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Calendly CEO Tope Awotona is joining us at Disrupt 2021

By Jordan Crook

It all seems so simple. Instead of the dreaded back-and-forth on email, what if there was a solution that helped two parties (or multiple parties) schedule a call or a hangout?

Calendly was born out of that question. Today, the company is worth more than $3 billion, according to reports, and has more than 10 million users. The growth of the product is insane, with more than 1,000% growth from last year.

But that kind of success doesn’t come without hard work and dedication.

To hear more about the journey from bootstrapped to billions, Calendly founder and CEO Tope Awotona will join us at Disrupt this September.

P.S. Early Bird Tickets to Disrupt end today, Friday, July 30. Book your tickets now! 

Awotona put his entire life savings into Calendly and managed to bootstrap it for years before taking a $350 million funding round led by OpenView and Iconiq.

We’ll chat with Awotona about the early days of Calendly, how he navigated the hyper-growth phase, what made him choose to finally take institutional funding, his thoughts on pricing and packaging, and much more.

Awotona joins an incredible roster of speakers, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Mirror’s Brynn Putnam, Chamath Palihapitiya, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and more. Plus, Disrupt features the legendary Startup Battlefield competition, where startups from across the globe compete for $100,000 and eternal glory.

Disrupt’s virtual format provides plenty of opportunity for questions, so come prepared to ask the experts about the issues that keep you up at night.

One post can’t possibly contain all of Disrupt’s events. Don’t miss the epic Startup Battlefield competition, hundreds of early-stage startups exhibiting in the Startup Alley expo area, special breakout sessions — like the Pitch Deck Teardown — and so much more.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 offers tons of opportunities. Don’t miss out on the first one — buy your Disrupt pass today, July 30, by 11:59 pm (PT) for less than $100. It’s a sweet deal!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Why Latin American venture capital is breaking records this year

By Anna Heim

Today we’re wrapping our multi-week exploration of the global venture capital market’s second-quarter performance. We’ve gone around the world, working to better understand the geyser of cash flowing into today’s startups. But we’ve saved the best for last: Latin America.

At a glance, the Latin American venture capital and startup market appears similar to what we’ve seen from other growing ecosystems. Like the U.S., Canadian, European, Indian and African startup hubs, Latin America is seeing venture capital activity set records.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But inside the big numbers is a surprising picture of a startup market in the process of maturing while outside money hunts for breakout opportunities.

To help us in our exploration of Latin America’s epic second quarter, we collected notes and observations from NXTP’s Gonzalo Costa, Magma Partners’ Nathan Lustig and ALLVP’s Federico Antoni. We also have data from Dealroom, CB Insights, the Global Private Capital Association (GPCA) and ALLVP.

Today we’re digging into the data, yes, but also the human potential behind the startup rush. According to Antoni, the Latin American startup market of today “is a story about talent, not about capital.” Echoing the point in a recent piece about “the Latin American startup opportunity,” U.S. venture capital firm Sequoia wrote that it has “been blown away by the quality of founders in the current wave.” So we’ll have to do more than just read charts.

The union of talent and money is what startup markets need to thrive. But there are other reasons why Latin American startups are so frequently in the news today, including structural factors, such as strong digital penetration and quick e-commerce growth.

Those trends could have long lives. NXTP’s Costa made a bullish argument: The portion of “market capitalization from technology companies in Latin America is only 2.5% today compared to 40%+ in the U.S,” and his firm expects the two numbers to “converge in the long-term.” Our read of that set of data points is that there are a host of future Latin American public tech companies being founded — and funded — today.

Let’s talk about Latin American venture capital data, dig into which countries are rising stars in the region, learn how quickly Latin American startups have to go cross-border, and explore how quickly capital is recycling in the ecosystem – always a key test for startup-market longevity.

A venture capital wave

Latin America is on pace for all-time records in venture capital dollars raised and venture capital rounds in 2021. According to CB Insights data, startups in the region have already raised $9.3 billion in 2021’s first six months from 414 deals. The same data set indicates that in all of 2020, startups in the region raised $5.3 billion across 526 deals. And in case you’re worried that we’re comparing to an unfairly COVID-impacted year, in 2019 the numbers were $5.3 billion (again) from 614 individual deals.

This year is different, and the second quarter of 2021 was simply an outlier event. With some $7.2 billion invested in Latin American startups, Q2 2021’s closest rival in terms of quarterly venture totals was the second quarter of 2017, when $2.6 billion was invested.

Early-stage founders: Beat the clock & buy a $79 Founder pass to TC Disrupt 2021

By Alexandra Ames

If you’re an early-stage founder, you’d be wise to make TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 (September 21-23) your must-attend virtual destination. It’s the OG of tech startup conferences, draws more than 10,000 attendees from around the world and features some of the most gifted, visionary minds and makers across the entire tech spectrum.

Cash-strapped founders in the early innings of their startup love to save money, and we get it in a big way. That’s why our Founder pass is the perfect choice for you. Right now, you can buy a Founder Pass for $79 but the clock is ticking on this early bird deal. It flies away — and prices go up — on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

The price might be small, but a Founder pass provides full access to Disrupt programming — more than 100 hours of live content and three months of video-on-demand access. You’ll connect and network with thousands of Disrupt attendees, strike up ad hoc conversations in the virtual platform’s chat feature and use CrunchMatch to set up private 1:1 meetings with potential customers, investors or employees.

Watch the Startup Battlefield, explore hundreds of early-stage startups exhibiting in the Startup Alley expo area and take full strategic advantage of the free, three-month Extra Crunch membership that comes with your Founder pass.

Of course, we think attending Disrupt is a no-brainer, but check out what these early-stage founders told us about their Disrupt experiences.

“Disrupt is laser-focused on startups. I’m just starting my own company and attending Disrupt was an incredible opportunity to connect with companies and learn from the best people in the industry.” — Anirudh Murali, co-founder and CEO, Economize.

“My top three benefits of going to Disrupt were introducing my product to people who would not have seen it otherwise; networking with investors, mentors, advisors and potential customers and, finally, talking to other entrepreneurs and founders and learning what it took to get their companies off the ground.” — Felicia Jackson, inventor and founder of CPRWrap.

“Disrupt gave our company and technology invaluable exposure to potential customers and partners that we would not have met otherwise. A company that does 15 billion in annual sales thinks our tech is a fit for their ecosystem, and we’re excited to continue building that relationship.” — Joel Neidig, founder of SIMBA Chain.

Take a few minutes and peruse the Disrupt 2021 agenda. Don’t miss out on Startup Battlefield or any of the pitch feedback sessions — they’re great opportunities to learn what investors look for in a pitch. The pitch(deck) you improve could be your own.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place on September 21-23, but time is running out for you to buy a Founder Pass for only $79. Prices go up when the early-bird deal expires on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Ford expects semiconductor rebound, new vehicle demand to increase 2021 profits

By Rebecca Bellan

Despite semiconductor shortages peaking during the second quarter of 2021, Ford says it delivered better-than-expected operating results by leveraging strong demand for new vehicles, like its Bronco SUV, according to its most recent earnings report.

In April, Ford had expected to lose about 50% of its planned Q2 production, resulting in a profit loss for the period. However, the automaker was able to generate companywide adjusted earnings before interest and taxes of $1.1 billion, according to the report.

With demand for the Mustang Mach-E, which CEO Jim Farley said is already profitable on Wednesday’s earnings call, and other Ford vehicles up 7x from last year, Farley said “the business is ‘spring loaded’ for a rebound when semiconductor supplies stabilize and more closely match demand,” according to a statement released by Ford.

Looking ahead, the company said it “has lifted its target for full-year adjusted free cash flow to between $4 billion and $5 billion, supported by expected favorable second-half working capital as vehicle production increases with anticipated improvement in availability of semiconductors.”

Outwardly, Ford appears to be optimistic, but when pressed during the call, Farley was slightly more cautious and realistic.

