Productivity software has had a huge couple of years, yet for all of the great note-taking apps that have launched, consumers haven’t gotten a lot of quality options for Google Calendar replacements.
This week, Woven, a calendar startup founded by former Facebook CIO Tim Campos is shaking up the premium tier of their scheduling software, hoping that productivity-focused users will pay to further optimize the calendar experience just as they have paid up for subscription email services like Superhuman and note-taking apps like Notion.
There’s been a pretty huge influx of investor dollars into the productivity space which has shown a lot of promise in bottoms-up scaling inside enterprises by first aiming to sell their products to individuals. Woven has raised about $5 million to date with investments from Battery Ventures, Felicis Ventures and Tiny Capital, among others.
“Time is the most valuable asset that we have,” Campos told TechCrunch. “We think there’s a real opportunity to do much more with the calendar.”
Their new product will help determine just how much demand there is for a pro-tier calendar that aims to make life easier for professionals than Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar cares to. The new product, which is $20 per month ($10 during an early access period if you pay for a year), builds on the company’s free tier product giving users a handful of new features. There’s still quite a bit of functionality in the free tier still, which is sticking around, but the lack of multi-account support is one of the big limitations there.
Image credit: via Woven.
The core of Woven’s value is likely its Calendly-like scheduling links which allow single users to quickly show when they’re free, or give teams the ability to eliminate back-in-forth entirely when scheduling meetings by scanning everyone’s availability and suggesting times that are uniformly available. In this latest update, the startup has also launched a new feature called Open Invite which allows users to blast out links to join webinars that recipients can quickly register for.
One of Woven’s top features is probably Smart Templates which aims to learn from your habits and strip down the amount of time it takes to organize a meeting. Selecting the template can automatically set you up with a one-time Zoom link, ping participants for their availability with Woven’s scheduling links and take care of mundane details. Now, the titles automatically update depending on participants, location or company information as well. While plenty of productivity happens on the desktop, the startup is trying to push the envelope on mobile as well. They’ve added an iMessage integration to quickly allow people to share their availability and schedule meetings inside chat.
The product updates arrive soon after the announcement of the company’s Zoom “Zapp,” which shoves the app’s functionality inside Zoom and will likely be a bit sell to new users.
Brendan Sweeney didn’t know anything about the restaurant business before he and his co-founders launched the Atlanta-based startup Popmenu.
What Sweeney did know was that it was nuts that while every other business was using incredible graphics, curated text, carefully crafted images and fancy videos to make their pitch to customers restaurants were — posting a text-based menu.
“It’s just crazy that restaurants present their inventory, which is their whole story, their whole selling proposition in plain text,” Sweeney said.
Popmenu, he company he co-founded with three former colleagues from software businesses around the Atlanta area (and which has closed on $17 million in new financing) offers a solution.
What the company’s software aims to do is keep customers on restaurant’s own online real estate by incorporating third party reviews, images, recommendations, and better descriptions into the webpages that it hosts for the culinary creators that use its service. “If you had all that information on a restaurant website it would probably reduce the need to bounce out so much,” Sweeney said.
Popmenu does more than just prettify webpages for the savory savants whose coding skills may not match their craft in the kitchen. The software also helps with social media management, emailing and, yes, even the all-important delivery services that have become vital in the time of a still-spreading pandemic.
It’s the pandemic that juiced the company’s growth, Sweeney said. “We saw ten years of trends in the first ten weeks of COVID-19,” he said. “A lot of people were unprepared for it.”
Sweeney and his co-founders Mike Gullo, Anthony Roy, and Justis Blasco had all worked together at either CareerBuilder or Commissions Inc. It was the experience at Commissions that actually gave Sweeney and his colleagues the idea to start Popmenu.
Popmenu co-founders Brendan Sweeney, Mike Gullo, Justis Blasco, and Anthony Roy. Image Credit: Popmenu
Where Commissions was about designing tools to help local real estate agents and brokers take some power back from the large online platforms that were eating their lunch, Popmenu is bringing the same tools for small businesses to restaurateurs.
“I got this playbook for helping small business with SAAS. [And we’re] helping restaurants take control back from Yelp and TripAdvisor,” said Sweeney.
Other companies around the country, like ChowNow out of Los Angeles, are trying to do something similar. But while ChowNow is focused on online ordering, Popmenu started with marketing and… well… making menus “pop”.
The company is going to use the new cash it raised to add services like on-premises contactless transactions and from there could have a connection from the front-of-the-house to the back-of-the-house operations and ordering and fulfillment services.
Existing investors like Base10 Partners and Felicis Ventures returned to finance the company’s Series B along with new lead investor Bedrock Capital. Popmenu has also received some celebrity financing in the form of a commitment from Mantis VC, the newly launched investment firm from the wildly popular Chainsmokers band.
