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Bellman wants to simplify property management for residential buildings

By Romain Dillet

Meet Bellman, a new French startup that wants to improve residential building management using technology and a fair amount of human interactions. The startup has been co-founded by Antonio Pinto, who previously co-founded TV Time.

“I know this space quite well because I’m the son of a caretaker, so I grew up in the caretaker’s apartment until I was 17,” Pinto told me.

In France, the vast majority of property management of residential buildings is handled by private companies. As co-owners of the hallways, elevator and common space of your building, you get together every few years to decide if you want to work with a third-party company to handle all the pesky tasks that come with property management.

And Bellman wants to replace those companies, as they often have outdated processes, which leads to poor customer satisfaction. Foncia, Citya, Nexity and Immo de France dominate the market. But due to high churn rates, they regularly buy smaller residential property management companies.

“I started having problems myself with my property management company. I sent an email just to say that the elevator wasn’t working and they replied asking me ‘hello, what’s your address?’ ” Pinto said. According to him, a CRM with the name of the co-owners, their email addresses and their building address seemed like a basic feature.

Bellman focuses on two values — responsiveness and transparency. And it starts with a tech platform. The startup has developed a service to help property managers do their job properly. In addition to centralizing information, Bellman hopes to automate some of the most repetitive tasks.

Residential building co-owners regularly receive updates via emails as this is the most direct way to reach them. If you want to download invoices and other paperwork, you can connect to Bellman’s website to see all your documents.

As a full-stack property management company for residential buildings, Bellman has hired in-house property managers. “We have property managers who have five to 10 years of experience,” Pinto said.

Each property manager can manage around 50 buildings. Bellman doesn’t want to compete on price, so it costs as much as a legacy property management contract. You can expect to pay around €20 per apartment per month for a building with 20 apartments for instance. Bellman then acts as the help desk for the building.

But Bellman wants to help its clients save money by renegotiating contracts with partners — elevator maintenance, heating maintenance, cleaning company, water, electricity, insurance, taking care of the garden, etc. There are roughly 40 contracts per building, and legacy property management companies don’t have time for that.

Bellman wants to detect if you’re paying too much for heating for instance. It could be because there’s a broken part in the heating system, and the startup could detect unusual activity.

Finally, the startup also takes care of administrative tasks, such as general meetings or collecting money from co-owners ahead of some construction work.

Bellman is just starting for now. It is currently available in Paris and nearby cities as property managers need to be able to go the building. The startup manages a dozen buildings right now.

But Bellman has already raised $2.2 million (€2 million) from Connect Ventures and around 30 business angels (Xavier Niel/Kima Ventures, Michael Benabou, The Family, Jean-David Blanc, Nicolas Brusson, Nadra Moussalem, Antoine Martin…).

According to the company, there are other European countries with a similar system, such as Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy. It could open up some opportunities when it comes to international expansion.

Camp Grounded Digital Detox returns after founder’s death

By Josh Constine

Summer camp for adults and beloved tech-free weekend getaway Camp Grounded ground to a halt in 2017. Its big-hearted founder Levi Felix who’d espoused the joys of trading screens for nature walks was tragically killed by brain cancer at just age 32. Left in his wake was mourning community who’d lost their digital detox rally just as everyone was realizing the importance of looking up from their phones.

As an attendee, I’d been impressed by how the founder (known as Professor Fidget Wigglesworth at camp) used playfulness and presence to transport us back to childhood, before we got hooked on the Internet. But he also broke people’s addiction to shame, mandating that anyone who screwed up in a sports game or talent show announce “I’m awesome”, and be met with a cheer from the crowd, “your awesome!”

Luckily, one of Felix’s elementary school friends Forest Bronzan wants to write a happier ending to this story. Almost three years after it went into hibernation follow its creator’s death, Bronzan has acquired Camp Grounded and its parent company Digital Detox .

Camp Grounded will relaunch in May 2020 as two back-to-back weekend retreats at Northern California’s gorgeous Camp Mendocino. Attendees will again leave their devices in Tech Check lockers run by hazmat-suit wearing staffers, assume nicknames, and stop the work talk. They’ll get to play in the woods like technology never existed, indulging in Camp Grounded favorites from archery to arts & crafts to bonfire singalongs about enthusiastic consent. However, to simplify logistics, Camp Grounded won’t hold sessions in New York, North Carolina, or Texas any more.

The company will also organize more four-hour Unplugged Nights in cities around the country where partiers can switch off their phones and make new friends. The idea is to give a broader range of people a taste of the Grounded lifestyle in smaller doses. Those interested in early access to tickets for all of Digital Detox’s events can sign up here.

Camp Grounded’s Tech Check staffers confiscate attendees’ devices upon their arrival. Image Credit: Daniel N. Johnson

Meanwhile, Digital Detox will start a new business of education and certifications for K-12 schools, coaching teachers and parents on how to gently reduce students’ screentime. Schools will pay per student like a Software-As-A-Service model. Through research by a few PhDs, the company will recommend proper rules for using tech in and out of the classroom to minimize distraction, and empathetic penalties for violations.

The obvious question to ask, though, is if Bronzan is just some business guy coming to coin off the anti-tech trend and Felix’s legacy. “I’m not Apple coming in and buying the company. This isn’t a tech acquisition” Bronzan insists at a coffee shop in San Francisco. “I knew Levi before anyone else knew Levi. We went trick-or-treating and played in school band together. I want to the first Digital Detox summit, and brought my company year after year. I’ve been involved from the begginning, seeing Levi’s passion and inspiration.”

Levi Felix and Forest Bronzan (from left) in 1996

Fidget had an innately soothing camp counselor vibe to him that Bronzan doesn’t quite capture. He’d previously built and sold Email Aptitude, a CRM and email agency, not an event or education business. But he truly seems to mean well, and he’s earned the support of Digital Detox’s team.

“My mission was to find someone that was as excited and ferocious as Levi and I were when we started Digital Detox to further it as a movement” says Brooke Dean, Felix’s wife and co-founder. “It was imperative that the person running DD and CG had actually experienced the magic. This person had to be more than a lover of camp and nature, they also needed the hard skills and successful track record of running a company. Forest is stable, business-minded and also finds value in that very unique magic.”

Bronzan tells me the acquisition includes a cash component (“We’re not talking eight figures”) and a capital investment in the business, both funded by his email company’s exit. Two other individuals and one company had also expressed interest. Dean and Felix’s brother Zev will retain equity in the company, and she’ll stay on the board of directors. The trio are launching the Levi Felix Foundation that will donate money to brain cancer research.

While moving into education might seem like a left turn for Digital Detox after throwing events since 2012, Dean says “Levi was planning on going back to school and was deeply interested in being an academic in this field. We always believed that there needed to be evidence in order to convince the masses that being outside and connecting with other human beings ‘IRL’ is critical to our health and longevity.”

Some alarming stats the organization has already uncovered include:

  • 77% of people check or pretend to check their phone to avoid talking to others
  • 38% feel less connected to their partner or close friend due to cell phone use
  • Nearly 20% check their phone while having sex

“We want to eventually be the central source of tools on how tech is affecting lives and relationships at all age levels” Bronzan tells me. It’s zeroing in on how compulsive behaviors like endless scrolling increase anxiety and depression, and how parents glued to their devices train children to not be present. The father of two kids under age five, Bronzan knows a weekend at camp in your 20s or 30s is too little too late to seriously address the crisis of fractured attention.

Digital Detox’s new CEO says he’s heartened by the progression of some of Felix’s ideals, as with the Time Well Spent movement. The screentime dashboards launched by tech companies don’t do enough to actually change people’s actions, he says, though “They’re at least making some effort.” Digital Detox plans to launch a comprehensive quiz to determine how addicted you are to your phone, and Bronzan says he’d happily work with tech giants to integrate his company’s research.

 

On the camp for adults front, we’ve seen Burning Man go mainstream but lose some of what made it special including a lack of cell phone reception. It’s now common to see people on the playa staring at their phones, talking about work, and stressed about the clock — all of which are prohibited at Camp Grounded. Festivals like Coachella seem to get more corporate and less mindful each year. That leaves plenty of open space for Digital Detox to fill with purposeful breaks from the default world.

Bronzan also wants to introduce more surprise and serendipity to the event calendar. Camp Grounded will experiment with a “Mystery Trip” where eight to ten people sign up to be whisked away, only receiving a confidential briefing package the day before they show up. The point is to extract people from their routines where unhealthy habits manifest. Without connectivity, Camp Grounded hopes people will forge new connections in their minds, and with each other.

Linear takes $4.2M led by Sequoia to build a better bug tracker and more

By Ingrid Lunden

Software will eat the world, as the saying goes, but in doing so, some developers are likely to get a little indigestion. That is to say, building products requires working with disparate and distributed teams, and while developers may have an ever-growing array of algorithms, APIs and technology at their disposal to do this, ironically the platforms to track it all haven’t evolved with the times. Now three developers have taken their own experience of that disconnect to create a new kind of platform, Linear, which they believe addresses the needs of software developers better by being faster and more intuitive. It’s bug tracking you actually want to use.