“We do see the chip issue running through this year and we could see it bleeding into the first part of next year,” he said. “We’ve had discussions with the FAB suppliers. They’re telling us that they’re reallocating capital, they’re increasing supply for automotive, etc. But I think this is one of those things where we need to see the relief coming through before we can really feel comfortable that we’re out of the woods here.”

Farley said the industry is seeing signs of improvement in the flow of chips now in the third quarter, but “the situation remains fluid.”

He’s not wrong. Semiconductor sales in May were up 4.1% over April, which saw sales increase 1.9% over March 2021, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. Additionally, a World Semiconductor Trade Statistics report released in June forecasts global annual sales to increase 19.7% in 2021 and 8.8% in 2022. Earlier this month, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company said it expects the shortage of semiconductors in the manufacturing space to be greatly reduced starting this quarter due to its increased production efforts. The company said it already increased microcontroller unit production by 30% YOY in the first half of the year and intends to bring that up to over 30% pre-pandemic 2018 levels.

Sounds promising, but not everyone is on the same page here. Singapore-based Flex, a global chip manufacturer, recently warned that the global chip shortage would last into mid-2022, worsened by the increased demand for cars, especially electric ones, as well as pandemic-induced purchases of video game consoles, tablets, laptops and other entertaining electronics.

Just as Ford is trying to reduce battery supply anxiety by becoming the manufacturer via battery cell partnerships with SK Innovation, Farley said Ford is also working closely with semiconductor fabricators and suppliers to help them with future projections of how many chips it expects to need.

A big reason there’s a semiconductor shortage is because automakers cut their orders when the pandemic caused a drop in sales last spring. But when Q3 2020 rolled around and demand for passenger vehicles rebounded, chipmakers were already spoken for, filling orders from customers in consumer electronics and IT.

In Ford’s defense, it’s not easy to predict a pandemic and how many chips one would need for that. Let’s hope this doesn’t lead to a hoarding scenario like the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020.

Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup reservations surpass 120,000

By Rebecca Bellan

Ford and its F-150 pickup, the automaker’s best-selling vehicle, have consistently inspired brand loyalty from pickup truck owners. According to the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Automotive Brand Loyalty Study, Ford has a 54.3% loyalty rate. Now as the automaker moves to electrify its fleet, it seems to be bringing in fresh buyers.

Ford released Wednesday its second quarter earnings for 2021, which besides containing a surprise profit despite the ongoing chip shortage, revealed that its F-150 Lightning electric pickup has generated 120,000 preorders since its unveiling in May. Ford reported revenue of $26.8 billion, slightly below expectations, and net income of $561 million in the second quarter.

To be clear, these are not orders and don’t reflect exactly how many of these vehicles Ford will sell. Customers can reserve one of these EVs by placing a refundable $100 deposit.

However, it does provide some insight into demand.

Importantly, three-quarters of those new orders come from customers that are new to Ford, according to the earnings release. During the call on Wednesday, CEO Jim Farley also said two out of five Lightning preorders are going to trade in an ICE pickup.

Not only does this potentially affect Ford’s sales, it also validates the company’s recent forays into battery production. Automakers across the world are engaging in battery joint ventures with cell and chemistry companies, and Ford is no different. The company has a partnership with SK Innovation to manufacture battery cells on American soil and is creating a battery R&D center in Michigan, a part of its $30 billion investment into electrification.

Increased sales can also help with Ford’s expensive undertaking to invest in embedded electrical architecture upgrade that allows Ford to more easily update future EVs and enable new connected capabilities, according to Farley.

“So when we talk about upgrading our electric vehicles, it’s much more fundamental than just the investment in the tooling and the engineering of the electric vehicle and its components and propulsion,” said Farley during the call.It also includes a completely new approach to an embedded software and hardware system.”

The F-150 Lightning comes with a lot of upgrades that make it attractive to Ford newcomers willing to pay more than the $40,000 base price. It’s got the same torque and power as its gas counterpart, plus a hands-free ADAS BlueCruise system, a comprehensive infotainment unit and enough battery capacity to power your whole house in the event of an outage.

Farley also said during the call that the new Ford Maverick, a compact hybrid pickup which starts at $20,000, already has around 80,000 orders. The hybrid is marketed toward people who aren’t exactly pickup truck people, but who maybe want to dip their toes into that utility pool.

“The demand for our first round of high-volume EVs clearly has exceeded our most optimistic projections,” said Farley. “We’re now working around the clock to break constraints and increase our manufacturing capacity for these red-hot new battery electric vehicles”

According to the earnings report, the combined U.S. customer-sold retail order bank for the electric Mustang Mach-E and other Ford vehicles was seven times larger than at the same point last year. With demand increasing, Farley said the business is “spring loaded” for a rebound when semiconductor supplies stabilize.

Egyptian ride-sharing company Swvl plans to go public in a $1.5B SPAC merger

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Cairo and Dubai-based ride-sharing company Swvl plans to go public in a merger with special purpose acquisition company Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital, Swvl said Tuesday. The deal will see Swvl valued at roughly $1.5 billion.

Swvl was founded by Mostafa Kandil, Mahmoud Nouh and Ahmed Sabbah in 2017. The trio started the company as a bus-hailing service in Egypt and other ride-sharing services in emerging markets with fragmented public transportation.

Its services, mainly bus-hailing, enables users to make intra-state journeys by booking seats on buses running a fixed route. This is pocket-friendly for residents in these markets compared to single-rider options and helps reduce emissions (Swvl claims it has prevented over 240 million pounds of carbon emission since inception).

After its Egypt launch, Swvl expanded to Kenya, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The company also moved its headquarters to Dubai as part of its strategy to become a global company.

Swvl offerings have expanded beyond bus-hailing services. Now, the company offers inter-city rides, car ride-sharing, and corporate services across the 10 cities it operates in across Africa and the Middle East.

Queen’s Gambit, the women-led SPAC in charge of the deal, raised $300 million in January and added $45 million via an underwriters’ overallotment option focusing on startups in clean energy, healthcare and mobility sectors.

The statement also mentions a group of investors — Agility, Luxor Capital and Zain Group — which will contribute $100 million through a private investment in public equity, or PIPE.

Per Crunchbase, Swvl has raised over $170 million. From an African perspective, Swvl features as one of the most venture-backed startups on the continent. The company has been touted to reach unicorn status in the past and will when this SPAC merger is completed.

The company will aptly trade under the ticker SWVL. The listing will make it the first Egyptian startup to go public outside Egypt and the second to go public after Fawry. It will also make the mobility company the largest African unicorn debut on any U.S.-listed exchange, beating Jumia’s debut of $1.1 billion on the NYSE. In the Middle East, Swvl joins music-streaming platform Anghami as the second startup to go public via a SPAC merger.

Swvl had annual gross revenue of $26 million in 2020, according to the statement, and the company expects its annual gross revenue to increase to $79 million this year and $1 billion by 2025 after expanding to 20 countries across five continents.

On why Queen’s Gambit picked Swvl for this deal, Victoria Grace, founder and CEO, said in a statement that the company fit the profile of what she was looking for: “a disruptive platform that solves complex challenges and empowers underserved populations.”

“Having established a leadership position in key emerging markets, we believe Swvl is ready to capitalize on a truly global market opportunity,” she added.

In May, TechCrunch wrote that SPACs didn’t target African startups for several reasons, including a lack of global appeal and private capital and market satisfaction. Judging by Grace’s comments, Swvl has that global appeal and is ready to venture into the public market despite being in operation for just four years.

Drivers for Elon Musk’s Loop get a script about their ‘great leader’

By Kirsten Korosec

Drivers for Elon Musk’s underground Loop system in Las Vegas have been instructed to bypass passengers’ questions about how long they have been driving for the company, declare ignorance about crashes, and shut down conversations about Musk himself.