Apparently, they wanted something just like this, according to Milan Koch of Mantis VC. “When Alex, Drew and I met the Popmenu team, it was obvious to us right away how much they really cared about restaurateurs,” Koch said in a statement. “Having close ties with owners and hospitality groups worldwide and knowing the unique challenges they face, we got excited about how Popmenu’s product could help impact their businesses in so many different ways.”
Popmenu sells its software for a monthly fee of $269 per-location.
“So many industries have experienced radically accelerated trends through the COVID crisis, probably none more so than the restaurant industry,” said Sweeney, in a statement. “They’ve embraced technology as key to weathering these challenging times. We are fired up to give them even more help attracting guests and reducing costs and complexity on the road to recovery.”
These days when you found a startup, you don’t go out and buy a rack of servers. And you don’t build an in-house data center team. Instead, you farm out your infrastructure needs to the major cloud platforms, namely Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.
That’s all well and good, but over time, any startup’s cloud setup will become more complex, varied and perhaps multi-provider. Throw in microservices and one can wind up with a big muddle, and an even bigger bill. That’s the problem that Yotascale wants to attack.
And there’s money backing the startup’s progress, including $13 million in new capital. The round, a Series B, was led by Aydin Senkut at Felicis, with participation from other capital pools, including Engineering Capital, Pelion Ventures and Crosslink Capital. Yotascale has now raised $25 million in total.
The funding event caught my eye, as I’ve heard startup CEOs discuss their public cloud spends in somewhat bitter terms; it’s hard for most startups to change infrastructure direction after they get off the ground, which means that as they grow, so too does their outflow of dollars to the major tech companies — the same megacaps that might turn around and compete with the very same startups that are pumping up their revenues and margins.
So spending less on AWS or Azure would be nice for startups. Yotascale wants to be the helper for lots of companies to better understand and attribute that spend to the correct part of their platform or service, perhaps lowering aggregate spend at the same time.
Let’s talk about how Yotascale got to where it is today.
The startup’s CEO, Asim Razzaq, talked TechCrunch through his company’s history, which didn’t get started until after he had wrapped up tenure at both another startup and PayPal.
When he set out to found Yotascale, Razzaq didn’t fire up a deck, raise capital and then get right to building. Instead, he first went out to do customer discovery work. That effort led him to the perspective that current solutions aimed at understanding cloud spend were insufficient and led to data being used against infrastructure teams in arguments for lower spend when it wasn’t a good idea (cutting backup expenses, for example).
During that time he also determined who Yotascale’s target customer is, namely the head of platform engineering at a company.
The startup self-funded for a while, with Razzaq telling TechCrunch that he wanted to be completely sure that he had conviction concerning the project before moving ahead.
After starting to work on Yotascale in mid 2015, the company raised some capital in 2016. It set out to solve the spend attribution problem that companies with public cloud contracts deal with — including having to contend with modern architecture and its related issues — while earning the trust of engineers, according to Razzaq.
From its period of customer discovery to working on product market fit after raising funds from Engineering Capital, Yotascale raised a Series A in mid-2018. Why? Because, Razzaq, told TechCrunch, as ones gains conviction, one must scale their team. And thus more capital was required.
During our chat with the CEO, it was notable how sequential his company-building process has proven. From talking to potential customers, to working to understand who his buyer is, to waiting on scaling the startup’s go-to-market efforts until he was confident in product-market fit, Yotascale seems to follow the inverse of the “raise lots and spend fast and try to win right away” model that became quite popular during the unicorn era.
How did Yotascale know when it found product market fit? According to its CEO, when companies started pulling the startup into their operations, and not the other way around.
Yotascale reported 4x year-over-year annual recurring revenue (ARR) growth at some point this year, though Razzaq was diffident about sharing specifics concerning the metric.
Sticking to the theme of reasonableness and caution, when asked about why his Series B is modest in size, Razzaq said that he was not interested in raising big rounds, and that $13 million is an amount of money that can move his company forward. What’s coming from the company? Yotascale wants to add support for Azure and Google Cloud in addition to its AWS work of today, to pick an example.
(You can find other hints that Yotascale is perhaps more mature than its peers at its current age. For example, in 2018 the company hired a new chief revenue officer, even putting out a release on the matter.)
That’s enough on this particular round. What will prove interesting is how far Yotascale can push its ARR up by the end of Q3 2021. And if it raises again before then.
Zuleyka Strasner didn’t set out to become an advocate for zero-waste consumption.
The former manager of partner operations at Felicis Ventures had initially pursued a career in politics in the UK before a move to San Francisco with her husband. It was on their honeymoon on a small island in the Caribbean that Strasner says she first saw the ways in which plastic use destroyed the environment.
