Starting today, you can send your friends and family members gifts using only their email address or phone number. This new trick comes from Gratafy, a Seattle-based social gifting platform launched last year, which lets you digitally share gifts that everyone generally likes: food and drinks. The gifts come from participating restaurants and bars in Los Angeles and Gratafy’s hometown of Seattle. You can think of the service as an new take on the restaurant gift card, but one you can buy from the web or your phone, and offering a broader selection of cards than just those for big chain restaurants – like you might pick up at your local drug store, for instance.
The service is aimed at those who need to buy gifts for people who are hard to shop for, or for any other occasion where you might opt for a gift card over a physical (and let’s be honest, more thoughtful) present. Previously, users could login to Gratafy using Facebook, and their friend would then receive the gift you chose – a fruity cocktail from a favorite bar, an entree, a dessert, etc. – via email, text, or Facebook.
Participating restaurants like Gratafy because it gives them another way to sell their full-price menu items and potentially reach new users. Meanwhile, Gratafy makes its money by charging a few extra dollars on top of the gift being ordered as a convenience fee.
But Gratafy’s Facebook requirement also limited how Gratafy could be used. That is, you could only send gifts to Facebook friends. Now you can send to anyone you have an email address or phone number for. Users can also choose to login using only an email address themselves, instead of authenticating with Facebook.
To date, the company has partnered with close to 250 restaurants in Seattle and Los Angeles, including Seattle’s Tavern Law, Ethan Stowell Restaurants, John Howie Steak, and Tom Douglas, as well as Los Angeles-based Paiche, The Hudson, and Sassafras among others. However, when Gratafy expanded to L.A. in August, it was reporting around 200 restaurant partners, so the service has not grown significantly on the merchant side in the year since – however, that may change soon as the company expands.
Gratafy is the kind of service that would see a lot more sales and user growth during big gift-giving seasons, like the holidays, which, according to the decorations that went up everywhere the day after Halloween, have apparently arrived. Founded by University of Washington grads, Ryan Halper and Brian Erke, Gratafy plans to expand into other major U.S. cities later this year.
It’s interesting to see how companies like this an others are leveraging email to power sharing. Square, for example, recently made it possible to quickly send others cash via email with its simple Square Cash app. Google Wallet is now bundled into Gmail for something similar. And now Gratafy is letting you send gifts over email, essentially.
The startup is competing in a tough space, where even Facebook has struggled with so-called “social gifting” and competitors like Wrapp have far more funding. (Gratafy has under $3M, while Wrapp just raised another $15M this summer). At the core of social gifting is that by making gifting easier, to some extent, you’re also removing the thought and care that goes into the gift-giving process. And despite our modern, disposable culture, that’s not something everyone is willing to do just yet.
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
My sweet tooth is the enemy of productivity: sugary snacks are a one way ticket to midday brain fog and squishy love handles. As TechCrunch’s resident healthnut, I regularly get pitched by food startups claiming to solve the workplace snacking problem, but their “healthy” alternatives invariably raise my blood sugar like a Snickers bar fried in Pepsi.
Last night, I’m happy to say, I tried a new protein bar that was sufficiently tasty, didn’t raise my blood sugar, and was packed with raw healthy ingredients. There’s just one catch: it’s made from pulverized crickets (video below).
The admirably bold Exo team wants to bring crickets to the American diet, and has successfully raised $20,000 on Kickstarter in just 3 days to build a factory that churns out bug-based snacks. “Exo will introduce to the West one of the most nutritious and sustainable protein sources in the world: insects,” declares their Kickstarter page.
According to Exo, their cricket flour has more protein than beef, and perhaps more importantly, doesn’t contribute to a food system that destroys the environment. Livestock produce as much carbon as a car, eat food that could otherwise go to starving children, and are pumped full of drugs that threaten humans with deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So–just putting this out there–we probably want to find an alternative and bugs could be it.
The bar itself is a mix of cricket protein, dates, cocoa, coconut and almond butter. The Exo has the taste and texture of a mildly sweet protein bar. No, you can’t taste the crickets. The early version the team sent me was very crumbly and a bit crunchy (coconut chips).
Not going to lie, I’ve had better tasting snacks, but they all raised my blood sugar. Many popular energy/protein bars have the food profile of a Twix, and the high-fructose corn syrup makes them about as healthy as Halloween leftovers.
The truth is, the only way to get nutrition in a way that doesn’t destroy your body is minimally processed all-natural ingredients that resemble the original food as closely as possible.
