BuyDomains hits a 10 bagger and The Frog throws $6,000 down the pond A couple days ago I wrote about someone basically wasting $ 20,000 on that name was purchased 3 years ago. On Sunday a domain name that was purchased less than a year ago was allowed to expire, wasting $ 6,000 in the process. (in French it means The Frog) was sold for $ 6,000 last September. […] T… : Freedom to Breathe Agency site down after fake “mask exempt” cards exposé The domain was registered on June 12, 2020 and it hosted content about how face masks are supposedly harmful to one’s health, and a violation of people’s rights. The so-called “Freedom to Breathe Agency” project shared a fake card claiming to give its bearer rights to not wear a mask when visitin…

Breaking down the specs of a successful video ad

Picture the drive to work you used to make every day before the COVID-19 pandemic struck — the same route, the same time and the same old billboards on the side of the freeway. Your drive to work isn’t about discovering new products or services, so in theory, you wouldn’t care about the dental offices, lawyers or whatever else that billboard is promoting.

But when there comes a day when your tooth aches and your insurance no longer covers your old provider, you might end up calling the number on that billboard after seeing it hundreds of times. That’s the billboard effect.

Digital marketing has largely left billboards in the dust, making it far easier to reach any of the billions of people online. But that doesn’t mean brands should be ignoring the principles that made billboards work in the first place.

Over the last five years, I’ve helped clients implement those principles by running video ads and have, for instance, helped a family lawyer in Joliet, Illinois book 130 phone calls with $ 1,000 in advertising spend with the strategy. Here’s how it works from start to finish.

The key to optimizing phone calls: Don’t link your website

While many brands already see the value in video marketing, most still don’t know how to go about making an effective video without having to hire an expensive video production company. Remember, the video doesn’t have to be a high-production project; it just has to get the message across to the right audience and give people a way to learn more.

Videos generally have three components:

Startups – TechCrunch

SevenRooms raises $50M to double down on reservations, ordering and other tools for hospitality businesses

Restaurants, hotels and other public venues where we spend leisure and business time have started to reopen in many parts of the world after a period of going dark to try to slow down the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a startup called SevenRooms, which builds software to help those venues with their guest management, is announcing a growth round of $ 50 million — to double down on providing tools for venues that now have to handle a whole new layer of management to implement social distancing and more.

The funding, a Series B, is coming from a single investor, Providence Strategic Growth, the company tells me. SevenRooms has some notable backers on its cap table already: Amazon (which invested via its Alexa Fund and directly), Comcast (via Comcast Ventures) and BoxGroup, along with a number of individuals.

The company has now raised about $ 75 million in total and it’s not disclosing its valuation, but CEO Joel Montaniel (who co-founded the company with Allison Page, CPO; and Kinesh Patel, CTO) said in an interview that it’s a significant up round. (PitchBook estimates that its previous valuation was a modest $ 28 million.)

SevenRooms serves restaurants, hotels and other venues, although food service establishments account for about 95% of its business in terms of customers and revenues. Another new opportunity has emerged out of the need for a lot of other in-person venues, like shops, needing to consider how to implement reservations to help with social distancing.

Today, it counts a number of large chains, including 70% of the restaurants along the Las Vegas Strip (because MGM is a customer), among its users. In all some 500 million bookings globally have been made through its software since it was founded in 2011, and other customers include Bloomin’ Brands, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina, D&D London, Corbin & King, Jumeirah Group, Black Sheep Restaurants, Zuma and Topgolf.

Montaniel described the last three months of business as something like a “tale of two cities” — a reference to the Charles Dickens novel, which starts out with the famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

In the context of SevenRooms, that has played out as a big drop in its mainstay business, which was focused around reservations, customer loyalty and other services sold as white-label services directly to the venues (or the operators, as Montaniel calls them), which in turn customised them for their customers, and created experiences across multiple platforms, including their own sites and apps, as well as Google Maps.

