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| June 17, 2019

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China’s housing unicorn Danke appoints ex-Baidu exec as new COO

June 17, 2019 |

A few months after nabbing a handsome $ 500 million funding round, China’s shared housing startup Danke Apartment got a talent boost.

On Monday, Danke announced the appointment of Gu Guodong as its new chief operating officer to ramp up the company’s offline operational crew. Gu, whose nickname is Michael, stepped down from Baidu after five years as one of the key figures in search, historically the company’s biggest revenue-generating division. He’s known to have managed several tens of thousands of marketing staff and helped generate sales of close to 100 billion yuan ($ 14.44 billion) for Baidu annually.

Gu’s arrival followed a period of explosive expansion at Danke, which is now managing almost 500,000 units of rooms across 10 Chinese cities after founding four years ago. The startup takes the co-living approach akin to that of WeWork’s Welive and rents out fully furnished apartments targeted at young professionals who can’t afford a full suite. Backed by Tiger Global and Alibaba’s financial affiliate Ant Financial, Danke’s valuation crossed $ 2 billion in its funding round in February.

Gu is one of the former Baidu executives who resigned during a recent top-level exodus (report in Chinese) that involved at least five leaders, including the search division boss Xiang Hailong, to whom Gu reported. There were speculations that Xiang’s exit might have triggered his lieutenants to leave, though TechCrunch has learned from a person close to Gu that he had left “one to two weeks” prior to Xiang’s departure.

For Gu, joining Danke would almost feel like returning home. “We welcome our comrade and good friend Michael,” said Danke chief executive Gao Jing, who previously worked alongside Gu at Nuomi, the local services startup that was sold to Baidu for $ 3.2 billion and became integral to the internet giant’s online-to-offline business. Derek Shen, an investor and current chairman of Danke, co-founded Nuomi in 2010 before heading up LinkedIn China between 2014 and 2017. Several other core members of Danke have also hailed from Nuomi.

Danke is confident that Gu’s addition will be a boon to its operational capacity. “Gu has abundant experience in operational management, sharp business insights, outstanding leadership, and a deep understanding of the internet sector and user needs,” said Gao. “Under his direction, Danke will enter a new phase of refined operation.”

By that, Gao means Gu will be tasked with rolling out more targeted marketing, more efficient housing renovation, more precise acquisition of apartment space, among other quality-control measures to drive sustainable growth at the company.

Update: Spelling of Gu’s name was corrected.

TechCrunch

Shyp is preparing for a comeback under new management

June 16, 2019 |

Fifteen months after shutting down, Shyp is getting ready to launch again. The startup tweeted today that “We are back! We’re hard at work to rebuild an unparalleled shipping experience. Before we begin operations again, we’d love to hear your feedback in this quick survey. We look forward to working with you and can’t wait to change the future of shipping!”

Most of the survey questions focus on online shopping returns, asking how easy or difficult it was to package the product for return, print the prepaid label, purchase postage or ship the product. The last question offers a hint about what direction the rebooted Shyp might take, asking “When returning a product, how likely would you be to use a service that picked up and shipped the product instead of having to ship it yourself?”

Shyp’s website doesn’t say when it will be back or what services it will offer, but it does mention that Shyp restarted in January 2019 under new management and backed by angel investors “with plans to disrupt the industry with what it does best: cutting-edge technology and a superior customer experience.”

Once one of the hottest on-demand startups, Shyp shut down in March 2018 after missing targets to expand to cities outside of San Francisco. When it first launched in 2014, Shyp initially offered on-demand service for almost anything customers wanted shipped, charging $ 5 plus postage to pick up, package and bring the item to a shipping company. Eventually it introduced a pricing tier in 2016 as it tried to find new approaches to its business model, before closing down two years later.

If the new Shyp does focus on making online returns easier, it will be bringing back one of its most popular services. The company expanded into online returns in 2015 after noticing that many customers used the app to return products they had purchased online.

TechCrunch has emailed Shyp for more information.

TechCrunch

Amazon Spark, the retailer’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, has shut down

June 15, 2019 |

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FindItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.

