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Apple this week is getting publicly dragged for digging in its heels over its right to take a cut of subscription-based transactions that flow through its App Store. Almost unbelievably, it’s doing so in the middle of antitrust investigations both in the EU and the U.S. — the latter which CEO Tim Cook may decide to skip — in which lawmakers will attempt to determine if Apple abuses its market position and power to disadvantage its competitors.

This is not a new complaint, but one that came to a head this week over Apple’s decision to reject app updates from Basecamp’s newly launched subscription-based email app called “Hey.”

Hey offers a $99-per-year subscription for access to its nouveau email service that works across web, Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android, but not via standard email protocols. The Hey iOS app was initially approved by Apple, but then put on pause — meaning Basecamp couldn’t submit any updates or bug fixes until it added an option for users to subscribe to Hey’s service through an in-app purchase.

This decision on Apple’s part was met with shock, horror and outrage by Basecamp co-founder and Chief Technology Officer David Heinemeier Hansson and, to some extent, the broader iOS developer community.

Heinemeier Hansson was a vocal opponent to Apple’s policies well before the launch of Hey. He testified before Congress as part of a series of hearings over online platforms and market power. Last year, he called out Apple Card for discriminatory practices. Of all people for Apple to antagonize amid multiple antitrust probes — and the week before Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference — this was certainly a bold choice.

In a series of tweets, Heinemeier Hansson made the case as to why Apple’s reasoning made no sense.

Arguably, the whole debacle served as a nice bit of high-profile marketing for a brand-new app that would have otherwise flown under the radar. But, nonetheless, his larger points have drawn debate: that Apple’s policies are confusing, appear to be inconsistently applied and are anti-competitive.

For starters, Basecamp’s new email app Hey competes with Apple’s built-in Mail app. That means it already has to convince users to forgo the iPhone’s free email experience for its differentiated one. And when it does acquire a user, Apple wants it to hand over a commission no matter if the new user discovered the app for the first time on the App Store or somewhere else. (Like a TechCrunch article!)

Apple argues its policies around the use of in-app purchases are not new. In fact, they’ve been in place since the first set of App Store Review Guidelines were published in September 2010, the company told TechCrunch when questioned about its decision.

The section around in-app purchases was relocated to 3.X from 11.X in 2016, but today states that multi-platform apps can allow access to subscriptions provided elsewhere so long as in-app purchases are also offered with the iOS app. The rules also state that developers can’t directly or indirectly tell iOS users how to make a purchase outside the app. (Hey has a Help screen that says you can’t sign up in the app and “we know that’s a pain.”) The rules also say you can’t discourage the use of in-app purchases.

In other words, Apple seems to argue, Basecamp should have known better.

That argument would hold up if the iOS developer community largely believed Apple enforced its rules uniformly, but that’s not the case.

As Apple observer John Gruber of Daring Fireball pointed out, Apple makes a distinction between business services and consumer apps when enforcing in-app purchase policies. This has to do with how business software is often paid for — by the company on a per-seat basis, not the end user, as a report by Protocol first noted. That’s why Basecamp’s flagship service for businesses can be offered in the App Store without a subscription sign-up, but its consumer app Hey cannot.

That’s a confusing distinction to make — and one not documented by Apple’s rules — as the line between software meant for business versus consumer use has long since been blurred. In fact, that blurring comes about, in part, because of the democratized access to business-grade software made possible through platforms like the Apple App Store. Consumers today can sign up for “business” apps like Slack and Dropbox, then choose to use them freely or pay for extra features, like more storage. Had the email app Hey also offered a free tier, it would have likely avoided this mess.

Business apps aren’t the only distinction Apple makes when determining how to apply its policies.

Apple also created a separate rule for a type of apps it broadly refers to as “reader” apps, even though they aren’t necessarily about parsing the printed word.

This set does include reading apps — like magazines, newspapers and books. And it’s why the Kindle app lets you read your e-books, but doesn’t tell you how to buy more or offer a way to do so in the app. The group has also expanded to include audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage and other approved services, like classroom management apps.

