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Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Extra Crunch roundup: Pre-pitch tactics, Warby Parker S-1, Israel’s fintech ecosystem

By Walter Thompson

Forget what you’ve heard: There are many shortcuts to success.

Tapping into someone else’s experience is a tried-and-true method, which is why two-time Y Combinator participant Chris Morton wrote a guest post for Extra Crunch with advice for founders hoping to be accepted by the famed accelerator.

Morton, who has also reviewed thousands of YC applications, shares his thoughts on when to submit an application, what to do if you miss the deadline and whether you’ll need to relocate if accepted.

“Remember that your application should be good enough to get an interview, not win a prize,” says Morton. “Go back to work instead of spending more time perfecting an application.”


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


Robert Katai

Image Credits: Robert Katai under a license.

In an interview with reporter Anna Heim, Romania-based marketer Robert Katai discussed some of the methods he uses to help clients refine their content and branding strategies.

“Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that.”

Katai also shared his impressions of Romania’s startup ecosystem, suggestions for maintaining top-of-mind status with customers, and reinforced the often-overlooked need to continually repurpose content to grab mindshare.

Like our other growth marketing interviews, there’s no paywall.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week! I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Why global investors are flocking to back Latin American startups

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Latin America’s increasingly dynamic venture capital scene has been making headlines of late. To learn more about why investors are so enthusiastic, senior reporter Mary Ann Azevedo spoke to several who are actively engaged with the region:

  • Shu Nyatta, managing partner, SoftBank
  • Ethan Choi, partner, Accel
  • Julie Ruvolo, director of venture capital, LAVCA
  • Bill Cilluffo, partner, QED Investors
  • Ana Cristina Gadala-Maria, principal, QED Investors
  • Ross Darwin, principal, Owl Ventures

“I am not surprised by all the activity,” Mary Ann writes. “However, I am a bit taken aback by the sheer number of rounds, the caliber of firms leading them and the sky-high valuations.

“It seems that the region is finally, and deservedly, being taken seriously. This is likely just the beginning.”

Corporate venture capital follows the same trend as other VC markets: Up

Corporations are not remaining on the sidelines of the fiery 2021 venture capital game, Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim note in The Exchange.

After parsing data from CB Insights and Stryber and chatting with a handful of investors, Alex and Anna concluded that the corporate venture capital market looks a lot like other VC markets.

“Perhaps this should not be a surprise,” they write. “We’ve seen non-venture funds flow into the later stages of startup land, pushing VCs toward earlier-stage and more venture-y deals. Why would CVCs be immune to the same trend?”

Ramp and Brex draw diverging market plans with M&A strategies

Image Credits: Bryan Mullennix (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Corporate spending management startup Brex raised a $300 million Series C and acquired Buyer just a week after rival Brex announced it had acquired Israeli fintech Weav.

Ryan Lawler and Alex Wilhelm dug into the Ramp-Brex rivalry, and what those acquisitions say about their diverging strategies.

“From a high level, all of the recent deal-making in corporate cards and spend management shows that it’s not enough to just help companies track what employees are expensing these days,” they write.

“As the market matures and feature sets begin to converge, the players are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition.”

Boston’s startup market is more than setting records in scorching start to year

Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim interviewed VCs and corralled data to present a detailed picture of Boston’s startup funding scene.

“Boston is benefiting from larger structural changes to at least the U.S. venture capital market, helping close historical gaps in its startup funding market and access funds that previously might have skipped the region,” they write.

“And local university density isn’t hurting the city’s cause, either, boosting its ability to form new companies during a period of rich investment access.”

Europe’s quick-commerce startups are overhyped: Lessons from China

Image of a motorcycle courier speeding down a street.

Image Credits: Andrew Holt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Half of the companies offering instant grocery delivery in Europe were founded last year as the pandemic reshaped most aspects of our existence.

To date, they’ve raised about $2 billion, but Picus Capital’s Alexander Kremer says startup lessons from China suggest that “instant delivery is not the magic bullet to crack the dominance” of old-school grocery players.

“If the performance of online grocery platforms in China (a market five to seven years ahead of Europe in terms of online retail) is anything to go by, a range of B2C business models would be more likely to displace the traditional grocery retailers.”

D2C specs purveyor Warby Parker files to go public

For The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm examines the S-1 filing from Warby Parker, “a consumer hardware company with two main sales channels, largely attractive economics, falling losses and rising adjusted profitability. You could even argue that it handled the pandemic well, despite COVID-19’s negative impact on its operations.”

But how are its growth prospects?

Dear Sophie: Can I still get a green card through marriage if I’m divorcing?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

I received a conditional green card after my wife and I got married in 2019. Recently, we have made the difficult decision to end our marriage. I want to continue living and working in the United States.

Is it still possible for me to complete my green card based on my marriage through the I-751 process or do I need to do something else, like ask my employer to sponsor me for a work visa?

— Better to Have Loved and Lost

Using AI to reboot brand-client relationships

Artificial intelligence robot arm and businessman completing gear jigsaw puzzle (teamwork).

Image Credits: Getty Images under an alashi (opens in a new window)license.

Marketing automation can help boost key metrics, but it can also be a disservice to brands by perpetually devaluing goods and services, ShareThis’ Michael Gorman writes in a guest column.

Companies with a narrow focus on driving conversions are missing the bigger picture: AI can help create richer experiences that identify consumer actions and intent while also improving customer experiences.

“We live in a world rich with data, and insights are growing more vibrant every day,” he writes.

Israel’s maturing fintech ecosystem may soon create global disruptors

Abstract of israel map network, internet and global connection concept, Wire Frame 3D mesh polygonal network line, design sphere, dot and structure. Vector illustration eps 10. (Abstract of israel map network, internet and global connection concept, W

Image Credits: Thitima Thongkham (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Fintech startups based in Israel raised more than $1.8 billion in 2019, but in Q1 2021, companies in the category raised $1.1 billion.

Facilitating a wide range of services, more than a dozen fintech unicorns have already emerged in a country that has a population slightly smaller than Los Angeles County, many of them started by entrepreneurs who lacked financial backgrounds.

“So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond?” asks Flint Capital’s Tel Aviv-based investor, Adi Levanon.

Forbes jumps into hot media liquidity summer with a SPAC combo

For The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm takes stock of Forbes’ SPAC combination during a week when POLITICO was snatched up for more than $1 billion by Axel Springer and just a few months after BuzzFeed went public via a blank-check company.

“Is it the most exciting debut? No,” he writes.

“But it does highlight that with enough sheer gumption, one can take a magazine business into the digital age and keep aggregate revenue growing. That’s worth something.”

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

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

Technical jargon is one of the most annoying aspects of technology marketing.

