SurveyMonkey has filed confidentially to go public

The IPO window continues to remain open as SurveyMonkey, which last raised money in 2014 at a $2 billion valuation, announced today that it has confidentially filed to go public.

SurveyMonkey can file confidentially with the SEC through the JOBS act signed in 2012, which allows those companies to test the waters before they formally release an S-1. It’s increasingly popular as it allows the companies an opportunity to get a gut check while investors appear to have at least some of an appetite for fresh IPOs, while not having to spill publicly the entire financial guts of the company. SurveyMonkey is also the latest of a wave of enterprise IPOs in the past six months or so. There’s still plenty that can change given that it’s a confidential filing. We won’t know how much money the company wants to raise, what its business even looks like or any of the other granular details of the IPO.

SurveyMonkey gives businesses a way to submit surveys to their customers and try to more seamlessly gather feedback about products, customer service or anything else that a company might be able to measure based on those responses. In an era where tracking all of that data becomes increasingly important thanks to more robust predictive tools and considerably more processing power to make those projections, SurveyMonkey’s data is likely even more valuable than it was when it raised funding in 2014. SurveyMonkey on its own end, too, might be easily able to understand how people are actually rating the companies they work with.

Dropbox and DocuSign are the most recent successful IPOs, both valued at more than $10 billion at this point. But there are companies like Zuora, which went public in April, zScalar and others that have seen significant success after they went public. That means there’s plenty of demand for companies that are about to go public, which is where the saying of the “IPO window being open” comes from.

‘Gaming disorder’ is officially recognized by the World Health Organization

Honestly, “gaming disorder” sounds like a phrase tossed around by irritated parents and significant others. After much back and forth, however, the term was just granted validity, as the World Health Organization opted to include it in the latest edition of its Internal Classification of Diseases.

The volume, out this week, diagnoses the newly minted disorder with three key telltale signs:

  1. Impaired control over gaming (e.g. onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
  2. Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

I can hear the collective sound of many of my friends gulping at the sound of eerily familiar symptoms. Of course, the disorder has been criticized from a number of corners, including health professionals who have written it off as being overly broad and subjective. And, of course, the potential impact greatly differs from person to person and game to game.

The effects as specified above share common ground with other similar addictive activities defined by the WHO, including gambling disorder:

“Disorders due to addictive behaviours are recognizable and clinically significant syndromes associated with distress or interference with personal functions that develop as a result of repetitive rewarding behaviours other than the use of dependence-producing substances,” writes the WHO. “Disorders due to addictive behaviors include gambling disorder and gaming disorder, which may involve both online and offline behaviour.”

In spite of what may appear to be universal symptoms, however, the organization is quick to note that the prevalence of gaming disorder, as defined by the WHO, is actually “very low.” WHO member Dr. Vladimir Poznyak tells CNN, “Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to the intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder.”

Bet money on yourself with Proveit, the 1-vs-1 trivia app

Pick a category, wager a few dollars and double your money in 60 seconds if you’re smarter and faster than your opponent. Proveit offers a fresh take on trivia and game show apps by letting you win or lose cash on quick 10-question, multiple choice quizzes. Sick of waiting to battle a million people on HQ for a chance at a fraction of the jackpot? Play one-on-one anytime you want or enter into scheduled tournaments with $1,000 or more in prize money, while Proveit takes around 10 percent to 15 percent of the stakes.

“I’d play Jeopardy all the time with my family and wondered ‘why can’t I do this for money?’ ” says co-founder Prem Thomas.

Remarkably, it’s all legal. The Proveit team spent two years getting approved as “skill-based gaming” that exempts it from some laws that have hindered fantasy sports betting apps. And for those at risk of addiction, Proveit offers players and their loved ones a way to cut them off.

The scrappy Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 million so far. With fun games and a snackable format, Proveit lets you enjoy the thrill of betting at a moment’s notice. That could make it a favorite amongst players and investors in a world of mobile games without consequences.

“I could spend $50 for a three-hour experience in a movie theater, or I could spend $2 to enter a Proveit Movies tournament that gives me the opportunity to compete for several thousand dollars in prize money,” says co-founder Nathan Lehoux. “That could pay for a lot of movies tickets!”

Proving it as outsiders

St. Petersburg, Fla. isn’t exactly known as an innovation hub. But outside Tampa Bay, far from the distractions, copycatting and astronomical rent of Silicon Valley, the founders of Proveit built something different. “What if people could play trivia for money just like fantasy sports?” Thomas asked his friend Lehoux.

That’s the same pitch that got me interested when Lehoux tracked me down at TechCrunch’s SXSW party earlier this year. Lehoux is a jolly, outgoing fella who became interested in startups while managing some angel investments for a family office. Thomas had worked in banking and health before starting a yoga-inspired sandals brand. Neither had computer science backgrounds, and they’d raised just a $300,000 seed round from childhood friend Hilt Tatum who’d co-founded beleaguered real money gambling site Absolute Poker.

