As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.
SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.
Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.
At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.
SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.
The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).
H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.
For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.
“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.
As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”
Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.
In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.
Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.
Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.
Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.
David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.
“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.
“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”
Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.
Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.
Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.
Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.
“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.”
Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.
“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”
Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.
“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. In very good Show News, Chris is back! He’s working on the next iteration of the show, something that you will be able to see starting Very Soon. Get hype!
Today though, we had a delectable dish of dynamic doings, namely news items of the following persuasion:
And that’s our show! We are back early Monday morning for a packed week. So keep your podcast app warm, we’re coming for it.
Photomath, the popular mobile app that helps you solve equations, has raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures. The app is a massive consumer success, and chances are you might already know about it if you have a teenager in your household.
The app lets you point your phone’s camera at a math problem. It recognizes what’s written and gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem. You might think that it’s the perfect app for lazy students.
But there are many different use cases for Photomath. For instance, you can write an equation in your notebook and use Photomath to draw a graph.
Typing an equation on a keyboard is quite difficult. That’s why bridging the gap between the physical world and your smartphone is key to Photomath’s success. You can just grab a pen and write something down on a piece of paper. Essentially, it’s an AR calculator.
GSV Ventures, Learn Capital, Cherubic Ventures and Goodwater Capital are also participating in today’s funding round.
Behind the app’s success, there’s an interesting story. Photomath was originally designed as a demo app for another company called MicroBlink. At the time, the team was working on text recognition technology. It planned to sell its core technology to other companies that might find it useful.
Photomath has now attracted over 220 million downloads. As of this writing, it is still #59 in the U.S. App Store, one rank above Tinder. Other companies tried to build competitors, but it seems like they didn’t manage to crush the tiny European startup.
The app seems even more relevant as many kids are spending more time studying at home. They can’t simply raise their hand to call the teacher for some help.
Photomath is free and users can optionally pay for Photomath Plus, a premium version with more features, such as dynamic illustrations and animated tutorials.
Update: There’s an entire second session of this? My lord.
Today the House Financial Services Committee dragged the CEO of Reddit, a Cato wonk, social media icon DeepFuckingValue, the CEO of Citadel Kenneth Griffin, a hedgefund bro who got whomped by DeepFuckingValue, and the CEO of Robinhood Vlad Tenev, who got womped when individual investors joined DeepFuckingValue in his womping of the hedge fund and thus womped his capital requirements leading to general market chaos, before them virtually for questioning.
It was not very useful. Between a cascade of Zoom failures — mutings, incorrect unmutings, a green screen that was not actually in use, and an actual gavel — members of Congress largely took five minute slots to embarass themselves, and not make material points.
The format was not conducive to real questioning, and most questions were both too long and either too precise, and misguided in their direction, or too imprecise, even if they landed in the strike zone. Sitting here I am trying to recall a single thing that I learned. I suppose that Robinhood’s CEO was not sure on the details of his company’s arbitration agreement with users. And perhaps a little bit about how many of its users trade options. And that Reddit’s CEO has a nice suit.
Some members of Congress mocked the proceedings, calling them political theater. That earned a rebuke by Maxine Waters, Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
Some members of Congress nearly got around to asking something useful. But largely the method of asking questions was bilge, the responses canned, and nothing much uncovered.
What would have worked? I suppose Congress could have brought in a few actual experts and a more limited number of guests, and then hammered them with questions about the ethical reality of payment for order flow, Robinhood’s app mechanics and how easily it offers access to exotic trading tools, and the like. That would have helped.
Instead, we got great stuff like this:
"I believe that investing is investing" – Steve Huffman
— alex (@alex) February 18, 2021
Which was not very helpful. That said, there were some good memes and jokes, so, let’s have some fun instead of being annoyed with our elected representatives:
"Did you buy GameStock because you were not aware of payment for order flow" is an incredible series of words to put one after the other
— Myles Udland (@MylesUdland) February 18, 2021
Really? An actual green screen? pic.twitter.com/goFNv3PtkP
— Lisa Fleisher (@lisafleisher) February 18, 2021
Just waiting for “why doesn’t Robinhood take responsibility for customers losses?” from these incompetent boomers
— litquidity (@litcapital) February 18, 2021
The rest of it was a waste of time. As I write this sentence to you, a member of Congress just asked how Robinhood go its name. Which is dumb, as the name is so obvious it nearly makes your head hurt with how earnest it is.
So there’s that. This was a waste. Real questions remain. They largely didn’t get asked, and certainly didn’t get answered.
CoinDesk reported yesterday that crypto trading startup Coinbase is being valued at $77 billion on private exchanges. And Forbes reported that Stripe is being valued at $115 billion on secondary markets, where private shares can be bought and sold, albeit in a limited fashion.
I instantly wanted to write a piece headlined “Beware those super hot secondary market valuations,“ but after a little digging, I cannot. It turns out that the public markets are so hot, there is historical precedent for seemingly aggressive secondary market transactions being conservative compared to later IPO valuations. And there is further precedent for private market transactions that are more conservative in price terms than venture-determined valuations also working out.
The hot equities market is making stock pickers out of many startup investors, regardless of whether they are leading priced rounds of buying shares on modern secondary markets.