Sadly, it tends to perpetuate itself: Marketers are terrified of making a wrong move, so they tend to copy what everyone else is doing.

If you want to attract customers and drive higher conversions, cut the jargon.

“Do everything you can to be immediately understood and you’ll have a much better chance of cutting through the noise and pushing clear and persuasive benefits in a way no prospect can resist,” advises Konrad Sanders, CEO of The Creative Copywriter.

Andreessen Horowitz just rolled out a $400 million fund that’s expressly for seed deals

By Connie Loizos

Andreessen Horowitz is begun to announce new funds almost as routinely as some startups have begun announcing follow-on rounds. After announcing a third biotech fund in February 2020 that’s currently investing $750 million; a pair of new funds totaling $4.5 billion last November; and, most recently, a new $2.2 billion crypto-focused fund, the firm is rolling out a brand new fund: a $400 million vehicle that is focused expressly on backing seed-stage companies.

In the broader historical context of the firm, it’s an interesting development. Many years ago, Andreessen Horowitz backed away from making seed stage deals to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest — even while the firm didn’t have a conflict policy around nascent deals. As Marc Andreessen explained it back in 2013, there is often too much uncertainty at the earliest stages of company formation, and though it conveyed this thinking to founders, they didn’t always listen, and bets that evolved to be similar made them feel bad and caused problems.

Of course, things changed over time, competition is competition, and before long, the firm was again writing checks to very young startups. In fact, today, not only have seed-stage investments again become very much part of the program, but that since the beginning of 2020, about half the firm’s investments have been in seed companies, according to a16z Indeed, General Partner Martin Casado said yesterday that the new fund is largely about optimizing its processes around seed deals, and ensuring investors are rewarded properly for the associated risk. Here’s some of that conversation, edited lightly for length:

TC: You say this seed fund doesn’t change anything about your investment strategy, that it’s more about putting a formal structure around these deals. So we won’t necessarily see even more seed-stage deals out of Andreessen Horowitz?

MC: Well what’s interesting is the entire industry has picked up the pace dramatically in the last three years. I think the industry has doubled the number of seed funds, and we’ve kept pace with the industry. The seed investments from Andreessen Horowitz have gone up dramatically in the last three years in response to the industry. That we have a separate seed fund doesn’t mean we’re going to pick up the pace [further still].

TC: How might formalizing this new fund impact your relationship with other seed stage firms?

MC: We work closely with seed funds and we plan to continue to do so. I do think the environment has become more and more competitive at the seed stage, and if you actually look at some seed [stage startups] that I have personally been involved, [they’ve received] term sheets from hedge funds, growth funds — all the way down to angel investors. Everybody is in the mix at the seed stage. I think this is an evolution of the industry rather than kind of a key shift.

TC: Who will be making these seed investments at a16z? Is there a team that will be primarily managing the fund?

MC: We do not have seed specific investors [investing this new capital]. If we do Series A and Series B deals, it’s the same set of investors.

TC: Andreessen Horowitz has used scouts in the past. Is that true currently and if, so, what percentage of your seed-stage deals come from them?

MC: Yes, we use scouts, but they are responsible for zero percent of our seed-stage deals. That’s an independent function where they can put small dollars in deals of their choosing, but those, to us, aren’t seed [deals]. Seeds to us are $1 million to $4 million led by an investor at the firm where we get real ownership and have real involvement.

TC: So these scouts are really just founders and operators who Andreessen Horowitz wants in its ecosystem?

MC: The scouts serves two functions. We get to develop a relationship with key people and key influencers, whether they’re entrepreneurs are they’re going to be entrepreneurs. It also gives us access to interesting deal flow to see what activity is happening now and kind of draft off that judgment.

TC: You mention $1 million to $4 million checks.  What constitutes a seed investment, in a16z’s view?

MC: Typically, for us, let’s say it’s $6 million — these aren’t hard and fast rules — and we typically don’t take board seats.

TC: And you look to own how much with that first check?

MC: We don’t have target ownership, really. It all depends  on the market dynamics; we tend to respond to the market.

TC: You mention that it’s gotten very competitive, seed-stage investing. Do you prefer to go it alone or work with a syndicate or investors?

MC: Personally, I love working with other seed funds. We absolutely do not have any sort of internal rules or biases one way or the other on this. I think independent GPs have independent views on this. For myself, I love it because there are great seed funds out there that I love splitting deals with or sharing deals with that we then work on together.

TC: And you want to see what, exactly? How early is too early for the firm to invest?

M: If we know the space very very well, meaning we’ve done the work in the space and we have a deal partner like myself [who is] particularly expert in a space, it can be just a person and an idea, because we believe that we understand the market. We’ve invested in solo  founders before their company existed.

If we don’t understand the space very well, we’d like to see kind of some maturity in the company, maybe some early customer traction, maybe some early product work, maybe an early demo, because that way we’ll have a better sense of the market. So I would say the maturity of the actual company we invest in is inversely correlated with our knowledge.

TC: What the decision-making process look like? I’m guessing it’s different when you’re writing a $6 million check versus a check that’s many times bigger than that.

MC: Yeah, the amount of work and scrutiny that we do for seed tends to be less than for a Series A. The number of people involved is less. And because we’re not taking a board seat, the firm’s [time] commitment is a bit less. So it just tends to be a lighter-weight process. Typically, we have at least two GPs take a look [whereas] if we’re doing an A and above, you want to kind of everybody in the vertical to be involved, and then, for the larger checks, everybody in the fund [is involved].

TC: What are some of the firm’s most successful seed investments?

MC: We’ve had some great ones. Slack was first money. Databricks was first money. I believe we had a seed check in Coinbase.

Pictured above: Casado at a TechCrunch Disrupt event in 2019.

Arianna Simpson of a16z on Yield Guild Games, the firm’s newest bet on crypto + gaming

By Connie Loizos

As one of four general partners at Andreessen Horowitz who are now investing the venture firm’s third crypto fund, a $2.2 billion vehicle, Arianna Simpson is very focused on how to return that capital and much more to the firm’s limited partners.

Toward that end, she has been more focused of late on startups that combine crypto with gaming. Last month, for example, her team co-led an investment in Virtually Human Studio, the startup behind a digital horse racing service Zed Run, wherein users buy, sell and breed virtual horses whose value rises depending on their performance against other virtual horses. (Each is essentially a non-fungible token, or NFT, meaning it is unique.)

Simpson is relatedly intrigued with NFT-based “play-to-earn” models, wherein gamers can earn cryptocurrency that they can then cash out for their local currency if they so choose. Indeed, a16z is announcing today that it just led a $4.6 million investment in the tokens of Yield Guild Games (YGG), a decentralized gaming startup based in the Philippines that invites players to share in the company’s revenue by playing games like “Axie Infinity,” a blockchain-based game where players breed, battle and trade digital creatures named Axies in order to earn tokens called “Small Love Potion” that they can eventually cash out. YGG lends players the money to buy the Axies and other digital assets to start the game, so they can start earning money. (The obvious hope is that they earn more than they have to pay YGG for the use of its assets.)