Using public records laws, TechCrunch obtained documents that detail daily operations at the Loop, which opened in June to transport attendees around the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) using modified Tesla vehicles. Among the documents is a “Ride Script” that every new recruit must follow when curious passengers ask questions.

The script shows just how serious The Boring Company (TBC), which built and operates the system, is about controlling the public image of the new system, its technology and especially its founder, Elon Musk.

“Your goal is to provide a safe ride for the passengers, not an entertaining ride. Keep conversation to a minimum so you can focus on the road,” advises the document. “Passengers will pepper you with questions. Here are some you may be asked and the recommended responses.”

If riders ask a driver how long they have been with the company, they are instructed to respond with: “Long enough to know these tunnels pretty well!” The document goes on to note: “Passengers will not feel safe if they think you’ve only been driving for a week (even though that could mean hundreds of rides). Accordingly, do not share how long you’ve been employed here, but instead, find a way to evade the question or shift the focus,” the document advises drivers.

When asked how many crashes the system has experienced (the script uses the term “accidents”), drivers are told to respond: “It’s a very safe system, and I’m not sure. You’d have to reach out to the company.” Riders should expect similarly vague responses if they wonder how many employees or drivers TBC has, or how much the tunnels cost to dig. (About $53 million in total).

The use of Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system that is branded “Autopilot” is clearly a sore point at TBC. Clark County does not currently permit the use of the various driver assistance features anywhere within the Loop system, including automatic emergency braking or technologies that make the vehicle aware of obstacles and keep the vehicle in lane.

Officials even require mechanics to check the vehicles to ensure these are not activated.

“In addition to completing the actions under the initial inspection checklist, maintenance staff will verify that the automatic features of the vehicle, such as steering and braking/acceleration/deceleration assist (commonly known as Autopilot) are disabled for manual loop operation,” the document reads. The following checks will be conducted on a daily basis by CWPM technicians, according to the Vehicle Maintenance plan viewed by TechCrunch.

If a passenger should ask whether the Loop’s Tesla vehicles use Autopilot, drivers will give a response. However, this content was marked “Public Safety Related Confidential” in the documents TechCrunch received and was redacted, as were many other technical details.

TechCrunch’s repeated requests to officials to explain this decision went unanswered.

He who shall not be named

The script also covers responses to questions about Musk himself: “This category of questions is extremely common and extremely sensitive. Public fascination with our founder is inevitable and may dominate the conversation. Be as brief as possible, and do your best to shut down such conversation. If passengers continue to force the topic, politely say, ‘I’m sorry, but I really can’t comment’ and change the subject.”

Nevertheless, the script provides a number of replies to common Musk questions. Ask what Musk is like and you should expect the answer: “He’s awesome! Inspiring / motivating / etc.”

Follow up with: “Do you like working for him?” and you’ll get a response that could have come straight from North Korea: “Yup, he’s a great leader! He motivates us to do great work.”

Should a customer wonder how involved Musk is in the business, the driver will tell them: “He’s the company founder, and has been very involved and supportive.” Questions about Musk’s erratic tweets will be brushed off: “Elon is a public figure. We’re just here to provide an awesome transportation experience!”

One question, however, seems to hint that not everyone is happy working for Musk: “Is it true what I’ve read about him in the papers that he [is a mean boss / smokes pot / doesn’t let employees take vacations / etc.]?” Your driver’s rather equivocal response will be: “I haven’t seen that article, but that hasn’t been my experience.”

On a side note: While the hundreds of pages of training documents and operational manuals that TechCrunch obtained detail strong policies against drug use and harassment at the Loop, the word “vacation” does not otherwise appear.

Tech that’s allowed

Because Clark County currently forbids the use of automated driving features in the Loop, human drivers could be part of the system for some time. But the system is home to plenty of other advanced technologies, according to design and operational documents submitted to Clark County. Each of the 62 Teslas in the underground Loop has a unique RFID chip — as used in contactless payment systems — that pinpoints its location when it passes over one of 55 antennas installed in the roadway, stations and parking stalls.

Each vehicle also streams data to 24 hotspots through the system, sharing its speed, state of charge, the number of passengers in the car, and whether they are wearing seatbelts. Riders should be aware that every car is also constantly streaming real-time video from a camera inside the passenger cabin. All this data, along with video from 81 fixed cameras throughout the Loop, is fed to an Operations Control Center (OCC) located a few blocks away from the Convention Center. Video is recorded and stored for at least two weeks.

In the OCC, an operator is monitoring the camera feeds and other sensors for security threats or other problems — such as a driver using their own cellphone or speeding. The OCC can communicate with any driver via a Bluetooth headset or an in-car iPad that displays messages, alerts and a map of the car’s location in the tunnels. Vehicles have strict speed limits, ranging from 10 mph within stations to 40 mph on straight tunnel sections, and must maintain at least 6 seconds of separation from the car in front.

During testing this spring, the documents reveal that Clark County officials found some drivers were not following all the rules. “When asked about the speed limitations, several drivers replied with wrong straightaway and/or curved tunnel speeds. None provided at station, express lane, or ramp speeds,” reads one document. “Drivers were not announcing to the passengers to buckle their seatbelts. When asked, [some were saying] that they are optional or not required.”

Several drivers were also failing to maintain the 6-second safety margin with cars in front. TBC told Clark County that it would provide refresher training in those areas.

TBC, Clark County, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which oversees the LVCC, did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The LVCVA recently signed a contract with Alphabet’s spin-out urban advertising agency, Intersection Media, to sell naming rights to the Loop system, which it hopes will net it $4.5 million.

TBC is currently building two extensions to the Loop to serve nearby hotels and ultimately wants to build a transit system covering much of the Strip and downtown Las Vegas with more than 40 stations. That system would be financed by TBC and supported by ticket sales.

Fisker invests in EV charging network Allego’s SPAC merger

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Less than a year after its own SPAC merger, electric vehicle startup Fisker has turned investor to support EV charging company Allego.

Fisker is investing $10 million in private-investment-in-public equity (PIPE) funding for the merger of Allego and special purpose acquisition company Spartan Acquisition Corp III. The merger, announced Tuesday, puts Allego at a pro forma equity value of $3.14 billion.

The transaction is expected to inject the EV charging provider with $702 million in cash, including $150 million in PIPE from Fisker, investors Landis+Gyr, as well as funds and accounts managed by London-based VC firm Hedosophia and ECP. Funds managed by Apollo Global Management affiliates and Meridiam, the majority shareholder of Allego, also participated in the PIPE. (Apollo is in the process of acquiring Verizon Media Group, which includes TechCrunch.)

Fisker, the sole EV automaker contributing to the PIPE, is interested in Allego’s infrastructure. The company operates more than 26,000 charging points throughout Europe.

Fisker has agreed to “a strategic partnership to deliver a range of charging options for its customers in Europe,” according to Allego. It includes a provision granting a free year of charging on the Allego network to drivers that purchase Fisker Ocean SUV between the beginning of 2023 to March 31, 2024.

The two companies are also working on a “seamless charging experience” for Fisker drivers using Allego chargers, the EV maker said in a separate statement.

“Allego has been a long-standing pioneer in the push to create a seamless pan-European electric vehicle charging network,” CEO Henrik Fisker said. “Our investment in the PIPE is motivated by strategic and tactical considerations, ensuring we have a stake in the future of EV charging networks while delivering tangible benefits to our customers.”

California-based Fisker is aiming to start deliveries of its all-electric Ocean SUV in November 2022, but it hasn’t always been a smooth road to pre-production. Henrik Fisker, a serial automotive entrepreneur best known for being the designer behind luxury vehicles like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, raised nearly $1 billion in last year’s SPAC merger with Apollo Global Management Inc. That deal skyrocketed the startup’s valuation to $2.9 billion, but expectations deflated somewhat after major deals with Volkswagen fell apart.

