TIME technology

Taxi Drivers Are Using Apps to Disrupt the Disruptors

Essdras M Suarez—The Boston Globe/Getty Images; Justin Sullivan—Getty Images; Gamma Nine Photography/Uber

Taxis in San Francisco are fighting back through apps, with the city's blessing

Flywheel ScreenshotStanding on the corner of California and Polk in San Francisco, I took out my phone and ordered a ride from Flywheel, an app that’s competing with rival transportation services like Uber and Lyft by leveraging the thousands of taxis already on the road. Like with those services, once I order a Flywheel ride, a map pops up with a car icon, showing me where my ride is in relation to me and allowing me to monitor the driver as he or she gets closer.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

On this particular morning, as I watched multiple Lyfts go by (unmissable with their trademark giant pink mustaches attached to the cars’ grilles), and a couple Ubers (the black cars now identifiable by small logos that must be placed on their windows), my driver’s icon drifted away from me. After some minutes passed, I called the driver, who assured me he was on his way. When he continued to travel not towards me, I canceled the order and got a new Flywheel, which picked me up and promptly delivered me to the company’s San Francisco office, with my bill and a 20% tip paid automatically through the credit card I stored on the app.

Once at Flywheel, Chief Product Officer Sachin Kansal explained what had likely happened with my misguided driver. “He may have been ride-stacking,” Kansal explained, meaning that the driver accepted my order on the app and then took a street hail, thinking he could deliver the latter before I ever knew the difference. But the moment I canceled my ride, the driver’s plan was foiled. He would be blocked from the system until Flywheel investigated the case, and these did not appear to be circumstances that would yield quick forgiveness from administrators. Kansal made sure I knew how swiftly justice would be dealt, because this is not the kind of mistake companies can afford to treat lightly in the midst of the Great Ride App Wars.

San Francisco has been transformed into a city full of smartphone-wielding guinea pigs, willing beta testers who try out new services and shovel feedback to engineers. But while many transportation startups are busy dreaming up new and unfamiliar offerings, Flywheel and similar companies like Curb and Hailo are trying to breathe high-tech life into the old taxis that have been around for decades. That business model comes with limitations as well as certain advantages—the biggest of which may be that the city of San Francisco is proving a willing ally, and that could in turn prove a model for other metros. (Lyft did not respond to an interview request for this article, and Uber declined.)

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency’s “position is that there is a public good to having a regulated taxi industry,” city spokesperson Kristen Holland said in an email. “We want to encourage the public to take San Francisco taxicabs by making them aware of the e-hail option and letting them know the benefits of taking a San Francisco taxicab.”

Earlier this summer, the city and Flywheel teamed up to get their pro-taxi message across by putting cheeky ads like this on the sides of city buses:

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 1.35.15 PM

And this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 1.35.05 PM

By getting its app adopted a whole fleet at a time, Flywheel now has its system in 80% of San Francisco’s approximately 1,800 cabs and is aiming for 100%. Both the city and companies like Flywheel have a financial interest in cabs doing well—Flywheel through the 10% cut it takes off the base fare and the city through its medallion system, which will yield an anticipated $10 million in fiscal year 2015. Holland says that the city also supports cabs because they’re a known quantity. The city regulates them and decides exactly how the drivers are trained. Questions about insurance and liability, which have plagued startups innovating new transportation systems, have long been answered when it comes to cabs.

Taxi drivers, many bitter that they have to deal with more onerous regulations than drivers for companies like Lyft, have taken to writing down license plate numbers of cars with pink mustaches and reporting them to insurance companies. While cabs are clearly commercial vehicles, Lyft drivers are often using their personal cars to make money, and some insurers have canceled Lyft drivers’ policies after finding out they had only forked out for non-commercial plans.

Using apps like Flywheel is a way for taxis to fight fire with fire instead of tattling, however justified it might seem. Flywheel’s Kansal says that drivers may double the amount of rides they get in a shift through the efficiency that the system provides, matching people who need rides with nearby drivers. “There are weaknesses that others have. There are regulations that they may be breaking,” he says. “But 90% of our energy is spent on making sure this experience always stays top notch. That the experience that you had this morning never happens again.”

