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Rakuten Writes Down $340M In Assets, Shutters Marketplaces In Southeast Asia


Japan-headquartered e-commerce firm Rakuten has written down $340 million from a range of businesses, including its Kobo e-reader division and France-based e-commerce site PriceMinister, and announced plans to close a number of global operations as part of a new strategic focus.

Rakuten announced its latest financial results today, and they weren’t great. Net profit for the year slipped 38 percent year-on-year to 44.3 billion JPY ($393 million) on revenue of 714 billion JPY ($6.3 billion) — up 19 percent. Part of those results included a write-down of 38.1 billion JPY ($339 million) in consolidated impairment losses.

The changes come from Rakuten’s new ‘2020 Vision’ (PDF), a business realignment strategy announced today, and they break down as follows:

Rakuten added that the (non-consolidated) loss on valuation of stocks of subsidiaries and affiliates came in at 62.3 billion JPY, that’s around $554 million.

The company’s share price on the Tokyo Stock Exchange dropped seven percent in response to the news. Its total market cap stood at 1.436 trillion JPY ($12.75 billion) at the end of trading.

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Rakuten’s share price over the last year

Explaining the measures, the company said in a statement that PriceMinister had been “affected by the competitive environment of the French e-commerce market,” while its write-down for Kobo was a result of “a slower start to the rise of the global ebook industry than we originally expected.”

That disappointment is tempered by some optimism. Rakuten said that PriceMinister has “an important position” in the European e-commerce space. Likewise, it is estimated its e-book division — which includes content platform OverDrive, bought for $410 million one year ago, and Kobo — will return to profitability in 2016.

One line item filed under ‘other’ costs looks to be a restructuring of Rakuten’s marketplaces outside of Japan. The company confirmed in an announcement (PDF) that it will close down its e-commerce sites in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia next month, and it is looking to offload, the e-commerce company in Thailand that it acquired in 2010, too.

Those closures will mean that around 150 staff are laid off, Rakuten confirmed to TechCrunch, but the company will retain its regional office in Singapore, which will continue to house Rakuten Ventures and Rakuten Travel. Its e-commerce business in Taiwan, which appears to be performing far better, will also remain unaffected.

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Rakuten Singapore’s website

These marketplace are being replaced by a new project in Southeast Asia, a consumer-to-consumer app called Rakuma which, Rakuten said, has grown 20 percent month-on-month in Japan. That concept sounds a lot like (indeed, the same as) Carousell, the app that Rakuten Ventures is an investor in. Singapore-based Carousell is currently in three countries in Southeast Asia but, as we reported late last year, it is trying to raise a $50 million round to expand its service significantly across Asia.

It seems a little odd to pit Rakuma against Carousell. When we asked Rakuten for more details about that, it told us that its “the plans are still under consideration and we look forward to sharing more detail on this soon.”

Beyond Asia, Rakuten will also shutter its marketplace business in Brazil, but Ikedia, its service that enables retailers to develop and manage their online commerce presence, will remain open. Update: Rakuten has not closed its site in Brazil, but it has shifted the model from a marketplace to a Saas-based approach. That’s powered by Ikedia, another Rakuten acquisition — the company bought a 75 share for an undisclosed sum back in 2011.

Rakuten has exited countries in Asia before — it quit a joint venture with Baidu in China, and dissolved a partnership in Indonesia in favor of flying solo — but these withdraws are far more strategic and wider reaching.

Chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, who took the step of addressing investors in Japanese not English as is usual on Rakuten results days, stressed that the 2020 Vision is based around three core principles: “strong, smart and speed.” Highlighting a number of new businesses that include acquisitions Viki, Ebates and Viber, Mikitani made bold growth predictions and hailed the disruptive potential of these mobile technologies when combined with Rakuten’s core e-commerce businesses.

But Rakuten’s main domestic business is stagnating. Its Japanese e-commerce division grew 10 percent on GMV — the total amount of goods sold on platforms — but profit was up just six percent and revenue 13 percent on the previous financial year. Rakuten’s Internet services division has expanded with some early promise in Japan — revenue grew 22 percent with profit up 45 percent year-on-year — but there’s also pressure on overseas investments to pull in cash to compensate.

Mikitani placed plenty of emphasis on Ebates, the cash-back website it bought for $1 billion in 2014, which Rakuten said “contributed significantly to the growth” of its overseas businesses, with GMV rising 43 percent annually to $4.9 billion. Under its new plan, Ebates is tipped to triple to $15 billion GMV by 2020.

