Comic sales are down as readers abandon print

Comic book and graphic novel sales fell 6.5% in 2017 from a 2016 high of $1.015 billion. Graphic novels brought in $570 million while comic books brought in about $350 million.

A report posted to Comichron notes that comic stores are still the biggest source for revenue while $90 million is attributable to digital downloads.

“After a multiyear growth run, the comics shop market gave back some of its gains in 2017, with lackluster response to new periodical offerings and, consequently, graphic novel sales,” wrote Comichron’s John Jackson Miller. “The third quarter of 2017 saw the worst of the year-over-year declines, leading into what has turned out to be a stronger spring for stores in 2018.”

In a pattern that is now familiar in publishing, kids comics and graphic novels helped buoy the market. The same thing is happening regularly in the book market with kids titles selling briskly in print while adults abandon softcovers and hardcovers for digital downloads. While the “floppy” comic book is still clearly popular, the digital download is outpacing subscription sales but it still minuscule in comparison to print.

Interestingly, Comichron breaks up sales into comics, graphics novels, and digital downloads and it would be enlightening to compare digital sales broken up by book style. That said, it’s fascinating to see the medium change as consumption models shift to devices.

Watch Blue Origin’s most critical rocket launch right here

The launch is scheduled for 11:00 am EDT on July 18, 2018.

Blue Origin is about to preform a critical rocket test. For the first time Jeff Bezos’ rocket company will send send its New Shepard rocket to its red line at the edge of space and then fire the escape motor on the capsule that will carry passengers. If this test goes well, Blue Origin’s New Shepard program could become operational as early as this year.

This is the ninth mission for the New Shepard program and the third time this reusable rocket was used.

About 20 seconds (and 100 feet) after the New Shepard booster and the crew capsule separates, the motor on the capsule will fire with 70k foot pounds of thrust, sending the capsule 50,000 km higher than it has gone before. After the motor fires, parachutes will hopefully deploy allowing the capsule to return safely to solid ground. Separately, the booster will hopefully return to Earth and land so it can be reused again.

Inside the capsule is a crash dummy loaded with instruments to measure the forces of the rocket launch. Bezos dubbed the dummy “Mannequin Skywalker” because even the richest man in modern history is a nerd. Mannequin Skywalker will experience around 3Gs during the launch, a Blue Origin representative said.

Kik launches beta product after $100 million ICO

Kik made waves last year after a successful $100 million ICO. Now the company has released its first beta product related to its Kin token. Called Kinit, it’s a simple wallet that enables users to earn, store, and spend its tokens.

“Kinit is a fun, easy way to earn Kin, a new cryptocurrency made for your digital life. Earning Kin is just like playing a game, only better, because you get rewarded for completing fun daily activities like surveys, quizzes, interactive videos and more,” reads the Google Play Store description. You can download the app for Android here.

The Kin token is unique for a few reasons. First it is not a traditional ERC-20 token and is instead uses Ethereum for liquidity and the on the Stellar network to improve transaction speed. Further, the company is spending a great deal – about $3 million – to get developers to develop on the token through its KinEcosystem site. The Kinit app is the first effort to get normal users to adopt the tool.

The app makes it possible for users to generate a few dollars in value per day and then exchange those dollars for gift cards and perks. According to CCN, Kik has created a product without a business model and instead it wants to drive the adoption of the token through giveaways.

“Kinit is the first publicly available app dedicated to Kin. Our goal with Kinit is to get Kin into more consumers’ hands. It’s a major step towards making crypto truly consumer-friendly through fun and engaging experiences, and we plan to learn and iterate based on real-world user behavior. We’re excited to get even more people earning and spending Kin — all on the Kin Blockchain,” wrote Rod McLeod, Kik’s VP of communications. The app currently asks you to complete surveys in order to get discounts and gift card codes for products.