This is why the market has seen a rise in so-called “raw” foods: no grains, dairy, sugars, or heated ingredients My go-to energy bar, the date-based LaraBar, was acquired by General Mills in 2009. Exo uses one of the few acceptable sweeteners: raw honey (the other trendy honey-like sweetener, Agave, is probably killing you slowly).
And, unlike LaraBar, it’s got 10g of protein, which will satisfy the fitness folks in your life.
I don’t know if Exo will satisfy the sweet tooth of a mass market addicted to super-sugary snacks, but I do love the idea that they could have found a sustainable protein. At the very least, it is tasty enough for a workplace looking to be healthier.
My recommendation: buy a bunch for the office and see what your co-workers think (and then let us know!)
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
I have two problems with doorbells. First, they sound incredibly annoying. Secondly, there isn’t an easy way to turn them off.
DoorJamz provides a solution for both of these problems. It’s still a doorbell, but instead of the consistently infuriating “ding-dong”, you can choose to have it play whatever you like. If can have Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir play whenever your guests or the Jehovah Witnesses announce their presence. That’s pretty cool.
The DoorJamz is controlled from an app on your smartphone. Once a particular song or sound file is uploaded unto the app, it wirelessly transmits your new doortone to the DoorJamz.
From the app, you can also schedule to have certain doortones ring on certain days. For example, on Halloween you can set your DoorJamz to play a howling wolf, a cackling witch, or maybe an audio recording of you screaming “I DON’T HAVE CANDY” followed by a long string of curses whenever those trick or treaters come to call.
But the best feature, and one parents everywhere will appreciate, is that you can lower the DoorJamz’s volume whenever you want. So if your baby is napping during the day, you can basically mute the DoorJamz until they wake up. It’s insane that the doorbells we have now can’t do this.
A DoorJamz can be had for a $99 contribution at their IndieGogo page. They’re trying to raise $90,000 by May 1st.
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
Google this week fired off one of the first high profile tests of Russia’s controversial new firewall — erected November 1, 2012 to block child porn, drugs and suicide content; but seen by critics as a route for the government to block whatever else it chooses. Google’s YouTube operation in Russia has filed an appeal against the Russian regulator for blocking YouTube content. The appeal, filed on February 11, concerns a block of a video that showed how to apply Halloween makeup: because it shows how to make a wound, Roscomnadzor (Russia’s consumer watchdog) also deemed that it encouraged suicide and suicidal tendencies.
The news was first reported in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti. Google’s position is that there is not enough clarification on what kind of content is permitted or not. In this case, a video intended for entertainment has been misinterpreted, it believes. A spokesperson in Russia, Alla Zabrovskaya, provided the following statement to TechCrunch:
“YouTube provides a community where people from around the world can express themselves by sharing videos and being informed. While we support the greatest access to information possible, we will, at times, restrict content on country-specific domains where a nation’s laws require it or if content is found to violate our Community Guidelines. In this case, we have appealed the decision of Russian Consumer Watchdog because we do not believe that the goal of the law was to limit access to videos that are clearly intended to entertain viewers.”
This case is an appeal of an existing ruling to block a video; it’s not a lawsuit and so it does not entail and financial claims over lost revenue, TechCrunch understands.
The situation highlights a problem of Russia’s new firewall: it was erected to block specific pages that violate Russia’s laws, but has apparently it been less nuanced in its actual application. On top of that, when the regulator decides to block one piece of content on a site, the entirety of that IP gets blocked. While it is appealing the decision, YouTube has taken down the suicide video, but if it had not, then all of YouTube would have been blocked in Russia.
It also underscores the tension that continues to exist in Russia over free speech and government control; and the role that international (Western) giants like Google play in the country’s information and tech economies.
YouTube has been dancing around the Russian regulator’s firewall for months now. Back in November, just weeks after the laws came into effect, YouTube faced a temporary block that was later attributed to a technical error. At the time, this is how Zabrovskaya described it to me:
“There is not much to comment, it was a technical mistake…YouTube was never blocked, it just appeared in the “black list”, and then was deleted almost immediately as the news cycle started.”
But at the time she also sounded a note of warning, which this week is now coming into play with YouTube’s formal appeal:
“We have expressed our opinion on the law, underlining that IP or DNS-blocking system is damaging to Internet development in Russia, as these are the ways which could potentially block the entirety of the product (YT or any other UGC-product ) over one piece of illegal content.”
We are contacting Roscomnadzor for comment and will update this story as we learn more.
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
While the day after Halloween is typically Facebook’s biggest photo sharing day, Instagram had its busiest 24 hours to date over Thanksgiving when users shared 10 million photos with holiday references, peaking at 226 per second. The surge likely inspired plenty of sign-ups too, as iPhonographers and Droidographers alike showed off their touched up snapshots to family.
