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Original author: 
Liz Gannes

A platform for investing in young people to help them pursue entrepreneurship and other opportunities is not a Google-like business. And a company called Upstart, founded by a team of former Googlers to arrange these investments, is not yet having Google-like success. (Not to set the bar high or anything.)

UpstartIn its first year, Upstart has arranged just over $1 million in funding to 83 participants from 135 backers, and repayments have already begun.

But Upstart says its ambitions, and the potential for the idea of “human capital,” are much bigger than that.

“The productive abilities of people represent all the potential of the economy. If we allow people to start investing in income potential, that’s the mother of all asset classes,” said Upstart CEO Dave Girouard in a recent interview.

(Girouard, 47, was formerly president of Google Enterprise and VP of Google Apps; and Upstart co-founder Anna Mongayt, 32, ran Google’s enterprise customer programs and Gmail Consumer Operations. A third co-founder, 22-year-old Paul Gu, was part of Peter Thiel’s 20under20 drop-out-of-college program.)

Having judged its early trials as successful, Upstart has now raised $5.9 million from new investors including Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Eric Schmidt, Marc Benioff and Scott Banister, after raising $1.75 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, NEA, Google Ventures, First Round Capital, CrunchFund and Mark Cuban last year.

The company currently hand-reviews applications, rejecting about half of them so far, and running income-potential analysis to determine each person’s investment terms (for instance, $4,000 upfront might promise a return of 1 percent of a person’s income over the next decade). Almost everyone who made it through that process so far has raised a minimum of $10,000, according to Upstart.

So how does Upstart turbocharge its own growth? Girouard said he hopes to fund thousands of applicants within the next year, and that it would take a combination of getting the word out, product improvements like better mentorship communication, and U.S. law changes like the yet-to-be-implemented JOBS Act that would make it easier to publicly solicit investment.

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Original author: 
Amir Efrati

In one of the largest exoduses from Stanford University’s computer-science programs, more than a dozen students have left to launch a startup called Clinkle Corp. that aims to let other students — and eventually anyone — use their mobile devices to pay for goods and services.

Several professors also are funding and advising the company, in what may be the epitome of a Stanford-fueled startup.

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Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director of Valve, the videogame development and online distribution company, made a rare appearance last night at Casual Connect, an annual videogame conference in Seattle.

Newell, who spent 13 years at Microsoft working on Windows, is not well-known outside of the videogame industry, but the company he has built in Bellevue, Wash., cannot be overlooked.

Valve is not only a game developer, producing megahits like Portal 2, it owns and operates Steam, which is the largest consumer-focused digital games distribution platform in the industry. By some measures, it may be valued at $3 billion.

Last night, at a dinner sponsored by Covert & Co., Google Ventures and Perkins Coie, Newell unveiled some of his most quirky and secretive projects in an interview onstage with Ed Fries, former VP of game publishing at Microsoft.

Newell, who has a desk on wheels so he can quickly roll over to his favorite projects within the company, struggled at times to put into words how he sees the industry shaking out as companies like Microsoft and Apple move toward closed ecosystems. At one point, he even lamented that his presentation skills aren’t up to speed because Valve isn’t a public company.

Here are excerpts from the conversation that took place in a packed and noisy room with an under-powered speaker system:

On the future of videogame distribution

“Everything we are doing is not going to matter in the future. … We think about knitting together a platform for productivity, which sounds kind of weird, but what we are interested in is bringing together a platform where people’s actions create value for other people when they play. That’s the reason we hired an economist.

“We think the future is very different [from] successes we’ve had in the past. When you are playing a game, you are trying to think about creating value for other players, so the line between content player and creator is really fuzzy. We have a kid in Kansas making $150,000 a year making [virtual] hats. But that’s just a starting point.

“That causes us to have conversations with Adobe, and we say the next version of Photoshop should look like a free-to-play game, and they say, ‘We have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, but it sounds really bad.’ And, then we say, ‘No, no, no. We think you are going to increase the value being created to your users, and you will create a market for their goods on a worldwide basis.’ But that takes a longer sell.

“This isn’t about videogames; it’s about thinking about goods and services in a digital world.”

On closed versus open platforms

“In order for innovation to happen, a bunch of things that aren’t happening on closed platforms need to occur. Valve wouldn’t exist today without the PC, or Epic, or Zynga, or Google. They all wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform. There’s a strong tempation to close the platform, because they look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say ‘That’s really exciting.’”

“We are looking at the platform and saying, ‘We’ve been a free rider, and we’ve been able to benefit from everything that went into PCs and the Internet, and we have to continue to figure out how there will be open platforms.’”

On Valve’s interest in Linux

“The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don’t realize how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behavior.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.

On the evolution of touch

“We think touch is short-term. The mouse and keyboard were stable for 25 years, but I think touch will be stable for 10 years. Post-touch will be stable for a really long time, longer than 25 years.

“Post touch, depending on how sci-fi you want to get, is a couple of different technologies combined together. The two problems are input and output. I haven’t had to do any presentations on this because I’m not a public company, so I don’t have any pretty slides.

“There’s some crazy speculative stuff. This is super nerdy, and you can tease us years from now, but as it turns out, your tongue is one of the best mechanical systems to your brain, but it’s disconcerting to have the person sitting next you go blah, blah, blah, blah.