While Flywheel can’t turn cabs into fancy black cars or Lyft Plus SUVs, customers who order a taxi never have to worry about surge pricing, premiums that other companies charge in times of high demand. And while Flywheel can’t innovate at the speed of the other companies, given the limitations of what a fleet cab can be, it did just roll out service to airports in San Francisco, Seattle and L.A—something less established fleets still can’t legally do in many cities due to long-standing airport regulations. The California commission regulating the new services like Uber and Lyft has threatened to shut them down if drivers keep showing up at arrival and departure areas without proper permits.

Kansal believes his company can outfit cabs in a way that allows them to disrupt the companies that disrupted cabs in the first place. The fleet model is “very scalable,” he says, though the app is now densely present only in San Francisco and available in just a handful of other cities, most on the West Coast. (Competitor Hailo is the leader among taxi apps on the East Coast and in Europe.)

But the equation isn’t so simple as making lists of pros and cons for new ride-providing companies and app-enabled taxis. After my interview with Kansal, I tried to hail a car through Curb, a rival app that just rebranded itself after previously operating as Taxi Magic. After failing to get a taxi assigned to me before five minutes passed by I went back to Flywheel. A taxi arrived, and I asked my driver Casey Callahan what he thought of using the platform.

“I have mixed feelings,” he says. “You get a lot of business you wouldn’t normally get, and it gives us an edge against Uber, but they take a kind of big cut.” Ten percent seemed too high to Callahan, and that’s the kind of resentment that can fester. UberX drivers protested angrily outside Uber’s HQ in San Francisco earlier this year when the company started taking a bigger cut of the fare, many drivers threatening to go work for someone else. Callahan said the Flywheel app can also have technical kinks, and it remains painful to pass up a willing street hail once he’s agreed to pick up a Flywheel customer, the temptation to which my driver succumbed.

Callahan described all the driver-luring and price-cutting companies are doing to one-up each other in the Bay Area as “cutthroat capitalism at it worst.” But he said that if cab drivers don’t use technology and whatever else they can to fight back, they’re going to go the way of the dodo and the stagecoach. “This is going to be one more thing that’s gone from the American way of life,” he says.

He says he chose driving for a cab company over the new services partly because he doesn’t own his own car and feels that buying one through a company, as some Lyft Plus drivers do, is the equivalent of being an “indentured servant.” Myriad factors could send a driver one way or the other. Long-time cabbies know how much they can make in a shift, while newer companies continue to play with prices and what cuts they take. There’s also the ethos of the job, like Lyft’s requirement that a driver fist-bump each passenger, while a cool distance in taxis is the norm and Uber black car drivers will open your door. There are hours, incentives, pride, rules about where certain companies can go and who they can pick up. And so on.

For those championing taxis, the question is whether cab drivers who long roamed without competition, facing no penalty if they ditched one fare for another, can give their industry the kind of customer-service makeover it takes to convince a San Franciscan to order a Flywheel instead of something from the long menu of other options.

MONEY Small Business

The Best Way to Keep Your New Business from Failing

Conjoined paperclips
Find the right partner if you want your startup to succeed. Helen Sessions—Alamy

Making sure you're compatible with your business partner is a key to success. So ask yourself these questions before you pair up.

Nearly two-thirds of high-potential startups fail because of conflicts between co-founders, says Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman. Make sure you know these things about a prospective partner:

How does he respond to adversity?

With a startup, “the highs are high, but the lows are very low,” says Eric Del Balso, founder of Ignite Advisors. Ask the person’s friends, family, and former co-workers how he handles letdowns and curve balls.

What are her goals for the business?

Discuss key decisions you’ll make together—like, Will you raise outside money? Pay top dollar for talent or hire temps? “If you can’t resolve those, there is a high likelihood the team won’t be aligned,” says Wasserman.

