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How Pivotal got bailed out by fellow Dell family member, VMware

By Ron Miller

When Dell acquired EMC in 2016 for $67 billion, it created a complicated consortium of interconnected organizations. Some, like VMware and Pivotal, operate as completely separate companies. They have their own boards of directors, can acquire companies and are publicly traded on the stock market. Yet they work closely within the Dell, partnering where it makes sense. When Pivotal’s stock price plunged recently, VMware saved the day when it bought the faltering company for $2.7 billion yesterday.

Pivotal went public last year, and sometimes struggled, but in June the wheels started to come off after a poor quarterly earnings report. The company had what MarketWatch aptly called “a train wreck of a quarter.”

How bad was it? So bad that its stock price was down 42% the day after it reported its earnings. While the quarter itself wasn’t so bad, with revenue up year over year, the guidance was another story. The company cut its 2020 revenue guidance by $40-$50 million and the guidance it gave for the upcoming 2Q19 was also considerably lower than consensus Wall Street estimates.

The stock price plunged from a high of $21.44 on May 30th to a low of $8.30 on Aug 14th. The company’s market cap plunged in that same time period falling from $5.828 billion on May 30th to $2.257 billion on Aug 14th. That’s when VMware admitted it was thinking about buying the struggling company.

Sphero has acquired littleBits

By Brian Heater

Sphero and littleBits have long been kindred spirits in the world of entertaining STEM toys, and soon they’ll be one and the same. Sphero this morning announced plans to buy the New York-based electronic building block company.

Founded in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Sphero (nee Orbotix) and littleBits took separate approaches, but ultimately ended up in similar spaces. Sphero first brought to life a smartphone controlled 3D printed ball that debuted at CES in 2011. That same year, Ayah Bdeir’s electronics kit side project became a serious business under the littleBits banner.

Both companies were alumni of Disney’s accelerator. Sphero leveraged that connection in the break out Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy, a remote control BB-8. Ultimately, however, it flew too close to the sun with its licensed products, creating an R2-D2, Lightning McQueen and talking Spider-Man toys. Early last year, the Colorado-based company ended the Disney deal, laid off dozen and announced that it was moving full time into educational toys.

After several of its own Marvel and Star Wars licensing deals under the Disney IP banner, LittleBits faced similar difficulties earlier this year. In a statement to TechCrunch, the site noted that it, too, would be experiencing layoffs as it shifted its focus to K-12. “As you can imagine, the education market’s needs are vastly different than that of retail,” the company said at the time. Given this, we had to re-shape our internal structure, which ultimately led to a reduction in staff.”

Per Crunchbase, littleBits and Sphero have raised $62.3 million and $120.3 million respectively. LittleBits notably made its own acquisition almost exactly a year ago, bringing DIY.org under its banner to add a subscription-based education element to the company’s offerings. Two months prior, Sphero purchased fellow Colorado startup, Specdrums and has since begun to offer the company’s music educational products under its banner.

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“We’re thrilled to bring littleBits into the fold here at Sphero,” CEO Paul Berberian told TechCrunch ahead of the acquisition. “Teachers need proven solutions that enhance learning for their students, and kids want technology that allows them to have epic experiences. Now, Sphero is better poised to introduce the best coding tools and hands-on STEAM tools like littleBits to even more classrooms around the world.”

The deal will help Sphero expand its office footprint into New York. Bdeir, however, will be moving on to other projects after nearly a decade at the helm of littleBits.

“When I studied engineering, it was top down, test-based,” she said in a statement offered to the press. “I hated it and wanted to quit every semester. Then I got exposed to the pedagogy of learning through play and my life changed; no one could peel me away from learning, inventing, creating. Together, littleBits and Sphero are now bringing this experience to kids everywhere.”

No word on how many littleBits employees will remain under the Sphero banner, though the aforementioned layoffs have certainly decreased the likelihood of redundancy between the two companies. With littleBits under its wing, Sphero now holds 140 patents in the fields of robotics, electronics, software and IOT. It remains to be seen how or if the lines will work together, or whether they’ll remain independent under the Sphero banner much as Specdrums has thus far.

Between the two brands, however, there’s some solid classroom outreach and goodwill here. And both despite and because of its own struggles, Sphero makes sense as a home for the company. Both have experienced solid growth into beloved brands in a similar time frame, even while getting ground through the sometimes unforgiving startup grind. Hardware is hard, and both Sphero and littleBits have the war wounds to prove it.

The deal bodes well for the companies in terms of positioning. Sphero has made some serious headway into schools (a notoriously difficult market to crack) and littleBits has been delivering a good and innovative product for a number of years that would fit well alongside it in a STEM curriculum. The combination could prove a solid one-two punch.

Terms for the deal have not been disclosed.

Hulu and Amazon Prime Video chip away at Netflix’s dominance

By Sarah Perez

Netflix is still the No. 1 subscription streaming service in the U.S., according to a new report from eMarketer, but rivals including Amazon Prime Video and Hulu are starting to cut into its market share. The analyst firm forecasts 182.5 million U.S. consumers will subscribe to over-the-top streaming services this year, or 53.3% of the population. Netflix is still the too choice here, with 158.8 million viewers in 2019 and it is continuing to grow. However, its share of the U.S. over-the-top subscription market will decline even as its total subscriber numbers climb, the report said.

Though Netflix announced in Q2 the first drop in U.S. users in nearly a decade, eMarketer says Netflix will see strong growth throughout the rest of the year — up 7.6% over 2018. This will be driven by the new seasons of popular series like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things, as well as Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman.

But Netflix is no longer the only option for streaming video these days. Back in 2014, it had 90% of the market. In 2019, its share will have shrunk to 87%.

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This decline in market share is attributed to the rise of rival services, like Hulu and Prime Video.

Hulu, for example, is estimated to reach 75.8 million U.S. viewers this year, or 41.5% of subscription service users. The number of viewers will also increase by 17.5% in 2019, but this is a drop from 2018’s big growth spurt of 49.6%

Prime Video, meanwhile will remain the second-largest subscription over-the-top video provider in the U.S. in 2019, the report says, with 96.5 million viewers. That’s up 8.8% over last year.

The firm estimates Prime Video will reach a third of the U.S. population by 2021.

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Netflix market share dominance is about to face new threats as well, most notably from the Disney-Hulu-ESPN bundle, which is priced the same as a standard U.S. Netflix subscription.

“Netflix has faced years of strong competition for viewers, coming from streaming video platforms, pay-TV services, and even video games,” said eMarketer forecasting analyst Eric Haggstrom. “While there is no true ‘Netflix killer’ on the market, Disney’s upcoming bundle with Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ probably comes closest. Netflix’s answer has been to stick to what has made it the market leader—outspending the competition on both licensed and original content, offering customers a competitive price,” he added.

Disney isn’t the only one with a new streaming service in the works, though.

Apple TV+ is poised to launch later this year, and is said to be spending $6 billion on content — far more than the $1 billion that had been reported. It’s also said to be considering a competitive $9.99 per month price point.

NBCUniversal and AT&T WarnerMedia are also poised to enter the market, the latter with HBO Max. And following the CBS-Viacom merger, the combined company is looking to beef up its own platforms, CBS All Access and the ad-supported Pluto TV, with the newly acquired content.

“The market for streaming video has been driven by an explosion in high-end original content and low subscription costs relative to traditional pay TV,” Haggstrom noted. “A strong consumer appetite for new shows and movies has driven viewer growth for services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as the broader market.”