Today, Linear is announcing a seed round of $4.2 million led by Sequoia, with participation also from Index Ventures and a number of investors, startup founders and others that will also advise Linear as it grows. They include Dylan Field (Founder and CEO, Figma), Emily Choi (COO, Coinbase), Charlie Cheever (Co-Founder of Expo & Quora), Gustaf Alströmer (Partner, Y Combinator), Tikhon Berstram (Co-Founder, Parse), Larry Gadea (CEO, Envoy), Jude Gomila (CEO, Golden), James Smith (CEO, Bugsnag), Fred Stevens-Smith (CEO, Rainforest), Bobby Goodlatte, Marc McGabe, Julia DeWahl and others.

Cofounders Karri Saarinen, Tuomas Artman, and Jori Lallo — all Finnish but now based in the Bay Area — know something first-hand about software development and the trials and tribulations of working with disparate and distributed teams. Saarinen was previously the principal designer of Airbnb, as well as the first designer of Coinbase; Artman had been staff engineer and architect at Uber; and Lallo also had been at Coinbase as a senior engineer building its API and front end.

“When we worked at many startups and growth companies we felt that the tools weren’t matching the way we’re thinking or operating,” Saarinen said in an email interview. “It also seemed that no-one had took a fresh look at this as a design problem. We believe there is a much better, modern workflow waiting to be discovered. We believe creators should focus on the work they create, not tracking or reporting what they are doing. Managers should spend their time prioritizing and giving direction, not bugging their teams for updates. Running the process shouldn’t sap your team’s energy and come in the way of creating.”

Linear cofounders (from left): KarriSaarinen, Jori Lallo, and Tuomas Artma

All of that translates to, first and foremost, speed and a platform whose main purpose is to help you work faster. “While some say speed is not really a feature, we believe it’s the core foundation for tools you use daily,” Saarinen noted.

A ⌘K command calls up a menu of shortcuts to edit an issue’s status, assign a task, and more so that everything can be handled with keyboard shortcuts. Pages load quickly and synchronise in real time (and search updates alongside that). Users can work offline if they need to. And of course there is also a dark mode for night owls.

The platform is still very much in its early stages. It currently has three integrations based on some of the most common tools used by developers — GitHub (where you can link Pull Requests and close Linear issues on merge), Figma designs (where you can get image previews and embeds of Figma designs), and Slack (you can create issues from Slack and then get notifications on updates). There are plans to add more over time.

We started solving the problem from the end-user perspective, the contributor, like an engineer or a designer and starting to address things that are important for them, can help them and their teams,” Saarinen said. “We aim to also bring clarity for the teams by making the concepts simple, clear but powerful. For example, instead of talking about epics, we have Projects that help track larger feature work or tracks of work.”

Indeed, speed is not the only aim with Linear. Saarinen also said another area they hope to address is general work practices, with a take that seems to echo a turn away from time spent on manual management and more focus on automating that process.

“Right now at many companies you have to manually move things around, schedule sprints, and all kinds of other minor things,” he said. “We think that next generation tools should have built in automated workflows that help teams and companies operate much more effectively. Teams shouldn’t spend a third or more of their time a week just for running the process.”

The last objective Linear is hoping to tackle is one that we’re often sorely lacking in the wider world, too: context.

“Companies are setting their high-level goals, roadmaps and teams work on projects,” he said. “Often leadership doesn’t have good visibility into what is actually happening and how projects are tracking. Teams and contributors don’t always have the context or understanding of why they are working on the things, since you cannot follow the chain from your task to the company goal. We think that there are ways to build Linear to be a real-time picture of what is happening in the company when it comes to building products, and give the necessary context to everyone.”

Linear is a late entrant in a world filled with collaboration apps, and specifically workflow and collaboration apps targeting the developer community. These include not just Slack and GitHub, but Atlassian’s Trello and Jira, as well as Asana, Basecamp and many more.

Saarinen would not be drawn out on which of these (or others) that it sees as direct competition, noting that none are addressing developer issues of speed, ease of use and context as well as Linear is.

“There are many tools in the market and many companies are talking about making ‘work better,'” he said. “And while there are many issue tracking and project management tools, they are not supporting the workflow of the individual and team. A lot of the value these tools sell is around tracking work that happens, not actually helping people to be more effective. Since our focus is on the individual contributor and intelligent integration with their workflow, we can support them better and as a side effect makes the information in the system more up to date.”

Stephanie Zhan, the partner at Sequoia whose speciality is seed and Series A investments and who has led this round, said that Linear first came on her radar when it first launched its private beta (it’s still in private beta and has been running a waitlist to bring on new users. In that time it’s picked up hundreds of companies, including Pitch, Render, Albert, Curology, Spoke, Compound and YC startups including Middesk, Catch and Visly). The company had also been flagged by one of Sequoia’s Scouts, who invested earlier this year

Sequoia Logo Natalie Miyake

Although Linear is based out of San Francisco, it’s interesting that the three founders’ roots are in Finland (with Saarinen in Helsinki this week to speak at the Slush event), and brings up an emerging trend of Silicon Valley VCs looking at founders from further afield than just their own back yard.

“The interesting thing about Linear is that as they’re building a software company around the future of work, they’re also building a remote and distributed team themselves,” Zahn said. The company currently has only four employees.

In that vein, we (and others, it seems) had heard that Sequoia — which today invests in several Europe-based startups, including Tessian, Graphcore, Klarna, Tourlane, Evervault  and CEGX — has been considering establishing a more permanent presence in this part of the world, specifically in London.

Sources familiar with the firm, however, tell us that while it has been sounding out VCs at other firms, saying a London office is on the horizon might be premature, as there are as yet no plans to set up shop here. However, with more companies and European founders entering its portfolio, and as more conversations with VCs turn into decisions to make the leap to help Sequoia source more startups, we could see this strategy turning around quickly.

Placement is the much-needed talent agent for jobseekers

By Josh Constine

“We’re giving away money to strangers on the internet” is a pretty cavalier pitch for a new startup. But the more I learned about Placement, the smarter it sounded. In exchange for 10% of your income for 18 to 36 months, Placement will find you a much higher paying job, prep you for the interview and help you move to your new city of employment.

Actors, athletes and musicians have talent agents. Why shouldn’t office workers? That’s co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan’s vision for Placement. The former VP of product at Flexport thinks he can consistently get people a 30% raise on their cost of living-adjusted income if they’re willing to relocate from either their sleepy hometown or an overpriced metropolis.

“We think you can transform your life without becoming an engineer. You just have to be in the right place,” says Linehan. Not everyone is going to learn to code, and Placement isn’t a school. “We’re not in the business of training people to do jobs. We’re in training people to get jobs.”

Placement sits at the lucrative center of a slew of megatrends. People switching jobs more often. The desperate need to pay off crushing student loan debt. The rise of mid-size cities as rent gets out of control in San Francisco and New York. Social apps keeping people in touch from afar. The search for deeper fulfillment going mainstream.

Placement co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan

Through the normalization of income sharing agreements, Placement has found a way to powerfully monetize these societal shifts. That potential has attracted a $3 million seed round led by Founders Fund and backed by Coatue’s new seed fund, XYZ Ventures, The House Fund, plus angels like Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, Eventbrite founders Julia and Kevin Hartz, DoorDash CEO Tony Xu, 137 Ventures MD Elizabeth Weil and her husband Facebook Calibra VP of Product Kevin.

With the cash to build out its jobseeker’s software toolkit, Placement could grow far beyond the Jerry Maguire-style boutique talent agency into a scalable way to put millions on a better career track. “The number one problem that I see in the American economy right now is the lack of income mobility,” Linehan says. “There are so many services for making rich people get richer, but what about services to help low-income people to get to the middle, or help those in the middle to improve?”

“If I stayed home, there’s just no way”

The CEO’s own rise was “a tried and true American tale,” he tells me. “I grew up in a pretty low-income neighborhood in San Bernardino . . . below the poverty line.” But a chance to attend UC Berkeley brought him to Silicon Valley, and the economic powerhouse city of San Francisco (before the housing crisis made it so expensive). “I don’t think I could have been as successful if I went to another place. If I had stayed in my home town, there’s just no way.”

Yet after college, when friends moved away and he broke up with his girlfriend, Linehan found himself living in a bunkbed by himself with extra space. “I called a friend back home working a minimum wage job, still living at home, and said ‘Your life kinda sucks. Come crash with me!,’ ” Linehan recalls. “He was super smart — smarter than most of the people I went to Berkeley with, but he never got on the train out of town.”

In the following years, Linehan coached his friend through becoming a professional and navigating interviews. “Now he’s tripled his income on a cost of living adjusted basis. He went from minimum wage to $70,000 to $80,000.” That ignited the idea for Placement. “How do you take that process of tapping people who are special and just need economic opportunity, and bring it to more people?” But Linehan needed a co-founder who could execute on getting these up-and-comers jobs.

That’s where Katie Kent came in. Also from the product team at Flexport, Kent had helped start Zipfian Academy as the first data science bootcamp in America. The 12-week crash course had been placing 93% of graduates into full-time roles when Zipfian was acquired by Galvanize, where Kent became director of outcomes with the mandate to get students great jobs. The right idea, experience and the track record of turning Flexport into a $3.2 billion freight forwarding unicorn led investors to jump at the chance to fund Placement.