That experience turned the onetime political operative into a zero-waste crusader — a transformation that culminated in the creation of Zero Grocery, a subscription-based grocery delivery service that sells all of its goods in zero-waste packaging.
Strasner returned from Corn Island with a purpose to reduce her plastic use and found inspiration in the social media posts and work of women like Anamarie Shreves, the founder of Fort Negrita; Lauren Singer, who became known for her TedX Teen talk on living waste free and launched Package Free; and Bea Johnson, who became a social media celebrity for her work reducing consumption and living waste-free.
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7 years and going strong. This photo, taken by @hellaerwin years ago, doesn't look too dissimilar from what my jar looks like now! I get a lot of questions about what I still put in my jar, and the biggest things are the pieces of plastic that connect a price tag to a piece of clothing, produce stickers, and festival/concert bracelets. What are the items that you have hard a hard time avoiding on your path to reduce your waste?
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Following in the zero-waste footsteps of others eventually led Strasner from her home in Redwood City, Calif. to San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery, a food co-op dedicated to sustainable business practices. That 45 minute drive and hour spent in a store juggling jars, bottles, and shakers to perform basic shopping tasks convinced Strasner that there had to be a better way to shop zero-waste — especially for busy parents, professionals, and singles.
So she built one.
“I may have had no team and no money, but I had data. I spent 6 months alpha testing the early version of Zero. I was working from my apartment (cue cliché) getting real sign-ups, servicing real customers and doing a lot of growth hacking,” Strasner wrote in a post on Medium about the company’s early fundraising efforts. “It was really janky, but going between research reports, market data and the data I was collecting from real-people, I had something tangible to put under investors noses to back up how Zero looks at scale.”
Living through COVID-19 is a literal trash heap
Strasner’s push to create alternatives to single-use plastic in grocery delivery comes as the use of single use plastics skyrockets and grocery delivery services surge — putting her new company in the enviable position of solving an obvious problem that’s becoming more apparent to everyone.
An August study from the investment bank Jefferies on single-use plastic identified the surge in plastic use and laid the blame at the feet of the pandemic.
“Bans and taxes have been rolled back, physical and chemical recycling activity has decreased, and virus concerns may have reduced consumers’ desire to minimize consumption of single-use plastics,” said the report, entitled “Drowning in Plastics,” which was quoted in Fortune.
While much of the use in home delivery and consumer goods has been offset by reductions in the use of plastics in manufacturing as industries slowed down production, the reopening of international economies means that there’s the potential for renewed industrial use even as consumers renew their love affair with plastic.
Companies like Strasner’s present a way forward for consumers willing to pay a premium for the waste reduction — and she’s not alone.
Changing the supply chain for food and consumer packaged goods
Lauren Singer was already two years into operating her (profitable and cash-flow positive since “day one”) Brooklyn-based and e-commerce stores when she raised $4.5 million for her plastic free and zero-waste wares last September.
The image of the years worth of waste she claimed to be able to fit into a single jar had made her a viral sensation on Instagram and she’d managed to turn that post, and her celebrity, into a business. She wasn’t alone. Bea Johnson, another star of the zero-waste movement wrote the book on going zero waste and has turned that into a business of her own.
At Package Free, products range from a line of plastic-free and zero-waste lifestyle products like bamboo toothbrushes and mason jars, to natural tooth powder alongside natural pacifiers, and a dog shampoo bar. The company’s packaging is composed of 100% up-cycled post-consumer box with paper wrapping and paper tape, according to the company.
Meanwhile, another New York-based startup, Fresh Bowl, raised $2.1 million in January to bring zero-waste packaging and circular economic principles to the bowl business. The company, founded by Zach Lawless, Chloe Vichot and Paul Christophe, uses vending machines around New York that could hold roughly 220 prepared meals with a five-day shelf-life. Those meals were distributed in reusable containers that customers could return for a refund of a deposit.
Before the pandemic hit in the early months of the company’s financing each of its machines were on track to bring in $75,000 in revenue — and roughly 85% of the company’s containers were being returned for re-use according to a January interview with chief executive officer Zach Lawless.
Roughly 40% of landfilled material is food or food packaging, Lawless said. “For consumers it’s hard to make that trade-off between convenience and sustainability,” he said. Companies like Fresh Bowl and Strasner’s Zero Grocery are each trying to make that tradeoff a little easier.
Designing a zero-waste delivery service
Zero Grocery currently counts around 850 unique items in stock and expects to be over 1,000 items at the end of the year — and all delivered in reusable or compostable packaging, according to Strasner.
“Our aim is to not create anything that would go into the landfill and really limit what would need to be recycled. For the products that are single use… they are banded toilet rolls and they’re wrapped in a single sheet of paper. It’s all compostable,” said Strasner.
