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Zira raises $3.1M for its shift-scheduling service that helps manage hourly workers

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This morning Zira raised $3.1 million in a seed round. The startup provides software that helps businesses schedule their hourly workforce in a more intelligent manner.

Software often fails to reach non-information workers, so it’s nice to see a startup focus on a somewhat forgotten demographic. General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures led the round, which also saw participation from a number of angel investors.

This is the company’s first known investment, according to Crunchbase data.

The technology that Zira sells looks neat from the outside. It can automatically set team schedules, taking a task that can be rife with favoritism or bias and making it a bit more standardized. Its service can also handle clocking in and out for workers, and provides a chat feature to help groups of workers stay in sync.

And most interesting of all, Zira’s platform has an automation feature, allowing managers to create triggers to replace missing staff for a shift, or provide rewards to the workers who come top in a category, like attendance.

Zira’s service costs $4 per employee, per month, or $3 if paid annually. It also executes custom deals with larger clients, for whom we presume discounts can be had.

The round

To better understand the round itself, TechCrunch asked Zira what the new capital will unlock for its business. Tito Goldstein, a founder at the company, responded that the funds will allow his company to scale its development team, “hone” its product and work on its sales function.

“We started with a product that was meeting customer expectations and winning deals against incumbent platforms,” Goldstein said in an email, “but now we want to really differentiate ourselves.” Hiring more developers should help the company move more quickly in that direction, and without money it’s rather hard to hire engineers.

On the sales front, Goldstein said that after depending on “referral or local connections” to secure customers, COVID has made those channels “increasingly difficult.” That means Zira needs a more traditional sales function, and capital.

Zira declined to share growth metrics, saying that it hopes to do so by the end of the year. That means we’ll check back in with Zira in a few months to get the data. Until then, it’s a fun startup with a neat idea. Let’s see how far it gets with its new capital.

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Google tests smart displays that activate without a wake word

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A new feature being internally tested at Google could remove the need to say “Hey Google” before voicing commands to Nest Hub smart displays, Android Central reports. Instead, the feature codenamed “Blue Steel” could allow the device to simply sense your presence, and proactively listen for commands without first needing to hear the wake word.

The functionality has been shown off in a video posted to YouTube by Jan Boromeusz, who Android Central notes previously leaked features like the Nest Hub’s new dark mode prior to its official announcement. In the video, Boromeusz can be seen asking for a variety of information, all without once uttering the words “Hey Google.” His Nest Hub Max smart display is reportedly running leaked internal firmware meant for testing within Google, and it’s unclear if the company has any plans to release the functionality publicly.

The speculation is that the Nest Hub Max is using its existing ultrasound sensing to sense a person’s presence and start listening. At the moment, the smart display uses this to simply adjust the information it shows. However, in the future, this same technology could allow it to listen out for voice commands when it knows you’re nearby. Ars Technica speculates that it could also use its camera’s Face Match feature to get a better idea of who’s speaking. Boromeusz shows an option to turned Blue Steel on and off in the smart display’s settings menu.

If released to the public, Blue Steel could raise privacy concerns. A key element of current smart speakers and displays is that they only pay attention to what you’re saying after they hear the wake word. Relying upon proximity detection alone increases the risk of the devices hearing something they’re not supposed to, at the expense of your privacy.

That said, “Blue Steel” could make for a useful optional feature for some. Having to repeatedly say “Hey Google” or “Ok Google” before every voice command can be a pain, and this potentially makes accessing information you need far quicker.

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Here integrates what3words’ super simple address system into its in-car API

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Geocoding startup what3words — which chunks the world into 3mx3m squares, giving each a unique three-word label to simplify location sharing — has nabbed another in-vehicle integration, via a partnership with Here Technologies.

The pair said today that OEMs using Here’s navigation platform can include what3words as an in-car nav feature directly through the Here Search API, instead of needing to integrate itself. Existing users of the platform will be able to be given access to what3word’s addressing tech via an update.

Here says its map data services can be found in 150 million vehicles worldwide at this point.

It’s by no means the first such integration for what3words which has found cars to be a natural fit for its simplified, ‘rolls-off-the-tongue’ addressing system. The 2013-founded startup inked a partnership with Ford last year, for example. It also counts Daimler as an investor.

Letting drivers speak or type three words to input a location into their car’s GPS system has clear benefits vs requiring they correctly specify a full address. what3words also pinpoints a more specific location than a typical postcode — and works for destinations that don’t have a street address (the start of a hiking trial or specific lay-by; a particular entrance for a campus etc).

what3words further notes that its tech has been adopted by global car companies, logistics providers and mobility apps, including Mercedes-Benz, Tata Motors, DB Schenker, Hermes and Cabify.

In recent years the novel addressing system has also found favor with Airbnb as a way of simplifying location sharing for less traditional types of stays.

Commenting on its latest partnership in a statement, what3words CEO and co-founder, Chris Sheldrick, said: “We are seeing increasing demand from automakers and mobility services. Now that we are embedded in Here, we can enable our address system simply and easily in both new and legacy vehicles.”

“Automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers can now provide the what3words service to their customers through the Here Search API instead of having to integrate it themselves,” added Jørgen Behrens, SVP and chief product officer at Here Technologies in another supporting statement. “This will allow drivers to navigate easily in dense, urban environments with non-standard addressing schemes or seamlessly get to any location, be it a local pub or a trailhead.”

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Smartphone shipments rebound to hit an all-time high in India

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Smartphone shipments reached an all-time high in India in the quarter that ended in September this year as the world’s second largest handset market remained fully open during the period after initial lockdowns due to the coronavirus, according to a new report.

About 50 million smartphones shipped in India in Q3 2020, a new quarterly record for the country where about 17.3 million smartphone units shipped in Q2 (during two-thirds of the period much of the country was under lockdown) and 33.5 million units shipped in Q1 this year, research firm Canalys said on Thursday.

Xiaomi, which assumed the No.1 smartphone spot in India in late 2018, continues to maintain its dominance in the country. It commanded 26.1% of the smartphone market in India, exceeding Samsung’s 20.4%, Vivo’s 17.6%, and Realme’s 17.4%, the marketing research firm said.

Image Credits: Canalys /

But the market, which was severely disrupted by the coronavirus, is set to see some more shifts. Research firm Counterpoint said last week that Samsung had regained the top spot in India in the quarter that ended in September. (Counterpoint plans to share the full report later this month.)

According to Counterpoint, Samsung has benefited from its recent aggressive push into online sales and from the rising anti-China sentiments in India.

The geo-political tension between India and China has incentivised many consumers in India to opt for local brands or those with headquarters based in U.S. and South Korea. And local smartphone firms, which lost the market to Chinese giants (that command more than 80% of the market today) five years ago, are planning a come back.

Indian brand Micromax, which once ruled the market, said this month that it is gearing up to launch a new smartphone sub-brand called “In.” Rahul Sharma, the head of Micromax, said the company is investing $67.9 million in the new smartphone brand.

In a video he posted on Twitter last week, Sharma said Chinese smartphone makers killed the local smartphone brands but it was now time to fight back. “Our endeavour is to bring India on the global smartphone map again with ‘in’ mobiles,” he said in a statement.

India also recently approved applications from 16 smartphone and other electronics companies for a $6.65 billion incentives program under New Delhi’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. Foxconn (and two other Apple contract partners), Samsung, Micromax, and Lava (also an Indian brand) are among the companies that will be permitted to avail the incentives.

Missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers such as Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme.

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