Let’s explore the new prices for Coinbase and Stripe by starting with a look at their dated private valuations, their new, reported secondary prices and where some companies that went public with notable secondary prices wound up trading today.
This will be fun! I promise!
Coinbase was last valued by private-market money at around $8 billion, per Crunchbase data back in October of 2018. More recently we’ve seen secondary transactions that value the firm at $50 billion, other notes concerning a $75 billion possible valuation, and even some enthusiastic chat from a former employee that the company could be worth $100 billion.
Its new $77 billion price tag might seem somewhat pedestrian in that mix, but recall that we’re largely discussing the valuations associated with Coinbase set by buyers not in the know; retail secondary buyers of shares in the cryptocurrency exchange are probably not its board members.
So, the public is, to some degree, repricing Coinbase. The question is whether those prices make any sense. Hold your answer: we have more work to do.
Stripe at $115 billion on secondary exchanges is perhaps bonkers, or perhaps nothing more than rationality. In its last round, a $600 million Series G that came in mid-2020, Stripe was valued at around $36 billion. And, it is rumored to be raising capital at a $100 billion valuation.
A couple of weeks ago SentinelOne announced it was acquiring high-speed logging platform Scalyr for $155 million. Just this morning CrowdStrike struck next, announcing it was buying unlimited logging tool Humio for $400 million.
In Humio, CrowdStrike gets a company that will provide it with the ability to collect unlimited logging information. Most companies have to pick and choose what to log and how long to keep it, but with Humio, they don’t have to make these choices with customers processing multiple terabytes of data every single day.
Humio CEO Geeta Schmidt writing in a company blog post announcing the deal described her company in similar terms to Scalyr, a data lake for log information:
“Humio had become the data lake for these enterprises enabling searches for longer periods of time and from more data sources allowing them to understand their entire environment, prepare for the unknown, proactively prevent issues, recover quickly from incidents, and get to the root cause,” she wrote.
That means with Humio in the fold, CrowdStrike can use this massive amount of data to help deal with threats and attacks in real time as they are happening, rather than reacting to them and trying to figure out what happened later, a point by the way that SentinelOne also made when it purchased Scalyr.
“The combination of real-time analytics and smart filtering built into CrowdStrike’s proprietary Threat Graph and Humio’s blazing-fast log management and index-free data ingestion dramatically accelerates our [eXtended Detection and Response (XDR)] capabilities beyond anything the market has seen to date,” CrowdStrike CEO and co-founder George Kurtz said in a statement.
While two acquisitions don’t necessarily make a trend, it’s clear that security platform players are suddenly seeing the value of being able to process the large amounts of information found in logs, and they are willing to put up some cash to get that capability. It will be interesting to see if any other security companies react with a similar move in the coming months.
Humio was founded in 2016 and raised just over $31 million, according to Pitchbook Data. Its most recent funding round came in March 2020, a $20 million Series B led by Dell Technologies Capital. It would appear to be a decent exit for the startup.
CrowdStrike was founded in 2011 and raised over $480 million along the way before going public in 2019. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter, and is subject to typical regulatory oversight.
This morning Pipe17, a software startup focused on the e-commerce market, announced that it has closed $8 million in funding.
Pipe17’s service helps smaller e-commerce merchants connect their digital tools, without the need to code. With the startup’s service, e-commerce operations that may lack an in-house IT function can quickly connect their selling platform to shipping, or point-of-sale data to their ERP.
The venture arm of a large logistics investor GLP, GLP Capital Partners led the round.
Pipe17 co-founders Mo Afshar and Dave Shaffer told TechCrunch in an interview that the idea for their startup came from examining the e-commerce market, noting the energy to be found concerning selling platforms, and the comparative dearth of software to help get e-commerce tools to work together; Shopify and BigCommerce and Shippo are just fine, but if you can’t code you might wind up schlepping data from one platform to the next to keep your e-commerce operation humming.
So they built Pipe17 to fill in the gap.
According to Afshar, Pipe17 wants to simplify operations for e-commerce merchants through the lens of connection; the pair of co-founders believe that easy cross-compatibility is the key missing ingredient in the modern-day e-commerce software stack, likening the current e-commerce maket to the IT and datacenter worlds before the advent of Splunk and Datadog.
The prevailing view in the e-commerce industry, the co-founders explained, is that to fix a problem e-commerce players should purchase another application. Pipe17 thinks that most ecommerce companies probably have enough tooling, and that they instead need to get their existing tooling to communicate.
What’s neat about the startup is that it’s building something that we might call no-code-no-code, or no-code to a higher degree. Instead of offering a interface for non-developers to visually map out connections between different software services, it has pre-built what might need to be mapped. Just pick the two e-commerce services you want to link, and Pipe17 will connect them for you in an intelligent manner. For folks who find any sort of coding hard (which probably describes a lot of indie online store operators), the method could be an attractive pitch.
The startup’s customer target are sellers doing single-digit millions to nine-figures in year sales.
Why did Pipe17 raise capital now? The co-founders said that there are only so many chances to simplify a large market, akin to what Plaid and Twilio did for their own niches, so taking on funds now made sense. In Afshar’s view, e-commerce operations is going to be simply massive. Given the growth in digital selling that we saw last year, it’s a perspective that is hard to dispute.
