerce channel to be a larger opportunity and likely more lucrative than the podcasting business.

Beyond creating a line of their own products, Brightly is thinking about how to partner with white-label sustainable products. Another option, Wittig said, is to partner with big corporations to get products on their shelves with colors and customization for Brightly. An example of an ideal partnership would be Reformation’s recent partnership with Blueland.

Wittig declined to share more details on how they plan to win, but likened the strategy to that of Goop or Glossier, two companies that started with content arms and drew their community into a commerce platform.

“It’s not going to be a Thrive Market where there are hundreds and thousands of sustainable goods on there. It’s going to be much more curated,” she said.

COVID-19 has helped the startup further validate the need for a platform that unites a conscious consumer community.

“We are all so aware of the purchasing power we have,” she said. “As consumers we go out and support small businesses by getting coffee on the go. But before, we did not think twice about getting everything from Amazon.”

The conversation with investors hasn’t been as simple, the co-founder said. Investors continue to be “hands off” about community-based platforms because they are unsure it will work. Wittig says that many bearish investors have placed bets on singular direct-to-consumer brands, such as Away or Blueland.

“Those investors know the rising costs of customer acquisition, and see what happens when you don’t have a community that surrounds our business,” she said.

Brightly is betting that the future of commerce brands has to start with a go-to-market, and then bring in the end-product, instead of the other way. The end goal here for Brightly is attracting, and generating excitement from, Gen Z and millennial shoppers. To do so, Wittig says that Brightly is experimenting with ways to implement socialization aspects into the shopping experience.

Leslie Feinzaig, the founder of Female Founders Alliance, said that what’s special about Brightly is that it “demonstrated demand before building for it.”

“I think a lot of people today could build software to connect people and sell things, but very few people could get thousands of fanatical followers to actually engage with each other and make that software useful,” Feinzaig said. “Brightly built that community with matchsticks and tape.”

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

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

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As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

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Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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