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On TikTok, Black creators’ dance strike calls out creative exploitation

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There’s a new Megan Thee Stallion music video out in time for triple digit temperatures. But instead of launching a fresh viral TikTok dance for summer, the single inspired an informal protest among Black creators tired of thanklessly launching trends into the social media stratosphere.

With the release of the video for “Thot Shit,” some Black TikTok creators began calling attention to that exploitation this week, inspiring others to refuse to choreograph a dance to the hit song. The idea behind the movement is that Black artists on the platform create a disproportionate amount of content and culture — much of which is re-packaged and monetized by popular white creators and culture at large.

The song choice probably isn’t a coincidence. The Megan Thee Stallion video is both a playful but important paean to essential workers — twerking grocery, food service and sanitation workers, in this case — and a biting commentary on the wealthy white establishment that exploits their labor without thinking twice.

https://t.co/hfBdd4xbzo THOT SHIT OUT NOW EVERYWHERE pic.twitter.com/y096FWJJNL

— TINA SNOW (@theestallion) June 11, 2021

The “strike” doesn’t have creators leaving the platform or even staying off of the app. Instead, Black creators who might normally contribute dances for the hot new song are sitting back and pointing to what happens when they’re not around. (Predictably: not a lot.)

On the sound’s page, some videos tease choreography but pivot into a statement about how Black creators don’t get their due on the app. In other videos, Black creators watch on in horror at awkward dance attempts failing to fill the void or laugh about how the song’s lyrics are instructional but non-Black TikTok still can’t figure it out.

The eminently danceable “Thot Shit” could build into Megan Thee Stallion’s biggest hit yet, but just looking on TikTok you wouldn’t know it.

When reached for comment on the phenomenon, TikTok praised Black creators as a “critical and vibrant” part of the community.

“We care deeply about the experience of Black creators on our platform and we continue to work every day to create a supportive environment for our community while also instilling a culture where honoring and crediting creators for their creative contributions is the norm,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

Many TikTok accounts participating in the strike cite a recent explosion of white TikTokkers lip-syncing obliviously to a clip of Nicki Minaj’s 2016 song “Black Barbies” that specifically praises Black bodies (“I’m a fucking Black Barbie/Pretty face, perfect body…”). White TikTok inexplicably flocked to the sound, boosting its popularity and crowding out Black creators.

It’s just one incident in a long history of Black creators feeling exploited and appropriated on social networks. Black TikTok dancers have long been left in the cold: Their original dance moves explode in popularity and get picked up by non-Black creators, who also pick up the credit along the way.

The TikTok strike truly is amazing b/c it shows not only how US pop culture is built on stealing from Black people, but how the music industry depends on this cycle of theft & white washing in order to monetize the music.

— DEFUND & ABOLISH POLICE, REFUND OUR COMMUNITIES (@BreeNewsome) June 24, 2021

The recent strike is the latest beat in the ongoing conversation over who gets to cash in on the wellspring of creativity that pours out of a platform like TikTok. More broadly, some creators believe that TikTok’s economics are stacked against them, even compared to other major platforms like YouTube. Across social media sites, creators, particularly creators of color, are turning to collective action and even unionizing to assert their power.

For Black creators tired of seeing their work appropriated, collectively refusing to gift the world a hot new TikTok dance is certainly one way to show just how vital they are to the online ecosystem — something even a quick glance at the desolate “Thot Shit” sound makes abundantly clear.

 

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Egypt’s Minly raises $3.6M to connect celebrities and fans through personalized experiences

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In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a growing trend of creators adopting digital and social media, not just as a supplement to their media presence but also as a cornerstone of their personal brand.

The pandemic has surely accelerated creator economy trends. Many popular artists and figures have had to postpone concerts and live events, subsequently using social media to carry out these activities and engage their fans. Proliferating through Western and far East markets, the creator economy bug, which has made platforms like Cameo and Patreon unicorns, is beginning to take center stage in MENA.

Today, Minly, an Egypt-based creator economy platform, is announcing that it has closed a $3.6 million seed round to allow stars across the MENA region to create authentic, personalized connections with their fans.

The round, which Minly says was oversubscribed, was co-led by 4DX Ventures, B&Y Venture Partners and Global Ventures. It also included participation from unnamed regional funds and angel investors like Scooter Braun, founder of SB Projects, and Jason Finger, co-founder of Seamless and GrubHub. 