TechCrunch

Nintendo: we’re ‘evaluating’ streaming

June 14, 2019 |

Game streaming loomed large as the biggest story of E3. Between Google’s Stadia news late last week, Microsoft’s Game Pass additions, a Ubisoft announcement and even the presence of Netflix, the writing is clearly on the wall.

Nintendo, of course, has largely been absent from that conversation. No real surprise, really. The gaming company has always marched to the beat of its own drum, bucking larger industry trends in favor of its own singular vision. The approach has sometimes been to its detriment (as is the case with its longtime heel-dragging on mobile), but has largely resulted in a number of the industry’s most beloved platforms, titles and IP.

Given the company’s rich and storied gaming history, a Netflix-style approach to content makes a lot of sense for a company like Nintendo. And certainly, the notion of paying $ 10 a month for access to 30 years of Mario, Zelda and the like doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Though for Nintendo, much of the calculation no doubt comes down to whether or not gamers are willing to continue to pay for downloads.

In an interview with TechCrunch this week on the show floor, Nintendo of America executive Charlie Scibetta said the concept is one the company has been considering. “Streaming is certainly interesting technology,” he told TechCrunch. “Nintendo is keeping a close eye on it and we’re evaluating it. We don’t have anything to announce right now in terms of adopting that technology. For us, it’s still physical and it’s digital downloads through our eShop.”

The sentiment echos similar statements made by new Nintendo of America chief Doug Bowser, who told The Hollywood Reporter, “We’re always interested in how various new technologies can enable different ways to play games.”

TechCrunch

Chewy founder Ryan Cohen on its fast-approaching IPO: “It’s like seeing my baby graduate”

June 13, 2019 |

Ask any venture capitalist about the most important ingredient to success in startups, and they’ll tell you it centers on founders who can persuade not only investors to part with some of their capital but, more important, who can convince people to leave what are often more stable jobs in order to build a company from scratch.

Ryan Cohen certainly fits the description. It goes a long way in explaining why Chewy, the online retailer of pet food and supplies that he cofounded in 2011, sold to PetSmart for a reported $ 3.35 billion in 2017 — and why it’s also expected to stage a successful IPO this Friday, when PetSmart spins it off (though PetSmart will continue to hold a majority stake in the company).

Just today, the expected IPO price range, originally planned at between $ 17 and $ 19 per share, was raised to $ 19 to $ 21 per share, with the IPO advisory firm IPO Boutique saying the guidance it has received is that the deal is “multiple times oversubscribed.”

Cohen stepped away from Chewy last year, nearly a year after its all-cash sale. Naturally, he’s still excited to stand on the balcony of the NYSE as the company’s shares begin trading publicly on Friday. We talked with him earlier today about his path, beginning as a baby-faced founder without a college degree or any kind of network — and what, at age 33, he’s planning to do next.

TC: Your company sold in what was called at the time as the biggest e-commerce sale in history, yet most people still don’t know who you are. Who are you?

RC: [Laughs.] I’ve been an entrepreneur since as far back a I can remember. My father was a glassware importer — so a businessperson — and I saw what it was like to be accountable and responsible and to have your own employees and from an early age, I just knew that I wasn’t cut out for a traditional job, that entrepreneurship was the right path for me.

TC: Were you coding away in your bedroom like 90 percent of the founders we talk with?

RC: I was building websites at [age] 13, 14, then I moved on to affiliate marketing . . . My cofounder, Michael Day [who became Chewy’s CTO] and I met each other in an internet chat room, back when they were pure and bad things weren’t happening [online]. It was [centered around] website design computer programming, and we just hit it off.

TC: You get together, and then you settle on creating a retail pets business. Why? 

RC: We were doing affiliate marketing and we wanted to own the entire customer experience and were looking for big categories that were underpenetrated. In fact, we thought the jewelry space was ripe for disruption, so we started going to trade shows and building the site and the back end.

We even spent a few hundred thousand dollars on jewelry and we were a few weeks away from launching the company, but I have a poodle, Tylee, who’s now 12 years old, and I would go every couple of weeks to buy products from this store owner who knew me and who I really trusted and who was a pet lover like me. And I had this epiphany; I realized I’m so much more passionate about this category. So we sold the jewelry, luckily getting back most of our money, and started Chewy.