The niche that Pipe17 wants to fill has more than one player. While the startups themselves might quibble about just how much competitive space they share, Y Combinator-backed Alloy recently raised $4 million to build a no-code e-commerce automation service. Which is related to what Pipe17 does. It will be interesting to see if they wind up in competition, and, if so, who comes out on top.
Abound, an online marketplace that helps independent retailers stock their shelves with new products from up-and-coming brands, is announcing that it has raised $22.9 million in its first institutional round of funding.
CEO Bill Shope founded the company with Niklas de la Motte and Drew Sfugaras. He told me that small retailers are constantly on the hunt for new products, which means attending trade shows several times a year. Abound, on the other hand, allows them to find those products through an online shopping experience, with wholesale prices (a.k.a. discounts of up to 50 percent), free returns and, in some cases, Net 60 sale terms (meaning retailers don’t have to pay until 60 days after the invoice).
The startup actually began as a community connecting manufacturer’s representatives and retailers, but Shope said the team “kept seeing the limits of that model,” while some retailers were asking to buy from the brands directly. So the team decided to support that experience, starting out by recruiting 50 brands with an offer of free consulting — as long as they were willing to be one of the brands on the marketplace when it launched in October 2019.
Of course, the retail environment changed dramatically in the following months, as the pandemic forced stores to close and/or adopt social distancing measures. Shope said the startup saw a dramatic, short-term decline in sales — but things quickly bounced back and kept growing as “all the trade shows got canceled.”
Partly, that’s because Abound also supports e-commerce retailers, but Shope noted that “the brick and mortars that were succeeding had a very powerful hybrid model,” where they continued to operate a physical store while also quickly launching websites and adding features like curbside pickup.
Image Credits: Abound
Abound says that since the beginning of 2020, it has added 180,000 new products in categories like baby and kid products, beauty, food and drink, home and living, jewelry and more. And monthly sales volume has increased 20-fold.
“From a retail perspective, I don’t think there’s any going back [to pre-COVID buying models,]” Shope said. After all, even before the pandemic, independent retailers had to compete with giants like Amazon and Walmart. “You’re not going to beat them on convenience products. The store that’s helping consumers discover new brands, or donating 10 percent of profits to charities — those are types of stories and products you need to have to draw consumers into your store.”
The funding was led by Left Lane Capital, with participation from RiverPark Ventures, All Iron Ventures and branding firm Red Antler. This will allow Abound to grow the team, expand internationally and continue developing the product.
In a statement, Left Lane Managing Partner Harley Miller said:
My family has been in independent retail for the last 20 years. Growing up, I attended many industry events, so I have long understood how under-optimized the wholesale buying and selling experience is. With the cancellation of most major trade shows in 2020 and 2021, emerging brands and independent retailers have been seeking new distribution channels to support their business ambitions. Abound offers an exciting and unique alternative to the legacy wholesale model at a time when small businesses need it most.
Application performance monitoring startup Sentry announced today that it has reached unicorn status, raising a $60 million Series D with a post-funding valuation of $1 billion. The round was led by Accel and New Enterprise Associates, both returning investors, and Bond.
Accel led Sentry’s seed funding in 2015, and has invested in each of its rounds since then. The startup, which serves 68,000 organizations, has now raised a total of $127 million. Its clients include Disney, Cloudflare, Peloton, Slack, Eventbrite, Supercell and Rockstar Games.
Sentry’s software monitors apps for potential issues, helping developers catch bugs before they result in outages, downtime and frustrated users. Its Series D will be used on product development, like adding support for more languages and frameworks, and hiring for its offices in San Francisco, Toronto and Vienna.
While Sentry’s products are used by a wide range of sectors, it is seeing continued growth in gaming and streaming media, and new demand in industries that are digitizing more of their infrastructure and services, including finance, commerce and healthcare.
In a press statement, Accel partner Dan Levine said, “With nearly all companies moving to digital-first ways of working and engaging with customers, application health has become a business-critical initiative, and as a result, Sentry is poised for explosive growth.”
Artie, a startup looking to rethink the distribution of mobile games, announced today that it has raised $10 million in funding.
There are some big names backing the company — its latest investors include Zynga founder Mark Pincus, Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures, Scooter Braun’s Raised In Space, Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, Susquehanna International Group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment + The Sixers Lab, Googler Manuel Bronstein and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley.
This actually represents a pivot from Artie’s original vision of creating augmented reality avatars. CEO Ryan Horrigan said that he and his co-founder/CTO Armando Kirwin ended up building distribution technology that they felt solved “a much bigger problem.”
The problem, in part, is game developers “looking for ways outside of Apple’s App Stores rules and restrictions.” (That’s certainly something Fortnite-maker Epic Games seems to be fighting for.) So Artie’s platform allows users to play mobile games without installing an app, from the browser or wherever links can be shared online.
Image Credits: Artie
“Similar to cloud games, we’re running Unity games on our cloud, but rather than rendering their graphics on the cloud and pushing the video to players, we’re not running graphics on the cloud,” he said. “We’re streaming assets and animations that are highly-optimized and rendered in real-time through the embedded web browser.”
In other words, the goal is to get frictionless distribution outside of app stores, while avoiding some of the issues facing cloud gaming, namely significant infrastructure costs and lag time.