Not surprisingly, this group of apps where Apple permits the companies to forgo the in-app purchase option (so long as they never ever mention how else to subscribe) are also among those with a direct competitor to an Apple paid service.

For example, Spotify, which competes with Apple Music, is considered a “reader” app. The group also includes rivals to Apple TV+, iCloud, Podcasts, Classroom, Books and others.

Spotify has been among the most vocal about how Apple’s policy negatively impacts its business. Last year, it filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in the EU. That investigation is now underway, which Spotify says is great news for consumers.

“Apple’s anticompetitive behavior has intentionally disadvantaged competitors, created an unlevel playing field, and deprived consumers of meaningful choice for far too long,” Spotify’s statement read. “We welcome the European Commission’s decision to formally investigate Apple, and hope they’ll act with urgency to ensure fair competition on the iOS platform for all participants in the digital economy,” it added.

But for the most part, only larger companies have been willing to stand up to Apple publicly on this front.

Among these is Fortnite maker Epic Games, which wants to sell software through its own iOS app. Its CEO, Tim Sweeney, said he wants all iOS developers to have the option to process payments directly and install software from any source, and won’t seek out any “special deal just for ourselves.”

More recently, e-book seller Kobo added its voice to a growing list of anticompetitive complaints, saying it can’t fairly compete against Apple Books when it has to share 30% of revenue from purchases with Apple. (The company, like many others, currently sells only from its website to avoid this fee.)

Tinder parent Match also released a lengthy statement against Apple’s in-app purchase policy, saying it’s “acutely aware of [Apple’s] power over us.” Match additionally said it’s unfair how only digital service providers have to share revenue with Apple when others — like rideshare apps and social networking apps — do not.

But many developers bite their tongue and play along with Apple’s rules out of fear. Stratechery founder Ben Thompson posted to Twitter on Tuesday how he’s hearing from a number of developers who claim Apple is refusing to update their app until they add an in-app purchase option for their SaaS (software as a service) business. It’s unclear, given these developers didn’t go on record, how many of their apps had been mistakenly approved by App Store reviewers in the first place.

Of course, the line between Apple enforcing an existing policy it’s been lax on and a change in direction around enforcement of App Store policies has always been a gray area at best. (Remember how all of a sudden Amazon’s Prime Video app could rent and sell movies once Apple had its own Apple TV+ app it wanted to distribute on Fire TV? And Apple said that fell under an existing policy — one that magically now included permission for Amazon?)

In another gray area, Apple appears to turn a blind eye toward companies that incentivize users to pay for access to their upgraded features outside the App Store. For example, Google sells its YouTube Premium service for $11.99 per month via the web, but for $15.99 per month on the App Store to account for Apple’s commission. Apple allows this, despite its rule that says developers can’t discourage the use of in-app purchases. (Apparently, giving users a way to save nearly $50 per year by shopping outside the App Store doesn’t count as “discouraging” an in-app purchase?)

Developers may be unsure if Google is getting an exception here because it’s Google, or because Apple doesn’t have an explicit rule that says developers can’t charge less when selling a subscription outside the App Store.

The solution to this whole matter is tricky, of course.

As much as developers want to sell directly to consumers without sharing a cut with Apple, it would be wrong to say that apps don’t benefit from Apple’s distribution platform. Would iOS apps ever have found as large an audience if they were all side-loaded bits of software instead of being organized, ranked, curated and featured in a built-in App Store?

Plus, consumers want the convenience of making easy purchases inside an app with a payment card they keep on file. Amazon proved consumer demand for this with one-click checkout, which allowed it to capture massive e-commerce market share over the years. In other words, take away the option to make purchases directly in iOS apps via Apple Pay and prepare for a consumer backlash.