Share me the money

So how exactly do Placement’s income sharing agreements work? “They only pay us if they make more money on a cost of living adjusted basis” Linehan explains.

First, the startup recruits through targeted advertising and word of mouth referrals, which the company says 100% of clients have provided. Primarily, it’s seeking business professionals with a skill mismatched to their city, such as sales, human resources or operations in a place without companies competing to hire for those roles. They might have never left their hometown or returned after school at a mid-tier college, suppressing their earning potential. But lack of knowledge about jobseeking, fears of leaving their support network or a lack of funds to finance a move keep them stuck there.

“There are two moments when society puts a gentle hand on your shoulder saying its okay to move away: when you go to college and when you graduate college,” says Linehan. “We’re trying to engineer a third moment. We give people the permission and space to have that conversation with their family by providing that forcing function.” Placement serves the same utility the CEO did for his friend, revealing that if they seize the opportunity of moving to a growing but still affordable city like Denver, Austin, Raleigh or Seattle, “people’s lives would be so much better.”

The other demographic Placement seeks is the 10 million-plus workers who’ve gotten in over their heads in some of the country’s priciest cities. “If you’re ambitious and talented but not an engineer in SF, this is a hard life. The costs are exceeding the benefits at this point.” Placement looks for cheaper cities where their skills are still relevant and they might even earn the same or a little less, but they can fetch a huge increase in income on a cost of living-adjusted basis and they have a path to buying a house. Linehan declares that “Our controversial opinion is that more important than reskilling people is getting them to the right place where the work is happening in the first place.”

Placement then evaluates the prospective client in what is currently an extremely selective process to determine if they’re undervalued based on their skills, qualifications, shortfalls and redflags. If they’re already being adequately or overpaid, it won’t accept them. Those eligible are offered access to Placement’s research on all the optimal salary and location/hirer pairs for their role, which most people wouldn’t or couldn’t do themselves. Linehan says, “We run their job search for them. We’re kind of like a concierge.”

Once they’ve selected some targets, Placement quarterbacks their preparation process, helping them to improve their LinkedIn and resume, practice telling their story and offering mock interviews with experts in their field. As they progress through interviews Placement sets up and requires hirers offer remotely, it teaches clients to negotiate to get their best possible compensation.

“If you’re a normal person who didn’t go to an elite institution or are a couple years out of school, there’s no resources,” Linehan laments. While some top coding schools and other bootcamps place graduates, and some startups like Pathrise are also working on interview prep, most seeking a new employer end up relying on mediocre job hunting tips they find online. That’s in part because it was hard to get people to fork over significant cash in exchange for instruction that wasn’t guaranteed to help.

How Placement income sharing agreements work

The Placement income sharing agreement is designed to align incentives, though. It’s vested in getting clients not only the best job and salary, but one they’ll want to stick with. As long as the startup nets them a higher adjusted income, clients pay 10% of their earnings. That lasts for 18 months, or 36 months if they receive Placement’s $5,000 relocation stipend and human support. There are also caps on the total Placement can get paid back, and the agreement dissolves after five years so clients aren’t locked in if things don’t work out.

For example, Placement aims to help someone earning $40,000 per year pre-taxes reach $52,000 on a cost of living adjusted basis. They’d end up paying Placement $7,794 over the course of 18 months, or $433 per month. After the bill, they’d still be earning $3,900 per month, or $567 more than they used to. If they take the $5,000 relocation stipend and extra assistance, their ISA extends to 36 months and they’ll end up paying back $15,588 total, including the stipend.

Clients are likely to keep growing their compensation after their Placement ISA ends, so they’ll start reaping all the added proceeds. The startup has worked with fewer than 1,000 clients to date, but is supposedly growing quickly.

Eventually, Placement could move into working with programmers and designers, but it sees a big gap in assistance for business roles. Linehan notes that “We’re providing an option that will be available to a lot more people than a Lambda School or Galvanize coding bootcamp. Not everyone’s going to be software engineers.”

Making America anti-fragile

The biggest hurdle for Placement will be scaling what can be quite a hands-on, relationship-driven process of matching clients with the right hirers. “It’s one thing to get one person a job. It’s another to get 10,000 people a job,” Linehan admits. But he conquered the same problem at Flexport, which was moving 1,000 shipping containers across the ocean but had to figure out “how the hell do you move 1 million?”

Placement co-founders (from left): Katie Kent and Sean Linehan

That requires Placement to pour product know-how into building tools that equip clients to take more initiative to match themselves with hirers and teach themselves interview skills. It also must automate more of its marketing outreach, client screening and connections to recruiters while retaining a human element worth a four to five-figure price.

Right now, the startup’s team numbers just four, and though it will expand to seven soon, it may need to raise a bunch more to chase this dream. Some investors have been understandably skeptical about the whole “handing out $5,000” model without onerous ISAs.

For comparison, the one-year MissionU school for business and data jobs that was acquired and shut down by WeWork asked for 15% of income for three years without a relocation stipend, or $23,400 on a $52,000 per year job. ISAs for General Assembly’s tech job education cost 10% for 48 months, even if students don’t earn more than in their old job. Pathrise’s slimmer offering costs just 7% for one year. Colleges are jumping on the trend too, with some working with startup Leif to run their ISAs.

A https://t.co/Poyrlb586p customer just got 4 job offers!

He accepted a 319% raise.

So excited for him 🎉🎉🎉🎉

— Katie Kent (@k80kent) November 1, 2019

Placement has plans to cover prickly edge cases. If someone gets laid off from their new job, the startup will help them find another. “We’re on the hook to make sure they’re successful,” Linehan insists. It only won’t step in if an employee is fired for an ethical problem like sexual harassment or committing fraud. And if someone simply gets lonely in their unfamiliar city, they’re not required to stay, though moving home could hurt their earnings and Placement’s take. That’s why the startup is working to help its clients find community, even amongst each other, so they don’t feel isolated, and prefers sending workers to cities where they know someone.

Meanwhile, Placement must resist the temptation to become a hiring agency paid by employers and instead work fully on behalf of its clients. “When you’re aligned economically with the employer, you’re just chasing dollars from bigger and bigger whales of companies, and at one point you figure out you’re a recruiting firm for the Gap,” Linehan says with a shudder. The complexity of dealing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is enough hassle, so Placement doesn’t intend to work with jobseekers abroad or those that need visas, as “it’s not good for startups if you’re at the mercy of the government.”

Luckily, U.S. salaries total $8.6 trillion per year, Linehan claims, so it’s got enough of a domestic market. “The American economy is so huge that I don’t see other people tackling problems like that being competitive.” Placement does have potential to use its data to recommend and teach specific skills. “If you just make this change, if you learn Excel, you could totally get this job in a different industry that pays more and that you’ll like more,” Linehan says. He also dreams of one day improving urban planning by suggesting cities build music venues or parks that jobseekers say would soften the landing of moving there.

Zooming out, there’s also chance for Placement make the country more stable and resistant to strong-man populism promising financial security. “A two-tier society is fragile. I don’t want to live in a democracy where there’s a bunch of hay waiting for a matchstick to set it on fire,” Linehan concludes. “There doesn’t have to be a have and a have-not class, and you don’t need the government to do forced redistribituion to make everything fair. You just need people that care about getting on the right track, and that to me is a worthy cause to dedicate a life to.”

Route’s app auto-tracks all your packages, raises $12M

By Josh Constine

Between Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and indie merchants, it’s easy to lose track of when your online purchases will be delivered. And if you’re buying something pricey or important, a lack of shipping insurance can leave you anxious and constantly checking your porch.

But a fresh startup has found unprecedented growth by letting you monitor all your ecommerce orders in one app thanks to a Gmail extension. Plus, you can buy insurance for just 1% of an item’s cost. Meet Route, emerging from stealth today to become the Find My Friends for packages. By helping merchants handle post-purchase satisfaction while charging consumers for insurance, this year Route has grown to $8.85 million in revenue run rate and from 5 to 100 employees.

Now Route is announcing it’s raised $12 million in total through a quiet $500,00 January pre-seed round from Peak Venture Capital and a new seed round with the rest from Album VC and strategic partner in direct-to-consumer brands Pattern. The cash will help Route keep up with demand and add new features to its app. Route co-founder and CEO Evan Walker tells me consumers “no longer accept the unsatisfying status quo of not knowing exactly where their order is.”

Pizza Tracker But For Everything

Domino’s saw sales skyrocket thanks to its highly visual pizza tracker app that shows live updates as your pie goes in the oven, hits the road, and reaches your door. Route wants to bring that reassuring experience to all of ecommerce.

Route co-founder and CEO Evan Walker

Walker asks “How could I NOT build this company?” The 25-year ecommerce entrepreneur got his start selling video games online in 1994, and has founded seven companies since. The communications gap between customers and merchants always plagued his businesses.

“The big lightbulb moment happened when I was traveling in Italy a few years back” Walker recalls. Talking to a furniture shop owner, he heard about their troubles of shipping vintage trunks. “He mentioned he was having a lot of issues with these items breaking in transit and wished he had a solution for it.” Now there is one.

