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Today — August 6th 2020Your RSS feeds

Uber picks up Autocab to push into places its own app doesn’t go

By Natasha Lomas

Uber has bought UK based Autocab, which sells SaaS to the taxi and private hire vehicle industry, with the aim of expanding the utility of its own platform by linking users who open its app in places where it doesn’t offer trips to local providers who do.

No acquisition price has been disclosed and Uber declined to comment on the terms of the deal.

Autocab has a SaaS presence in 20 countries globally at this stage, according to an Uber spokeswoman. We’ve asked whether it will be closing a marketplace service which connects local taxi firms with trip bookers in any locations as a result of the Uber acquisition.

The Manchester-based veteran taxi software maker — which sells booking and despatch software as well as operating a global marketplace (iGo) which local firms can plug into to get more trips — was founded back in 1989, per Crunchbase.

Uber’s spokeswoman said it plans to support Autocab’s expansion of SaaS and iGo internationally — suggesting the tech giant hopes to be able to integrate the marketplace across its own global footprint in order to be able to offer users a less patchy service.

The move also looks intended to create more opportunities for Uber drivers to pick up jobs from outside its own platform, including delivery work.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Uber said “thousands of people” open its app every month in places where they can’t get a trip. It lists 15 UK towns which fall into this category — headed by Oxford (with 67,099 app opens monthly) and Tunbridge Wells (46,150); or at the other end Colchester (16,540) and Ipswich (16,539).

“Through Autocab’s iGo marketplace, Uber will be able to connect these riders with local operators who choose to take their booking. In turn, operators should be able to expand their operations and offer more earnings opportunities to local drivers. Uber will also explore providing drivers with additional revenue opportunities related to its platform for other services, such as delivery,” it added.

According to Bloomberg, Uber won’t be integrating Autocab’s marketplace in markets where it already offers a service, such as London — so there does look to be an element of Uber using the purchase to shore up its own key markets by closing down the chance of a little locally flavored competition.

Uber’s rides business has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has squeezed demand for on-demand transportation, as many professionals switching to remote work at home. Social distancing requirements have also hit the nightlife industry, further eating into demand for Uber’s service.

All of which makes life hard for Uber’s ‘self employed‘ drivers — giving the company an incentive to find ways to retain their service during a leaner time for on-demand trips when they may otherwise abandon the platform, damaging its ability to provide a reliable service.

For Autocab’s part, the acquisition offers a road to further global expansion. It will remain independent with its own board after the acquisition, per the pair’s press release — retaining its focus on serving the taxi and private hire vehicle industry globally.

Commenting in a statement, Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional GM for Northern & Eastern Europe, said: “Autocab has worked successfully with taxi and private hire operators around the world for more than thirty years and Uber has a lot to learn from their experience. We look forward to working with the Autocab team to help local operators grow and provide drivers with genuine earnings opportunities.”

Autocab CEO, Safa Alkatab, added: “Autocab has been working with local operators across the world to provide the technology to make them more efficient and open up a marketplace to provide more trips. Working with Uber we can scale up our ambitions, providing hundreds of thousands of additional trips for our customers, and help cement the place of licenced operators in their local community.”

Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Krisp snags $5M A round as demand grows for its voice-isolating algorithm

By Devin Coldewey

Krisp’s smart noise suppression tech, which silences ambient sounds and isolates your voice for calls, arrived just in time. The company got out in front of the global shift to virtual presence, turning early niche traction has into real customers and attracting a shiny new $5 million series A funding round to expand and diversify its timely offering.

We first met Krisp back in 2018 when it emerged from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator. The company was an early one in the big surge of AI startups, but with a straightforward use case and obviously effective tech it was hard to be skeptical about.

Krisp applies a machine learning system to audio in real time that has been trained on what is and isn’t the human voice. What isn’t a voice gets carefully removed even during speech, and what remains sounds clearer. That’s pretty much it! There’s very little latency (15 milliseconds is the claim) and a modest computational overhead, meaning it can work on practically any device, especially ones with AI acceleration units like most modern smartphones.

The company began by offering its standalone software for free, with paid tier that removed time limits. It also shipped integrated into popular social chat app Discord. But the real business is, unsurprisingly, in enterprise.

“Early on our revenue was all pro, but in December we started onboarding enterprises. COVID has really accelerated that plan,” explained Davit Baghdasaryan, co-founder and CEO of Krisp. “In March, our biggest customer was a large tech company with 2,000 employees — and they bought 2,000 licenses, because everyone is remote. Gradually enterprise is taking over, because we’re signing up banks, call centers and so on. But we think Krisp will still be consumer-first, because everyone needs that, right?”

Now even more large companies have signed on, including one call center with some 40,000 employees. Baghdasaryan says the company went from 0 to 600 paying enterprises, and $0 to $4M annual recurring revenue in a single year, which probably makes the investment — by Storm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TechNexus and Hive Ventures — look like a pretty safe one.

It’s a big win for the Krisp team, which is split between the U.S. and Armenia, where the company was founded, and a validation of a global approach to staffing — world-class talent isn’t just to be found in California, New York, Berlin and other tech centers, but in smaller countries that don’t have the benefit of local hype and investment infrastructure.

Funding is another story, of course, but having raised money the company is now working to expand its products and team. Krisp’s next move is essentially to monitor and present the metadata of conversation.

“The next iteration will tell you not just about noise, but give you real time feedback on how you are performing as a speaker,” Baghdasaryan explained. Not in the toastmasters sense, exactly, but haven’t you ever wondered about how much you actually spoke during some call, or whether you interrupted or were interrupted by others, and so on?

“Speaking is a skill that people can improve. Think Grammar.ly for voice and video,” Baghdasaryan ventured. “It’s going to be subtle about how it gives that feedback to you. When someone is speaking they may not necessarily want to see that. But over time we’ll analyze what you say, give you hints about vocabulary, how to improve your speaking abilities.”