Amazon is acquiring a 49% stake in India’s Future Coupons

By Manish Singh

Amazon, which has invested over $6 billion in India’s growing internet market, just invested a little more as it moves to expand its presence in the country’s brick and mortar space that drives much of the sales in the nation. The U.S. e-commerce giant is acquiring a 49% stake in Future Coupons, a group entity owned by India’s second largest retail chain Future Retail, the latter said in a regulatory filing Thursday evening (local time).

An Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch the investment would “enhance Amazon’s existing portfolio of investments in the payments landscape in India.” The spokesperson added, “Amazon has agreed to invest in Future Coupons Limited, which is engaged in developing innovative value-added payment products and solutions such as corporate gift cards, loyalty cards, and reward cards primarily for corporate and institutional customers.”

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Pursuant to these agreements, Amazon has agreed to make an equity investment in Future Coupons Limited for acquiring a 49% stake comprising both, voting and non-voting shares. As part of the agreement, Amazon has been granted a call option,” Future Retail said in a filing (PDF) to the local stock exchange.

As part of the agreement, Amazon has the option to “acquire all or part of the promoters’ shareholding in Future Retail Limited” between the third and tenth year in “certain circumstances, subject to applicable law.” Future Coupons owned about 7.3% stake in Future Retail as of early this year, according to past regulatory filings.

“The Promoters have also agreed to certain share transfer restrictions on their shares in the Company for same tenure, including restrictions to not transfer shares to specified persons, a right of first offer in favor of Amazon, all of which are subject to mutually agreed exceptions (such as liquidity allowances and affiliate transfers). The transaction contemplated above is subject to obtaining applicable regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions,” Future Retail added.

Amazon has been reportedly looking to acquire as much as 10% stake in Future Retail, which operates over 2,000 stores, including “Big Bazaar” retail stores, across 400 cities in India. Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Future Retail was seeking a valuation of about $281 million for selling stakes in the firm.

Future Retail runs a wide swath of retail brands in India, covering a range of things from grocery, perishables, electronics to fashion apparels. On Thursday, Amazon India announced it was launching Amazon Fresh in parts of Bangalore. Amazon Fresh is currently offering 5,000 kinds of items including fresh fruits, vegetables, meat as well as some items from home and personal product categories.

According to earlier media reports, the company is also in talks to acquire more than 25% stake in Reliance Retail, the largest retail chain in the country. Brick and mortar stores continue to drive much of the sales in the country. Amazon also owns stake in Indian supermarket chain More, and department store chain Shopper’s Stop.

“One thing to keep in mind is that e-commerce is a very, very small portion of total retail consumption in India, probably less than 3%,” said Amit Agarwal, manager of Amazon India, in an interview this week.

Earlier this week, Amazon opened an office in Hyderabad to house over 15,000 employees, thereby making it the company’s biggest campus globally.

India has become the latest battleground for American giants Amazon and Walmart. Amazon India competes with Flipkart, which currently leads the e-commerce market in the nation. Last year, Walmart acquired a majority stake in Flipkart for $16 billion. Like Amazon, Flipkart has also made it no secret that it wants to expand into grocery and other categories.

Both Amazon India and Flipkart took a hit earlier this year in India after New Delhi government enforced some regulatory changes to the way e-commerce conduct business in the country. The changes were largely structured to help local companies.

Amazon India’s Agarwal urged the government to relax the regulatory pushes. “There is so much opportunity to just let e-commerce thrive versus trying to define every single guard rail under which it should operate. I feel e-commerce can actually accelerate India’s economy in a big way, if it’s just allowed to thrive,” he told Reuters.

Tumblr’s next step forward with Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg

By Brian Heater

After months of rumors, Verizon finally sold off Tumblr for a reported $3 million — a fraction of what Yahoo paid for the once might blogging service back in 2013.

The media conglomerate (which also owns TechCrunch) was clearly never quite sure what to do with the property after gobbling it up as part of its 2016 Yahoo acquisition. All parties has since come to the conclusion that Tumblr simply wasn’t a good fit under either the Verizon or Yahoo umbrella, amounting to a $1.1 billion mistake.

For Tumblr, however, the story may still have a happy ending. By all accounts, its new home at Automattic is far better fit. The service joins a portfolio that includes popular blogging service WordPress.com, spam filtering service Akismet and long-form storytelling platform, Longreads.

In an interview, this week, Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg discussed Tumblr’s history and the impact of the poorly received adult content restrictions. He also shed some light on where Tumblr goes from here, including a potential increased focused on multimedia such as podcasting.

Brian Heater: I’m curious how [your meetings with Tumblr staff] went. What’s the feeling on the team right now? What are the concerns? How are people feeling about the transition?

The CareVoice raises $10 million to develop better tech for insurance providers in Asia

By Catherine Shu

The CareVoice, a Shanghai-based health insurance software startup with ambitions to expand throughout Asia, announced today that it has raised about $10 million in Series A funding.

The investment was led by LUN Partners Group and an undisclosed global investment manager that specializes in financial services, with participation from DNA Capital and returning investors SOSV and Artesian Capital. It will be used on research and development and to grow The CareVoice’s business in Hong Kong, which it entered last year. After that, the company plans to expand into other markets in Asia.

The CareVoice appFounded in 2014, The CareVoice started as an app that let patients leave reviews about medical providers before focusing on software like its flagship product, an SaaS solution that makes healthcare and insurance products more accessible to customers on mobile, with the goal of increasing sales and retention. There are several other startups in China focused on simplifying the process of buying health insurance, like Instony, Datebao, eBaoTech and Bowtie, but a representative for The CareVoice says it focuses less on sales tools and is instead building an end-to-end platform for insurers that can integrate with their existing solutions.

The startup is currently used by 15 insurance providers in China and Hong Kong, including Ping An and AXA. While The CareVoice’s focus has been on improving the enrollment process, customer experience and how claims are processed, it is currently developing 10 new insurance products with health insurance partners, essentially rebranding traditional insurance policies and making them easier to access.

The CareVoice also recently released a platform for insurers called CareVoiceOS, designed to enable insurers to create more customized plans and connect to other online healthcare services, and launched a new unit called StartupCare that allows startups to give founders and employees health benefits.

Remediant lands $15M Series A to disrupt privileged access security

By Ron Miller

Remediant, a startup that helps companies secure privileged access in a modern context, announced a $15 million Series A today led by Dell Technologies Capital and ForgePoint Capital.

Remediant’s co-founders, Paul Lanzi and Tim Keeler, worked in biotech for years and saw a problem first-hand with the way companies secured privileged access. It was granted to certain individuals in the organization carte blanche, and they believed if you could limit access, it would make the space more secure and less vulnerable to hackers.

Lanzi says they started the company with two core concepts. “The first concept is the ability to assess or detect all of the places where privileged accounts exist and what systems they have access to. The second concept is to strip away all of the privileged access from all of those accounts and grant it back on a just-in-time basis,” Lanzi explained.

If you’re thinking that could get in the way of people who need access to do their jobs, as former IT admins, they considered that. Remediant is based a Zero Trust model where you have to prove you have the right to access the privileged area. But they do provide a reasonable baseline amount of time for users who need it within the confines of continuously enforcing access.

“Continuous enforcement is part of what we do, so by default we grant you four hours of access when you need that access, and then after that four hours, even if you forget to come back and end your session, we will automatically revoke that access. In that way all of the systems that are protected by SecureOne (the company’s flagship product) are held in this Zero Trust state where no one has access to them on a day-to-day basis,” Lanzi said.