The startup is developing and releasing games of its own, with an Alice in Wonderland game, a beer pong game and more on the schedule for later this year, then a massively multiplayer online game planned for 2022. But the company also plans to release an SDK allowing other developers to distribute through its platform as well.
Artie is also developing games with a major music star and a superhero IP-owner, and he argued that by combining no-code/low-code authoring tools with Artie’s distribution platform, this could become a bigger trend.
“We want to be working with the next generation of influencers to make games using these low-code or no-code solutions, then publish to their audiences directly on YouTube,” he said. “Imagine what a branded game would look like from your favorite hip hop star. We think that’s coming, and we think Artie is the platform to make that happen.”
Moore Strategic Ventures, Kyle Bass, Access Industries, Rovida Advisors, Lightspeed Venture Partners, GV, Lakestar, Eldridge and other unnamed investors participated in today’s funding round. Overall, the company has raised more than $190 million since its creation.
Originally named Blockchain.info, the company started off as a blockchain explorer. An explorer lets you enter the hash of any transaction that occurs on the bitcoin blockchain to get more information about the amount, fees, number of confirmations as well as the wallet addresses of the sender and the receiver. Over time, explorers started adding support for more blockchains and more types of data.
Blockchain.com then built an open-source bitcoin wallet — it now supports more cryptocurrencies and stablecoins. The company’s wallet is a non-custodial wallet, which means that you’re in control of your private keys. Other non-custodial wallets include Coinbase Wallet, Argent, ZenGo, etc.
Many crypto users choose to buy bitcoins on an exchange and leave them on the exchange account. In that case, you don’t control the wallet as the exchange takes care of keeping your crypto assets safe for you. Custodial wallets include Coinbase.com, Binance, Kraken, etc.
There are some advantages and disadvantages with each solution. If an exchange gets hacked or somebody gets your login information through phishing, your assets aren’t safe on a custodial wallet.
If you lose your private key, you can’t access your non-custodial wallet. Blockchain.com and other non-custodial wallet providers have found ways to mitigate the risk of losing access to your wallet by backing up some information.
More recently, Blockchain.com has launched its own exchange so that wallet users can trade assets more easily. It now also offers services to institutional investors so that they can get started with cryptocurrencies. Services include order executions, custody, lending, OTC transactions, etc.
Blockchain.com has also shared some metrics. People have created 65 million wallets on the company’s website or using the mobile apps. 28% of bitcoin transactions since 2012 have been sent or received by a Blockchain.com-managed wallet.
This morning I covered three funding rounds. One dealt with the no-code/low-code space, another focused on the OKR software market, and the last dealt with a company in the consumer investing space. Worth a combined $420 million, the investments made for a contentedly busy morning.
But they also got me thinking about startup niches and competition. Back in the days when inside rounds were bad, SPACs were jokes and crypto a fever dream, there was lots of noise about investors who declined to place competing bets in any particular startup market.
This rule of thumb still holds up today, but we need to update it. The general sentiment that investors shouldn’t back competing companies is still on display, as we saw Sequoia walk away from a check it put into Finix after it became clear that the smaller company was too competitive with Stripe, another portfolio company.
But as startups get more broad and stay private longer, the space into which VCs can invest may narrow — especially if they have a big winner that stays private while building both horizontally and vertically (like Stripe, for example).
Does that mean Sequoia can’t invest elsewhere in fintech? No, but it does limit their investing playing field.
Which is dumb as hell. Nothing that Sequoia could invest in today is really going to slow Stripe’s IPO, unless the company decides to not go public for a half-decade. Which would be lunacy, even for today’s live-at-home-with-the-parents startup culture that leans towards staying private over going public.
The day before Robinhood goes under the the Congressional hammer, domestic rival Public.com announced this morning that it has closed a $220 million funding round at a $1.2 billion valuation. News of the round was first broken by TechCrunch. Further reporting colored in the lines concerning the investment’s size and valuation range.
Confirming the funding news today, Public added a fresh metric to the mix, namely that it has reached one million members – over the course of just 18 months post-launch, the company was quick to point out.
That means that Public’s backers – its latest round was put together by prior investors, including Greycroft, Accel, Tiger Global, Inspired Capital and others – values the company at around $1,200 per current “member.” Whether or not that feels rich, we leave to you to decide.
But with rising interest in the savings and investing space – some data here — and Robinhood’s revenues growing to a run rate of more than $800 million in Q4 2020 and looking even better at the start of 2021, it’s not hard to see why investors are backing Public. It’s even easier if you believe that Robinhood’s brand has undergone material harm from its woes during the GameStop saga.
The pair, along with a host of other fintech services that offer savings and investing products, have been buoyed by a secular shift in banking away from the physical world (in-person shopping, bank branches, plastic cards) to the digital (neo-banks, ecommerce, virtual cards). Robinhood shook up the trading world with zero-cost investing, fitting neatly into the mobile and virtual banking future that is being built. And Public has taken that model a step further by dropping payment for order flow (PFOF), a method revenue generation in which companies like Robinhood get a small fee for sending their users’ trades to one particular market maker or another.
TechCrunch recently joked that it seems like “there is infinite money for stock-trading startups,” in light of the anticipated Public round, which has now has arrived. Let’s see who is next to take home a big check.