We talked yesterday with Simpson — who joined a16z after first backing some of the same startups, including the blockchain infrastructure company Dapper Labs and the global payment platform Celo — to learn more about what’s happening at the intersection of crypto and gaming. She also shared which platforms a16z tracks most closely to identify up-and-coming crypto startups. Our chat, edited for length, follows.

TC: Zed Run is really interesting. How did you first come across this digital horse racing business?

AS: I think it was crypto Twitter, which honestly is where we’re finding a lot of our gaming investments. The community on there is really incredible and often one of the first places where really exciting new projects are surfaced.

Zed really marks the advent of kind of a new type of more involved gameplay in crypto. If you look at [the collectibles game] CryptoKitties, it was one of the first NFT-based games that really caught the attention of people outside of the crypto sphere. Zed is definitely a derivative extension in the sense that you have a digital animal that you’re playing with, but the gameplay is much more complex, and the thing that’s been incredible to watch is just how excited the community is. People are putting together all kinds of very sophisticated guides around how to play the game, to read [race] courses, how to do all kinds of different things in the game, and tens of thousands of people all over the world [are playing].

TC: Maybe these already exist, but are there endless opportunities across verticals here, like, say, a digital car racing equivalent or a UFC-style equivalent, or are people buying and betting on digital fighters and hoping they’ll rise in value?

AS: There’s an incredibly broad range of possibilities in terms of what’s happening and what will happen in the universe of crypto games. I think at the core of this movement is really the idea of giving more of the value and ownership in these game assets back to the players. That’s something that has historically been a problem. You might spend years and years building up your arsenal of skins or in-game assets, and then a game will change the rules, take [some of your winnings] away from you or do any number of things that can leave players feeling very disappointed and kind of ripped off. The idea [with blockchain-based games] is to make them more open and allow players to have actual ownership in the space themselves.

TC: Which leads us to your newest investment, Yield Guild Games, or YGG. Why did this company capture the firm’s attention?

AS: During the pandemic, a lot of people were put out of work and not able to provide for themselves and for their families. This time kind of coincided with the rise of a game called “Axie Infinity,” one of the first games to pioneer a play-to-earn model, which is becoming a very important theme in crypto games.

In order to play “Axie Infinity,” you need to have three Axies, and generally speaking, that means you need
to buy them upfront. Obviously if you’re out of work, you have no money [so buying these digital pets] can become a very challenging proposition. So [YGG founder] Gabby Dizon in the Philippines, who played “Axie Infinity” started lending out his Axies so other people could play the game and earn tokens that could then be converted to local currency. And so basically YGG emerged as sort of the productization of what they were doing here, so YGG either purchases or breeds in-game assets that are yield-earning, then loans them to out “scholars,” who are the recipients of these in-game assets, and YGG then takes a small cut of the in-game revenue that the players generate over time.

TC: Does a “scholar” have to be a sophisticated player?

AS: There are managers who basically manage teams of scholars; they’re the ones who effectively decide who to bring into the guild.

TC: So these Axies can be cashed out for currency, but where, and who is buying them?

AS: They can be bought or sold on exchanges and other players are buying them if they need to breed in “Axie” and needs some [Axies]; others are buying them for investment purposes. Also, they aren’t necessarily selling the NFTs but they may be selling the tokens that they earn as part of the gameplay.

TC: There are now 5,000 of these scholars playing the game. Are they mostly in Southeast Asia?

AS: A majority of the players and scholars are in Southeast Asia, but we’re seeing really strong international growth as well, both for “Axie Infinity” and YGG, in particular. At this point, scaling internationally is definitely a core focus for the YGG team.

TC: You mentioned crypto Twitter. What about Discord and Reddit? Where else are you looking around for new crypto projects that are bubbling up and capturing people’s imagination?

AS: All of the above. Discord in particular is very actively used by the crypto community, and the thing that’s interesting there is it really allows you to get a pulse for how active a community is, how engaged people are, how frequently they’re talking, and what they’re talking about. It gives you a look into the community at large and that’s a very important thing to consider when looking to make an investment or assess the health of a project.

Newtopia closes first fund of $50M to invest in LatAm startups

By Christine Hall

Early-stage venture capital fund Newtopia VC launched Monday with $50 million to invest in tech startups based in Latin America.

The fund will invest between $250,000 and $1 million in startups at the seed stage to help them achieve the milestones needed on the path to raising a Series A.

Newtopia is led by five major players in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem:

  • Patricio Jutard, co-founder of MURAL;
  • Mariano Mayer, former national secretary for entrepreneurs and SMEs in Argentina and founder of Marea Venture Partners;
  • Sacha Spitz, co-founder and partner of Yavu Ventures and former director at the Universidad de San Andrés incubation program;
  • Jorge Aguado, former national science, technology and innovation secretary in Argentina;
  • Juan Pablo Lafosse, founder and former CEO of Almundo.

The group has already invested in startups in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, including Aleph (B2B SaaS for e-commerce), Apperto (social commerce), Choiz (healthtech), Exactly (DeFi), Elevva (e-commerce brands), Inipay (fintech), Leef (sustainability), Wibson (e-privacy) and Yerbo (wellness).

Mayer told TechCrunch that he sees a great moment happening in Latin America around global venture capital firms — like Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and SoftBank —making bets in the region, especially targeting later-stage investments. There are home-grown venture capital firms doing well, too, citing Kazek’s $1 billion funds.

“However, we see a gap in investments in seed and road to Series A,” he added. “We aim to help entrepreneurs in those stages. Newtopia started with conversations during the pandemic, and now we see a big momentum for transformation of traditional sectors and the talent to make businesses out of these opportunities.”

Newtopia is offering both investment and a hands-on mentorship model to guide startups through the initial stages so they can grow regionally or globally. The fund has already amassed a community of more than 70 founders to invest, advise and be venture partners to the portfolio companies.

The Newtopia 10-Week Program works with companies to find product-market fit, achieve initial goals and set a foundation for further growth. The firm opened the call for applicants and will select 10 startups to receive a spot in the program and $100,000 each.

By taking a lead in early-stage investing, it will feed the rest of the venture capital firms that are doing later-stage investing, Mayer said.

He sees investments growing in Latin America every year, estimating there was a record $4 billion spread across the region, turning some companies into unicorns, including Jutard’s Mural, which raised $50 million in July. That has more than validated that there will be more money in coming years, Mayer added.