Since architecturally Krisp is privy to all audio going in and out, it can fairly easily collect this data. But don’t worry — like the company’s other products, this will be entirely private and on-device. No cloud required.

“We’re very opinionated here: Ours is a company that never sends data to its servers,” said Baghdasaryan. “We’re never exposed to it. We take extra steps to create and optimize our tech so the audio never leaves the device.”

That should be reassuring for privacy wonks who are suspicious of sending all their conversations through a third party to  be analyzed. But after all, the type of advice Krisp is considering can be done without really “understanding” what is said, which also limits its scope. It won’t be coaching you into a modern Cicero, but it might help you speak more consistently or let you know when you’re taking up too much time.

For the immediate future, though, Krisp is still focused on improving its noise-suppression software, which you can download for free here.

Go public now while software valuations make no sense

By Alex Wilhelm

Software valuations are bonkers, which means it’s a great time to go public. Asana, Monday.com, Wrike and every other gosh darn software company that is putting it off, pay attention. Heck, even service-y Palantir could excel in this market.

Let me explain.

Over the past few weeks, TechCrunch has tracked the filing, first pricing, rejiggered pricing range, and, today, the first day of trading for BigCommerce, a Texas-based e-commerce company. You can think of it as a comp with Shopify to a degree.

In the wake of the Canadian phenom’s blockbuster earnings report, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range. Yesterday the company did itself one better, pricing $1 per share above that raised range, selling 9,019,565 shares at $24 per share, of which 6,850,000 came from BigCommerce itself.

Before some additions, there are now 65,843,546 shares of BigCommerce in the world, giving the company an IPO valuation of around $1.58 billion.

Given that the company’s Q2 expected revenue range is “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million,” the company sported a run-rate multiple of 11.1x to 11x, depending on where its final revenue tally comes in. That felt somewhat reasonable, if perhaps a smidgen light.

Then the company opened at $68 per share today, currently trading for $82 per share. Hello, 1999 and other insane times. BigCommerce is now worth, using some rough math, around $5.4 billion, giving it a run-rate multiple of around 38x, using the midpoint of its Q2 revenue range.

India’s Byju’s acquires WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million

By Manish Singh

Byju’s has acquired edtech startup WhiteHat Jr. for $300 million as the Indian online learning giant looks to expand its dominant reach in the country.

The all-cash deal makes 18-month-old Mumbai-headquartered WhiteHat Jr., which offers online coding classes to school-going students in India and the U.S., the fastest exit story of this size in the Indian startup ecosystem.

WhiteHat Jr., which had raised about $11 million from Omidyar Network and Nexus Venture Partners, has achieved an annual revenue run rate of $150 million. It will continue to operate as a separate entity for now, a Byju’s spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“We started WhiteHat Jr. to make kids creators instead of consumers of technology,” said Karan Bajaj, founder of WhiteHat Jr., in a statement. “Technology is at the centre of every human interaction today and we had set out to create a coding curriculum that was being delivered live and connected students and teachers like never before.”

Wow! Unprecedented exit. India 2020.
And congrats to founder and investors! https://t.co/8Acihhk4jd

— Anand Lunia (@anandlunia) August 5, 2020

Byju Raveendran, the founder and chief executive of the eponymous startup, said Byju’s will make “significant investments” in WhiteHat Jr. and hire more teachers to expand it to new markets. WhiteHat Jr. recently announced plans to expand to Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Unlike most edtech startups, WhiteHat Jr. assigns one teacher to each student. These classes are live and each session cost about $10, Bajaj told TechCrunch in an interview last month. More than 5,000 teachers currently work with WhiteHat Jr., said Bajaj.

“WhiteHat Jr is the leader in the live online coding space. Karan has proven his mettle as an exceptional founder and the credit goes to him and his team for creating coding programs that are loved by kids. Under his leadership the company has achieved phenomenal growth in India and the US in a short span of time,” said Raveendran in a statement.

Byju’s, which was backed by Mary Meeker’s Bond last month, is being currently valued at $10.5 billion.

The announcement today illustrates the growing phase of education startups in India as they report skyrocketing growth at the height of a global pandemic. “Delightful to see such an exit in the Indian startup ecosystem. Happy to see WhiteHat Jr. find home at the world’s most-valued edtech startup that will enable them to reach more students globally,” said Sajith Pai, Director at Blume Ventures, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Great to see this!

Worth noting
1) WhiteHat is <20m old. True blitzscaling indeed!
2) Run rate of $150m is amazing. This on $~11m or so of investments. Terrific execution by the founder + team.

Congrats to the team + investors for scripting this story!https://t.co/PRhylfvICu

— Sajith Pai (@sajithpai) August 5, 2020

The acquisition of WhiteHat Jr., which according to a person familiar with the matter had also received interest from several investors for financing its next fundraise, comes as top online learning startups in India are aggressively engaging in M&A talks with several younger startups to further their dominance in the nation.

Facebook-backed Unacademy last month acquired PrepLadder for $50 million and led an investment round of $5 million to acquire a majority stake in Mastree. Other major players Vedantu and Toppr told TechCrunch last month that they were also open to explore similar deals.

Separately, Byju’s is also in talks to acquire Doubtnut — a two-year-old startup whose app allows students from sixth grade to high school solve and understand math and science problems in local languages — for as much as $150 million, TechCrunch reported earlier.

Byju’s, which acquired U.S.-based startup Osmo that develops interactive play apps that tie into custom hardware in a $120 million deal early last year, currently leads the edtech market in India. The startup has been looking for ways to expand both outside of India and make inroads in smaller cities and towns in the country.

A venture capitalist who did not want to be identified said the acquisition of WhiteHat Jr. will allow Byju’s to gain access to top-tier families that can afford to spend big amount on education. “Today it’s coding but I’m sure Byju’s will replicate WhiteHat Jr’s model with math and other STEM subjects soon enough,” the VC said.