TC: Obviously, you’d heard of the terrible fate of dot.com high-flier Pets.com. Why didn’t that dissuade you?

RC: The world was full of business models back then didn’t make sense. People weren’t online. They were using dial-up. They weren’t comfortable putting their credit cards online. But over time, so much changed, including that the pets market had moved up into high-margin, higher-retail price points. You could also suddenly ship 30-pound boxes from most of the country overnight, thanks to shipping density.

TC: You were living in Dania Beach, Florida — not exactly a tech hub at the time. Did you think about moving?

RC: I had family here, growing up. I also knew it would be really expensive to build out customer service in a big city.  So it ended up working our really well. But you’re right, from a financing standpoint, south Florida is not a popular tech hub. We also had the fact that we were going head-to-head with Amazon, that I have no college eduction, and the demise of Pets.com, and so when we talked with VCs, it was like, ‘We’ll pass.’

TC: Without outside help, how did you get started?

RC: We contacted a local distributor who worked with a [third-party logistics] company that was next to him, and we started buying product the same day.  Then we started marketing to cities and states near fulfillment centers, using all direct response marketing that we were able to optimize on the fly. We’d buy the inventory as we sold it and we were doing almost everything ourselves, so if an order came in and we didn’t have inventory, I’d go buy the product and ship it out from a local Kinkos.

For the first couple of years, it was three guys and a call center.

TC: When did that change?

RC: We hit an inflection point where three [third party logistics companies] we were working with [were getting overwhelmed]. We’d give them weekly or monthly projections so they could plan ahead and have warehouse space, but they didn’t fully believe our growth and by the end of 2013, we had these 3PLs that couldn’t scale any more, so we had to bring fulfillment in house.

We didn’t know anything about this, so we hired a bunch of people who were experts in fulfillment and we flew to Mechanicsburg, Pa. to lease a 4,000-square-foot space, and within nine months or so, we became expert at doing fulfillment. It was risky. It was totally outside of our areas of competence. But by August of 2014, after breaking everything first, that center was humming along, and then we launched another in Reno. At that point, we went national.

TC: How would you describe your hiring process?

RC: A lot of it was intuitive. I believe in the Warren Buffett model of treating people with respect and being honest and transparent with them. A lot of these people would come from Amazon and Wayfair.  I went home at night and reached out to them after finding them on LinkedIn. We’d jump on a call and we’d talk about this vision to build the largest pet retailer in the world, while focusing on delighting customers and being category experts. And all of my management team, they came from amazing companies and stable jobs, and they pulled their kids out of school to come to south Florida because they believed in me.

I was really grateful they took that leap of faith, but it was also a huge responsibility, so I was going to fight even harder; I wasn’t going to let them down.

TC: You say VCs weren’t interested. What happened exactly?

RC: Almost from the beginning we reached out to investors, but I knew nothing about raising capital. I have no network. I come from a middle-class family. I don’t have a rich uncle. We just started cold-calling VCs and I learned the hard way that’s not how it works. [Laughs.]. I got turned down basically every single time, until Larry [Cheng of Volition Capital] invested, and it was not a competitive process.

TC: What convinced Larry to write you that first check?

RC: We’d reached out to Volition six to nine months earlier and spoke to an associate who took down our information, and they followed up with us in late 2012. We’d given them our projections and we were crushing our numbers. Larry was doing to Disneyland anyway with his family, so he decided to make a pit stop to meet with us. I remember he was like, ‘Who is going to take this company to $ 100 million in sales?’ and I was like, ‘Me! Who do you think?’

I looked very young at the time so I think I was easy to underestimate. I’ve been slightly aged now from Chewy. But he gave us that needed credibility. Then Greenspring Associates — they’re investors in Volition — came in to lead our Series B.

TC: Did you want to take the company public or were you hugely relieved when PetSmart came knocking?