Jutard said the fund’s founders were all investing or mentoring companies on their own, but the new funding will enable them to structure that assistance to help hundreds of startups rather than a handful.

“Early-stage companies go through an emotional rollercoaster where they feel alone, encounter times when it is hard to sell their product or recruit, so we are focused on building a community of support,” Jutard added.

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

By Alexandra Ames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andreessen Horowitz funds Vitally’s $9M round for customer experience software

By Christine Hall

Customer success company Vitally raised $9 million in Series A funding from Andreessen Horowitz to continue developing its SaaS platform automating customer experiences.

Co-founder and CEO Jamie Davidson got the idea for Vitally while he was at his previous company, Pathgather. As chief customer officer, he was looking at tools and “was underwhelmed” by the available tools to automate repetitive tasks. So he set out to build one.

The global pandemic thrust customer satisfaction into the limelight as brands realized that the same ways they were engaging with customers had to change now that everyone was making the majority of their purchases online. Previously, a customer service representative may have managed a dozen accounts, but nowadays with product-led growth, they tackle a portfolio of thousands of customers, Davidson told TechCrunch.

New York-based Vitally, founded in 2017, unifies all of that customer data into one place and flows it through an engine to provide engagement insights, like what help customers need, which ones are at risk of churning and which to target for expanded revenue opportunities. Its software also provides automation to balance workflow and steer customer success teams to the tasks with the right customers so that they are engaging at the correct time.

Andreessen approached Davidson for the Series A, and he liked the alignment in customer success vision, he said. Including the new funding, Vitally raised a total of $10.6 million, which includes $1.2 million in September 2019.

From the beginning, Vitally was bringing in strong revenue growth, which enabled the company to focus on building its platform and hold off on fundraising.

“A Series A was certainly on our mind and road map, but we weren’t actively fundraising,” Davidson said. “However, we saw a great fit and great backing to help us grow. Tools have lagged in the customer success area and how to manage that. Andreessen can help us scale and grow with our customers as they manage the thousands of their customers.”

Davidson intends to use the new funding to scale Vitally’s team across the board and build out its marketing efforts to introduce the company to the market. He expects to grow to 30 by the end of the year to support the company’s annual revenue growth — averaging 3x — and customer acquisition. Vitally is already working with big customers like Segment, Productboard and Calendly.

As part of the investment, Andreessen general partner David Ulevitch is joining the Vitally board. He saw an opportunity for the reimagining of how SaaS companies delivered customer success, he told TechCrunch via email.

Similar to Davidson, he thought that customer success teams were now instrumental to growing SaaS businesses, but technology lagged behind market need, especially with so many SaaS companies taking a self-serve or product-led approach that attracted more orders than legacy tools.

Before the firm met Vitally, it was hearing “rave reviews” from its customers, Ulevitch said.

“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and affirmed the fact that Vitally simply had the best product on the market since it actually mapped to how businesses operated and interacted with customers, particularly businesses with a long-tail of paying customers,” he added. “The first dollar into a SaaS company is great, but it’s the renewal and expansion dollars that really set the winners apart from everyone else. Vitally is in the best position to help companies get that renewal, help their customers expand accounts and ultimately win the space.”

 

Titan, a platform aimed at the ‘everyday investor,’ valued at $450M as a16z leads $58M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Titan, a startup that is building a retail investment management platform aimed at the new generation of “everyday investors,” has closed on $58 million in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

The financing comes just over five months after Titan raised $12.5 million in a Series A round led by General Catalyst, and brings the startup’s total raised since its 2017 inception to $75 million. It values the company at $450 million.

General Catalyst also put money in the Series B round, along with BoxGroup, Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures and a group of professional athletes and celebrities including Odell Beckham Jr., Kevin Durant, Jared Leto and Will Smith. 

The startup, which describes itself as “a new-guard active investment manager, launched its first investment strategy in February of 2018 and today has 30,000 users. Titan’s platform grew by 500% in the last 12 months, largely organically, according to the company, which expects to cross its first billion in assets under management later this year. At the time of its last raise in February, Titan co-founder and co-CEO Joe Percoco said the startup was approaching $500 million in assets under management and was cash flow positive last year. 

“What Fidelity and its iconic mutual funds were for baby boomers, Titan is for new generations. Titan is the first DTC, mobile-first investment platform where everyday investors, irrespective of wealth, can have their capital actively managed by investment experts in long-term strategies,” Percoco said.

He went on to describe the mutual fund or an ETF as “fundamentally just a piece of technology for an investment manager to accept money from someone in order to invest in securities.” He likened that piece of technology to a VHS tape that “does the job, but is archaic for a few reasons.” Those reasons, he said, are that the investor is an “anonymized dollar value” and the products have layers of costs with high minimums and are difficult to create.

“The factory that creates the mutual fund itself is very old. The entire investment management industry is predicated on these VHS tapes,” Percoco said. “These are the archaic technologies being used. We’re rebuilding it entirely. Fidelity is an old factory. Titan is effectively a new factory.”

Image credits: Titan

On August 3, Titan plans to launch its cryptocurrency offering, which the company claims will be the first and only actively managed portfolio of cryptocurrency assets available to U.S. investors. At launch, Titan Crypto will be available to all U.S. residents except those with home addresses in New  York. Access for NY-based residents will be provided once Titan’s custodial partner receives regulatory approval for the state’s jurisdiction. 

Looking ahead, Titan said it plans to allow other investment managers to launch their products from its “factory.”

“The initial strategies on Titan’s platform are predominantly in stocks,” Percoco said. “We’re already getting in-bounds from multibillion-dollar managers asking to launch products on Titan.”

The company plans to use its new capital toward continuing to build out its underlying platform and suite of investment products as well as hiring. It currently has about 30 employees, up from seven a year ago. Percoco expects that Titan will have 100 employees by this time next year.

A16z general partner Anish Acharya said that since meeting the Titan team last year, his firm has “consistently been impressed” by Titan’s product vision, execution and team.

“If we pull back and look at trends happening in consumer investing, we can see that younger generations are embracing more risk in investing, that they demand easy to navigate, mobile-first interfaces and transparency from their banks, and that they want to deeply understand how their money is being invested and participate in the learnings from that process,” said Acharya, who will be joining Titan’s board as part of the financing.

In his view, Titan sits at an “interesting intersection” between passive robo-advisors and active stock-pricing, “allowing their customers to ride shotgun alongside some of the best fund managers in the world, thus achieving the returns and knowledge of stock picking without having to make the decisions themselves.”

Hyper is a new fund that offers $300k checks and promise of a media slingshot for founders 

By Matthew Panzarino

Hyper is a $60M early-stage fund co-founded by Josh Buckley, Product Hunt’s CEO along with writer, founder and designer Dustin Curtis. Two ex-Sequoia operators are part of the team at launch as well. Malika Cantor as Partner and GM and Ashton Brown as Head of Program. The fund launches today and is self-described as ‘inspired by the Product Hunt community’. 