Remediant SecureONE Dashboard

Remediant SecureONE Dashboard. Screenshot: Remediant

The company has bootstrapped until now, and has actually been profitable, something that’s unusual for a startup at this stage of development, but Lanzi says they decided to take an investment in order to shift gears and concentrate on growth and product expansion.

Deepak Jeevankumar, managing director at investor Dell Technologies Capital says it’s not easy for security startups to rise above the noise, but he saw something in Remediant’s founders. “Tim, and Paul came from the practitioners viewpoint. They knew the actual problems that people face in terms of privileged access. So they had a very strong empathy towards the customer’s problem because they lived through it,” Jeevankumar told TechCrunch.

He added that the privileged access market hasn’t really been updated in two decades. “It’s a market ripe for disruption. They are combining the just-in-time philosophy with the Zero Trust philosophy, and are bringing that to the crown jewel of administrative access,” he said.

The company’s tools are installed on the customer’s infrastructure, either on-prem or in the cloud. They don’t have a pure cloud product at the moment, but they have plans for a SaaS version down the road to help small and medium sized businesses solve the privileged access problem.

Lanzi says they are also looking to expand the product line in other ways with this investment. “The basic philosophies that underpin our technology are broadly applicable. We want to start applying our technology in those other areas as well. So as we think toward a future that looks more like cloud and more like DevOps, we want to be able to add more of those features to our products,” he said.

A $44M Series B Drop in the bucket for millennial loyalty

By Danny Crichton

Commerce and marketing are radically changing these days. Consumers are increasingly looking for brands they identify with, while at the same time, the cost of acquiring users is increasing year-over-year for marketers. For brands, that math makes marketing complicated: they want to reach the right customers with the most efficient acquisition channels in order to drive the best return.

Toronto-headquartered Drop thinks it has a formula — and one that might put some dollars (Canadian and U.S.) in consumers’ pockets. Drop is a mobile app that scans your credit card purchases and then proceeds to give you offers on things you might want to buy.

Those offers have now led to a big offer from VCs, to the tune of a $44 million Series B round of capital led by Onsi Sawiris of HOF Capital . In addition, the Royal Bank of Canada joined the round as a strategic investor.

When we last caught up with CEO and founder Derrick Fung, Drop had recently raised its Series A from NEA. In the interim, the startup has continued to grow rapidly, providing customers $19 million in rewards and helping to drive $350 million in sales to 300 merchant partners, according to the company.

Fung said that “our thesis … from two years ago is generally the same: consumers, especially this new generation of consumers, are all looking for new ways to save money and improve their financial health.” Meanwhile, “with retailers, they’re all hungry to find more cost-effective ways to market. And I’d say more than ever before, Facebook, Google, and the traditional platforms are just very expensive.”

Drop App Offer@2x

Drop offers consumers ways to gain points and spend them, such as this offer from Warby Parker (Via Drop)

Drop wants to take those digital ad dollars and turn them into much more direct engagement with actual consumers. “What we’ve introduced, which we think is very unique, is instead of displaying ads, we are essentially cutting the consumer in on the deal. […] That’s what makes our platform more cost-effective, because the consumer actually gets something in return.”

While Drop is now available in the U.S. and Canada on both iOS and Android, Fung says the company’s next two markets will be Australia and the United Kingdom.

The loyalty space has heated up in the last few years with different strategic plays. Bumped, an app that pays consumers in the stock of the companies at which they shop, has raised capital from Canaan. Meanwhile, New York City-based Lolli has taken a similar approach but pays out bitcoin instead.

Despite those new entrants, Fung believes that Drop’s current focus on points is the right call. “I’d say that based on research we’ve done, points is still the most favorite reward for consumers,” he said.

Since the company’s last fundraise, it acquired YC-backed Canopy Labs, which offered a service that helped companies evaluate customer journeys on their sites. The acquisition was designed to accelerate Drop’s machine learning capabilities to better match merchants and consumers as the company expands the depth of its two-sided marketplace.

The company currently has 77 employees across its Toronto and New York offices, and expects to double that count in the next 18 to 24 months. In addition to HOF and RBC, the round was joined by previous investors NEA, Sierra and White Star Capital.

Splunk acquires cloud monitoring service SignalFx for $1.05B

By Frederic Lardinois

Splunk, the publicly traded data processing and analytics company, today announced that it has acquired SignalFx for a total price of about $1.05 billion. Approximately 60% of this will be in cash and 40% in Splunk common stock. The companies expect the acquisition to close in the second half of 2020.

SignalFx, which emerged from stealth in 2015, provides real-time cloud monitoring solutions, predictive analytics and more. Upon close, Splunk argues, this acquisition will allow it to become a leader “in observability and APM for organizations at every stage of their cloud journey, from cloud-native apps to homegrown on-premises applications.”

Indeed, the acquisition will likely make Splunk a far stronger player in the cloud space as it expands its support for cloud-native applications and the modern infrastructures and architectures those rely on.

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Ahead of the acquisition, SignalFx had raised a total of $178.5 million, according to Crunchbase, including a recent Series E round. Investors include General Catalyst, Tiger Global Management, Andreessen Horowitz and CRV. Its customers include the likes of AthenaHealth, Change.org, Kayak, NBCUniversal and Yelp.

“Data fuels the modern business, and the acquisition of SignalFx squarely puts Splunk in position as a leader in monitoring and observability at massive scale,” said Doug Merritt, president and CEO, Splunk, in today’s announcement. “SignalFx will support our continued commitment to giving customers one platform that can monitor the entire enterprise application lifecycle. We are also incredibly impressed by the SignalFx team and leadership, whose expertise and professionalism are a strong addition to the Splunk family.”

YC is doubling down on these investment theses in its most recent batch

By Kate Clark

Nearly 200 startups have just graduated from the prestigious San Francisco startup accelerator Y Combinator . The flock of companies are now free to proceed company-building with a fresh $150,000 check and three-months full of tips and tricks from industry experts.

As usual, we sent several reporters to YC’s latest demo day to take notes on each company and pick our favorites. But there were many updates to the YC structure this time around and new trends we spotted from the ground that we’ve yet to share.

CTO and HR demo days

Twitter picks up team from narrative app Lightwell in its latest effort to improve conversations

By Ingrid Lunden

Twitter’s ongoing, long-term efforts to make conversations easier to follow and engage with on its platform is getting a boost with the company’s latest acquihire. The company has picked up the team behind Lightwell, a startup that had built a set of developer tools to build interactive, narrative apps, for an undisclosed sum. Lightwell’s founder and CEO, Suzanne Xie, is becoming a director of product leading Twitter’s Conversations initiative, with the rest of her small four-person team joining her on the conversations project.

(Sidenote: Sara Haider, who had been leading the charge on rethinking the design of Conversations on Twitter, most recently through the release of twttr, Twitter’s newish prototyping app, announced that she would be moving on to a new project at the company after a short break. I understand twttr will continue to be used to openly test conversation tweaks and other potential changes to how the app works. )

The Lightwell/Twitter news was announced late yesterday both by Lightwell itself and Twitter’s VP of product Keith Coleman. A Twitter spokesperson also confirmed the deal to TechCrunch in a short statement today: “We are excited to welcome Suzanne and her team to Twitter to help drive forward the important work we are doing to serve the public conversation,” he said. Interestingly, Twitter is on a product hiring push it seems. Other recent hires Coleman noted were Other recent product hires include Angela Wise and Tom Hauburger. Coincidentally, both joined from autonomous companies, respectively Waymo and Voyage.

