Monthly enlists experts and celebrities to teach 30-day online classes

You may know Max Deutsch from Month to Master, his yearlong self-improvement program where he tried to master one “expert-level” skill each month — such as solving a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds, holding a 30-minute conversation in a foreign language and even challenging world champion Magnus Carlsen to a game of chess (Deustch lost).

Now, Deustch and his co-founder Valentin Perez are launching Monthly, which Deustch told me is designed to “leverage technology to help scale this kind of learning to many more people.”

Specifically, Monthly offers 30-day classes taught by experts and celebrities — the instructors often have hundreds of thousands or millions of YouTube subscribers. For example, Andrew Huang is teaching a class on music production, Daria Callie is teaching a class on realistic portrait painting and Stevie Mackey is teaching a class on singing.

When you enroll in a class, you’ll be assigned a different task every day; you might watch an instructional video one day, and then do something more hands-on the next. While the classes are online, you have to enroll and take the class at set periods of time — currently, Huang’s class is the only one open for enrollment.

Deutsch acknowledged that this can seem “a bit antithetical to the benefit of online learning (that you can do it whenever you want),” but he noted that often, “‘whenever you want’ ends up offering most people too much flexibility and becomes ‘maybe some other time.’”

So by having explicit start and stop days for a class, he said, “the commitment you’re making to yourself is more significant and as a result you’re much more likely to stick with it and follow through on your aspirations.”

You’ll also be placed in peer groups with 20 other students, with whom you share work and give and receive feedback. And at the end of it, Deutsch said you’ll have produced “something tangible that you’ve made that you’re proud of and that you can share with the world” — a voice recording, a film, a painting, etc.

Pricing will vary from $179 to $279, depending on the class. Deutsch didn’t provide specific numbers on how the money is shared with instructors, but he noted that the split varies depending on whether students signed up via Monthly or via an instructor promotion. And either way, he said, “creators are getting a very compelling split.”

As for funding, Monthly has raised an undisclosed amount from Floodgate’s Ann Miura-Ko at Floodgate, Intuit founder Scott Cook (Deutsch worked as a product manager at Intuit), and OVO Fund’s Eric Chen.

Twitter launches its anti-abuse filter for Direct Messages

Twitter is rolling out its spam and abuse filter for Direct Messages, a month and a half after the company announced it had started testing the feature. The filter will be available on Twitter’s iOS, Android and Web apps.

The filter adds a new view to the Additional Messages inbox, where DMs from people you don’t follow go. If you click on it, messages that potentially contain offensive content also have their previews hidden, with an option to delete the message without opening it first.

The new DM filter is useful for people who want to keep their Twitter messages open, but (like most people) don’t want to see abusive content. The feature, however, feels long overdue considering that offensive messages are so common for users with open inboxes that third-party developers have launched their own filtering tools, including a recently-released plugin that detects and deletes dick pics.

Earlier this month, Twitter also released its Hide Replies feature in the U.S. and Canada after testing it in Canada. It gives users the option of picking replies to a tweet to hide, but does not delete them. Instead, they are still visible in a separate view that is linked to a button in the original tweet.

Upstart banking company Dave is now worth $1 billion, as Norwest puts in $50 million

Two years after the Los Angeles-based fintech startup Dave launched with a suite of money management tools to save consumers from overdraft fees, the company is now worth $1 billion thanks to a nascent banking practice that had investors lining up.

The company used its overdraft protection service and money management display to shift customers’ focus away from the total balance that their account would show by giving them a sense of how much was actually left in their accounts once debits were included in their statements.

“What was cool about our financial management product was that we were trying to use Dave as a replacement for their current bank,” says Jason Wilk, Dave’s co-founder and chief executive.

Dave now counts over 4 million users for its financial management app and has roughly 800,000 people on the waiting list to use its banking services, Wilk says.

The company has taken a methodical approach to opening its doors as a digital bank, in part because it wants to have the necessary support infrastructure in place to service the demand that Wilk expects to see for its service.

“It’s one thing to help people with budgeting. It’s another to actually manage their money,” says Wilk.

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Dave will use the $50 million raised from Norwest to significantly expand its product and engineering team within the next 12 months, in order to double down on the core business and ensure the success of the banking product.

“We can prove that Dave can be helpful by showing how we can help you manage your current account, and then Dave banking is the marketing lever from there,” says Wilk.

For now, customers need to have the financial management app installed to be able to access the company’s banking service.  

Dave charges $1 per month for access to its financial management tools and that also gives customers the ability to use a cushion of between $50 to $75 to avoid being hit with overdraft fees from their current bank account. Dave asks for a tip every time a customer uses that cushion to cover expenses — something that Wilk says is still cheaper than having to worry about overdraft fees.

