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Render raises $4.5M for its DevOps platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Render, the winner of our Disrupt SF 2019 Startup Battlefield, today announced that it has added another $4.5 million onto its existing seed funding round, bringing total investment into the company to $6.75 million.

The round was led by General Catalyst, with participation from previous investors South Park Commons Fund and a group of angels that includes Lee Fixel, Elad Gil and GitHub CTO (and former VP of Engineering at Heroku) Jason Warner.

The company, which describes itself as a “Zero DevOps alternative to AWS, Azure and Google Cloud,” originally raised a $2.25 million seed round in April 2019, but it got a lot of inbound interest after winning the Disrupt Battlefield. In the end, though, the team decided to simply raise more money from its existing investors.

Current Render users include Cypress.io, Mux, Bloomscape, Zelos, 99designs and Stripe.

“We spoke to a bunch of people after Disrupt, including Ashton Kutcher’s firm, because he was one of the judges,” Render co-founder and CEO Anurag Goel explained. “In the end, we decided that we would just raise more money from our existing investors because we like them and it helped us get a better deal from our existing investors. And they were all super interested in continuing to invest.”

What makes Render stand out is that it fulfills many of the promises of Heroku and maybe Google Cloud’s App Engine. You simply tell it what kind of service you are going to deploy and it handles the deployment and manages the infrastructure for you.

“Our customers are all people who are writing code. And they just want to deploy this code really easily without having to worry about servers, or maintenance, or depending on DevOps teams — or, in many cases, hiring DevOps teams,” Goel said. “DevOps engineers are extremely expensive to hire and extremely hard to find, especially good ones. Our goal is to eliminate all of that work that DevOps people do at every company, because it’s very similar at every company.”

Image Credits: Render

One new feature the company is launching today is preview environments. You can think of them as disposable staging or development environments that developers can spin up to test their code — and Render promises that the testing environment will look the same as your production environment (or you can specify changes, too). Developers can then test their updates collaboratively with QA or their product and sales teams in this environment.

Development teams on Render specify their infrastructure environments in a YAML file and turning on these new preview environments is as easy as setting a flag in that file.

Image Credits: Render

“Once they do that, then for every pull request — because we’re integrated with GitHub and GitLab — we automatically spin up a copy of that environment. That can include anything you have in production, or things like a Redis instance, or managed Postgres database, or Elasticsearch instance, or obviously APIs and web services and static sites,” Goel said. Every time you push a change to that branch or pull request, the environment is automatically updated, too. Once the pull request is closed or merged, Render destroys the environment automatically.

The company will use the new funding to grow its team and build out its service. The plan, Goel tells me, is to raise a larger Series A round next year.

This serial founder is taking on Carta with cap table management software she says is better for founders

By Connie Loizos

Yin Wu has cofounded several companies since graduating from Stanford in 2011, including a computer vision company called Double Labs that sold to Microsoft, where she stayed on for a couple of years as a software engineer. In fact, it was only after that sale she she says she “actually understood all of the nuances with a company’s cap table.”

Her newest company, Pulley, a 14-month-old, Mountain View, Ca.-based maker of cap table management software aims to solve that same problem and has so far raised $10 million toward that end led by the payments company Stripe, with participation from Caffeinated Capital, General Catalyst, 8VC, and numerous angel investors.

Wu is going up against some pretty powerful competition. Carta was reportedly raising $200 million in fresh funding at a $3 billion valuation as of the spring (a round the company never official confirmed or announced). Last year, it raised $300 million. Morgan Stanley has meanwhile been beefing up its stock plan administration business, acquiring Solium Capital early last year and more newly purchasing Barclay’s stock plan business.

Of course, startups often manage to find a way to take down incumbents and a distraction for Carta, at least, in the form of a very public gender discrimination lawsuit by a former VP of marketing, could be the kind of opening that Pulley needs. We emailed with Yu yesterday to ask if that might be the case. She didn’t answer directly, but she did mention “values,” as long as shared some more details about what she sees as different about the two products.

TC: Why start this company? Has Carta’s press of late created an opening for a new upstart in the space?

YW: I left Microsoft in 2018 and started Pulley a year later. We skipped the seed and raised the A because of overwhelming demand from investors. Many wanted a better product for their portfolio companies. Many founders are increasingly thinking about choosing with companies, like Pulley, that better align with their values.

TC: How many people are working for Pulley and are any folks you pulled out of Carta?

YW: We’re a team of seven and have four people on the team who are former Y Combinator founders. We attract founders to the team because they’ve experienced firsthand the difficulties of managing a cap table and want to build a better tool for other founders. We have not pulled anyone out of Carta yet.

TC: Carta has raised a lot of funding and it has long tentacles. What can Pulley offer startups that Carta cannot?