Direct-to-consumer cat food startup Smalls raises $9M

By Anthony Ha

While dog owners have plenty of direct-to-consumer options if they want to order pet food online, we haven’t seen a similar wave of startups for cats. But that may be starting to change.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Cat Person, a startup backed by Harry’s Labs offering a variety of cat care products, including food. And Smalls, a cat food startup that launched in 2018, is announcing today that it has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Co-founders Matt Michaelson (CEO) and Calvin Bohn (COO) said that it’s not simply a matter of taking the D2C dog food model and applying it to cats.

“The traditional sort of MO for companies in the pet care space is to do everything for dogs first,” and then expand into cat products, Bohn said.

Michaelson argued that this means companies “often overlooked the nutritional needs of cat.” In particular, he said, “We found that we needed a much broader range of products to really succeed. Cats are picky because they’re apex predators.”

So Smalls offers a variety of food options, including what it says is fresh, human-grade chicken and beef; freeze-dried chicken, turkey and duck; plus other treats (and non-food products like litter and toys).

Smalls

Image Credits: Smalls

Michaelson and Bohn started out by cooking the food in the kitchen of their New York City apartments, then moved into what was then known as Brooklyn Foodworks. Smalls now manufactures its cat food in a facility in Chicago.

They acknowledged that the cost can be a bit higher than what cat owners are used to paying — the exact comparison will depend on the brand and quality you currently buy, but after taking a quick quiz on the Smalls website, I was offered subscription plans that cost around $3 or $4 per cat per day. Michaelson noted that “retention is not correlated to income” (so Smalls customers aren’t just wealthy cat owners), and he argued that investing healthy food for your cat could save money down the road

“We don’t have studies to say that yet, but at the same time, you would naturally assume eating better food is going to be a good investment in yourself,” he said.

Bohn added that when cat owners switch to Smalls, they quickly notice the difference: “Within weeks, their cats were sleeping better at night, their coats were more lustrous, their stool smelled better.” (Journalists who tried it out seem to agree.)

The Series A brings Smalls’ total funding to $12 million. It was led by Left Lane Capital (whose partner Jason Fiedler previously invested in The Farmer’s Dog), with participation from Founder Collective and Companion Fund.

“While we’ve seen a proliferation of highly successful healthy dog food brands, the cat food market has remained completely ignored,” Fiedler said in a statement. “Smalls has successfully developed a brand, product mix, supply chain and customer experience that is specifically optimized for cats that no one else has.”

Michaelson said Smalls currently has “several thousand” active subscribers, up 4x year-over-year. And while the pandemic has created some supply chain challenges, it also led to “a huge rise in pet adoption,” as well as convincing some owners that they should look for alternatives to their local pet store.

“Because we’re seeing this big movement towards the direct-to-consumer side of things with COVID, it’s really an opportunity to lean into that and grow faster,” he said.

Harness makes first acquisition, snagging open source CI company Drone.io

By Ron Miller

Harness has made a name for itself creating tools like continuous delivery (CD) for software engineers to give them the kind of power that has been traditionally reserved for companies with large engineering teams like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Today, the company announced it has acquired Drone.io, an open source continuous integration (CI) company, marking the company’s first steps into open source, as well as its first acquisition.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

“Drone is a continuous integration software. It helps developers to continuously build, test and deploy their code. The project was started in 2012, and it was the first cloud native, container native continuous integration solution on the market, and we open sourced it,” company co- founder Brad Rydzewski told TechCrunch.

Drone delivers pipeline configuration information as code in a Docker container. Image: Drone.io

While Harness had previously lacked a CI tool to go with its continuous delivery tooling, founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal said this was less about filling in a hole than expanding the current platform.

“I would call it an expansion of our vision and where we were going. As you and I have talked in the past, the mission of Harness is to be a next generation software delivery platform for everyone,” he said. He added that buying Drone had a lot of upside.”It’s all of those things — the size of the open source community, the simplicity of the product — and it [made sense], for Harness and Drone to come together and bring this integrated CI/CD to the market.”

While this is Harness’ first foray into open source, Bansal says it’s just the starting point and they want to embrace open source as a company moving forward. “We are committed togetting more and more involved in open source and actually making even more parts of Harness, our original products, open source over time as well,” he said.

For Drone community members who might be concerned about the acquisition, Bansal said he was “100% committed” to continuing to support the open source Drone product. In fact, Rydzewski said he wanted to team with Harness because he felt he could do so much more with them than he could have done continuing as a stand-alone company.

“Drone was a growing community, a growing project and a growing business. It really came down to I think the timing being right and wanting to partner with a company like Harness to build the future. Drone laid a lot of the groundwork, but it’s a matter of taking it to the next level,” he said.

Bansal says that Harness intends to also offer a commercial version of Drone with some enterprise features on the Harness platform, even while continuing to support the open source side of it.

Drone was founded in 2012. The only money it raised was $28,000 when it participated in the Alchemist Accelerator in 2013, according to Crunchbase data. The deal has closed and Rydzewski has joined the Harness team,

Jakarta-based Wahyoo gets $5 million Series A to help small eateries digitize their operations

By Catherine Shu

Wahyoo’s team, including CEO Peter Shearer (third from left)

While growing up, Peter Shearer watched his mother get up every day at 2AM or 3AM to prepare for her catering business. For many people who own small food businesses in Indonesia, “everything is handled on their own, so I really, really wanted to create a system so they can have better operations and get more quality of life,” Shearer told TechCrunch.

His startup, Wahyoo, was founded in 2017 to help small eateries, called warung makan, digitize and automate more tasks, from ordering supplies to managing finances. Today, Wahyoo announced that it has raised $5 million in Series A funding led by Intudo Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on Indonesia.

Other investors in the round included Kinesys Group, Amatil X (the corporate venture program of Coca-Cola Amatil, one of the world’ five largest Coca-Cola bottlers), Arkblu Capital, Indogen Capital, Selera Kapital, Gratyo Universal Indonesia and Isenta Hioe. The capital will be used on hiring, developing Wahyoo’s tech platform and expanding beyond the Greater Jakarta area.