“It’s been really tough to see the industry go through the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of operators closed doors overnight. It created a lot of challenges for businesses.”

On the other side of the issue, necessity has been the mother of invention for SevenRooms and its customers. The company has built out a new tool for letting its customers take online orders for delivery — something it had been planning to launch later in the year but decided to launch earlier, given the state of things. It’s sold with a licensing fee, with no commission to SevenRooms, and links in with SevenRooms’ marketing and loyalty tools; it has done well, so much so that Montaniel said it and the longer-term customer relationships it’s building offset the drop in its other business.

“Delivery and pickup grew like crazy,” Montaniel said. And like some of the other “digital transformation” we’ve seen where retailers have accelerated their e-commerce strategies simply to stay in business, he believes that the switches and packages generated tens of thousands per month of savings. 

There are a lot of companies that have built out tools to serve the hospitality industry, and specifically to help with bookings, with some of the bigger names including OpenTable and Yelp. Montaniel believes that SevenRooms stands out because of its focus primarily on its operators, rather than providing a business in being the interface between operators and their customers, and on how it views its role in not just helping perform functions but expanding the wider business, by way of data that it can use to help grow customer loyalty and help people who are regulars feel like it.

There remain a lot of potential competitors who are also sometimes partners. Google, and Google Maps, is perhaps the most obvious, although these days Montaniel says Google Maps and the entry point it gives to discovering restaurants is a great boost to its business.

“Google is a company that every company in the world thinks about and talks about in their strategy sessions,” he said. “But there are others too. Big companies always can be competition: they do so many things so well, and they are a team away and a cash infusion away from competing with you, and those who don’t think they are are rivals are not thinking big enough.”

All the same, there are also two potential allies in SevenRooms’ corner that make this bet a little more interesting.

Amazon’s Alexa Fund is about strategic investments: SevenRooms used the backing to build out an Alexa integration into its white-label tools. But there are other ways in which that connection might potentially develop. The company has dabbled in travel services (including bookings) in the past, via Amazon Destinations, and although that was short-lived, the company continues to serve a number of hospitality and travel businesses via AWS, and frankly you can’t really count Amazon out of any vertical with an online component, which is to say, you can’t really count Amazon out of any vertical at all.

Meanwhile, Comcast has been making a number of investments into the kinds of services that it could potentially resell as part of larger business connectivity packages, which includes a focus on local businesses, spelling out another opportunity for how SevenRooms might expand.

Interestingly, SevenRooms is already close to profitability, and it didn’t need this funding — in contrast to a lot of other startups that have found it hard to make ends meet in these difficult months. Montaniel said that it raised because it had a list of “seven things we wanted to do, and without the extra cash we could only do three of them,” without elaborating on what those product features will be.

It’s a big area, though, and now that so much activity has been cut off for so many of us, we’re only now starting to realise how critical it can be, one reason why investors were interested.

“SevenRooms is a category-defining company that provides a vital solution to hospitality operators worldwide,” said Adam Marcus, managing director at PSG. “Joel and the talented SevenRooms management team have built the only vertically integrated solution in the hospitality industry, which has enabled them to scale into a global powerhouse. SevenRooms is uniquely positioned, and we are excited to partner with the team to support their next phase of growth.”

Startups – TechCrunch

Feds take down and in multi-million dollar sting The Department of Homeland Security has shut down two domain names involved in an online prostitution ring. and .net, along with bear the following image: According to the indictment, the web sites’ operator netted more than $ 21 million off a suite of illicit websites promoting prostitution and se…

DroneBase nabs $7.5 million in a slight down round to double down on its work in renewable energy

DroneBase, a Los Angeles-based provider of drone pilots for industrial services companies, has raised $ 7.5 million during the pandemic to double down on its work with renewable energy companies.

While chief executive Dan Burton acknowledged that the company was fundraising prior to the pandemic, the industrial lockdown actually accelerated demand for the company’s services.