How does he handle money?

An overspender may burn through funds before you find revenue. But a timid spender can hold you back. Pull a credit report on your compatriot. Then discuss “what you each think is worthwhile to spend on and what’s lower priority,” says Wasserman.

More on starting your own business:

TIME Startups

How YouTube Stars Can Actually Make a Living

Pedals Music Video—Conte

Patreon offers a new approach to crowdfunding

Being a YouTube star doesn’t actually pay all that well. Just ask Jack Conte, a singer and musician who has scored viral hits mashing up Pharrell songs and stripping down pop hits like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” as one half of the indie rock duo Pomplamoose. Between the group and his solo work, Conte says his videos can rack up as many as four million views each month on the video sharing site. But all those eyeballs do little for Conte’s bottom line—in a good month, he collects $400 in advertising revenue from YouTube.

“There’s great ways for people to build an audience online right now,” he says. “There’s really no great way for people to make a living.”

After a particularly elaborate music video involving singing robots on a handmade replica of the Millennium Falcon earned him just a few hundred dollars, Conte realized that there had to be a better way to earn money online. He wanted what he calls a “quality driven Web,” or a space where artists could make money based on the passion of their fanbases rather than trying to lure millions of mildly interested passersby by “going viral.”

His solution was Patreon, a new crowdfunding platform that helps creators earn revenue from their most ardent fans on an ongoing basis. Unlike Kickstarter, where inventors and creative types solicit money from users in a month-long campaign frenzy, Patreon asks users to pay creators each time they produce a new work. That could be a music video, a web comic any other kind of creative project. As on Kickstarter, patrons are given varying prizes based on how much they donate.

The unusual funding model creates a new dynamic between creators and fans. It’s not as much about crafting one brilliant idea and marketing it well but rather building and sustaining an audience over the long term. The idea of individual fans supporting artists on such a granular basis might seem anachronistic in an age where YouTube has helped make media more accessible, but Conte believes people are still willing to pay for art. “Patronage is a very old phenomenon that’s occurred in people and in society for thousands of years,” he says. “It stems from an emotional response to someone’s art. It’s a feeling of responsibility and importance and a desire to be a part of what they’re making.”

Since launching in May 2013, Patreon has attracted 25,000 creators who are requesting funding for everything from science fiction short stories to Minecraft raps to video game reviews. So far patrons have paid more than $2 million for creative works on the site, with $1 million of that coming in just the last two months. The most popular creators can earn close to $10,000 per project on the site.

Molly Lewis, a ukulele player with a small but devout following on YouTube, believes Patreon could eventually become her primary revenue source as an artist. She’s currently convinced more than 400 fans to pledge $2,600 total for each new song she makes, more than double her original funding goal. To attract donations, she promises exclusives like videos of live shows and personalized limericks written for hardcore fans. “It’s kind of like a fan club,” she says. “The money they spend goes directly into my buying food and making more music. They can see their dollars at work in a way that you can’t really when you go to a Katy Perry show or something.”

This desire to get an inside track on the creation of a new project has already helped Kickstarter pull in more than $1 billion in pledges from people around the world. Experts believe the Patreon model can also reach massive scale since it’s appealing to both creators and their fans. ““Here you can evaluate the quality of output over time and then decide whether you want to continue subscribing or not,” says Anindya Ghose, a professor of information, operation and management sciences at New York University who also studies crowdfunding. “It’s a very positive self-reinforcing cycle where people give small amounts of money, which incentivizes artists to do a better job, which then leads people to give more money more frequently.”

Plenty of obstacles remain for the still-nascent startup. It’s not yet clear just how long people will be willing to continually support a single artist’s work—Ghose points out that a few popular creators pumping out subpar work simply to collect a check could sour new users on the platform. More worrying could be YouTube’s entrance into the donations space. The video giant launched a virtual tip jar of its own recently as a response to ongoing gripes that it’s hard to earn money directly on the site. For now, Conte contends that Patreon’s features differentiates it from YouTube’s less robust offering, while YouTube has expressed support for crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter.