Fisker has taken an outsourcing approach to its roster of electric vehicles. The Ocean will be produced via a long-term manufacturing agreement with Magna, Inc. The company signed an additional agreement with Taiwanese company Foxconn, the lead manufacturer of iPhones, to develop a new EV by the end of 2023 that will be sold under the Fisker brand.

48-hour countdown to early bird savings on passes to TC Disrupt 2021

By Alexandra Ames

What’s big enough, bold enough and influential enough to inspire more than 10,000 people around the world to carve out three days from their intensely busy schedules? If you said TechCrunch Disrupt 2021, the grand matriarch of startup tech conferences, well friend, you’d be right on the money.

And speaking of money, you have just 48 hours left to score the early-bird price on TC Disrupt Innovator, Founder and Investor passes. Buy any of these passes and attend all three days of Disrupt for less than $100. Here’s the catch: The early bird price expires on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Don’t miss the dynamic 1:1 interviews and panel discussions on the Disrupt Stage. We’ve tapped high-profile speakers — all leading voices in their fields — to download their insight, trends and sage advice. You’ll hear U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg discuss some of the major challenges of moving people and packages around the block and across the globe.

Houseplant COO, Haneen Davies will join company co-founders Michael Mohr and Seth Rogen — who, it seems, has a somewhat successful side hustle as a Hollywood writer, director and actor — for a lively CBD: Cannabis Business Discussion.

Head on over to the Extra Crunch Stage where you’ll find strategic insight across a range of essential startup skills. Think fundraising, product iteration, tech stack development and growth marketing.

Here’s a quick peek at just some of what’s going down Extra Crunchy.

How to Cultivate a Community for your Company that Actually Lasts: The word of the year in startup-land is “community.” In this panel, Community Fund’s Lolita Taub, Commsor’s Alex Angel and Seven Seven Six’s Katelin Holloway will extract buzz from reality and help founders understand the growing importance of chief community officers in startup culture and, ultimately, financial success today.

The Path for Underrepresented Entrepreneurs: Founding a startup comes with a wide array of challenges but, unfortunately, underrepresented founders face an extra layer of bias, both conscious and unconscious. We’ll talk with Hana Mohan (MagicBell), Leslie Feinzaig (Female Founders Alliance) and Stephen Bailey (ExecOnline) about their journeys, as founders, through fundraising and scaling — and as advocates who can offer tactical insights and advice.

We’re just warming up, folks. You’ll hear from execs, founders and CEOs from companies like Twitter, Calendly, Mirror, Evil Geniuses, Andreessen Horowitz and plenty more. Check out the Disrupt 2021 agenda. We’ll add even more speakers, events and ticket discounts in the coming weeks. Register for updates so you don’t miss out.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place on September 21-23. Buy your Disrupt pass before July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT), and get ready to join the big, bold and influential — for less than $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

How AI Will Help Keep Time at the Tokyo Olympics

By Jeremy White
Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, is now using computer vision and motion sensors for events like swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball.

One week left to buy passes to TC Disrupt 2021 for less than $100

By Alexandra Ames

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021, the world’s original and most epic conference dedicated to tech startups, takes place September 21-23. Are you ready to take full advantage of this opportunity-packed event? Start right now and buy a Disrupt pass for less than $100. But don’t wait — the early bird prices disappear on July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Experience the full range of the global tech startup culture. Disrupt draws thousands of attendees from around the world, ready to learn, network, inspire and inform. You’ll hear from the leading voices across the tech spectrum — people like Coinbase CEO, Brian Armstrong, Pear VC’s Mar Hershenson and Accel’s Arun Matthew. And even a few tech-savvy celebrity founders (we’re looking at you, Seth Rogan).

Head to the Disrupt Stage for compelling interviews, panel discussions and presentations. And if you’re hot for tips, strategies and advice you can put to work in your startup right away, head on over to the Extra Crunch Stage. Our virtual platform makes it easy to pop in and out as your schedule permits, and you’ll have three months of video-on-demand access to all presentations when the event ends. You won’t miss a thing.

Check out the Disrupt 2021 agenda and register here to get updates when we add new speakers, events and discounts.

Startup Alley, our legendary expo area, is already sold out. Do not miss this collection of innovative startups showcasing their impressive tech and talent. Stop by their virtual booths, schedule 1:1 video meeting, ask for a product demo. You might just find a new collaborator, the perfect solution to a nagging problem or a promising addition to your investment portfolio.

Pro Tip: Every Startup Alley exhibitor will take part in one of our pitch feedback breakout sessions. It’s not only an opportunity to learn about the company — the feedback they receive from the Team TechCrunch can help you improve your own pitch.

Of course, Startup Battlefield is where the best-of-the best take the virtual stage to pitch for glory, global exposure and, oh yeah, $100,000 in equity-free prizemoney. It’s the startup world’s best launch pad and, since its inception, 922 companies have collectively raised $9 billion and generated 117 exits. Here’s how Rachael Wilcox, a creative producer at Volvo Cars described watching Startup Battlefield at Disrupt 2020.

“The Startup Battlefield translated easily to the virtual format. You could see the excitement, enthusiasm and possibility of the young founders, and I loved that. You could also ask questions through the chat feature, and you don’t always have time for questions at a live event.”

Tune in to watch this thrilling throwdown. You never know — this year’s cohort might produce a future unicorn or two.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 takes place on September 21-23. Buy your Disrupt pass before July 30 at 11:59 pm (PT), and you’ll pay less than $100. Now that’s an opportunity worth grabbing.

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Canada’s startup market booms alongside hot global VC investment

By Anna Heim

Continuing our global look into the torrid pace of venture capital investment in the second quarter, today we turn to Canada. While many markets have posted impressive results, like the United States setting the pace for new all-time records in dollars invested into startups, Canada’s numbers stand out.

The country, now famous in the startup world for giving birth to Shopify, has already crushed prior yearly records for venture investment thus far in 2021. Indeed, CB Insights data indicates that Canadian startups this year have already raised more than double their 2020 totals.

The same data set indicates that Canada’s venture capital results now rival those of the entire Latin American region, with exits and mega-deals coming in roughly on par in the second quarter, and a similar number of total venture capital rounds in the period.

That caught our attention.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


The Exchange reached out to a number of venture capitalists to expand our perspective on the Canadian market beyond the data points. Matt Cohen, a Toronto-based investor at Ripple Ventures, told The Exchange that “Canada is in a venture explosion” today, leading to results that are “unprecedented” for the country.

Taking the data and investor notes in aggregate, Canada’s startup industry seems to be benefiting from both domestic and international trends, a wide genre focus and more than one hub. Let’s talk aboot it.

A venture capital blowout

In the first half of 2021, Canadian startups raised $6.3 billion across 414 deals, per CB Insights data. Both numbers compare favorably to Canada’s 2020 results, when 617 deals led to $2.9 billion in total capital raised by Canadian startups. Canada has already bested its previous record in venture dollars invested ($4.3 billion, 2019), and is on pace to beat its all-time deal count as well (720, 2018).

By itself, the second quarter’s outsize results are even more extreme than its H1 2021 results might have led you to expect, amazingly. Observe the following chart from the same data set:

Image Credits: CB Insights

Canadian startups just had their single best quarter ever in both deal volume and dollar volume terms. Furthermore, the country boosted capital raised by nearly 10x from its local minimum in Q4 2020.

Notably, no Canadian startup deal in the quarter was worth more than $500 million; indeed, Trulioo’s $394 million Series D was the largest. From there the list includes $300 million for ApplyBoard’s Series D and Vena’s $242 million Series C. We read that list of results as indicative of an investing landscape in Canada that is not dominated by a handful of companies raising billion-dollar rounds. That’s good news, mind you: The data implies that the Canadian startup market is not being bolstered by one or two standout companies, but rather performing well more generally.