Zero Grocery’s current operations are confined to the Bay Area, but the company has seen its growth triple when the pandemic hit in March and then grow twenty times over the ensuing months, according to Strasner. And unlike companies like Singer’s and Lawless’, Strasner didn’t have the luxury of reaching out to a handful of investors for a small cap table.
“I have continuously raised throughout this period to get to this moment in time. Initially i believed that we would have a more typical round structure, maybe myself misunderstanding that I’m an atypical founder,” Strasner said. As a Black, trans, woman, the path to “yes” from investors involved over 250 pitches and an undue amount of “no’s”.
An early champion was Charles Hudson, the founder of Precursor Ventures, who helped lead a seed round for the company back in 2019. Hudson’s investment allowed the company to launch its first service, an exclusive, á la carte, home delivery service. It was basically Strasner wheeling a cart brimming with produce, grains and compostable items into customers’ homes and filling their own jars.
Zero Grocery chief executive Zuleyka Strasner on an early delivery run for her company. Image Credit: Zero Grocery
Ultimately untenable, the first service gave Strasner a view into the ways in which grocery delivery worked, and allowed her to create the second version of the service.
That was more like a latter day milkman service, where the company would deliver next-day, door-to-door delivery of over 100 zero-waste products. These were pre-packaged goods that the company just dropped off and then had customers return (a similar thesis to Fresh Bowl’s retail strategy).
That was around November 2019, when the company launched publicly across the Bay Area with our new offering. The initial traction allowed Strasner to raise another $500,000 from existing investors and new firms like Chingona Ventures and Cleo Capital.
“At that point we had sixty members on the platform and had done four figures of revenue of that month,” Strasner said.
Then COVID-19 hit the Bay Area and sales started soaring. To meet the needs of a strained supply chain — since the company doesn’t use any third-party services for delivery and involves a heavy bit of sanitization of containers so they can be re-used — Zero Grocery raised another $700,00 from Incite.org, Gaingels, Arlan Hamilton and MaC Ventures.
As Strasner wrote in a Medium post:
When COVID-19 hit the US, our team was among the first companies to go into lockdown. By late February, only essential personnel were on the warehouse floor for order preparation and delivery in head-to-toe PPE. Soon after that, the Bay Area went into full shelter-in-place.
Much like other companies in the grocery delivery space, our demand skyrocketed. To keep up, we grew our team in half the time we anticipated and launched features that were half-baked. Customer experience is tantamount, and our underdog team fought tooth-and-nail to preserve that despite long hours, little sleep, and no time for planning. We abandoned our notions of roles and split up the responsibilities of customer service, order packing, feature development, and more.
Strasner’s experiences as an immigrant, Black, trans founder mean that she thinks about sustainability not just in environmental terms, but also social sustainability. That’s why she works with the staffing service R3 Score to provide opportunities for people who had criminal records. The service provides a risk analysis for employers of job applicants who have a criminal record, to give employers a better sense of their viability as an employee.,
As she told Fast Company, “This is a highly capable, untapped labor force who is ready to work and is actively looking for opportunities… This is not merely a COVID stopgap measure for us; it’s something we’re incorporating into our business for the long-term.”
More money, fewer problems?
Zero Grocery now counts many thousands of customers on its service and has just raised another $3 million, led by the investment firm 1984, to grow the business. The company charges $25 for a membership that includes free deliveries and collects empty containers. Non-members pay a $7.99 delivery free for groceries priced competitively with Whole Foods and other higher end grocery options.
Right now, Zero Grocery occupies the as the only fully zero-waste online grocery store in the U.S., and its numbers are growing quickly.
But that kind of success can breed competition, and there are certainly no shortage of would-be competitors waiting in the wings.
Already some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the U.S. have rolled out a version of zero-waste delivery services for their products. These are companies like Procter & Gamble and Froneri, the owner of ice cream brand Haagen Dazs (and others). In April, their reusable, no-waste delivery service Loop launched nationwide to provide customers across the country with recyclable and reusable packaged containers.
The commercialization of new kinds of packaging technologies from companies like NotPla, Varden, and Vericool mean that compostable material packaging could become a wider solution to the waste dilemma.
Still, these solutions to packaging waste come with their own issues, like the sustainability of the supply chain used to make them and the carbon footprint of the manufacturing processes. In instances like these reducing the need to manufacture new material is likely the most sustainable option.
And, in many cases, companies like Zero Grocer help their vendors do a lot of the work to reduce the footprint of their own supply chains.
“A lot of work is to enable them to exist within a plastic free supply chain using our technology,” said Strasner of the work she’d done with vendors.
“I started Zero to make zero-waste grocery shopping effortless and empower people to protect the planet while shopping conveniently,” she said. That’s a notion everyone can treasure.