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Resy and Eater co-founder raises $24M for Blackbird, a restaurant loyalty platform

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Blackbird Labs, a hospitality tech company whose platform helps restaurants stay in touch with guests and incentivize them to dine out more frequently, today announced that it raised $24 million in a Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from QED, Union Square Ventures, Shine, Variant and others and restaurant groups Quality Branded, Rustic Canyon Group, Soulva and Brooks Reitz.

Founder and CEO Ben Leventhal says that the proceeds, which bring Blackbird’s total raised to $35 million, will be put toward helping Blackbird scale its operations.

“The restaurant business model is broken,” Leventhal told TechCrunch in an email interview. “It can be really expensive to remain at the top of a sea of competition. Operational costs are also at an all-time high, and restaurants need revenue. There’s only two paths forward: creating new revenue streams or creating regulars who’ll want to come back.”

To Leventhal’s point, a 2022 survey from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) found that 54% of restaurant owners had to reduce the size of their dishes in response to rising food costs. A further 47% of the respondents said that they had to increase menu prices, as well.

And restaurant failure rates aren’t exactly declining. Restaurants have about a 20% success rate, according to the NRA, with about 60% failing within the first year and 80% failing within five years of opening.

Leventhal is perhaps best known for co-founding Eater, the food and drink publication (acquired by Vox in 2013), and Resy, the restaurant reservation service (acquired by American Express — which is also a Blackbird investor — in 2019). He came up with the idea for Blackbird in the early days of the pandemic after noticing that restaurants were finding innovative ways, like rolling out clothing lines and selling pancake mix, to keep customers engaged.

“I was struck by the ingenuity of restaurants, who used their brands and audience to create sales streams that weren’t food,” Leventhal said. “This led me to start thinking about other ways restaurants could combat the serious business challenges of declining margins and eroding direct customer relationships.”

Blackbird is designed to help restaurants both amplify their reach and reward guests, Leventhal says. How? By giving operators a way to not only greet diners by name, but learn their personal preferences, including when they last dined out, their preferred seating and their likes and dislikes.

“With this knowledge, restaurants can serve guests in an unparalleled fashion, making them feel like they’re very important and appreciated regulars, and reward their ongoing patronage with free and appreciated perks,” Leventhal said.

Blackbird does this by having diners touch their phone to a proprietary NFC reader to create a membership or “tap in.” Members can “level up” with each subsequent check-in, Leventhal says, unlocking benefits like off-menu items and a direct message concierge.

Blackbird diners also earn virtual currency each visit, which can be spent on items (e.g. an entree or drink) or tallied toward membership rewards with restaurants via Blackbird’s smartphone app. There’s a web3 component; the currency is technically a cryptocurrency. Blackbird partnered with Privy, a crypto wallet management startup, to provide embedded wallets so users can sign up with a phone number and manage balances alongside their Blackbird membership.

On the backend, Blackbird captures a range of diner data on restaurants’ behalves — including dining history, birthdays and home addresses — so restaurants can target diners with promotions. Restaurants can also use Blackbird to message “top-tier” members with access to a dedicated support line, letting them know when a reservation is made available, for example.

Some customers might not feel comfortable sharing that sort of behavioral data with restaurants. But Leventhal insists that Blackbird is handling data collection in a “transparent” manner, going so far as to give diners control over which specific information (e.g. dining history) restaurants see.

Through Blackbird, restaurants can sell paid memberships to guests, as well. Leventhal says that one restaurateur, a Jewish bistro in Brooklyn, sold founding Blackbird memberships — complete with perks including personalized bomber jackets and a home dinner cooked by a private chef — as a crowdfunding tool before it even opened.

The concept of promoting paid memberships in the restaurant industry — an increasingly common practice — is unavoidably polarizing. For most (including this reporter), dining out is expensive as it is, and having to pay to cut the line to reserve a hot new table or receive better treatment doesn’t exactly feel equitable.

Leventhal, though, assures me that the goal isn’t to foster more ultra-exclusive dining clubs but to give diners at restaurants “of all sizes,” particularly small independent restaurants and restaurant groups, an additional way to support the venues they love.