Silicon Valley, at least, believes in Patreon’s future. The startup closed a $15 million round of venture funding in June which included leading venture capitalist Danny Rimer and Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founders of Reddit. The money will allow the company to launch a mobile app and open an office in San Francisco instead of working out of the two-bedroom apartment where Conte and co-founder Sam Yam live.

As Patreon grows, Conte promises that it will remain focused on creators’ interests. The currently unprofitable company charges a 5% commission on all donations, and Conte vows the fee won’t increase in the future (Kickstarter and YouTube charge the same amount). Though he’s now a CEO, he’s still a creator at heart—Conte has 1,300 patrons of his own paying more than $5,000 for each new video he makes. He envisions a future where every creative person isn’t a starving artist or a pop megastar. There’s room in the middle for artists, too, and people will pay for their work because, as Conte says, “Everybody wants to be able to enjoy beautiful things.”

MONEY Shopping

6 Startups That Solve Problems You Didn’t Know You Had

These startups want to make your life easier, even if you didn't know it was difficult in the first place.

Fixing important issues like education or healthcare is really, really difficult. It’s a lot easier for companies to develop solutions for the little annoyances in life. And when that’s too hard, businesses look to eliminate problems you never even knew existed. Here are six such startups, which have created products and services you never knew you needed or wanted—and perhaps still don’t.

1. Fitness Tracking… for Dogs

You probably thought being a good pet owner just meant being attentive, caring, and taking Fido to the vet when he looked sick. Well, Whistle is here to tell you that’s just not good enough. You also need real-time data on what your dog is doing and when he is doing it.

The product, which costs $129 and attaches to your pet’s collar, is basically a FitBit for dogs. Whistle claims that by keeping a detailed account of your pet’s life—providing “a visual summary of your dog’s daily activities”—and comparing Fido’s activity to that of other dogs of the same breed, it can help keep your pet healthy and highlight any worrisome anomalies. And because all new startups are required by law to have a social component, you can also share your dog’s activity logs on Twitter.

Does it work? Dr. Wakshlag, associate professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, calls Whistle “a kind of farcical thing” but says it may have utility on some pets. He says most house dogs don’t change their activity much under any circumstances, but it may actually reveal significant indicators of ill health for outdoor pets with daily routines.

That’s not to say Whistle can’t also help your inside pets. One beta tester told the Verge that Whistle helped her discover their Lab-Pitt mix wasn’t getting as much exercise on nights when both she and her husband weren’t home. This might seem obvious (and it is), but without Whistle they wouldn’t have gotten to use a swanky iPhone app.

2. Laundry Quarters Delivered (for a Fee)

Over the years, many services have been created to make the annoyance of laundry go away, or at least be less difficult. Laundromats do the washing for you. Some will also do the folding. Others offer delivery service, and even free cookies in addition to freshly laundered clothes.

The new startup Washboard, for its part, sets out to tackle yet another laundry-related problem: getting enough quarters for the DIY laundry machines in your building or the local laundromat. The website promises to send you all the change you need every month—for a fee. In something reminiscent of a Saturday Night Live skit, $10 in quarters will cost you $14.99.

Why not just get a teller to give you change for free? “Banks close at 5, maybe they’re open Saturday, but they close at noon,” laments Washboard co-founder Caleb Brown. “I’m rarely out of bed by then.”

Unfortunately, Washboard was too far ahead of its time. After just over ten days on the market, the company’s payment processor balked and Brown announced they were shutting down.

3. A Messaging App That Only Sends One Message

There are millions of messaging apps out there, but few can match the simplicity of Yo. The service, which recently received $1 million in funding, allows users to send anyone they can cajole into also installing Yo a message that says, well, “yo.” Seriously, that’s all you can say.

Moshe Hogeg, the app’s principle investor, explains that he likes Yo because it makes his life easier. “My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come” when he needs her, says Hogeg, immediately provoking the ire of everyone who doesn’t communicate with other humans in the same way they would talk to a golden retriever.

