Friday, September 6, 2013

Chrome's Native-Like Packaged Apps Come Out Of Dev Preview And Head To The Desktop, Now Called “Chrome Apps”

Google officially launched its Chrome Apps today, a “new” breed of native/web app hybrid for Chrome OS and Windows that isn’t actually all that new. Google’s Chrome offered so-called packaged apps for quite a while now and today’s “launch” is, for the most part, about bringing these packaged apps out of the developer niche and to consumers. Chrome Apps are essentially installable web apps that get additional privileges to access some native hardware features. They allow developers to run their web apps outside of the browser and without the usual Chrome user interface. They also make it easier for developers to make their apps available offline and to access local storage, as well as connected devices and cameras over USB and Bluetooth. Just like Chrome itself, these apps update themselves and just like Chrome extensions, they are automatically synced between your machines.

Foursquare Automates Process Of Becoming A ‘Superuser'

It’s become clear in recent years that Foursquare’s real strength is its database of more than 55 million places. Foursquare’s database API serves as the “location layer” for many other apps, from big names like Instagram to small up-and-comers. Today, Foursquare is announcing an update that should streamline the process of keeping that information organized and up to date: It is automating the process of becoming a “superuser” with the ability to edit the location database. In a Wikipedia-esque fashion, Foursquare gives special privileges to edit and organize location data to a vetted group of “superusers” that today number around 40,000. Superusers have historically been chosen through a manual review process that requires the sign-off of Foursquare’s six-person support team (which has, not surprisingly, created a bottleneck). Today, Foursquare is switching that duty over to an automated process. It’s a small change that most users won’t notice, but it’s key to Foursquare’s larger strategy. Adding more superusers should help things run more smoothly on the venue database, which is clearly a top asset for Foursquare as a company.

Uber Strikes Back Against The Competition By Offering Free uberX Rides In New Lyft Markets

Just last week, ride-sharing startup Lyft announced that it was entering three new cities, launching in Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Atlanta ahead of the holiday weekend. Well, local incumbent Uber isn’t going to take that lying down. The company has launched its low-cost uberX service in three new markets, and will be giving free rides to users for the rest of the month. Uber announced on its local blogs in Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Phoenix that it will complement its existing black car and SUV services with low-cost uberX rides in those markets. That’s notable because two of the three are some of the newest markets launched by competitor Lyft. (uberX has already been operating in Atlanta since June.) Fighting against comparably priced competition may be one thing, but Uber is making Lyft compete with free — at least for the month of September. Along with the uberX launch, the company is also offering up to five free rides worth $20 each in Indianapolis and St. Paul through the end of the month, and up to three free rides to uberX passengers in Phoenix through September 18. Today, Uber offers service in more than 40 cities worldwide, including 22 cities in the U.S. But in most of those cities, it partners with third-party black car companies for drivers. With uberX, the company usually offers a mix of commercially licensed drivers who pick up riders in hybrids, along with non-commercially licensed drivers picking up passengers in their own cars. It’s not clear how many of each Uber has in its new markets. Of course, Uber has some money to burn while keeping the competition at bay. It just raised a $258 million round of funding from Google Ventures, giving it a pretty massive war chest. Uber has also announced plans to roll out its own ride-sharing services in any new market that its competitors enter. When it made that announcement this spring, it said it would wait until local regulators gave “tacit approval” of ride-sharing before moving in, essentially waiting 30 days before doing so. But with these latest launches, it looks like Uber isn’t even waiting that long, and has decided not to give the competition too much of a head start before jumping in with its own low-cost services. As a result, we can probably expect Uber to continue to be aggressive and introduce uberX in additional markets, as it sees ride-sharing companies like Lyft and SideCar enter cities that it already operates in. Which, of course, makes this round of ride wars really interesting to watch.