A better compromise would be a reduction in the cut that Apple takes. Today, Apple currently charges a 30% commission on subscriptions in year one, which drops to 15% in year two. These commissions are often for apps that have built sizable brands without Apple’s help — Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, Hulu, Netflix, Tinder, Fortnite, etc. These apps don’t need the App Store to be “discovered” by users or curated into “must” lists by App Store editors, they simply need to serve their existing users who happen to carry an iPhone.

Apple may deserve to stick its hand in the pot to some extent for making apps easy to find, install and pay for, but it’s getting much harder to argue that 30% is the right price for such a system. Developers also want more power over their own businesses. Some would want to offer easier payments through the App Store, while others may want to direct payments via the web to avoid Apple’s cut. And some would opt for a combination of both. But at the end of the day, developers want to shoulder the blame or enjoy the benefit of those decisions — not have the decisions made for them.



News & Media


CRM software has become a critical piece of IT when it comes to getting business done, and today a startup focusing on one specific aspect of that stack — sales automation — is announcing a growth round of funding underscoring its own momentum. Outreach, which has built a popular suite of tools used by salespeople to help identify and reach out to prospects and improve their relationships en route to closing deals, has raised $50 million in a Series F round of funding that values the company at $1.33 billion. 

The funding will be used to continue expanding geographically — headquartered in Seattle, Outreach also has an office in London and wants to do more in Europe and eventually Asia — as well as to invest in product development.

The platform today essentially integrates with a company’s existing CRM, be it Salesforce, or Microsoft’s, or Kustomer, or something else — and provides an SaaS-based set of tools for helping to source and track meetings, have to-hand information on sales targets, and a communications manager that helps with outreach calls and other communication in real-time. It will be investing in more AI around the product, such as its newest product Kaia (an acronym for “knowledge AI assistant”), and it has also hired a new CFO, Melissa Fisher, from Qualys, possibly a sign of where it hopes to go next as a business.

Sands Capital is leading the round, Outreach noted, with “strong participation” also Salesforce Ventures. Other investors include Operator Collective and repeat backers Lone Pine Capital, Spark Capital, Meritech Capital Partners, Trinity Ventures, Mayfield, and Sapphire Ventures. The company has raised $289 million to date, and for some more context, this is definitely an upround: Outreach was last valued at $1.1 billion in its previous round in April 2019.

The funding comes on the heels of strong growth for the company: more than 4,000 businesses now use its tools, including Adobe, Tableau, DoorDash, Splunk, DocuSign, and SAP, making Outreach the biggest player in a field that also includes Salesloft (which also raised a significant round last year on the heels of Outreach’s), ClariChorus.aiGongConversica, and Afiniti. Its sweet spot has been working with technology-led businesses and that is a market that is continuing to expand, even as so much more of the economy has contracted in recent months. 

“You are seeing a cambric explosion of B2B startups happening everywhere,” Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, said in a phone interview this week. “It means that sales roles are being created as we speak.” And that translates to a growing pool of potential customers for Outreach.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Outreach was first founded in 2011 in Seattle, it wasn’t a sales automation company. It was a recruitment startup called GroupTalent working on software to help source and hire talent, aimed at tech companies. That business was rolling along, until it wasn’t: it hit a wall in 2015 and the startup saw it had only two months of runway left, with little hope of raising more. 

“We were not hitting our stride, and growth was hard. We didn’t make the numbers in 2014 and then had two months of cash left and no prospects of raising more,” Medina recalled. “So I sat down with my co-founders,” — Gordon Hempton, Andrew Kinzer and Wes Hather, none of whom are at the company anymore — “and we decided to sell our way out of it. We thought that if we generated more meetings we could gain more opportunities to try to sell our recruitment software.

“So we built the engine to do that, and we saw that we were getting 40% reply rates to our own outreaching emails. It was so successful we had a 10x increase in productivity. But we ran out of sales capacity, so we started selling the meetings we had managed to secure with potential talent directly to the tech companies themselves, who would have become their employers.”

