Substack builds multi-author support into its hybrid publishing, newsletter service

Substack announced today that it has built support for multiple authors into its service. The company provides a publishing tool that blends blogs and email newsletters into a single entity, with a focus on subscription monetization.

The day’s updates also include a number of publisher-friendly tools, like shared access and homepage features closer to those of traditional websites than the linear timeline style that Substack has focused on so far.

The additions, which also include nice-to-haves like author pages for multi-person publications, mark a new level of maturity for Substack, a service that quickly attracted both authors and an audience after it launched. That early traction helped the company land an outsized — when compared to the size of its team — Series A that put $15.6 million into the business.

For users of the service, news of the funding was welcome. As was Substack’s disclosure at the time that the publications on its platform had attracted 50,000 paying subscribers. That figure was exciting, indicating that the company’s product might help writers of all sorts build a monetized audience, a holy grail for written creatives.

In light of today’s updates, TechCrunch asked Substack about the progress of its monetization, specifically curious about how many paid subscribers Substack publications had accreted. The company declined to share new numbers, with its co-founder and COO Hamish McKenzie instead saying that his team is “very happy with the growth [it has] seen over the past few months.”

In a company blog post accompanying today’s news, the firm noted “tens of thousands of paying subscribers,” implying that Substack has not yet doubled its former 50,000 person subscriber base. (Doing so would give Substack six-figures worth of subscribers. However, as it reached the 50,000 paid subscriber mark less than a year ago, it might be aggressive to expect such a rapid doubling.)

Newsletter, blog, website

Part of Substack’s initial success came from its intelligent blending of blogs and newsletters. Anyone who wanted to build one or the other got both, in a format that worked for each; bloggers could send email, and the email-focused also got a home on the internet. That the product came stapled to monetization tools made it all the more attractive.

Today’s updates help add a new form to the Substack mix: Websites. Here’s what a new Substack website can look like:

The ability to pin posts to the top of publications, the addition of photo bylines, and other tools mean that users can now do much more with the Substack publications. The company will now have to tread the line between the power of simplicity, and simply empowering its power users.

The company’s model appears to be working. Traffic to the larger Substack service has risen in recent months, according to analytics service Alexa. Substack was ranked among the 13,000th most visited global site in October of last year, according to the platform. It’s now in the 11,000s. With media companies like The Dispatch hatching on Substack, and with today’s updates, expect that number to continue to fall.

Substack is a bet that readers will pay for the written work that they care about. It’s a good wager. And better tools will tilt the odds more in its favor.

Now we can simply count down until Substack announces 100,000 paid subscribers.

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Shared inbox startup Front raises $59 million round led by other tech CEOs

Front is raising a $59 million Series C funding round. Interestingly, the startup hasn’t raised with a traditional VC firm leading the round. A handful of super business angels are investing directly in the productivity startup and leading the round.

Business angels include Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, Atlassian President Jay Simons, Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest, Qualtrics co-founders Ryan Smith and Jared Smith and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan. Existing investors including Sequoia Capital, Initialized Capital and Anthos Capital are participating in this round as well.

While Front doesn’t share its valuation, the company says that the valuation has quadrupled compared to the previous funding round. Annual recurring venue has also quadrupled over the same period.

The structure of this round is unusual, but it’s on purpose. Front, like many other startups, is trying to redefine the future of work. That’s why the startup wanted to surround itself with leaders of other companies who share the same purpose.

“First, because we didn't need to raise (we still had two years of runway), and it's always better to raise when we don't need it. The last few months have given me much more clarity into our go-to-market strategy,” Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin told me.

Front is a collaborative inbox for your company. For instance, if you want to share an email address with your coworkers (support@mycompany.com or jobs@mycompany.com), you can integrate those shared inboxes with Front and work on those conversations as a team.

It opens up a ton of possibilities. You can assign conversations to a specific person, @-mention your coworkers to send them a notification, start a conversation with your team before you hit reply, share a draft with other people, etc.

Front also supports other communication channels, such as text messages, WhatsApp messages, a chat module on your website and more. As your team gets bigger, Front helps you avoid double replies by alerting other users when you’re working on a reply.

In addition to those collaboration features, Front helps you automate your workload as much as possible. You can set up automated workflows so that a specific conversation ends up in front of the right pair of eyes. You can create canned responses for the entire team as well.

Front also integrates with popular third-party services, such as Salesforce, HubSpot, Clearbit and dozens of others. Front customers include MailChimp, Shopify and Stripe.

While Front supports multiple channels, email represents the biggest challenge. If you think about it, email hasn’t changed much over the past decade. The last significant evolution was the rise of Gmail, G Suite and web-based clients. In other words, Front wants to disrupt Outlook and Gmail.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to iterate on the product front with Office 365 support for its calendar, an offline mode and refinements across the board. The company also plans to scale up its sales and go-to-market team with an office in Phoenix and a new CMO.

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Inside Skip’s plan to appeal San Francisco’s scooter permit decision

Electric scooter operator Skip is gearing up to appeal San Francisco’s decision to not grant it a permit to operate in the city. When the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced the permit grantees in September, it came as a surprise to Skip, which had previously received a permit to operate as part of the city’s pilot program.

Ahead of the appeal hearing last Thursday, TechCrunch caught up with Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor to learn about the company’s game plan and why he thinks it can prevail in a battle that other electric scooter providers have lost.

Prior to the city’s decision last year to grant permits to Lime, Uber’s JUMP, Bird’s Scoot and Ford’s Spin, Skip was one of only two companies operating shared electric scooter services in San Francisco. Leading up to the new permitting application process, Skip said it had been working to ensure its electronic locks would be fully integrated by the beginning of the new permit period, Dastoor told TechCrunch. The company did this with guidance from the SFMTA, so when Skip was denied a permit, the team was caught off guard.