Instagram said “Overall, the day broke all Instagram records as we saw the number of shared photos more than double from the day before, making it our busiest day so far.” It eclipsed the 800,000 Hurricane Sandy Instagrams to become the services most photographed event yet.
The company counted up photos with tags like #thanksgiving and #turkey and saw a sustained flow of over 200 holiday photos a second for several hours surrounding the 12:40pm PST peak at 226 per second.
It wasn’t just users getting into the spirit either. Instagram recently began giving brands tips on how to make the most of their photos, including advice to add links in the comments and description section to be able to drive traffic and return on investment from the Instagram presence. Plenty surely noted upcoming Black Friday deals or just took a moment to thank their customers and fans.
With Instagram’s new web profiles and public links, sharing a photo to the service makes it easily accessible even to friends and family that don’t have the app. Shooting an email with an Instagram link to grandparents is a lot easier than trying to walk them through the Facebook sign-up process. Over time, that could actually give Instagram a leg up over Facebook’s walled garden and make it the photo app of choice when you want to share with folks who don’t live and breathe the Internet.
[Image Credit: DylForLife]
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
Timbuktu, an educational and entertainment-focused iPad app for kids has relaunched with a revamped design, additional content, and daily updates. Previously, the company, a recent 500 Startups grad, had been testing a more traditional magazine-style experience with a cover, index and pages, but decided to move to the updated design based on user testing and feedback.
The company was founded by Elena Favilli (CEO) and Francesca Cavallo (Creative Director), who relocated from Italy to San Francisco in January of this year. Although neither founder has children of their own, they were inspired to work in the children’s app space because of Favilli’s background in journalism and children’s publishing, and Cavallo’s background in education and theater. Timbuktu is designed to sit in the middle of these interests, combining education, design, and technology into one playable experience on the iPad.
Originally, the company had built a magazine for parents and children to enjoy, but soon found that mimicking an old-fashioned paper magazine on the iPad didn’t quite work. “It was a very traditional structure,” Favilli says of Timbuktu’s first version, out in February. “It’s something that makes sense for us because we grew up with that. But working with children, we realized that it didn’t make any sense for them to start with a cover, or to flip the pages, so we developed this new version.” The new design won a “Best Design” award at the LAUNCH Education and Kids 2012 event in Mountain View, when it was previewed earlier this year.
Though the design is admittedly adorable, but there are some concerns with Timbuktu’s business model. Today, the app features daily activities meant to maximize the 30 minutes or so of “play time” busy parents have with their kids at the end of a day. Unlike other kids’ apps meant to serve as “iPad babysitters” while parents work on other things, Timbuktu is to be used with parent and child together. Every day, you can unlock a new activity, which range from educational (but still fun) stories, printable activities, recipes parent and child can make together, and more. There are also themed activities for holidays, like a planning kit for a Halloween party, for example. As children complete the activities, they can earn badges for their profile, like “math athlete” or a chef’s badge.
The design and activities make Timbuktu a pleasure, but the way you pay for content is not ideal. Timbuktu tries pulling parents in with new content daily, but some parents will be unhappy to find that on some days, that content isn’t free. “Most of the stories are free right now, but you have to pay for premium stories,” says Favilli. “We’re using a virtual currency called bubbles, and you have to pop the bubbles to unlock a premium story,” she explains. These stories are unlocked via in-app purchases, and although Favilli says the app is targeted toward parents to use with their grade school-aged child, the bubble-popping design seems like something a kid could get into trouble with, if left alone with the app for a minute. “Some days, this content is free, other days it’s premium,” she adds, noting that you can always go back and access older content if you don’t want to pay.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of kids apps using in-app purchases to monetize. Although parental controls offer some protection, just having the pay-to-play option so prominently featured within an application mars the experience. That’s why I abhor Talking Tom, for instance, but happily subscribe to the bedtime story collection from Fafaria. There’s some good news, though - Favilli says a subscription-based alternative is in the works. That would be a far better way to pay, since Timbuktu is really is just a modern spin on magazines.
Also in the works: a $1 million seed round led by 500 Startups, including participation from Kailua Venture, H-Farm, Mind the Seed, Atlante Seed, and angels Rohit Sharma, Elliot Loh, and Craig Mod (so far). The round will be closed in a few weeks’ time.
Currently a team of six, four in San Francisco and two in Milan, most of Timbuktu’s content is built in-house, but the update introduces some which comes from McSweeney’s, a San Francisco-based publisher. The company plans to open up the app to further to other partners in the future, as well.