That quickly tipped over into a business opportunity of its own. “Companies were saying to us, ‘I don’t want to buy the recruitment software. I need that sales engine!” The company never looked back, and changed its name to work for the pivot.

Fast forward to 2020, and times are challenging in a completely different way, defined as we are by a global health pandemic that affects what we do every day, where we go, how we work, how we interact with people, and much more. 

Medina says that impact of the novel coronavirus has been a significant one for the company and its customers, in part because it fits well with two main types of usage cases that have emerged in the world of sales in the time of COVID-19.

“Older sellers now working from home are accomplished and don’t need to be babysat,” he said, but added but they can’t rely on their traditional touchpoints “like meetings, dinners, and bar mitzvahs” anymore to seal deals. “They don’t have the tools to get over the line. So our product is being called in to help them.”

Another group is at the other end of the spectrum, he said, are “younger and less experienced salespeople who don’t have the physical environment [many live in smaller places with roommates] nor experience to sell well alone. For them it’s been challenging not to come into an office because especially in smaller companies, they rely on each other to train, to listen to others on calls to learn how to sell.” That’s the other scenario where Outreach is finding  up for a job and come into office.

Although a lot of sales tools are essentially taking on some of the more mundane jobs of salespeople, Medina doesn’t believe that we’re anywhere close to replacing the humans, even at this time when we’re seeing so many layoffs.

“We are at the early innings,” he said. “There are 6.8 million sales people and we only have north of 100,000 users, not even 2% of the market. There may be a redefinition of the role, but not a reduction.”



News & Media


Finland-based Swappie has closed a €35.8 million ($40.6M) Series B to expand into new markets in Europe. The ecommerce business refurbishes and resells used iPhones, taking care of the entire process from testing and repairing used handsets, to selling the refurbished devices via its own marketplace, with a 12-month warranty.

Local VC and private equity firm TESI is a new investor in the Series B, along with Lifeline Ventures, Reaktor Ventures and Inventure Investors, all of whom participated in Swappie’s 2019 Series A. The total raised to date since the business was founded in 2016 is $48M.

Right now Swappie operates in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. The new financing will be used to expand across Europe, beginning with launches in Germany, Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands this summer.

It’s also eyeing expansion beyond Europe — so will be speccing out a broader roadmap for the future.

“The main focus of this round is to become the number one player in Europe. But also to explore opportunities outside Europe as well,” says CEO and co-founder Sami Marttinen. “That’s something we will be looking into but no concrete plans to announce at this point.

“There are still opportunities for our business model everywhere in the world. So it’s a matter of just building the roadmap — where to go next.”

Swappie’s Jiri Heinonen (CMO) and Sami Marttinen (CEO) (Photo credit: Swappie)

Swappie touts growing consumer demand in the region to buy refurbished phones, saying that from 2018 to 2019 revenues grew 4x, hitting $35M+ in net revenue in 2019. It’s also seeing demand continuing to grow this year — recording a 5x increase in net revenue growth in April and May 2020 vs the same period last year, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the trend of consumers shifting to buying more online looks to be a help for its online marketplace.

Commenting on Swappie’s Series B in a statement, Tony Nysten, Investment Manager at TESI, said: “We believe there is a huge growth opportunity for Swappie. The smartphone market in Europe is worth over €100BN but used or refurbished phones currently make up just over 10% of that and only one in four pre-owned phones are currently re-sold. Through its rapid growth to date, Swappie has proven its ability to not just grow market share within the refurbished market, but to expand the size of the category overall. The business has enormous potential.”

Swappie’s early choice of market focus included not only familiar turf in the Nordics — but Italy, in Southern Europe. The latter was chosen deliberately on account of it being a tough market for ecommerce, per Marttinen.

“In the really early days the reason why we went to Italy was because it was one of the toughest ecommerce markets in Europe — they have a really low ecommerce maturity index. It’s very different in terms of shopping behavior. You need to build another level of trust in that market. There are lots of unique traits like cash on delivery, things like that. So we knew that in order to really conquer the market globally — and to be able to deliver on our global ambitions we would need to enter as difficult markets as early in our journey as possible.