Experts say time spent viewing social media surpassed time spent viewing TV within the MENA region. But one shortcoming with social media is that its content often feels mass-produced. When creators make posts, it’s most times void of personalization. In a way, this dilutes the fan experience and limits the extent and number of ways the creator can monetize.

This is where Minly, founded last year by Mohamed El-Shinnawy, Tarek Hosny, Tarek ElGanainy, Ahmed Abbas, and Bassel El-Toukhy, comes in. It provides tools for creators to craft what it calls ‘authentic connections’ with their superfans and audience at scale. “In short, our goal is to eventually deliver tens of millions of unique, unforgettable experiences to fans each year,” El-Shinnawy told TechCrunch.

Shinnawy, who brings more than 15 years of media and technology experience to the table, is the chief technology officer at Minly. He sold his first company, Emerge Technology, to a U.S.-based media company. He has also delivered work for Hollywood’s top studios, such as Sony Pictures, Universal, Disney, Fox and Warner Brothers, while playing a role in the global expansion of Apple TV+, Disney+, and Netflix to the MENA region.

Mohamed El-Shinnawy (co-founder and CTO, Minly)

Minly has experienced rapid growth since launching late last year. It has more than 50,000 users and an impressive list of popular regional celebrities ranging from actors and athletes like Fifi Abdou and Mahmoud Trezeguet to musicians and internet influencers like Assala Nasri and Tamer Hosny.

On the platform, users can buy personalized video messages and shoutouts from these celebrities, and they, in turn, connect with their fans on a more personal level.

We think that we have already differentiated ourselves from other creator economy platforms in the region. We do this by offering the best catalogue of stars and user experience. And our entire team is working hard to grow this gap even further,” said El-Shinnawy on the crop of celebrities Minly has onboarded to the platform

Some of the instances where celebrities connected with their fans on Minly include when actress and dancer Fifi Abdou sent a personal message to one of her biggest fans who has Down syndrome and when Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny made a surprise appearance at two fans’ engagement party in March.

Minly takes a small commission on transactions made through its platform. However, the majority of the transaction price, a figure Minly didn’t disclose, goes directly to creators. And at the same time, Minly urges celebrities to automatically donate a portion of their earnings to partner charities on the platform.

Minly’s knack for creating a personalized experience is why Pan-African VC firm 4DX Ventures invested. The firm’s co-founder and general partner Peter Orth, who will be joining Minly’s board, said the company is fundamentally changing the relationship between celebrities and fans in the MENA region. “The team has both the ambition and the expertise to build a full-stack digital interaction platform that could change the way digital content is created and consumed in the region,” he added. 

The creator economy market surpassed $100 billion in value this year and is still growing at an impressive rate. The pace of content creation will only speed up since surveys suggest that being a YouTuber or TikTokker or the most common term, vlogger, is one the most desirable careers among Gen Zs. VC heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Partners, and Tiger Global have also heralded this growth considerably, contributing to the more than $2 billion invested in creator economy platforms this year.

In MENA, there’s a huge opportunity for Minly. The region has over 450 million people, of which 30% are between the ages of 18 to 30. This demographic is known to have a deep connection with social media, and El-Shinnawy believes MENA will soon contribute to a large part of the total creator economy.

For Minly, the goal is to capture a huge portion of that spend and become a multibillion-dollar, category-leading company. The creator platform has a case to do so. As it stands, the opportunity to build a creator economy one-stop-shop in MENA is huge compared to other regions that already have multiple entrenched incumbents. Also, Minly is one of the few platforms in the region with meaningful venture funding.

“The creator economy is in its infancy and growing at lightning speed. We have the opportunity to build this category’s first unicorn in MENA,” the CTO remarked.

With this investment, Minly is doubling down on building local celebrity acquisition teams in Egypt and other parts across MENA and the GCC, where it has seen significant traction. The company will also scale its engineering team to churn out more products to build a horizontal creator platform.

 

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Everyone wants to invest in open-source startups now

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Happy weekend, everyone. I hope that your week wasn’t too hectic and that you are getting a good recharge in. That said, we have a lot to talk about.

Something that has been cropping up more and more in my inbox, SMS folder and Twitter DMs are venture rounds from startups with an open-source backbone. Essentially, startups have roots in an open-source project, often with the progenitors of that open tech inside the company itself.

A good example of this at the very end stage of the startup world was Confluent. The company went public this week to pretty good effect, pricing above its IPO range and later appreciating further. Confluent is predicated on the open-source tech Kafka, which you’ve probably heard of.