Interested parents can download the app from iTunes here.
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
One of the underlying features launched originally with the Google+ project was its video conferencing platform, Hangouts. It’s been a success from the perspective of user adoption and also grabbed a partnership for Google with the NFL. Video is an extremely tough space to tackle, just ask companies like Skype, Airtime and countless others. Nailing an intimate experience that supports two or more people in a video conference is no small feat, but Google knocked it out of the park with Hangouts.
Today, the team announced some new features, nothing “major,” but some really nice things that make the Hangout experience even more enjoyable and easier to use. When you’re in a Hangout, you can now display or hide a new sidebar, which shows you who’s in the room. It also sports a fit-and-finished notification system, which alerts showing in red, actions in blue and announcements in grey. Hangout apps have also been surfaced, illustrating the great work that developers have done using its API.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Product Manager on Google+ Hangouts, Kate Cushing, about what makes Hangouts so special and how the team tackles hard problems like scaling such a service for the masses.
Long story short, I injured myself yesterday, so I couldn’t visit the Googlplex to talk to Cushing. No problem. We jumped in a Google+ Hangout and chatted for a while. Her insightful knowledge of the project is extremely evident, but the nuances that I’ve surfaced in the past only became clearer as we chatted.
Cushing is a recent graduate who was a part of the famed Google APM program, and has been working on Hangouts before it was launched to the public last year. Previously, she worked on Google Analytics, but there was something about Hangouts that caught her attention:
Hangouts is where I wanted to be, it’s an exciting place to be at Google and on the net right now. Real-time communication is the next frontier. When I went away to college it was SMS and voice and for my dad it was letters and phone calls. Now it’s video chatting.
The No. 1 use case for Google+ Hangouts is for hanging out with friends, but companies are adopting it for internal meetings with teams that are spread out all over the world. For example, Cushing works with some of the engineers who aren’t in Mountain View, using Hangouts to get a more “natural” feel that beats emails, texts and phone calls. Cushing explained this phenomenon quite eloquently:
I think one of the most exciting pieces around what we’re doing with Hangouts is mirroring the real-life interactions you have…but on the web. Tiny details like how we switch video when we’re talking. Switching focus is what you see on a TV show and the kind of focus when you have during a normal group conversation in real life.
I can interrupt you, make a joke, fire out punchlines. The standard parts of conversations that are fun are here in Hangouts, and I can recreate the dinners that I would have with my family.
It’s that real-life mirroring that makes the actual technology behind Hangouts, which is actually quite impressive, essentially disappear. To me, the best technology in the world gets out of the way and lets you do your thing. It’s one of the reasons why I really enjoy using Apple products, because even though everything is pretty, the “tech” hides itself. I honestly have to say that Google’s products are starting to show those same properties.
I’ve been a digital native for as long as I can remember. My first gig was with a tech company — the same company that TechCrunch is under. I used to use AOL chatrooms, Instant Messenger, and before that, BBS. Texting, tweeting, instant messaging and video chat have always been the “same” as talking in person with someone for me, even though I’d prefer the real thing. It’s not a replacement, but it’s an enhancement when people you care about don’t live nearby.
It’s more than just one-on-one chat though, which is why Hangouts are so magical. Cushing described her own personal experiences with the product to me as we hung out:
I work with a bunch of engineers in a different office and we talk about their kids and I see their Halloween photos like we’re sitting in an office. That isn’t possible without video. The same thing with my family. Last Christmas, since we’re all over the place, my grandparents couldn’t see everyone at Christmas and have never had all of their grandchildren together at once. We gave her a tablet and all of these people showed up after it dings.
She got to meet her first great-grandchild over Hangouts and a tablet.
The Hangout product continues to evolve under the leadership of some visionary folks at Google, but mostly thanks to the feedback from its users and “ambassadors,” which the Hangouts team works very closely with to learn about how they use the product.
I asked Cushing what her favorite piece of Hangouts was for her personally to work on. Her answer surprised me, but made absolute sense:
I actually did the Hangouts piece for Gmail. That was really cool because we brought free calling to every Gmail caller and the nuances for what that meant was pretty cool. It was fun for me because I have friends who are on Gchat/Gmail all day. It was one of those times when you see people transition from asynchronous “chats” to easily having a “conversation.”
There are more places where Hangouts makes sense, like within education. I can totally see classrooms using the product to conduct classes or as a place where students can help one another study for a test. Sure, they could do this on something like Skype, but the Hangouts experience is built for a use case like this.