And, to add a bit of environmental spin, for every tip that Dave receives, the company plants a tree. “We plant millions and millions of trees,” says Wilk.

The company is FDIC insured through a partner bank, the Memphis-based Evolve Bank and Trust, which acts as a backstop for the company’s financial management activities.

“We already had a relationship with them for some payment processing stuff,” says Wilk. “We liked the team and liked the terms and went with them.”

Terms between financial services firms can vary, and, Wilk says, Evolve Bank was willing to give the company a good deal on splitting the interchange fee, which is a big source of revenue for upstart banks.

It’s possible that Dave could have received a bigger check at a potentially higher valuation, but Wilk says the startup is trying to stay lean.

“The company is growing so quickly, we didn’t want to get too diluted on this round,” he says. “We think the company is quite a bit more valuable than [$1 billion]. You don’t want to raise too much money too quickly if you really think the valuation is going to climb… Since we signed the term sheet the company has already grown another 40%.”

It was only four months ago that Dave was announcing a $110 million credit financing with Victory Park Capital and the launch of its banking product.

Dave’s products and services have a few advantages for customers that are just getting started on the path to financial security. The company monitors everyday monthly payments and reports them to credit agencies to improve customers’ credit ratings. The company also provides up to $100, interest-free, overdraft protection.

“Banks have failed their customers by building products that put their own interests ahead of the humans who use them. People don’t need predatory fees, they need tools that actually solve their challenges around credit building, finding work and getting access to their own money to cover immediate expenses. Dave is the banking product that works with its customers, not against them,” said Wilk, in a June statement announcing the funding and banking product launch.

While Dave is getting some hefty firepower and a generous valuation from Norwest, it’s also operating in a market where its core services that were a point of differentiation are quickly becoming table stakes.

Earlier in September, the new startup banking company Chime announced that it had hit 5 million banking customers and was offering its own overdraft protection service.

The San Francisco-based bank has also raised a lot more capital for a potential piggy bank to raid if it needs to acquire or spend on engineering talent to build out new products and services. Earlier this year, the company announced a $200 million round and said it had hit roughly 3 million customers. Clearly Chime is adding new banking customers at a torrid pace.

And they’re facing global competition as well. N26, the European startup bank with a $3.6 billion valuation and hundreds of millions in financing launched in the U.S. a few months ago as well.

The company sees a global opportunity to create new digital banking services in a world where large amounts of capital and an elite set of consumers move easily between international markets.

“We have an opportunity that we build a bank that has more than 50 million users around the globe. Today, we only have 3.5 million users but we’re accelerating,” said N26 chief executive, Valentin Self, in an interview with TechCrunch. “From a country perspective, we have agreed already that we go to Brazil. There’s no plan after Brazil yet. Now let’s focus on the U.S., then on Brazil, then next year we’ll find out what’s the feedback from these two markets.”

Rocket Lab launch switcheroo shows the flexibility of the new orbital economy

New Zealand-based launch provider Rocket Lab has announced its next commercial mission, “As The Crow Flies,” taking an Astro Digital satellite to orbit in October. Interestingly, this launch originally had a different payload, but was switched out on fairly short notice — not exactly a common practice in this business.

The launch, scheduled for a two-week window starting October 15, will take a single spacecraft created by Astro to low Earth orbit. Corvus — the genus to which crows and ravens belong — is the name of the series of imaging satellites the company has already put up there; hence the name of the mission.

But this mission wasn’t scheduled to launch for some time yet. October’s launch, the fifth this year from Rocket Lab, was set to be another customer’s, but that customer seems to have needed a bit of extra time to prepare — and simply requested a later launch date.

And because the weather is fine, and one Electron rocket is much like another, Rocket Lab and Astro Digital just decided to use that launch window anyway and head to orbit a bit early.

This kind of thing really isn’t done much in the world of launch services. There are so many moving parts and so much red tape, not to mention weather, labor and everything else involved, that launch dates are often set years in advance, frequently delayed anyway, and then either lift off or sit on the launchpad until they do. But flexibility is fundamental to the Rocket Lab business model, as founder and CEO Peter Beck has said repeatedly.

“Electron is a launch on demand service — we’re ready when the launch customer is,” he told TechCrunch regarding today’s announcement. “Electron is designed for standardized, rapid production — we don’t build to tail numbers. This ensures we can have launch vehicles on standby, ready to be assigned a payload for launch on demand.”

When the inevitable delays happen, whether for product, funding or regulatory reasons, both provider and customer have to be ready to work with one another.