The Route iOS app for visually tracking orders officially launches today. Purchases from partnered merchants instantly show up in the app and its website via API, but all your other buys from Amazon etc can be automatically ingested by authorizing the Route Bot Gmail extension that scans for shipping updates. Route lays out all the orders on a map with immediate access to their latest status changes like when shipping info is received, an item goes out for last mile delivery, or there’s a problem. There’s no need to copy and paste tracking numbers across multiple websites.

The Route+ insurance program that lets customers pay for peace of mind is launching today too. Customers get the option to add it from partnered merchants, file claims for lost / damaged / stolen packages in one tap, and get reimbursement from respected Lloyd’s Of London.

Walker claims that merchants that offer Route+ (which is free for them) “have seen an increase in conversion, decreased spend on customer support teams, and an improved post-purchase customer experience due to Route’s ability to quickly handle customer claims.” Merchants can also opt to pay themselves for Route+ on every order

Route now works with 1600 merchants and 600 carriers and has overseen shipments to 1.3 million customers in 187 countries. John Mayfield from Peak Venture Capital says “Their phenomenal growth of acquiring over 600 clients in the first three months makes them one of the fastest growing companies we have ever seen.”

The Brown Box Wars

The biggest challenge for Route is overcoming the thick, thick crowd of competitors in the market. Rakuten’s Slice can pull orders from your email and also grabs you refunds if an item goes on sale after you buy it. 17Track lets you paste in big lists of tracking numbers in case they’re registered to someone else’s email. Parcel offers a barcode scanner. ‘Deliveries’ will set up calendar appointments for arrivals, and works on Mac and Apple Watch. ParcelTrack lets you forward it emails of purchases to monitor, and a $2.99 premium version offers live locations of your packages plus customizable push notifications.

Route’s strength is that it’s totally free for consumers unless they want to buy insurance, and does email tracking automatically, though it will lack manual tracking number input for a few more weeks. It’s managed a 90 percent customer satisfaction score. Still, the startup could be vulnerable to a major player in ecommerce like Amazon or Shopify barging into the space. There are also platform risks, such as if Gmail blocked its scanning for tracking numbers.

“The better that Amazon gets at providing similar services, the more other merchants need those tools in order to compete outside of Amazon” says Walker. “From the insurance side, we are pretty good at detecting risk before it becomes a major issue and we are insuring on an individual order basis so catastrophic incidences are minimized.” The company also has to keep a watchful eye out for fraudulent insurance claims.

The growing megatrend of purchase behavior shifting online means the once occasional activity of receiving a package has become a constant chore in need of streamlining. Plenty of merchants are meanwhile looking to offload the complexity of keeping impatient buyers happy. If Route conquers its first market, it could move into adjacent spaces ranging from merchant services like freight forwarding and financing to consumer features like physical mail scanning for electronic delivery.

“Ecommerce is in my blood. I feel like I’ve taken 25 years of experience and started to craft a really interesting product in this space” Walker concludes. “With commerce going more digital everyday, there is an opportunity to create a big dent.” Or in Route‘s case, an opportunity to insure your packages against big dents.

PayPal to acquire shopping and rewards platform Honey for $4B

By Sarah Perez

PayPal announced today it has agreed to acquire Honey Science Corporation, the makers of a deal-finding browser add-on and mobile application, for $4 billion, mostly cash. The acquisition, which is PayPal’s largest to date, will give the payments giant a foothold earlier in the customer’s shopping journey. Instead of only competing on the checkout page against credit cards or Apple Pay, for example, PayPal will leap ahead to become a part of the deal discovery process, as well.

Currently, Honey’s 17 million monthly active users take advantage of its suite of money-saving tools to track prices, get alerts, make lists, browse offers and participate in an Ebates-like rewards program called Honey Gold. Its users tend to be younger, millennial shoppers, both male and female.

PayPal aims to add Honey’s technology to its own product line, expanding its reach to PayPal’s 300 million users.

“What’s exciting is that we can take the functionality Honey now offers — which is product discovery, price tracking, offers and loyalty — and build that into the PayPal and Venmo experiences,” explains PayPal SVP of Global Consumer Products and Technology, and former Xoom CEO, John Kunze. “When Honey says they’re putting money in the pockets of their customers — that’s perfectly in line with what we want to do. We want to make digital commerce and financial services more affordable, easier to use, more fun and more accessible to people around the world,” he says.

In addition, PayPal’s network of 24 million merchant partners will gain the ability to offer targeted and more personalized promotions to consumers as a means of acquiring new business and driving increased sales. PayPal Credit may also be integrated into Honey to help finance larger purchases.

Honey has flown under the radar to some extent since its founding in 2012.

Originally only a web browser extension, Honey tracks sales and retailers’ promo codes, as a rival to RetailMeNot and others. What makes the extension so useful is that it automatically tries all the eligible promo codes for you during checkout then selects the one that provided the most savings and applies it on your behalf. This helps shoppers feel more comfortable with their purchases and reduces shopping cart abandonment.

The company also rolled out features to inform shoppers of an item’s price history, including the historical pricing of any product on Amazon’s marketplace. In 2017, Honey launched DropList, which would track and alert users to lower prices, as well as tools for finding travel deals.

As more consumers shifted their shopping to e-commerce merchants, Honey’s user base also rapidly grew.

Its browser extension now works across approximately 30,000 merchant websites, including fashion, technology, travel and even pizza delivery. Last year, Honey publicly shared that its 10 million members had saved over $800 million using its tools. As of today, Honey’s 17 million members have saved more than $2 billion to date.

 

“Honey is amongst the most transformative acquisitions in PayPal’s history. It provides a broad portfolio of services to simplify the consumer shopping experience, while at the same time making it more affordable and rewarding,” said Dan Schulman, president and CEO of PayPal, in a statement.

“The combination of Honey’s complementary consumer products with our platform will significantly enhance our ability to drive engagement and play a more meaningful role in the daily lives of our consumers. As a partner of choice for our merchants, this is another way that we can help them build and strengthen their customer relationships, provide personalized offers, and drive incremental sales. The combination of Honey and PayPal adds another significant and meaningful dimension to our two-sided platform,” Schulman added.

The acquisition also gives PayPal a way to fight back against the increased competition from Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech companies that have entered the payments market in recent years. On Apple’s Q4 2019 earnings call, for example, CEO Tim Cook noted that Apple Pay has now exceeded PayPal transaction volume with 3 billion transactions in the quarter. Meanwhile, analysts are predicting Facebook Pay has the potential to unseat both Apple Pay and PayPal alike.

Then there are PayPal’s original rivals — the world’s biggest card networks like Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover. These companies are also fighting to remain relevant online, with a new PayPal competitor of their own to simplify online checkout.

With Honey, PayPal immediately shifts the battle away from the checkout page itself to instead compete against all the places people go to discover, browse, get inspired and deal-hunt — whether that’s directly on retailers’ sites or through newer platforms, like Pinterest or Instagram Shopping.

As a result of the acquisition, Honey co-founders George Ruan and Ryan Hudson will join PayPal where they’ll work on product integrations and scaling the technology to a much larger user base. Also joining is Honey’s predominantly L.A.-based team of 350 employees.

The Honey team and headquarters will remain in L.A., where they’ve just signed a lease on a new office space with expansion goals in mind.

“Combining PayPal’s assets and reach with our technology, we can build powerful new online shopping experiences for consumers and merchants,” said Hudson. “We’ll have the ability to help millions of retailers efficiently reach consumers with offers that deliver more and more value to Honey members.”

To date, Honey had raised $49 million from investors, including Ludlow Ventures, Zuma Partners, Mucker Capital, SXE Ventures, BAM Ventures, Plug and Play, Wonder Ventures, Cendana Capital, Anthos Capital and others, according to Crunchbase.

Honey was already profitable on a net income basis in 2018, PayPal notes. The acquisition is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020, subject to regulatory approval. It’s expected to be accretive to PayPal’s non-GAAP earnings per share in 2021.

PayPal will hold a conference call at 2 PM PST today to discuss the transaction further.

Cheq raises another $16M to fight ad fraud

By Anthony Ha

Cheq, a startup focused on preventing ad fraud and ensuring that ads run in brand-safe environments, has raised $16 million in Series B funding.

When the company raised its $5 million Series A last year, CEO Guy Tytunovich contrasted Cheq’s approach with what he called “first generation solutions for ad verification” — rather than identifying fraud and other issues after an ad has already run, he said Cheq is more proactive and can block ads from being served in real time.

I caught up with Tytunovich yesterday, and he told me that this approach remains one of Cheq’s strengths.

At the same time, he also acknowledged that “refunds, rebates and make goods” are allowing advertisers to achieve a kind of retroactive prevention. So he’s increasingly focused on Cheq’s accuracy.

Tytunovich suggested that rather than simply relying on keywords (an approach that might suggest that a relatively innocuous article like “LeBron James killed it last night” isn’t an appropriate place to serve an ad), Cheq is examining 1,200 different factors, “looking for anomalies or looking where the fraudster did some sloppy work.”

He added, “We investigate every single impression in JavaScript. We are extremely deterministic to not cause this damage of false positives and false negatives.”

And Tytunovich said that despite the number of companies tackling the issue, fraud is still growing — he pointed to a recent report from Cheq estimating that fraud will cost advertisers $23 billion this year.

