In spite of the recent layoffs, Zynga is still picking up talent in strategic areas like social casino gaming.
The company bought a roughly 40-person team called Spooky Cool Labs full of real-money gaming talent. Based in Chicago, the Spooky Cool Labs team is made up of social and real money gaming veterans from companies such as Aristocrat, and slot machine makers like IGT (International Game Technology) and WMS Gaming. The company’s founder Joe Kaminkow was ranked as one of the 10 most influential people in the history of slots by Strictly Slots Magazine.
But from Spooky Cool’s website, the company looks like it had been working on non-casino titles like a Wizard of Oz city-building social game. Zynga says that access to this Wizard of Oz brand is part of the deal.
The team will stay in Chicago and work with Zynga’s San Francisco-based social casino gaming team. In another interesting twist to this deal, Kaminkow will apparently also still lead game design at Aristocrat Leisure Limited, an Australian company that’s one of the biggest slots makers in the world. He told VentureBeat back in March that he had taken a job as a senior vice president of game development at Aristocrat Leisure. Spooky Cool also had backing from the Hearst Corporation, but they didn’t disclose the amount of funding.
As Zynga grapples with how to approach mobile platforms, it has relied on one of its old stand-bys: Zynga Poker. At the same time, the company has made steps toward exploring how to incorporate real-money into its betting games.
The company made its first real-money games live in the U.K. in April, just after the first-quarter closed. But it has yet to bring these real-money efforts to the Facebook platform or mobile in that market. In December, the company also applied for a “preliminary finding of suitability” from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, starting a process that could take more than a year.
TechCrunch » Social
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Disconnect, An Ex-Googler’s Social Enterprise/Privacy Startup, Raises $3.5M, Extends To More Browsers
As we continue to see more details brought to light in how the government requests and uses information about what we do on the web and on our mobile devices, an ex-Googler and a consumer rights attorney, who have dedicated themselves to helping users remain private, have raised some funding to do this better and in more places.
Disconnect – the startup behind the Disconnect.me extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers, which lets users of Facebook, Google and Twitter keep themselves from being tracked by third party sites, and the Disconnect 2 app that covers a wider range of sites — has raised a $ 3.5 million Series A round.
At the same time, as a measure of dedication to its principle of being positioned not for profit but for social good, Disconnect has been designated as a B Corporation, a semi-charitable certification. With the tax breaks and other help that this offers, it will let Disconnect dedicate time to raising awareness and campaigning as well as to creating for-profit products.
“As a B Corporation, we’re able to spend more time than a traditional company on activities such as consumer education, petition drives, and close collaboration with non-profits,” Gus Warren, a former Venture Partner at FirstMark Capital and part of Disconnect’s executive team, noted in a statement. “Disconnect is committed to benefiting not just shareholders but all stakeholders, including the public.” Warren will run the company’s New York office.
This most recent round of funding was led by FirstMark Capital, and comes on the back of a $ 600,000 seed round announced in March 2012. That round was led by Highland Capital Partners with participation from Charles River Ventures, and angels including David Cancel, Mark Jacobstein, Ramesh Haridas, Vikas Taneja, Chris Hobbs, and Andy Toebben.
Founders Brian Kennish, formerly an engineer at Google who left to work on this full-time, and Casey Oppenheim, a consumer rights attorney, say the startup will be using the funding first of all to help with the launch of Disconnect 2 for Safari and Opera browsers.
Disconnect 2, launched in April 2013 as a Chrome and Firefox extension, blocks some 2,000 third-party websites that track you across the web. That vastly expands the power of the extension when it initially focused on a handful of portals. Disconnect.me first kicked off when Kennish was still at Google and created the Chrome extension for Facebook specifically, in October 2010.
Kennish notes that Disconnect 2 has gotten more than 250,000 new users since launching in April and that all the startup’s apps combined have more than 1,000,000 weekly active users. Within the current range of software, it is charged on a pay-what-you-want model. “Like Humble Bundle,” says Kennish, who adds, “Some of our upcoming releases will also include freemium features.”
In addition to helping block some 2,000 third-party sites that track users’ browsing histories, the Disconnect 2 extension also helps filter out malware and encrypts data that you share on sites “to prevent wireless eavesdropping.” The company also promises that by cutting down on a lot of the tracking noise, users are actually able to see faster-loading pages and use 17% less bandwidth on average.