What Is The Future Of VC? Find Out At Disrupt SF

Many compare the process of picking a partner at a VC firm (or an angel) to back your idea to the act of getting married. You better be ready to be comfortable in the trenches with this person, because the startup journey is a roller coaster. Amidst the debate over value-added services vs. classic VC, what it really comes down to is picking the right partner to help you go down one of the most challenging paths of your life. At the end of the day, outsourcing services such as recruiting and marketing can help, but founders need to have an experienced and successful operator by their side who has been through the challenges of finding product-market fit, raising funding in tough climates, dealing with layoffs and much more. The VCs who will be sitting on the investor panel at Disrupt SF next week — Aileen Lee (Cowboy Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers), John Lilly (Greylock Partners), Bryan Schreier (Sequoia Capital), and Mike Volpi (Index Ventures) — have not only been in the trenches themselves, but have been helping some of the Valley’s new generation of successful founders, including Drew Houston, Kevin Systrom and others travel down their respective paths of entrepreneurship. Lee, who has helped lead investments in One Kings Lane, Rent The Runway and Trendyol, joined Kleiner Perkins in 1999 after founding a company and working in several operating roles at The Gap, Odwalla and others. She most recently founded her own seed-stage firm Cowboy Ventures. Lilly, who has led Greylock’s investments in Instagram, Dropbox, MessageMe, and Tumblr, was previously CEO of Mozilla, and also co-founded Reactivity, an enterprise security infrastructure company acquired by Cisco in 2007. Schreier has led Sequoia’s investments in Dropbox, and Hearsay among others, and prior to joining the firm, was the Senior Director of International Online Sales and Operations at Google, launching Google’s Europe headquarters and leading sales in China. Volpi serves on the boards of Path, Sonos, Lookout, Hortonworks, Soundcloud, Big Switch Networks, and Zuora, among others. Is there a resurgence of consumer after some of the fallout with the Series A Crunch? Are value-added services worth it? Are VC returns going to bounce back? Is there a diversity problem in the VC ecosystem? We’re going to be tackling these issues and more.

How Social+Capital Is Building The Next Generation Of Entrepreneurs In Residence

Chamath Palihapitiya has been commonly referred to as the unconventional VC. And he’s been open about his ambitions to turn his fund, The Social+Capital Partnership, into a vehicle that backs ideas and startups that are changing the way we live, diagnose, learn and more. So it’s no surprise that Palihapitiya and his team are taking a more unorthodox approach to the entrepreneur in residence program in the VC ecosystem. When you look underneath the hood at what Palihapitiya is doing with the program, it’s clear that he is building a mafia of some of the best technical talent (especially from Facebook) and bringing them under his wing. It’s reminiscent of what Benchmark has done in the past with its EIR program. Chris Farmer, a VC who has held investment roles at General Catalyst and Bessemer Venture Partners, writes in this 2010 Quora post that at the time, data showed that Benchmark had the highest density of EIRs and highest proportion of EIRs that actually start companies. The entrepreneur in residence program has been in place on Sand Hill Road for quite some time. Essentially, VC firms give successful executives and entrepreneurs a salary in turn for a place to park for six months to a year to figure out what their next company/move will be. They network, meet with the firm’s portfolio, talk to other entrepreneurs and more. There are three possible outcomes: The entrepreneur will found a company within the firm (which the firm will hopefully back); the entrepreneur will join one of the firm’s portfolio companies; or the entrepreneur could take a liking to the VC world and join the firm full time as a partner (which just happened with Simon Rothman and Greylock). In theory, Social+Capital’s EIR program is similar in that it is giving top talent from companies like Facebook a way to be thoughtful about their next step while still getting paid (though Palihapitiya says it’s not any sort of salary to write home about). But what’s different, he explains to me, is the density of the program and that he is choosing to bring on mostly technical, product-focused individuals. In fact, most of the EIRs aren’t known as entrepreneurs in residence but engineers in residence. His best outcome for these technical minds is for them to found a company that is tackling a major problem. But figuring the why-and-how angles to approaching these problems from an engineering standpoint takes time. And he wants to make sure that the engineers who can build the next radical, game-changing company in health care or education have the opportunity to do so (and don’t rush to join another big company as an exec). While Social+Capital itself only has four investment partners, including Palihapitiya, the firm has employed many more EIRs in its two-year history. On average, there are about four EIRs at the firm at any given time. And Palihapitiya says he would have as many as 10 in one class. Currently, the firm has around 10 portfolio companies that are working from its Palo Alto offices. Past EIRs have included Jassim Latif (ex-Googler), Abhik Pramanik (ex-BranchOut engineer) and Jeremy Karmel (ex-BranchOut Engineer). More recently, Palihapitiya has been recruiting talent from his former employer, Facebook. Current EIRs include Kristina Holst, a key engineer from Facebook who helped build Home, and many of the network’s developer tools. She also happens to be a skilled poker player and made it to the final table at the World Series of Poker earlier this year. James Wang is a former Facebook engineer who worked on Palihapitiya’s international growth team. Josh Wiseman, a Facebook engineering manager that worked on a number of Facebook’s marquee products including Timeline and Chat, left the social network for an EIR role at Social+Capital earlier this year. Ray Ko was the director of growth and analytics at Facebook and joined the firm in June. Yun-Fang Juan, who helped create Facebook Ads, starts her gig at Social+Capital in September. The roster of talent speaks for itself. “I don’t know of any other firm who has the density of senior-level product and technical talent just hanging around trying to solve real problems,” Palihapitiya tells me. Palihapitiya’s theory is that many senior-level engineering and product leads at companies like Facebook, Google and others are being bombarded with offers from other companies. It’s hard to know what you really want when you are in the midst of this jungle, he explains. He wants to give these execs a way to decompress from the company lifestyle to figure out what they really want to do and what problems they want to solve. Wang told me that he did consider a number of interesting startup offers when he decided to leave Facebook. He was looking for VP of engineering roles at promising companies in Silicon Valley but nothing seemed like the perfect fit. He ended up connecting with his old boss, Palihapitiya, earlier this year who pitched him on the idea of joining Social+Capital. ”He told me that he was really passionate about the idea of applying technology and giving new lifeblood to areas like health care, education and other industries,” recalled Wang. And because Wang already had an interest in health care and education, he was intrigued. Wang started his position at the firm in March, and began spending time with its startups and networks. But instead of being drawn to some of the health-focused ideas, he found that he was interested in some of the educational startups, including Remind 101, which is a private messaging app for teachers. Holst has also been going through a period of discovery around what she wants to do next. Like Wang, she was leaving Facebook and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Over a poker game, Palihapitiya convinced her that Social+Capital would be a good place for her to figure that out. What really convinced Holst was the opportunity to tackle big challenges in difficult markets like health and financial services. Holst is still considering what she will take on as her next challenge, but she’s been particularly drawn to financial services. She’s been actively helping (and coding for) investment management startup Wealthfront with its mobile efforts. Holst and Wang also say that Social+Capital’s network and openness have been a way for them to learn about new ideas and opportunities. The partners’ calendars are public and EIRs are encouraged to sit in on any meetings that they find interesting. It’s still early days on evaluating whether Palihapitiya’s EIRs end up creating the game-changing ideas that he talks about. Two of the EIRs in the past class have teamed up on a startup that is still in stealth, he says, and Holst and Wang have not yet decided what their next moves will be. Nonetheless the network of talent that Palihapitiya is fostering and housing is impressive. As I mentioned above, in many ways he is creating his own mafia of some of the best technical and product minds in the Valley. The firm is slowly building out a group of talented people and putting them in scenarios where they might end up working together to create startups dedicated to tackling big problems. If Palihapitiya pulls it off, this could be the making of a new mafia in the startup world. “I want to create a platform where smart, technical people and great engineers are able to spend six months to a year just looking at the landscape to figure out whether they want to join a company or start one,” he says.