The team will be writing $300k checks for 5% of very early companies in any arena that seems promising to the partnership in a fixed deal structure that mirrors Y-Combinator. 

The fund will exist as a ‘sister company’ to Product Hunt (though it’s going to technically own it). Product Hunt, however, is the first of what the team says will be many companies it will own, create and operate in order to provide ‘direct value’ to its portfolio companies. 

I had a chat with Buckley, Curtis and Cantor about the new fund and company and the way that they hoped to differentiate Hyper in a world of aggressively service-oriented venture firms. 

The short version is: distribution. It’s hard to argue with the overall assumption that the Hyper team is working under — capital is majorly commoditized. Frankly, sometimes that’s all you want from an investor whose value add is more of a thorn in your side than anything. But, especially at the early stage there are a few funds and firms that offer a strong value outside of writing checks in the form of, say, hiring, sales introductions or board members that have relevant operational experience. 

Where Hyper differs, says Buckley, is that they see distribution as the biggest value add for a nascent startup at the stages where the firm hopes to invest. Product Hunt is one opportunity that he points to as an example. It’s an established launch pad to an audience of extreme early adopters that can provide a seed of a real user base — Hyper itself is launching via a post on the platform. 

I’ll let the Hyper team’s words spell out what they say is its thesis:

Hyper believes that every company (B2B or B2C) needs access to distribution channels to find customers, users, and talented employees to join their teams. Hyper works with early-stage companies at three key junctures in a startup’s journey:

  • Initial customer acquisition and validation (often at the pre-Seed stage)
  • First product/company launch and hiring (often at the Seed stage)
  • Scaling customer acquisition and fundraising (before the Series A)

Founders who go through the program will remain a part of the tight-knit Hyper founder community long past their Series A.

Over the past few months, Buckley says that Product Hunt has grown headcount by around 50% in part to boost its ability to act as an enhanced distribution channel. 

A short list of some of the people involved as advisors, mentors or investors themselves includes Alexis & Serena Williams, Alfred Lin of Sequoia, Garry Tan of Initialized, Harry Stebbings, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Naval Ravikant, Owen van Natta, Ryan Hoover, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic and Sriram Krishnan of a16z. 

It’s a pretty eclectic group, but if you squint you can see the shape of the ambitions that Hyper has reflected in the parties involved. A mix of media, venture and product figures is probably the right way to go if you want to back yourself into a media empire funded by venture capital returns. 

They’ll be building additional media products as well, especially ones that focus on areas of hyper growth and high interest in order to both generate deal flow and to feature companies in the portfolio. Interestingly, unlike many marketing-operations-disguised-as-journalistic-enterprises, Curtis says that they want these to be real, functioning media companies and that startups funded by Hyper will be presented on those sites and platforms in clearly defined sections that make it clear that they are part of the program. 

As an example, the team is careful to state that Product Hunt will remain a ‘neutral platform’ for launching products and that Hyper companies will get clearly marked slots on the site. 

Surrounding those placements will be content that is produced by editorial media arms independent of the fund (though, in the end, funded by the profits of the fund). They’re not quite up to giving specifics about how they’re going to power these media properties initially but the funds management fees as well as most of its profits from carry will go towards cultivating the distro side. The other part of the ‘most’ will, one assumes, go to the individual investors. Curtis says that there could be other ways to obtain capital to speed up this process that is allowed by the unique structure of Hyper like debt or equity financing. 

Hyper itself is trying to establish two lines of business. A portfolio of wholly owned companies like Product Hunt (which still counts AngelList as a majority investor and Ravikant on its board) and other new media brands. And the other component which includes the portfolio of Hyper funds (plural theirs) and a founder program that includes mentorship, twice-a-year-events, and other future efforts — eventually. 

The mentorship component that Hyper hopes to add for founders in the fund is an 8-week founder program that includes individuals from “partners” like Andreeessen Horowitz, AngelList, Sequoia Capital, the Twenty Minute VC Podcast and Product Hunt helping founders to solve ‘key challenges’. Some of the participants are investors in Hyper, though none of the funds participated themselves The group includes some close to home figures as well, in Product Hunt GM Ashley Higgins and founder Ryan Hoover.

The program will also offer office hours with experts, an exclusive Product Hunt launch event and a Public Hyper Demo Day and Investor Demo Day to participate in within a year of being in the program.

The Hyper concept sounds fresh in combination, if not in components. An enormous amount of ink has been spilled, for instance, on the spinning up of the VC media apparatus as a bullhorn for a tech-optimism POV. But most of that content is understood to be talking the firm’s book and not intended to be seen as journalism. Though the media publications that Hyper is planning on forming have yet to be realized, there is enough of a differentiating spark here that could make it a unique play that attempts to straddle the worlds of editorial and venture. 

I have thoughts about the way that venture and media interact, as you might imagine given what I do and waves hands at the masthead where we are having this little chat. Combining a media and investing apparatus is not a new concept — as TechCrunch readers will know. But it’s not without its complexities. Enthusiast media that works does so for a couple of major reasons, in my opinion:

  • Genuine obsession with the subject matter. The writers, editors and even business people involved must have a crazy thirst to understand and contextualize the subjects that they write about. There can be no in-between here, as they are speaking every day to an audience that is just as obsessed with it as they are and can detect any level of commitment to it that is less than 100%. 
  • A patina of either trust or candor built over time. You can go into it with some bona-fides that you buy with a big name hire or series of them, and the reputations that they’ve built elsewhere. But if you’re full of shit, you’re going to lose — no matter how well positioned and funded you are. You may ‘win’ long term by turning what you’re doing into something else, a broad interest publication in niche clothing, for instance. But you won’t win at the enthusiast level.
  • An intense, punishing commitment to momentum. The further you delve into any niche, the more knowledgeable your audience will be. This means that you must produce uniquely insightful, crisp, well-researched content every day and you must do it with a level of granularity that surpasses anyone else in your niche. Your audience lives and breathes this stuff so if you’re telling them things they’ve already read on 3 message boards, in private texts or in their work slack then you’ve lost. You’ve got to get subcutaneous and not just superficially so. 

And when you add in a layer of complexity that is proudly announcing your vested interests in the success of particular companies, it just ups the level of difficulty massively. I don’t think that it’s at all impossible to run a fund that feeds a media arm, but it’s definitely a ‘doing a really hard thing while also on fire’ kind of operation.

Which doesn’t mean that Hyper can’t pull it off. Product Hunt is the model for what they’re trying to do, creating close-to-the-ground media that attracts as many operators and investors as it does early adopters. Duplicating that in a variety of publications and events, however, is not easy at all. 