Even with the increased demand, the company had to make some changes. It laid off six employees and refocused its business.

“In the past three months it’s become clear that this is a moment for drones as an industry,” Burton said. “We were really pushing hard as a company, certainly on revenue growth and harvesting all the investments we made in technology and having a clear, near-term view to profitability.”

The new round, which closed in May, was a slight down round, according to people familiar with the company’s business.

“We see raising a growth round later this year,” Burton said.

New investors in the company included Valor Equity Partners and Razi Ventures, who joined Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capital and DJI.

In all, DroneBase has raised nearly $ 32 million in financing, according to a company statement.

The new round will enable the company to focus on its data and analytics services that it has been developing around its core drone pilot provisioning technology — and gives DroneBase more financial wherewithal to expand its European operations under DroneBase Europe, which operates out of Germany.

“DroneBase’s expansion into renewable energy reflects our belief in the growth potential of wind and solar energy industries,” said Burton in a statement. “Since many energy companies have both wind and solar assets, we are well positioned to leverage our DroneBase Insights platform to grow our global market share in renewable energy.”  

The key application for DroneBase has been allowing wind power companies to monitor and manage their turbines, improving uptimes and spotting problems before they effect operations, the company said.

For solar power companies, DroneBase offers a network of pilots trained in infrared imaging to detect anomalies like defects or hot spots on solar panels, the company said.

“DroneBase has established themselves as the drone leader in the commercial market, and its new work in renewables will have a lasting impact on the future of energy by keeping infrastructure operational for generations,” says Sam Teller, partner at Valor Equity Partners, in a statement. “We believe DroneBase will continue to be a valuable partner in drone operations and data analysis across a multitude of industries globally.”

Startups – TechCrunch

SiriusXM acquires Simplecast to double down on podcasts with distribution and analytics tools

Podcasting continues to see a strong trajectory in the world of streamed audio content, and today comes the latest development on that front. SiriusXM, owner of Pandora and backer of Soundcloud, said that it is acquiring Simplecast, a podcast management platform used by creators to publish and distribute podcasts, and subsequently analyse how they are consumed. SiriusXM plans to integrate Simplecast with AdsWizz, a digital audio advertising company that it acquired in 2018 for $ 66.3 million in cash plus shares to power ads on Pandora .

The company is not disclosing any of the financial terms for the Simplecast acquisition but we have asked and will update if we learn more. As a startup, New York-based Simplecast, which will continue to be led by its founder and CEO Brad Smith, had raised a modest $ 7.87 million in funding from investors since launching in 2013, per PitchBook data.

The deal is interesting because it is bringing one of the more popular independent platforms and set of tools used by streamers under the wing of a platform. Simpleccast’s many podcasts and users today include Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, Netflix, Maximum Fun, Cloud10, QCODE, Anna Faris is Unqualified, Blue Wire, and Revision Path, who use it to distribute content over multiple, and sometimes competing, networks, including Apple, Spotify, Google and Overcast. (Business plans currently range in price and start at $ 15/month and go up to $ 85/month or more depending on podcast size, number of users, and features that you need.)

Pandora (with help from SiriusXM, which has a large and popular stable of talk radio shows on its channels) has been building up its own spoken-word content, of course, so there is a direct opportunity to push more on-demand podcasts to that platform in particular, as well as offer more interesting terms for doing so, as well as bring in a much wider spectrum of podcasts to run AdsWizz’s inventory, which currently is seen by more than 100 million people each month across the US and Canada (SiriusXM’s and Pandora’s footprint in vehicles, online and more).

We have asked SiriusXM if the plan will be to keep all of Simplecast’s services as-is after the deal closes.

What’s clearer is that, with SiriusXM also making a key investment in Soundcloud last year, the company is — like Spotify (which acquired a Simplecast competitor, Anchor, last year) — building up its music-business tools to complement its position as a content provider: this is a key role to play in the brave new world of digital music, where monetisation remains a challenge for most, and the tools to distribute, analyse and (yes) monetise one’s creative content continue to get more sophisticated, so much so that getting that part of the equation right can make or break an artist or wider creative or media endeavour.