Insurance Zebra Launches A Kayak For Auto Insurance

Austin-based Insurance Zebra, as the name implies, isn’t exactly tackling the sexiest industry, but it’s definitely one that’s trying to help the everyday, mainstream consumer. The startup’s goal is to be the Kayak for auto insurance, so to speak, as it aggregates quotes to allow consumers to find their best options. But the company is doing something differently than others in this space – it’s letting consumers shop anonymously, while also seeing how their answers to the Insurance Zebra’s Q&A change their rate quotes in real-time. Insurance Zebra founder and CEO Adam Lyons previously worked in the car insurance industry on both the underwriting and brokerage side of the business, which is how he came up with the idea for this service. He sees the potential for the car insurance industry to go online, the way the travel industry already has, as sites like Orbitz or Kayak helped move consumers away from using individual travel agents. The company raised a $1.5 million seed round earlier this year, led by Austin’s Silverton Partners, with participation from Mark Cuban, Floodgate, and Birchmere Labs. Today, Insurance Zebra is launching in California and Texas, the two states with the largest number of drivers. California, in particular, is one of the more difficult states to tackle given the complexities of its regulations. That’s another reason Insurance Zebra chose them for a launch pad, outside of the obvious — it’s a tech hotspot where a number of early adopters would be likely to give online insurance shopping a shot. The site today offers up quotes from 33 different insurers, representing around 90 percent of the market. With two pieces of information — a car and a ZIP code — drivers will see quotes begin to flow in. As you proceed to answer more questions, the accuracy of the quotes will improve. Using the site now, you’ll see several big-name companies like State Farm, Geico, Allstate and more represented, as well as a lot of specialized insurers like those for high-risk drivers, for example. According to COO Joshua Dziabiak, the company has relationships with some, but not all, of the companies whose quotes it provides, but it does have other big-name insurers on board who are still in the process of being integrated. For those situations where Insurance Zebra doesn’t have a direct relationship with an insurer, he explains that they’re using public data to determine the rate quotes. “What we’re doing is leveraging public rate filings. Every carrier, by law, is required to submit these extremely long rate manuals to each state, which are made public through the state’s Dept. of Insurance website,” says Dziabiak. “What we’ve done is built a technology that reverse engineers those rate manuals and spits out rates quotes.” While there are a number of tools to compare insurance quotes today (including those from insurers themselves, like Progressive touts), Insurance Zebra’s advantage is not just in the real-time updating of quotes as you move through the Q&A sections, but also that it allows you to shop anonymously. “There are lead aggregators out there where you put in your information and all of a sudden your phone starts blowing up from all sorts of agents,” explains Dziabiak. But Insurance Zebra lets you get the quotes without becoming a lead to be resold. Instead, the site itself is appointed with around 14 carriers right now, meaning it’s set up like a standard insurance agent. Like any mom-and-pop shops, it has the same licensees and commission structure. It doesn’t charge a consumer anything extra, but takes a commission on the sale when you buy. Meanwhile, for those insurance companies where Insurance Zebra doesn’t have a direct relationship, the service lets the driver call the company via a Twilio-provided line. That way, the company can track the number of referrals and call durations at least, which could help it close deals further down the road. During a private beta period, Insurance Zebra showed testers 280,000 quotes and found that it could achieve close to 95 percent accuracy, assuming consumers didn’t lie or inadvertently enter incorrect information. Now that the service is open to the public, the plan is to expand nationwide soon. In the next six to eight weeks, Insurance Zebra will begin to open up to the rest of the U.S., though it will do so quietly as there will be other bugs to work out in each state, Dziabiak notes.