In a press statement about the investment, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “Small-and medium enterprises represent one of the major engines of economic growth in Indonesia and are being transformed through new innovative businesses like Wahyoo, bringing greater economic prosperity to small business owners throughout the country. Through the company’s digitization efforts, Wahyoo’s highly targeted support for warung makan businesses is creating positive economic and social impact for Indonesia’s working class.”

Wahyoo launched its app almost exactly a year ago and has onboarded about 13,800 warung makan so far. The company’s co-founders are Shearer, the chief executive officer; chief operating officer Daniel Cahyadi; and chief technology officer Michael Dihardja.

With about 268 million people, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest markets, and there are already startups, like Warung Pintar and BakuWarung, that focus on helping warung, or small corner stores, digitize more of their operations.

Shearer said he wanted to focus on Indonesian eateries in particular because “my background is in the food industry and I love anything related to food. Second, the potential is very big because no one has tapped into this type of warung before. Everyone focuses on retail, but no one taps into the culinary business.”

Wahyoo currently employs about 170 people, including on-the-ground teams who meet with warung makan owners. The eateries are “usually run by a family, from generation to generation,” with almost all tasks performed manually, including bookkeeping and going to markets early in the morning to buy ingredients, Shearer said.

A warung makan owner on Wahyoo’s platform

Wahyoo’s features include a next-day grocery delivery service from its own warehouses and integration with Go Food, a popular delivery app. The startup also runs an education program called Wahyoo Academy, with financial courses to help warung makan owners increase customer traffic and revenue, and offers advertising and brand partnerships.

For example, a restaurant on Wahyoo’s platform can earn money by placing ad banners or brochures in their stores. That is one of the way Wahyoo monetizes. It is free to use for restaurant owners, and makes revenue by taking a percentage of brand commissions.

Another revenue stream is Wahyoo’s fried chicken franchise, which gives warung makan owners the option of opening a small stall in front of their stores. It currently has about 350 stalls and keeps costs low by partnering with one of Indonesia’s largest poultry suppliers. Shearer said the company’s goal is to increase the number of stalls to 1,000 by the end of this year.

While eateries on Wahyoo saw a drop in their business in April and May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shearer said that it began to recover in June and July, and is now back to normal, partly because of the platform’s Go Food integration.

In the future, Wahyoo may face competition from other warung-focused startups if they decided to expand their services to restaurants as well, and new startups that want to tap into the business opportunity offered by the 59.3 million small- to medium-sized businesses in Indonesia, many of which haven’t digitized their operations yet.

Shearer said Wahyoo’s value proposition is its portfolio of complementary services. “We are basically creating an ecosystem,” he added. “We are not only focusing on the supply chain, but also our own brand. We have the fried chicken brand and in the future we will tap into financial technology and the catering business as well.”

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

By Danny Crichton

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Software stocks set new records despite earnings, pandemic

By Alex Wilhelm

You might have missed it, but amidst the current political-M&A-pandemic-election-disinformation news cycle we find ourselves in this week, SaaS and cloud companies reached new public market records.

Yesterday, the Bessemer-Nasdaq cloud index closed at 2,035.54, a new record finish for the basket of software companies. And, today, the index broached the 2,040 mark before ceding some ground.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


What matters for our purposes is that with a good chunk of the Q2 earnings cycle behind us, software companies are not only holding onto their gains from earlier in the year, they are managing to add to them, albeit modestly. Of course, valuation expansion during earnings season could still lead to gently falling multiples; as companies grow, if their shares gain value at a slower pace, their price/sales ratio can lose ground.

Regardless, for our purposes it’s notable that recent public market gains are not dissipating. Tech valuation boosts have helped major American indices regain ground lost early in the year, and Q2 earnings were a possible threat to prior progress. So far earnings-related dents are thin on the ground.

So, what’s going on? Why are SaaS and cloud stocks doing so well? Leaning on notes from two VCs — Jamin Ball from Redpoint and Mary D’Onofrio from Bessemer — we can unspool recent valuation highs.

Qualified raises $12M to make websites smarter about sales and marketing

By Anthony Ha

Qualified, a startup co-founded by former Salesforce executives Kraig Swensrud and Sean Whiteley, has raised $12 million in Series A funding.

Swensrud (Qualified’s CEO) said the startup is meant to solve a problem that he faced when he was CMO at Salesforce . Apparently he’d complain about being “blind,” because he knew so little about who was visiting the Salesforce website.

“There could be 10 or 100 or 100,000 people on my website right now, and I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what they’re interested in, my sales team has no idea that they’re even there,” he said.

Apparently, this is a big problem in business-to-business sales, where waiting five minutes after a lead leaves your website can result in a 10x decrease in the odds of making contact. But the solution currently adopted by many websites is just a chatbot that treats every visitor similarly.

Qualified, meanwhile, connects real-time website visitor information with a company’s Salesforce customer database. That means it can identify visitors from high-value accounts and route them to the correct salesperson while they’re still on the website, turning into a full-on sales meeting that can also include a phone call and screensharing.

Qualified screenshot

Image Credits: Qualified

Of course, the amount of data Qualified has access to will differ from visitor to visitor. Some visitors may be purely incognito, while in other cases, the platform might simply know your city or where you work. In still others (say if you click on a link from marketing email), it can identify you individually.

That’s something I experienced myself, when I decided to take a look at the Qualified website this morning and was quickly greeted with a message that read, “👋 Welcome TechCrunch! We’re excited about our funding announcement…” It was a little creepy, but also much more effective than my visits to other marketing technology websites, where someone usually sends me a generic sales message.

Swensrud acknowledged that using Qualified represents “a change to people’s selling processes,” as it requires sales to respond in real time to website visitors (as a last resort, Qualified can also use chatbots and schedule future calls), but he argued that it’s a necessary change.

