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Bird hopes a payment pivot could fix what ails high-growth startups

Investors want to see profits. Is adding payments to products the solution?

Bird hopes a payment pivot could fix what ails high-growth startups

A scooter company pivoting to mobile payments is an incredibly 2020 tech industry move.

Photo: Getty Images.

Bird, the scooter company, is pivoting into payments — kind of.

On Tuesday, Bird is announcing a test of Bird Pay, a new feature that lets people buy smoothies and açaí bowls from local businesses by scanning a QR code with the Bird app. The company says it's already testing it in Los Angeles and Santa Monica (the latter city being notorious as a testing ground in the scooter wars).

If the idea sounds familiar, it's because so many companies — from Google to Walmart to PayPal — have tried to get people to pay with QR codes. Even more companies have struggled to get people to use QR codes in the first place. And none of them has found a strong foothold in the U.S.

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So, why would a micro-mobility company that has nothing to do with fintech or payments now be giving it the old college try? A desire to diversify its revenue streams and the chance to get into a hot and profitable market, most likely — especially given investors' growing emphasis on profits and a recent string of billion-dollar fintech acquisitions. Despite an infusion of VC money in 2019, Bird struggled to stem massive losses, and its CEO admitted that profitability was the new north star: "Gone are the days when top line growth was the leading KPI for emerging companies. Positive unit economics is the new goal line," said founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden in October.

Expanding into payments is also increasingly part of a mobility company's playbook, despite how seemingly unrelated they may sound. Southeast Asia's Grab has made a push into fintech, as have other mostly Asian transportation companies. Grab's financial services arm does everything from payments and rewards to money-lending and insurance.

Even Uber has a credit card and an Uber Cash wallet where people can add money to their account to pay for Uber rides or Uber Eats delivery (but nothing outside of Uber).

Getting Americans to use QR codes is going to be a tougher sell than preloading some cash.

Every few years, U.S. companies try to re-create the success WeChat's had in China with QR codes, but none has yet succeeded. Snapchat and Spotify both leaned into QR-style codes as easy ways to add friends or share music. Facebook launched its own type of scannable profile codes in Messenger, then killed it three years later in 2019 (Messenger now supports normal QR codes). In retail, stores like Walmart have launched their own mobile wallet apps that let people scan QR codes to pay. Others, like Target and Starbucks, instead use bar codes inside the app that the cashier scan in order to check them out.

Bird may have one advantage when it comes to getting people to make QR code payments: Its riders are already trained to pull their smartphones out to scan the QR code when they unlock a scooter. Bird says that 58% of its riders head to or end at a local business, though whether a rider actually goes into that business to buy something, rather than just leaving their Bird scooter nearby and going elsewhere, the company can't know.

Even if riders do hop off their scooter and bound into a shop, it's a leap for riders to then keep the scooter app open, or open it again, so they can pay for their oat milk once they walk into a store.

The question is whether there's something about using a scooter to arrive at a shop means that Bird Pay will have a better chance of success than all of the other companies who have tried before it. Soon the verdict from Santa Monica will probably be clear. Just monitor the Instagram posts tagged at the shopping mecca of the Third Street Promenade to see whether Bird riders are buying into it.

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

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Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | Fintech

These digital banks try to stand out by focusing on niche communities

Banks like Daylight and Purple are serving communities that have been overlooked by big banks.

Upstarts like Purple and Daylight are trying to meet the specific needs of their customers.

Photo: Stephen Phillips/Unsplash

When Billie Simmons and Rob Curtis started the LGBTQ-focused digital bank Daylight last year, they didn't seek to just "stick rainbows" on the product to market to the group. Instead, they decided to focus on building a product that met the specific needs of the population.

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

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