Evomail's Gesture-Based Email App Arrives On Android

Evomail, one of the many newer startups trying to rethink the email inbox for mobile, has now arrived on Android. Originally designed as a Gmail client for iPad, the service seemed inspired by a number of well-known apps and email clients, including now Google-owned Sparrow, as well as Dropbox-acquired Mailbox, which popularized the use of gestures as a way to interact with your email. The iOS version of Evomail, now iPhone-optimized as well, introduced a variety of features including push notifications for new messages, folders and labels, snoozing functionality, and gestures that let you swipe to delete or archive, shake to press and hold to label, star, reply, forward, or mark as read and more for example. These same features are now available on Android. When the company first debuted its app in May, reviewers typically found the interface clean and polished and the app easy enough to use, but also encountered several bugs. Co-founder and CEO Jonathan George explains that today, the major issues have been addressed, thanks to Evomail’s fast weekly release cycle. George previously co-founded Boxcar, the push notifications service for developers that was acquired by Kwaga in July 2012. He says he thought up the idea for Evomail the evening he signed the acquisition papers. “Email has received many new coats of paint over the years, but no one has really gone in and renovated the entire house,” he explains. “We did just that by building EvoCloud, which is a layer on top of email.” EvoCloud is meant to address the problems that email previously faced due to fragmentation of mail servers — that is, if you needed to build out a feature requiring server support, you would have to have all the providers build support for it as well, and upgrade their own systems. Instead, EvoCloud centralizes the mail providers into one layer, allowing the company to build its own server functionality like Gmail’s Priority Inbox, or their new tabs interface, and then make that available to anyone – even those who aren’t using Gmail. Today, Evomail supports a number of mail systems, including of course Gmail, but also Yahoo, iCloud, and other IMAP-enabled services. The company plans to soon begin selling freemium subscriptions to offer users access to features their mail provider may not have offered. As of last month, the company was reporting 25 percent week-over-week growth on the iOS side, but declined to detail the the number of downloads or actives the app now has. However, the app trails the big-name providers Gmail (#2), Yahoo (#6), Hotmail (#47), as well as Mailbox (#60) in the U.S. app store. The iPhone and iPad versions flirted with the top 100 during launch, but now they struggle to maintain a ranking in the top 500 in the Business category (per App Annie’s stats.) Reviews for the iOS version are middling, reflecting the company’s still very early nature. Users continue to report bugs and crashes, but others say it’s “getting there.” The app’s design goes a long way to sell its concept, but without the stability and speed, it will be hard to keep users from removing it from their phones. On Android, Evomail hopes to at least have an early mover advantage, by beating out other popular email clients, like Mailbox, to the platform. With an earlier pre-release beta, the app performed the functions as expected, but still seemed very laggy compared with the native Gmail app and others. However, the company says it’s squashing bugs all the way up until today’s launch, so it’s not possible to do an in-depth review at this time. Likely, it’s still much in the same boat as the iOS version, though: “getting there.” Depending on a number of factors — your email provider, inbox size, how much email you receive (I could be an outlier here, of course), and more — your mileage, as they say, may vary. But given the stage that Evomail is in, the progress the company has made in only a few months’ time is notable. The Witchita-based startup, also co-founded by David McGraw and Dominic Flask, is essentially bootstrapped, having a tiny team of four and just $100,000 in seed funding. To take on a problem as massive as email under these circumstances is crazy and risky…attributes that, frankly, it’s nice to see.