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Contra wants to be the community that independent workers are missing

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Whether you’re working on something new according to your Twitter bio, or self-employed, according to your LinkedIn bio, founder Ben Huffman thinks his platform, Contra, will be the best way for independent workers to explain and monetize what they are working on.

Contra is a platform that wants professionals to create profiles that show project-based identities, versus a role-based identity that one would show on LinkedIn. It’s been built for what Huffman thinks is the future: digital knowledge workers, a term he uses to describe independent tech workers who freelance for different companies or gigs.

The early adopters are independent workers who want to work or advise for a product team.

“So you can think about any type of modern-day product team consisting of like a designer, an engineer, a PM, maybe a writer, or maybe someone else distributing content. There’s a high degree of variability amongst these user types,” he said.

Users would showcase the tools they use, projects they’ve led and initiatives they’ve pushed instead of simply writing “Former Stripe Engineer” and calling it a day.

“What you don’t know is what problems they solved at Stripe,” Huffman explained, and Contra wants to give users space to explain that.

A Contra profile looks like a storefront for an independent creators’ business. The first thing you will see is project experience, with the option to toggle between services currently available for sale, recommendations from the referral network and, finally, the About page.

A goal of Contra’s, per Huffman, is to help independent workers create high-signal referral networks so they can land new opportunities and gigs. Whenever a user posts a new project experience to their resume, they can add who they worked with as a collaborator.

It’s different from LinkedIn, where you can add anyone you meet and they become a “connection.” Contra requires you to have work experience with your network, making the referral network high-signal. Contra positions referrals high-up on profiles, reminiscent of the MySpace Top 10.

Referrals as a core mechanism to get jobs could disproportionately hurt Black and brown founders, who have been left out of networks. But Huffman says that Contra doesn’t only rely on referrals, it also helps position someone as more than their resume.

“Most resumes are filtered out by AI today and have historically disadvantaged BPOC candidates,” he said. “With a project focus instead of roles and education credential-focus on the identity, we help undiscovered talent get ahead.”

Huffman, who experienced resume bias first-hand as a college dropout with no-credentials from a rural area, thinks that his tool can combat bias in an effective way. The best-case scenario would be if Contra could help a talented designer based in Minneapolis get an opportunity in a city like San Francisco or New York by showcasing their work.

But Contra has ambition to be more than just the latest startup to aim at LinkedIn, Huffman tells TechCrunch. Beyond being a professional network, it wants to also be a place where independent workers can make money for their services and get inbound customers. He describes Contra as a LinkedIn meets Shopify for independent workers.

In other words, Contra is a profile that independent workers can build and then monetize off of, as well as track engagement on how certain services of theirs might be in more demand than others.

“We’re trying to enable people to monetize the value they create, versus the time they spend in places,” says Huffman. The goal here is to “enable people to build these identities, and give them infrastructure to be successful as an independent worker. Contra integrates with Stripe to bring on payments infrastructure, letting workers actually sell their services on the platform.

From an independent worker’s perspective, the internal view offers analytics to understand what the public is looking at on their profile, from what services are most in demand to what projects get the most attention. The analytics, which are private to everyone except the user, also helps workers understand what the conversion rate is once people come to their platform.

It is free to make money and a profile on Contra, which differentiates it from freelance marketplaces like UpWork and Fiverr, which take a percent cut of earnings. Since Contra doesn’t charge a commission on earnings, it monetizes through a SaaS subscription, $29 a month, that includes benefits such as same-day payouts and higher visibility in the platform to eventually get better opportunities.

A potentially large new competitor might be from LinkedIn itself, which is developing a new service called Marketplaces to help freelancers find and book work. Facebook is also working on a tool related to freelancers. Huffman sees Contra’s focus on professional identity as a competitive advantage, and the fact that the tool might be taking commissions.

“It makes what we are doing that much more relevant,” he said.

Luckily, the startup has raised a $14.5 million Series A round to meet its competition head on. The financing event was led by Unusual Ventures, with participation from Cowboy Ventures and Li Jin’s recently announced Atelier Ventures.