To be clear, this is more acqui-hire than hire: only the Lightwell team (of what looks like three people) is joining Twitter. The Lightwell product will no longer be developed, but it is not going away, either. Xie noted in a separate Medium post that apps that have already been built (or plan to be built) on the platform will continue to work. It will also now be free to use.

Lightwell originally started life in 2012 as Hullabalu, as one of the many companies producing original-content interactive children’s stories for smartphones and tablets. In a sea of children-focused storybook apps, Hullabalu’s stories stood out not just because of the distinctive cast of characters that the startup had created, but for how the narratives were presented: part book, part interactive game, the stories engaged children and moved narratives along by getting the users to touch and drag elements across the screen.

hullabalu lightwell

After some years, Hullabalu saw an opportunity to package its technology and make it available as a platform for all developers, to be used not just by other creators of children’s content, but advertisers and more. It seems the company shifted at that time to make Lightwell its main focus.

The Hullabalu apps remained live on the App Store, even when the company moved on to focus on Lightwell. However, they hadn’t been updated in two years’ time. Xie says they will remain as is.

In its startup life, the company went through YCombinator, TechStars, and picked up some $6.5 million in funding (per Crunchbase), from investors that included Joanne Wilson, SV Angel, Vayner, Spark Labs, Great Oak, Scout Ventures and more.

If turning Hullabalu into Lightwell was a pivot, then the exit to Twitter can be considered yet another interesting shift in how talent and expertise optimized for one end can be repurposed to meet another.

One of Twitter’s biggest challenges over the years has been trying to create a way to make conversations (also narratives of a kind) easy to follow — both for those who are power users, and for those who are not and might otherwise easily be put off from using the product.

The crux of the problem has been that Twitter’s DNA is about real-time rivers of chatter that flow in one single feed, while conversations by their nature linger around a specific topic and become hard to follow when there are too many people talking. Trying to build a way to fit the two concepts together has foxed the company for a long time now.

At its best, bringing in a new team from the outside will potentially give Twitter a fresh perspective on how to approach conversations on the platform, and the fact that Lightwell has been thinking about creative ways to present narratives gives them some cred as a group that might come up completely new concepts for presenting conversations.

At a time when it seems that the conversation around Conversations had somewhat stagnated, it’s good to see a new chapter opening up.

SpotQA picks up $3.25M seed funding for its automated software testing

By Steve O'Hear

SpotQA, a new automated software testing platform that claims to be significantly faster than either manual testing or existing automated QA solutions, has raised $3.25 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is Crane Venture Partners, the newly-outed London venture capital firm focusing on “intelligent” enterprise startups. Also participating is Forward Ventures, Downing Ventures and Acequia Capital.

Founded in 2016 by CEO Adil Mohammed, who sold his previous company to apparel platform Teespring, SpotQA’s flagship product is dubbed Virtuoso. Described as an “Intelligent Quality Assistance Platform” that uses machine learning and robotic process automation, it claims to speed up the testing of web and mobile apps by up to 25x and make QA accessible across an entire company, not just software or QA engineers.

“Over the years working closely with engineering teams, I learned how the QA and testing process, when done inefficiently, can be a big barrier for company growth and productivity,” Mohammed tells me. “The way testing is done today is not fit for purpose. Even automated testing methods are not keeping pace with agile development practices”.

This results in software testing creating a bottleneck that prevents companies deploying as fast as they’d like to, says the SpotQA CEO, which is pain point for all involved, from developers to testers, all the way through to DevOps and production. “It has a real impact on the company’s bottom line,” adds Mohammed.

The incumbent options are either manual testing or traditional automation. Mohammed says manual testing is slow and makes continuous development difficult as there is a constant “disconnect” between QA and other teams. In turn, traditional automation is not very smart and hasn’t seen much innovation in the last decade. “It’s still very code based, relies on expensive automation engineers and it is difficult to setup and maintain,” he argues.

Explorations pages

In contrast, SpotQA claims to have designed Virtuoso so that software quality can be ensured across the entire software development lifecycle, something the company has branded “Quality Assistance”.

“By using machine learning and robotic process automation, Virtuoso is by far the most efficient and effective way to ensure bugs, inconsistencies and errors can be identified and fixed in a fraction of the time taken using manual and traditional automated testing,” says Mohammed.

Meanwhile, the London-based company will use the new injection of capital to scale engineering, sales and marketing, and to expand internationally. Existing Virtuoso customers include Experian, Chemistry, Optionis and DXC Technologies.

Who are the major revenue-based investing VCs?

By Arman Tabatabai
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is a Venture Partner with HOF Capital. He was previously a Partner for 8 years with HOF Capital and ff Venture Capital. David writes regularly at teten.com and @dteten.
More posts by this contributor

This guest post was written by David Teten, Venture Partner, HOF Capital. You can follow him at teten.com and @dteten. This is part of an ongoing series on Revenue-Based Investing VC that will hit on:

So you’re interested in raising capital from a Revenue-Based Investor VC. Which VCs are comfortable using this approach?

A new wave of Revenue-Based Investors (“RBI”) are emerging. This structure offers some of the benefits of traditional equity VC, without some of the negatives of equity VC.

I’ve been a traditional equity VC for 8 years, and I’m now researching new business models in venture capital.

(For more background, see the accompanying article “Revenue-based investing: A new option for founders who care about control” published on Extra Crunch.

RBI normally requires founders to pay back their investors with a fixed percentage of revenue until they have finished providing the investor with a fixed return on capital, which they agree upon in advance.

I’ve listed below all of the major RBI venture capitalists I’ve identified. In addition, I’ve noted a few multi-product lending firms, e.g., Kapitus and United Capital Source, which provide RBI as one of many structural options to companies seeking capital.


The guide to major RBI VCs

Alternative Capital: “You qualify if you have $5k+ MRR. We have a special program if you are pre-seed and need product development. Since 2017 we’ve managed $3 million in revenue-based financing, which helps cash-strapped technology companies grow. In 2019 we partnered with several revenue-based lending providers, effectively creating a marketplace.”

Bigfoot Capital: According to Brian Parks, “Bigfoot provides RBI, term loans, and lines of credit to SaaS businesses with $500k+ ARR. Our wheelhouse is bootstrapped (or lightly capitalized) SMB SaaS. We make fast, data-driven credit decisions for these types of businesses and show Founders how the math/ROI works. We’re currently evaluating about 20 companies a month and issuing term sheets to 25% of them; those that fit our investment criteria. We’re also regularly following-on for existing portfolio companies.”

Investment Criteria:

  • B2B SaaS or tech-enabled services with proven, recurring contracts
  • ARR of $500K+
  • At least 12 months of customer history, generally 20+ enterprise customers or 200+ SMB customers
  • Rational burn profile, up to 50% of revenue at close, scaling down
  • Capital need of up to $1.5M over next 12 months

Benefits:

  • Non-dilutive, flexible credit offerings that fit SMB or enterprise SaaS
  • Facility sizes of 2-5x MRR
  • Repaid 12-36 months with ability to prepay at reduced cost
  • For RBI, return caps of 1.2x-1.8x and cash share rates of 3-10%
  • Multiple draws available once history established
  • Ability to scale payments to provide initial cash flow relief
  • No board seats or personal guarantees
  • Success fee on M&A can be traded for lower payments

Corl: “No need to wait 3-9 months for approval. Find out in 10 minutes. Corl can fund up to 10x your monthly revenue to a maximum of $1,000,000. Payments are equal to 2-10% of your monthly revenue, and stop when the business buys out the contract at 1-2x the investment amount.”