“You need to be smarter every day,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing in ad fraud, not just different types of sophisticated fraud — as the time goes by we see more and more of that organized crime type of ad fraud. Which is fascinating on the one hand, but also it’s kind of frightening if you really think about it.”

The new funding was led by Battery Ventures (which also led the Series A) and MizMaa Ventures. The latter is an Israeli firm that Tytunovich said already “helped tremendously” with things like introductions, even before making an investment.

Cheq is also moving into new areas like connected TV and console gaming.

Ultimately, Tytunovich said he wants the company to become the “immune system of the internet” — which doesn’t just mean detecting ad fraud, but also becoming “a solution to everything that sucks about digital advertising specifically, things like fake news and how advertising relates to that.”

Dream Games raises $7.5M seed to develop ‘high-quality’ puzzle games

By Steve O'Hear

Dream Games, a Turkish mobile gaming company founded by former Peak Games employees who worked together on hit puzzle games Toy Blast and Toon Blast, has raised $7.5 million in seed funding.

Leading the round is Makers Fund, with co-investment from London’s Balderton Capital. The funding will be used to increase headcount within the Dream Games team, targeting 20 employees in year one.

The company — which is yet to launch a product — is co-founded by CEO Soner Aydemir, the former Product Director at Peak Games. The rest of the Dream Games team are Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam (former Peak Games engineering leads), Eren Sengul (former Peak Games product manger), and Serdar Yilmaz (former Peak Games 3D artist).

“Most of the [mobile games] companies believe that the market is saturated, but we believe there are still huge opportunities in the casual puzzle market,” Aydemir tells TechCrunch. “There are too many mediocre mobile games, but players deserve better. We see that there are still millions of players waiting for new, well-designed and enjoyable puzzle games, and we are committed to creating great games to meet players’ expectations”.

Aydemir says Dream Games doesn’t believe in a “hit-or-miss approach” to game development. Instead, he frames the studio’s strategy as “evolution over innovation” and “execution over ideas”. This will see it develop a first flagship title that can be iterated over the long term.

“We plan to fix the pain points for players in existing games,” he says. “Our experience makes us confident we can build something truly global by focusing on a single high-quality, long-standing game instead of multiple flash-in-the-pan titles. We’d rather people were loyally playing our one game for 10 years than losing interest every six months when something new comes along”.

With regards to audience, Aydemir says Dream Games is targeting players over the age of 25 in U.S., Canada and Europe. He pegs gender distribution at 65% female and 35% male. “Our players can be from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, but they are mainly average people who have routine lives,” he says.

Aydemir is also keen to flag up the burgeoning gaming sector in Turkey, which he claims is positioned to be one of the world’s leading ecosystems for mobile games.

In 2017, Peak Games, based in Istanbul, sold its card and board games studio to mobile gaming giant Zynga for $100 million. Zynga later opened a studio in the city and made further acquisitions, paying $250 million for Gram Games, the Turkish developers behind a number of popular puzzle titles. Other casual gaming studios with a presence in the region include Good Job Games, Ruby Games, Alictus, Rollic Games and Bigger Games.

Former Casper execs are building a direct-to-consumer dog food startup called Jinx

By Anthony Ha

With Jinx, three former members of the Casper team are looking to bring what CEO Terri Rockovich called “the Casper playbook” to selling dog food.

The startup has raised $5.65 million from an all-star list of investors including Alexis Ohanian of Initialized Capital, Align Ventures, Brand Foundry, Wheelhouse Group, Will Smith and his family, the rapper Nas, singer Halsey, YouTube star/late night host Lilly Singh and TV personality/former NFL star Michael Strahan.

Rockovich previously served as vice president of acquisition and retention marketing at Casper, where she met her co-founders Sameer Mehta and Michael Kim. She said all three of them are “dog obsessives” who have experience trying to feed “picky eaters.” And they wer “hungry for a brand that is skinned in a way that is a lot more relatable to millennial consumer.”

It’s not just about taking regular dog food and selling it in a new way, either. Rockovich noted that an estimated 56% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. So Jinx’s staff nutritionist — working with a larger nutrition council — has developed a line of kibble and treats that she said is “packed with organic proteins, diversified proteins and easy-to-process carbohydrates for a moderately active animal.”

Jinx

Jinx plans to start selling its first products in January. Rockovich said it will target pet owners with a certain set of “lifestyle attributes” — like living in an apartment, hiring dog walkers and owning dogs who sleep in their beds — and educate them so they actually examine the ingredients of their dog food, whether they buy it from Jinx or someone else.

“We understand the serious nature of creating something that goes into a body and kind of powers a lifestyle,” she said. “We’ve been so conscious of that. Frankly, it’s delayed our timeline — we know we have to get it right.”

As for how much this will cost, Rockovich said Jinx will “fall in the premium category.” (If you’re familiar with premium dog food brands, she said Jinx pricing be somewhere between Blue Buffalo and Orijen.) And while the company start off by selling directly to consumers through its website, Rockovich said her Casper experience has taught her the importance of having “some IRL presence, specifically in retail.”

Lucence raises $20 million Series A for its non-invasive cancer screening technology

By Catherine Shu

Lucence Diagnostics, a genomic medicine startup that develops non-invasive tests for cancer screening, announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series A led by IHH Healthcare, one of the world’s largest integrated private healthcare groups. Other participants included SGInnovate and returning investors Heliconia Capital (a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings), Lim Kaling and Koh Boon Hwee.

The round will be used for scaling Lucence’s labs, hiring and making its products commercially available to more patients in Asia and North America.

The funding will also support two prospective clinical trials. One will focus on its technology’s sensitivity to actionable variables in late-stage cancer patients, while the other will evaluate its use for early-stage detection in several types of cancer, including lung, colorectal, breast and pancreatic. Lucence is currently designing a study that will involve 100,000 participants to validate its early-stage detection test. It will recruit its first patient in the middle of next year and launch in the United States and Asia.

Together with its seed funding, this round brings Lucence’s total raised so far to $29.2 million.

Lucence’s tests are currently used by physicians in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and it plans to expand further in North America and East Asia. Its lab in Singapore has received both CLIA certification and CAP accreditation, which means its tests can be used by doctors and patients in the United States. It is also currently building a lab in the Bay Area to decrease turnaround times for patients.

Headquartered in Singapore, with offices in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Suzhou, China, Lucence was founded by CEO Dr. Min-Han Tan, an oncologist, and spun out from Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in 2016. Two years later, it launched LiquidHALLMARK, which the company describes as “the first and only clinical sequencing blood test that detects both cancer-related genetic mutations and cancer-causing viruses with a single assay” and looks for signs of fourteen types of cancer. The company says LiquidHALLMARK has been used by oncologists for 1,000 patients in Asia so far.

Other genomic sequencing startups that have developed tests that screen for cancer risks and signs include Sanomics, Prenetics, Guardant and Grail. Lucence’s differentiators include its proprietary amplicon-sequencing, which examines specific genomic regions for variations, including mutations linked to cancer. The company describes its tests as a “Swiss Army knife,” because it can be used for cancer screening, diagnoses, treatment selections and monitoring.

In a statement, Dr. Kelvin Loh, the CEO-designate of IHH Healthcare, said “liquid biopsy is a game-changer in our endeavor to provide cancer treatments with better, value-driven outcomes through precise treatment selections and more affordable care. Our investment in Lucence will provide IHH patients with better access to this advanced technology.”

Give InKind’s smarter giving platform brings in surprise $1.5 million in pre-seed funding

By Devin Coldewey

Helping out a friend in need online can be surprisingly difficult. While giving cash is easy enough, that’s often not what people need most — so Give InKind aims to be the platform where you can do a lot more than write a check. The idea is such a natural one that the company tripled its goal for a pre-seed round, raising $1.5 million from Seattle investors.

The company was selected for inclusion in the Female Founders Alliance’s Ready Set Raise accelerator, at the demo day for which I saw founder Laura Malcolm present.

The problem Malcolm is attempting to solve is simply that in times of hardship, not only do people not want to deal with setting up a fundraising site, but money isn’t even what they require to get through that period. Malcolm experienced this herself, when she experienced a personal tragedy and found that what was out there to let others help was simply inadequate.

“My friends and family were trying to support me from around the country, but the tools they had to do that were outdated and didn’t solve the problems for us,” she explained. “There just wasn’t one place to put all the help that’s needed, whether that’s meal drop-off, or rides to school for the kids, or a wishlist for Instacart, or Lyft credits. Every situation is unique, and no one has put it all together in one place where, when someone says ‘how can I help?’ you can just point there.”

The idea with Give InKind is to provide a variety of options for helping someone out. Of course you can donate cash, but you can also buy specific items from wishlists, coordinate deliveries, set up recurring gifts (like diapers or gift boxes), or organize in-person help on a built-in calendar.

These all go on a central profile page that Malcolm noted is rarely set up by the beneficiary themselves.

“90 percent of pages are set up by someone else. Not everyone has been impacted by one of these situations, but I think almost everyone has known someone who has, and has wondered how they were supposed to respond or help,” she explained. “So this isn’t about capturing people during a time of need, but about solving the problem for people who want to know how to help.”

