Friday, February 14, 2014

A "precision investment" blown under the radar by "rag traders"

It was meant to be a highlight of the second annual Tech Chill Baltics conference in Riga and a record financing round for a Latvian startup with global traction, but it ended up blown down below the radar of mainstream media (where it may have been, in any case) by the double-digit afterburners of a Lithuanian rag trader., the infographics platform that has been gaining global traction and publicity, raised EUR 1.34 million from Point Nine Capital, Connect Ventures and a post-mortem dollop of cash from the recently deceased HackFwd. The new injection of cash will go into, among other things, developing's real time data display capacity (which, depending on the task, can involve a bit of rocket science) and in setting up an operation in the US.
Meanwhile, Vinted, a Lithuanian-based used clothing and accessories trading platform, raised USD 27 million from Accel Partners and Insight Ventures. Superficially, Vinted looks like an adaption or port of a generic peer-to-peer selling solution. And as the IT website/blog TechCrunch notes, the company is entering a crowded market, especially if it's main target is the US (where it already has employees).
Apparently, Vinted won't be building any warehouses or logistics facilities, so it is hard to imagine what the USD 27 million will be spent for.
The comparatively tiny investment in may, by contrast, be a case of precision investment, applying just enough new cash to some very specific needs, while keeping control of the company firmly in the hands of its founders. That seems to be the strategy favored by founder Uldis Leiterts, who recently wrote in an e-mail that "European startups have a problem of selling too early, that's why we don't see great companies emerging from Europe."
"' s founders are committed to stay on board for a long time and build a great service for our customers and a return for our investors," Leiterts wrote. Leiterts has indicated that turned down a "seven digit" buyout offer from an unnamed American company. Meanwhile, Latvian address book and contact management (for MacOS and IOS) startup Cobook was recently bought by Full Contact, a contact management company in the sweet smoke filled state of Colorado. The core Cobook development team from Latvia under co-founder and CEO Kaspars Dancis is moving to Denver as I write.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Highlights of TechChill 2013 (Video)

Here is my video of some highlights of TechChill 2013 in Riga, mainly advice to startups by venture capitalists and other experts. Sorry for not posting this earlier, but my day was disrupted by a sudden request from my day job to attend a meeting of a parliamenary committee at the Latvian Parliament. So here is the video:

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

TomTom's plans for new services in Latvia

In early December, some representatives of TomTom, the GPS navigation device manufacturers, visited Latvia and sat down for a short interview with this blogger. Some interesting facts: TomTom has completely mapped Latvia (as part of a Baltic map) and plans to introduce mobile connectivity for its devices, probably by a forthcoming deal with mobile operator Bite Latvija (a Vodafone partner, used by TomTom for its mobile services elsewhere).

Here is the video interview:

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A talk with Kaspars Dancis of Cobook.

With more than 250 000  free downloads, Cobook the alternative address book and contact management system for Macintosh computers, is ready to move on. As reported on TechCrunch, Cobook is now offering version 1.1, which syncs with the user's Google contacts. In his talk with this blog, Kaspars says there are plans for an iOS (iPhone and iPad) version of Cobook, eventually an Android version, and, somewhat sooner, a paid version for some consumers and for businesses.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Developments on the Latvian TV market