Untitled Ventures joins the scramble for Russian & Eastern European startups with a $118M warchest

By Mike Butcher

Sorry Mr. Putin, but there’s a race on for Russian and Eastern European founders. And right now, those awful capitalists in the corrupt West are starting to out-gun the opposition! But seriously… only the other day a $100 million fund aimed at Russian speaking entrepreneurs appeared, and others are proliferating.

Now, London-based Untitled Ventures plans to join their fray with a €100 million / $118M for its second fund to invest in “ambitious deep tech startups with eastern European founders.”

Untitled says it is aiming at entrepreneurs who are looking to relocate their business or have already HQ’ed in Western Europe and the USA. That’s alongside all the other existing Western VCs who are – in my experience – always ready and willing to listen to Russian and Eastern European founders, who are often known for their technical prowess.

Untitled is going to be aiming at B2B, AI, agritech, medtech, robotics, and data management startups with proven traction emerging from the Baltics, CEE, and CIS, or those already established in Western Europe

LPs in the fund include Vladimir Vedeenev, a founder of Global Network Management>. Untitled also claims to have Google, Telegram Messenger, Facebook, Twitch, DigitalOcean, IP-Only, CenturyLinks, Vodafone and TelecomItaly as partners.

Oskar Stachowiak, Untitled Ventures Managing Partner, said: “With over 10 unicorns, €1Bn venture funding in 2020 alone, and success stories like Veeam, Semrush, and Wrike, startups emerging from the fast-growing regions are the best choice to focus on early-stage investment for us. Thanks to the strong STEM focus in the education system and about one million high-skilled developers, we have an ample opportunity to find and support the rising stars in the region.”

Konstantin Siniushin, the Untitled Ventures MP said: “We believe in economic efficiency and at the same time we fulfill a social mission of bringing technological projects with a large scientific component from the economically unstable countries of the former USSR, such as, first of all, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but not only in terms of bringing sales to the world market and not only helping them to HQ in Europe so they can get next rounds of investments.”

He added: “We have a great experience accumulated earlier in the first portfolio of the first fund, not just structuring business in such European countries as, for example, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Cyprus and Latvia, but also physically relocating startup teams so that they are perceived already as fully resident in Europe and globally.”

To be fair, it is still harder than it needs to be to create large startups from Eastern Europe, mainly because there is often very little local capital. However, that is changing, with the launch recently of CEE funds such as Vitosha Venture Partners and Launchub Ventures, and the breakout hit from Romania that was UIPath.

The Untitled Ventures team:
• Konstantin Siniushin, a serial tech entrepreneur
• Oskar Stachowiak, experienced fund manager
• Mary Glazkova, PR & Comms veteran
• Anton Antich, early stage investor and an ex VP of Veeam, a Swiss cloud data management company
acquired by Insight Venture Partners for $5bln
• Yulia Druzhnikova, experienced in taking tech companies international
• Mark Cowley, who has worked on private and listed investments within CEE/Russia for over 20 years

Untitled Ventures portfolio highlights – Fund I
Sizolution: AI-driven size prediction engine, based in Germany
Pure app – spontaneous and impersonal dating app, based in Portugal
Fixar Global –  efficient drones for commercial use-cases, based in Latvia,
E-contenta – based in Poland
SuitApp – AI based mix-and-match suggestions for fashion retail, based in Singapore
• Sarafan.tech, AI-driven recognition, based in the USA
Hello, baby – parental assistant, based in the USA
Voximplant – voice, video and messaging cloud communication platform, based in the USA (exited)

i80 Group has quietly committed $1B in credit to the fintech and proptech worlds

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Not every startup wants to raise venture capital. And then there are those that do want to raise VC money but don’t want to use it for specific things.

In recent years, a number of firms have emerged looking to meet the credit needs of such venture-backed and growth startups: i80 Group is one of those firms.

Former Goldman Sachs investment banker Marc Helwani founded i80 in 2016 after investing in early-stage New York-based fintechs in 2014-2015 via his VC fund, Avenue A Ventures.

“It became very clear to me that fintech was going to explode,” he recalls. “At that time, it was still relatively new. And every time I spoke to a company, they would tell me, ‘We know how to raise VC, but what about the credit?’ I just saw this white space.”

For example, proptechs that buy homes on behalf of buyers don’t want to use venture money. Fintechs that want to make loans to consumers don’t want to use equity to do it. Instead, in those cases, credit might be more desirable.

Enter i80. The firm offers credit exclusively, and over the years has quietly committed more than $1 billion to over 15 companies –including real estate marketplace Properly, finance app MoneyLion and SaaS financing company Capchase — that have all raised a significant amount of venture capital but are looking for credit “to help them scale very efficiently and in a non-dilutive manner so they can retain more ownership of their companies,” Helwani said. 

Its $1 billion milestone follows fund commitments nearing $500 million from an unnamed “leading global asset manager” as well as other institutional and retail investors.

Image Credits: Founder and Chief Investment Officer Marc Helwani / i80 Group

I80 — which derives its name from the highway that connects New York and San Francisco — is mainly focused on the fintech and proptech sectors. 

“They are the two centers for the venture ecosystem,” Helwani said. “And we’re trying to be a bridge between those two cities.” I80 has offices in both locations and will soon be opening one in Montreal.

The firm works in conjunction with VC firms such as a16z (more formally known as Andreessen Horowitz); Affirm and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin’s SciFi; Khosla Ventures; Union Square Ventures; and QED.

“In a perfect world, venture capital would be called venture equity,” Helwani said. “VCs’ capital is critical for companies to hire and get office space. But when it comes time to do what the actual business is, such as provide loans or buy homes, capital like ours is very accretive without VCs and management losing ownership in the business. In these cases, using both credit and equity makes a lot of sense.”

Helwani is reluctant to call what i80 offers venture “debt.” He says that has a very specific connotation and is what Silicon Valley Bank and others like it do in providing debt as a percentage of a previous equity round. Instead, according to Helwani, i80’s approach is to minimize fees. The vast majority of its deals are “interest-rate related.”

“With mortgages, for example, we never think about the fees upfront, and focus more on the interest rate,” Helwan said. “We believe the more transparent we are, the more companies will want to work with us.”

I80 conducts quarterly calls with VCs and for now, that’s how it typically sources most of its deal flow. It also gets referrals. Helwani believes that i80 stands out from other firms also offering credit in that it’s “not trying to be credit investors in VC clothing.”

He also thinks that the fact that the i80 team is made of operators, as well as investors, is a contributing factor.

The firm is set to close another half a dozen deals in the next 60 to 90 days, and then plans to set its sights on raising more capital.

“We want to fill this void, and help companies raise money in their subsequent rounds at higher valuations,” Helwani said.

DNSFilter secures $30M Series A to step up fight against DNS-based threats

By Carly Page

DNSFilter, an artificial intelligence startup that provides DNS protection to enterprises, has secured $30 million in Series A funding from Insight Partners.

DNSFilter, as its name suggests, offers DNS-based web content filtering and threat protection. Unlike the majority of its competitors, which includes the likes of Palo Alto Networks and Webroot, the startup uses proprietary AI technology to continuously scan billions of domains daily, identifying anomalies and potential vectors for malware, ransomware, phishing, and fraud. 

“Most of our competitors either rent or lease a database from some third party,” Ken Carnesi, co-founder and CEO of DNSFilter tells TechCrunch. “We do that in-house, and it’s through artificial intelligence that’s scanning these pages in real-time.” 

The company, which counts the likes of Lenovo, Newegg, and Nvidia among its 14,000 customers, claims this industry-first technology catches threats an average of five days before competitors and is capable of identifying 76% of domain-based threats. By the end of 2021, DNSFilter says it will block more than 1.1 million threats daily.

DNSFilter has seen rapid growth over the past 12 months as a result of the mass shift to remote working and the increase in cyber threats and ransomware attacks that followed. The startup saw eightfold growth in customer activity, doubled its global headcount to just over 50 employees, and partnered with Canadian software house N-Able to push into the lucrative channel market.  