“It was a huge surprise,” Dastoor said. “We found out basically the same time as the press did that we didn’t get that permit, so it was pretty surprising to all of us.”

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Industrial technologies get a big backer with Anzu Partners’ new $190 million fund

Advances in biology, biochemistry, sensors and automation have the potential to reshape the ways manufacturing in America is done and a relatively new firm called Anzu Partners has just raised $190 million to invest in companies turning these scientific achievements into new products and services.

Far from Silicon Valley, Anzu is investing in technology companies coming from places as disparate as Durham, Omaha, and Santa Fe, in addition to the traditional technology hub of Boston and its surrounding area.

“We started in early 2016 with a focus on venture capital and early stage private equity,” says firm managing partner Whitney Haring-Smith. “The majority of the transactions that we do are minority, but there are a subset that are control.”

One of those acquisitions, for the optical electronics equipment manufacturer Axsun Technologies, yielded one of the firm’s early exits when the Massachusetts-based company was sold to Excelitas in a roughly $80 million transaction. The firm saw at least one other exit last year when Siemens bought its portfolio company MultiMechanics in November.

Co-founded and managed by former Boston Consulting Group leadership David Seldin and David Michael, the leadership team has expanded to include another BCG, alum, John Ho, who was just named partner with the close fo the fund.

Anzu Partners writes checks in the $3 million to $8 million range and follows that capital with commitments of up to $15 million, according to Haring-Smith.

“We focus today on investing in the technologies that enable tomorrow’s industries,” Haring-Smith said of the firm’s thesis. “We don’t know whether this biologic drug or that biologic drug will succeed but we know that all biologic drugs will need certain things.”

Examples include the company’s investment in the Santa Fe-based NTX Bio, which was made not because the startup manufactures particular biologics for the pharmaceutical industry, but because it makes technology which can produce lower cost, higher purity and higher stability biologics. “It doesn’t make vaccines, but makes vaccine manufacturing more cheap and efficient,” says Haring-Smith. 

The firm has already made six investments from its new fund since it first began fundraising efforts last April.

Portfolio companies include the Durham-based BioSkryb, which makes technologies to improve gene sequencing; Boston Microfluidics, which develops blood collection devices; GelSight, which makes 3D imaging systems to improve quality control in manufacturing; immunoSCAPE, which profiles immune systems to provide better data on potentially applicable therapeutics for patients; Sofregen, which tissue support and regeneration products based on a novel process for manufacturing silk proteins, and Solchroma Technologies, which uses a unique manufacturing process to make digital displays.

Anzu operates from offices in Tampa, San Diego, Washington, and Boston and Haring-Smith believes that the geographic diversity gives the company a leg up on deals.

With the new fund, the firm expects to expand its geographic footprint to other under-capitalized regions around the U.S.

 

 

 

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Google’s new experimental apps focus on reducing screen time — including one that uses a paper envelope

In October, Google debuted experimental apps focused on digital wellbeing, including one that offered a notification mailbox, another that tracked how long you went between phone unlocks, and even one that let you print out the information you needed from your phone for the day so you wouldn’t have to use it, to name a few. Now, Google has added three more apps to its unique collection with the launch of a Screen Stopwatch for tracking screen time, another that lets you visualize your phone usage as bubbles, and a third which lets you put your phone in an envelope…wait, what?

Envelope is not a joke, as it turns out, but rather the latest bit of creativity from London-based design studio, Special Projects. The group had already created the phone info printout app, Paper Phone, which arrived when Google’s Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform first launched last year.

The team’s new Envelope app helps you to still use your phone for basic functions, like making or receiving calls or using the camera to take photos. But all this is done from inside a paper envelope custom-designed for your phone. To wrap up your phone, there’s a printable PDF for Google Pixel 3a phones which you print at full scale, then cut, fold and glue. The end result is a paper phone sleeve that leaves room for the camera and offers a numberical keypad on the front, in case you need to make calls.

The app, meanwhile, helps to make the buttons light up to be seen through the paper.

Envelope is clearly more of a design experiment rather than a practical tool. While touchscreens do work through paper, wrapping your phone up for the day will certainly complicate things — like when you need to get someone’s phone number (because no one memorizes these anymore!) or to look up directions, among other things. But it would allow you to challenge yourself to see how long you could make it before ripping the envelope open, we suppose.

Another new app, Activity Bubbles, creates a new bubble for each phone unlock during the day. The bubble then grows larger the longer you use your device. Your bubbles can be set as a live wallpaper so you can continually keep track of your screen time.

Screen Stopwatch tracks how long you’ve been on your phone each day by counting the hours, minutes and seconds of screen time with every unlock. This, too, can be set as a live wallpaper so you can see your phone usage grow throughout the day.

These latter two apps were put out by Google Creative Lab, as were many of the first apps launched last fall.

Google explained at the time the goal with its Digital Wellbeing Experiments is to inspire designers and developers to keep digital wellbeing at top of mind when building technology. While some of the experiments may be “out there” — like envelopes for the phone — the overall goal is not to make these mainstream apps, but rather to get people thinking about our phone and app addictions. Major tech companies, Google included, are increasingly focused on what they can do better in this area — adding features like “take a break” reminders, alerts that tell you when you’re “all caught up” with your feed, or rolling out tools to help reduce screen time, like app limits or the ability to turn off distracting notifications. 

The Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform is open to contributions, but new additions are reviewed before they’re added to the site, a process that could take weeks. The apps themselves will work on recent Android handsets.

 

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