I mean, during the NBA dunk contest, a player held a Hangout and performed dunks that were requested by the audience. That’s the next level of interactivity on multiple levels. I’d like to see television perform in this way sometime in the future. It could happen.
As I mentioned, the underlying technology behind Hangouts is a massive undertaking. I asked Cushing to talk about the major hurdles of keeping up with the community requests, as well as the wants and needs that the team has for the product:
One of the biggest challenges that we face is balancing the directed communication you want to have with people and at the same time supporting these broader conversations, along with the context and the conversation. We really care about both of those. One is innovating, and one is making it easier to let you instantly connect with someone.
Figuring out how to balance the two uses of the project and deliver on both of them well. That’s kind of the challenge we face.
How do you innovate and keep it simple at the same time? That’s what the team is working on. Along with that, there are things that we don’t “see,” like incremental improvements to audio and video quality, messaging on its pages and placement of buttons to keep things usable for everyone, not just tech nerds.
There’s a lot going on with Hangouts, but once you start using them, you completely forget that you’re on your computer using a sophisticated technology project. It’s like you’re having dinner with your parents.
Article courtesy of TechCrunch
Uber has just sent out an update via email regarding the pricing options in New York after Hurricane Sandy. Surge Pricing is back.
Yesterday, the company implemented Surge Pricing — a higher rate during times of high demand — and then abruptly turned it off after a poor reaction by the internet. Instead, the company charged regular pricing, yet paid the drivers at Surge Price rates, likely slashing margins into losses.
In the update sent out via email, the company explains that Surge Pricing will be back in effect this afternoon for customers in Manhattan. A copy of the email is below, but in short: Paying drivers at a 2x rate while charging customers normal pricing did increase the number of drivers on the road, but at the cost of $100,000 in additional payments to drivers in one day.
Some feel that Surge pricing is the equivalent of price gouging. But it’s not. Anyone who lives in a metropolitan area dependent on public transportation knows that cabs are almost impossible to find on inordinately busy nights. Surge Pricing entices more drivers than usual to come out and work on a night like New Years Eve or Halloween, and keeps Ubers on the road.
On New Years Eve, the Surge Price rate was 6.25x. Yesterday after Sandy, prices in New York were only at 2x, and only for an hour before numerous blogs, even ours, and Twitter came down on the transportation startup.
With today’s implemented Surge Pricing, Uber isn’t taking any part of the fee. Some have accused Uber of greedily raking in the 20 percent fees it takes per ride, so this should calm those people down a bit, considering yesterday’s and today’s losses for the company.
The rate isn’t a flat surge rate, but the app will notify users when they hail a car.
Here’s the full letter, for your reference:
First and foremost, we hope that you and your family and friends are safe. The Uber NYC office is currently closed and some of our team members are without water and power.
With limited public transportation, demand for Uber rides is astronomically high. That means we’re working to get as many drivers out as possible to help New Yorkers get around the city. So, in order to maximize the number of drivers on the system yesterday, we started paying drivers 2x the fare on all trips – and in the meantime charging riders the standard 1x fare avoiding surge pricing for most of the day after Sandy. Doubling drivers’ fares tripled the number of cars on the road and kept them out there far longer. However, footing the bill for higher driver costs came at a significant expense to Uber with over $100,000 in additional payments to drivers in a single day – something we can’t continue indefinitely without breaking the bank.
So while we were mostly able to avoid higher prices the day after Sandy, the reality is that under this week’s extreme conditions, raising the price is the only sustainable way to maximize the number of rides and minimize the number of people stranded – by providing a meaningful incentive for drivers to come out in undesirable conditions.
Later this morning we will be reverting back to standard Surge Pricing for riders. It is a hard decision, but one we feel strongly about. Without raising the price, there will be less than ½ the number of drivers on the system with several times more demand on far fewer drivers. Without Surge Pricing, Uber would become essentially unusable this week. For those needing a ride this week, it’s going to be expensive; there will be a clear pricing notification in the app at the time of request. During this emergency price increase, Uber will waive all of its own fees with 100% of the fare going directly to the drivers helping New Yorkers move around the city.
You can read more about Surge Pricing on our blog: http://blog.uber.com/2012/03/14/clear-and-straight-forward-surge-pricing/
Our thoughts and prayers are with all New Yorkers in this time of crisis. We’re going to do everything we can to continue to provide the most reliable, efficient transportation option for NYC. Be safe, and stay Uber.
The Uber NYC Team
Josh, Andrew, Ed, Kyle and Nicole in Manhattan,
Jeremy in Brooklyn,
Betty in Queens
and Cait in The Bronx
Article courtesy of TechCrunch