For most Latvians, television is a service that comes over the net, so it rightly belongs in a telecoms blog. And anyway, what is telecoms? More and more, it is using a computer with a voice/video chat function. I am not only talking about Skype and its clones, but also those computers with voice functions that we call smartphones, such as the iPhone4s.
There has been a big hoo-hah about television in Latvia, mainly because of a big merger between a subsidiary of Sweden's Modern Times Group (MTG), TV3 and another privately owned TV company Latvijas Neatkarīgā televīzija (LNT). TV3 and LNT were both loss makers in a drastically reduced advertising market and it was a matter of time before LNT would go down first, taking a pretty talented crew and substantial audience down with the ship. So the move was necessary, and, even if it established a kind of Swedish monopoly on commercial television (with lots of restrictions imposed on the deal by Latvia's Competition Council) it was still better than the alternative of LNT going down or being sold to some murky Russian media group.
Up to now, both channels have been paying customers of Lattelecom, both for its terrestrial digital broadcast services (with the digital signal also going out over Lattelecom's interactive IPTV service). Oddly, Lattelecom's CEO Juris Gulbis spent quite a few tweets criticizing the merger, even though both were his customers and it really didn't matter who owned them as long as they pay their bills. In 2013, if amendments to the Electronic Media Law are passed, it will put an end to something called “must carry” and both commercial channels, hitherto broadcast over cable and internet networks for free, will be able to charge cable operators and, eventually, viewers, for watching them. Kaspars Ozoliņš, the CEO of MTG Baltics says the extra revenue will allow him to expand locally produced programming on both “national” commercial channels, thereby retaining and increasing his audience and the base for future advertising.
It may, however, be too little and perhaps too late. A lot of cable operators are saying they will relegate both national commercial channels to premium packages with fewer viewers, defeating the purpose of increasing the number of viewers. Others will pay but won't pass on their costs to their viewers (the head of a small cable TV operation in the town of Kuldiga told me this). Still others may use their cable networks as “common antennas” and feed the terrestrial digital signal (still for free for all of 2013) to their viewers. Those who have modern television sets with built in digital decoders will see the feed effortlessly, others may have to rig their Lattelecom terrestrial decoders to the cable network. So it looks like lifting “must carry” will not exactly free the Golden Goose to go flying into the coffers of MTG.
An interesting and still struggling free internet TV operation is, launched by the social network of the same name. Its assortment of channels is still limited, but still includes BBC World. It seems that the commercial Latvian networks see it as an upstart and have blocked draugiem from using their signal. Look for a proliferation of internet TV and TV aggregators in Latvia as entrepreneurs discover how relatively easy this is to do.
On another note, I tested the new random videochat application The jury is still out. I ended up talking to an internet entrepreneur in The Hague, told him about TechHub Riga. Before him, some murky faces appeared (bad lighting, bad cameras), not eager to talk. So it could be another Chatroullette, which by many accounts degenerated into a series of exhibitionists looking for random “viewers” of their attributes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back again with an update on 4G, the future of TV

I have totally neglected this blog, but I will make an effort to get it back on track. Here is some news that may not have appeared elsewhere.
Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) has launched 4G services in the Latvian port city of Liepaja. This is one of the places where 4G was first tested a couple of years ago, but the first commercial launch of 4G (in the 1800Mhz band) was in the seaside resort of Jurmala near Riga, then in Riga and the immediate environs.
All of this has taken place without great fanfare, although, when asked, LMT officials will tell you that all new mobile internet modems sold are 4G capable. So it looks like the operator is planning to go nationwide. I have been given a test modem (passed on by a PR agency from another journalist). Unfortunately, it does not even show up on my MacBook, although my son managed to download the modem driver on his MacBook Pro, where the modem didn't work either. But that is, perhaps, an individual problem.
It should also be noted that LMT in its official presentations has downplayed 4G as a priority, saying instead that it would finish the build-out of its 3G network, which is capable of download speeds of up to 42 Mbps (the 4G network claims speeds of up to 100 Mbps). So is the Liepaja deployment a shift in strategy? Remains to be seen. For the moment, LMT isn't following this up with any high profile marketing activities.
Meanwhile fixed network operator Lattelecom has been presenting itself as a multi-platform TV distributor – digital terrestrial, interactive (IPTV) and internet TV (for watching on laptops, tablets and mobile phones). This is available for one package price (internet +various TV services+ increasingly less useful, but “free” fixed telephony), with free WiFi at Lattelecom sites across the country.
The next major issue Lattelecom faces on the television market is the end of its license to broadcast digital terrestrial as of December 31, 2013. It now looks like a)the Latvian State Radio and Television Center will be exclusively tasked with broadcasting the free-to-air public television channels of Latvian Television while b) “more than one packager” of pay television channels may be selected by tender. In practice, this probably means Lattelecom and another competitor will be awarded a license starting January 1, 2014, or so the government has indicated. Lattelecom has said it will participate in the tender, but has warned that if two winners are selected, there will be a duplication of functions and a division of the market that will more likely increase cost to both competitors, especially the newcomer.
On the IT side, the real excitement in Latvia is the increasing number of internationally recognized start-ups, such as the alternative Macintosh/iOS address book Cobook, the digital goods selling site Sellfy, the question and answer site for teenagers, as well as some applications coming out of the Latvian social network's incubator IdeaBits, such as the productivity tool Desktime and systems for managing vending machines (Vendon) and vehicle fleets (Mapon).
The other “hotspot” of innovation is TechHub Riga, an offshoot of TechHub in London that provides a co-working facility for startups with plenty of interesting guest lecturers and seminars. Hopefully I will be able to do more on both of these centers of innovation, probably in the form of videoblogs introducing some of the movers and shakers on the Latvian IT startup scene. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