That’s the model that the company is looking for, but it’s tough to find that in emerging markets like Southeast Asia and Brazil. Yes, millions of new Internet users are coming online via smartphones, but there’s plenty of competition in e-commerce (Rocket Internet alone has poured more than $1 billion into its two players in Southeast Asia) while buying online is not yet a mainstream trend among consumers. As a result, Rakuten looks to be clearing out its longer-term, less-certain bets and doubling down where it believes the healthiest chances of returns lie.

Featured Image: PriceMinister/Flickr

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Flipagram Adds Direct Messaging To Share Photo Stories Privately


As the world’s big messaging apps add more features to keep their users locked in for longer, other apps are tapping into messaging features in the hopes of creating more stickiness of their own. In the latest development, Flipagram, the app that lets you sew together pictures and video snippets with one minute of music to create packaged stories, has added a direct messaging feature.

Now you can send your Flips through to specific friends or groups of friends without leaving the app.

04_Group MessageIn the past, you could send Flips to people directly only by leaving the Flipagram app to do it. You can still send by email, SMS and other routes, but the functionality of the Flips will be more limited, Farhad Mohit, co-founder and CEO of Flipagram tells us.

One key feature is the pause — crucial if you want to see more than a blur of images in the space of a minute, which is how many Flips set to the bouncy beat of a hit song end up looking.

The DM feature will now get a prominent place, directly to the right of the + at the bottom of the screen that you press to create a new Flip. It will replace the music button, which will now live in the app’s “Explore” section. You find friends to message by following them and them following you back in the app.

The messaging interface, meanwhile, will appear on a different screen, where you can exchange messages as well as Flips with friends.

40M and counting

The move to add a messaging feature comes at an interesting time for Flipagram. The company raised $70 million (reportedly a round that was made at a $300 million valuation) in February 2014, announcing the funding in July of last year to coincide with the news that it had managed to sign licensing agreements with all the major music labels for the music on its service.

Since then, Mohit tells me the app has ballooned to over 40 million registered users (from 33 million disclosed at the time the funding was announced), while the app has added other features like video, which is now in 40 percent of all Flips.

The stats for how the app has been faring in download charts also point to sustained interest in Flipagram, with the app consistently hovering in the top 10 of photo and video apps in the key U.S. market.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 15.23.39

That lays the groundwork for a decent amount of users of the app, so that an in-app messaging feature becomes something that might actually be useful, and used.

As an anecdotal measure of Flipagram’s growth, I’ve been noticing several of my non-tech friends creating and sharing Flips on sites like Facebook, which speaks to how the app appears to be gaining traction with people outside of the Silicon Valley bubble.

But at the same time, the company has been facing some growing pains. In October, the company let go of 20 percent of its staff with the aim of reorganizing its team more sharply around engineering, product and design (and the startup is still hiring).

It seems that the direct message feature is a result of some of that sharpened focus.

Messaging: the killer app

Flipagram has partly grown as a result of its multiple integrations (if you’re not a Flipagram user, chances are you’ve seen them shared on other platforms like Facebook and Twitter), so now more attention is being put on ways of getting its users to spend more time sharing and consuming on Flipagram itself.

02_Send ToUsing messaging to do that is a notable move. Messaging is in many ways the killer app on mobile at the moment, with apps like WhatsApp and Messenger (both owned by Facebook) now used by billions of consumers.

The pull of messaging apps is so strong that there are examples from entirely different businesses — news sites, for example — looking to messaging formats as a building block to build their own apps. The medium really has become the message.

More time spent on Flipagram, not just creating but consuming content, could help the company longer-term with its monetizing strategy. Up to now the company has been cozy with brands and marketeers, Mohit says, but there have been no moves to launch paid campaigns on the platform. Not yet, at least.

“We are still building the core use cases,” says Mohit — a repeat entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about monetizing, having founded and sold Shopzilla and Bizrate for over $500 million 10 years ago. “It’s too early to monetize.”

The DM feature could also potentially be used to develop products. Apropos of being launched the weekend of Valentine’s Day, I asked Mohit about whether he’d ever considered developing a dating category for Flipagram, where people browsed Flips of people looking to meet others folks, and then used the DM feature to contact each other.

“I wouldn’t say this is a dating site but it could be a way of getting to know someone better than you would in Instagram,” Mohit says. 

Aside from spitballing whatever may come in the future, adding messaging is also a move being made to capitalize better on existing user behavior. Mohit notes that of the Flips that have been shared off network, over 60 percent have been to personal communication services like email and SMS.