This morning OutSystems, a low-code app development service, announced that it has closed $150 million in new capital. The round was led by Abdiel Capital and Tiger Global. Notably this is not the largest funding event that the Portugal and U.S.-based software company has raised. TechCrunch covered a $360 million round that OutSystems raised in 2018.
OutSystems was founded in 2001, making it older than most companies that we cover on TechCrunch, and yet it remains privately held. And like many startups, it appears to have caught a tailwind from the accelerating digital transformation of companies both large and small.
By selling $150 million worth of its own shares at a $9.5 billion valuation, OutSystems parted ways with around 1.6% of itself in the deal. Investors would not be willing to buy such a tiny slice of a company for such a price if they didn’t have confidence in its future performance.
The new funds put OutSystems on an IPO path, we reckon; the company declined to discuss public market plans with TechCrunch. It could go out sooner rather than later. This round smells a bit like pre-IPO capital, and OutSystems touted its model to TechCrunch as “efficient” in a conversation about its new funding, implying moderate cash-consumption at worst.
TechCrunch had asked the company to break down its stated plan to invest its new capital in both go-to-market (GTM) capabilities and product (R&D) work. OutSystems CEO Paulo Rosado told TechCrunch in an email that even before this announcement OutSystems was “steadily increasing both our R&D and GTM capacity,” meaning that it was “investing for growth.” The company remains “focused on building scale in an efficient way,” the CEO added.
OutSystems works on low-code app development, in contrast to the startups and more mature private concerns that are focused on the no-code project; no-code tools do not involve code, while low-code services bring together some coding along with visual programming interfaces.
In an interview with Rosado in late 2020, he explained to TechCrunch the differences between no-code and low-code as both complexity (the ability to tackle heavy-duty internal corporate workflows) and extensibility (the ability to adapt).
In OutSystems’ view low-code is simply better suited to creating material corporate apps. Here’s how the CEO explained it:
The problem is not low-code is worse than no-code. If no-code is very narrow, which most no-code tools are, when you get [a] change request that goes beyond what you can do visually, that’s it. The only answer that you have for the customer is “no, we cannot do it.”
With low-code, you can do it. But you have to do it with code. You go, you [add] code, and the code then gets blended into the no-code portion.So low-code means it’s a no-code capability, with the possibility of jumping into code.
No-code fans would argue that as their tools’ ability to avoid code improves, the code-required portion of development that Rosado details will decline. Regardless, the OutSystem’s method approach to the market appears to be working, if its recent capital raise is any indication.
Back to the round, to better understand of OutSystems’ market position in both competitive and completeness terms, TechCrunch asked the CEO about its relative strength in customer pricing calls. He responded by saying that the OutSystem’s “pricing model is based on platform utilization” over traditional SaaS pricing. We could quibble with the company here – it does have seat limits on lower-priced tiers – but the focus on consumption over traditional SaaS reminded us more of on-demand software over what Salesforce pioneered. Given the changes we’ve seen in the SaaS market lately, it’s a distinction worth keeping in mind.
Finally, how competitive is the low-code market that OutSystems’ is now taking on with fresh funding? According to its CEO, their chief competitor is not some other startup, but, instead “non-consumption.” A bit like how Netflix is competing with sleep, instead of HBO.
TechCrunch has covered the no-code and low-code for quite some time. We put words together concerning OutSystem’s 2016-vintage, $55 million round for example. But lately it seems that the demand for corporate apps – be they no-code or low-code – does appear to have accelerated. In the last four or six quarters, startups in the less-code market have consistently reported high-demand to TechCrunch.
Let’s see if the moment is enough to carry OutSystems all the way to the public markets.
Tel Aviv-based Spectral is bringing its new DevSecOps code scanner out of stealth today and announcing a $6.2 million funding round. The startup’s programming language-agnostic service aims to automated code security development teams to help them detect potential security issues in their codebases and logs, for example. Those issues could be hardcoded API keys and other credentials, but also security misconfiguration and shadow IT assets.
The four-person founding team has a deep background in building AI, monitoring and security tools. CEO Dotan Nahum was a Chief Architect at Klarna and Conduit (now Como, though you may remember Conduit from its infamous toolbar that was later spun off), and the CTO at Como and HiredScore, for example. Other founders worked on building monitoring tools at Elastic and HP and on security at Akamai. As Nahum told me, the idea for Spectral came to him and co-founder and COO Idan Didi during their shared time at mobile application build Conduit/Como.
“We basically stored certificates for every client that we had, so we could submit their apps to the various marketplaces,” Nahum told me of his experience at Counduit/Como. “That certificate really proves that you are who you are and it’s super sensitive. And at each point at these companies, I really didn’t have the right tools to actually make sure that we’re storing, handling, detecting [this information] and making sure that it doesn’t leak anywhere.”
Nahum decided to quit his current job and started to build a prototype to see if he could build a tool that could solve this problem (and his work on this prototype quickly discovered an issue at Slack). And as enterprises move from on-premises software to the cloud and to microservices and DevOps, the need for better DevSecOps tools is only increasing.
“The emphasis is to create a great developer experience,” Nahum noted. “Because that’s where we started from. We didn’t start as a top down cyber tool. We started as a modest DevOps friendly, developer-friendly tool.”