  • Investment amount of up to 10x monthly revenue, to a maximum of $1,000,000.
  • Payment is 2-10% of monthly revenue, until a Contract Buyout.
  • The Contract Buyout Rate is 1-2x the Investment Amount, depending on the risk of the business.
  • To be eligible, a business must have at least $10,000 in monthly revenue, at least 30% gross margins, and post-revenue for at least 6 months.

According to Derek Manuge, Corl CEO, “Funds are closed significantly quicker than the industry average at under 24 hours. The majority of businesses that apply for funding with Corl are E-commerce, SaaS, and other digital businesses.”

Manuge continues, “Corl connects to a business’ bank accounts, accounting software, payment processors, and other digital services to collect 10,000+ historical data points that are analyzed in real-time. We collect more data on an individual business than, to our knowledge, any other RBI investor, through our application process, data partners, and various public sources online. We have reviewed the application process of other RBI lenders and have not found one that has more API connections that ours. We have developed a proprietary machine learning algorithm that assesses the risk and return profile of the business and determines whether to invest in the business. Funding decisions can take as little as 10 minutes depending on the amount of data provided by a business.”

In the past 12 months, 500+ companies have applied for funding with Corl. The following information is based on companies funded by us and/or our capital partners:

  • The average most recent monthly revenue is $331,229
  • The average most recent annual revenue is $1,226,589
  • The average most recent annual profit is $237,479
  • The average gross profit margin is 55%.
  • The average monthly operating expenses is $70,335
  • The average cash balance is $191,164
  • The mode purpose for funding is (in order of frequency) Sales, Marketing, Market Expansion, Product Development, and Hiring Employees.
  • 30% have been operated by females, 70% have been operated by males.
  • 40% have been operated by “visible minorities”, 60% have been operated by “non-visible minorities”.

Decathlon Capital: According to John Borchers, Co-founder, Decathlon is the largest revenue-based financing investor in the US. His description: “We announced a new $500 million fund in Q1 of 2019, in our 10th year. Unlike many RBI investors, a full 50% of our investment activity is in non-tech businesses. Like other RBI firms, Decathlon does not require warrants, governance involvement, or the types of financial covenants that are often associated with other venture debt type solutions. Decathlon typically targets monthly payment percentages in the 1% to 4% range, with total targeted multiples of 1.5x to 3.0x.”

Earnest Capital: Earnest is not technically RBI. Tyler Tringas, General Partner, observes, “Almost all of these new [RBI] forms of financing really only work for more mature companies (say $25-50k MRR and up) and there are still very few new options at the stage where we are investing.” From their website: “We invest via a Shared Earnings Agreement, a new investment model developed transparently with the community, and designed to align us with founders who want to run a profitable business and never be forced to raise follow-on financing or sell their business.” Key elements:

  • “We agree on a Return Cap which is a multiple of the initial investment (typically 3-5x)
  • “We don’t have any equity or control over the business…”
  • “As your business grows we calculate what we call “Founder Earnings” and Earnest is paid a percentage. Essentially we get paid when you and your co-founder get paid.”
  • “Founder Earnings = Net Income + any amount of founders’ salaries over a certain threshold. If you want to eat ramen, pay yourselves a small salary, and reinvest every dollar into growth, we don’t get a penny and that’s okay. We get earnings when you do.”
  • “Unlike traditional equity, our share of earnings is not perpetual. Once we hit the Return Cap, payments to Earnest end.”
  • “In most cases, we’ll agree on a long-term residual stake for Earnest if you ever sell the company or raise more financing. We want to be on your team for the long-term, but don’t want to provide any pressure to “exit.”
  • “If you decide you want to raise VC or other forms of financing, or you get an amazing offer to sell the company, that’s totally fine. The SEA includes provisions for our investment to convert to equity alongside the new investors or acquirers.”

Feenix Venture Partners: Feenix Venture Partners has a unique investment model that couples investment capital with payment processing services. Each of Feenix’s portfolio companies receives an investment in debt or equity and utilizes a subsidiary of Feenix as its credit card payment processor (“Feenix Payment Systems”). The combination of investment capital and credit card processing (CCP) fees creates a “win-win” partnership for investors and portfolio companies. The credit card processing data provides the investor with real-time sales transparency and the CCP fee margin provides the investor high current income, with equity-like upside and significant recovery for downside protection. Additionally, portfolio companies are able to access competitive and often non-dilutive financing by monetizing an unavoidable expense that is being paid to its current processors, thus yielding a mutual benefit for both parties.

Feenix focuses on companies in the consumer space across a number of industry verticals including: multi-unit Food & Beverage operators, hospitality, managed workspace (office or food halls), location-based entertainment venues, and various direct to consumer online companies. Their average check size is between $1-3 million, with multi-year term and competitive interest rates for debt. Additionally, Feenix typically needs fewer financial covenants and can provide quicker turnaround for due diligence with the benefit of transparency they receive by tracking credit card sales activity. 10% of Feenix’s portfolio companies have received VC equity prior to their financing.

Founders First Capital Partners: “Founders First Capital Partners, LLC is building a comprehensive ecosystem to empower underrepresented founders to become leading premium wage job creators within their communities. We provide revenue-based funding and business acceleration support to service-based small businesses located outside of major capital markets such as Silicon Valley and New York City.”

“We focus our support on businesses led by women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, and military veterans, especially teams and businesses located in low to moderate income areas. Our proprietary business accelerator programs, learning platform, and growth methodologies transition these underserved service-based businesses into companies with $5 million to $50 million in recurring revenue. They are tech-enabled companies that provide high-yield investments for fund limited partners (LPs) that perform like bonds but generate returns on par with equity investments. Founders First Capital Partners defines these high performing organizations as Zebra Companies .”

“Each year, Founders First Capital Partners works with hundreds of entrepreneurs. Three tracks of pre-funding accelerator programs determine the appropriate level of funding and advisory support needed for each founder to achieve their desired expansion: 1) Fastpath for larger companies with $2 million to $5 million in annual revenue, 2) Founders Growth Bootcamp program for companies with $250,000 to $2 million in annual revenue, and 3) Elevate My Business Challenge for companies with $50,000 to $250,000 in annual revenue.”

“Founders First Capital Partners (FFCP) runs a 5-step process:

  1. Attend the Appropriate Pre-Funding Accelerator Program. Programs are offered in both online, in-person, and hybrid format with cohorts of leadership teams for an average of 10 companies. Most programs culminate with a Pitch Day and Investor Networking Event where the companies present their newly defined and expanded growth playbook.
  2. Apply for funding. After completion of the relevant pre-funding program, FFCP will review company funding applications and conduct due diligence.
  3. Get Funding. FFCP-approved companies receive revenue-based loans of up to $1 million to support the implementation of a customized 5-year growth playbook for their businesses.
  4. Growth support. FFCP uses its proprietary performance technology platform, structured growth program curriculum, and executive-level coaching operations to assist funded companies with the development, implementation, and iteration of their custom 5-year growth playbook.
  5. Graduate. Companies repay loans with growth revenue generated over a 5-year term, capped at 2x the amount financed. Companies gain predictable revenue streams with significant and measurable increases in revenue and profits to graduate to either traditional debt or equity sources of growth capital.”