“The systems are complex and everything has to be right before launch, so we always want to ensure our customers have the flexibility to make launch timing work for them,” Beck said. “We’re accommodating that reality but allowing our customers to adjust their launch schedule as required, without causing disruption to the other missions on our manifest.”

As the new space economy grows, the old methods and infrastructure are increasingly unable to keep up, necessitating this kind of flexibility. Other launch providers are building toward small scales and adjustable time frames as well, and there’s a line around the globe of small satellite makers who are waiting to take advantage.

You’ll be able to watch the launch from the Māhia Peninsula complex live whenever weather permits takeoff, sometime after October 14.

AWS IQ matches AWS customers with certified service providers

AWS has a lot going on, and it’s not always easy for customers to deal with the breadth of its service offerings on its own. Today, the company announced a new service called AWS IQ that is designed to connect customers with certified service providers.

“Today I would like to tell you about AWS IQ, a new service that will help you to engage with AWS Certified third party experts for project work,” AWS’s Jeff Barr wrote in a blog post introducing the new feature. This could involve training, support, managed services, professional services or consulting. All of the companies available to help have received associate, specialty or professional certification from AWS, according to the post.

You start by selecting the type of service you are looking for, such as training or professional services, then the tool walks you through the process of defining your needs, including providing a title, description and what you are willing to pay for these services. The service then connects the requestor with a set of providers that match the requirements. From there, the requestor can review expert profiles and compare the ratings and offerings in a kind of online marketplace.

AWS IQ start screen

You start by selecting the type of service you want to engage

Swami Sivasubramanian, vice president at AWS, says they wanted to offer a way for customers and service providers to get together. “We built AWS IQ to serve as a bridge between our customers and experts, enabling them to get to work on new projects faster and easier, and removing many of the hassles and roadblocks that both groups usually encounter when dealing with project-based work,” he said in a statement.

The company sees this as a particularly valuable tool for small and medium-sized vendors, which might lack the expertise to find help with AWS services. The end result is that everyone should win. Customers get direct access to this community of experts, and the experts can more easily connect with potential customers to build their AWS consulting practice.

SpaceX details Starship and Super Heavy in new website

After CEO Elon Musk shared new details about its in-development Starship spacecraft on Saturday, SpaceX has updated its website with a new section dedicated to the fully reusable cargo and passenger vehicle. The new Starship website also provides a bunch of info about Super Heavy, the first-stage booster that will propel Starship to orbital altitudes and beyond.

Starship, once complete, will be “world’s most powerful launch vehicle,” according to SpaceX, with a cargo capacity of 100 metric tons (that’s over 220,000 lbs) to Earth orbit. With orbital refueling, it’ll also be able to take its freight — and passengers — to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Per the new Starship site, the final vehicle will be 160 feet tall (without the booster) and 30 feet in diameter, with a propellant capacity of 1,200 metric tons of liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Payload, and crew depending on configuration, will occupy the top third of the rocket, while the bottom two-thirds will house the propellant and six Raptor engines, including three for atmospheric flight and three for propulsion in space. At the top of the rocket there are two actuated (meaning you can control their movement) fins that will move to orient the rocket for re-entry and landing. At the bottom, two large fins will also help produce drag, crucial for its controlled descent. Starship will be made of stainless steel, and one half of its surface will be covered in glass tiles to take the brunt of the worst of the heat upon atmospheric entry.

starship

As for Super Heavy, it’ll have the same 30-foot diameter, but be much taller, at 223 feet, with a propellant capacity of a massive 3,300 metric tons, and a thrust capability of 72 meganewtons (MN) (the thrust of the Saturn V rocket was only 35 MN, by comparison). Actuated grid fins near the top of the rocket will be used for its controlled landing, much like those found on the Falcon 9 boosters SpaceX uses today. The bigger booster will have 37 Raptor engines, however, and six landing legs for stability when it comes back down to be readied for re-use. It’ll be made entirely of stainless steel.

SpaceX notes that Starship is used to deliver satellites at “a lower marginal cost per launch” compared to Falcon, and that the design of its cargo compartment will provide the largest potential cargo fairing of any current planned space freight vehicle. This will allow it to carry even very large objects like assembled space telescopes, the company notes.

It’s also designed to continue to service the International Space Station with cargo resupply, and would be able to transport a lot more cargo in one go than the current Dragon capsules SpaceX uses. It’s also designed to be able to deliver cargo and people to the Moon and other planets, and to return for multiple trips.

SpaceX also provided updated specs for the Raptor engine that will power the Starship system. Each Raptor will be 4 feet in diameter, 10.2 feet high and have a thrust capability of 2 MN (which is just over the thrust force of the Space Shuttle’s main engine during takeoff, coincidentally).