“Our goal is to provide audio publishers with state-of-the-art platforms and give them everything they need to be successful,” said Alexis van de Wyer, CEO of AdsWizz, in a statement. “Empowering podcasters of any size to create, distribute, analyze, and monetize their work is the next natural step in pursuing our vision.”

“From the beginning, Simplecast’s mantra and mission was to remain laser-focused on podcast creators – building the best tools for publishing and insights,” said Brad Smith, the Founder & CEO of Simplecast, in a statement of his own. “The opportunity and alignment with AdsWizz allows our product — and our customers — access to a powerful monetization platform. Two best-in-class platforms are now able to align with the shared mission of helping publishers succeed, while each team continues to focus on their respective areas of expertise.”

Startups – TechCrunch

Uniregistry shutting down affiliate program When GoDaddy acquired Uniregistry I did wonder about a lot of those who used the affiliate program. Many used it right out the gate and did not meet the $ 250 payout threshold. I tweeted at GoDaddy if they would be paying out all funds or keeping them? Today Uniregistry sent out an email: We’re getting […] The post Uniregi…

Degreed lands new cash for upskilling in a down market

While the pace of layoffs might be slowing down, an extended recession is forcing companies to get smarter about the way they grow. One way to stay lean and stealthy? Have a team that is constantly learning and equally flexible.

Degreed helps employers do exactly that by connecting employees to learning resources to master new skills. The edtech startup today announced it has raised $ 32 million in venture capital in a round led by Owl Ventures, bringing its total known raised to $ 182 million. The company was founded in 2012.

At its core, Degreed is an upskilling platform that trains existing employees to enhance their current skill set. It does so by matching employees to lessons around different topics, like remote work or coronavirus. Degreed makes money through a monthly fee for clients and is free for employees.

“It keeps people skilled and employable; nobody should become irrelevant in the future because they lack the right skills,” said CEO Chris McCarthy.

Following its buy of Adepto, Degreed is also building out a career mobility product. Users can look at work opportunities based on current skills and see what they need to work on to get a new role. The skill profile will also let individuals see relevant work and learning opportunities such as jobs, one-off projects or tasks.

Today’s financing is specifically earmarked for the company’s career mobility product, part of the reason it is a smaller sum than previous rounds, says McCarthy.

Like many edtech companies, Degreed said the past six months have included unprecedented engagement from customers; nearly one in seven Degreed accounts have been activated between April and May of this year alone.

The uptick might be a mix of more people looking to become invaluable and more people having fundamentally more time on their hands to work on habits. The high engagement also could be because of uncertainty, according to co-founder David Blake .

“People face uncertainty in their work, but if organizations invest in having better skill insights then they can upskill, reskill and redeploy their people,” he said. The goal is that people can keep their jobs and “futureproof themselves against whatever’s on the horizon.”

Certain skills have been more in demand than others. According to Degreed, communication has seen a 15.5% increase and design thinking has increased 12.8%. Other topics that have seen spikes in engagement include crisis management, resilience, mental health and change management. The bottom line here is that people are interested in working on flexible, human-first skills.

It brings up an interesting question: Can edtech teach non-quantifiable skills like vulnerability? CEO McCarthy says that soft and flexible skills will be “essential” in the future. Like any edtech company, Degreed needs to prove efficacy before it touts success.

Anti-harassment tech Ethena faces a similar hurdle. It is hard to prove whether software makes a difference when it comes to harassment, because so much happens behind the scenes or goes unreported.

Ethena is working on a study right now to see if their software leads to higher retention and less attrition. Another company, MasterClass, is just betting that it can prove value by getting exclusive content for its site from A-list celebrities.

Degreed is going the route of many course providers: certification.