“If you email them later, some percentage of those people, they ghost you, they get bored, they moved on to the competition,” he said. “This real-time approach, it forces organizations to think differently in terms of their process.”

And it’s an approach that seems to be working. Among Qualified’s customers, the company says ThoughtSpot increased conversations with its target accounts by 10x, Bitly grew its enterprise sales pipeline by 6x and Gamma drove over $2.5 million in new business pipeline.

The Series A brings Qualified’s total funding to $17 million. It was led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from existing investors including Redpoint Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. Norwest’s Scott Beechuk is joining Qualified’s board of directors.

“The conversational model is simply a better way to connect with new customers,” Beechuk said in a statement. “Buyers love the real-time engagement, sellers love the instant connections, and marketers have the confidence that every dollar spent on demand generation is maximized. The multi-billion-dollar market for Salesforce automation software is going to adopt this new model, and Qualified is perfectly positioned to capture that demand.”

Rigetti raises $79M Series C for its quantum computing platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Rigetti Computing, the quantum computing startup that is challenging industry heavyweights like IBM, Microsoft and D-Wave, today announced that it has closed a $79 million Series C funding round. The round was led by Bessemer Venture Partners, with participation from Franklin Templeton, Alumni Ventures Group, DCVC, EDBI, Morpheus Ventures and Northgate Capital.

Bessemer’s Tomer Diari and Veritas Software’s former CEO Mark Leslie will join the company’s board of directors.

Earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that Rigetti was looking to raise about $71 million in what — at least at the time — looked to be a down round. A Rigetti spokesperson declined to share any details about the company’s valuation in this round.

“This round of financing brings us one step closer to delivering quantum advantage to the market,” said Rigetti founder and CEO Chad Rigetti. “The company is dually focused on building scalable, error-corrected quantum computers and supporting high-performance access to current systems over the cloud. Rigetti offers a distinctive hybrid computing access model designed for practical applications.”

Rigetti currently offers its own cloud-based service for access to its machines, as well as through AWS’ Braket service, which is currently in preview. The company also recently won an $8.6 million DARPA award to build a quantum computer that outperforms classical computers.

“It’s hard to find an area where quantum computing won’t be tremendously valuable once quantum advantage is achieved,” said Jonathan Curtis, vice president and portfolio manager at Franklin Equity Group. “We believe that Rigetti is one of a select few leaders in this important emerging market with a strong combination of leading technology, an accomplished and focused team, and important commercial, government and go-to-market relationships.”

While quantum computing has long held a lot of promise, it’s actually starting to make real strides in the last few years, with various companies building working systems that aren’t quite powerful enough for most real-world use cases yet, but that show a lot of promise. Rigetti, maybe more so than others, has focused on these real-world use cases.

“Quantum computing will drive a paradigm shift in high-performance computers as we continue pushing the boundaries of science deeper into the realms of science fiction,” said Diari. “Quantum technology has the potential to unlock significant advancements in biology, chemistry, logistics and material science, and we believe that Rigetti provides the most immediate and clear path to a production-grade system in the market.”

Serialized fiction startup Radish raises $63.2M from SoftBank and Kakao

By Anthony Ha

Radish is announcing that it has raised $63.2 million in new funding.

Breaking up book-length stories into smaller chapters that released over days or weeks is an idea that was popularized in the 19th century, and startups have been trying to revive it for at least the past decade. Still, this round represents a major step up in funding, not just for Radish (which only raised around $5 million before this), but also compared to other startups in a relatively nascent market. (Digital fiction startup Wattpad is the notable exception.)

When I first wrote about Radish at the beginning of 2017, the startup was focused on user-generated content. Last year, however, the company launched the Radish Originals program, where Radish is able to produce more content using teams of writers lead by a showrunner, and where the startup owns the resulting intellectual property.

“Instead of becoming YouTube or Wattpad for serial fiction, we want to be more like Netflix and create our own originals,” Kim told me. “I got a lot of inspiration from platforms in Korea, China and Japan, where serial fiction is huge and established on mobile.”

One of the ideas Radish took from the Asian markets is rapidly updating its stories. For example, its most popular title, “Torn Between Alphas” (a romance story with werewolves) has released 10 seasons in less than a year, with each season consisting of more than 50 chapters — in fact, later seasons have more than 100 chapters — that are released multiple times a day.

“On Netflix, you can binge-watch three seasons of a show at once,” Kim said. “On Radish, you can binge-read a thousand episodes.”

While Radish borrowed the writing room model from TV — and hired Emmy-winning TV writers, particularly those with a background in soap opera — Kim said it’s also taken inspiration from gaming. For one thing, it relies on micro-payments to make money, where users buy coins that allow them to unlock later chapters of a story (chapters usually cost 20 or 30 cents on average, and more chapters get moved out from behind the paywall over time). In addition, the company can allow readers to determine the direction of stories by A/B testing different versions of the same chapter.

Kim pointed to the fall of 2019 as Radish’s “inflection point,” where the model really started to work. Now, the company says its most popular story has made more than $4 million and has more than 50 million “reads.” Radish stories are mostly in the genres of romance, paranormal/sci-fi, LGBTQ, young adult, and horror, mystery and thriller, and Kim said the audience is largely female and based in the United States.

By raising a big round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early stage investment arm of troubled SoftBank Group) and Kakao Pages (which publishes webtoons, web novels and more, and is part of Korean internet giant Kakao), Kim said he can take advantage of their expertise in the Asian market to grow Radish’s audience in the U.S. That will mean increasing content production in the hopes of creating more hit titles, and also spending more on performance marketing.

“With its own fast-paced original content production, Radish is best positioned to become a leading player in the global online fiction market,” said SoftBank Ventures Asia CEO JP Lee in a statement. “Radish has proven that its serialized novel platform can change the way people consume online content, and we are excited to support the company’s continued disruption in the mobile fiction space. Leveraging our global SoftBank ecosystem, we hope to support and accelerate Radish’s expansion across different regions worldwide.”