“These days we have a much more advanced playbook and market studies across Europe.”

Swappie describes itself as a ‘scale-up’ tech business on account of addressing the whole value chain, per Marttinen.

“We’ve done a lot there on the hardware side — when it comes to actually refurbishing the devices we can make them even stronger then the original devices in many cases. So that means we can go as deep as onto the motherboard level in the repairs. Then on the software side, of course, we’re making selling and distribution and everything else scalable. Making sure that the checking processes and all the processes in the factory are according to the latest standards,” he says.

“Because of being so focused in also building the processes and focusing on the quality so much, so actually we have been able to truly change the way people consume electronics,” he adds. “If you think about it from a local player perspective they are typically mostly competing for the people who are already buying used devices — whereas we are able to deliver on this market by having full control of the entire value chain, from buying to refurbishing, to selling the phones to consumers.

“Most of our customers are buying used or refurbished devices for the first time — so actually our biggest competitors are new smartphone retailers.”

The most popular iPhone model sold on Swappie’s marketplace last year was the iPhone 8, per Marttinen.

He won’t disclosed the exact number of iPhones Swappie has refurbished and sold at this point but he says it’s a six-figure number — aka ‘hundreds of thousands’. 

The team chose to focus on iPhones to ensure they can deliver the highest quality device refurbishment, he says, while also benefiting from the relatively higher cost of Apple’s smartphone hardware vs Android devices. Though he doesn’t rule out expanding to offer another type of refurbished smartphone in future.  

“The business is now growing really rapidly but what we noticed in the early days is that the new device prices had started to rise before we started this business so we have been very lucky with the timing,” he tells TechCrunch, noting that Swappie also benefitted from the plateauing into advancements between handset models in recent years, as the technology matured.

“If you can build trust into this business, and make sure that the phones function as well as new devices — and that you’re actually making the buying process as well as safe as buying a new phone — that way you can actually accelerate the growth of the market. So that’s what we have been really successful in. It’s kind of the key to being able to grow so quickly.”

“One main point there has been that because we refurbish every device ourselves in our own factory in Finland we can deliver to customers the highest quality devices under warranty for much less than the cost of a new phone and also be more environmentally friendly,” he adds.

While, in years past, there have been instances of iPhone users’ devices bricked after a repair by an unauthorized repair shop Marttinen says Swappie is using only original iPhone parts so has avoided such problems.

He also points to recent European Commission proposals for a pan-EU ‘right to repair’ for electronics which suggests device makers selling in the region will be required to respect repairability, rather than using software updates as a way to penalize consumers who seek to extend the lifespan of their current device.

Photo credit: Swappie

Swappie’s business also slots into a wider Commission mission to transition the EU to a circular economy, as part of the green deal announced by current president, Ursula von der Leyen — so it’s skating to where the puck is headed, if you like.

“It’s really good for the environment that the right to repair legislation has come forward in the past few years. That’s one very important point for us as well which was one of the reasons why we wanted to built microscope level repairs in our factories — so we wouldn’t have to scrap as many phones as you normally would,” Marttinen adds.

What can’t it repair? The proportion of iPhones which turn out to be truly unsalvageable via its processes is “extremely small“, he says. “We can actually do any repairs that are possible to do the phones so, basically, water damaged phones which have been at the bottom of the ocean — those are of course unrepairable. Or if the phone is bent too much or if the motherboard is completely ruined. But basically all the other faults we can repair.”

On the competitive front, he says Swappie’s main rival are retailers selling new iPhones — given it’s trying to woo iOS users away from buying a brand new iPhone. On the secondhand marketplace front Marttinen mentions reBuy as one of the main rival players in refurbishing and reselling electronics, though it does not focus on iPhones — offering a full range of devices, from wearables to smartphones and tablets, laptops, consoles and cameras.