Users can go through a process, called Degreed Skill Certification, where work is vetted, verified and analyzed by data scientists, a panel of experts and machine learning to provide a “ranking.” Users also have to provide references of two people who have first-hand knowledge of the skill and can vouch for accuracy, per the company.

To date, Degreed has connected more than 4 million people at over 250 organizations like NASA and Cisco.

Startups – TechCrunch

Stockwell, the AI-vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega, is shutting down July 1

Stockwell AI entered the world with a bang but it is leaving with a whimper. Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures — people hated how it referenced and poorly ‘disrupted’ mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop — and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and the hit it has had on how we live.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Stockwell will be shutting down at the end of this month, after it was unable find a viable business for its in-building app-controlled “smart” vending machines stocked with convenience store items.

“Regretfully, the current landscape has created a situation in which we can no longer continue our operations and will be winding down the company on July 1st,” co-founder and CEO Paul McDonald wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “We are deeply grateful to our talented team, incredible partners and investors, and our amazing shoppers that made this possible. While this wasn’t the way we wanted to end this journey, we are confident that our vision of bringing the store to where people live, work and play will live on through other amazing companies, products and services.”

We originally reached out after we were tipped off by someone who had received an email about the closure. Stockwell’s vending boxes were distributed primarily in apartment and office buildings, and it has been contacting those customers for the past week to break the news.

For what it’s worth, the building operator that was using Stockwell vending machines said it is actively in search of a replacement provider, so it seems it did get some use, but more pointedly it’s been very hard for the vending machine industry, where some distributors have seen business losses of up to 90%.

Stockwell’s closure is notable because it underscores how in the current climate, having a strong list of backers and a very decent amount of funding cannot always guarantee insulation for everyone.

As of last September, Stockwell had raised at least $ 45 million in funding from investors that included NEA, GV, DCM Ventures, Forerunner, First Round, and Homebrew. Its network had grown to 1,000 “stores”, smart vending machines that work a little like advanced hotel minibars: sensors detect and charge you for what you take out, and you use a smartphone app both to track what you buy and to pay for it.

As of last autumn, the company appeared to be gearing up for a widening of its business model, allowing its customers (building, office and apartment managers) to have a bigger say in what got stocked beyond the items Stockwell itself put into its machines, which included water and other beverages, savoury and sweet snacks, and a few home basics like laundry detergent and pain killers.

By December, it seems that McDonald’s co-founder, Ashwath Rajan, had quietly left the startup, and then as 2020 kicked into gear, COVID-19 took its toll.

First, consumers found themselves spending much more time working and simply being at home, going out less and bulk buying to minimise shopping efforts. That, in turn, had a big impact on the sustainability of business models based on casual, small purchases, such as the kind that one would typically make from vending machines like Stockwell’s.

Second, at a time when many are trying to minimise the spread of infection by wearing face masks, washing hands and minimising touching random objects, a big question mark hangs over the whole concept of unattended vending machines, and whether they can ever be properly sanitised. That’s impacted not only people buying items, but the workforce that’s meant to help stock and maintain these kiosks.

There have been some interesting twists in how the vending industry has handled COVID-19. Some are swapping out pretzels and Snickers and replacing them with PPE equipment, and others are finding opportunity in stocking them with healthy food specifically for front-line workers who have no other options and need quick but nutritious fixes during critical times.

But more generally, the vending machine industry has been hit hard by the pandemic.

The wider market in a normal year is estimated to be worth some $ 30 billion annually — one reason why Stockwell nee Bodega likely caught the eye of investors — but business has fallen off a cliff for many key operators.

The president of the European Vending Association, in an appeal in April to government leaders for financial assistance, said that business had dropped off by 90% and described COVID-19 as having a “devastating effect” on the sector. Difficult numbers for the Pepsi’s and Mondelez’s (nee Kraft) of the world, but surely the nail in the coffin for a young, promising AI-based vending machine startup that nonetheless some doubted from the word go.

Startups – TechCrunch