I will say that a bet on distribution as value add is still one of the better stabs that I’ve seen lately. The capital is, as Buckley told me, readily and generically available. And having your calling card be “we can help the first 10, 20 or 30 thousand people know that you even exist” isn’t a bad situation at all. It works.

This is, after all, what we do at TechCrunch, we just don’t take a cut. 

The announcement today is the Hyper the fund, and the fact that they’re opening applications to a small cohort of 25 companies. The applications are planned to open for roughly 4 weeks every quarter and the deadline for this tranche is August 10th, 2021 at midnight PT. The second cohort will open in November 2021. 

The fund is taking applicants worldwide though notes that some countries present legal complexities for investment. 

NFT market OpenSea hits $1.5 billion valuation

By Lucas Matney

It’s been a wild 2021 for NFT auction marketplace OpenSea. The startup was exceedingly well-positioned in a niche space when NFTs exploded earlier this year seemingly out of nowhere. Since then, the startup has found its user base expanding, the total volume of sales skyrocketing and more investor dollars being thrown at them.

The startup announced in March, it had closed a $23 million Series A, and now some four months later, the company tells TechCrunch it has raised another $100 million in a Series B round led by Andreessen Horowitz at a $1.5 billion valuation. Other investors in the round include Coatue, CAA, Michael Ovitz, Kevin Hartz, Kevin Durant and Ashton Kutcher.

Despite a fall from stratospheric heights in the early summer, the broader NFT market has still been chugging along and OpenSea is continuing to see plenty of action. The startup saw $160 million in sales last month and is on track to blow past that figure this month, CEO Devin Finzer tells TechCrunch.

One of the company’s clearer growth roadblocks has been infrastructure issues native to the Ethereum blockchain that its marketplace has been built around. The Ethereum blockchain, which has a number of network upgrades outstanding, has struggled to keep up with the NFT boom at times, leaving users footing the bill with occasionally pricey “gas” fees needed to mint an item or make a transaction. Though these fees have largely cooled down in recent weeks, OpenSea is aiming to make a move towards long-term scalability by announcing that they plan to bring support for several more blockchains to its platform.

They’re starting with Polygon, a popular Layer 2 Ethereum blockchain which boasts a more energy-efficient structure that will allow OpenSea to entirely eliminate gas fees for creators, buyers and sellers on that blockchain. Losing these fees may give OpenSea a better shot at expanding its ambitions, which include finding a future for NFTs in the gaming world and in the events space, Finzer says.

Beyond Polygon, OpenSea has plans to integrate with Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain as well as Tezos down the road, the company says.

Operating across multiple blockchains could create some headaches for consumers operating across platforms with differing levels of support for each network. Some NFT investors are also more hesitant to buy items on blockchains they see as less time-tested than Ethereum, worrying that newer chains may lose support over time. But overall, the user-friendly changes will likely be well-received by the wider NFT community which has seen the explosion in new interest stress-test its systems and highlight need for user interface and user experience improvements.

Colombian on-demand delivery startup Rappi raises ‘over’ $500M at a $5.25B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Rappi, a Colombian on-demand delivery startup, has raised “over” $500 million at a $5.25 billion valuation in a Series G round led by T. Rowe Price, the company announced late Friday.

Baillie Gifford, Third Point, Octahedron, GIC SoftBank, DST Global, Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital and others also participated in the round.

The new financing brings Rappi’s total raised since its 2015 inception to over $2 billion, according to Crunchbase. Today, the country has operations in 9 countries and more than 250 cities across Latin America. Its last raise was a $300 million a Series F funding round in September of 2020.

According to the Latin American Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (LAVCA), Rappi focused on delivering beverages and first, and has since expanded into meals, groceries, tech goods and medicine. The company also offers a cash withdrawal feature, allowing users to pay with credit cards and then receive cash from one of Rappi’s delivery agents. Today, the company says its app allows consumers to “order nearly any good or service.”

In addition to traditional delivery, it says “users can get products delivered in less than 10 minutes, can access financial services, as well as ‘whims,” and “favors.’ Whims allow users to order anything available in their coverage area. Favors offer an array of custom services, such as running an errand, going to the hardware store or picking out and delivering a gift. The two products allow users to connect directly with a courier. 

Simón Borrero, Sebastian Mejia, and Felipe Villamarin launched the company in 2015, graduating from Y Combinator the following year. A16z’s initial investment in July 2016 was the Silicon Valley firm’s first investment in Latin America, according to LAVCA.

Extra Crunch roundup: Unpacking BuzzFeed’s SPAC, curb your meeting enthusiasm, more

By Walter Thompson

Meetings should have a clear purpose, but instead, they’ve become a way to measure status and reinforce what is colloquially referred to as CYA culture.

There’s a kernel of truth in every joke, so whenever someone quips, “This meeting could have been an email!” you can bet that some small part of them meant it sincerely.

Few people know how to run meetings effectively and keep conversations on track. Making matters worse, attendees often don’t bother to prepare, which makes a boring session even less productive.

And then there’s the complication of workplace politics: How secure do you feel declining an invitation from a co-worker — or a manager?

“Every time a recurring meeting is added to a calendar, a kitten dies,” says Chuck Phillips, co-founder of MeetWell. “Very few employees decline meetings, even when it’s obvious that the meeting is going to be a doozy.”


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


Changing your meeting culture is difficult, but given that 26% of workers plan to look for a new job when the pandemic ends, startups need to do all they can to retain talent.

Aimed at managers, this post offers several testable strategies that will help you boost productivity and say goodbye to poorly run, lazily planned meetings.

“Declining a bad meeting should never be taboo, and you should reiterate your trust in the team and challenge them to spend their and others’ time with more intention,” Phillips says. “Help them feel empowered to decline a bad meeting.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch, and have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Why Amazon should pay attention to Shein

Image Credits: Shein

In the last year, online apparel shopping app Shein grew active daily users by 130%, reports Apptopia.

Each day, thousands of new products arrive on the app’s virtual shelves. Items are rapidly designed and prototyped before Shein’s contractors put them into production in Guangzhou factories — two weeks later, those SKUs arrive in fulfillment centers around the globe.

TechCrunch reporter Rita Liao examined how the company’s agile supply chain has become hot talk among e-commerce experts, but beyond a strong logistics game and data-driven product development, Shein’s close relationships with suppliers are integral to its success.

She also tried to answer a question many are asking: Is Shein a Chinese company?

“It’s hard to pin down where Shein is from,” answered Richard Xu from Grand View Capital, a Chinese venture capital firm.

“It’s a company with operations and supply chains in China targeting the global market, with nearly no business in China.”