Yet when he Lehoux thrust the Proveit app into my hand, even on a clogged mobile network at SXSW, it ran smoothly and I immediately felt the adrenaline rush of matching wits for money. They’d initially outsourced development to an NYC firm that burned much of their initial $300,000 seed funding without delivering. Luckily, the Ukrainian they’d hired to help review that shop’s code helped them spin up a whole team there that built an impressive v1 of Proveit.

Meanwhile, the founders worked with a gaming lawyer to secure approvals in 33 states including California, New York, and Texas. “This is a highly regulated and highly controversial space due to all the negative press that fantasy sports drummed up,” says Lehoux. “We talked to 100 banks and processors before finding one who’d work with us.”

Proveit founders (from left): Nathan Lehoux, Prem Thomas

Proveit was finally legal for the three-fourths of the U.S. population, and had a regulatory moat to deter competitors. To raise launch capital, the duo tapped their Florida connections to find John Morgan, a high-profile lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, who footed a $2 million angel round. A team of grad students in Tampa Bay was assembled to concoct the trivia questions, while a third-party AI company assists with weeding out fraud.

Proveit launched early this year, but beyond a SXSW promotion, it has stayed under the radar as it tinkers with tournaments and retention tactics. The app has now reached 80,000 registered users, 6,000 multi-deposit hardcore loyalists and has paid out $750,000 total. But watching HQ trivia climb to more than 1 million players per game has proven a bigger market for Proveit.

Quiz for cash

“We’re actually fans of HQ. We play. We think they’ve revolutionized the game show,” Lehoux tells me. “What we want to do is provide something very different. With HQ, you can’t pick your category. You can’t pick the time you want to play. We want to offer a much more customized experience.”

To play Proveit, you download its iOS-only app and fund your account with a buy-in of $20 to $100, earning more bonus cash with bigger packages (no minors allowed). Then you play a practice round to get the hang of it — something HQ sorely lacks. Once you’re ready, you pick from a list of game categories, each with a fixed wager of about $1 to $5 to play (choose your own bet is in the works). You can test your knowledge of superheroes, the ’90s, quotes, current events, rock ‘n roll, Seinfeld, tech and a rotating selection of other topics.

In each Proveit game you get 10 questions, 1 at a time, with up to 15 seconds to answer each. Most games are head-to-head, with options to be matched with a stranger, or a friend via phone contacts. You score more for quick answers, discouraging cheating via Google, and get penalized for errors. At the end, your score is tallied up and compared to your opponent, with the winner keeping both player’s wagers minus Proveit’s cut. In a minute or so, you could lose $3 or win $5.28. Afterwards you can demand a rematch, go double-or-nothing, head back to the category list or cash out if you have more than $20.

The speed element creates intense, white-knuckled urgency. You can get every question right and still lose if your opponent is faster. So instead of second-guessing until locking in your choice just before the buzzer like on HQ, where one error knocks you out, you race to convert your instincts into answers on Proveit. The near instant gratification of a win or humiliation of a defeat nudge you to play again rather than having to wait for tomorrow’s game.

Proveit will have to compete with free apps like Trivia Crack, prize games like student loan repayer Givling and virtual currency-based Fleetwit, and the juggernaut HQ.

“The large tournaments are the big draw,” Lehoux believes. Instead of playing one-on-one, you can register and ante up for a scheduled tournament where you compete in a single round against hundreds of players for a grand prize. Right now, the players with the top 20 percent of scores win at least their entry fee back or more, with a few geniuses collecting the cash of the rest of the losers.

Just like how DraftKings and FanDuel built their user base with big jackpot tournaments, Proveit hopes to do the same… then get people playing little one-on-one games in-between as they wait for their coffee or commute home from work.

Gaming or gambling?

Thankfully, Proveit understands just how addictive it can be. The startup offers a “self-exclusion” option. “If you feel that you need to take greater control of your life as it relates to skill-gaming,” users can email it to say they shouldn’t play any more, and it will freeze or close their account. Family members and others can also request you be frozen if you share a bank account, they’re your dependant, they’re obligated for your debts or you owe unpaid child support.

“We want Proveit to be a fun, intelligent entertainment option for our players. It’s impossible for us to know who might have an issue with real-money gaming,” Lehoux tells me. “Every responsible real-money game provides this type of option for its users.

That isn’t necessarily enough to thwart addiction, because dopamine can turn people into dopes. Just because the outcome is determined by your answers rather than someone else’s touchdown pass doesn’t change that.