One interesting aspect of Spectral’s approach, which uses a machine learning model to detect these breaches across programming languages, is that it also scans public-facing systems. On the backend, Spectral integrates with tools like Travis, Jenkins, CircleCI, Webpack, Gatsby and Netlify, but it can also monitor Slack, npm, maven and log providers — tools that most companies don’t really think about when they think about threat modeling.
“Our solution prevents security breaches on a daily basis,” said Spectral co-founder and COO Idan Didi. “The pain points we’re addressing resonate strongly across every company developing software, because as they evolve from own-code to glue-code to no-code approaches they allow their developers to gain more speed, but they also add on significant amounts of risk. Spectral lets developers be more productive while keeping the company secure.”
The company was founded in mid-2020, but it already has about 15 employees and counts a number of large publicly-listed companies among its customers.
After raising $690 million from SoftBank in December to make acquisitions, the Sweden-based cloud communications company Sinch has followed through on its strategy in that department. Today the company announced that it is acquiring Inteliquent, an interconnection provider for voice communications in the U.S. currently owned by private equity firm GTCR, for $1.14 billion in cash.
And to finance the deal, Sinch said it has raised financing totaling SEK8.2 billion — $986 million — from Handelsbanken and Danske Bank, along with other facilities it had in place.
The deal will give Sinch — a competitor to Twilio with a range of messaging, calling and marketing (engagement) APIs for those building communications into their services in mobile apps and other services — a significant foothold in the U.S. market.
Inteliquent — a profitable company with 500 employees and revenues of $533 million, gross profit of $256 million, and Ebitda of $135 million in 2020 — claims to be one of the biggest voice carriers North America, serving both other service providers and enterprises. Its network connects to all the major telcos, covering 94% of the U.S. population, with more than 300 billion minutes of voice calls and 100 million phone numbers handled annually for customers.
Sinch is publicly traded in Sweden — where its market cap is current at $13 billion (just over 108 billion Swedish krona) — and the acquisition begs the question of whether the company plans to establish more of a financial presence in the U.S., for example with a listing there. We have asked the company what its next steps might be and will update this post as and when we learn more.
“Becoming a leader in the U.S. voice market is key to establish Sinch as the leading global cloud communications platform,” said Oscar Werner, Sinch CEO, in a statement. “Inteliquent serves the largest and most demanding voice customers in America with superior quality backed by a fully-owned network across the entire U.S.. Our joint strengths in voice and messaging provide a unique position to grow our business and power a superior customer experience for our customers.”
Inteliquen provides two main areas of service, Communications-Platform-as-Service (CPaaS) for API-based services to provide voice calling and phone numbers; and more legacy Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) products for telcos such as off-net call termination (when a call is handed off from one carrier to another) and toll-free numbers. These each account for roughly half of the total business although — unsurprisingly — the CPaaS business is growing at twice the rate of IaaS.
Its business, like many others focusing on services for people who are relying more on communications services as they are seeing each other in person less — saw a surge of use this past year, it said. (Revenues adjusted without Covid lift, it noted, would have been $499 million, so still healthy.)
As for Sinch, since spinning out from Rebtel in 2014 to take on the business of providing comunications tools to developers, it has been on an acquisition roll to bulk up its geographical reach and the services that it provides to those customers.
Deals have included, most recently, buying ACL in India for $70 million and SAP’s digital interconnect business for $250 million. The deals — combined with Twilio’s own acquisitions of companies like Sendgrid for $2 billion and last year’s Segment for $3.2 billon, speak both to the bigger trend of consolidation in the digital (API-based) communications space, as well as the huge value that is contained within it.
Inteliquent itself had been in private equity hands before this, controlled by GTCR based in Chicago, like Inteliquent itself. According to PitchBook, its most recent financing was a mezzanine loan from Oaktree Capital in 2018 for just under $19 million.
Interestingly, Inteliquent itself has been an investor in innovative communications startups, participating in a Series B for Zipwhip, a startup that is building better ways to integrate mobile messaging tools into landline services.
“We’re excited about the tremendous opportunities this combination unlocks, expanding the services we can provide to our customers. Combining our leading voice offering with Sinch’s global messaging capabilities truly positions us for leadership in the rapidly developing market for cloud communications“, comments Ed O’Hara, Inteliquent CEO, in a statement.
Dixa, the Danish customer support platform promising more personalised customer support, has acquired Melbourne-based “knowledge management” SaaS Elevio to bolster its product and technology offerings.
The deal is said to be worth around $15 million, in a combination of cash and Dixa shares. This sees Elevio’s own VC investors exit, and Elevio’s founders and employees incentivised as part of the Dixa family, according to Dixa co-founder and CEO, Mads Fosselius.
“We have looked at many partners within this space over the years and ultimately decided to partner with Elevio as they have what we believe is the best solution in the market,” he tells me. “Dixa and Elevio have worked together since 2019 on several customers and great brands through a strong and tight integration between the two platforms. Dixa has also used Elevio’s products internally and to support our own customers for self service, knowledge base and help center”.
Fosselius says that this “close partnership, strong integration, unique tech” and a growing number of mutual customers eventually led to a discussion late last year, and the two companies decided to go on a journey together to “disrupt the world of customer service”.
