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Twilio’s $3.2B Segment acquisition about helping developers build data-fueled apps

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The pandemic has forced businesses to change the way they interact with customers. Whether it’s how they deliver goods and services, or how they communicate, there is one common denominator, and that’s that everything is being forced to be digitally driven much faster.

To some extent, that’s what drove Twilio to acquire Segment for $3.2 billion today. (We wrote about the deal over the weekend. Forbes broke the story last Friday night.) When you get down to it, the two companies fit together well, and expand the platform by giving Twilio customers access to valuable customer data. Chee Chew, Twilio’s chief product officer says while it may feel like the company is pivoting in the direction of customer experience, they don’t necessarily see it that way.

“A lot of people have thought about us as a communications company, but we think of ourselves as a customer engagement company. We really think about how we help businesses communicate more effectively with their customers,” Chew told TechCrunch.

Laurie McCabe, co-founder and partner at SMB Group, sees the move related to the pandemic and the need companies have to serve customers in a more fully digital way. “More customers are realizing that delivering a great customer experience is key to survive through the pandemic, and thriving as the economy recovers — and are willing to spend to do this even in uncertain times,” McCabe said.

Certainly Chew recognized that Segment gives them something they were lacking by providing developers with direct access to customer data, and that could lead to some interesting applications.

“The data capabilities that Segment has are providing a full view of the customer. It really layers across everything we do. I think of it as a horizontal add across the channels and extending beyond. So I think it really helps us advance in a different sort of way […] towards getting the holistic view of the customer and enabling our customers to build intelligence services on top,” he said.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, sees Segment helping to provide a powerful data-fueled developer experience. “This move allows Twilio to impact the data-insight-interaction-experience transformation process by removing friction from developers using their platform,” Leary explained. In other words, it gives developers that ability that Chew alluded to, to use data to build more varied applications using Twilio APIs.

Paul Greenberg, author of CRM at the Speed of Light, and founder and principal analyst at 56 Group agrees saying, “Segment gives Twilio the ability to use customer data in what is already a powerful unified communications platform and hub. And since it is, in effect, APIs for both, the flexibility [for developers] is enormous,” he said.

That may be so, but Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research says the company has to be seeing that the pure communication parts of the platform like SMS are becoming increasingly commoditized, and this deal, along with the SendGrid acquisition in 2018, gives Twilio a place to expand its platform into a much more lucrative data space.

“Twilio needs more growth path and it looks like its strategy is moving up the stack, at least with the acquisition of Segment. Data movement and data residence compliance is a huge headache for enterprises when they build their next generation applications,” Mueller said.

As Chew said, early on the problems were related to building SMS messages into applications and that was the problem that Twilio was trying to solve because that’s what developers needed at the time, but as it moves forward, it wants to provide a more unified customer communications experience, and Segment should help advance that capability in a big way for them.

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VidCon is planning to return in summer 2021, and will allow people to attend digitally

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VidCon, an annual convention focused on digital creators, is tentatively planning to return to Anaheim, California next summer if conditions allow, but organizers are preparing to let people attend digitally for the first time.

The new digital option will allow people to purchase tickets for a number of live-streaming and “key fan-focused sessions” for those who don’t or can’t travel to the actual convention. The move comes after VidCon saw success in many of the digital sessions the convention held this year (referred to as VidCon Now) after the COVID-19 pandemic led to organizers deciding to cancel the actual in-person event.

Nearly 1 million people tuned into digital events held by VidCon over the last few months, according to general manager Jim Louderback, adding that nearly half of that audience was streaming from outside the United States.

“We’ve clearly demonstrated that VidCon transcends borders — more than 180 of them to be exact. Our new hybrid digital and IRL model will extend VidCon’s global reach with more new ways to be informed, entertained, and inspired than ever before.”

In order to reach a more international audience, VidCon’s digital portion will also program different panels and sessions in partnership with VidCon Mexico and VidCon Asia. These panels will be created in a country’s native language and will be scheduled for the appropriate time zones, according to a press release.