“DNSFilter’s rapid growth and efficient customer acquisition are a testament to the benefits and ease of use compared to incumbents,” Thomas Krane, principal at Insight Partners, who has been appointed as a director on DNSFilter’s board. “The traditional model of top-down, hardware-centric network security is disappearing in favor of solutions that readily plug in at the device level and can cater to highly distributed workforces”

Prior to this latest funding round, which was also backed by Arthur Ventures (the lead investor in DNSFilter’s seed round), CrowdStrike co-founder and former chief technology officer  Dmitri Alperovitch also joined DNSFilter’s board of directors. 

Carnesi said the addition of Alperovitch to the board will help the company get its technology into the hands of enterprise customers. “He’s helping us to shape the product to be a good fit for enterprise organizations, which is something that we’re doing as part of this round — shifting focus to be primarily mid-market and enterprise,” he said.

The company also recently added former CrowdStrike vice president Jen Ayers as its chief operating officer. “She used to manage their entire managed threat hunting team, so she’s definitely coming on for the security side of things as we build out our domain intelligence team further,” Carnesi said.

With its newly-raised funds, DNSFilter will further expand its headcount, with plans to add more than 80 new employees globally over the next 12 months.

“There’s a lot more that we can do for security via DNS, and we haven’t really started on that yet,” Carnesi said. “We plan to do things that people won’t believe were possible via DNS.”

The company, which acquired Web Shrinker in 2018, also expects there to be more acquisitions on the cards going forward. “There are some potential companies that we’d be looking to acquire to speed up our advancement in certain areas,” Carnesi said.

Extra Crunch roundup: Seed-stage basics, SaaS marketing live chat, Zoom’s Five9 buy

By Walter Thompson

A famous poem advises us not to compare ourselves with others, “for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

The same holds true for startup fundraising; the size of your seed round will be determined solely by your company’s immediate needs and the investors you’re working with.

“Remember that fundraising is not the goal,” says three-time YC alum Yin Wu. “Building a successful business is.”


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


If you are an early-stage founder who’s seeking clarity about apportioning equity — or if you’re biting your nails over how much to raise — read this primer. It’s also a useful overview for early employees and co-founders who may be new to startup financing.

Topics covered:

  • How financing works: SAFEs versus equity rounds.
  • How much to raise.
  • How to arrive at your valuation.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch! I hope you have a great week.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Twitter Spaces: SaaS marketing with MKT1 founders Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich

MKT1 Co-Founders Green

Image Credits: MKT1

Join us today at 2 p.m. PDT/5 p.m. EDT/10 p.m. London for a Twitter Spaces conversation with Emily Kramer and Kathleen Estreich, founders of MKT1, a partnership that advises SaaS startups.

In addition to their work with individual companies, they also run founder workshops, a job board and a marketer-led syndicate.

Emily has built marketing teams from scratch at companies like Asana, Carta, and Astro, and Kathleen has scaled and led marketing and operations teams at several high-growth startups, including Intercom, Box, Facebook and Scalyr.

If you have an Android device or an iPhone and a Twitter account, click here to join the conversation or set a reminder:

Duolingo’s IPO could cast golden halo on edtech startups

Alex Wilhelm and Natasha Mascarenhas look into recent figures from U.S. edtech giant Duolingo.

It announced a first price range of $85 to $95 per share, which Alex and Natasha note “feels strong.”

“If Duolingo poses a strong debut, consumer edtech startups will be able to add a golden data point to their pitch decks,” they write. “A strong Duolingo listing could also signal that mission-driven startups can have impressive turns.”

But if it struggles?

“The wave of consumer edtech apps may lose some enthusiasm about going public.”

Outdoorsy co-founders detail how they expanded the sharing economy to RVs

Outdoorsy-founders-series

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Seven years ago, ad executive Jen Young and tech entrepreneur Jeff Cavins stepped away from the careers they’d built to launch Outdoorsy, an RV rental marketplace.

Last month, they announced a partnership with high-end camping company Collective Retreats and raised a $90 million Series D and $40 million in debt to speed up an already impressive rate of growth.

To learn more about their approach to building a transportation company that caters to people who crave a taste of nomadic existence, Rebecca Bella interviewed Young and Cavins for Extra Crunch.

Their conversation explored the impacts of COVID-19, their business strategy and why they decided to take on $30 million in debt financing:

Jeff Cavins: We like to look at macro trends as a business and I think U.S. monetary policy is going to get us all in a little bit of trouble. So we wanted to lock in a credit facility for the company at advantageous terms.

Cleo Capital’s Sarah Kunst explains how to get ready to raise your next round

Sarah Kunst at Disrupt SF 2017

Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

TechCrunch virtually sat down with venture capitalist and Cleo Capital managing director Sarah Kunst at our latest Early Stage event. Kunst joined us to chat about preparing for raising capital in today’s frenetic fundraising environment, digging into the gritty mechanics for the audience.

This post rounds up a few favorite excerpts from the chat, starting with Kunst’s notes on how to make a killer pitch deck.

She also offered advice regarding incorporation, how to find a co-founder and when startups are too large to join an accelerator.

In an increasingly hot biotech market, protecting IP is key

Protecting IP is key for biotechs

Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The good news for biotech startups is that investment in the sector is soaring.

“Along the way, founders will need to procure additional investments, develop strategic partnerships and stave off competition,” Kevin A. O’Connor, a partner in the Intellectual Property practice group at Neal Gerber Eisenberg, writes in a guest column. “All of which starts by protecting the fundamental asset of any biotech company: its intellectual property.”

ServiceMax promises accelerating growth as key to $1.4B SPAC deal

Female worker working on a machine in factory. Woman in uniform operating a machine.

Image Credits: Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller dug into ServiceMax, a company that builds software for the field-service industry, after it announced it would go public via a SPAC.

“Broadly, ServiceMax’s business has a history of modest growth and cash consumption,” they write. “It promises a big change to that storyline, though. Here’s how.”

The head of Citi Ventures on how, and why, to leverage corporate venture arms like his

At our recent Early Stage event, we had the opportunity to talk with Arvind Purushotham, the managing director and global head of Citi Ventures, about how startups should think about corporate venture arms, including what a check from an enterprise like Citi can mean, and how to leverage that kind of goliath once it’s already a financial partner.

For founders trying to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of working with a corporate venture arm versus a more traditional venture team, it’s worth zipping through this discussion.

Robinhood targets IPO valuation up to $35B amid warning that crypto incomes are slipping

Alex Wilhelm considers what Robinhood’s first IPO price range ($38 to $42 per share) means for the U.S. consumer fintech giant and whether we can expect it to raise the range again before it debuts.

In picking apart Robinhood’s latest filing, Alex noticed an aside about decreased crypto trading volume.

“Because Robinhood deals with consumers, who might decide to trade less in time, it has more uncertainty in its future growth than, say, Zoom,” he notes.

The Zoom-Five9 deal is a big bet for the video conferencing company

Video Conferencing Software Zoom Goes Public On Nasdaq Exchange

Image Credits: Kena Betancur / Getty Images

Zoom plans to spend a little less than a sixth of its value on Five9, which sells software that allows users to reach customers across platforms and record notes on their interactions.

Alex Wilhelm notes “that Five9’s revenue growth rate is a fraction of Zoom’s.”

“The larger company, then, is buying a piece of revenue that is growing slower than its core business. That’s a bit of a flip from many transactions that we see, in which the smaller company being acquired is growing faster than the acquiring entity’s own operations.

“Why would Zoom buy slower growth for so very much money?”

AngelList Venture’s Avlok Kohli on rolling funds and the busy state of VC

Few companies have deeper insights into the day-by-day state of venture capital than AngelList.

According to the company’s data, over 51% of the “top tier U.S. VC deals” involve their platform and tools, giving them a remarkably expansive view of everything going on.