RC: We were building a big company that inevitably was going to go public. Especially in those later years, we’d become ‘public company ready.’ We built up our finance and accounting team; we had audited financials. We’d raised a lot of capital — $ 350 million — but we had a lot of discipline. We also had a lot of revenue. We went from $ 200 million in sales in 2014 to $ 3.5 billion in sales by 2018. We burned through $ 130 million, but that cash burn was going to new customer acquisition and future fulfillment centers.

TC: So when you got that call from PetSmart . . .

RC: It was very fast. From the time I had a conversation with Raymond [Svider, the executive chairman of PetSmart] to the time he gave us a term sheet — and I was looking for an all-cash deal — the entire thing happened in 30 days, on our terms. We weren’t going to go and open up the kimono unless we got comfortable, and we were comfortable with the entire transaction.

TC: You stayed on for bit, though I gather you weren’t locked up.

RC: I wasn’t locked up at all. I could have left the day after the deal. I stayed but I felt like the teams were built and the systems and strategy were in place, and it felt like a fine-oiled machine. The business was at a significant scale. I just felt like my job was done. I’d been at it for more than seven years, going 24/7. I gave my life to this thing. But I have a two-year-old today and just being with my family and being able to return to civilian life was [irresistible after a point].

TC: I’m a Chewy customer but I’m not even sure why, except that it’s easy for me to re-order. Why do you think I’m a Chewy customer?

RC: Because Chewy is the best in the business. It has the best selection, competitive pricing, fast shipping, excellent customer service and we know the product better than our competitors. If you need a weight loss product for your dog, we’ll tell you which to buy.  All Chewy does is sell pet products, and that’s a big differentiator. E-commerce can feel like a series of faceless transactions; we wanted to recreate that feeling I use to enjoy at the pet store, shopping with a pet parent who I trusted. And we did that at scale, which is hard but we stayed focused.

TC: How are you feeling about the IPO?

RC: It feels like my baby is graduating from the college that I never went to.

TC: There are concerns over the fact that Chewy remains unprofitable. Do you worry that, as a publicly traded company, Chewy might have to change — that it may need to charge for shipping, for example?

RC: It’s not profitable because it’s continuing to execute on scale and market leadership. If you reduce your marketing and decide you don’t want to grow as much, the company could have been profitable years ago. The underlying company is profitable.

TC: What about the fact that Amazon and Walmart are expanding their own pet product offerings?

RC: Amazon made us fight really hard. Obviously, they’re a fierce competitor. But I don’t think it was the category that made us successful. I think it was delighting our customers. You focus on that and you’re going to do just fine.

TC: You’re a young guy. Are you retiring?

RC: Retirement is overrated.

I’m lucky. I’m talking to a lot of different entrepreneurs and business and looking at corporate board opportunities. I’m going through that exploratory process.

TC: Would you partner again with Michael on a different e-commerce business or maybe a venture outfit?

RC: We’re really close. It needs to be the right opportunity obviously, and we need to be picky. But I have no plans to sit in retirement, that’s for sure. I’m 33 and I’m competitive and I like consumer businesses and I like to win.

TechCrunch

Modern Fertility raises $15 million to sell its hormone tests — and gather more fertility data from its users

June 12, 2019 |

Modern Fertility is a San Francisco-based company that sells fertility tests directly to consumers, but increasingly, those customers will be educating the company, too. Indeed, the two-year-old startup now plans to develop a database of anonymized data about its largely younger demographic.

A fresh $ 15 million in funding led by Forerunner Ventures should help. Forerunner founder Kirsten Green, who takes a board seat as part of the round, is known for countless savvy bets on a wide number of consumer brands that have taken off with users, from Dollar Shave Club to Bonobos to Glossier. With Forerunner’s help, Modern Fertility may well become a breakout hit, too, though potential customers should also understand its limitations before they click the “buy” button.

First, let’s back up. We’d originally written about Modern Fertility last year, when it began selling a kit from its website that’s sent to women’s doorsteps and allows them to gauge their levels of eight different reproductive hormones by using a finger prick. More specifically, the startup sends off its customers’ panels to CLIA-certified labs, where the tests are conducted, and most prominently, those tests are looking at the women’s level of AMH, or anti-mullerian hormone.