With the rise of the product-less ICO it’s clear that Kik has the right idea. By encouraging usage they drive up the token price and token velocity and by launching a general beta full of cutesy imagery and text they are able to avoid the hard questions about developer adoption until far into the future. While the KinIt app is probably not what most Kin holders wanted to see, it’s at least an interim solution while the team builds out sturdier systems.

Custom framing startup Framebridge picks up $30 million Series C

D.C.-based Framebridge today announced the close of a $30 million Series C financing round led by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. with participation from existing investors SWaN & Legend Venture Partners, Revolution Ventures, and NEA.

Launched in 2014, Framebridge offers affordable and convenient custom framing via its website and mobile app. The idea for the company started when founder and CEO Susan Tynan went to get four National Parks posters framed. After a multi-hour consultation, she ended up spending $1,600.

“I left thinking ‘What did I just do?’” said Tynan. “The framing cost more than my couch, and that experience just really stuck with me.”

She poured herself into understanding how the framing industry works, and soon after, Framebridge was born.

On the consumer side, the process is really simple. Users can either upload a picture to be framed, or request shipping materials from Framebridge to send in an existing photo, poster, or piece of art. Users can then ship in their art and choose the framing style on the website or app, with the finished product returning back at their house within seven to ten days.

Because Framebridge does all its own production, the company has been able to implement some automation and refine the production process to lower cost. The highest price a user will pay on Framebridge is $199, with the lowest price at $39 for a framed 10×10 Instagram.

Unlike some other D2C custom framing startups who outsource their product, Framebridge handles all of its own production. This means that, as the company grows, its margins get healthier and the business gets stronger.

Another benefit of in-house production is that Framebridge gets to see what its users are framing, which has turned out to be much more than your average poster or picture. Tynan recalled seeing baseball tickets, hand-written vows, and other sentimental items come through the facility, and said that up to 65 percent of the items Framebridge customers framed with the startup are things they wouldn’t have taken to a traditional custom framer.

Tynan says that balancing supply and demand is one of the biggest challenges of the company.

“Every time we sell something, we have to produce it,” said Tynan. “We’re getting more sophisticated as we grow, but we’re not a Saas company. Unlike a lot of other startups, we had to get a lot of disciplines right from the very beginning.”

The new funding will go toward expanding manufacturing capabilities, refining the delivery process, marketing and brand awareness, as well innovation in the product itself.

Greycroft raises $250M for its fifth early-stage fund

Greycroft, the venture capital firm that’s backed companies like the Huffington Post, Plated and Venmo, is announcing that it has raised $250 million for its latest fund.

The firm was founded in 2006 by Alan Patricof, Ian Sigalow and Dana Settle, and it now invests from a fund for seed and Series A deals (this is its fifth early-stage fund) and a separate fund focused on growth investments. Recent bets include scooter startup Bird and podcast network Wondery.

Sigalow told me that for the most part, the firm’s strategy isn’t changing, though it has adapted to what he called “the rise of the institutional seed round” by making more seed investments of its own.

“I think it’s mostly a change in nomenclature,” Sigalow said — where a funding round of a few million dollars would previously have been called a Series A, it’s is now considered seed funding. (And anything before that becomes “pre-seed.”) “There is on the margin more capital being deployed industry-wide now than there was five or 10 years ago. That’s true at every stage. Rounds have gotten slightly larger.”

And while Greycroft has offices in New York and Los Angeles, the firm notes that some of its recent successes have come from Birmingham, Alabama (Shipt, which was acquired by Target) and Chicago (Trunk Club, acquired by Nordstrom, as well as Braintree, acquired by PayPal).

Settle said Greycroft tries to look at “opportunities in all kinds of markets.” Sigalow added that one of the “big unsung advantages” of being in LA and NYC is “true access to virtually direct flights everywhere.”

The firm also says that nearly half of its investments go into startups founded by women and other underrepresented groups — its female-founded startups include BaubleBar, BitPesa, Clique, Cuyana, Eloquii, HopSkipDrive, theRealReal, Thrive Global and theSkimm.