AngelList Venture CEO Avlok Kohli joined us at TechCrunch Early Stage to discuss topics ranging from the state of the market to his thoughts on why there’s suddenly so much money flooding into VC (sending valuations to the sky), and where AngelList could go from here.

Marketing Cube founder Maya Moufarek’s lessons for customer-focused startups

By Miranda Halpern

Maya Moufarek, founder of Marketing Cube, spent more than 15 years working for companies like Google and American Express before launching her own agency. Today, her London-based firm works with startups around the world — and her startup clients have raved about the results, based on what we’ve heard in our TechCrunch Experts growth marketing survey.

“She’s an absolute powerhouse who knows growth better than anyone I know,” according to Alice at The Lowdown. Nikki O’Farrell of KatKin told us that “[She has an] expert ear and eye from the world of startups/scaleups and growth. Her functional and direct approach allows you to execute at speed and see results quickly.” Constance at Luko said that they “[r]eally liked her mindset, both hands-on, no bullshit while also super strategic.”

We interviewed Moufarek to get her take on lessons she’s learned from working with larger companies, how she applies them to smaller companies, her approach to optimizing her clients’ success, trends she’s seeing in growth marketing and more.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

We received many testimonials about you through our TechCrunch Experts project that mentioned your direct approach and hands-on experience. How do you think those qualities contribute to your success in working with startups and forming strategies?

The truth is, a lot of the time ambitious founders and executive teams don’t have a marketing background, so they need to outsource to find the right support to deliver on huge growth ambitions — usually within very limited time frames.

“Choose a marketer or agency with no direct experience and you may simply get the wrong answer for your situation.”

In that situation, experience is everything — there’s no one-size-fits-all marketing approach for startups. Marketing strategies that help find product-market fit are very different from acquiring your first 100 customers, which is very different from scaling your customer acquisition or lead generation. There are also a lot of intricacies to this sort of role, which makes it pretty unique — choose a marketer or agency with no direct experience and you may simply get the wrong answer for your situation.

Having gained 15+ years of experience in a range of businesses — from startups to conglomerates, and experience of Series A to private equity — I’ve had the opportunity to actually apply the tried-and-tested practices of hypergrowth, as well as offer the full stack of C-level support. That’s why I founded MarketingCube.co, a boutique strategic growth consultancy for innovative startups and scaleups.

Being direct is critical, because by their very nature, startups are after fast and transformative outcomes, not never-ending presentations and lengthy processes, so a hands-on approach is crucial. You need to get straight to the beating heart of the business, understand the culture, involve the right people — and be comfortable telling founders and exec teams things they don’t always want to hear. In return, they get a solid foundation, ambitious deliverables, and the right tools to hit the ground running and continue to do so after you leave the room.

What lessons did you learn from working with larger companies such as Google and American Express that you use when working with startups?

Now, everyone sees Google as this huge company with endless products and expansive teams, but back in 2005 when I worked there, it didn’t seem like a megacompany. It was post-IPO hypergrowth, but the EMEA and emerging markets I contributed to were like regional startups within a scaleup. At the other end of the scale, American Express was a more traditional and established corporation with legacy systems and processes that was beginning to go through a digital transformation.

So the lessons learnt from these companies vary widely — but there are some universal principles that are always relevant.

One lesson — which was especially true at Amex — is to always be prepared for shifting markets that may disrupt your business. That may seem strange advice for a new startup, but the economy is volatile and things change very fast. It’s hard to prepare for every situation, but you need to have the vision and drive to lead the market, as well as the means to execute it.

In terms of CX/UX, I tell everyone I work with that less is always more. It might be a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. By this I mean, customers want fewer clicks, fewer words and simpler, more direct steps to reach their end goal.

Google really understood that it’s essential to provide your customers with a seamless experience and to delight them throughout — after all, customers are the lifeblood of any successful business.

If your organization is truly customer-centric, it’s always possible to deliver a digital transformation successfully or adapt to a changing market. Amex has shown how a brand and business can reinvent itself many times over.

Finally, always agree on a clear set of objectives and key results (OKRs) to ensure focus, prioritization and collaboration. Agility and speed are the competitive advantages of young businesses and OKRs help deliver that, as well as create accountability.


Has a growth marketing expert made a big difference for your startup? Please share your recommendation in our survey.


When looking at your portfolio, you’ve worked with companies in various areas, like Pexxi/Tuune in health tech, YuLife in insurtech and Andjaro in HR tech. How does your approach to each client differ to make sure you’re optimizing your clients’ success in their field?

The first thing is that — regardless of their specialism — every company is at a different stage and has different needs. So asking the right questions, setting the right goals, and including the right people and teams at the start is key.

Beyond that, each business model, industry and audience has its own principles, best practices and proven strategies. For instance, in health and finance, credibility and trust are critical. Whereas for an HR SaaS brand, the challenge is all around driving adoption because the market they are creating is totally new.

So, I always start with an audit of their customer base or target audience:

  • What role are they hiring the business to do?
  • What problem are they solving?
  • What value do they add?

I find Clayton Christensen’s jobs to be done (JTBD) framework very powerful because it’s relevant to the product, marketing and strategy teams. It’s built on the assumption that consumers don’t buy products, they “hire” solutions … and they can “fire” them just as quickly if they’re not doing the job properly. It shifts the focus away from the “ideal” customer persona to the real issue and how to solve it.

Understanding the business levers and Sean Ellis’ North Star metric is vital for growth. It’s about focusing on the metric that directly reflects the value that your company and products bring to your customers. For example, for Airbnb that may be the number of nights booked; for Spotify, minutes listened to. It’s all about simplifying your strategy into something that is digestible, memorable and applicable.

The North Star metric is not a revenue metric. Revenue is the result of the value you deliver. Not the value itself.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

All too often startups don’t truly know their audience or make the mistake of thinking that brand-building can wait.

According to CB Insights, “no market need” is the main reason startups fail, coming in at 42%. For me, this shows that too often founders do not fully understand the market potential and its alternatives, their customers’ pain points and anxieties, what’s pushing the audience away from their current solutions, and what the pull points are for the business.

This is why I really love the JTBD framework — it stops you from seeing the customer like a strict “persona” and lets you start seeing the solutions they need to find instead.

No matter what maturity stage or success level of the startup/scaleup, we often end up going back to customer insights and really stress-testing how well they know their audience to help elevate their value proposition, messaging and growth opportunities.

When it comes to brand-building, a brand really exists in the hearts and minds of consumers, which makes it hard to quantify. So founders often delay the brand-building process or laying the foundations for one. But an established brand helps increase perceived value, unlocking incredible margins or market share, depending on a firm’s pricing strategy.

Strong, effective brands are not built overnight. Many founders think that brand-building means costly advertising, which is not the case. Brand-building occurs at every interaction between a brand and its customer base across the purchase lifecycle — pre (advertising), during (how and where the purchase happens) and post (CRM, warranties, customer service).

On the other side, what are startups doing better now than ever before?

Right now, startups are working on bolder, more diverse and more impactful issues.

I started angel investing and it gave me exposure to a fantastic and wide variety of founders and innovative ideas. I have been fascinated by how far and wide founders are spread to help reshape our lives and change the future.

A few recent businesses that have inspired me are:

  • FairHQ blends scientific research, data-driven insights and best practices to help you embed D&I into your business.
  • Fertility Circle helps find the best tailored fertility information for parents. With one in six struggling to conceive, they connect individuals with a supportive community and provide access to expert medical professionals.
  • Hapi plan empowers family and friends to invest in their children to ensure their financial security for the present and in the future.

What major trends are you seeing right now with hiring growth marketers?

I often hear founders say that “growth is the new engineering.” Tech companies have been fighting over engineering talent for as long as I can remember, and now it’s the same for growth talent.

Why?