Many have rushed to lampoon both Hogeg and Yo, including the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, but MONEY’s own Pat Regnier points out that Yo is really good at one thing: spamming other Yo-using friends until they let you delete it from your phone.

4. Website That’ll ‘Hand-Select’ $200 Jeans for Guys

Online shopping makes browsing for clothes easier than ever. But with great power comes great responsibility, and maybe your fashion sense isn’t quite up to the task. Ask yourself, are you actually qualified to pick your own wardrobe?

Trunk Club is betting you’ll realize the answer is no. The service asks men a few survey questions to get an idea of their preferences. Then a personal stylist mails you a few articles of clothing in a trunk-like box. On the upside, there are no membership fees, and Trunk Club lets you send back anything you don’t like free of charge.

But beware: this product is not for bargain hunters. Casual shirts range from $100-$200, sweaters can go as high as $300, and a pair of jeans ranges from $170 to $250. Having a personal stylist sounds nice, but one wonders if you couldn’t get similar recommendations from the staff at, you know, a regular store.

5. Subscription to Tell You Your Underwear’s Old

As you’ve probably already learned by now, you can subscribe to pretty much anything on the Internet. Even butt wipes for guys. So it should come as no surprise that undergarment retailer MeUndies allows men and women to order a regular shipment of underwear. Yup, that’s a thing now too.

It’s not quite clear why scheduling one’s underwear purchases (MeUndies offers to send you a new pair at one month, two month, or three month intervals) would be useful since MeUndies sends its product out too infrequently to be a constant guard against a sudden underwear emergency.

Also, most consumers are aware of ways to buy underwear as necessary with minimal effort. Presumably, the arrival of a new pair serves as a reminder to toss your old undies. In any event, the company sweetens the deal by offering a 20% discount to its products to underwear subscribers.

6. A Less Convenient Way to Pay for Things

The white whale of the tech industry is something that we’ve been told will “disrupt” how the world will pay for anything and everything under the sun. For years, we’ve heard that smartphone-enabled mobile payments will soon take over, replacing credit and debit card swiping (and cash, of course) as the primary mode of completing purchases. Credit card companies and banks have made trillions placing themselves in the middle of your every transaction, and entrepreneurs are eager to get themselves a piece of that action with innovative new payment systems.

Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, it turns out credit cards are pretty awesome. They’re tiny, fit right in your wallet, and they’re accepted everywhere—not just tech savvy coffee shops in the Bay Area. However, this has not stopped companies like LevelUp and Square from trying to become the way you pay for everything. Square, the more creative of the two, promised to make the purchasing experience easier by allowing Square Wallet users to buy something at a Square-participating store just by giving their name. Unfortunately, not enough stores were as keen on this idea as Square was, and Wallet was discontinued earlier this year (although Square continues to chase the whale with other products).

LevelUp doesn’t even try to create a substantially different buying experience than credit cards, offering users the ability to pay for things (again, only at participating retailers) by scanning a QR code. Instead, LevelUp distinguishes itself by offering users deals at certain stores, but credit card companies have spent decades rewarding their customers with everything from frequent flyer miles to discounts on various products.

In the end, it’s hard not to feel like some of these apps are a solution searching for a problem.

TIME Startups

Now There Are Instant Coffee Pods for Beer

Getty Images

Coffee machines, move over. A different kind of buzz is coming to town

It sounds like a beer lover’s fantasy: all around the country, everyone could have beer dispensers on their kitchen counters next to their coffee machines, spouting cold bitter brews into eager glasses throughout the day.

But this is for real. SYNEK—a St. Louis startup that just launched its Kickstarter campaign last month—is creating a draft system that serves beer fresh from the tap even if you’re miles from the nearest bar.

The startup is signing on local breweries who put their beer in SYNEK bags, which have a long shelf life and can be transported relatively easily. The bags are then put into a dispenser that looks a little like a toaster-oven-sized coffee machine and plugs into the wall. Consumers can then serve beer wherever there is a dispenser.