And while many of Greycroft’s best-known investments have been consumer startups, Settle and Sigalow said the firm has always had a pretty even split between business-to-business and business-to-consumer models. It’s just that the consumer startups tend to get more attention from the press.

Sigalow also said that lately, more enterprise and non-consumer startups seem interested in working with Greycroft because of its consumer successes, because they’re looking to incorporate “what was traditionally B2C functionality.”

“I really think there’s an advantage to all these cross-discipline approaches,” he said.

Certify acquires real-time expense management startup and YC alum Abacus

Expense management software provider Certify is beefing up its artillery against rival Concur with the acquisition of Abacus, which enables companies to deal with expenses in real time. The deal’s financial terms were not disclosed. The addition of Abacus will help Certify, which includes other expense management solutions like Nexonia and ExpenseWatch under one umbrella, become a stronger rival to SAP-owned Concur by reaching new customer segments.

Founded by Omar Qari, Josh Halickman and Ted Power, Abacus says it was the first real-time expense reporting solution on the market when it launched in 2013. The Y Combinator alum, whose investors included General Catalyst, Bessemer Venture Partners, Google Ventures and Salesforce Ventures, currently counts 1,000 customers. Its team will join Certify and the Abacus product will continue to be independent.

Expenses are a bane for everyone involved: the employees who need to turn in receipts, the managers who have to approve them and everyone in the finance department who needs to reconcile corporate credit cards and make sure company policy is followed. Abacus eases their pain with features like automatic expense suggestions and Slack integration for employees.

For companies, it lets them set prompts to enforce spending limits and make sure details, like client names, are filled in correctly. If expenses need to be approved by specific managers or departments, Abacus routes them to the right person. Real-time analytics also help companies make quick budget decisions.

Abacus’ clients include Betterment, Dropbox, GLG and North American Substation Services. In an email, Qari, the CEO of Abacus, told TechCrunch that Abacus is a good fit for “companies that need out-of-the-box flexibility in approval flows, spending controls and ERP sync.”

For example, he said North American Substation Services, which provides installation, repair and maintenance work for high-voltage stations, uses Abacus to speed up its account receivables by billing back expenses closer to when they actually happened, while Dropbox chose Abacus to reimburse interview candidates more quickly.

Certify was acquired by K1 Investment Management last year and combined with expense management software providers Nexonia, ExpenseWatch and Tallie to serve a total of 10,000 businesses. Certify says this makes it the largest competitor to Concur.

Each brand operates independently, serving its own niche, like Abacus will. Qari said that “in a prospect overlap analysis, we found hardly any opportunities are common across the portfolio, highlighting how unique each brand’s segment is. The expense management industry’s typical customer profile is fairly fragmented, so it’s going to take multiple solutions approaching the space from multiple angles to fully satisfy market demand.”

Dialpad dials up $50M Series D led by Iconiq

Dialpad announced a $50 million Series D investment today, giving the company plenty of capital to keep expanding its business communications platform.

The round was led by Iconiq Capital with help from existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Amasia, Scale Ventures, Section 32 and Work-Bench. With today’s round, the company has now raised $120 million.

As technology like artificial intelligence and internet of things advances, it’s giving the company an opportunity to expand its platform. Dialpad products include UberConference conferencing software and VoiceAI for voice transcription applications.

The company is competing in a crowded market that includes giants like Google and Cisco and a host of smaller companies like GoToMeeting (owned by LogMeIn), Zoom and BlueJeans. All of these companies are working to provide cloud-based meeting and communications services.

Increasingly, that involves artificial intelligence like natural language processing (NLP) to provide on the fly transcription services. While none of these services is perfect yet, they are growing increasingly accurate.

VoiceAI was launched shortly after Dialpad acquired TalkIQ in May to take this idea a step further by applying sentiment analysis and analytics to voice transcripts. The company plans to use the cash infusion to continue investing in artificial intelligence on the Dialpad platform.