I think there are multiple reasons: One being the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, as businesses heavily impacted by the crisis are now hiring at the speed of light. A lot of small businesses applied the “cut deep and early” recommendations to manage their cash flow, so they now need to rebuild entire marketing and growth functions.

Thankfully, there is a lot of funding going into startups at the moment, so there has been a huge spike in demand for growth talent. Lastly, as we’ve all seen, the crisis catapulted the digitization of businesses and purchase funnels for more established businesses that now need digital growth marketing talent to help maintain their sustainability.

During times of disruption, there is a great opportunity for innovation, and from what I’ve seen, this has made hiring managers and recruiters quite creative about how they go about sourcing and attracting growth talent. Lots have expanded their geographical search thanks to remote working becoming the norm. Some even applied account-based marketing best practices by building target lists of talent and creating automated sequences to reach out to them. It’s been really interesting to see.

In your “Hiring Growth Marketers — Where to Begin” post on your website, you mention the T-shaped growth marketer. How has the shift in company’s priorities during the pandemic changed the skills that growth marketers consider essential in their T?

During the pandemic, we had two categories of businesses: (a) those seriously impacted by the restrictions and (b) those who saw a spike in demand for services, like Deliveroo and Netflix.

Those severely affected had to pivot and pivot quickly to survive. A great example is Airbnb, launching digital tours and online experiences to support their hosts and ensure they continue connecting with guests. Another is Oxwash, previously exclusively washing laundry within the hospitality industry, who shifted their business to cleaning scrubs and bedding for NHS hospitals during the height of the pandemic. By adapting, they learned to clean to clinical NHS standards and help keep a strained health service afloat. For these businesses, the flexibility and customer development were the essential elements of the T in their growth teams, as they had to build an entirely new proposition on the fly.

On the flip side, businesses who thrived through lockdown saw an increase in requirement for CRM skills and merchandising. To find the right tone to match the mood of the nation — and curate relevant recommendations or services to engage with existing and new customers — was the name of the game. Data and analytics became an essential skill to make sense of the changing behaviors, and understanding how to manage pandemic demand levels, especially as companies like Ocado early in the pandemic struggled to meet customer demand and so allocated limited slots for delivery.

The wealth of knowledge and adaptability of the growth teams in both of these types of businesses shows how valuable T-shaped marketers are to whether businesses big and small fail or succeed.

Meet the startups competing in the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals on July 22

By Alexandra Ames

There’s not much that thrills us more than a startup competition — and we mean deep down in our bones thrilled. That’s why we’re beyond excited to host the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals on July 22 starting at 9:00 am (PT). This event is virtual and free to attend — but you need to register for your free ticket.

We’re serious when we describe this particular startup competition as extraordinary. Why? This pitch throw-down is all about startups determined to power a more equitable, inclusive and healthy world, and we need more of that visionary thinking put into action.

The competition just to reach the finals was fierce. More than 3,700 startups — from 92 countries — applied across XTC’s competition tracks: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities. Learn more about XTC here.

You know they’ll bring the heat and present a finely tuned pitch. And they’ll need it to impress this panel of judges — all of whom focus on sustainable impact.

So, without further ado, meet seven of the world’s best purpose-driven startups as they vie to be crowned the Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 global winner.

AgTech & FoodTech: Wasteless, a patented fully automated AI solution that applies optimal markdowns in real-time — based on products’ expiration dates and other factors — to reduce food waste and increase profitability.

CleanTech & Energy: Mining and Process Solutions, a non-toxic, natural alternative to cyanide and acid for the extraction of metals in mining operations.

EdTech: Testmaster, a mobile app that helps secondary students in West African countries successfully pass their matriculation exams. “The best private tutor in one’s pocket” delivers short, intuitive and accessible exercises and tutorial videos.

Enabling Tech: Dot Inc., the maker of the first tactile monitor that enables STEM education, visual works and games for the 285 million visually impaired people worldwide. Dot Inc. is expanding its technologies to help all disabled people to access public information in smart cities through barrier-free kiosks and IoT infrastructures.

FinTech: Hillridge Technology has developed weather-based parametric insurance for farmers to help protect crop yields and livestock.

HealthTech: Genetika+ combines genetics, patient history and unique brain biomarkers to help people suffering from depression, thereby helping to save patients’ lives, physicians’ time and healthcare payers’ costs.

Mobility & Smart Cities: Fotokite helps public safety teams save lives with elevated and actionable intelligence at the push of a button. Fully autonomous and field proven, Fotokite solutions are used daily by firefighters and first responders to assess, visualize and document their incidents within seconds of arriving on scene.

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals take place on July 22. Join us and thousands of people around the world for this free, virtual pitch competition. Register here for your free ticket.

Digital lending platform Blend valued at over $4B in its public debut

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Mortgages may not be considered sexy, but they are a big business.

If you’ve refinanced or purchased a home digitally lately, you may not have noticed the company powering the software behind it — but there’s a good chance that company is Blend.

Founded in 2012, the startup has steadily grown to be a leader in the mortgage tech industry. Blend’s white label technology powers mortgage applications on the site of banks including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, for example, with the goal of making the process faster, simpler and more transparent. 

The San Francisco-based startup’s SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform currently processes over $5 billion in mortgages and consumer loans per day, up from nearly $3 billion last July.

Today, Blend made its debut as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, trading under the symbol “BLND.” As of early afternoon, Eastern Time, the stock was trading up over 13% at $20.36.

On Thursday night, the company had said it would offer 20 million shares at a price of $18 per share, indicating the company was targeting a valuation of $3.6 billion.

That compares to a $3.3 billion valuation at the time of its last raise in January — a $300 million Series G funding round that included participation from Coatue and Tiger Global Management. Also, let’s not forget that Blend only became a unicorn last August when it raised a $75 million Series F. Over its lifetime, Blend had raised $665 million before Friday’s public market debut.

In filing its S-1 on June 21, Blend revealed that its revenue had climbed to $96 million in 2020 from $50.7 million in 2019. Meanwhile, its net loss narrowed from $81.5 million in 2019 to $74.6 million in 2020.

In 2020, the San Francisco-based startup significantly expanded its digital consumer lending platform. With that expansion, Blend began offering its lender customers new configuration capabilities so that they could launch any consumer banking product “in days rather than months.”

Looking ahead, the company had said it expects its revenue growth rate “to decline in future periods.” It also doesn’t envision achieving profitability anytime soon as it continues to focus on growth. Blend also revealed that in 2020, its top five customers accounted for 34% of its revenue.

Today, TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Nima Ghamsari about the company’s decision to go with a traditional IPO versus the ubiquitous SPAC or even a direct listing.

For one, Blend said he wanted to show its customers that it is an “around for a long time company” by making sure there’s enough on its balance sheet to continue to grow.

“We had to talk and convince some of the biggest investors in the world to invest in us, and that speaks to how long we’ll be around to serve these customers,” he said. “So it was a combination of our capital need and wanting to cement ourselves as a really credible software provider to one of the most regulated industries.”

Ghamsari emphasized that Blend is a software company that powers the mortgage process and is not the one offering the mortgages. As such, it works with the flock of fintechs that are working to provide mortgages.

“A lot of them are using Blend under the hood, as the infrastructure layer,” he said.

Overall, Ghamsari believes this is just the beginning for Blend.

“One of the things about financial services is that it’s still mostly powered by paper. So a lot of Blend’s growth is just going deeper into this process that we got started in years ago,” he said. As mentioned above, the company started out with its mortgage product but just keeps adding to it. Today, it also powers other loans such as auto, personal and home equity.

“A lot of our growth is actually powered by our other lines of business,” Ghamsari told TechCrunch. “There’s a lot to build because the larger digitization trends are just getting started in financial services. It’s a relatively large industry that has lots of change.”

In May, digital mortgage lender Better.com announced it would combine with a SPAC, taking itself public in the second half of 2021.

 

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