According to Kim Folson, Co-Founder, “Founders First Capital Partner (F1stcp) has just secured a $100M credit facility commitment from a major institutional impact investor. This positions F1stcp to be the largest revenue-based investor platform addressing the funding gap for service-based, small businesses led by underserved and underrepresented founders.”

GSD Capital: “ GSD Capital partners with early-stage SaaS founders to fund growth initiatives. We work with founding teams in the Mountain West (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) who have demonstrated an ability to get sh*t done… We empower founders with a 30-day fundraising process instead of multiple months running a gauntlet. ”

“To best explain the process of RBF funding, let’s use an example. Pied Piper Inc needs funding to accelerate customer acquisition for its SaaS solution. GSD Capital loans $250,000 to Pied Piper taking no ownership or control of the business. The funding agreement outlines the details of how the loan will be repaid, and sets a “cap”, or a point at which the loan has been repaid. On a 3-year term, the cap amounts typically range from 0.4-0.6x the loan amount. Each month Pied Piper reviews its cash receipts and sends the agreed upon percentage to GSD. If the company experiences a rough patch, GSD shares in the downside. Monthly payments stop once the cap is reached and the loan is repaid. In a situation where Pied Piper’s revenue growth exceeds expectations, prepayment discounts are built into the structure, lowering the cost of capital.”

“Requirements for funding consideration:

  • Companies with a minimum of $50k in MRR
  • We can fund to 4x MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue)
  • Companies seeking funding of $200k to $1mm
  • Limited amount of existing debt and a clean cap table”

Indie.VC: Part of the investment firm O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. See Indie VC’s Version 3.0 . “On the surface, our v3 terms are a fairly vanilla version of a convertible note with a few key variables to be negotiated between the investor and the founder: investment amount, equity option, and repurchase start date and percentage.”

  • Investment amount “is what it is”.
  • Equity option is, ” a simple fixed percentage which converts into that % of shares at the time of a sale OR into that % shares prior to a qualified financing.”
  • Repurchase start date and percentage is, “We chose 24 months from the time of our investment (but can be whatever date the founders and investors agree upon) and a % of gross revenue shared to repurchase the shares. With each revenue share payment, our equity option decreases and the founder’s equity increases. With v3, a team can repurchase up to 90% of the original equity option back at any point prior to a qualified financing through monthly revenue share payments, a lump or some combination of both until they reach a 3x cap. “

Kapitus: Offers RBI among many other options. “Because this [RBI] is not a loan, there is no APR or compounded interest associated with this product. Instead, borrowers agree to pay a fixed percentage in addition to the amount provided.”

Lighter Capital: “Since 2012, we’ve provided over $100 million in growth capital to over 250 companies.” Revenue-based financing which “helps tech entrepreneurs get to the next level without giving up equity, board seats, or personal guarantees… At Lighter Capital, we don’t take equity or ask you to make personal guarantees. And we don’t take a seat on your board or make you write a big check if you’re having a down month.”

  • “Up to 1/3 of your annualized revenue run rate”
  • “Up to $3M in growth capital for your tech startup”
  • “Repaid over 3–5 years”
  • “You pay between 2–8% of monthly revenue”
  • “Repayment caps usually range from 1.35x to 2.0x”

Novel Growth Partners: ” We invest using Revenue-Based Investing (RBI), also known as Royalty-Based Investing… We provide up to $1 million in growth capital, and the company pays that capital back as a small percentage (between 4% and 8%) of its monthly revenue up to a predetermined return cap of 1.5-2.2x over up to 5 years. We can usually provide capital in an amount up to 30% of your ARR. Our approach allows us to invest without taking equity, without taking board seats, and without requiring personal guarantees. We also provide tailored, tactical sales and marketing assistance to help the companies in our portfolio accelerate their growth.” Keith Harrington, Co-Founder & Managing Director at Novel Growth Partners, observes that he sees two categories of RBI:

  • Variable repayment debt: money gets paid back month over month, e.g., Novel Growth Partners
  • Share buyback structure, e.g., Indie.vc. Investors using this model typically can ask for a higher multiple because they wait longer for cash to be paid back.

He said, “We chose the structure we did because we think it’s easier to understand, for both LPs and entrepreneurs.”

Podfund: Focused on podcast creators. “We agree to provide funding and services to you in exchange for a percentage of total gross revenue (including ads/sponsorship, listener support, and ancillary revenue such as touring, merchandise, or licensing) per quarter. PodREV terms are 7-15% of revenue for 3-5 years, depending on current traction, revenue, and projected growth. At any time you may also opt to pay down the revenue share obligation in full, as follows:

  • 1.5x the initial funding in year 1
  • 2x the initial funding in year 2
  • 3x the initial funding in year 3
  • 4x the initial funding in year 4 “

RevUp: “Companies receive $100K-250K in non-dilutive cash… [paid back in a] 36-month return period with revenue royalty ranging from 4-8%, no equity .”

Riverside Acceleration Capital: Closed Fund I for $50m in 2016. Fund II has raised over $100m as of mid-2019.

Investment size : $1 – 5+ million, significant capacity for additional investment.
Return method: Small percentage of monthly revenue. Keeps capital lightweight and aligned to companies’ growth.
Capped return: 1.5 – 2x the investment amount. Company maximizes equity upside from growth.
Investment structure: 5-year horizon. Long-term nature maximizes flexibility of capital.”

Jim Toth writes, “One thing that makes us different is that we live inside of an $8Bn private equity firm. This means that we have a tremendous amount of resources that we can leverage for our companies, and our companies see us as being quite strategic. We also have the ability to continue investing behind our companies across all stages of growth.”

ScaleWorks: “We developed Scaleworks venture finance loans to fill a need we saw for our own B2B SaaS companies. No personal guarantees, board seats, or equity sweeteners. No prepayment penalties. Monthly repayments as a percentage of revenue.”

United Capital Source: Provides a wide structure of loans, including but not limited to RBI. The firm has provided more than $875 million in small business loans in its history, and is currently extending about $10m/month in RBI loans. Jared Weitz, Founder & CEO, said, “[Our] typical RBF client is $120K-$20M in annual revenue, with 4-200 employees. We only look at financials for deals over a certain size.

For smaller deals, we’ll look at bank statements and get a pretty good picture of revenues, expenses and cash flow. After all, since this is a revenue-based business loan, we want to make sure revenues and cash flow are consistent enough for repayment without hurting the business’s daily operations. When we do look at financials to approve those larger deals we are generally seeing a 5 to 30% EBITDA margin on these businesses.” United Capital Source was selected in the 2015 & 2017 Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies List.

Note that none of the lawyers quoted or I are rendering legal advice in this article, and you should not rely on our counsel herein for your own decisions. I am not a lawyer. Thanks to the experts quoted for their thoughtful feedback. Thanks to Jonathan Birnbaum for help in researching this topic.

Revenue-based investing: A new option for founders who care about control

By Arman Tabatabai
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is a Venture Partner with HOF Capital. He was previously a Partner for 8 years with HOF Capital and ff Venture Capital. David writes regularly at teten.com and @dteten.
More posts by this contributor

Does the traditional VC financing model make sense for all companies? Absolutely not. VC Josh Kopelman makes the analogy of jet fuel vs. motorcycle fuel. VCs sell jet fuel which works well for jets; motorcycles are more common but need a different type of fuel.