AgentSync raises $4.4M for its insurtech compliance service

By Alex Wilhelm

Today AgentSync announced that it has closed a $4.4 million Seed round, co-led by Elad Gil and Caffeinated Capital. Other well-known names from the Silicon Valley scene took part in its funding round, including Affirm’s Max Levchin and the podcaster turned VC Harry Stebbings, among others.

The round caught our eye because AgentSync is working in a space that has seen a notable wave of venture interest in 2020 — insurtech, which we’ve covered somewhat extensively — and because it shared hard revenue numbers, which we love.

So let’s talk about how the company’s co-founders Jenn Knight and Niji Sabharwal wound up building software for the insurance market.

From Zenefits to new beginnings

AgentSync offers what it describes as “compliance as a service,” helping insurance carriers and insurance agencies track insurance broker licensing data. For companies accustomed to doing this work with spreadsheets, AgentSync offers a faster method, built on top of Salesforce’s platform, saving time and lowering the chance of error.

(Tech firms building on top of Salesforce are having a good year, incidentally.)

The idea for the company was born from Sabharwal’s time at Zenefits.

Sabharwal was an early-employee at the infamous startup. To hear the AgentSync co-founder tell the story, Zenefits grew at an inhuman clip, scaling from 100 employees when Sabharwal joined to over 1,700 a year later.

During its period of hyper-growth, reporting later uncovered, Zenefits did not sufficiently appreciate that it operated in a highly-regulated industry. The resulting compliance mess forced co-founder Parker Conrad from the company, with former Yammer boss David Sacks taking the reins to clean house.

At the time of his takeover, TechCrunch reported that Sacks wrote to Zenefits staff that “compliance is like oxygen,” and that without the company would “die.”

Conrad got fined by the SEC, Zenefits cut staff, and had to re-value itself. Sacks eventually left the company. But behind the headlines Sabharwal described work to rebuild Zenefits in a more compliant fashion from the inside-out. Part of those efforts, he said in an interview, was building software that helped track agent compliance, a project that Zenefits later open-sourced and released.

TechCrunch covered the release at the time, writing that Zenefits had built “a licensing compliance app it created in-house to ensure its sales people are properly licensed to sell insurance in a given state available for free to anyone to download from the Salesforce App Exchange.”

The software integrated with National Insurance Producer Registry (NIPR) data, which the co-founder describes as a source of truth in the insurance market. The software allowed users to confirm that individual agents were compliant. The effort bought Zenefits some kudos with regulators, and, according to Sabharwal, other companies looking to use the software.

From the meeting point of internal software project and external demand, AgentSync was formed, with Sabharwal leaving Zenefits to start his company with his partner, Knight. Knight, who has done stints at Dropbox (Head of Business Technology) and Stripe (Head of Internal Systems), worked part-time at AgentSync before joining the startup full-time this year.

Zenefits signed the IP from the earlier project over to Sabharwal before his team wrote any code for AgenySync, allowing the company to get a clean start.

The insurance market is enormous, lucrative, and old-fashioned. That makes it a prime space to attack. The software also helps groups onboard agents, execute what the startup calls “automatically-generated compliance analysis” to help spot gaps and other data errors.

And AgentSync is seeing traction, scaling to $1.9 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) at the time of publication. The company charges per active agent a customer has, with some price tiering based on scale.

Today the startup has 17 people, and is targeting 22 by the end of the year. (It’s investing in its go-to-market functionality post-fundraising.)

On the personnel side, Knight, the company’s CTO, has built a technical team that is majority women, an unfortunately a rarity in the industry. She also said that she’s “acutely aware of the equity and pay gaps that exist for women and underrepresented groups across the industry.”

I haven’t had the chance to talk to too many denizens from the Zenefits alumni, but what’s fun about AgentSync is that it was born effectively out of an effort to fix what went wrong at the unicorn. And, it’s found a market for that fix. Let’s see how far it can get on $4.4 million.

Trump calls TikTok a hot brand, demands a chunk of its sale price

By Alex Wilhelm

Today the president appeared to bless the budding Microsoft-TikTok deal, continuing his evolution on a possible transaction. After stating last Friday that he’d rather see TikTok banned than sold to a U.S.-based company, Trump changed his tune over the weekend. TikTok is owned by China-based company ByteDance, which owns a portfolio of apps and services.

A weekend phone call between Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, and the American premier appeared to change his mind, leading to the software company sharing publicly on Sunday that it was pursuing a deal.

Then today the president, endorsing a deal between an American company and ByteDance over TikTok, also said that he expects a chunk of the sale price to wind up in the accounts of the American government.

The American president has long struggled with basic economic concepts. For example, who pays tariffs. But to see Trump state that he expects to receive a chunk of a deal between two private companies that he is effectively forcing to the altar is surreal.

To fully grok his take, we’ve roughly transcribed the pertinent few minutes of his explanation from this morning, when asked about the weekend call with Microsoft’s Nadella. It’s worth a read (bold highlights are TechCrunch’s):

We had a great conversation, uh, he called me, to see whether or not, uh, how I felt about it. And I said look, it can’t be controlled, for security reasons, by China. Too big, too invasive. And it can’t be. And here’s the deal. I don’t mind if, whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else — a big company, a secure company, a very American company — buy it.

It’s probably easier to buy the whole thing than to buy 30% of it. ‘Cause I say how do you do 30%? Who’s going to get the name? The name is hot, the brand is hot. And who’s going to get the name? How do you do that if it’s owned by two different companies? So, my personal opinion was, you are probably better off buying the whole thing rather than buying 30% of it. I think buying 30% is complicated.

And, uh, I suggested that he can go ahead, he can try. We set a date, I set a date, of around September 15th, at which point it’s going to be out of business in the United States. But if somebody, whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else, buys it, that’ll be interesting.