On the site, SpaceX says it’s targeting orbital flight for Starship in 2020, and at the event Musk went further still, saying that Starship should attain this milestone in less than  six months — and even allowed for the possibility that it could fly with people on board in one year.

How to Get Out of Debt, With Personal Finance Expert Farnoosh Torabi

Photo: Shutterstock

On this episode of The Upgrade, we’re tackling debt. Crippling, anxiety-inducing debt. It can be hard to know where to start when facing such a heavy burden, but fortunately, we’ve got some help. First, we’ll hear from Lifehacker staff writer Lisa Rowan, who’ll answer Upgrade listener and Lifehacker reader-submitted questions about credit cards. Then, we’re joined by personal finance expert (and friend of the podcast) Farnoosh Torabi, who coaches us on how to start to get a handle on debt.

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Listen to The Upgrade above or find us in all the usual places where podcasts are served, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and NPR One. Please subscribe, rate, and review.

Highlights from this week’s episode

Credit card Q&A With Lisa Rowan

On how to get your card late fees waived:

It’s definitely worth calling. If you’re truly someone who doesn’t routinely miss payments they’ll probably be able to waive the late fee. You have to specifically ask them for that. So you can’t just call and say, “Hey, I missed my bill, is there anything you can do?” You have to use the specific words: “Can you waive my late fee?” There’s some some wibbly law about that where a customer service representative is not allowed to take that fee away unless you specifically ask for it.”

On automating your credit card payments:

Please automate your monthly payments. It is the best thing you can do for yourself. I don’t care if it’s the first credit card you have ever gotten right out of college or if you’re nearing retirement—it just benefits you so much to automate your payments. Because, like we said earlier the biggest part of your credit score is the fact that you were able to pay your bill on time.

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The interview with Farnoosh Torabi

On the first thing you should do when you want to get out of debt:

The first thing is actually to not obsess over the numbers and really take a step back and think about what is the whole purpose of this? Because certainly of course it feels great to not have that financial burden, that bill coming every month. But what will this afford you? … Put this in context of how this is going to ultimately help you achieve your own personal endeavors.

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On finding a side hustle if you don’t think you have anything to offer:

We all have skills, though it may not seem apparent to us because we’re so focused on our particular job. But you may not be using many of your skill sets at the job that you have. [Think about] if you speak a foreign language, if you are really excellent at math, if you’re really clean and organized, if you’re a great researcher … there are a lot of skills that we take for granted because we don’t think they’re special or we just do them all the time so we don’t necessary think of them in the context of monetizing them. But certainly there are ways that we can all start making more money if we just think about the things that we’re really good at naturally or the things that we’ve excelled at in academics or at work.

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Resources for people in debt

Debtors Anonymous

National Foundation for Credit Counseling

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How to Use Excel’s Xlookup, the Newer and More Powerful Vlookup

I still remember the first day I figured out how to run a vlookup command in Excel; I was sitting at my coffee table wondering what the point of this silly little command was. Once I realized its power, I never went back. As a business analyst at Stanford University, I turned to vlookup constantly to get through my day’s work.

What’s a vlookup, you ask? For the uninformed, this fun little Excel command allows you to extract a value based on the position of another value. So, for example, suppose you had a spreadsheet that looked like this:

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If you run a vlookup, then you can tell the cell (f5) to look for a value in a column (let’s say, “bus”), and then return a value from another column in the same row (green). Hlookup functions the same way, just reverse the row/column designations: you’re looking up a value in a row and then returning a value from another row further down.

And now we arrive at xlookup, the “successor to the iconic vlookup function,” as Microsoft’s Joe McDaid describes. Here’s how it works:

XLOOKUP is named for its ability to look both vertically and horizontally (yes it replaces HLOOKUP too!). In its simplest form, XLOOKUP needs just 3 arguments to perform the most common exact lookup (one fewer than VLOOKUP). Let’s consider its signature in the simplest form:

XLOOKUP(lookup_value,lookup_array,return_array)

lookup_value: What you are looking for

lookup_array: Where to find it

return_array: What to return

So, back to my example, if you wanted to find what color is associated with the word “house” and extract that information into a cell, you’d simply have to type in:

xlookup(“house”,a:a,d:d)

Easy.

Xlookup, in addition to being a shorter command to have to mess with than vlookup, also gives you access to a feature astute vlookup’ers have dreamed about for years: reverse searches. In other words, you can now also pull in value that are left of an anchor point, rather than the default right. It’s practically magic.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to get to play with xlookup today. Microsoft is rolling out the function to Office 365 Insiders first. So, you better get in the beta if you want to master xlookup before everyone else.