Flipagram has been compared to Snapchat and Instagram, in part because they all target a similar demographic, but also because Snapchat Stories and Instagram offers a similar kind of very visual-first experience.

Mohit believes that Snapchat at least is a “perfect complement” to Flipagram, he says.

“The fact is that those Stories disappear every day, which sometimes makes sense, but not every day. Some of it should remain.” In Flipagram’s creation flow the app shows users a Snapchat folder, as well as one for Instagram, on a user’s phone to create Flips using Snaps and Instagram.

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Apple Music Tops 11 Million Subscribers; iCloud Reaches 782 Million


At the beginning of this year, Apple Music had surpassed 10 million subscribers, according to a report from the Financial Times. Now, Apple SVP Eddy Cue has confirmed this figure. In fact, he gave a more precise number – the company has just passed over 11 million subscribers, he says. This tidbit and more were revealed on John Gruber’s “The Talk Show” podcast where Cue and SVP Craig Federighi joined to dish about features in upcoming OS releases, Apple’s intentions around its public beta, and more.

The Apple Music subscriber count is especially interesting because of how quickly the service has been growing. Apple’s debut in the streaming music space launched last June, offering users free, three-month trials on iOS. The app then arrived on Android in November. Those who didn’t choose to cancel began paying the $9.99 per month fee to remain subscribed.

Apple also recently closed off some of the features on its free tier in order to boost subscriptions. Specifically, it shut off access to its curated Apple Music radio stations, and instead made Beats 1 radio the only free station for those who aren’t subscribers. To what extent that has impacted growth still remains to be seen, however.

During the interview, the execs were dropping mini-scoops left and right. For example, the two revealed that Apple is working on an updated Remote app that will allow it to do everything that Apple TV’s own remote can. In fact, this will also allow multiple users to operate Apple TV at the same time – one on the Remote app, the other using the Apple TV remote.

Other numbers surrounding Apple’s products and services were unveiled, as well. While we already knew there were 1 billion Apple devices, thanks to figures reported in Apple’s Q1 ’16 “Earnings Supplemental Material” documentation, there were a number of surprises, too.

It was revealed that Apple’s iCloud service now reaches 782 million users; Apple’s iMessage users send 200,000 messages per second; Apple Pay has processed billions of dollars in payments; the App Store and iTunes see 750 million transactions every week; and Siri handles billions of requests per week.

Plus, there was one number that’s worth noting, if not something to necessarily brag about: Apple Maps’ team has corrected 2.5 million issues based on customer feedback. (It’s not just your gut, I guess – Apple Maps has been getting better.)

The whole episode is worth listening to in its entirety, and can be found on Gruber’s Daring Fireball website here.

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How Tech Can Shut Down Patent Trolls


The trolls of mythology can be conquered with lightning, church bells or heroic cunning, but shutting down today’s patent trolls requires a more comprehensive approach.

Patent trolls, more formally known as Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), pose a major threat to American businesses. A study published by the Boston University School of Law revealed that more than six times as many patent lawsuits are filed today as in 1980. More than 10,000 companies have been sued at least once by a PAE, and litigation by PAEs using acquired patents is increasing at an alarming rate — PAEs are now responsible for more than 84 percent of patent litigation in the U.S. Scared yet?

Businesses in all sectors are vulnerable, but today, high-tech companies face a particularly high risk. Why? Because patent trolls are lazy. They want to do the least amount of work and spend the least amount of money to generate as much profit as possible from the settlements. Taking a suit to trial is extremely expensive, with the cost of defense ranging from $500,000 to upwards of $5 million. To avoid these costs, more than 87 percent of defendants settle before trial, even if the infringement claim has no merit, and despite the fact that less than 1 percent of all defendants in PAE suits are found guilty.

Five years ago, trolls favored fluffy business method patents that were granted during the dot-com boom, when companies eagerly filed patents for basic things you could do with the Internet, like sell books, hyperlink content or publish online press releases. Then the American Invents Act, a patent reform bill, passed in 2014 and introduced “Covered Business Method Review (CBM),” which means that if a company gets sued by a vague business method patent, they can initiate a review with the Patent Office to see if that patent should exist at all.

Many of these business method patents re-examined by the Patent Office end up getting revoked, and, as a result, going after them is no longer as lucrative. This led trolls to go on a high-tech patent-buying binge, because these patents have a better chance of surviving review. Last year, PAEs scooped up more than 6,000 high-tech patents, most of which involved software.

The combination of increasing PAE litigation and high-tech patent targeting means every tech company is at risk and needs to take meaningful steps to protect their business. Here are three easy steps businesses can take to shut down patent trolls.