Post call transcript generated by VoiceAI. Screenshot: Dialpad

CEO Craig Walker certainly sees the potential of artificial intelligence for the company moving forward. “Smart CIOs know AI isn’t just another trendy tech tool, it’s the future of work. By arming sales and support teams, and frankly everybody in the organization, with VoiceAI’s real-time artificial intelligence and insights, businesses can dramatically improve customer satisfaction and ultimately their bottom line,” Walker said in a statement.

Dialpad is also working with voice-driven devices like the Amazon Alexa and it announced Alexa integration with Dialpad in April. This allows Alexa users to make calls by saying something like, “Alexa, call Liz Green with Dialpad” and the Echo will make the phone call on your behalf using Dialpad software.

According to the company website, it has over 50,000 customers including WeWork, Stitch Fix, Uber and Reddit. The company says it has added over 10,000 new customers since its last funding round in September, 2017.

Mention Me, the referral marketing platform, raises £7M led by Eight Roads Ventures

Mention Me, the London-headquartered referral marketing platform, has raised £7 million in further funding. The round is led by Eight Roads Ventures and is the first time the five and a half year old company has raised venture capital, having only ever done a small angel round in 2015.

That’s noteworthy given the company’s two founders: Andy Cockburn and Tim Boughton, who met at Homeaway where they were U.K. MD and European CTO respectively before its $3 billion IPO on the Nasdaq.

Counting over 300 customers — including FarFetch, Ovo Energy, Ted Baker and ZipCar — Mention Me offers a marketing platform to make it easy and effective for companies to conduct referral marketing. The platform supports referral programs in 16 languages, but its biggest draw is the ability to A/B test, iterate and measure campaigns so that they work best for the cohort they target.

Another feature that stands out is Mention Me’s refer by name functionality. This sees the marketing platform let you refer customers simply by having enter your full name into the referral box instead of relying on a unique referral code or URL. This, Mention Me co-founder Cockburn says, is designed to mimic the way referrals are naturally made in conversation with friends i.e. ‘go to this store and mention my name’.

“Most businesses are sitting on a huge asset: the trust and good will of their customers,” he says. “If those customers are out telling their friends about the brand and how they feel about it, it should become the most valuable marketing channel the business has. A channel that brings in the best friends of your best customers is close to the holy grail of marketing. And some of the biggest successes of recent years – Uber, AirbnB, Dropbox – have realised this to great effect”.

However, the challenge, argues Cockburn, is that it’s not as easy as just putting a share button on a site. That’s because human psychology kicks in.

“When a brand asks us to share we start to evaluate the impact of that action on our friendships? Will I look good in front of my friend for sharing it? Will they judge me negatively for sharing? The way we solve this problem is by putting all of our resources – our technology and team – to focussing on solving the psychological challenge”.

This includes understanding that people aren’t all the same, hence Mention Me offers segmentation and A/B testing by cohort so that brands can work out which offers and messaging resonate with different customer groups.

“We let people share in the most natural way, in real world conversations, by telling friends to just go to the site and give their name, to make sharing feel natural. And we have a team of referral experts that actively works in partnership with clients to help them solve this challenge,” says Cockburn.

That partnership is reflected in Mention Me’s revenue model, too. Instead of charging a monthly subscription as most SaaS do, after an initial set-up fee, the company gets paid by referral, in the form of commission on a new customer’s first order. This makes it similar to affiliate marketing in the sense that the interests of Mention Me and its customers are aligned.

Meanwhile, the Mention Me founder believes that as marketing continues to evolve over the next five years, trust will be at the heart of its evolution. And when you get trust right, all of the dynamics of a business become easier.

“Customers come to you without you needing to sell to them, they’re generally happier and they stick around longer,” he says. “Over the next couple of years we’ll be building out a Trust Marketing platform to help businesses grow, manage, measure and harness trust. Our ultimate goal is to change how the world does marketing”.