Inside GM’s startup incubator strategy

General Motors Chief Engineer Hybrid and Electric Powertrain Engineering Pam Fletcher with the 2014 Spark EV Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at a Chevrolet event on the eve of the Los Angeles International Auto Show in Los Angeles, California. When it goes on sale next summer, the Spark EV is expected to have among the best EV battery range in its segment and will be priced under $25,000 with tax incentives. (Chevrolet News Photo)

Image Credits: Chevrolet

GM Vice President of Innovation Pam Fletcher is in charge of the company’s startups that tackle “electrification, connectivity and even insurance — all part of the automaker’s aim to find value (and profits) beyond its traditional business of making, selling and financing vehicles,” Kirsten Korosec writes.

Fletcher joined TechCrunch at a virtual TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 event to discuss what it’s like to launch a slew of startups under the umbrella of a 113-year-old automaker.

Investor Marlon Nichols and Wonderschool’s Chris Bennett on getting to the point with a pitch deck

Image Credits: MaC Venture Capital / Wonderschool

MaC Venture Capital founding managing partner Marlon Nichols and Wonderschool CEO Chris Bennett joined Extra Crunch Live to tear down the company’s early deck.

“The first thing that jumped out at all of us was just how bare-bones the presentation is: white text on a blue background, largely made up of bullet points,” Brian Heater writes before noting the CEO admitted that “not much changed aesthetically between that first pitch and the Series A deck.”

“It aligned with what we were valuing at the time,” Bennett says. “We were really focused on getting the product-market fit and really trying to understand what our customers needed. And we’re really focused on building the team.”

Dear Sophie: What options would allow me to start something on my own?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

I’ve been working on an H-1B in the U.S. for nearly two years.

While I’m grateful to have made it through the H-1B lottery and to be working, I’m feeling unhappy and frustrated with my job.

I really want to start something of my own and work on my own terms in the United States. Are there any immigration options that would allow me to do that?

— Seeking Satisfaction

Investors’ thirst for growth could bode well for SentinelOne’s IPO

Alex Wilhelm calls SentinelOne’s looming debut “fascinating.”

“Why? Because the company sports a combination of rapid growth and expanding losses that make it a good heat check for the IPO market,” he writes. “Its debut will allow us to answer whether public investors still value growth above all else.”

Alex delves into an early dataset from SentinelOne and why public market investors still appear to value growth above anything else.

Before an exit, founders must get their employment law ducks in a row

Rubber ducks in a line

Image Credits: Jenny Dettrick (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Guest columnist Rob Hudock, a litigator who focuses on helping companies recruit the best talent available while avoiding distracting workplace issues or lawsuits, lays out the importance of putting out any employment-related fires before an exit.

“Inattention to employment issues can have a significant impact on deals — from preventing closings and reducing the deal value to altering the deal terms or significantly limiting the pool of potential buyers,” he writes.

“Fortunately, such issues typically can be resolved well in advance with a little forethought and legal guidance.”

Practice agile, iterative change to refine products and build company culture

Building an excellent product and a standout company culture require the same process, Heap CEO Ken Fine writes in a guest column.

“At Heap, the analytics solution provider I lead, a defining principle is that good ideas should not be lost to top-down dictates and overrigid hierarchies,” he writes. “The best results come when you approach leadership like you would create a great product — you hypothesize, you test and iterate, and once you get it right, you grow it.”

Here, he lays out his method that argues in favor of iterative change, not “one-and-done decrees.”

a16z’s new $2.2B fund won’t just bet on the crypto future, it will defend it

The big news on Thursday was the announcement of Andreessen Horowitz’s new cryptocurrency-focused fund. Most focused on the eye-popping $2.2 billion figure, but Alex Wilhelm dug a bit deeper into the announcement to note that a16z isn’t just pumping a ton of money into the crypto space, it’s putting on gloves to fight for it.

Alex writes that “a16z intends to run defense for crypto in the American, and perhaps global, market. Crypto-focused startups are likely unable to tackle the regulation of their market on their own because they’re more focused on product work in a particular region of the larger crypto economy. The wealthy and connected investment firm that backs them will take on the task for its chosen champions.”

5 takeaways from BuzzFeed’s SPAC deck

Image Credits: Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm dives headfirst into BuzzFeed’s announcement that it plans to go public via a blank check company.

He looked at its historical and anticipated revenue growth (the latter is very sunny, which is not atypical for SPAC presentations), what makes up that revenue (more “commerce” as time goes on), its long-term profitability projections, as well as fun stuff, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning BuzzFeed News.

Admit it. You’re curious.

3 issues to resolve before switching to a subscription business model

Three issues leaders need to address before switching to a subscription business model

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

Moving from a pay-as-you-go model to a subscription service is more than just putting a monthly or yearly price tag on a product, CloudBlue’s Jess Warrington writes in a guest column.

“Executives cannot just layer a subscription model on top of an existing business,” Warrington writes. “They need to change the entire operation process, onboard all stakeholders, recalibrate their strategy and create a subscription culture.”

Warrington says that in his role at CloudBlue, companies often approach him for “help with solving technology challenges while shifting to a subscription business model, only to realize that they have not taken crucial organizational steps necessary to ensure a successful transition.”

Here’s how to avoid that situation.

Veo CEO Candice Xie has a plan for building a sustainable scooter company, and it’s working

An illustration of Veo founder Candie Xie

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Rebecca Bellan interviewed Veo CEO Candice Xie about the micromobility startup’s “old-fashioned way” of doing business.

“I understand people are eager to prove their unit economics, their scalability and also improve their matrix to the VC to raise another round,” Xie says. “I would say that’s OK in the consumer industry, like consumer electronics or SaaS.

“But we are in transportation. It is a different business, and transportation takes years of collaboration and building between private and public partners. … So I don’t see it happening from day one, turning over a billion-dollar company, while simultaneously having it all make sense for the cities and users.”

5 companies doing growth marketing right

Image of five round wooden balls moving up steps to represent growth.

Image Credits: jayk7 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

All companies want more or less the same thing: growth. But how do you accomplish it?

Ideally, don’t start from scratch.

The race to grow faster is more pressing than ever before. … “[F]orward-thinking entrepreneurs and growth marketers simply must make time to study their competition, learn best practices and apply them to their own business growth,” Mark Spera, the head of growth marketing at Minted, writes in a guest column.

“Of course, you should still run your own experiments, but it’s just more capital-efficient to emulate than to trial-and-error from scratch. Here are five companies with growth strategies worth emulating — including the most important lessons you can begin applying to your business today.”

Musculoskeletal medical startups race to enter personalized health tech market

Human anatomy, hand, arm,muscular system on plain studio background.