Step one: don’t sell

Step one is to not sell to patent trolls. More than 80 percent of patents litigated by PAEs are acquired from operating companies, and nearly 1,000 companies have transferred patents directly to PAEs in recent years. In the hands of trolls, these patents become weapons that they can use to wage an attack. Decreasing the number of patents that trolls can get their hands on weakens them by drying up their feed lines.

Companies relinquish patents to trolls for a number of reasons, but it usually boils down to money. Patent portfolios are extremely expensive to maintain, so when a company needs money, selling patents to a PAE can seem like a quick and easy way to boost cash flow and cut down on expenses. However, patents are not worth today what they were five years ago. There was a period of time when companies could get $500,000 to a million dollars per patent, but that was the high watermark, and the average selling price of a patent has dropped to around $40,000.

The benefits of selling a patent no longer justify the cost, because there can be serious consequences. To start, offloading patents on the open market can damage a company’s reputation, as well as its relationships with customers, partners, vendors and suppliers who are now at greater risk of getting sued. Selling a patent is essentially releasing a weapon into the wild, and any money gained from the sale can quickly be lost in mistrust and ill-will. The smarter, more responsible and, ultimately, more lucrative approach is to find other monetization models, like licensing.

Step two: join a community

As mentioned above, patents are extremely expensive animals to keep, and a large corporation with a large stable of patents can spend tens of millions of dollars a year on maintenance fees and taxes. If a company needs to shed some patents, it is important to shed them in a responsible way by selling to legitimate companies, rather than putting them on the open market and/or selling to a troll.

There are a number of nonprofit community-based organizations out there that help keep patents away from trolls, including my own.

In the war against patent trolls, the many are stronger than the few. PAEs look for the highest return on the least amount of work, and they won’t waste their time going after companies that are part of an anti-troll community and thus backed by a proactive network of supporters. Moreover, PAEs will never be defeated if battles are fought individually, on a reactive case-by-case basis. Victory requires private sector businesses to cooperate and collaborate toward the common goal of vanquishing trolls.

Step three: fight

Patent trolls would not be able to do what they do if companies fought back, because their survival is predicated on settlements. Remember: 99 times out of a hundred, PAEs do not succeed at trial, in which case, they neither win money nor keep the patent. If trolls perceive a company as weak and vulnerable, and see that it does not or will not fight back, that company is more likely to become a target for lawsuits — a prime piece of prey.

Conversely, patent trolls will not want to waste their resources going head-to-head with a warrior. Take Lee Cheng at Newegg, a lawyer who has earned a fierce reputation for fighting patent assertion claims to the death in court, and who is willing to do just about anything to win. Trolls do not want to mess with him and his company.

When faced with a patent assertion, tech companies can shut trolls down instead of coughing up the money in a settlement by challenging the validity of a patent in a process called IPR. IPR can be expensive, but there are organizations out there to help. Unified partners large companies, SMEs and startups to proactively deter PAE activity by attacking the patents that trolls own through IPR.

Joining a community is also a way to gather assistance when fighting back, because they facilitate the sharing of expertise and resources when a member is faced with a suit. Fellow community members may have experts who have dealt with PAE assertions and can assist board members and senior management at other companies, informing them about the risks patent trolls present, as well as the means of managing them. Again, we see that private sector cooperation is a highly impactful way to reduce the threat of PAEs, and an essential part of a multi-pronged, offensive approach.

Simply put, patent trolls are hurting innovation. For far too long, PAEs have been allowed to run roughshod over legitimate businesses, which have had few options for recourse or defense. While legislation (and lobbying for it) is necessary for curbing PAE activity, companies can’t sit on their laurels and wait for Congressional bills to get passed. There are steps every business can take to protect themselves and the tech/innovation ecosystem as a whole. It’s time to break out those bolts of lightning.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

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Earnings Review: Groupon Spikes, Pandora Mixed and Twitter’s Flat User Growth


It’s over! (Nearly.)

This week was the last set of big earnings reports, barring a few happening early March — Square and Box, to be exact. It was a wild week, to be sure. Groupon (surprise!) beat expectations, sending the stock soaring. Pandora was reportedly in buyout talks, and had a mixed quarter, giving the company a bouncy ride during the day.

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And then there’s Twitter. Of course, this was the big one: Twitter had a mixed quarter, but more importantly its user growth was completely flat. Even so, if you exclude SMS fast followers, Twitter’s user base was slightly down. Twitter’s had a wild couple of days, though it’s up about 11% today — because Twitter, of course.