YW: We offer startups a better product compared to our competitors. We make every interaction on Pulley easier and faster. 409A valuations take five days instead of weeks, and onboarding is the same day rather than months. By analogy, this is similar to the difference between Stripe and Braintree when Stripe initially launched. There were many different payment processes when Stripe launched. They were able to capture a large portion of the market by building a better product that resonated with developers.

One of the features that stands out on Pulley is our modeling feature [which helps founders model dilution in future rounds and helps employees understand the value of their equity as the company grows]. Founders switch from our competitors to Pulley to use our modeling tool [and it works] with pre-money SAFEs, post-money SAFEs, and factors in pro-ratas and discounts. To my knowledge, Pulley’s modeling tool is the most comprehensive product on the market.

TC: How does your pricing compare with Carta’s?

YW:  Pulley is free for early-stage companies regardless of how much they raise. We’re price competitive with Carta on our paid plans. Part of the reason we started Pulley is because we had frustrations with other cap table management tools. When using other services, we had to regularly ping our accountants or lawyers to make edits, run reports, or get data. Each time we involved the lawyers, it was an expensive legal fee. So there is easily a $2,000 hidden fee when using tools that aren’t self-serve for setting up and updating your cap table.

TC: Is there a business-to-business opportunity here, where maybe attorneys or accountants or wealth managers private label this service? Or are these industry professionals viewed as competitors?

YW: We think there are opportunities to white label the service for accountants and law firms. However, this is currently not our focus.

TC: How adaptable is the software? Can it deal with a complicated scenario, a corner case?

YW: We started Pulley one year ago and we’re launching today because we have invested in building an architecture that can support complex cap table scenarios as companies scale. There are two things that you have to get right with cap table systems, First, never lose the data and second, always make sure the numbers are correct. We haven’t lost data for any customer and we have a comprehensive system of tests that verifies the cap table numbers on Pulley remain accurate.

TC: At what stage does it make sense for a startup to work with Pulley, and do you have the tools to hang onto them and keep them from switching over to a competitor later?

YW: We work with companies past the Series A, like Fast and Clubhouse. Companies are not looking to change their cap table provider if Pulley has the tool to grow with them. We already have the features of our competitors, including electronic share issuance, ACH transfers for options, modeling tools for multiple rounds, and more. We think we can win more startups because Pulley is also easier to use and faster to onboard.

TC: Regarding your paid plans, how much is Pulley charging and for what? How many tiers of service are there?

YW; Pulley is free for early-stage startups with less than 25 stakeholders. We charge $10 per stakeholder per month when companies scale beyond that. A stakeholder is any employee or investor on the cap table. Most companies upgrade to our premium plan after a seed round when they need a 409A valuation.

Cap table management is an area where companies don’t want a free product. Pulley takes our customers data privacy and security very seriously. We charge a flat fee for companies so they rest assured that their data will never be sold or used without their permission.

TC: What’s Pulley’s relationship to venture firms?

YW: We’re currently focused on founders rather than investors. We work with accelerators like Y Combinator to help their portfolio companies manage their cap table, but don’t have a formal relationship with any VC firms.

Zira raises $3.1M for its shift-scheduling service that helps manage hourly workers

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Zira raised $3.1 million in a seed round. The startup provides software that helps businesses schedule their hourly workforce in a more intelligent manner.

Software often fails to reach non-information workers, so it’s nice to see a startup focus on a somewhat forgotten demographic. General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures led the round, which also saw participation from a number of angel investors.

This is the company’s first known investment, according to Crunchbase data.

The technology that Zira sells looks neat from the outside. It can automatically set team schedules, taking a task that can be rife with favoritism or bias and making it a bit more standardized. Its service can also handle clocking in and out for workers, and provides a chat feature to help groups of workers stay in sync.

And most interesting of all, Zira’s platform has an automation feature, allowing managers to create triggers to replace missing staff for a shift, or provide rewards to the workers who come top in a category, like attendance.

Zira’s service costs $4 per employee, per month, or $3 if paid annually. It also executes custom deals with larger clients, for whom we presume discounts can be had.

The round

To better understand the round itself, TechCrunch asked Zira what the new capital will unlock for its business. Tito Goldstein, a founder at the company, responded that the funds will allow his company to scale its development team, “hone” its product and work on its sales function.

“We started with a product that was meeting customer expectations and winning deals against incumbent platforms,” Goldstein said in an email, “but now we want to really differentiate ourselves.” Hiring more developers should help the company move more quickly in that direction, and without money it’s rather hard to hire engineers.

On the sales front, Goldstein said that after depending on “referral or local connections” to secure customers, COVID has made those channels “increasingly difficult.” That means Zira needs a more traditional sales function, and capital.

Zira declined to share growth metrics, saying that it hopes to do so by the end of the year. That means we’ll check back in with Zira in a few months to get the data. Until then, it’s a fun startup with a neat idea. Let’s see how far it gets with its new capital.