A new wave of Revenue-Based Investors are emerging who are using creative investing structures with some of the upside of traditional VC, but some of the downside protection of debt. I’ve been a traditional equity VC for 8 years, and I’m now researching new business models in venture capital.

I believe that Revenue-Based Investing (“RBI”) VCs are on the forefront of what will become a major segment of the venture ecosystem. Though RBI will displace some traditional equity VC, its much bigger impact will be to expand the pool of capital available for early-stage entrepreneurs.

This guest post was written by David Teten, Venture Partner, HOF Capital. You can follow him at teten.com and @dteten. This is part of an ongoing series on Revenue-Based Investing VC that will hit on:

So what is Revenue-Based Investing? 

RBI structures have been used for many years in natural resource exploration, entertainment, real estate, and pharmaceuticals. However, only recently have early-stage companies started to use this model at any scale.

According to Lighter Capital, “the RBI market has grown rapidly, contrasting sharply with a decrease in the number of early-stage angel and VC fundings”. Lighter Capital is a RBI VC which has provided over $100 million in growth capital to over 250 companies since 2012.

Lighter reports that from 2015 to 2018, the number of VC investments under $5m dropped 23% from 6,709 to 5,139. 2018 also had the fewest number of angel-led financing rounds since before 2010. However, many industry experts question the accuracy of early-stage market data, given many startups are no longer filing their Form Ds.

John Borchers, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Decathlon Capital, claims to be the largest revenue-based financing investor in the US. He said, “We estimate that annual RBI market activity has grown 10x in the last decade, from two dozen deals a year in 2010 to upwards of 200 new company fundings completed in 2018.”

Ally raises $8M Series A for its OKR solution

By Frederic Lardinois

OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results, are a popular planning method in Silicon Valley. Like most of those methods that make you fill in some form once every quarter, I’m pretty sure employees find them rather annoying and a waste of their time. Ally wants to change that and make the process more useful. The company today announced that it has raised an $8 million Series A round led by Access Partners, with participation from Vulcan Capital, Founders Co-op and Lee Fixel. The company, which launched in 2018, previously raised a $3 million seed round.

Ally founder and CEO Vetri Vellore tells me that he learned his management lessons and the value of OKR at his last startup, Chronus. After years of managing large teams at enterprises like Microsoft, he found himself challenged to manage a small team at a startup. “I went and looked for new models of running a business execution. And OKRs were one of those things I stumbled upon. And it worked phenomenally well for us,” Vellore said. That’s where the idea of Ally was born, which Vellore pursued after selling his last startup.

Most companies that adopt this methodology, though, tend to work with spreadsheets and Google Docs. Over time, that simply doesn’t work, especially as companies get larger. Ally, then, is meant to replace these other tools. The service is currently in use at “hundreds” of companies in more than 70 countries, Vellore tells me.

One of its early adopters was Remitly . “We began by using shared documents to align around OKRs at Remitly. When it came time to roll out OKRs to everyone in the company, Ally was by far the best tool we evaluated. OKRs deployed using Ally have helped our teams align around the right goals and have ultimately driven growth,” said Josh Hug, COO of Remitly.

Desktop Team OKRs Screenshot

Vellore tells me that he has seen teams go from annual or bi-annual OKRs to more frequently updated goals, too, which is something that’s easier to do when you have a more accessible tool for it. Nobody wants to use yet another tool, though, so Ally features deep integrations into Slack, with other integrations in the works (something Ally will use this new funding for).

Since adopting OKRs isn’t always easy for companies that previously used other methodologies (or nothing at all), Ally also offers training and consulting services with online and on-site coaching.

Pricing for Ally starts at $7 per month per user for a basic plan, but the company also offers a flat $29 per month plan for teams with up to 10 users, as well as an enterprise plan, which includes some more advanced features and single sign-on integrations.

Microsoft acquires jClarity, an open-source Java performance tuning tool

By Ron Miller

Microsoft announced this morning that it was acquiring jClarity, an open-source tool designed to tune the performance of Java applications. It will be doing that on Azure from now on. In addition, the company has been offering a flavor of Java called AdoptOpenJDK, which they bill as a free alternative to Oracle Java. The companies did not discuss the terms of the deal.

As Microsoft pointed out in a blog post announcing the acquisition, they are seeing increasing use of large-scale Java installations on Azure, both internally with platforms like Minecraft and externally with large customers, including Daimler and Adobe.

The company believes that by adding the jClarity team and its toolset, it can help service these Java customers better. “The team, formed by Java champions and data scientists with proven expertise in data driven Java Virtual Machine (JVM) optimizations, will help teams at Microsoft to leverage advancements in the Java platform,” the company wrote in the blog.

Microsoft has actually been part of the AdoptOpenJDK project, along with a Who’s Who of other enterprise companies, including Amazon, IBM, Pivotal, Red Hat and SAP.

Co-founder and CEO Martijn Verburg, writing in a company blog post announcing the deal, unsurprisingly spoke in glowing terms about the company he was about to become a part of. “Microsoft leads the world in backing developers and their communities, and after speaking to their engineering and programme leadership, it was a no brainer to enter formal discussions. With the passion and deep expertise of Microsoft’s people, we’ll be able to support the Java ecosystem better than ever before,” he wrote.

Verburg also took the time to thank the employees, customers and community that have supported the open-source project on top of which his company was built. Verburg’s new title at Microsoft will be Principal Engineering Group Manager (Java) at Microsoft.

It is unclear how the community will react to another flavor of Java being absorbed by another large vendor, or how the other big vendors involved in the project will feel about it, but regardless, jClarity is part of Microsoft now.

Simon Data hauls in $30M Series C to continue building customer data platform

By Ron Miller

As businesses use an increasing variety of marketing software solutions, the goal around collecting all of that data is to improve customer experience. Simon Data announced a $30 million Series C round today to help.

The round was led by Polaris Partners . Previous investors .406 Ventures and F-Prime Capital also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $59 million, according to the company.

Jason Davis, co-founder and CEO, says his company is trying to pull together a lot of complex data from a variety of sources, while driving actions to improve customer experience. “It’s about taking the data, and then building complex triggers that target the right customer at the right time,” Davis told TechCrunch. He added, “This can be in the context of any sort of customer transaction, or any sort of interaction with the business.”

Companies tend to use a variety of marketing tools, and Simon Data takes on the job of understanding the data and activities going on in each one. Then based on certain actions — such as, say, an abandoned shopping cart — it delivers a consistent message to the customer, regardless of the source of the data that triggered the action.

They see this ability to pull together data as a customer data platform (CDP). In fact, part of its job is to aggregate data and use it as the basis of other activities. In this case, it involves activating actions you define based on what you know about the customer at any given moment in the process.

As the company collects this data, it also sees an opportunity to use machine learning to create more automated and complex types of interactions. “There are a tremendous number of super complex problems we have to solve. Those include core platform or infrastructure, and we also have a tremendous opportunity in front of us on the predictive and data science side as well,” Davis said. He said that is one of the areas where they will put today’s money to work.

The company, which launched in 2014, is based in NYC. The company currently has 87 employees in total, and that number is expected to grow with today’s announcement. Customers include Equinox, Venmo and WeWork. The company’s most recent funding round was a $20 million in July 2018.