“With Blackbird’s technology platform, we’ve built a unique, intimate and symbiotic relationship between restaurants and their regulars,” he added.

The question is, can diners be persuaded to use Blackbird in the first place? A 2023 poll by William Blair found that the majority of customers don’t opt into restaurant loyalty programs, and that only 35% consider loyalty programs in deciding which restaurants to visit.

Leventhal believes that they can. And he has some data to back it up: since launching several months ago, New York City-based Blackbird — which has 20 full-time employees — has signed up around 80 restaurants including chef David Chang’s Momofuku chain, 22 of which are actively using Blackbird.

“There’s no one out there that does exactly what we do,” Leventhal said. “We admire the loyalty programs built by Starbucks, Sweetgreen and more, but we’ve created Blackbird to be an easily accessible loyalty platform, empowering restaurants to have an unparalleled ability to engage customers, reward returning patrons and drive new revenue streams.”

Blackbird’s future plans entail rolling out a referral program that’ll let diners invite friends to become members at a specific restaurant for exclusive dishes. Beyond this, Blackbird intends to experiment with its cryptocurrency, potentially offering membership upgrades, rewards for activity like tap-ins and ways to pay for parts of — or whole — meals.

“Those at the forefront are trying to figure out how to achieve a broader diversity of revenue,” Leventhal said. “Blackbird is designed to be this solution for restaurants — driving loyalty, opening up for interesting revenue plays and incentivizing customers to return again and again.”



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Grifin’s new model can automatically invest your money as you shop

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Investing app Grifin today officially launched its anticipated investing model called “Adaptive Investing,” which enables you to automatically invest in your favorite brands that you frequently shop from.

Grifin was founded in 2017 with the hope of making investing less intimidating and normalizing it for people who aren’t that financially savvy. To date, Grifin has raised more than $11 million from a notable list of investors, including TTV Capital, Rise of the Rest, Gaingels, NevCaut Ventures, Mana Ventures, Sidecut Ventures, Miami Angels and Playtap Media Ventures, along with Witz Ventures co-founder Austin Hankwitz and GGV Capital managing partner Hans Tung. The company says it sees about 20,000 unique new app installs per month.

Grifin’s new patent-pending technology is an evolution of its original model, which follows the premise of “Stock Where You Shop,” giving you a chance to explore the intimidating world of investing by aligning your shopping habits with stock choices.

“Investing, and even having a healthy positive relationship with money, is an incredibly difficult thing to do and achieve,” co-founder Aaron Froug tells TechCrunch. “The current system simply isn’t geared towards the individual, even with mobile access and 0% commission apps claiming to ‘open up’ investing to all. It still requires a lot of emotional energy, confidence and an understanding of how investing works. Most people still don’t feel like they have enough money to get started and even the most financially adept people I know don’t know what is inside most ETFs [exchange traded funds]. All of it is cloudy and complicated. None of it is centered around the individual.”

Image Credits: Grifin

The Adaptive Investing model aims to give users more flexibility by integrating new functionality into the app, including the ability to pause automatic payments, increase/decrease how much you want to spend and manually invest more money in a company. It also introduces a “Secret Cash” function, allowing for non-public purchases and putting more money away as cash for their future.

“This patent-pending technology builds on the original premise by integrating new functionality to allow for a more intuitive and adaptive approach to investing, centered not just around people’s daily spending habits, but how much they want to invest,” Froug adds.

By default, Grifin automatically invests $1 per transaction. For instance, when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, the app withdraws $1 from your bank account, and you get $1 of SBUX stock. You can also manually increase the investment amount to a maximum of $99.

Image Credits: Grifin

However, just because you enjoy a certain brand, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a smart investment. Grifin now added a new “Disable Company” feature, allowing you to stop or avoid investing in certain companies. There’s also an option to pause your investments for a week.

“We are also keenly aware that just because a person spends at a specific place, they might not want to invest there… By investing in small amounts, as low as $1 at a time, the aim is to help people to learn to navigate the world of investing without incurring too many negative consequences if they don’t get it right,” Froug says.