The Exchange caught up with Mike Volpi of Index Ventures, an early backer of Confluent, on the company’s IPO day. During our chat, we got to nibble on the open-source (OSS) startup world, which Volpi said changed dramatically in recent years. From his telling, venture investors back in 2015 weren’t too hyped about open-source startups, arguing that there already was one (Red Hat), and that that was going to be roughly about it.

If we did our math correctly, Index wound up with a stake worth in excess of $1 billion in Confluent at its IPO price. So, the haters were wrong about OSS.

That said, Volpi added that while he’s as bullish on open-source-focused startups as before, the market has become increasingly picked over as more investors pile into backing the model. That inventors are putting more money to work in the space is not a surprise if you’ve been reading startup funding coverage. BuildBuddy is an example that I wrote about last December. Ron covered Tecton and Airbyte recently.

The trend of venture interest in OSS has been building for some time. Hell, VCs wrote about an explosion of open-source startups for TechCrunch back in 2017. But the Confluent IPO and the recent wave of funding rounds for startups in the space seem to indicate that market appetite for such companies has reached a new, higher plateau. (If you are building an OSS-focused startup and recently raised capital, say hi.)

More on Confluent’s IPO

The Exchange also spoke with Confluent CEO Jay Kreps on his company’s IPO day. A few notes from that chat are worth our time. Here are our key takeaways:

Investing is never going back to “normal”: That venture capitalists were able to start doing deals over Zoom was only so surprising. After all, you’d expect your average VC to be somewhat technology savvy. But Kreps said that his IPO roadshow worked well over digital channels, and that he was able to talk to more folks, more quickly than if he had been jet-hopping around the country for face-to-face meetings. If the even more conservative public-market investor set is fine with Zoom, digital pitching is a done deal.
Public markets are still burn friendly: Confluent is a quickly growing software company that is not yet profitable. Its IPO reception is a good indication that losing money remains perfectly acceptable in today’s market. Per Kreps, if you have a huge market — he reckons that Confluent has a $50 billion market to attack — and can show that capital is being invested — CEO code for not being utterly torched by an inefficient business model and cost structure — then losses are just fine. This matters for Q3 IPO hopefuls who have more growth than net income. Which is most of them.
Even public investors like open source: The Exchange also asked Kreps about being an open-source company approaching the public markets. Was it a positive or negative? A positive, per the CEO, adding that technology has a history of being built around open standards, which means that OSS fits neatly into historical trends. And he added that because open-source projects can have strong organic momentum, it can help public investors see future growth at the corporate level. Neat.

OK, how about even more open source news?

Hope you like open-source software news, because I have even more for you. Earlier this month, Prefect raised a $32 million Series B. I didn’t get to cover the round when it happened, but did catch up with the company this week for a quick chat.

The company is based around the PrefectCore, an open-source project. PrefectCore helps companies make sure that their data inflow is set up correctly, focusing on things like scheduling, monitoring, logging and so forth. The company calls this sort of work negative engineering; it falls into a dead space of sorts. No one really wants to work on it, per the startup.

Notably, Prefect, instead of offering a hosted version of its open-source project, instead sells a monitoring service. It thinks that hosting OSS projects is a somewhat old-hat way of monetizing such projects. So, instead of selling hosting or feature-gating, the company’s commercial product is an API that tracks what PrefectCore is managing. If it reports all green lights, good shit, you’re in swell shape. If not, you have an issue.

But what matters is that Confluent shows that OSS startups can reach a huge scale and become big IPOs. And Prefect indicates that there may be even more ways to skin the OSS cat when it comes to making money off open-source software.

So, expect more OSS VCs deals to land this year.

Alex

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Do tech mafias need a modern refresh?

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Rumor has it, if you whisper mafia to a venture capitalist or tech reporter, a seed investment and headline appears within minutes. That process quickly turns into seconds if the mafia reference includes the letters S, T, R, I, P and E before it.

Tech mafias, otherwise known as a group of early employees within a company who spin out to start their own, independently successful companies, became a popularized term thanks to PayPal in the early 2000s. As my lede alludes, the term has since become a cliche of sorts. Everything is a mafia, including you, dear Startups Weekly newsletter subscribers. Jokes aside, I’d argue the term is still a helpful way to track the way talent moves in the ever-growing world of startups.

Many venture capitalists have been making subtle, and not-so-subtle efforts, to back the next cohort of star employees turned star entrepreneurs. Wave Capital originally began as an institutional venture capital fund explicitly for Airbnb alumni starting new companies. Ross Fubini of XYZ Ventures introduced Palantir’s first business hire to its first engineer and now invests in the community out of his fund. Eric Tarczynski of Contrary Capital launched Contrary Talent, a program that helps early career professionals navigate the world of entrepreneurship.

