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Clinkle Revealed: Here's What the Embattled Startup Is (And Isn't) Building

The media attention has been brutal. Now insiders reveal a less-than-thrilling product.

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

For a company that hasn’t publicly launched its product yet, Clinkle has received a ton of media coverage, not much of it flattering.

Here’s a recap: Last week, the company’s biggest hire to date, former Netflix CFO Barry McCarthy, left the heavily funded startup after just five months. Former Twitter designer Josh Brewer, who had just started at Clinkle a week earlier, followed McCarthy out the door on the same day. And a betting man would wager there’s a good chance that operations exec Andy Rendich ends up leaving, since McCarthy hired him at Clinkle and the two are close from their days at Netflix.

That’s just the latest in nine months of bad press. Then throw in a few rounds of layoffs, headline-grabbing friction between the company’s engineering department and 22-year-old CEO Lucas Duplan, and this rapper-worthy picture of Duplan posing with wads of cash, a snapshot that was purportedly stolen during a hack of the company’s systems that also compromised usernames, IDs and phone numbers. All this before launching anything.

What we’ve heard little of are Clinkle’s plans: What has it been building with its investors’ $30-million-plus in funding? We think we’ve got answers. According to three people with direct knowledge of Clinkle’s product roadmap, here’s Clinkle’s planned trajectory and where it has stumbled:

The main reason someone would use Clinkle’s app in its current form is to electronically transfer money to another person, these people said. If that sounds familiar, it’s because several other popular apps allow their users to accomplish the same thing: Venmo, PayPal, Google Wallet and Square Cash are just a few that come to mind.

How will Clinkle compete against these more established rivals, besides its stated target user being students on college campuses? At least initially, mostly with design and rewards, one of these people said. Duplan is spending much of his time on product design, according to two of the sources.

“It really is a super slick-looking app,” one source said. “And it’s going to have a whole social aspect around sharing and earning rewards.”

Hmm. Okay.

Clinkle app users will also be eligible for a Clinkle-branded Visa prepaid debit card. The cards are issued by The Bancorp, a bank which has worked with other financial industry startups such as Simple, according to one of these people. It’s not clear what benefits the physical Clinkle card might provide over other cards, but there is another reason to introduce it. The company believes, according to one of the sources, that it’s a good way to first introduce the Clinkle brand to physical store merchants.

This connection to merchants, however thin, could actually be crucial to its next phase of development and lift it from simply being a money-swapping app for friends.

A lot of the early rumors around Clinkle focused on talk of a secret technology, dubbed Aerolink, that would let the app transfer money from a shopper’s Clinkle account to a business without the business needing to replace its checkout equipment. Essentially, the app would enable its users to buy stuff in retail stores without using cash or a physical card. Apps like PayPal and Square now accomplish this at select locations, and a company called LoopPay is building a tap-to-pay technology that works at a wide range of businesses.

Well, Clinkle isn’t building that functionality anytime soon, according to all three sources. In fact, several employees affected by Clinkle’s layoffs last year were sales people originally hired to pitch a Clinkle merchant app to business owners, one of these people said.

“Since no merchant is going to use the app until there are lots of Clinkle-using consumers in their place of business, it makes sense not to build the merchant app just now,” this person said.

It’s still something that Clinkle aspires to build, but no one seems to have an idea when that might happen. That’s unfortunate, as Clinkle has already hinted at the pay-in-store functionality at the end of this bizarre promotional video it published online last year.

One of the sources told Re/code it is at least a year away. Another said it’s hard to even predict a timeline, because the company would first need to hire developers to build the feature set, then actually build it, then test it and then launch it. You get the picture.

So for all the buzz it has generated, Clinkle’s offering is essentially a cool-looking money-transfer app coupled with a prepaid debit card. It is hard to imagine its competitors are trembling.

Clinkle employees started using the app and debit card in February. Friends and family of employees got access this month. The company is hoping to open the app up publicly to students at targeted colleges later this year.

“[W]e’re continuing to test and add select features and functionality with friends and family,” Clinkle spokeswoman Ana Braskamp said in an email, declining to comment further on product details. “We’re excited to get Clinkle in the hands of more users over the next few months.”

Having raised more than $30 million in venture capital from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, Richard Branson and Stanford, Clinkle has its work cut out to have its product match the hype.

Here’s a leaked video purporting to show the Clinkle app in action that was sent to some reporters, including me, late last year.

“Yes, that’s pretty much [the app],” one of the sources said, except for the inclusion of the Aerolink technology.

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