Steve Young, SYNEK’s 28-year-old founder, says that his company will make it cheaper to ship beer to consumers without worrying about the headaches of bottling, and increase profit margins for craft breweries.

The machine pressurizes using carbon dioxide, and allows users to adjust SYNEK’s temperature. Beers by brewers including Harpoon Brewery, Schmaltz Beer Company and dozens of others are available through SYNEK already.

Young seeking $250,000 through Kickstarter by the end of July. Backers who pledge $299 get the dispenser along with 5 to 10 bags.

TIME Companies

Former Tinder Exec Sues for Sexual Harassment

Co-founder Justin Mateen has been suspended pending an internal investigation

A former executive of the mobile dating app Tinder is suing the company for discrimination and sexual harassment, according to a case filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday.

Whitney Wolfe, former marketing vice president, alleges that co-founder Justin Mateen got rid of her co-founder title because having a “24-year-old girl” made Tinder “seem like a joke,” USA Today reports.

Wolfe also claims Mateen called her a “whore” in front of the company’s CEO, Sean Rad. When she tried to complain about the behavior she experienced, Wolfe said she was pushed out of the company. She also alleges that Rad ignored her complaints, Reuters reports.

“I had hoped this would be resolved confidentially, but after months of failed attempts, I have decided to pursue this suit,” Wolfe said in a statement.

A spokesman for IAC, one of two Tinder parent companies named defendants in the suits, provided that following statement to TIME:

“Immediately upon receipt of the allegations contained in Ms. Wolfe’s complaint, Mr. Mateen was suspended pending an ongoing internal investigation. Through that process, it has become clear that Mr. Mateen sent private messages to Ms. Wolfe containing inappropriate content. We unequivocally condemn these messages, but believe that Ms. Wolfe’s allegations with respect to Tinder and its management are unfounded.”

[USA Today]

TIME Education

This Company May Hold the Secret to the Future of Education

Seoul Digital Forum
Guatemalan Luis von Ahn, Co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, and inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, speaks about 'The Beginning of New TIME: Key 2, Capture' during the opening ceremony of the Seoul Digital Forum in Seoul, South Korea on May 21, 2014. Jeon Heon Kyun—EPA

It was just 18 months ago that we were living in the “Year of the MOOC.” Massive open online courses—MOOC for short—were supposed to revolutionize the way people learned and deliver high-quality education to the masses. But the idea faced a tough 2013. The co-founder of Udacity, an early pioneer in free online education, admitted that his company initially had a “lousy product,” while studies showed that hardly any students were actually completing the courses offered by such services at all.

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and CEO of language learning service Duolingo, says MOOCs make little sense for the digital world. von Ahn runs what is arguably the hottest educational tool online at the moment, but he’s also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Even he admits that lectures, especially delivered via webcast, can be pretty boring. “You take a lecture that’s not all that great and put it on video, it’s actually going to be worse,” he says. “Typically, the things that succeed the most online are the things that are better online than offline. Think about email versus mail.”

von Ahn believes he has developed a platform that can indeed be better online—and on smartphones. Duolingo, which turns two years old this week, offers bite-sized lessons in French, Spanish, English and several other languages for beginners and intermediate-level speakers. Users learn vocabulary words, grammatical structures and even proper pronunciation by speaking into their device’s microphone. The service guides students through a battery of challenges, awarding points and badges for correct answers. Users can compete with friends who are learning the same languages.

The concept of learning a new language through software is hardly revolutionary, but it’s Duolingo’s mobile app that sets it apart. Six months into the company’s existence, Duolingo had 300,000 active users, all on its website. In the year and a half since it launched a mobile app for iOS, that number has leapt to 13 million, more than MOOC platforms Udacity, edX and Coursera combined, according to usage figures released by those firms. 85% of these users are learning with the mobile app, which Apple named the App of the Year in 2013. “One of the main ways to deliver education over the next 10 to 20 years is going to be through smartphones,” von Ahn says. “It’s the only way that this actually can scale. This is why we put so much effort into our apps as opposed to our website.”