We sat down to talk a little bit about the earnings reports for the wild ride in one of the final weeks of this quarter’s earning season. It’s been a fun one, to be sure, and is setting us up for a really interesting Q2.

See you all in March!

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YouTube Acquires BandPage For $8M To Attract Musicians With Money-Making Tools


YouTube wants to win the love of musicians by solving their biggest problem: how to turn popularity into cash. So today it announced it’s acquired BandPage, a startup that helps artists show off and sell concert tickets, merchandise, and exclusive fan experiences.

BandPage founder and CEO J Sider

BandPage founder and CEO J Sider

[Update: According to a source familiar with what BandPage shareholders were sent about the terms of the deal, the financial documents say that the acquisition price was $8 million. Only preferred stock will be converted into cash, and common stock will be cancelled with no payment.

Since that $8 million is much less than the $27.6 million in funding BandPage raised, the deal appears to be a firesale and few will see any significant payout. Several sources I contacted refused to speak due to strict orders not to discuss the financial terms. It makes sense that the company would try to keep it under wraps since the price was so low. YouTube declined to comment.]

Founded in 2009, BandPage began as an app that let musicians create a special Music tab on their Facebook Page. But after Facebook shut down these Page apps in 2012, it lost 90% of its traffic in three months. It went from 32 million monthly users and being the second most popular Facebook developer behind Zynga, to just a few million.

It was a grim moment, as BandPage had just raised a big $16 million Series B from GGV Capital a few months prior. It eventually had a to raise a smaller $9.3 million Series C in 2014 to stay afloat.

When Facebook banned Page landing tabs in 2012, BandPage lost 90% of its traffic

When Facebook banned Page landing tabs in 2012, BandPage lost 90% of its traffic


Luckily, BandPage quickly realized it couldn’t stay on Facebook and unshackled itself. Now its swift pivot seems to have paid off, or at least earned it a soft landing at YouTube. BandPage created a platform that artists could update with their tour dates and t-shirts, and have them appear in tons of places through integrations with Spotify, SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Rhapsody, StubHub, and more, as well as Google and YouTube.

This BandPage Everywhere platform was initially free with a $2 a month subscription fee for extra features. But least year BandPage ditched its Plus tier, made everything free, and instead began relaying on a 15% transaction fee for anything sold through its ecommerce integrations.


BandPage’s Spotify integration

BandPage writes that “BandPage is dedicated to helping musicians build their careers by growing their fan bases and increasing their revenue on the largest digital music services in the world. By joining forces with the team at YouTube, we can help artists reach their fans in more powerful ways than ever before.”

BandPage CEO J Sider referred me to this blog post when I requested comment. One big question is whether BandPage will keep working with some of YouTube’s biggest competitors.

Bandpage Editor

BandPage’s backend editor for musicians

But Sider did highlight that the blog posts insists that “Our collective goal remains the same: to grow an open network of digital music services, develop intelligent new tools for managing/distributing artist content and commerce, and create new revenue opportunities for all musicians, on YouTube and beyond.” That makes it sound like it will remain platform agnostic, though its non-YouTube partners might feel a little uneasy about it now.

YouTube recently launched its ad-free Red subscription service and dedicated Music app. If it can use BandPage’s money-making tools to curry favor with artists, they might be more likely to promote their YouTube presence and give it early or exclusive content. That could push consumers to subscribe to YouTube Red for $9.99 and get all of YouTube ad-free.

Other steaming services, especially Apple Music, have leaned on promotional opportunities for artists to recruit them, and exclusive content to lure subscribers. But at the end of the day, artists want revenue, and streaming listeners don’t earn them much. The trick is pairing attention pulled in through cheap or free streaming music with things fans can buy like clothing, posters, box sets, concert tickets, or even signed memorabilia and chances to meet their heroes.

Spotify Vs YouTube

Spotify’s artist pages show BandPage Offers that earn musicians revenue. Right now, YouTube’s Music app lacks these money-making tools


As you can see above, BandPage’s Offers are integrated into Spotify artist pages but not the YouTube Music app’s musician profiles. When artists consider where to direct their fans, they’ll prioritize ones that make them more money. The BandPage acquisition could get more revenue opportunities into YouTube’s properties so artists push traffic there.

Music is a cut-throat business. Artists feel underpaid while the tech giants compete to offer similar streaming music services that force them to pay out almost all their earnings to record labels. BandPage could make YouTube different — a place where artists and the platform capitalize on the attention music draws by selling everything surrounding it.

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