“The acquisition comes with many interesting opportunities but it has been driven by a product/tech focus and is highly product and platform strategic for us,” he explains. “We long ago acknowledged that they have the best knowledge product in the market. We could have built our own knowledge management system but with such a strong product already out there, built with a similar tech stack as ours and with a very aligned vision and culture fit to Dixa, we felt this was a no brainer”.
Founded in 2015 by Jacob Vous Petersen and Mads Fosselius, Dixa wants to end bad customer service with the help of technology that claims to be able to facilitate more personalised customer support. Originally dubbed a “customer friendship” platform, the Dixa cloud-based software works across multiple channels — including phone, chat, e-mail, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and SMS — and employs a smart routing system so the right support requests reach the right people within an organisation.
Broadly speaking, the platform competes with Zendesk, Freshdesk and Salesforce. However, there’s also overlap with Intercom in relation to live chat and messaging, and perhaps MessageBird with its attempted expansion to become an “Omnichannel Platform-as-a-Service” (OPaaS) to easily enable companies to communicate with customers on any channel of their choosing.
Meanwhile, Elevio is described as bridging the gap between customer support and knowledge management. The platform helps support agents more easily access the right answers when communicating with customers, and simultaneously enables end-users to get information and guidance to resolve common issues for themselves.
Machine learning is employed so that the correct support content is provided based on a user’s query or on-going discussion, whilst also alerting customer support teams when documents need updating. The Australian company also claims that creating user guides using Elevio doesn’t require any technical skills and says its “embeddable assistant” enables support content to be delivered in-product or injected into any area of a website “without involving developers”.
Adds the Dixa CEO : “Customer support agents still spend a lot of time helping customers with the same type of questions over and over again. Together with Elevio we are able to ensure that agents are given the opportunity to quickly replicate best practice answers, ensuring fast, standardised and correct answers for customers. Elevio is the world leader in applying machine learning to solve this problem”.
Krisp, a startup that uses machine learning to remove background noise from audio in real time, has raised $9M as an extension of its $5M A round announced last summer. The extra money followed big traction in 2020 for the Armenian company, which grew its customers and revenue by more than an order of magnitude.
TechCrunch first covered Krisp when it was just emerging from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, and founder Davit Baghdasaryan was relatively freshly out of his previous role at Twilio. The company’s pitch when I chatted with them in the shared office back then was simple, and remains the core of what they offer: isolation of the human voice from any background noise (including other voices) so that audio contains only the former.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that the company appears to have benefited immensely from the shift to virtual meetings and other trends accelerated by the pandemic. To be specific, Baghdasaryan told me that 2020 brought the company a 20x increase in active users, a 23x increase in enterprise accounts, and 13x improvement of annual recurring revenue.
The rise in virtual meetings — often in noisy places like, you know, homes — has led to significant uptake across multiple industries. Krisp now has more than 1,200 enterprise customers, Baghdasaryan said: banks, HR platforms, law firms, call centers — anyone who benefits from having a clear voice on the line (“I guess any company qualifies,” he added). Enterprise-oriented controls like provisioning and central administration have been added to make it easier to integrate.
B2B revenue recently eclipsed B2C; the latter was likely popularized by Krisp’s inclusion as an option in popular gaming (and increasingly beyond) chat app Discord, though of course users of a free app being given a bonus product for free aren’t always big converters to “pro” tiers of a product.
But the company hasn’t been standing still, either. While it began with a simple feature set (turning background noise on and off, basically) Krisp has made many upgrades to both its product and infrastructure.
Noise cancellation for high-fidelity voice channels makes the software useful for podcasters and streamers, and acoustic correction (removing room echos) simplifies those setups quite a bit as well. Considering the amount of people doing this and the fact that they’re often willing to pay, this could be a significant source of income.
The company plans to add cross-service call recording and tracking; since it sits between the system’s sound drivers and the application, Krisp can easily save the audio and other useful metadata (How often did person A talk vs person B? What office locations are noisiest?). And the addition of voice cancellation — other people’s voices, that is — could be a huge benefit for people who work, or anticipate returning to work, in crowded offices and call centers.
Part of Krisp’s allure is the ability to run locally and securely on many platforms with very low overhead. But companies with machine learning based products can stagnate quickly if they don’t improve their infrastructure or build more efficient training flows — Lengoo, for instance, is taking on giants in the translation industry with better training as more or less its main advantage.
Krisp has been optimizing and re-optimizing its algorithms to run efficiently on both Intel and ARM architectures, and decided to roll its own servers instead of renting from the usual suspects.
“AWS, Azure and Google Cloud turned out to be too expensive,” Baghdasaryan said. “We have invested in building a datacenter with Nvidia’s latest A100s in them. This will make our experimentation faster, which is crucial for ML companies.”
Baghdasaryan was also emphatic in his satisfaction with the team in Armenia, where he’s from and where the company has focused its hiring, including the 25-strong R&D crew. “By the end of 2021 it will be a 45 member team, all in Armenia,” he said. “We are super happy with the math, physics and engineering talent pool there.”
The funding amounts to $14M if you combine the two disparate parts of the A round, the latter of which was agreed to just three months after the first. That’s a lot of money, of course, but may seem relatively modest for a company with a thousand enterprise customers and revenue growing by more than 2,000 percent year-over-year.