YC’s Earth AI closes funding for its platform to make mining less wasteful

By Mike Butcher

Discovering and drilling for the important minerals used for industry and the technology sector remains incredibly important as existing mines are becoming depleted. If the mining industry can’t become more efficient at finding these important deposits, then more unnecessary, harmful drilling and exploration takes place. Applying AI to this problem would seem like a no-brainer for the environment.

Andreessen Horowitz knows this, as they invested in KoBold Metals. GoldSpot Discoveries is a competitor.

Joining this field is now Earth AI, a mineral targeting startup which is using AI to predict the location of new ore bodies far more cheaply, faster, and with more precision (it claims) than previous methods.

It’s now closed a funding round of ‘up to’ $2.5 million from Gagarin Capital, A VC firm specializing in AI, and Y Combinator, in the latter’s latest cohort announced this week. Previously, Earth AI had raised $1.7 million in two seed rounds from Australian VCs, AirTree Ventures and Blackbird Ventures and angel investors.

The startup uses machine learning techniques on global data, including remote sensing, radiometry, geophysical and geochemical datasets, to learn the data signatures related to industrial metal deposits (from gold, copper, and lead to rare earth elements), train a neural network, and predict where high-value mineral prospects will be.

In particular, it was used to discover a deposit of Vanadium, which is used to build Vanadium Redox Batteries that are used in large industrial applications. Finding these deposits faster using AI means the planet will thus benefit faster from battery technology.

In 2018, Earth AI field-tested remote unexplored areas and claims to have generated a 50X better success rate than traditional exploration methods, while spending on average $11,000 per prospect discovery. In Australia, for instance, companies often spend several million dollars to arrive at the same result.

Jared Friedman, YCombinator partner comented in a statement: “The possibility of discovering new mineral deposits with AI is a fascinating and thought-provoking idea. Earth AI has the potential not just to become an incredibly profitable company, but to reduce the cost of the metals we need to build our civilization, and that has huge implications for the world.”

“Earth AI is taking a novel approach to a large and important industry — and that approach is already showing tremendous promise”, Mikhail Taver, partner at Gagarin Capital said.

Earth AI was founded by Roman Tesyluk, a geoscientist with eight years of mineral exploration and academic experience. Prior to starting Earth AI, he was a PhD Candidate at The University of Sydney, Australia and obtained a Master’s degree in Geology from Ivan Franko University, Ukraine. “EARTH AI has huge ambitions, and this funding round will supercharge us towards reaching our milestones,” he said.

This latest investment from Gagarin Capital joins a line of other AI-based products and services and investments it’s made into YC companies, such as Wallarm, Gosu.AI and CureSkin. Gagarin’s exits include MSQRD (acquired by Facebook), and AIMatter (acquired by Google).

HPE Growth backs WeTransfer in €35M secondary funding round

By Steve O'Hear

WeTransfer, the Amsterdam-headquartered company that is best know for its file-sharing service, is disclosing a €35 million secondary funding round.

The investment is led by European growth equity firm, HPE Growth, with “significant” participation from existing investor Highland Europe. Being secondary funding — meaning that a number of shareholders have sold all or a portion of their holding — no new money has entered WeTransfer’s balance sheet.

We are also told that Jonne de Leeuw, of HPE, will replace WeTransfer co-founder Nalden on the company’s Supervisory Board. He joins Bas Beerens (founder of WeTransfer), Irena Goldenberg (Highland Europe) and Tony Zappalà (Highland Europe).

The exact financial terms of the secondary funding, including valuation, aren’t being disclosed. However, noteworthy is that WeTransfer says it has been profitable for 6 years.

“The valuation of the company is not public, but what I can tell you is that it’s definitely up significantly since the Series A in 2015,” WeTransfer CEO Gordon Willoughby tells me. “WeTransfer has become a trusted brand in its space with significant scale. Our transfer service has 50 million users a month across 195 countries, sharing over 1.5 billion files each month”.

In addition to the wildly popular WeTransfer file-sharing service, the company operates a number of other apps and services, some it built in-house and others it has acquired. They include content sharing app Collect (claiming 4 million monthly users), sketching tool Paper (which has had 25 million downloads) and collaborative presentation tool Paste (which claims 40,000 active teams).

“We want to help people work more effectively and deliver more impactful results, with tools that collectively remove friction from every stage of the creative process — from sparking ideas, capturing content, developing and aligning, to delivery,” says Willoughby.

“Over the past two years, we’ve been investing heavily in our product development and have grown tremendously following the acquisition of the apps Paper and Paste. This strengthened our product set. Our overarching mission is to become the go-to source for beautiful, intuitive tools that facilitate creativity, rather than distract from it. Of course, our transfer service is still a big piece of that — it’s a brilliantly simple tool that more than 50 million people a month love to use”.

Meanwhile, Willoughby describes WeTransfer’s dual revenue model as “pretty unique”. The company offers a premium subscription service called WeTransfer Plus, and sells advertising in the form of “beautiful” full-screen ads called wallpapers on Wetransfer.com.

“Each piece of creative is fully produced in-house by our creative studio with an uncompromising focus on design and user experience,” explains the WeTransfer CEO. “With full-screen advertising, we find that our users don’t feel they’re simply being sold to. This approach to advertising has been incredibly effective, and our ad performance has far outpaced IAB standards. Our advertising inventory is sought out by brands like Apple, Nike, Balenciaga, Adobe, Squarespace, and Saint Laurent”.

Alongside this, WeTransfer says it allocates up to 30% of its advertising inventory and “billions of impressions” to support and spotlight up-and-coming creatives, and causes, such as spearheading campaigns for social issues.

The company has 185 employees in total, with about 150 in Amsterdam and the rest across its U.S. offices in L.A. and New York.

ClearBrain launches analytics tools focused on connecting cause and effect

By Anthony Ha

Businesses need to understand cause and effect: Someone did X and it increased sales, or they did Y and it hurt sales. That’s why many of them turn to analytics — but Bilal Mahmood, co-founder and CEO of ClearBrain, said existing analytics platforms can’t answer that question accurately.

“Every analytics platform today is still based on a fundamental correlation model,” Mahmood said. It’s the classic correlation-versus-causation problem — you can use the data to suggest that an action and a result are related, but you can’t draw a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

That’s the problem that ClearBrain is trying to solve with its new “causal analytics” tool. As the company put it in a blog post, “Our goal was to automate this process [of running statistical studies] and build the first large-scale causal inference engine to allow growth teams to measure the causal effect of every action.”

You can read the post for (many) more details, but the gist is that Mahmood and his team claim they can draw accurate causal relationships where others can’t.

ClearBrain analytics screenshot

The idea is to use this in conjunction with A/B testing — customers look at the data to prioritize what to test next, and to make estimates about the impact of things that can’t be tested. Otherwise, Mahmood said, “If you wanted to measure the actual impact of every variable on your website and your app — the actual impact it has on conversation — it could take you years.”

When I wrote about ClearBrain last year, it was using artificial intelligence to improve ad targeting, but Mahmood said the company built the new analytics technology in response to customer demand: “People didn’t just want to know who was going to convert, they wanted to know why, and what caused them to do so.”

The causal analytics tool is currently available to early access users, with plans for a full launch in October. Mahmood said there will be a number of pricing tiers, but they’ll be structured to make the product free for many startups.

In addition to launching the analytics tool in early access, ClearBrain also announced this week that it’s raised an additional $2 million in funding from Harrison Metal and Menlo Ventures.

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