Why that’s relevant: every egg inside a woman’s ovaries sits within a fluid-filled sac full of cells that support egg maturation and produce hormones, including AMH. A woman’s AMH levels can provide one clue about how many of these sacs — or follicles — she has. That in turn provides a clue as to how many eggs she can release, or her ovarian reserve.

The point, says Modern Fertility’s cofounder and CEO, Afton Vechery, is to enable women to learn more about their bodies without having to shell out $ 1,500 to gain access to a similar picture by turning to a reproductive endocrinologist, of which there are relatively few.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are roughly 500 infertility clinics in the U.S., and 2,000 reproductive endocrinologists.

Mixed feelings in medical community . . .

It’s a compelling pitch, especially given that women are putting off children longer for a variety of reasons, including to secure their financial future. In 2017, for the first time, U.S. women in their early 30s eclipsed younger moms to become the group with the highest birth rate, according to CDC data.

But there is room for pushback. The reality is that AMH and other tests can be conducted elsewhere, including by competing startups, for roughly the same cost that Modern Fertility is charging its customers. (Its kits originally sold from its website for $ 199; today, they sell for $ 159.)

Fertility testing is also generally is covered by health insurance plans because fertility problems can be linked to or caused by other health problems like endometriosis. (Not covered, typically: actual infertility treatments.)

A far bigger concern to some doctors is the unnecessary alarm that AMH screening may create for women who haven’t been diagnosed with infertility and who are less than 35 years old.

As Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told the New York Times a couple of years ago, “All it takes is one egg each cycle . . . AMH is not a marker of whether you can or cannot become pregnant.”

Esther Eisenberg, the program director of the Reproductive Medicine and Infertility Program at the National Institutes of Health, has also said that AMH doesn’t dictate a woman’s reproductive potential. In fact, the NIH funded research in 2017 that found a “non-statistical difference” between low and normal AMH levels in a time-to-pregnancy study of women who were between the 30 to 44 years and who did not have a history of infertility.

Asked about such findings, Vechery, who was most recently a former product manager at the genetic testing company 23andMe, is clearly aware of them. She readily acknowledges that AMH is “not an indicator of your ability to get pregnant right now in this moment,” adding that “it has so many other helpful benefits in thinking about your reproductive health in a much broader sense.”

Vechery also notes the company’s team of PhDs. She points to a clinical study that was published in The Green Journal (the official publication from The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists). She also speaks of Modern Fertility’s medical advisory board, which includes dedicated five medical doctors, including reproductive endocrinologists Nataki Douglas, a former associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center, and Scott Nelson, a professor at the University of Glasgow.

All are important pieces to building Modern Fertility, but it’s nevertheless worth mentioning that the company employs just two full-time PhDs currently.

Further, the company’s medical advisory members, including Nelson, are paid consultants.

As for the study, which Modern Fertility sponsored, it doesn’t actually prove anything about the power of AMH testing, though it does underscore that AMH, along with the seven other hormones the company measures on behalf of its customers, can be tested just as effectively with “fingerstick sampling” as a traditional blood draw.

The educator turns the tables . . .

Those curious about Modern Fertility — often younger women eager to get a jump on any later reproductive issues they may face — may well decide that information about their hormone levels is enough to part with the cost of a kit, which includes a one-on-one phone consultation with a nurse.

Interestingly, when they do, they’ll increasingly be asked to opt-in to questions about their health, lifestyles, and more. They may be asked repeatedly, too, as the company recommends that customers re-take the test yearly to track their hormones over time. Indeed, because so many of Modern Fertility’s customers do not have fertility issues, the company hopes to aggregate as much pertinent information from them as possible in order to complement the vast amounts of research that has been conducted on infertility.

“The fertility space needs to catch up, and a huge part of what we’re focused on is moving fertility science forward,” says Vechery. “So much research is primarily done on these women who are having issues; Modern Fertility is interested in flipping that around.”

It’s a strange state of affairs, but we’ve talked with several customers of the company in the past, and one can imagine them supporting it however they can, thanks in part to the sense of community that Modern Fertility has also been fostering. Among other things, for example, the company hosts get-togethers for customers in San Francisco so they can share their thoughts, their fears, and, presumably, their results.