More on LMT, HAL & the bag man - Lattelecom be slightly afraid

I found out the real story behind the Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) offer that seems to suggest the fixed line numbers can be transferred to a mobile operator. They can. What LMT has set up is a wireless "fixed line" phone service, much the way Lattelecom once did with CDMA standard operator Triatel.  The whole thing does run off a GSM SIM card, to which the Lattelecom  number can be transferred as a fixed line number. This baffled me at first, since, generally, fixed line phones don't need SIM cards (except when they are wireless). As for tariff plans, the new LMT home package will be on a semi-flat rate basis, that is, giving more minutes for a fixed price than a normal user can consume in a month (up to 1 500 minutes, unlimited on the LMT network. The minutes in  can be used both for calling fixed and mobile phones (almost perfect convergence?). It is perhaps better than the Lattelecom unlimited flat rate, because with Lattelecom, once off the network or even calling a mobile phone, the money counter switches on.
So Lattelecom  is challenged to some extent. It may have to find a way to offer a similar service, at least to  add a mobile component to its offering, or to join forces and co-sell with LMT, with whom they have had a mutually cool arms-length relationship all these years. Maybe things will change when the never-ending story ends and TeliaSonera, hitherto the half-mother (haven't used that term in a while) is finally allowed to buy out the state and other shareholders in Lattelecom and LMT.

LMT, HAL and the bag man

These mysteries will be solved soon. Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT), has been running a TV commercial where a child approaches a fixed phone, which warns him not to use a mobile (maybe I am confusing something) whereupon the kid's father (the bag man) arrives with a big bag from LMT. Seems it is some kind of family pack.  Dad proceeds to unplug the landline phone, which makes a few desperate pleas (like HAL being disconnected in  2001: A Space Odyssey) and announces that everything will be mobile, including the home phone landline number.
The mystery is in just how this works. Seems that the wireless phone that is in the bag and goes with the landline (generally, a Lattelecom line) turns into a direct IP phone (hence it runs on WiFi or at least via the base-station router also in the bag). What this looks like to me is Lattelecom and LMT stealth launching Lattelecom's IP based new network. That means that wherever you can connect the wireless landline phone (via the router or stand-alone, if it is WiFi capable) to the IP network over the internet (in Riga or Singapore), you get a local virtual landline. There has been no announcement or detailed explanation of this, just the TV commercial. Will try to find out what is going on at an LMT event this evening. 

Facebook outage hits 300 000 users in Latvia

A Facebook outage lasting a few hours knocked around 300 000 users off the social network in Latvia (the whole barely 2 million strong nation would barely be a village in Facebook if it were a nation-state). This came just days after Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis set up his Facebook page and two days ahead of the launch of Latvia's official Facebook page "If you like Latvia, Latvia likes you" (the page has been up and running for some time already. Facebook  seems to have come back online again just after 10AM local. However, this is the only report my readers will have of what happened (even though I think Latvia was among the first to notice FB going down), because my news agency simply shitcanned the story. Reasons unknown,  your best guesses may start at provincialism, ignorance and worse...
Maybe this post also belong under the headline of Failed State Latvia? in my other blog.