That certainly resonated with me, as I have always felt the cash donation option when someone is going through a tough time to be pretty impersonal and general. It’s nice to be able to help out in person, but what about a friend in another city who’s been taken out of action and needs someone else to figure out the dog walking situation? Give InKind is meant to surface specific needs like that and provide the links (to, for instance, Rover) and relevant information all in one place.

“The majority of actions on the site are people doing things themselves — signing up for meals, or to help. The calendar view is for coordination, and it’s the most used part of the site. About 70 percent is that, the rest is those national services [i.e. Instacart, Uber, etc.],” Malcolm said.

Locally run services (cleaners that aren’t on a national directory, for instance) are on the roadmap, but as you can imagine that takes a lot of footwork to put together, so it will have to wait.

Right now the site works almost entirely on an affiliate model; Helpers make accounts to do things like add themselves to the schedule or help edit the profile, then get sent out to the merchant site to complete the transaction there. The company is experimenting with on-site purchases for some things, but the idea isn’t to become host transactions except where that can really add value.

The plan for expansion is to double down on the existing organic growth patterns of the site. Every page that gets set up attracts multiple new users and visits, and those users are far more likely to start more pages even years down the line. Between improving that and some actual marketing work, Malcolm feels sure that they can grow quickly and could soon join other major giving services like GoFundMe in scale.

Ready, set, raise… a lot more than expected

Give InKind came to my attention through the Female Founder Alliance here in Seattle, which hosted a demo night a little while ago to highlight the companies and, naturally, their founders as well. Although some of the companies focused on female-forward issues, for instance the difficulty of acquiring workwear tailored to women’s bodies, the idea is more to find valuable companies that just happen to have female founders.

“Ready Set Raise was built to find high potential, dramatically undervalued investment opportunities, and translate them into something the VC community can understand,” said FFA founder Leslie Feinzaig. “Our last member survey results were consistent with findings that women founders raise less capital but make it go further. Give InKind is a perfect example. They bootstrapped for 3 years, found product market fit, grew 20% every month, and still struggled to resonate with investors.”

Yet after presenting, Malcolm’s company was honored at the event with a $100K investment from Trilogy Ventures. And having originally kicked off fundraising with a view to a $500K round, she soon found she had to cap it at an unexpected but very welcome $1.5M. The final list of participants in the round includes Madrona Venture Group, SeaChange Fund, Keeler Investments, FAM Fund, Grubstakes, and X Factor Ventures.

I suggested that this must have been something of a validating experience.

“It’s super validating,” she agreed. “The founder journey is long and hard, and the odds are not in favor of female founders or impact companies, necessarily, and consumer is not huge in Seattle, either. We really sort of defied the odds across the board raising this round so quickly… Seattle really showed up.”

She described the accelerator as being “incredibly unique. It’s entirely about creating access for female founders to investors, mentors, and experts.”

“We spent so much time turning my model upside down and shaking everything out of it. Turns out it was much more defensible than I thought. We didn’t change the business, and we didn’t change the product — we lightly changed the positioning,” she said. “This combination of access with coaching and mentorship, getting the ability to present the business in a way that’s compelling, you realize how much of this is held back from people who don’t have these opportunities. I’ve been carrying around Give InKind for three years in a paper bag, and they put a bell on it.”

Feinbaig cited the competitiveness of the application process and quality of their coaches, which give lots of 1 on 1 time, for the high quality of the companies emerging from the accelerator. You can check out the rest of the companies in the second cohort here — and of course Give InKind is live should you or anyone you know need a helping hand.

Robotics startup Picnic, known for its automated pizza assembly system, raises $5 million

By Catherine Shu

Picnic, a robotics startup that focuses on food production, announced today that it has raised $5 million in additional seed funding. The new round was led by Creative Ventures, with participation from Flying Fish Partners and Vulcan Capital.

The company also said it has hired Kennard Nielsen, a product engineer who worked on the first four Kindle Fire tablets, Nike Fuelband, Microsoft Xbox and Doppler Labs’ HereOne from Doppler Labs at previous positions, as its new vice president of engineering.

The new funding will be used for product development, hiring and marketing.

Picnic is known for an automated pizza assembly system that launched in October. The configurable, modular platform currently focuses on high-volume pizza production and can reach rates of up to 180 18-inch pizzas or 300 12-inch pizzas an hour. The system fits into existing kitchen layouts, including food trucks and kiosks, and integrates with Picnic’s software to provide backend data and cloud analytics that help with consistency, speed and reducing food waste.

Picnic operates on a “robotics-as-a-service” model, with users paying for the system on a subscription basis. The pizza assembly system’s first customers were Centerplate, a food and hospitality provider for large event venues, and Washington-based restaurant chain Zaucer Pizza.

In June, Picnic also hired Mike McLaughlin, a food and beverage industry veteran who previously held roles at BUNN, Concordia Coffee Systems and Starbucks, as its vice president of product.

Make a personal plan for your exit or IPO

By Walter Thompson
Peyton Carr Contributor
Peyton Carr is a Financial Adviser to founders, entrepreneurs and their families, helping them with planning and investing. He is a Managing Director of Keystone Global Partners.

Whether you’re a founder, an early employee or an executive, the possibility of an exit offers extraordinary financial possibilities.

However, I see plenty of founders having liquidity events only to find themselves making hurried decisions with their newfound wealth, ultimately feeling frustrated when they realize they’ve paid a painful price by not having the proper advice. 

Typically, I recommend breaking your planning into two separate phases to reduce overwhelm and maximize your wealth: planning before an exit and planning after an exit.

Determine your goals and strategy

Before an exit, it’s important to coordinate planning and hammer out key details that will carry you through the sale of your business. This typically means teaming up with a financial adviser, an accountant, and an estate planning attorney. Just as you’ve built the team of your company to help your business grow and succeed, it’s important to build a team that’s coordinated and focused on your personal financial success both now and in the future. 

Spending time upfront to determine your goals, objectives, and desired lifestyle can save you endless headaches on the back end of an exit, possibly save you a surprising amount in taxes and set you up for long-term success and fulfillment.

Taxes and QSBS

Speaking with a professional can help you determine what tax savings opportunities would be most applicable to your specific situation. For example, if you’re a startup founder, you may qualify for the QSBS exclusion (qualified small business stock). This exclusion could, if you qualify, allow you to exclude up to $10 million, and sometimes multiples of that, in federal capital gains tax after selling your stake in the company. 

One of our clients whose company was being acquired did not know whether he would qualify for the QSBS exclusion when he was introduced to us. By coordinating with his corporate counsel and accountant, we determined he would. In this specific situation he had acquired the domestic C Corporation shares of his tech company, and held them for over five years by the time the acquisition happened. And when he initially obtained the shares, the gross assets of the company were less than $50 million. Needless to say, he was pleased to learn that the first $10 million of his gains were exempt from federal tax!

Requirements to qualify for QSBS include but are not limited to:

  1. Domestic C corporation stock acquired directly from the company and held for over 5years
  2. Stock issued after Aug 10th, 1993, and ideally, after Aug 27th, 2010 for a full 100% exclusion
  3. Gross assets of the company must be less than $50 million when the stock was acquired 
  4. Active business with 80% of assets being used to run the business. Cannot be an investment entity
  5. Cannot be an excluded business type such as, but not limited to finance, professional services, mining/ natural resources hotel/ restaurants, farming or any other business where the business reputation is a skill of one or more of the employees.

Estate planning and wealth transfer

Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service

By Steve O'Hear

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Wiley and Sage are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

Luko raises $22 million to improve home insurance

By Romain Dillet

French startup Luko has raised a $22 million Series A round led by Accel (€20 million). Founders Fund and Speedinvest are also participating in today’s funding round.

When you rent a place in France, you have to provide a certificate to your landlord saying that you are covered with a home insurance product. And, of course, you might want to insure your place if you own it.

While the market is huge, legacy insurance companies still dominate it. That’s why Luko wants to shake things up in three different ways.

First, it’s hard to sign up to home insurance in France. It usually involves a lot of emails, a printer, some signatures, etc. It can quickly add up if you want to change your coverage level or add some options.

As expected, Luko’s signup process is pretty straightforward. You fill out a form on the company’s website and you get an insurance certificate minutes later.

Luko partners with La Parisienne Assurances to issue insurance contracts. So far, 15,000 people have signed up to Luko.

Second, if there’s some water damage or a fire, it can take a lot of time to get it fixed. Worse, if somebody breaks into your place, you’re not going to get your money back that quickly.

Luko wants to speed things up. You can make a claim via chat, over the phone or with a video call using the mobile app. The company tries its best to detect fraud and pay a claim as quickly as possible. Luko also recently announced an integration with Lydia, a popular peer-to-peer payment app in France, so that your payment is instant.

Third, Luko has a bold vision to make home insurance even more effective. The startup wants to detect issues before it’s too late. For instance, you could imagine receiving a water meter from Luko to detect leaks, or a door sensor to detect when somebody is trying to get in. We’ll find out if people actually want to put connected objects everywhere.

Finally, Luko has partnered with a handful of nonprofits to redistribute some of its revenue — it has received the BCorp certification. The startup makes revenue by taking a flat fee on your monthly subscription. If there’s money left at the end of the year, Luko donates it to charities. Investors signed a pledge so that Luko doesn’t trade this model for growth.