As for whether Modern Fertility is also interested in selling that anonymized data as has happened at genetic testing outfits like Ancestry and Vechery’s former employer, 23andMe, Vechery insists that it will not, that the information will instead be used to inform the company’s product development.

Fertility startups have generally been on a fundraising tear, and little wonder. According to one estimate, the  global fertility services market is expected to exceed $ 21 billion by 2020. In fact, while venture capital has poured into everything from period-tracking apps to sperm storage startups, Modern Fertility has its own direct competitors, excluding obstetricians. Among these is KindBody, a New York-based startup that raised $ 15 million two months ago, and three-year-old, Austin-based Everlywell, which has garnered $ 55 million from VCs so far.

Notably, Modern Fertility represents Forerunner’s first foray into the so-called femtech space. Asked about Green’s involvement, Vechery notes she was particularly “excited about the community,” which Phil Barnes of First Round Capital, has also cited as the reason he wrote Modern Fertility an early check.

Ultimately, though, says Vechery, “Our business model is information, and I think for Kirsten, seeing what that trusted brand could do in women’s health and the conversations it could spark” was what she found most compelling about the company.

We understand why. We also can’t help but wonder if those conversations will drive some women to see — unnecessarily — the very specialists that Modern Fertility wants to free them of visiting.

Modern Fertility has now raised $ 22 million to date. Among its other backers are Maveron and Union Square Ventures as investors.

Pictured above: Modern Fertility cofounders Afton Vechery and Carly Leahy. Vechery is CEO; Leahy is the company’s CCO, or chief commercial officer.

TechCrunch

Square Enix shows off Final Fantasy VII Remake, Avengers and more – watch the trailers here

June 11, 2019 |

The long series of press conferences that marks the beginning of E3 is nearly at an end, with Square Enix the last to present, if you don’t count Nintendo tomorrow. The company leaned hard on nostalgia, piling remake upon remaster, but had a few surprises as well. Okay, maybe not “surprises,” but there was some good stuff.

The curtain rose, literally, on the title many gamers have been waiting on for years: the remake of RPG classic Final Fantasy VII. We saw a bit of this game in action last month, but this was much more comprehensive.

Yoshinori Kitase, producer of the title, speaking through a translator, thanked the crowd for their “support and patience over these years,” decades rather, during which fans never stopped clamoring for a remake. In fact, they clamored all the way through the whole on-stage demo.

The crowd went wild at the news that the game would cover two Blu-ray discs, each of which is of course many, may times the size of the original discs the game came from. The first chapter, set in the city of Midgar, has evolved to become a new game in its own right, he explained.

It has a combination of action and more traditional RPG mechanics — instead of turns you build up the ability to freeze time and take more tactical actions like using an item, casting spells, and so on. You’ll be able to switch between characters, of course, but this is definitely more in the line of XV than the original.

The game is playable at the Square Enix booth, which got everyone nice and riled up, especially seeing Tifa in action. You can watch the new, extended trailer below:

(Incidentally, the pre-order bonuses are ridiculous.)

Plugs for Life is Strange 2, Octopath Traveler, and remasters of FF Crystal Chronicles and the Last Remant followed. Then came Dragon Quest Builders 2 and DQ 11, which look as charming and fun as they have in months past. The Kingdom Hearts DLC Remind was shown off, and the expansion for Final Fantasy XIV as well. Two “celebrated classics” from the SaGa series got remastered. And the Final Fantasy VIII is also getting a much-deserved remaster, which is highly relevant to my interests.

As you can see, the presentation wasn’t exactly packed with surprises — but hey, Square Enix knows what its fans like, and honestly remakes and remasters are hot right now. But where’s my Final Fantasy Tactics?

One of the few new games we saw, top-down indie racing game called Circuit Superstars, looks like it could be a fun time when it comes out next year:

Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, one of the franchise’s mobile branches, is getting a sequel called War of the Visions — with a Game of Thrones-style introducing a variety of houses and their specialties. “Now in development.”