Plus, Froug argues that Adaptive Investing reduces the impact of single-stock exposure since it encourages a diverse profile as consumers usually spend money across a wide range of companies — phone/internet bills, gas, monthly subscription services and so forth.

“I’ve been personally using our app for a little over two years and I’ve invested in 115 unique companies,” he notes.

Additionally, Grifin is planning a redesign of its app, which will include a premium version as well as an AI chatbot to help people learn how to invest.



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Google Pay takes its QR soundbox to small merchants in India after trial run

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Google said Thursday it plans to roll out the SoundPod, its portable speaker designed to instantly validate and announce successful payments, to small merchants across India over the coming months. The Google Pay expansion in India, where the company is among the mobile payment market leaders, comes even as the firm winds down some of its payments apps in the U.S.

The company, which began a limited trial of SoundPod last year, received positive feedback during the testing and helped merchants reduce the checkout time, Ambarish Kenghe, VP of Products for Google Pay, wrote in a blog post.

The miniature jukeboxes, colloquially dubbed “soundboxes” domestically, have witnessed wide adoption in India, enabling merchants to find respite upon receipt of remuneration and contest any illegitimate claims.

Financial services firm Paytm currently leads the soundbox market and PhonePe is also increasingly expanding its device. More than 20 million merchants in the country already use one of these boxes, which industry insiders estimate costs about $18 to $20 to make. (Incidentally, Paytm is currently “fighting for its survival” as it navigates regulatory clampdown.)

The soundbox was invented to serve small Indian merchants unable to afford regular point-of-sale devices but accepting of UPI payments. (UPI, a payments network built by a coalition of retail banks in India, has become the most popular way for Indians to transact.) Now more popular than Visa, Mastercard and Amex combined, the devices last year prompted the payment giants to look at ways to take advantage of their reach.

It has also evolved into a lucrative subscription model over time as various players impose subscription charges on merchants. The real allure of the soundbox, according to one industry insider, extends beyond its auditory alerts — it provides invaluable insights into merchant behaviors, facilitating the offering of loans based on this data.

Google Pay is offering the SoundPod at a minimal cost — levying a one-time fee of $18 for one year, or a one-time fee of $6.06 per day for 25 days in a month. The company said merchants who use SoundPod to process 400 payments in a month will get $1.5 in cash back.

“To be able to play a role in India’s digital payments story is a matter of deep pride for us, providing invaluable lessons on how digital transformation happens in tech-forward societies, and we continue to stay deeply invested in this journey for the long term,” added Google’s Kenghe.

Reliance, India’s largest firm by market cap, also began testing a similar device at its campus last year, TechCrunch earlier reported. The company confirmed the device in a subsequent earnings call and said it plans to soon launch it to the market.



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NASA Opens Applications For Yearlong Simulated Mars Mission; Here’s How You Can Apply

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NASA has announced an extraordinary opportunity for those seeking extreme challenges: the chance to participate in its second yearlong simulated Mars mission, the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA 2). Scheduled to commence in spring 2025, the mission will immerse four selected crew members in a 1,700-square-foot 3D-printed habitat located in Houston. Interested individuals can apply on the CHAPEA website until April 2.

Although it’s a paid position, NASA has not disclosed the compensation details.

The Mars Dune Alpha habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center mirrors the harsh conditions and limited resources future explorers may encounter on the red planet. Volunteers for CHAPEA 2 will engage in habitat maintenance, crop cultivation, and various other tasks during their tenure.

Additionally, the habitat includes a 1,200-square-foot sandbox for simulated spacewalks.

Applicants must meet specific criteria, including being US citizens aged 30-55, proficient in English, holding a master’s degree in a STEM field, possessing at least two years of professional experience, and having either a thousand hours of piloting an aircraft or two years of work toward a STEM doctoral program.

Certain types of professional experience may also qualify applicants without a master’s degree. CHAPEA 2 marks the second of three planned missions in the program, with the first launched on June 25, 2023.

SEE ALSO: Early Look At iOS 17.4: Easier Battery Monitoring, CarPlay Gets An Upgrade And More



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