Voodoo Games thrives by upending conventional product design

Voodoo Games is one of the most interesting startups alive today. In mid-2018, it had 150 million MAUs and raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention the company. That might be normal for an obscure enterprise SaaS play, but Voodoo is consumer-facing through and through.

Quantitative success aside, Voodoo upends much of the conventional thinking about product design and gaming. If it can do it, how can similar strategies apply to other products?

But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?

Voodoo is best described as a product conglomerate. Take a look at its App Store page. It has dozens of generic-looking apps. The basic playbook is:

  • Quickly build a relatively low-quality, single-purpose game.
  • Make sure one mechanic is really fun. It doesn’t matter if users churn 20 minutes after downloading it.

GGV Capital says mom-and-pop shops can boost e-commerce in emerging markets

Despite the rapid growth of e-commerce in India, Southeast Asia and other emerging markets, the vast majority of retail transactions there still happen offline in small stores that also serve as neighborhood hubs.

The central role these stores play in their communities led GGV Capital to develop what the firm refers to as its mom-and-pop shop investment thesis. This means backing startups that help small retailers digitize operations, tap into better supply chains and serve as delivery points in markets where logistics and online payment infrastructures are still developing. In turn, GGV’s managing partners believe this will lay the groundwork for stronger e-commerce growth.

Companies that GGV has already invested in under this thesis include B2B e-commerce platform Udaan and Telio, bookkeeping app KhataBook and social commerce startup Shihuituan (also called Nice Tuan) in China.

A sociological approach to e-commerce investment

GGV managing partner Hans Tung says the mom-and-pop shop thesis means looking at consumers’ shopping habits across countries and understanding why they are different from a historical and social perspective. During his career, Tung has observed e-commerce develop in markets including the United States, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Offline shopping habits, population density, transportation infrastructure and credit card penetration all played a factor in how e-commerce evolved in each of those places.

“You realize e-commerce doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists as a substitute for what is happening in the offline world,” he says. “Mobile payment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It just fulfills the same needs with a different method. It was a substitution for what was happening in the offline world with credit card and debit card penetration.”

So much for pessimism

After WeWork exploded there was — at least supposedly — a change in sentiment among investors and founders alike. Gone were the days of easy nine-figure rounds, expensive growth, negative unit economics and the rest of the excess that Startupland has enjoyed over the past half-decade.

Inside this purported sentiment shift, I presumed, was a decrease in optimism; surely venture capitalists and entrepreneurs would change their behavior inside this new paradigm?

But by some measures, they haven’t. I expected that startups would achieve more conservative proximate valuations in the post-WeWork world, as their leaders would aim to raise a bit less, and a bit more conservatively, and investors would be less starry-eyed in the prices they were willing to pay for startup equity.

That was all wrong, it turns out. A recent report from Fenwick and West, a legal firm that works with technology companies, paints a picture that is the complete opposite of what we might have anticipated.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; our recent reporting hardly describes a market in slowdown. Boston is having a good start to the year, for example. SaaS is also looking healthy from a venture capital perspective. Cloud stocks are at all-time highs and One Medical is still defying gravity as a public stock. Whatever lesson WeWork was supposed to teach, it doesn’t appear to have made much impact.

Let’s explore the Fenwick data and then ask if we can spot anywhere where the markets are behaving like the chastened children that we were told had taken over.

Up and to the right

Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50-person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it,” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote, “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air.

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter, which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support,” asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1,000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

[Update 2pm Pacific: Gusto’s PR representative Paul Loeffler claims that “This is common business practice in maintaining a brand”, says that for Gusto “A core, but not exclusive focus, are small businesses”, and admits that “as Gusto itself has grown to become a large-scale company, we have different needs than many of our customers and transitioned to Workday.”

Finally, he declares that “We’re excited to see more companies create new solutions that make it easier for businesses to take care of and support their teams” despite theatening to sue one that was. If Gusto itself grew out of Gusto, an ad asking if its customers are too seems wholly accurate.]

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.

Daily Crunch: HQ Trivia is dead

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. HQ Trivia shuts down after acquisition falls through

HQ Trivia is dead. On Valentine’s Day, the company laid off its full team of 25. The company had a deal in the works to be acquired, but the buyer pulled out and the investors aren’t willing to fund it any longer, according to a statement from CEO and co-founder Rus Yusupov.

At least the game went out with a bonkers finale, where the hosts cursed, sprayed champagne, threatened to defecate on the homes of trolls in the chat window and begged for new jobs.

2. Living with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

Brian Heater says he enjoyed his (admittedly brief) time with the Galaxy Z Flip. In fact, in many ways, it’s exactly the device that Samsung’s original foldable should have been.

3. Google ends its free Wi-Fi program Station

Google is winding down Google Station, a program where it worked with partners to bring free Wi-Fi to more than 400 railway stations in India and “thousands” of other public places in several additional pockets of the world.