Collective, a back-office platform that caters to ‘businesses of one,’ just landed a hefty seed round

By Connie Loizos

Americans and other global citizens are increasingly self-employed, thanks to great software, the need for flexibility and because skilled services especially can pay fairly well, among other reasons.

In fact, exactly one year ago, the Freelancers Union and Upwork, a digital platform for freelancers, released a report estimating that 35% of the U.S. workforce had begun freelancing. With COVID-19 still making its way around the country and globe, prompting massive and continued job dislocation for many tens of millions of people, that percentage is likely to rise quickly.

Unsurprisingly, savvy startups see the economic power of these individuals — many of whom aren’t interested in managing anyone or anything other than the steady growth of their own businesses. A case in point is Collective, a 2.5-year-old, 20-person San Francisco-based startup that’s been quietly building back-office services like tax preparation and bookkeeping for what it dubs “business of one” owners, and which just closed on $8.65 million in seed funding.

General Catalyst and QED Investors co-led the round, joined by a string of renowned angel investors, including Uber cofounder Garrett Camp, Figma founder Dylan Field and DoorDash executive Gokul Rajaram.

We talked yesterday with cofounder and CEO Hooman Radfar about Collective’s mission to “empower, support and connect the self-employed community” — and what, exactly, it’s proposing.

TC: You previously founded a company and, even before it sold to Oracle in 2016, you had jumped over to VC, working with Garrett Camp at his startup studio Expa. Why shift back into founder mode?

HR: What I saw across AddThis and Expa and my angel investing is that managing finances is hard. Accounting, taxes, compliance — all that set-up as a small business is annoying.

Two years ago, [Collective cofounder] Ugur [Kaner] came into Expa and he basically pitched me on a startup-in-a-box-type program that we were talking about building from an incubation perspective, but [with more of a pointed focus on back office issues]. He’s an immigrant like me, and because he didn’t quite understand the system, he wound up having tax penalties — penalties that are even worse when you’re a freelancer. Some startups have come up with a  bespoke version of what we offer, but we were like, ‘Why do they have to do it?’ These are commodities, but if you put them together in a platform, they can can be powerful.

TC: So is what you’ve created proprietary or are you working with third parties?

HR: Both. We’re an online concierge that’s focused on the back office as the core, meaning accounting and tax services. We also form an S Corp for you because you can save a lot of money [compared with forming a business as an LLC, which features different tax requirements]. So there’s an integration layer plus a dashboard on top of that. If you’re an S Corp, you need to have payroll, so we have partnership with Gusto that comes with your subscription. We have a partnership with QuickBooks. We work with a third party on compliance. Our vision is to make this easy for you and to set this on autopilot because we understand that time is literally money.

TC: How much are you charging?

For taxes, accounting, business banking, and payroll, for the core package, it’s $200 a month. We are piloting bookkeeping and a fuller service package that’s probably [representative of] the direction we’ll head over time, and that will be an additional fee.

TC: How can you persuade these businesses of one that it’s worth that cost?

HR: There are almost three million people in the U.S. who [employ only themselves and] are making more than $100,000 a year and if you think about how many of these [different products] they are already using, it’s a great deal. QuickBooks and Gusto is cheaper with us. You see savings through expensing. The magic is really running your S Corp the right way. Part of that is normal income tax, but you also have a distribution and it’s taxed differently than an income — it’s taxed less. So we pull in salary data and look at expenses and across states, and say, ‘This is what we’d recommend to you based on how your cash flow is coming in, so you recognize this distribution in a compliant way.’

TC: Interesting about this useful data that you’ll be amassing from your customers. How might you use it? 

HR: Our first concern is making sure the right people are seeing it [meaning we’re focused on privacy]. But there’s a lot we can do with the aggregation of that data once we’ve earned the right to use it. Among the things we could do, theoretically, includes creating a new level of scoring. If you’re a business of one, for example, it’s very difficult to get mortgages and loans, because credit agencies don’t have the tools to assess you. But if we have your financial history for years, can we represent that you’re a great person, you have a great business.

Another interesting direction as we reach more members — we’ll get to 2,000 soon — would be to use our power as a collective to get our members less expensive insurance, [help facilitate] credit, [help them with a] 401(k).

TC: There are a lot of other things you can get into presumably, too, from project management to graphic design . . .

HR: Right now, we’re want to make sure our core service is nailed.

Think about the transparency and peace of mind that Uber brought to ride-sharing, or that Uber Eats brings to food delivery. You know when something is cooking, when it’s on its way, when it’s arriving. We’ve gotten used to that level of transparency and accountability with so many things, but when it comes to accounting, it’s not there and that’s crazy. This is your money. We want to change that.