Steve Jang & Kanyi Maqubela form or fund as Kindred Ventures

By Josh Constine

Venture capitalists often mutter, “I haven’t seen anything I like lately”. Founders frequently complain that “investors are back-seat drivers who won’t get their hands dirty.” A $55 million fund with a fresh approach is aiming to address both those issues.

Steve Jang and Kanyi Maqubela are two exceedingly smart and sweet guys who couldn’t help but come up with ideas for startups. Jang co-founded music apps Imeem and Soundtracking, meanwhile serving as an early Uber advisor and angel investor in Coinbase. Maqubela worked in operations at career network Doostang (acquired by Universum Global) and solar startup One Block Off The Grid (acquired by NRG) before rising to general partner at Collaborative Fund.

Today the pair officially launch Kindred Ventures to form startups as well as fund them.

“We don’t want to wait for people to come around and solve the problems we think matter” says Jang. “We’d rather proactively assemble an amazing team to go tackle that problem” Maqubela follows up. But Kindred Ventures will also step up and lead seed rounds, then help startups orchestrate their follow-on fundraises.

Kindred Ventures partner and co-founder Steve Jang

“The ethos is empathy — to take a very adaptive coaching and mentorship model” Jang tells me. That means partnering with startups, not merely offering arms-length investing. By keeping the portfolio size low, Jang and Maqubela plan to turn concentrated conviction and outsized, hands-on effort into big stakes in tomorrow’s top companies.

“I originally wanted to call the fund Kindred Spirits, but it sounds a little too woo-woo” Jang says with a laugh. From multiple interviews with the team and its portfolio, though, that’s really the vibe Kindred Ventures is going for — to be the first people founders call when they’re in crisis…whether they need answers or just some cheering up.

Techno-Optimism

Beyond the warm smiles, Kindred already has a strong track record from its prototype phase under Jang’s solo operation since 2014. He’d made a reputation for himself as a fixer through his advising work during Uber’s scrappy early years starting in 2009. It began with Jang writing Garrett Camp a check for his side-project. As the company blossomed without full-time employees, Jang pitched in wherever he could.

After Imeem’s sale to Myspace and later Soundtracking’s acquisition by Rhapsody, Jang made about 50 angel investments of around $25,000 to $250,000 in companies like Coinbase, Blue Bottle Coffee, Postmates, and Zymergen under the name Kindred Ventures. Instead of just throwing money around, “I’d help a co-founder — sit down and work with them on product, their presentation for seed funding, hiring their first employees, finding a co-founder — it was quite different from how VCs operate.” Still, he wanted to lead more investments like his favorite seed funds First Round and True Ventures while remaining a thick-or-thin squire to his startups.

But to pour that kind of sweat into the portfolio, Jang needed the help of someone who could dig deep and become an ally to founders in any vertical. He needed someone like Kanyi.

After his stints in operations, Maqubela went on to work at Collaborative Fund for seven years, rising to partner at the firm looking for the intersection of positive impact and profit. He tells me developed a thesis about “what does it mean to be a techno-optimist: to believe that technology is a amoral but can be oriented towards good.”

Maqubela’s super-power is learning. I knew him from Stanford and now the same reputation precedes him through his portfolio of angel investments like Earnest and Buffer. He’ll immerse himself in any topic or industry, read and call people until he truly gets it, and then wedge his entrepreneurial skillset into the cracks to firm up an idea. Still, relatively new to venture, Maqubela was seeking someone with a well-worn process for investing and a big heart for what founders go through. He was looking for Steve.

Kindred Ventures partner and co-founder Kanyi Maqubela

The coincidental co-investors became friends, then deliberately funded startups side by side, and now are taking the leap as Kindred Ventures. Together they want to redefine “What does it mean to invest at t=0?. What do they really need?” Maqubela says.

The plan is to fund about twenty-five companies through pre-seed and seed per fund, which they’ll raise every two to three years. Kindred is vertical agnostic, but it has a soft spot for the future of cities, work, and living. It also keen on marketplaces, material science, food innovation, deep tech, enterprise SAAS, and developer tools.

Jang and Maqubela are learning from each other day by day, at home and in the office. They’ve each got their own toddler son to juggle alongside Kindred. The added responsibility seems to make both of them conscious of how each minute counts.

Get In Formation

So far Kindred Ventures has funded nine startups from its $55 million initial fund. It’s helped form two companies and hopes to do four to eight per fund. But Kindred won’t be taking founder-level equity in those. Instead it just wants the opportunity to lead the seed round and own 10% to 20% by the time of the Series A.

That makes Kindred Ventures distinct from most startup studios like Atomic that aim for bigger ~30% stakes. “The Studios are creating whole platform teams, services teams, only work on their own ideas, and own a considerable amount of equity” Jang notes. By leaving more shares for the real CEO, “We’d be able to work with a stronger profile of founders” while avoiding spending so much time per company that the model becomes unscalable.

Kindred’s two formations come from the disparate medicine and blockchain worlds. Maqubela became an expert in cardiology to help start Heartbeat, which does in-person and remote heart health diagnostics. “I have a clear bullshit meter for when non-healthtech people try to get into it” but Maqubela really figured it out, Heartbeat CEO Jeff Wessler, MD tells me.

On his experience with Kindred, “It’s ‘we’re there for you when you need us’ rather than ‘we’re there for you when we fund you and then we move on'” Wessler says. “Very quickly this evolved into Steve and Kanyi being my absolute numbers 1 and 2.” The investors gave Wessler entrepreneurship 101 coaching, provided Heartbeat’s first funding, and helped it build a team. With their help, the first-time founder has sidestepped common pitfalls and is already turning patients into customers.

Bitski, a blockchain app login platform, has quickly leveraged Kindred’s support with formation into big funding from top investors. “In the early days, Steve would be in the office with us, late night jamming on ideas around the evolution of the blockchain space, fundamental products that needed to exist, early use cases etc. There’s a lot of money available for seed stage projects, but it can be difficult to find an investor willing to grind with the team through the days of pre product-market fit.”

Bitski actually started as collaborative video production app Riff. But Jang and Maqubela’s advice helped it solidy a pivot into developer tools for decentralized apps. It’s since gone on to raise $3.5 million from SV Angel, Coinbase, Galaxy Digital, and the Winklevoss twins. “The collaborative tone of the relationship really stands out” says Dinch of Kindred. “Obviously, operating with a high-touch model can take more of the partners’ time, but we haven’t noticed any drop in availability or support.”

Plenty of funds talk a lot about getting their hands dirty. Often that means hiring big teams they can assign to help founders, though, while the partners focus elsewhere. With just two support staff, Jang and Maqubela don’t have that luxury. They’re in constant contact with their investments by WhatsApp, phone, and email to work through snags directly.

They’re always super responsive” says Michael Karnjarnaaprakorn, co-founder of collectibles investing startup Otis that was backed by Kindred’s prototype fund. He cites three big value-adds. Strategy: “Anytime I’m thinking through a big decision, I call them to help me think through it” including fundraising and product launches. Network: “They have an extremely strong network and are usually one to two degrees away from anyone.” And “everything else”, from mentorship on founder psychology to company building.

Undertaking such intense involvement in their whole portfolio would likely surface concerns about a green VC. But “Steve has essentially been doing this for a decade or so not formalized, so I don’t see any reason it can’t work” says one of Kindred’s stealth startup founders Brian Norgard. “As companies begin to scale, my sense is they will be less effective because that’s a different game that’s more on the operations side. Still, I see a lot of value that can be created in the early innings.”

Kindred had a sort of grit and passion for early stage founders and teams that we thought would give us an edge as we started to grow quickly” says health insurance company Catch‘s co-founder Kristen Tyrrell. “They have been genuinely interested in our mental health. Having Steve fly in to take us to dinner and tell us we’re doing ok is surprisingly meaningful when you’re fighting on every side.”

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 10: Kanyi Maqubela of Collaborative Fund speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016 at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal on May 10, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

But being high-touch and concerned with entrepreneurs’ well-being doesn’t mean becoming a push-over yes-man. “Founder empathy is not always founder friendly” says Maqubela. “It’s being able to disagree with founders, even very passionately, and still constructively working together. To be able to tell them they’re wrong but come out the other side.”

That means Kindred Ventures isn’t for every founder. Those who want their investors firmly belted in the backseat or locked in the trunk may want to look elsewhere for cash. Smart founders will take all the help they can get, and Kindred strives to give the most per dollar. Jang concludes that “The idea may come from them or come from us, but we want to back amazing founders on a mission. It’s scratching both itches for us.”

SmartNews raises $92M at a $1.2B valuation

By Anthony Ha

Looks like there’s still money to be made in news aggregation — at least according to the investors backing the news app SmartNews.

The company is announcing the close of a $92 million round of funding at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The funding was led by Japan Post Capital Co. and ACA Investments, with participation from Globis Capital Partners Co., Dentsu, and D.A. Consortium.

This includes the $28 million that SmartNews announced in August, and it brings the startup’s total funding to $182 million.