Install NES Emulators and Alternative iOS Apps With AltStore

As someone who uses Android as their primary mobile OS, I tend to focus on alternative apps/service to Google’s products, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy the third-party replacements for Apple’s apps on iOS and iPad. Unfortunately, Apple’s “walled garden” approach to its products means there are far fewer third-party and/or open-source app alternatives available on iOS than on Android—and most require you to jailbreak your iPhone, which is a tedious, warranty-busting project.

However, a newly released open-source app store project from software developer Riley Testut, aptly named AltStore, can be downloaded and installed on your iOS devices with a clever workaround.

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AltStore is pretty new and only carries a includes a small handful of software created by Testut at launch, but this includes Testut’s Delta emulator app that lets you play NES games on the iPhone (and potentially SNES, Nintendo 64, Gameboy, and Gameboy Advance in the future). More apps will hopefully be added to AltStore in the future, but is a pretty big deal; emulation software is banned from the official App Store and used to be nigh-impossible to install on iPhones without jailbreaking the device.

AltStore is able to exist by exploiting a few iOS loopholes, like the ability to download software to your phone via a Mac/Windows application. It’s a smart, but precarious solution, and Apple could easily shut the whole thing down at some point. Because of that looming potential, it’s probably smart to install AltStore immediately if you’re even remotely interested in what it’s offering. Developers can check out the AltStore Github page if they’re curious and want to learn more about the project.

How to install AltStore and AltStore-distributed apps

Installing AltStore is a helluva lot easier (and safer) than jailbreaking your iPhone, but takes more effort than your average App Store download. Still, the whole process is quick and painless once you’ve got all the pieces in place. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Your iPhone.
  • A PC running Mac or Windows 10 (The Windows 10 version of the software is still technically in beta.)
  • A USB cable to connect the two.

With everything set up, you can now install AltStore on your iPhone:

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  1. Plug your iPhone into your PC.
  2. Go to https://altstore.io/ and install the AltServer software for your PC OS.
  3. Run the installation then open the AltServer app on your computer.
  4. We’ll now send the AltStore app to your iPhone via AltServer. On Mac, click the AltServer icon from the toolbar to open the dropdown menu, then “Install AltStore” and click your device. On Windows 10, click the AltServer icon from the icon tray (you may need to click “Show more Icons”) then hover the mouse over “Install AltStore” and select your device.
  5. Wait for the AltStore app to be installed on your iPhone.
  6. Keeping your phone connected and AltServer running on your PC, open the AltStore app to begin downloading apps.
  7. Unlike installing apps from the App Store, you’ll need to plug in your phone to your PC and have AltServer running to install new apps, as well as update apps every few days—so make sure you don’t uninstall AltServer from your PC.

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European early-stage VC firm ‘Project A’ on Europe’s startup scene taking the next step

Project A, the Berlin-based VC, just raised a new $200 million fund (€180 million) to continue backing European startups at Seed and Series A stage.

In addition, the firm — whose investments include WorldRemit, Catawiki, Voi and Uberall — announced it will now have a presence in London and Stockholm in order to put people on the ground in what it says are “two of its favorite ecosystems.”

What better time, therefore, to catch up with the team at Project A, where we talked investment thesis, why Stockholm and London, and the increasing interest in Europe from U.S. LPs and VCs. Other subjects we touched on include diversity in venture, and, of course, Brexit!

TechCrunch: You last raised a fund in 2016, totaling €140 million, what changes have you noticed since then with regards to the types of companies you are seeing and the European ecosystem as a whole?

Uwe Horstmann: Entrepreneurs definitely matured a lot over the last few years. We see more and more of serial founders who combine drive with experience delivering great results. We also noticed an increase in more tech / product-centric and in B2B models.

This doesn’t come as a surprise as the market for consumer-oriented models started developing much earlier and is now reaching its limits after a few years. Many entrepreneurs gained experience in the Old Economy or have been consulting companies for a few years, learned about the struggle with products and processes first-hand and developed solutions specifically tailored to the industry’s needs.

We also notice a rise in professionalism in company setups and a higher ambition level in founding teams. This is probably also due to a more professional angel and micro fund scene that has developed in Europe.

TC: I note that you have U.S. LPs in the new fund, which I think is a first for Project A, and more broadly we are seeing a lot more interest from U.S. VCs in Europe these days. Why do you think that is, and how does this change the competitive landscape for deal-flow and the ambition of European founders?

Thies Sander: Having our first U.S. LPs on board makes us proud. LPs have noticed that European VC returns have really picked up during recent fund cohorts.