Skill-based betting from home could be much more ripe for abuse than having to drag yourself to a casino, while giving people an excuse that they’re not gambling on chance. Zynga’s titles like Farmville have been turning people into micro-transaction zombies for a decade, and you can’t even win money from them. Simultaneously, sharks could study up on a category and let Proveit’s random matching deliver them willing rookies to strip cash from all day. “This is actually one of the few forms of entertainment that rewards players financially for using their brain,” Lehoux defends.

With so much content to consume and consequence-free games to play, there’s an edgy appeal to the danger of Proveit and apps like it. Its moral stance hinges on how much autonomy you think adults should be afforded. From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson to Caesar’s Palace, society has allowed businesses to profit off questionably safe products that some enjoy.

For better and worse, Proveit is one of the most exciting mobile games I’ve ever played.

BitTorrent is selling for $140M to Justin Sun and Tron

BitTorrent, an early mover in concept of building a business around decentralised computing architecture to distribute and store data, is being sold for $140 million in cash to Justin Sun and his blockchain media startup Tron, TechCrunch has learned.

Variety yesterday reported that a sale of the company to Sun closed last week, without naming a price, following rumors that circulated for at least a month that the two were in negotiations.

TechCrunch understands that shareholders have now been sent the paperwork to sign off on the deal. Some are, we understand, still disputing the terms because more than one person claims to have made the introduction between Sun and BitTorrent, and the one who facilitated the deal will get an extra payout. A source says it’s unlikely that the disputes will actually kill the acquisition, given how long BitTorrent has been looking for a buyer.

BitTorrent most recently said it has about 170 million users of its products. Currently, these include its main client and BitTorrent Now. The latter is focused on video, music and other creative content. BitTorrent claims that its protocols move as much as 40 percent of the world’s Internet traffic on a typical day.

Tron is one of the new kids on the block in the wide world of blockchain startups. Founded by Sun, who previously had worked for Ripple (a settlement system built on blockchain tech), Tron says its mission is to build “a truly decentralized Internet and its infrastructure,” which has included (no surprises here) the creation of its own cryptocurrency, the TRX. TRX, loosely, appears to be a cryptocoin for the entertainment industry. Tron has plans to use TRX as a way to pay for content on its network, according to this whitepaper.

Tron is also just intended for trading. The company has launched a MainNet distributed ledger for transactions, with its own TRX migrating to the MainNet starting later this week. Tron says that the market cap for all TRX is currently valued at just under $4.6 billion with the value of a single TRX coin $0.045.

Neither Tron, Justin Sun, nor representatives for BitTorrent responded to our requests for comment, so it’s not completely confirmed how Tron plans to use BitTorrent. But one shareholder we spoke to says there are two plans. First, it will be used to “legitimise” Tron’s business, which has met with some controversy: it has been accused of plagiarising FileCoin and Ethereum in the development of its technology. And second, as a potential network to help mine coins, using BitTorrent’s P2P architecture and wide network of users.

The acquisition will close off a tumultuous but also interesting life for BitTorrent, founded in 2004 by Bram Cohen and Ashwin Navin to commercialise peer-to-peer networking technology as a way to share and store files.

BitTorrent was a trailblazer in considering how decentralised network architectures using all the machines in a network as nodes — in contrast with the server-based architectures that dominate the tech world today — could be used to share, store and backup data. Some believe this is a more secure system overall because there is no central repository to hack.

Yet the company has also become synonymous with “file sharing” and all the pros and cons that have come with that. Most notably, it has fought long against a bad rap for torrenting technology — which can be used to share copyrighted files illegally — by positioning itself as creator-friendly, buying in content rights, and establishing a range of products built on the P2P protocol. It also used its architecture to take a stand on privacy on the web at the height of the NSA controversy.

And while BitTorrent makes revenues — it hadn’t raised money since 2008 — its strategy to build a long-term larger business on that technology never really took off as investors and others hoped it would. That resulted in a number of management changes and a couple of reshuffles of its product as its leaders looked for the killer app. Some of its earlier product efforts are still around: BitTorrent’s enterprise services were spun off into a standalone company now called Resilio, led by BitTorrent’s former CTO and CEO, Eric Klinger.

(Side note: Interestingly, both Cohen and Navin are still following the trajectory of decentralisation that has led to the rise of blockchain, and that led Tron to BitTorrent. Cohen is building “eco-friendly” cryptocurrency Chia, and Navin, as the CEO of measurement and analytics provider Samba TV, is building a cryptocurrency to incentivise users to share more of their viewership data.)

Despite the current buzz for decentralised architectures around blockchain, we understand that BitTorrent had been looking for a buyer for a while, Long ago, one source told us, both Akamai and Rovi (which is now TiVo) had both considered buying BitTorrent but nothing came to pass. Akamai instead acquired Red Swoosh, a BitTorrent competitor that was Travis Kalanick’s first startup before Uber, and Rovi moved on in its own direction. More recently, offers were less forthcoming. The company had raised around $60 million in funding, according to PitchBook data, which notes that it had been valued around $145 million at its peak. Its investors have included DCM, Accel and DAG.