News aggregation apps seemed to everywhere a few years ago, and while they haven’t exactly disappeared, they didn’t turn into unicorns, with many of them acquired or shut down.

However, Vice President of U.S. marketing Fabian-Pierre Nicolas told me that SmartNews has a few unique advantages. For one thing, it uses machine learning rather than human curation to “thoughtfully generate a news discovery experience” that’s personalized to each user.

SmartNews team

Secondly, he said that many news aggregators treat the publishers creating the content that they rely on “like a commodity,” whereas SmartNews treats them as “true partners.” For example, it’s working with select publishers like Business Insider, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed and Reuters on a program called SmartView First, where articles are presented in a custom format that gives publishers more revenue opportunities and better analytics.

Lastly, he said SmartNews has focused on only two key markets — Japan (where the company started) and the United States. And it sounds like one of the main goals with the new funding is to continue growing in the United States.

Nicolas also suggested that there are some broader trends that SmartNews is taking advantage of, like the fact that the shift to mobile news consumption is still underway, particularly for older readers.

And then there’s “the loss of trust in some news sources — political news, especially” which makes SmartNews’ curated approach seem more valuable. (It also recently launched a News From All Sides feature to show coverage from different political perspectives.)

As for monetization, he said SmartNews remains focused on advertising.

Yes, there’s a growing interest in subscriptions and paywalls, which is also reflected in subscription news aggregators like Apple’s News+, but Nicolas said, “Eighty-five to ninety percent of Americans are not subscribing to news media. We believe those 85 to 90 percent have a right to have quality information as well.”

Update: Also worth noting that SensorTower says SmartNews has been downloaded 45 million times since the beginning of 2014, with 11 million of those downloads in 2019.

Heetch adds $4 million to its Series B round

By Romain Dillet

Ride-hailing service Heetch has added a new investor to its $38 million Series B round. AfricInvest is investing another $4 million in the startup — in total, Heetch has raised a $42 million Series B round. Previous investors in the Series B round include Cathay Innovation, Idinvest and Total Ventures.

Heetch first started as a pure peer-to-peer ride-hailing platform. Anyone could become a driver, anyone could order a ride. After some regulatory issues in France, Heetch now uses a hybrid approach. It partners with professional drivers in some markets, it partners with local taxis and even moto-taxis in others.

In its home market France, the company competes directly with Uber, Kapten and other traditional ride-hailing apps. It takes a smaller cut than many of its competitors (15%) and users can pay both in cash or card.

According to the company, Heetch is one of the top three companies in the nine French cities where it operates (Paris, Lyon, Lille, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Nantes). Heetch also operates in Belgium.

More recently, the company has expanded to other markets with a focus on French-speaking Africa. It is currently live in Morocco, Algeria and Cameroon. In Morocco, Heetch has partnered with major taxi unions to let people book taxis through its app. It is now the only legal ride-sharing app.

In Douala, Cameroon, the company has built a moto-taxi service. The company insists that it is training drivers and moto-taxis are equipped with helmets as there are many accidents.

Up next, Heetch plans to expand to six additional countries in 2020, including Tunisia and Senegal.

MMC Ventures outs new £100M ‘Scale Up’ fund to double-down on its portfolio at the later stage

By Steve O'Hear

MMC Ventures, the London-based VC that typically invests at seed and Series A via the various funds it manages, has launched a new £100 million “Scale Up” fund to provide expansion capital to its later-stage portfolio companies.

This is a move we are seeing a number of early-stage European VCs make, such as LocalGlobe with its “Latitude” fund, as they look to double-down on existing investments at Series B and beyond.

The motivation is obvious: As European tech continues to grow, becoming increasingly ambitious and global, investors don’t want to get diluted too much and too early. Meanwhile, although arguably there is an abundance of early-stage capital floating around, there are fewer European funds as you move to later stage.

MMC Ventures says its Scale Up Fund will provide primary capital to current portfolio companies that have grown beyond the mandate of MMC Ventures’ existing funds. Notably, however, MMC’s Scale Up Fund is also permitted to participate in secondary transactions.

In a call with MMC’s Bruce Macfarlane (managing partner) and Simon Menashy (partner), the pair explained that this means that MMC can offer liquidity to early MMC and third-party investors that wish to exit from one of MMC’s portfolio companies early.

In this way, capital can be recycled within the early-stage funding ecosystem, whereby, for example, angel investors can go again by backing newly formed companies, while MMC maintains a longer-term outlook.

However, despite the launch of a later-stage fund, Macfarlane says MMC’s core specialism remains as a Series A investor.

Meanwhile, MMC has already made investments from the Scale Up Fund into a number of portfolio companies. They are Safeguard Global (alongside Accel-KKR), Masabi (alongside Smedvig Capital) and Interactive Investor.

The Scale Up Fund rounds off a number of new funds managed by MMC. The firm recently outed a new £52 million seed fund in partnership with the mayor of London. And combined with its annual EIS fundraise, the VC has added £200 million to its coffers in the last 12 months.

Over the last year, MMC has invested more than £85 million across the pre-seed, seed, series A and later stages in amounts ranging from £100,000 to £25 million. The firm also moved into new larger offices in Holborn, in Central London, which Macfarlane tells me is a sign of how bullish MMC remains with regards to U.K. tech and in spite of Brexit.

“2019 has been a big year for our firm, and the launch of our new Scale Up Fund represents a scale up moment for MMC as well as a significant innovation in the U.K. venture market,” adds Macfarlane in a statement. “This Fund allows us to double down on our most successful businesses while enabling our investors, and others, to take full or partial exits from early investments.”

Northzone raises new $500M fund to back startups in Europe (and the East Coast, US)

By Steve O'Hear

Northzone, the European VC firm that’s probably best-known for being an early backer of Spotify, has raised a new $500 million fund, which it claims was oversubscribed and will reach its final close imminently.

Dubbed “Northzone IX,” the new fund pretty much represents business as usual for Northzone and will be used to invest primarily at Series A and B, with “selective” Seed investments (as many Series A firms increasingly do).

Geographically, Northzone is targeting Europe and the East Coast of the U.S., and is eyeing up early-stage consumer and enterprise companies that are addressing “large and established industries saddled with legacy technology”. This includes financial services, healthcare, education, mobility and construction.

The VC firm is also announcing two promotions. Hello Fresh co-founder Jessica Schultz and Dots co-founder Paul Murphy have been promoted to General Partners, in addition to existing GPs Pär-Jörgen Pärson, Jeppe Zink, and Michiel Kotting.

“Tech businesses are becoming giants in new industries like construction, food, and finance,” says Murphy, during a telephone interview alongside Schultz and Kotting. “And these industries are 4 trillion to 10 trillion in size, so quite a bit bigger than media, which is where most of the focus has been in the past few decades. I think it’s exciting, we look at huge addressable markets, both in terms of existing incumbents, and consumers and users and businesses. But it’s also challenging because it means we do sort of become, you know, pretty deep on multiple industries, instead of just one”.

To manage this, Murphy explains that Northzone takes a “thematic approach” to investing, whereby themes cut across sectors. “So it could be a certain theme that leads us to a finTech investment or to a mobility investment,” he says. “We try to let the themes take us where they take us, instead of having to focus in on one particular sector”.

“I think our strategy is still looking for founders with huge ambition and conviction to build transformative businesses,” adds Schultz.

With an avalanche of new European VC funds being announced — I chalk this up as the fourth I’ve covered in the last week, I posit that we could be in a bubble or at least somewhat frothy times.

“I think that there’s always cycles,” says Murphy. “And I think where we are in this cycle, there’s a lot of people that are speculating. I think the broad macro climate indicates that we’re maybe at the high end of that cycle, and tech is core to many, many countries’ economy now. So I don’t want to claim that we’re immune to any sort of downturn that may come.

“That said, as I mentioned before, tech is now going after industries that are exponentially larger than what they’ve gone after in the past. There is a whole lot of opportunity out there. Yes, there’s more funds than ever, but if we want to fully capture all of the opportunities that exist around the world in tech, I think we need many more funds than exists today”.

“I think that’s where we have the benefit of history a little bit, as we’ve been in the business for 23 years now,” says Schultz. “We’ve seen a lot of the downturns from dot com boom to the financial crisis in 2008. And I think that also gives us a little bit of a perspective on the opportunities you get in the downturns and also the important areas to focus on during challenging market conditions. As Paul said, we think there will still be a lot of opportunities regardless of the economic cycles”.

The key to VC investing, regardless of cycle, is to stay disciplined “and look for the fundamentals of the businesses” that fit a long term view of how the world is changing.

Somewhat related to this, although Northzone isn’t able to disclose a list of its LPs — who are said to be a mixture of existing investors and new ones — General Partner Michiel Kotting says the majority are in Europe.

“We have always maintained that as a European product, we want predominantly European investors behind us. So it’s an awful lot of European but we’re not one of these EIF [European Investment Fund] dominated funds at all. And we also have systematically stepped up Asian and U.S. LPs in recent years. But the key thing for us is, we learned that lesson a decade ago, you can’t be a European product and be dominated by U.S. or Asian LPs. Because when a financial crisis comes around, they tend to drop those sort of products first. So we’ve always made sure that we have a natural alignment with our LP base”.

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