Alongside VidCon’s new digital plans, the organization is also introducing a rebrand that is meant to focus on all digital creators instead of honing in on YouTubers. This includes making VidCon Now events — those digital panels and sessions that took the place of a physical VidCon this past summer — year-round. VidCon Now, which includes speakers and experts from YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, TikTok, and more, will pick up again on October 27th.

“We started VidCon more than a decade ago to help strengthen and promote the explosion of creativity that was happening online,” co-founder Hank Green said in a press release. “We did that by bringing together the entire ecosystem: the creators who make amazing things, the fans who love them, and the industry that supports them.”

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Snapchat’s anime lens was a huge hit, Snap confirms

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Snapchat’s anime filter was used more than 3 billion times in the first week after it was released, Snap said today, confirming what we already knew: it was a huge hit.

The filter, which morphs its subject into an anime character, is just the latest in a line of fun AR lenses from Snapchat that have gone viral and helped drive usage on the platform. During its third quarter, Snapchat had 249 million daily users, up from 238 million last quarter. The company’s revenue was also up to $679 million, a 52 percent increase even as the pandemic chilled ad spending elsewhere.

There are signs that Snap’s growth is more robust than drive-by filter users. The average number of Snaps created each day is up 25 percent year over year, the company said (though it didn’t say exactly how many that is). Time spent watching shows on Snapchat also grew by 50 percent.

Snap called out the success of its AR features, in particular, when highlighting where it saw growth in the longer term. “The adoption of augmented reality is happening faster than we had previously anticipated, and we are working together as a team to execute on the many opportunities in front of us,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said in remarks alongside the company’s earnings release for the third quarter of 2020.

Though Snapchat tends to get less attention than other social networks, it’s among the bigger apps out there. Twitter reported having 186 million daily users last quarter, and TikTok reported in August that it had 100 million daily users in the US. (Snapchat has 90 million daily users in all of North America.) It’s still tiny compared to Facebook and its suite of apps, though. Instagram had 500 million daily users when it last provided an updated number in 2018.

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Synthetaic raises $3.5M to train AI with synthetic data

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Synthetaic is a startup workign to create data — specifically images — that can be used to train artificial intelligence.

Founder and CEO Corey Jaskolski’s past experience includes work with both National Geographic (where he was recently named Explorer of the Year) and a 3D media startup. In fact, he told me that his time with National Geographic made him aware of the need for more data sets in conservation.

Sound like an odd match? Well, Jaskolski said that he was working on a project that could automatically identify poachers and endangered animals from camera footage, and one of the major obstacles was the fact that there simply aren’t enough existing images of either poachers (who don’t generally appreciate being photographed) or certain endangered animals in the wild to train AI to detect them.

He added that other companies are trying to create synthetic AI training data through 3D worldbuilding (in other words, “building a replica of the world that you want to have an AI learn in”), but in many cases, this approach is prohibitively expensive.

In contrast, the Synthetaic (pronounced “synthetic”) approach combines the work of 3D artists and modelers with technology based on generative adversarial networks, making it far more affordable and scalable, according to Jaskolski.

Synthetaic elephants

Image Credits: Synthetaic

To illustrate the “interplay” between the two halves of Synthetaic’s model, he returned to the example of identifying poachers — the startup’s 3D team could create photorealistic models of an AK 47 (and other weapons), then use adversarial networks to generate hundreds of thousands of images or more showing that model against different backgrounds.

The startup also validates its results after an AI has been trained on Synthetaic’s synthesized images, by testing that AI on real data.

For Synthetaic’s initial projects, Jaskolski said he wanted to partner with organizations doing work that makes the world a better place, including Save the Elephants (which is using the technology to track animal populations) and the University of Michigan (which is developing an AI that can identify different types of brain tumors).

Jaskolski added that Synthetaic customers don’t need any AI expertise of their own, because the company provides an “end-to-end” solution.

The startup announced today that it has raised $3.5 million in seed funding led by Lupa Systems, with participation from Betaworks Ventures and TitletownTech (a partnership between Microsoft and the Green Bay Packers). The startup, which has now raised a total of $4.5 million, is also part of Lupa and Betaworks’ Betalab program of startups doing work that could help “fix the internet.”

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