“I don’t think tongue input will happen, but I do think we will have bands on our wrists, and you’ll be doing something with your hands, which are really expressive.”

On wearable computers

“I can go into the room and put on the $70,000 system we’ve built, and I look around the room with the software they’ve written, and they can overlay information on objects regardless of what my head or eyes are doing. Your eyes are troublesome buggers.”

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Unlike actors and directors in Hollywood, game makers usually fly under the radar.

Even though videogames are becoming one of America’s biggest pastimes, and compete alongside movies and TV for our free time, game creators don’t exactly get hounded by the paparazzi.

A new project called Critical Path is trying to change that by raising the profiles of some of the videogame industry’s most influential designers.

After two years of filming, Critical Path is launching an online archive of video interviews with the industry’s superstars, including Richard Hilleman (pictured right), the producer of Madden and Tiger Woods Golf; Will Wright, a game designer for The Sims and Spore; and Todd Howard, a game director for The Elder Scrolls series.

Think of it as akin to “Inside the Actors Studio,” but instead of Dave Chappelle or Billy Crystal opining about their profession, it’s game leaders who are chatting about the art, philosophy, politics and psychology of videogames. Like the James Lipton-hosted show, the interviews don’t include any clips of the actual work, but instead keep the focus on the people and what they say.

There have been several efforts recently to help recognize how videogames have contributed to pop culture and to present the games as something larger, including an exhibit called “The Art of Video Games” at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

The Critical Path site was created by Los Angeles-based Artifact, which specializes in documentary films. Recent credits include “Behind the Wall: The Making of Skyrim” for Bethesda Softworks, and the HBO documentary feature “Koran By Heart.” The studio hopes to turn the dozens of clips it has archived into a documentary film, once it gets the funding.

Here’s the trailer for the project:

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Amazon made back-to-back videogame announcements last week, showing its dedication to moving beyond music, video and e-books in the digital content space.

The first piece of news was Amazon’s new GameCircle, which allows gamers on the Kindle Fire to record and track their achievements and to save their game progress to the cloud — similar to features found in Apple’s Game Center.

The second addition is called Game Connect, an e-commerce distribution system that lets customers discover and download free-to-play PC games. Amazon is also handling some of the back-end features for the developers, such as selling virtual goods and subscriptions.

Take, for instance, Uber Entertainment, a 16-person development shop in Kirkland, Wash., that started distributing its game, Super Monday Night Combat, through Game Connect last week.

John Comes, creative director at Uber Entertainment, said that, until now, the company distributed its games only through Steam, the Valve-owned-and-operated digital game distribution platform on the PC. With Amazon, it now has two points of distribution.

“We’ve been working with them for six months. We were talking to various people about getting the game to more people, but for us, they can bring a lot of users,” he said.

Uber Entertainment’s Super Monday Night Combat game is a free PC download that makes money through the sale of virtual goods, similar to games distributed on Facebook. Uber does not have the infrastructure to charge customers directly, which makes a partnership with Amazon sensible. The retailer has millions of credit cards on file, enabling customers to quickly link their game play to their Amazon account.

Once games are linked to Amazon, users can pay and shop for virtual goods on Amazon’s homepage. For instance, Hippies in the game cost $9.99, a tank costs $4.49 and Captain Spark costs $7.49. Each character in the game has a landing page on Amazon’s site, enabling all the sorts of features you would normally associate with a product for sale on the site — such as the ability to add it to your cart or add it to your wish list.

The wish list capability appealed to Uber. “A kid can say ‘I really want this character for Super Monday,’ and parents can buy it for them,” he said.

This is not Amazon’s first foray into the digital distribution of videogames.

In October 2010, the company launched its digital games store, which offers customers more than 3,000 titles, including free-to-play and massively multiplayer online games. But with Game Connect, it makes shopping for virtual goods much easier. It also makes it much more comparable to the Steam service, though that targets a much more hardcore gaming demographic.

Amazon said terms of the store will be similar to industry standards used by Facebook and Apple’s App Store. It will share 70 percent of virtual good revenue with developers.

However, when it comes to price, Amazon will decide the cost of virtual goods, not the developer (although he or she will have some influence). Amazon will set a sales price for an app, and developers will set a list price. Amazon also uses this model on its Appstore for Android, where it distributes games and apps for developers.

It claims to have the resources to monitor sales across the board and come up with a strategy that will maximize sales much faster than a developer or publisher would normally be able to react.

In addition to helping with the payment process, Amazon says with Game Connect it will provide significant resources to the developer, including marketing, discovery, customer service and downloads. A spokesperson said in a statement, “We work hard to help customers find and discover great new games they never knew about and are focused on offering a great shopping experience along with fast and excellent customer service. We do provide a download service from the cloud for client-based games but provide a link to developer servers for browser-based games.”

The one situation where payment terms could get a little sticky is when a player originally discovers a game on Steam’s service, but then connects to Amazon to pay for the virtual goods. Amazon and Steam have likely figured out a way to compensate each other behind the scenes.

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"Mobile payments" is about as unsexy as technology buzzwords get. We're basically talking about phones and money. And it's hard enough to get people excited about money in the first place—unless you're receiving large sums of it, that is—let alone using a phone to make or spend it.

But it is exciting! Trust us. And there's a reason why you're going to be hearing a lot more about mobile commerce before this year is done.

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