People Can Fly showed a cinematic trailer for a new IP called “Outriders” that could be cool, but it’s awfully hard to tell. It’s meant to be a strong narrative game with drop-in-drop-out multiplayer, but as they aren’t showing any gameplay yet. They’re a good studio (‘ll never forget Painkiller) so I’m sure they’ll make something interesting by the time the mid-2020 release date rolls around.

We got our best look yet at Oninaki, the action RPG from the creators of Lost Sphear and I Am Setsuna. Sure, it looks like something off the PlayStation 3, but so did the last two, and they were good.

A trailer for the new Avengers game from Crystal Dynamics received a warm welcome, though it was hard not to notice that the main characters were considerably different from the MCU versions. You won’t be controlling a virtual Chris Evans or Scarlett Johansson, sorry to say. This is the studio’s “unique take” on the team, which is fair, but coming as it does shortly after Endgame, a little disappointment is allowed.

The actors playing the characters in the game got a chance to introduce themselves and the complexities of their roles, which is certainly nice. Here’s hoping they have the chemistry the MCU team do — a short, dour clip of Banner arguing with Stark didn’t do much to convince, but the truth is Crystal Dynamics is good at characters and we should just let them do their thing.

The game itself looks good, a partly-online, story-driven thing with “no loot boxes” and every new area and character available for free. We’ll know more once we’ve played it at Square Enix’s booth. It’s coming out on everything but Switch in May of 2020, and PS4 users will get “early beta access” and some “unique benefits.”

Then the press conference ended abruptly. Just like this post!

TechCrunch

Fallout 76 is getting a 52-player battle royale mode

June 10, 2019 |

Tonight’s Bethesda E3 press conference was all about free additions. In fact, the company actually took to the stage to apologize for Fallout 76’s rocky launch. The publisher quickly added that it’s continued to improve on the title since late last year, listening to player feedback and adding all sorts of additional content.

That includes the arrival of a bunch of NPCs, and, more importantly, the launch of Nuclear Winter, a 52-player battle Royale mode that is arriving as an update tomorrow. The mode will be free to play on all platforms for the week of June 10 to 17.

Asked last year whether a battle royale mode was in the works for the post-apocalyptic title, SVP Pete Hines noted that the company doesn’t like to follow trends set out by other companies, stating, “just because battle royale is popular doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for us.” He did leave open the possibility — though seemingly unenthusiastically — and now here we are.

Of course, the mode has become tremendously popular in recent years, thanks to the likes of Fortnite and PUBG. Bethesda’s embrace of the mode has been met with…mixed reaction on Twitter, though the audience at tonight’s presser was appropriately enthusiastic.

TechCrunch

Equity transcribed: What happens to late-stage VC if the Vision Fund goes away?

June 9, 2019 |

Welcome back to the transcribed edition of the wildly popular TechCrunch podcast, Equity. This week Kate Clark and Alex Wilhelm convened in the new studio to discuss the biggest venture capital news of the week.

There was a lot of news to get to so they started with some quick hits about Thumbtack, Bird, Scoot, Mirror and Looker. Then they got down to business and went in-depth on SoftBank’s Vision Fund and whether the money has dried up.

And folks from Social Capital are back with a new firm called Tribe Capital that looks a lot like … Social Capital.

Kate: I think the TLDR here is, if the Vision Fund doesn’t raise a Vision Fund Two, we will feel changes in the market. I think we will see deal sizes come back to earth a little bit, and I think we may see at least not increasingly large valuations, because I think that people may, especially now that it’s been a couple of years, people may underestimate the force that is a Vision Fund. We don’t have the Vision Fund, you know that obvious force that dark cloud is gone.

Alex: You’ll feel the lack. Yes. Couple of quick notes about why this might be. It isn’t just that people like Kate and I think this way. I mean, there’s been structural problems with the Vision Fund. There’s been some discussions about opacity and how it operates. How its decisions are made, and I would throw in there, there’s probably some questions about the prices it has paid. Uber managed to claw back above it’s IPO price for a hot second, and is back under it today.

Kate: And didn’t last long.

Want more Extra Crunch? Need to read this entire transcript? Then become a member. You can learn more and try it for free. 

TechCrunch

Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

June 8, 2019 |

Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $ 10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

TechCrunch