I did say that if you buy it, whatever the price is, that goes to whoever owns it, because I guess it’s China, essentially, but more than anything else, I said a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States. Because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen. Right now they don’t have any rights, unless we give it to ’em. So if we’re going to give them the rights, then it has to come into, it has to come into this country.

It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant [relationship]. Uh, without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what is called “key money” or they pay something. But the United States should be reimbursed, or should be paid a substantial amount of money because without the United States they don’t have anything, at least having to do with the 30%.

So, uh, I told him that. I think we are going to have, uh, maybe a deal is going to be made, it’s a great asset, it’s a great asset. But it’s not a great asset in the United States unless they have the approval of the United States.

So it’ll close down on September 15th, unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it, and work out a deal, an appropriate deal, so the Treasury of the — really the Treasury, I suppose you would say, of the United States, gets a lot of money. A lot of money.

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range

By Alex Wilhelm

When BigCommerce, the Texas-based Shopify competitor, first announced an IPO price range, the numbers looked a little light.

With a range of just $18 to $20 per share, it appeared that the firm was targeting a valuation of around $1.18 billion to $1.31 billion. Given that BigCommerce had revenue of “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million” in Q2 2020, up a little over 30% from the year-ago period (and better margins than Shopify) its implied revenue multiple that its IPO price range indicated felt low.

At the time, TechCrunch wrote that “BigCommerce feels cheap at its current multiple,” and that if you added “recent market exuberance for cloud shares that we’ve see in other IPOs … it feels even more underpriced.”

Those feelings have been borne out. Today, BigCommerce announced a new, higher IPO price range. The firm now intends to price its IPO between $21 and $23 per share. Let’s calculate its new valuation, compare that to its preliminary Q2 results to get new multiples for the impending e-commerce software IPO, and figure how its most recent investors are set to fare in its impending debut.

Pricing

By moving its pricing up from $18 to $20 to $21 to $23, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range by 16.7% at its lower end and 15% at the upper end. At its new prices BigCommerce is worth between $1.38 billion and $1.51 billion.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze?

By Alex Wilhelm

I wanted to write an essay about Microsoft and TikTok today, because I was effectively a full-time reporter covering the software giant when it hired Satya Nadella in 2014. But, everyone else has already done that and, frankly, there’s a more pressing financial topic for us to parse.

Let’s take a minute to take stock of SPAC (special purpose acquisition companies), which have risen sharply to fresh prominence in recent months. Also known as blank-check companies, SPACS are firms that are sent public with a bunch of cash and the reputation of their backers. Then, they combine with a private company, effectively allowing yet-private firms to go public with far less hassle than with a traditional IPO.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


And less scrutiny, which is why historically SPACs haven’t been the path forward for companies of the highest-quality; a look at the historical data doesn’t paint a great picture of post-IPO performance.

But that historical stigma isn’t stopping a flow of SPACs taking private companies public this year. A host of SPACs have already happened, something we should have remarked on more in Q1 and Q2.

Still, better late than never. This morning, let’s peek at two new pieces of SPAC news: electric truck company Lordstown Motors merging with a SPAC to go public, and fintech company Paya going public via FinTech III, another SPAC.

We’ll see that in hot sectors there’s ample capital hunting for deals of any stripe. How the boom in alt-liquidity will fare long-term isn’t clear, but what is plain today is that where caution is lacking, yield-hunting is more than willing to step in.

Electric vehicles as SPAC nirvana

The boom in the value of Tesla shares has lifted all electric vehicle (EV) boats. The value of historically struggling public EV companies like NIO have come back, and private companies in the space have been hot for SPACs as a way to go public in a hurry and cash in on investor interest.

Cisco acquires Modcam to make Meraki smart camera portfolio even smarter

By Ron Miller

As the Internet of Things, proliferates, security cameras are getting smarter. Today, these devices have machine learning capability that help the camera automatically identify what it’s looking at — for instance an animal or a human intruder? Today, Cisco announced that it’s acquired Swedish startup Modcam and making it part of its Meraki smart camera portfolio with the goal of incorporating Modcam computer vision technology into its portfolio.

The companies did not reveal the purchase price, but Cisco tells us that the acquisition has closed.

In a blog post announcing the deal, Cisco Meraki’s Chris Stori says Modcam is going to up Meraki’s machine learning game, while giving it some key engineering talent, as well.

“In acquiring Modcam, Cisco is investing in a team of highly talented engineers who bring a wealth of expertise in machine learning, computer vision and cloud-managed cameras. Modcam has developed a solution that enables cameras to become even smarter,” he wrote.

What he means is that today, while Meraki has smart cameras that include motion detection and machine learning capabilities, this is limited to single camera operation. What Modcam brings is the added ability to gather information and apply machine learning across multiple cameras, greatly enhancing the camera’s capabilities.

“With Modcam’s technology, this micro-level information can be stitched together, enabling multiple cameras to provide a macro-level view of the real world,” Stori wrote. In practice, as an example, that could provide a more complete view of space availability for facilities management teams, an especially important scenario as businesses try to find safer ways to open during the pandemic. The other scenario Modcam was selling was giving a more complete picture of what was happening on the factory floor.

All of Modcams employees, which Cisco described only as “a small team” have joined Cisco, and the Modcam technology will be folded into the Meraki product line, and will no longer be offered as a stand-alone product, a Cisco spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Modcam was founded in 2013 and has raised $7.6 million, according to Crunchbase data. Cisco acquired Meraki back in 2012 for $1.2 billion.

Working to understand Affirm’s reported IPO pricing hopes

By Alex Wilhelm

News broke last night that Affirm, a well-known fintech unicorn, could approach the public markets at a valuation of $5 to $10 billion. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, said that Affirm could begin trading this year and that its IPO options include debuting via a special purpose acquisition company, also known as a SPAC.