Baghdasaryan said they just weren’t ready to take on a whole B round, with all that involves. They do plan a new fundraise later this year when they’ve reached $15M ARR, a goal that seems perfectly reasonable given their current charts.
Of course startups with this kind of growth tend to get snapped up by larger concerns, but despite a few offers Baghdasaryan says he’s in it for the long haul — and a multi-billion dollar market.
The rush to embrace the new virtual work economy may have spurred Krisp’s growth spurt, but it’s clear that neither the company nor the environment that let it thrive are going anywhere.
Azus has worked at Cisco, RingCentral and most recently Zoom. In his previous roles he held a number of sales titles, including his final role at RingCentral where he was its executive vice president of global sales and services.
Zoom needs little introduction, having crossed over from enterprise software success story to consumer phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time companies, groups, individuals and families leaned on the video chat provider to stay in touch.
Azus has been at the helm of Zoom’s money engine since mid-2019, which means that he has sat atop it during one of the most impressive periods of sales growth at any software company — ever.
So we’re glad that he’ll be at TC Early Stage this year, where we’ll pepper him with questions. Bring your own, of course, as we’ll be reserving around half our time for audience Q&A.
But the TechCrunch crew has a plethora of things we want to chat about too, including the importance of bottom-up sales during the pandemic, especially in contrast to the more traditional sales bullpen model that many startups have historically used; how to balance self-service sales and human-powered sales at a tech company that presents both options to customers, and their relative strength in 2021; changes to sales incentive metrics at Zoom over time from which startups might be able to learn; and how to maintain order and culture in a quickly scaling, remote sales organization.
We’re also curious how Zoom managed to adapt to the pandemic itself, like how long it took the company to reach full-strength from a sales perspective as it moved to remote work and customers that were also out of the office. The simple answer is that his company simply used more of its own product, but there’s more to the story that we want to hear.
Often at TechCrunch events we round up a cadre of executives from well-known technology companies and then hammer them for news. Early Stage is a bit different, focusing instead on extracting knowledge, tips and what-pitfalls-to-avoid from tech folks interested in helping startups do more, more quickly.
Azus won’t be coming alone. Bucky Moore from Kleiner will be in the house, along with Neal Sales-Griffin (a managing director at Techstars) and Eghosa Omoigui (a managing general partner at EchoVC Partners). The list goes on, as you can see here. (We’re also having a big pitch-off, so make sure to come to both days of the event.)
TC Early Stage continues TechCrunch’s recent spate of virtual events, so no matter where you are, you can tune in and learn. Register today to take advantage of early bird pricing, don’t forget to bring your best questions, and we’ll see you in early April!
If we are not careful, every entry of this column could consist of SPAC news.
Special purpose acquisition companies, or blank-check companies, whatever you prefer to call them, are enormous business today. But they aren’t the only thing going on, and we’ll get to other things shortly. Consider this an apology for having written about SPACs twice in two days.
Yesterday, we considered the rise of the VC-led SPAC and whether venture capital groups that offer seed-through-SPAC money will wind up with advantage in the market over firms that specialize on any particular startup stage. Sticking to the blank-check theme, this morning we’re looking into two SPAC-led deals, namely those involving Rover and MoneyLion.
We’re doubling up to prevent more SPAC-related posts. And we’ve selected Rover because Chewy, another pet-themed entity, is an already-public company. As both were venture-backed, we may be able to contrast their trading performance post-debut. Sadly, Chewy is focused on pet e-commerce while Rover is more centered around pet services, but they may prove close enough for some loose comparisons.
And why chat about MoneyLion? Because it’s a heavily venture-backed fintech startup, one that TechCrunch has covered extensively. If its SPAC-assisted vault into the public markets goes well, it could smooth the same path forward for myriad other yet-private fintechs sitting atop a mountain of raised capital.
So this is a SPAC post, but as we’ll largely be looking at the financial health of two companies that we’ve heard about for ages and never got to see inside of, I hope you join me all the same.
We’re starting with the Rover investor presentation, before zipping over to MoneyLion’s own.
Rover is merging with Nebula Caravel Acquisition Corp., which is affiliated with True Wind Capital. The deal gives Rover an anticipated market cap of around $1.6 billion, with around $300 million in cash on its books.
So, how attractive is this new unicorn? You can find its investor deck here, if you want to read along as we peek.
First up, the company stresses rising use of digital services in the last year thanks to the pandemic and the fact that pet ownership is growing. Both of which are true. We’ve seen the accelerating digital transformation for both companies and consumers. And if you’ve tried to adopt a pet lately, you’ve seen how few are left waiting for forever homes.
With those things behind it, you might be wondering why Rover is pursuing a SPAC-led debut as well. If its market is hot and it has previously raised venture capital, why not just go public via an IPO? Because 2020 was tough on the company.
Revenue dipped from $95 million in 2019 to just $48 million last year. Bookings fell from 4.2 million to 2.4 million over the same time frame, leading to gross booking value falling from $436 million in 2019 to $233 million in 2020. Why? Because everyone was stuck at home. With their pets. A situation that limited demand for Rover-delivered pet services.