TC: Going after “businesses of one” means you’re addressing a highly fragmented market. What kinds of partnerships are you striking to reach potential customers?

HR: We’re having those conversations now, but you can imagine neo banks make sense, along with vertical marketplaces for nurses and doctors and realtors and writers. There are a lot of possibilities.

Pictured, left to right, Collective’s cofounders: CTO Bugra Akcay, CEO Hooman Radfar, and CPO Ugur Kaner.

Competing with both Perfect Day and Beyond Meat, Chile’s NotCo raises $85 million to expand to the US

By Jonathan Shieber

NotCo, the Chilean food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, has confirmed the close of a new $85 million round of funding to take the company’s products into the US market.

The announcement confirms earlier reporting from TechCrunch that the company had raised new capital, but according to people with knowledge of the investment, the valuation for the company is roughly $300 million, and not the $250 million TechCrunch previously reported.

The funding came from new investors including the consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton Partners, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s Future Positive investment firm, and the giant venture capital firm, General Catalyst. Previous investors including Kaszek Ventures, The Craftory, Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment firm for Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos), Endeavor Catalyst, IndieBio, Humbolt Capital and Maya Capital, all of which have followed on in this round.

NotCo makes a hamburger substitute that’s currently being marketed at Burger King and Papa John’s restaurants in Chile as part of its NotBurger and NotMeat brands and has a line of dairy products including NotIceCream, NotMayo and NotMilk.

Both markets are not small. With milk alone being a multi-billion dollar category that NotCo chief executive Matias Muchnick believes his company can dominate in both Latin America and the US. That trajectory will put it on a collision course with well-funded competitors like Perfect Day, which raised $300 million in financing earlier this year and launched a new consumer brand subsidiary, the Urgent Company, for products made with its milk substitutes.

For longtime investors in the company, like Kaszek Ventures managing partner, Nicolas Szekasy, the new financing for NotCo validates his firm’s early faith that a company from Santiago, Chile could compete in some of the world’s largest consumer markets.

“We continue to actively support the company since its early days with a strong conviction of the potential that NotCo has to be the leading global player in the food-tech space. In this uncertain time, consumers have amplified their appetite for the plant-based world,” said Szekasy in a statement. “In parallel, COVID has allowed us to see that meat production is not only environmentally harmful and inefficient, but also that its supply chain is fragile. So we are happy to witness an inflection point where plant-based products are becoming an increasing proportion of a new normal, once they can actually taste amazing like we see NotCo crafting.”

Joining the company to help with its international expansion plans are a clutch of seasoned executives from large multi-national food brands. Flavia Buchmann, a former executive at Coca-Cola overseeing the company’s Sprite brand has been tapped as the company’s new chief marketing officer. Former Danone executives Luis Silva and Catriel Giuliano are taking the reins as heads of global business development and research and development, respectively. And Jose Menendez a former banker at Jeffries and executive at Tapad, is now NotCo’s global chief operating officer.

A flood of venture capital dollars have come into the food space since NotCo first burst on the scene and many of these deals are operating at the intersection of novel biomanufacturing technologies and food science. But NotCo’s take on foodtech is more akin to Beyond Meat’s than Impossible Foods or Perfect Day.

The company isn’t making biologically engineered foods, it’s taking its taxonomy of existing foods and determining which combinations of plant ingredients will most closely mimic all aspects of the animal products they’re replacing.

So a closer analogy would be companies like Just or the newly funded Climax Foods. Muchnick said that the difference is in where these companies are spending their time. Instead of focusing on a protein that can act as a one for one replacement for casein or the carbohydrate lactose, NotCo is trying to replicate the whole product — the entire sensorial panel of a particular food.

“Flavors, taste, smell, color, and the interaction between all of them and the molecular components in food,” said Muchnick. “It’s not just the concept of how limited we are to replicating products and how limited to using AI to address other challenges in the food industry.”

For Muchnick, the biggest opportunity for NotCo is dairy. While the company has plans to introduce a number of new products including a chicken replacement to compliment its line of NotBurger and NotMeat products, it’s really the dairy business where the company wants to land and expand.

It’s looking to cut a deal with a large quick service restaurant along with deals for an online channel and a direct to consumer play.

As it grows, consumers can expect to see the company’s brands recede into the background as Muchnick looks to focus on supplying products to other vendors.

“We partnered upstream and downstream,” Muchnick said. The company works with suppliers including Ingredion, ADM, and Cargill and downstream has product partners who will incorporate its milk substitute into other products.

What we want is to be the catalyst of change with many other companies. Why don’t we become the enabler. We’re becoming the Intel inside of other products.”

At that scale, the company would be a prime candidate for public investors, and if Muchnick has his way the company will get there. “We are aiming to have a $300 million company by 2024 with 70 percent of that business in the US,” he said. 

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