That Affirm is considering listing is not a surprise. The company is around eight years old and has raised north of $1 billion, meaning it has locked up investor cash during its life as a private company. And liquidity has become an increasingly attractive possibility in 2020, when new offerings of all quality levels are enjoying strong reception from investors and traders who are hungry for equity in growing companies.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But $10 billion? That price tag is a multiple of what Affirm was worth last year when it added $300 million to its coffer at a post-money price of $2.9 billion. There were rumors that the firm was hunting a far larger round later in 2019, though it doesn’t appear — per PitchBook records — that Affirm raised more capital since its Series F.

This morning let’s chat about the company’s possible IPO valuation. The Journal noted the strong public performance of Afterpay as a possible cognate for Affirm — the Australian buy-now, pay-later firm saw its value dip to $8.01 per share inside the last year before soaring to around $68 today. But given the firm’s reporting cycle, it’s a hard company to use as a comp.

Happily, we have another option to lean on that is domestically listed, meaning it has more regular and recent financial disclosures. So let’s how learn much revenue it takes to earn an eleven-figure valuation on the public markets by offering consumers credit.

Affirm’s business

Affirm loans consumers funds at the point of sale that are repaid on a schedule at a certain cost of capital. Affirm customers can select different repayment periods, raising or lowering their regular payments, and total interest cost.

Synchrony offers similar installment loans to consumers, along with other forms of capital access, including privately-branded credit cards. (Verizon, TechCrunch’s parent company, recent offered a card with the company, I should note.)  Synchrony is worth $13.5 billion as of this morning, making it a company of similar-ish value compared to the top end of the possible Affirm valuation range.

The iron rule of founder compensation is dead

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We had the full team this week: Myself, Danny, and Natasha on the mics, with Chris running skipper as always.

Sadly this week we had to kick off with a correction as I am 1. Dumb, and, 2. See point one. But after we got past SPAC nuances (shoutout David Ethridge), we had a full show of good stuff, including:

And that’s Equity for this week. We are back Monday morning early, so make sure you are keeping tabs on our socials. Hugs, talk soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

China’s electric SUV maker Li Auto raises $1.1 billion in US IPO

By Rita Liao

Trade tensions between China and the U.S. have not stopped Chinese companies from eyeing to list on American stock exchanges. Li Auto, a five-year-old Chinese electric vehicle startup, raised $1.1 billion through its debut on Nasdaq on Thursday.

The Beijing-based company is targeting a growing Chinese middle class who aspire to drive cleaner, smarter, and larger vehicles. Its first model, sold at a subsidized price of 328,000 yuan or $46,800, is a six-seat electric SUV that began shipping end of last year.

Li Auto priced its IPO north of its targeted range at $11.5 per share, giving it a fully diluted market value of $10 billion. It also raised an additional $380 million in a concurrent private placement of shares to existing investors.

The IPO arrived amid a surge of investor interest in EV makers. Tesla’s shares have skyrocketed in the last few quarters. Li Auto’s domestic rival Nio, which raised a similar amount in a $1 billion float in New York back in 2018, also saw its stock price rally in recent months.

Li Auto is one step ahead of its Chinese peer Xpeng in planning its first-time sale. The six-year-old competitor said last year it may consider an IPO. Last month, a source told South China Morning Post that Xpeng was getting ready for the listing.

Founders of China’s emergent EV startups are often shrewd internet veterans who are well-connected in the venture capital and marketing world, attracting investment dollars in the billions. Li Auto, for instance, counts China’s food delivery mogul Wang Xing, boss of Meituan Dianping, as its second-largest shareholder after its CEO Li Xiang. TikTok parent ByteDance shelled out $30 million in its Series C round.

Investors are in part emboldened by Beijing’s national push to electrify China’s auto industry. The question, then, is whether these startups have the right talent and resources to pull things off in an industry that traditionally demands a much longer development cycle.

Wallace Guo, a managing partner at Li Auto’s Series B investor Taihecap, admitted that “the nature of auto consumption, unlike internet products evolving through trial and error, manufacturing a car, is a strategic move with sophisticated system, very long value chain, requiring huge investment and resources and any error can be fatal.”

Mingming Huang, chief executive of Future Capital, said that “it was a no brainer in 2015 to be the first investor” in Li Auto. The venture capitalist said Li, who ran a popular car-buying online portal before getting into manufacturing, “has the rare combination of being a relentless talent as well as a top-notch product manager that excels in creating value for all stakeholders.”

Customers testing Li Auto’s SUV in China. Photo: Li Auto

Both investors believed Li Auto has picked the right path of zeroing in on extended-range electric vehicles. EREVs come with an auxiliary power unit, often a small combustion engine, that ensures cars can still operate even when a charging station is not immediately available, a shortage yet to be solved in China.

As my colleague Alex pointed out, Li Auto is on a trajectory similar to that of its peer Nio, going public after a short history of delivering to customers. The startup only began shipping its first model last December and delivered just over 10,000 units as of June, its prospectus showed.

The startup is still deep in the red, losing 2.44 billion yuan ($350 million) in 2019, up from a net loss of 1.53 billion yuan in 2018. It did finish the first quarter of 2020 with a gross profit of $9.6 million after it began monetization.

Its annual revenue — which comprised mostly of car sales and a small portion from services like charging stalls — stood at 284 million yuan ($40.4 million) in 2019, a tiny fraction of Nio’s $1.12 billion. But Nio also amassed a greater net loss of $1.62 billion in the same year. In contrast, Tesla has been profitable for four straight quarters.

Li Auto’s investors are clearly bullish that the Chinese startup can one day match Tesla’s commercial success.

“Xiang has a deep understanding of the preferences and pain points of car owners and drivers in China. Li Auto is the first in China, to successfully commercialize extended-range electric vehicles, solving the challenges of inadequate charging infrastructure and battery technologies constraints,” Huang asserted.

“The company is able to get positive gross margin when selling the first batch of vehicles and thus with its growth in sales volume, its gross margin was well above competitors and can live long enough to become a ten billion-dollar company with this healthy business model,” said Guo.

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