We will update this story as we learn more.

SpeakSee makes it simple for a deaf person to join a group conversation

There’s a great deal of activity in the fields of speech recognition and the “Internet of Things,” but one natural application of the two has gone relatively unpursued: helping the deaf and hard of hearing take part in everyday conversations. SpeakSee aims to do this (after crowdfunding, naturally) with a clever hardware design that minimizes setup friction and lets everyone communicate naturally.

It’s meant to be used in situations where someone hard of hearing needs to talk with a handful of others — a meeting, a chat at dinner, asking directions and so on. There are speech-to-text apps out there that can transcribe what someone is saying, but they’re not really suited to the purpose.

“Many deaf people experienced a huge barrier in asking people to download the app and hold the phone close to their mouth. These limitations in the interface meant no one kept using it,” explained SpeakSee CEO and co-founder Jari Hazelebach. “But because we designed our own hardware, we were able to customize it towards the situations it will be used in.”

SpeakSee is simple to use: A set of clip-on microphones live in a little charger case, and when the user wants to have a conversation, they hand those microphones out to whoever will be talking. The case acts as a wireless hub for the mics and relays the audio to the smartphone with which it’s paired. This audio is sent off, transcribed quickly somewhere in the cloud, and displayed on the deaf user’s phone.

Critically, though, each microphone also intelligently and locally accounts for its speaker and background noise.

“Naturally the microphones pick up speech from multiple people,” said Hazelebach. “So we included sensors that tell the microphone what direction the sound is coming from, and the microphones exchange these values. So we can determine which microphone should pick up which person’s speech.”

The result is quickly transcribed speech divided by speaker, delivered quickly and with decent accuracy (there’s always a trade-off between turnaround time and how the process is). And no one has to do anything but wear a mic. (They have a patent pending for this multi-microphone system.)

Hazelebach’s parents are deaf, and he grew up seeing how their ability to interact in ordinary circumstances was being limited.

The mics aren’t exactly small… but that’s how you know they’re real working hardware and not imaginary.

“As you can imagine my parents were the first to test this out,” he said. “At first we had a lot of issues but soon we started engaging with others. We wrote a post on a deaf blog and out of nowhere 200 people signed up. So we’ve been testing in the field with groups in the U.S., and also in the U.K. and the Netherlands.”

Right now English speech recognition is considerably ahead of Dutch and other languages, so the transcriptions will be better for the former, but even so the devices should work with any of 120 languages supported by the cloud service. Transcription is free for up to 5 hours of audio monthly, after which it’s a $10/month subscription. But if it works, it may be more than worth the money.

The team has a finished prototype but is seeking crowdfunding to get production off the ground. “We need to improve the electronics to meet specifications, battery life for example. We expect to ship in February of 2019,” Hazelebach said. Pre-orders are set at $350 for a dock and three mics.

The usual caveats (primarily “emptor”) apply when backing an Indiegogo type campaign — but at the very least, having spoken to the creator, I feel pretty sure this is a real, working product that just needs a boost to get to market.

Google rolls out Messages on the web for Android users

Messages, Google’s more recent focus for its scattered messaging efforts following its decision to “pause” work on Allo, is now available for web users. The company announced that it would begin rolling out Messages for web starting today, with the full rollout completing over the next week. The feature, along with others including GIF search, smart replies, and more, is part of an updated messaging experience for Android users that aims to be Google’s response to iMessage.

The company earlier this year moved its Allo team to work on Android Messages, Google’s app that utilizes the RCS messaging standard. The standard, adopted by numerous mobile operators worldwide, offers more feature parity with iMessage, thanks to its support for things like read receipts, typing indicators, high-res photo sharing, better group chat, and other features.

Now, Messages is gaining another feature to better compete with iMessage: web support.

Today, Apple users can access iMessage conversations on their Mac using a dedicated app. Google’s Messages for web is similar in the sense that it also offers cross-platform access to messages – that is, it lets Android users view and respond to chats when they’re not on their phone.

However, the implementation of Messages for web is more like WhatsApp for the desktop, right down to how you scan a code on the Message website to sync things up with your phone.

Google says Messages for web will support sending stickers, emoji and image attachments, as well as text, at launch.

The company also announced a few other features that will come to the Messages app over the next week, including built-in GIF search; Smart Replies, which suggest English language text responses and emoji for now; preview web links in conversations; and the ability to copy one-time passwords with a tap.

This last feature is also similar to a new addition coming to iMessage in iOS 12. When you’re logging into a site or app that requires a one-time password sent over text message, iOS 12 will let you paste that into the necessary field with one tap. Google’s system looks like it requires two taps – both the copy and the paste functions – but it’s still a lot easier than before.

To try out the new features, Android users will need to be on the latest version of the Messages app from Google Play.