The mobile approach has advantages both in the developed world—it’s easier to commit to a quick language lesson during lunch than block off an hour after work to sit at a desktop computer—and in emerging markets, where many people use smartphones as their primary computing device. “About 1 to 2 billion people do not have access to very good education,” von Ahn says, “but hundreds of millions of these people are very soon or already have access to smartphones.”

The son of two medical doctors, von Ahn grew up in Guatemala, a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. He says Duolingo, which is free and doesn’t have advertising, is primarily aimed at those people who can’t afford to take a college course or buy expensive software like Rosetta Stone. “We’ve become zealots about providing free education,” he says. “We develop for the poor people.”

And yet, Duolingo is a for-profit business. To make money, the company gets its users to translate real news articles from sites like CNN and Buzzfeed into their native languages as a way to practice their English. Duolingo then charges these sites between two and three cents per word for the translations. von Ahn says the venture generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per year, but Duolingo is not profitable. The company just began offering an English language proficiency test for $20 aimed at job seekers, but it’s not yet clear how many employers will accept a Duolingo certification as an alternative to more established (and expensive) programs. The company has raised $38 million in venture funding.

Whether people are actually learning new languages effectively with Duolingo is still an open question. von Ahn is careful not to oversell the capabilities of the service. The idea that a piece of software could make a person fluent in a foreign language in mere hours is, in his words, “bull—t.” “If you really want to become perfectly fluent, probably what you need to do is move to that country,” he says. “Learning a language is something that takes years.” Still, he says completing all the lessons in a language course in Duolingo is about the equivalent of taking an intermediate-level language course in college. A study commissioned by the company found that people learned as much taking Duolingo lessons in Spanish for 34 hours as they would in a semester of an introductory college class.

That doesn’t mean that apps are going to replace classrooms anytime soon. Though there’s great potential in educational tools built for the Web and for mobile, their usefulness varies greatly by subject, says Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “If I want to learn about the history of the Ottoman Empire, it’s harder to imagine the really engaging version of that where you’re doing one-sentence interactions around a topic like that,” he says. “Is this going to replace the way things are done now? I don’t think it is. But can these tools be important supplements? I think they can.”

Duolingo, along with other web-native learning tools like the computer programming site Codecademy, have carved out an online learning experience that feels both simpler and more engaging than the typical MOOC, which essentially replicates the college lecture hall. von Ahn plans to focus on improving Duolingo’s adaptive learning capabilities, so that no two users will have the exact same lesson plan. The goal, he says, is for the app to perform more like a well-trained personal tutor than a pedantic professor.

Eventually, he sees Duolingo’s interactive learning experiences spreading to many other subjects. “A really good one-on-one tutor can teach a 10-year-old kid algebra in six months,” he says. “I think an app should be able to do that.”

MONEY Odd Spending

Finally, a Subscription Service for Laundry Quarters

Putting quarters in laundry machine

You pay $15 per month and get … $10 worth of quarters. Apparently, it's not a joke.

File this under the category of Solutions to Problems You Didn’t Know You Had, or perhaps Ways for Extremely Lazy and Disorganized People to Drop an Extra $5 Per Month.

On Thursday, a startup called Washboard launched a quarter subscription delivery service, which is just what it sounds like. Customers sign up—OK, in theory, they sign up—for $10 or $20 worth of quarters to be delivered to them on a monthly basis. The service costs $14.99 for a $10 roll of quarters per month, or $26.99 for $20 worth of quarters monthly. The latter is the option that’s “great for high volume folks, couples, or roommates,” according to Washboard’s website.

Understandably, the reaction at large has been one of puzzlement, with people alternately assuming that the service is a joke or pointing out the obvious—that such a subscription doesn’t seem remotely necessary, and certainly doesn’t seem anywhere near worth the money. “Ever hear of a bank?” a typical Twitter comment says of Washboard.