4. Facebook pushes EU for dilute and fuzzy internet content rules

“I do think that there should be regulation on harmful content,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a Q&A session at the Munich Security Conference. He then suggested that Facebook should fall “somewhere in between” media and telco regulation.

5. Is tech socialism really on the rise?

In the second part of our interview with writer/ethicist Ben Tarnoff, he goes in-depth on the relationship between socialism and technology. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Oyo’s revenue surged in FY19, but loss widened, too

Budget-lodging startup Oyo on Monday reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and pledged to cut down on its spending as the India-headquartered firm grows cautious about its aggressive expansion. (Yes, it seems a bit late to be talking about earnings from 2018-19, but that’s how Indian finance law works.)

7. This week’s TechCrunch podcasts

The latest full episode of Equity discusses a big funding round for meditation app Headspace, while its Monday news roundup looks at global growth concerns due to coronavirus. And over at Original Content, we’ve got a review of “Mythic Quest,” the video game-focused comedy on Apple TV+.

Boston’s year jump starts as two local startups raise $520M in two rounds

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Late last week two Boston-based companies raised big rounds. The size of the two investments — each over the $100 million mark — and their rapid succession made them stand out.

The pair of investments raised a question: Is Boston seeing an acceleration in the pace at which it attracts venture capital? Of course, Toast raising $400 million and Flywire raising $120 million within a day of each other does not, by itself, constitute a trend. So we’ve pulled some recent, and historical data from Boston to figure out what’s up.

Today let’s take a look at how many rounds of $50 million or more, and $100 million or more, have been raised in Boston so far in 2020 compared to the city’s full-year 2019 results from each category. We’ll be able to see if Boston is ahead of the pace it set last year. This will let us know if Boston’s venture scene is heating up, or cooling thus far in 2020. (Recall that we wrote about the Northeast in December, and found its venture activity to be intense.)

We’ll start with a quick peek at the Flywire and Toast rounds, and then dig into the data.

Winged Bread

Toast, Boston’s restaurant payment processing unicorn, put together $400 million in fresh funding last week, adding to its preceding haul of just over $500 million in known capital. The company, founded in 2011, has now raised $902 million, according to Crunchbase.

MotoRefi raises $8.6 million to bring its auto refinancing platform to the masses

Americans are saddled with $1.2 trillion in auto loans, according to data collected by the Federal Reserve. And while that debt can be refinanced, even U.S. car owners who know it’s an option face a complicated task.

MotoRefi, a new fintech startup that was born out of QED Investors in 2017, says it has developed an auto refinancing platform that handles the entire process, from rooting out the best rates to paying off the old lender and re-titling the vehicle.

Now, the company is preparing to scale up and bring its platform to the masses, with $8.6 million in capital raised in a Series A funding round co-led by Accomplice and Link Ventures. Motley Fool Ventures, CMFG Ventures (part of CUNA Mutual Group) and Gaingels also participated in the round. The round follows $4.7 million in seed funding that MotoRefi announced in March 2019.

MotoRefi is also gaining two new board members, Rob Chaplinsky, managing director of Link Ventures, and Rachel Holt, former Uber executive and co-founder of a new VC firm, Construct Capital.

Auto loan debt is the same as student loan debt in the U.S., said MotoRefi CEO Kevin Bennett. And yet the majority of car owners don’t know that refinancing their auto loan is even an option, he added. A 2017 Harris Poll found that 47% of Americans were aware they could refinance their auto loan.

“People shop their home loans, while most just get their auto loans from the dealership where they bought their car, so their rates are artificially high,” Bennett said in a recent interview. “Meanwhile, credit unions can be great for auto loans but they might not have the tools to reach consumers.”

That’s where MotoRefi hopes to step in. Bennett said the MotoRefi platform can save customers an average of $100 per month on their car payments.

MotoRefi auto loan refinancing product

Holt, who was an early investor in MotoRefi, said during her time at Uber she saw firsthand the amount of auto loans drivers were carrying. Dealerships aren’t making money on selling cars, they’re making it on financing, Holt said. “I saw this problem and so I was looking out for startups trying to solve this problem,” she added.

The U.S. auto refinancing market is about $40 billion, according to TransUnion. But that market could be two to three times that size, according to data shared at TransUnion Financial Services Summit. It’s an opportunity that has prompted companies like Lending Tree to launch auto refinancing products.

MotoRefi is already scaling up by adding new lenders and partners, according to Bennett. The new funding will be used to hire more employees and invest in its technology platform.

The startup also launched in January separate pilot programs with Progressive and Chime. Under these pilots, Progressive and Chime will directly offer refinance options to their customers in addition to working with affiliate programs such as Credit Karma — a company backed by QED Investors.