“Increasingly, people want to know who’s tracking them online and want to have a say about what information is being collected about them,” Oppenheim noted in a statement. “Our software is designed to put users back in control so they can decide how their personal data is used,” adds Kennish.
Longer term, the company also hopes to focus more on protecting users around the various features of data mining.
“We’ve always thought one of the biggest threats to people’s online privacy is just how big data mining is getting,” Kennish told TechCrunch. “There’s so much personal data being collected about us in so many places now and all that data is susceptible to being used in ways we don’t want. So our goal is to help people minimize the unwanted collection and use of their data. We started by tackling third-party tracking because most people don’t know their browsing history is being tracked by thousands of invisible websites they’ve probably never even heard of.”
Kennish says company is also becoming increasingly focused on security services. “We think there are way too many holes in online consumer security, which recent events have made even more obvious, and we want to help plug some of those holes.”
TechCrunch » Social
Amazon’s New Social Gifting Service “Amazon Birthday Gift” Leverages Facebook, Competes With Facebook’s Own Gifts
Stealing a page right out of a startup called Aggregift’s playbook, Amazon today launched a new feature called “Amazon Birthday Gift,” which allows a group of Facebook friends to go in on an Amazon.com Gift Card together. That gift isn’t posted to the recipients’ Facebook Timeline until their big day arrives.
To get started with the service, a user buys an Amazon.com gift card, then invites other mutual friends to donate using the Birthday Gift website here. When the birthday arrives, the recipient is tagged in a Facebook Timeline wall post, receiving the digital card and everyone’s birthday greetings.
The new addition is a further expansion of Amazon’s deepening integration with Facebook, as the company last December launched a “Friends and Family Gifting” feature just ahead of the holidays to generate Facebook-enabled gift suggestions, send out reminders, and enable gift list sharing via both email and social networks. Online competitor Walmart, too, had previously launched a similar Facebook-based gift recommendation service in 2011, which was added to the Walmart.com site ahead of the 2012 holiday season.
Social gifting is still very much in the experimental phase, despite the support from e-commerce giants like Walmart, Amazon and others. For instance, Facebook has also dabbled in this area with the fall 2012 debut of Facebook Gifts (built on top of former social gifting startup Karma). The service is meant to tie into one of Facebook’s most regular draws — its birthday reminders. The idea is that users could visit the site, and in addition to wishing their friend “happy birthday,” they could also add a gift to accompany that message. The social network offers gifts like iTunes digital Gift Cards and physical goods, and it even launched its own self-branded “Facebook Card” earlier this year.
However, even with Facebook’s broad reach, its Gifts service has been struggling to generate serious revenue, and certainly falling short of earlier projections and estimations regarding its potential. Meanwhile, some startups like Sincerely (with Sesame) and recently funded Wrapp, carry on in this space, while others head off in new directions. Giftly, for instance, exited to GiftCards.com this March, while Boomerang has turned its focus to the B2B market instead in recent months.
That being said, Amazon still has a shot at winning the social gifting space with its new Amazon Birthday Gift feature, since it can be argued that users don’t associate Facebook’s brand with spending or shopping the way they do with Amazon. (See also: various f-commerce struggles). Plus, Amazon’s cards are the go-to for the “generic” gift option, which people buy when they don’t know what to get, or when they need something last minute.
However, the new service is still limited today to smaller gift amounts ($ 1, $ 5, $ 10 and $ 25), which can be a challenge for those attempting to raise funds for a larger present like an electronics purchase. Plus, being tied only to birthdays eliminates the big holiday, graduation or wedding presents users may want to go in on together. Often these larger presents are led by a close family member or friend who puts in a big chunk of change, to which others pile on. Not supporting these other types of gifting narrows the already potentially narrow market for digital, social gifting even further.
Amazon Birthday Gift is live now here for interested users.
TechCrunch » Social
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Facebook revealed more detail on how frequently it gets information requests from government agencies in a public statement late Friday. In a post on the company’s press site, Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot said it received between 9,000-10,000 requests over the six-month period ending on Dec. 31, 2012.
That adds up to roughly 1,500 requests per month. Ullyot said the nature of the requests from “government entities” is quite varied, including things like a local sheriff trying to locate a missing child to national security agencies investigating terrorist activity.
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Join CMSWire and a great group of industry experts for our June 20th #socbizchat Tweet Jam at 10am PT, 1pm ET, 1700 GMT as we discuss the future of the social enterprise. Read the questions & check out who’s coming.
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