This newsletter was going to be about the undercovered mafias that are brewing in tech, but a recent exchange with some of you on Twitter took me in an entirely new direction. Check out the thread if you want to know the next mafioso, but today, I want to explore a more modern way to think about these entities.

Glamorization of mafias

Image Credits: Britt Erlanson / Getty Images

Rebekah Bastian, the chief executive and founder of OwnTrail, isn’t the biggest fan of mafias — even though she’s technically a part of one herself. The first-time founder was the former Zillow VP of Product and VP of Community & Culture who thinks that the growing world of mafias comes with some problematic truths.

“While it’s true that these ‘mafias’ are good for the people within them and often touted with pride, there are reasons that they are problematic from an equity perspective,” she said. First, she pointed to how hiring from and funding employees from a given company, if that company doesn’t have diverse representation (particularly at the leadership level), propagates the inequitable cycles of who is getting hired and funded. Second, she thinks that the press focuses on startups coming out of these companies that serve a privileged subset of the population, instead of mission-focused ones.

What do you think? Her argument is essentially to not glamorize the concept of hiring within existing networks, because if white, male entrepreneurs only hire from within their existing networks, the resulting company will look and act white and male. On the flip side, and this is what gets me excited, underrepresented founders who raise millions of dollars, suddenly have the power to usher in an entirely different group of techies into this world. The Glossier mafia would look quite different than the PayPal mafia.

As I said before, I think “mafias” are certainly a compelling way to track how talent moves. I don’t think we should stop paying attention to the phenomenon or shame people for being opportunistic about alumni groups. It’s how the world works. Instead, I think that there’s hope that problems inherent to them are changing as founding groups themselves become more diverse. To Bastian’s point, I think there’s a way to be more intentional about what is idolized and what is not.

A new descriptor

A few people also mentioned that we should start using a different word to describe this dynamic instead of “mafia” due to its more nefarious connotations. Here’s a list of your best suggestions:

Tribe
Chaos
Cabal
Expats
Posse

Let me know what you think about all of the above by responding to @nmasc_. In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll chat about BuzzFeed’s SPAC, the early-stage venture market and GM’s startup incubator strategy.

The public market gets buzzed

Image Credits: Malte Mueller / Getty Images

We kicked off Equity Live this week with a hot news item: BuzzFeed is going public via a SPAC and will merge with 890 Fifth Avenue Partners Inc., a publicly traded company. BuzzFeed also disclosed that it will purchase Complex, another media company, for $300 million in cash and shares in BuzzFeed itself; the SPAC deal will help finance its purchase of Complex.

Here’s what to know: Alex gave you five takeaways from BuzzFeed’s SPAC deck so you can better understand what’s going on, beyond the cat pictures and fun quizzes.

As for other public market news, subscribe to The Exchange written by Alex, which includes a smattering of the below:  

Investors’ thirst for growth could bode well for SentinelOne’s IPO
SPAC charts are exercises in the limits of hype

Late to the early-stage party?

Image Credits: belterz (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

No worries. Here’s what to put on your early-stage bingo board: emerging fund managers are popping off thanks to new capital support, Li Jin of Atelier Ventures has a must-read thread, and even as summer is in swing, deals still feel frenetic. 

Here’s what else to know: Kirsten took Extra Crunch readers inside GM’s startup incubator strategy, including how they take early concepts and turn them into startups and the company’s favorite messy-stage ideas.

Around TC

Next week, we’re taking you to Pittsburgh to hear from Karin Tsai, the head of engineering there, as well as Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian, Mayor Bill Peduto and a smattering of local startups.

Our TC City Spotlight: Pittsburgh event will be held on June 29, so make sure to register here (for free) to listen to these conversations, enjoy the pitch-off and network with local talent.

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

Andreessen Horowitz triples down on blockchain startups with massive $2.2 billion Crypto Fund III
Edtech startups and VCs rally around a memo of their own
An interview with a leading venture capitalist
Facebook adds Shops to WhatsApp, among other e-commerce updates

Seen on Extra Crunch

Investor Marlon Nichols and Wonderschool’s Chris Bennett on getting to the point with a pitch deck 
Musculoskeletal medical startups race to enter personalized health tech market
Practice agile, iterative change to refine products and build company culture
Reform your startup’s meeting culture

Thanks all,

N

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