Contra wouldn’t disclose the number of users it currently has but did confirm that the total is “in the six-figure range.”

The cash will be used to increase the speed in which it can ship features, as well as build out an ambassador program, in which it will pay users $1,000 a month to test out the product and support the shift to independent work.

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Identiq, a privacy-friendly fraud prevention startup, secures $47M at Series A

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Israeli fraud prevention startup Identiq has raised $47 million at Series A as the company eyes international growth, driven in large part by the spike in online spending during the pandemic.

The round was led by Insight Partners and Entrée Capital, with participation from Amdocs, Sony Innovation Fund by IGV, as well as existing investors Vertex Ventures Israel, Oryzn Capital, and Slow Ventures.

Fraud prevention is big business, which is slated to be worth $145 billion by 2026, ballooning by eightfold in size compared to 2018. But it’s a data hungry industry, fraught with security and privacy risks, having to rely on sharing enormous sets of consumer data in order to learn who legitimate customers are in order to weed out the fraudsters, and therefore.

Identiq takes a different, more privacy-friendly approach to fraud prevention, without having to share a customer’s data with a third-party.

“Before now, the only way companies could solve this problem was by exposing the data they were given by the user to a third party data provider for validation, creating huge privacy problems,” Identiq’s chief executive Itay Levy told TechCrunch. “We solved this by allowing these companies to validate that the data they’ve been given matches the data of other companies that already know and trust the user, without sharing any sensitive information at all.”

When an Identiq customer — such as an online store — sees a new customer for the first time, the store can ask other stores in Identiq’s network if they know or trust that new customer. This peer-to-peer network uses cryptography to help online stores anonymously vet new customers to help weed out bad actors, like fraudsters and scammers, without needing to collect private user data.

So far, the company says it already counts Fortune 500 companies as customers.

Identiq said it plans to use the $47 million raise to hire and grow the company’s workforce, and aims to scale up its support for its international customers.

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Zynga acquires Echtra, maker of Torchlight 3, to double down on RPG games

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Games company Zynga has been on an acquisition tear the last several years to beef up its activity in particular in mobile and casual-puzzle games, spending over $3 billion to pick up a range of startups across Europe (specifically Turkey and Finland) in the process. Today, however, it’s taking a turn towards more immersive, highly graphic cross-platform experiences. The company has announced that it is acquiring San Francisco’s Echtra Games, the role-playing game publisher behind Torchlight III, which is available on Steam, XBox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch.

The team will be working on releasing a new title in partnership with Zynga’s NaturalMotion studio, the company said. No other details on that were released for now.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s also not clear who backed Echtra, if anyone.

But Echtra is in some ways a classic example of a gaming startup built out of a burning idea, rather than cold, calculated moneymaking — perhaps the best kind of company you can have.

Max Schaefer, the co-founder and CEO, had previously been at Runic Games, the developer of the original Torchlight series, as well as Diablo and others. Runic was shuttered by its owner, Perfect World, and so in 2016, Shaefer went on to form a new company, Echtra, with some of his Runic colleagues and others in the industry because he saw more life left in the franchise.

The plan will be to bring on Echtra’s team and expertise both to continue building the franchise and to more generally help Zynga build out more of a footprint in cross-platform games, and also gaming technology, in particular around tools built on Unreal Engine, the platform of choice at the moment for RPG and other immersive applications.

“Max and his team at Echtra Games are responsible for some of the most legendary game properties ever created, and they are experts in the action RPG genre and cross-platform development.  I’m excited to welcome the Echtra Games team into the Zynga family,” said Frank Gibeau, Chief Executive Officer of Zynga, in a statement. “This acquisition will be instrumental in growing our iconic licenses and brands from mobile to PCs and consoles, while helping to further expand Zynga’s total addressable market.”

“Echtra Games is delighted to be joining the Zynga family,” added Max Schaefer. “We share Zynga’s vision that cross-platform play is an essential part of the future of RPGs and interactive entertainment and are eager to apply our vast experience and talents to this effort.”

Gaming has been one of the bright spots in the last year — no surprise, since people are spending so much more time indoors and at home because of the pandemic. Zynga, as a consequence of that, has also been on a roll in recent times, with its fourth quarter earnings, released last month, beating analyst expectations. Its revenues of $616 million are the highest ever quarterly bookings posted by the company. Acquisitions are major part of its strategy these days, the company said at the time.

Going for more immersive RPG titles outside of mobile is an ambitious and potentially more expensive undertaking and is a very notable swerve away from the company’s acquisitions in recent years, which have included a majority stake in Turkey’s Rollic for $228 million, Peak for $2.1 billion, 80% of Small Giant Games for $718 million; and Gram Games for $299 million.

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Netflix to release 41 original Indian shows and movies this year

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Netflix said on Wednesday it will roll out 41 Indian films and shows this year, its biggest annual roster of Indian content to date, as the American giant makes further push to win subscribers in the world’s second largest internet market.

The streaming giant, which committed to spending about $420 million on locally produced Indian content in 2019 and 2020, is this year spending significantly more on the new Indian catalog, which is three times larger than the past two years combined.

The new titles feature high-profile Indian actors and producers including Madhuri Dixit, Karan Johar, Manoj Bajpayee, R. Madhavan, Raveena Tandon, Neena Gupta, and Dhanush.

The new roster includes “Bombay Begums,” which follows stories of five women across generations wrestling with desire, ethics, and personal crises, “Decoupled,” a comedy by writer Manu Joseph on India and marriage, and a second season of Emmy-winning drama “Delhi Crime.”

Also in the list are comedy specials that have become immensely popular on streaming services in India. Netflix said comedians including Sumukhi Suresh, Aakaash Gupta, Rahul Dua, and Prashasti Singh — all of whom have participated in comedy shows by Amazon Prime Video — will have shows on the streaming service this year.

Kota Factory, a show that debuted on YouTube about a group of students preparing to compete to get into the prestigious engineering colleges, will premier its second season on Netflix. The Viral Fever, the producer of the show, had collaborated with Indian edtech startup Unacademy, for the first season of the show.

Dice Media’s “Little Things”, which also began its life as native advertisement for a few firms but has since grown into its own show, is getting a fourth season this year.

“Our upcoming lineup features more variety and diversity than we have seen before. From the biggest films and series, to gripping documentaries and reality, and bold comedy formats. We are taking our next big leap in India to bring you more than 40 powerful and irresistible stories from all corners of the country,” said Monika Shergill, Vice President of Content at Netflix India.

“This is just a taste of the films and series to come. We are so excited to share these rich and diverse stories from the best and brightest creators and talent from India to the world,” said Shergill.

R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in a still from Netflix’s upcoming show “Decoupled.” (Netflix)

Netflix’s growing catalog in India comes as Bollywood, which churns out more movies than any other film industry, struggles to deliver big hits as theatres across the country report low footfall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the Indian film industry began releasing several movies directly on streaming services after some pushback from several key players.

Karan Johar said at Netflix’s virtual press conference today that streaming services have attained the level of scale in India that the next “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” — one of the biggest blockbuster films in India, and also one produced by Johar — can release directly on Netflix.

Thanks to the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data and proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones, more than half a billion Indians came online in the past decade, much of it in the last five years.

YouTube reaches more than 450 million internet users in India, TechCrunch reported in January. (India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad corroborated the figure at a press conference last month.) Disney’s Hotstar has amassed over 30 million paying subscribers in India. Media consulting firm MPA estimates that Netflix has about 5 million subscribers in India, a figure that has grown in recent years as the streaming service inked a deal with India’s largest telecom operator Jio Platforms.

Netflix’s growing focus on India also comes at a time when New Delhi is getting more involved with the nature of content on on-demand streaming services. Until now Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services have operated in India without having to worry too much about the nature of their content. But that’s changing, according to new rules announced by India last week.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the new rules state.

Amazon issued a rare apology to viewers in India on Tuesday after some people — including lawmakers with governing Bhartiya Janata Party — objected to some scenes from its political mini-series “Tandav.” Netflix, itself, has faced some heat, too. A police case was filed against two top executives of Netflix, including Shergill, after some people objected to scenes of the show “A Suitable Boy.”

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