Washboard’s founders, who say they already some customers (“less than 10″), are apparently cool with being a magnet for mockery in social media. “I’ll admit, it’s a little bit of a negative critique for the most part on Twitter, which is good,” cofounder Caleb Brown told Valley Wag. “I think it’s good. I think it’s a polarizing thing.”

He also insists it’s a completely valid, practical, worthwhile service, because many of the young people he encounters would pay a few bucks in order to skip a regular trip to the bank. “Banks close at 5, maybe they’re open Saturday, but they close at noon. I’m rarely out of bed by then,” he said.

The company follows in the footsteps of many other startup subscription services, such as viral hit of 2012, Dollar Shave Club, which sends subscribers razors for as little as $1 per month (plus shipping and handling). But Dollar Shave Club offered more than just convenience; there was a true value proposition. The service saves time and money. By most accounts, it’s been successful, and has even welcomed a sidekick subscription service, One Wipe Charlies, which are butt wipes for guys. (That’s no joke either.)

Washboard must also be discussed in light of Silicon Valley’s ongoing “bubbly race to wash your clothes better, faster, and cooler,” as New York magazine, put it, with startups like Washio offering drycleaning pickup and delivery at your door, sometimes with cookies as a scrumptious bonus.

Such services charge a premium, of course, but they save the customer a substantial amount of time. Anyone using Washboard still must do his or her own laundry, and whatever time is saved on gathering quarters comes at a 50% premium on a $10 roll of quarters. Nonetheless, the founders claim that the service legitimately eliminates one of laundry’s “pain points,” and that therefore it’s not silly. They also have ambitions to move on to detergent and fabric softener subscription services.

And who knows? The idea is probably pretty appealing to those who want to turn off their brains and never have to think about getting quarters for laundry ever again. But even after signing up for Washboard, you can’t turn your brain off entirely. After getting your monthly shipment delivered, you still have to remember to actually bring the roll of quarters to the laundromat.

TIME apps

This App Lets You Tell Your Friends ‘Yo’

And nothing else

In case you need another messaging platform in your life, there’s now a new app that lets you tell your friends “Yo.” That’s all it does.

The new app, appropriately titled “Yo,” doesn’t require you to sign up via Facebook. It doesn’t try to hoard your data to later serve you ads (yet). It doesn’t offer voice calling or disappearing images or the ability to send people smells. It literally just allows you to send the word “Yo” to other people. The main screen is a list of a user’s friends. Press a name and the friend gets a “Yo.” The app bills itself as a “single-tap zero character communications tool.” The simplicity introduces a “wide-open scope for personal interpretation,” according to the Financial Times.

The app, programmed in eight hours, has attracted 50,000 users who have sent about four million Yo’s since it launched, FT reports. Investors have kicked in $1 million in venture funding. An app that doesn’t do anything besides let you send the word “Yo” to other people may be the most promising startup since that messenger that was made exclusively for people eating at Applebee’s.

Yo is available for both iOS and Android for free.

TIME Companies

Uber Reaches $17 Billion Valuation in New Funding Round

Ride-hailing car service Uber has closed a $1.2 billion venture funding round, valuing the company at $17 billion. The eye-popping figure, more than quadruple Uber’s worth a year ago, makes the company one of the most highly valued startups of all time.

“With our growth and expansion, the company has evolved from being a scrappy Silicon Valley tech startup to being a way of life for millions of people in cities around the world,” CEO Travis Kalanick said in a blog post announcing the new funding.

Investors in the funding round included Fidelity Investments, Wellington Management, BlackRock Inc. and Google Ventures, according to the Wall Street Journal. The startup plans to raise an additional $200 million before it closes the funding round.

Uber, which allows users to hail car rides through a mobile app, is available in 128 cities in 37 countries. The company has expanded from its original luxury car service to offer a cheaper ride-sharing program similar to competitors such as Lyft and a courier service currently being tested in New York. Last December the company confirmed that it was generating gross revenue of more than $20 million per week, or more than $1 billion per year.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser