Amazon launches physical kiosks in UK train stations, a local extension of its Treasure Trucks

After announcing a year-long pilot of pop-up shops in the UK earlier this week to sell items from smaller marketplace merchants, Amazon has added another development to its brick-and-mortar efforts in the country. Starting today, the company is setting up physical kiosks, initially in train stations, to sell passers-by a rotating range of items at discounted prices.

The first of these will be in London, where Amazon is situating them in rail stations — Charing Cross, King’s Cross, Paddington, Liverpool Street and my local station London Bridge — and will start off by selling Boodles Mulberry Gin for £14.99 a bottle (a 40% discount on the normal price, Amazon notes).

The kiosks, Amazon says, are an extension of the company’s Treasure Truck concept, which sees a large vehicle doing the rounds across various towns — currently London, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Birmingham, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton, Nottingham, Leicester, Windsor, Maidenhead, Reading and Slough (for US readers: the original site of The Office) — offering a rotating selection of items at discounted prices. These have been operating in the UK for a couple of years now.

With Treasure Truck in the UK, you sign up for the service (by texting “truck” to 87377) and Amazon texts you to let you know when the truck is coming your way. Users can pre-order and pay for items to collect them from the truck. It looks like the same format will apply to the kiosks, which will also become pick-up points. To incentivise more signups, Amazon said that new users will get an additional introductory discount of £5 per bottle.

Kiosks are a practical adaptation of the Treasure Truck concept for Amazon: as with other cities in Europe, the locations Amazon visits in the UK have narrow streets sometimes clogged with traffic and generally not designed for speedy arrivals of giant vehicles, and the population is more dense.

Also, situating kiosks in rail stations to catch people during their commutes means more may buy knowing they are on their way home or to an office so will not have to carry items around all day.

“Kiosks are a natural extension of the exciting shopping experience of Amazon’s Treasure Truck. Whether you’re on the way to work or heading home for the day, Amazon customers and passersby will have a fun and convenient way to shop for an amazing deal, get their hands on a trending product or take part in a fun event. Kiosks will help turn an ordinary day into something a bit more special,” said Suruchi Saxena Bansal, Country Leader, Amazon Treasure Truck, in a statement.

More generally, Amazon has been slowly increasing the different channels that it uses to connect with potential customers beyond its basic website and mobile app.

This is because “omnichannel” is the order of the day in commerce: in markets that are especially competitive and mature, we’ve seen a big shift among retailers to cater to a wider variety of audiences and sell to them in whichever channel where they are spending time and discovering things.

That’s included selling on social media (Instagram for one is making a big push with this), through email (see: Mailchimp’s efforts here), and of course doing things the old-fashioned way, by selling in person (something that efforts from the likes of Square and PayPal have also helped to grow).

That in-person experience is something that Amazon — born in the virtual world of cyberspace — has been doubling down on for years to reach a wider set of shoppers.

Its efforts have included bookstores near college campuses, cashier-free Amazon Go stores, the whopping acquisition of Whole Foods, and — as of earlier this week — setting up pop-up shops.

The latter are particularly ironic, given that the Amazon name is regularly invoked when people discuss how brick-and-mortar shops — and in the UK, “high street” shopping precincts — have died a death.

A year ago, there was a rumor that Amazon was negotiating in the UK to acquire a selection of large retail locations that were being vacated by the bankrupt hardware and DIY chain Homebase.

These sprawling locations, situated often in town outskirts among other large stores with huge parking lots, are a far cry from little kiosks in crowded train stations. And indeed, the Homebase deal, if it was every really on the cards, never came to pass.

But the report and Amazon’s wider track record are sure signs that the commerce is only going to get more physical, not less. It’s not a question of “if”, but rather of how and when.

Mirakl Connect lets sellers list products on multiple e-commerce marketplaces

Mirakl is launching a new product called Mirakl Connect. As the name suggests, this central dashboard lets you control which marketplace you’re working with, and which seller you want to list on your marketplace.

Mirakl is a French startup that recently raised a $70 million funding round. The company works with e-commerce platforms so that they can add a marketplace of third-party sellers in addition to their own inventory.

Marketplaces are increasingly popular on e-commerce websites, and Mirakl powers the marketplaces for Darty, Office Depot, Best Buy in Canada, etc. The company also powers B2B marketplaces.

But now that marketplaces are booming, it becomes increasingly complicated for sellers to list their products on different marketplaces and reach as many clients as possible.

Thanks to Mirakl Connect, sellers can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. On the other side, e-commerce platforms that are just starting can find third-party sellers more easily.

If you’re running a small e-commerce website, third-party sellers don’t want to waste time and efforts to list products if it doesn’t lead to a lot of sales. By minimizing efforts, it should boost smaller marketplaces.

Sellers and marketplace owners can discuss together on Mirakl Connect with a built-in chat feature. Yes, Mirakl Connect sounds a bit like a marketplace of marketplaces — double marketplaces all the way.

Diving deep into Africa’s blossoming tech scene

Jumia may be the first startup you’ve heard of from Africa. But the e-commerce venture that recently listed on the NYSE is definitely not the first or last word in African tech.

The continent has an expansive digital innovation scene, the components of which are intersecting rapidly across Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.

When measured by monetary values, Africa’s tech ecosystem is tiny by Shenzen or Silicon Valley standards.

But when you look at volumes and year over year expansion in VC, startup formation, and tech hubs, it’s one of the fastest growing tech markets in the world. In 2017, the continent also saw the largest global increase in internet users—20 percent.

If you’re a VC or founder in London, Bangalore, or San Francisco, you’ll likely interact with some part of Africa’s tech landscape for the first time—or more—in the near future.

That’s why TechCrunch put together this Extra-Crunch deep-dive on Africa’s technology sector.

Tech Hubs

A foundation for African tech is the continent’s 442 active hubs, accelerators, and incubators (as tallied by GSMA). These spaces have become focal points for startup formation, digital skills building, events, and IT activity on the continent.

Prominent tech hubs in Africa include CcHub in Nigeria, Pan-African incubator MEST, and Kenya’s iHub, with over 200 resident members. More of these organizations are receiving funds from DFIs, such as the World Bank, and aid agencies, including France’s $76 million African tech fund.

Blue-chip companies such as Google and Microsoft are also providing money and support. In 2018 Facebook opened its own Hub_NG in Lagos with partner CcHub, to foster startups using AI and machine learning.

Emily Weiss and Kirsten Green will join us on the Main Stage at TC Disrupt SF

Since forever, companies have made products for people to buy, but the evolution and reach of the internet has given rise to entirely new brands, some of which are growing at unprecedented speeds thanks to platforms like Instagram and other social media channels — not to mention strong storytelling.

Two of the people leading the e-commerce charge are Glossier’s Emily Weiss and Forerunner Ventures founding partner and managing director Kirsten Green . We’re thrilled to announce that both of them will sit down on stage at TC Disrupt SF to discuss Glossier’s continued rise and the evolution of e-commerce.

Emily Weiss – Glossier

Glossier isn’t even four years old yet, and the brand has already become a household name. The company was launched in 2014 off the back of Weiss’ staggeringly successful beauty blog Into The Gloss.

The premise of the brand is simple. Glossier products are designed for women who love makeup but don’t love looking garish. Part of selling that effortlessly beautiful aesthetic centers on marketing  a narrow product line, one that’s focused on skin care products; a handful of lipsticks, cream cheek colors, and eyebrow mascaras; and well as a single fragrance called “You” that comes in both liquid and solid form.

Beyond the success of the products, Weiss has become a role-model, even a superstar, to many of Glossier’s young customers. Weiss built a foundation of trust with her audience on Into The Gloss, and that has carried over to the Glossier brand.

The originally direct-to-consumer company has also started an offline business with a pop-up shop in NYC, a now converted Dunkin Donuts that generates more sales revenue per square foot than the average Apple Store, according to Weiss.

Glossier has attracted a number of large investments from VCs like Index Venture Partners, Thrive Capital and Forerunner Ventures, bringing its total amount raised to more than $86 million. And sitting on the board is none other than Kirsten Green.

Kirsten Green – Forerunner Ventures

Eight years ago, Kirsten Green launched Forerunner Ventures. Since then, she’s risen to be one of the most prominent and successful investors in Silicon Valley and beyond, with a particular knack for e-commerce investments.

Green has raised more than $300 million and invested in more than 50 companies. Portfolio companies include Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Ritual, Inturn and Indigo Fair, as well as exited companies like Jet.com, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos.

She’s a founding member of All Raise, a female mentorship collective, and has been named one of Time’s 100 Most influential people, in Forbes’ 2017 and 2018 Midas List and World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. And lest we forget, she was also named VC of the year at the 2017 Crunchies Awards.

Green’s ability to identify stellar founders and foster e-commerce brands is unparalleled across the ecosystem, and we’re thrilled to learn from her on the Disrupt SF stage.

After buying Flipkart, Walmart seeks allies to join its fight against Amazon in India

The rumors are true: Walmart has bought a controlling stake in India’s Flipkart. This isn’t a straight-up acquisition, however, because, rather than going it alone, the U.S. retailer is enlisting strategic allies as it takes its fight to Amazon in a new region.

Walmart has an existing offline retail business in India, but enter the online space puts it up against Amazon, which has made massive strides since entering India in 2012.

That perhaps calls for something special, which is one reason why Walmart is buying just 77 percent of Flipkart and leaving space for others with expertise to come join.

Walmart confirmed that “some” existing investors will retain their stakes, including Tencent the $500 billion Chinese giant — and Tiger Global, both of which have board sets, and Microsoft, which was part of a $1.4 billion investment last year. Added to that, Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal has committed to stay retain his shares, although there’s no word on fellow co-founder Sachin Bansal who had been tipped to move on.

Beyond those three strategic Flipkart backers, Walmart said it is in ongoing discussions with “with additional potential investors who may join the round.”

Google is one who has been linked with a deal but you can imagine that Walmart — very much a physical retail specialist — will be looking to tap the world of tech and Asian partners to help gain an advantage over Amazon, which is broadly thought to have closed the gap on Flipkart in recent years.

Walmart is indicating that the new backers will buy a part of its equity if they invest, but it said it will “retain clear majority ownership” regardless of who joins.

“One of the things that was important to us here was having partners alongside us as well. So having Tencent, Microsoft and Tiger Global who are already investors in this business is really powerful in terms of the model that we’re creating,” Judith McKenna, Walmart COO, said on a call with investors following today’s announcement.

“[Flipkart] will be run through an independent board who will have some Walmart representation. We think that structure will best keep the entrepreneurial side of this business and guide it strategically, too,” McKenna added.

Walmart declined to give a timeline on when it might have news about the prospective investors.

Despite that, a number of investors have exited entirely with impressive returns, including SoftBank — which sunk a then-Indian record investment into Flipkart via its Vision Fund last year — Naspers and eBay.

In the more immediate future, Walmart is putting $2 billion of fresh capital into the business which Flipkart will be able to spend on growth and existing strategies.

Interestingly, too, Walmart is open to allowing Flipkart to IPO as a listed subsidiary in the future. That would help maintain incentives for employees and fulfill the ambition of management, McKenna said.

Walmart ends grocery delivery deal with Uber and Lyft

In 2016, Walmart announced that it would begin testing grocery delivery in conjunction with Uber and Lyft.

Today, however, Reuters reports that those partnerships have come to an end, which was confirmed by Walmart and Uber.

TechCrunch first reported in 2015 about Uber’s plans to launch a merchant delivery system, wherein goods from retailers would be delivered (via the trunk) and Uber users would be transported to their destination simultaneously.

The deal with Walmart, alongside rival services like Lyft and Deliv, marked massive progress for this merchant delivery system. But things haven’t panned out long term.

“It is incredibly hard to deliver people and packages together,” said one of Reuters’ sources with a delivery company that works with Walmart and has direct knowledge of the matter. “They are two completely different business models.”

Walmart has a number of other channels through which it can offer delivery.

It has partnered with Postmates and DoorDash, but has excluded Instacart from its delivery partners list. According to Re/Code, Instacart was excluded from the partnership opportunity because Instacart wanted Walmart to list its retail items within the Instacart app, whereas Walmart wanted to use Instacart as a delivery partner while exclusively selling items on its own digital property.

This obviously comes at a time where the grocery delivery game is heating up. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods has put pressure on incumbent grocery retailers to step up their digital presence and delivery capabilities.

Target acquired Alabama-based Shipt for $550 million in December of 2017. Meanwhile, Instacart has raised another $150 million this year, and recently announced a partnership with Walmart-owned Sam’s Club.

We’ve reached out to Uber and will update if/when we hear back.

Update: Uber has responded and provided the following statement:

UberRUSH fell under the team called “UberEverything” which is a collection of big bets, and the beginning of Uber as a platform. Recently we’ve been leveraging our platform into new products like Uber Eats, Uber Health or our aquisition with Jump Bikes. When we launched UberRUSH in 2014, we followed the same thinking, and wanted apply the model to help large and small businesses quickly and reliably move their goods.

After analyzing what made the most sense for our broader efforts, we decided to sunset UberRUSH worldwide on June 30th. Walmart has been an incredible partner for Uber these past few years and we have enjoyed serving Walmart’s customers and delivering their groceries through the UberRUSH platform. We are coordinating with Walmart to make this change as seamless as possible.

We’re already applying a lot of the lessons we learned together to our Uber Eats food delivery business. Since launching Eats two years ago, we’ve seen the business take off, growing through new markets, and forming new partnerships with restaurant owners around the world.

Vegan meal kit startup Purple Carrot raises $4M from Fresh Del Monte

Purple Carrot announced this morning that it has raised $4 million in strategic funding from Fresh Del Monte Produce.

The company, which delivers completely plant-based (vegan) meal kits to subscribers, was founded in 2014. It has, in part, gotten attention through celebrity involvement, first by enlisting food writer Mark Bittman as its chief innovation officer (Bittman departed in 2016), then by partnering with football star and notorious strawberry hater Tom Brady to launch TB12 meal kits.

Purple Carrot had previously raised $6 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. The company says that this new investment will allow it to improve its supply chain, get access to more retail opportunities and explore expansion into other categories.

“Securing this strategic investment from Fresh Del Monte is a huge validation of our business model, and an important step forward for our company,” said Purple Carrot founder and CEO Andy Levitt in the announcement. “Helping people eat more plant-based foods represents our differentiated, purpose-driven commitment to making the planet and the people who live on it healthier.”

Fresh Del Monte (which is the company behind Del Monte pineapples and other produce) is just the latest established player in the food and grocery world to invest in meal delivery startups. Last year, for example, Unilever backed Sun Basket and Nestlé led a $77 million round for Freshly.

Facebook launches commerce “Analytics” app

Facebook wants to prove it can earn businesses money, not just build their social media audience. This morning, just before its big F8 conference, a “Facebook Analytics” app for iOS and Android appeared in the app stores. It touts the ability to “stay on top of your growth, engagement, and conversion efforts on the go. Easily view key metrics and reports, check automated insights, and receive notifications when changes occur.”

As social marketing has matured, companies aren’t content just getting Likes, followers, and reach. They want to sell stuff. Between store fronts on Facebook, marketing bots on Messenger, professional accounts and shopping tags on Instagram, and the new WhatsApp For Business app, Facebook wants to offer tools to keep them loyal.

We’ll likely hear more about the Analytics app later today during the conference, and we’ve reached out for more info. The app complements Facebook’s Pages Manager and Ad Manger. But rather than just those surfaces, the Analytics app helps businesses track their apps, websites, bots, and event source groups.

The Facebook Analytics app lets uses create custom mobile views of their most important metrics like revenue, retention, demographics, and active users. It ties into Facebook’s web Analytics suite to let you view funnels, cohorts, and segments you’ve created there. Some businesses will also see automated insights such as that you’ve expereinced a period of higher sales, or that a certain demographic spends more time or money in your app.

If Facebook can boost confidence in the return on investment businesses get from its social network, it could convince them to invest more in ads, content, and managing their presence there. Clients have largely stuck with Facebook through its recent scandals because there’s simply no place with more precise ways to reach customers. But as the app hits saturation in certain markets and user growth plateaus, Facebook must keep finding ways to squeeze more money out of each of them.

Hustle rallies $30M for grassroots texting tool Republicans can’t use

Hustle 20X’d its annual revenue run rate in 15 months by denying clients that contradict its political views. It’s a curious, controversial, yet successful strategy for the startup whose app lets activists and marketers text thousands of potential supporters or customers one at a time. Compared to generic email blasts and robocalls, Hustle gets much higher conversion rates because people like connecting with a real human who can answer their follow-up questions.

The whole business is built around those relationships, so campaigns, non-profits, and enterprises have to believe in Hustle’s brand. That’s why CEO Roddy Lindsay tells me “We don’t sell to republican candidates or committees. What it’s allowed us to do is build trust with the Democratic party and progressive organizations. We don’t have to worry about celebrating our clients’ success and offending other clients.”

Hustle execs from left: COO Ysiad Ferreiras, CEO Roddy Lindsay, CTO Tyler Brock

Investors agree. Tempted by Hustle’s remarkable growth to well over a $10 million run rate and 85 million conversations started, Insight Partners has led a $30 million Series B for the startup that’s joined by Google’s GV and Salesforce Ventures.

The round comes just 10 months after Hustle’s $8M Series A when it was only doing $3 million in revenue. Lindsay says he was impressed with Insight’s experience with communication utilities like Cvent and non-profit tools like Ministry Brands. Its managing director Hillary Gosher who specializes in growing sales teams will join Hustle’s board, which is a great fit since Hustle is hiring like crazy.

Humanizing The Call To Action

Founded in late 2014, Hustle’s app lets organizers write MadLibs-style text message scripts and import contact lists. Their staffers or volunteers send out the messages one by one, with the blanks automatically filled in to personalize the calls to action. Recipients can respond directly with the sender ready with answers to assuage their fears until they’re ready to donate, buy, attend, or help. Meanwhile, organizers can track their conversions, optimize scripts, and reallocate assignments so they can reach huge audiences with an empathetic touch.

The Hustle admin script editor

The app claims to be 77X faster than making phone calls and 5.5X more engaging than email, which has won Hustle clients like LiveNation’s concert empire, NYU, and the Sierra Club. Clients pay $0.30 per contact uploaded into Hustle, with discounts for bigger operations. Now at $41 million in total funding, Hustle plans to push further beyond its core political and non-profit markets and deeper into driving alumni donations for universities, sales for enterprises, and attendance for event promoters.

Hustle will be doing that without one of its three co-founders, Perry Rosenstein, who left at the end of 2017. [Disclosure: I know Lindsay from college and once worked on a short-lived social meetup app with Rosenstein called Signal.] Lindsay says Rosenstein’s “real excellence was about early stage activities and problems”. Indeed, in my experience he was more attuned to underlying product-market fit than the chores of scaling a business. “It was Perry’s decision, it was a departure we celebrated, and he’s still involved as an informal adviser to me and the company” Lindsay concluded.

Hustle is growing so fast, this recent photo is already missing a third of the team

Hustle has over 100 other employees in SF, NYC, and DC to pick up the torch, though. That’s up from just 12 employees at the start of 2017. And it’s perhaps one of the most diverse larger startups around. Lindsay says his company is 51 percent women, 48 percent people of color, and 21 percent LGBT. This inclusive culture attracts top diverse talent. “We see this as a key differentiator for us. It allows us to hire incredible people” Lindsay says. “It’s something we took seriously from day one and the results show.”

Partisan On Purpose

What started as a favored tool of the Bernie Sanders campaign has blossomed into a new method of communicating at scale. “We’re massively humanizing the way these organizations communicate” Lindsay said. “Humans really matter, no matter if what you care about is getting lots of people to come to events, vote, or renew a season ticket package. Having a relationship with another person can cut through the noise. That’s different than your interactions with bots or email marketing campaigns or things where it’s dehumanized.”

Lindsay felt the frustration of weak relationships when after leaving Facebook where he worked for six years as one of its first data scientists, he volunteered for Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us immigration reform organization. Its email got just a 1 percent conversion rate. He linked up with Obama’s former Nevada new media director Rosenstein and CTO Tyler Brock to fix that with Hustle.

Working with Bernie aligned with the team’s political sentiments, but they were quickly faced with whether they wanted to fuel both sides of the aisle — which would mean delivering fringe conservative campaign messages they couldn’t stomach. Hustle still has no formal policy about declining Republican money, and a spokesperson said they point potential clients to TechCrunch’s previous article mentioning the stance. Meanwhile, Hustle is growing its for-profit client base to make shunning the GOP feel like less of a loss. Having Salesforce as a strategic investor also creates a bridge to a potential exit option.

Focusing on the left is working for now. Over 25 state Democratic parties are clients. Hustle sent 2.5 million messages and reached over 700,000 voters — 1 in 5 total — during the Alabama special election, helping Democrat Doug Jones win the Senate seat.

“Let’s build this great business for the Democratic party. Let’s let someone else take the Republicans” Lindsay explains. A stealth startup called OpnSesame is doing just that, Lindsay mentions. But he says “we don’t actually see them as competitive. We see them as potential allies that advocate for the power of p2p texting in getting everyone included in our democracy.” Instead, Lindsay sees the potential for Hustle to lose its sense of purpose and drive as it rapidly hires as its biggest threat.

Long-term, Hustle hopes to propel the right side of history by sticking to the left. Lindsay concludes, “You can really just put on your business hat and see this is a good choice.”

Square is acquiring website builder Weebly for $365M

Square just announced that it’s reached an agreement to acquire Weebly for $365 million in cash and stock.

While Square is best known for its payment software and hardware, it’s also been expanding into other areas, for example with the acquisition of food delivery service Caviar and corporate catering startup Zesty.

Weebly, meanwhile, offers easy-to-use website building tools. While those tools can be used by individuals (my personal website is built on Weebly), the company has increasingly focused on serving small businesses and e-commerce companies.

Meanwhile, competitor Squarespace raised $200 million at a $1.7 billion valuation at the end of last year.

Square says that by acquiring Weebly, it can create “one cohesive solution” for entrepreneurs looking to build an online and offline business. And since 40 percent of Weebly’s 625,000 paid subscribers are outside the U.S., the deal will help Square expand globally.

“Square and Weebly share a passion for empowering and celebrating entrepreneurs,” said Square CEO Jack Dorsey in the acquisition release. “Square began its journey with in-person solutions while Weebly began its journey online. Since then, we’ve both been building services to bridge these channels, and we can go even further and faster together.”

Weebly was founded in 2007 by David Rusenko, Chris Fanini and Dan Veltr. (Rusenko, who’s still the company’s CEO, is pictured above.) According to Crunchbase, the company raised $35.7 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, Tencent Holdings, Baseline Ventures, Floodgate, Felicis, Ron Conway and Y Combinator.

Square says the acquisition price includes stock for Weebly founders and employees that will vest over a four-year period.