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

With more than 50 million Americans suffering from chronic pain and musculoskeletal (MSK) medical problems, a number of startups are offering patients new products “that don’t resemble the cookie-cutter status quo,” reports Natasha Mascarenhas.

Startups hoping to enter this space have an uphill climb. Setting aside regulations that cover aspects like product packaging and marketing, they must compete with well-entrenched competition from Big Pharma as they try to partner with health insurance companies.

Natasha profiles three companies that are each taking a different approach to personalized health: Clear, Hinge Health and PeerWell.

Like the US, a two-tier venture capital market is emerging in Latin America

In the second part of an Exchange series looking at the global early-stage venture capital market, Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim unpacked the scene in Latin America, discovering it looked a lot like the situation in the United States: slow Series A rounds, fast B rounds.

“Mega-rounds are no longer an exception in Latin America; in fact, they have become a trend, with ever-larger rounds being announced over the last few months,” they write.

Despite that, the funds aren’t being equitably distributed, and the region still lags behind its peers: Brazil has the most $1 billion startups in Latin America, with 12. The U.S., meanwhile, has 369, and China has 159.

But the Latin American market remains hot, if not quite as scorching as the U.S. and China.

Andreessen Horowitz triples down on blockchain startups with massive $2.2 billion Crypto Fund III

By Lucas Matney

While the cryptocurrency market’s most recent hype wave seems to be dying down after a spectacular rise, Andreessen Horowitz’s crypto arm is reaffirming its commitment to startups building blockchain projects with a hulking new $2.2 billion crypto fund.

It’s the firm’s largest vertical-specific fund ever — by quite a bit.

Andreessen Horowitz’s 2018 crypto fund ushered in $300 million of LP commitments and its second fund, which it closed in April of last year, clocked in at $515 million. The new multi-billion dollar fund not only showcases how institutional backers are growing more comfortable with cryptocurrencies, but also how Andreessen Horowitz’s assets under management have been quickly swelling to compete with other deep-pocketed firms including the ever-prolific Tiger Global.

With this announcement, Andreessen now has some $18.8 billion assets under management.

LPs are likely far less wary to take a chance on crypto after Andreessen Horowitz’s stake in Coinbase equated to some $11.2 billion at the time of the direct listing’s first trades, though the stock has slid back some 30% in recent months as the crypto market has shrunk.

Some of the firm’s other major crypto bets include NBA Top Shot maker Dapper Labs which hit a $7.5 billion valuation this spring. Blockchain infrastructure startup Dfinity raised at a $9.5 billion valuation this past September. Last year, the firm led the Series A of Uniswap, which is poised to be a major player in the Ethereum ecosystem. In addition to equity investments, a16z has also made major bets on the currencies themselves.

An earlier report from Newcomer last month reported a16z was targeting a $2 billion crypto fund and that they had already unloaded some of their crypto holdings before most cryptocurrencies took a major dive in recent weeks.

Crypto Fund III will continue to be managed by GPs Chris Dixon and Katie Haun, but the firm has also begun spinning out a more robust management team around the crypto vertical.

Anthony Albanese, who joined the firm last year from the NYSE, has been appointed COO of the division. Tomicah Tillemann, who previously served as a senior advisor to now-President Joe Biden and as chairman of the Global Blockchain Business Council, will be a16z Crypto’s Global Head of Policy. Rachael Horwitz is also coming aboard as an Operating Partner leading marketing and communications for a16z crypto; leaving Google after a stint as Coinbase’s first VP of Communications as well.

A couple other folks are also coming on in advisory capacity, including entrepreneur Alex Price and a couple others who will likely be a tad helpful in regulatory maneuverings including Bill Hinman, formerly of the SEC, and Brent McIntosh, who recently served as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs.

Zero trust unicorn Illumio closes $225M Series F led by Thoma Bravo

By Carly Page

Illumio, a self-styled zero trust unicorn, has closed a $225 million Series F funding round at a $2.75 billion valuation. 

The round was led by Thoma Bravo, which recently bought cybersecurity vendor Proofpoint by $12.3 billion, and supported by Franklin Templeton, Hamilton Lane, and Blue Owl Capital. 

The round lands more than two years after Illumio’s Series E funding round in which it raised $65 million, and fueled speculation of an impending IPO. The company’s founder, Andrew Rubin, still isn’t ready to be pressed on whether the company plans to go public, though he told TechCrunch: “If we do our job right, and if we make our customers successful, I’d like to think that would be part of our journey.”

Illumio’s latest funding round is well-timed. Not only does it come amid a huge rise in successful cyberattacks which show that some of the more traditional cybersecurity measures are no longer working, from the SolarWinds hack in early 2020 to the more recent attack on Colonial Pipeline, but it also comes just weeks after President Joe Biden issued an executive order pushing federal agencies to implement significant cybersecurity initiatives, including a zero trust architecture. 

“And just a couple of weeks ago, Anne Neuberger [deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity] put out a memo on White House stationary to all of corporate America saying we’re living through a ransomware pandemic, and here’s six things that we’re imploring you to do,” Rubin says. “One of them was to segment your network.”

Illumio focuses on protecting data centers and cloud networks through something it calls micro-segmentation, which it claims makes it easier to manage and guard against potential breaches, as well as to contain a breach if one occurs. This zero trust approach to security — a concept centered on the belief that businesses should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeters — has never been more important for organizations, according to Illumio. 

“Cyber events are no longer constrained to cyber space,” says Rubin. “That’s why people are finally saying that, after 30 years of relying solely on detection to keep us safe, we cannot rely on it 100% of the time. Zero trust is now becoming the mantra.”

Illumio tells TechCrunch it will use the newly raised funds to make a “huge” investment in its field operations and channel partner network, and to invest in innovation, engineering and its product. 

The late-stage startup, which was founded in 2013 and is based in California, says more than 10% of Fortune 100 companies — including Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas SA and Salesforce — now use its technology to protect their data centers, networks and other applications. It saw 100% international growth during the pandemic, and says it’s also broadening its customer base across more industries. 

The company has raised more now raised more $550 million from investors include Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst and Formation 8.

Snackpass gobbles up $70M at a $400M+ valuation as its social food ordering platform crosses 500K users

By Ingrid Lunden

While every food delivery company is trying to get an edge on its rivals with discount codes, faster service, and a turn into the realm of spooky with ghost kitchens and dark stores, a startup built on a lighter, social concept — letting people see what their friends are chomping on, making it possible to order food and drinks for each other and group order, with buyers picking it all up for themselves — has just raised a substantial Series B and says that it is already profitable in a number of markets.

Snackpass, which describes itself as a “food meets friends” — essentially a social commerce platform for ordering from restaurants, with “snack,” the CEO tells me, of having a double meaning of eating (of course), and a flirtatious reference to a cutie pie — has picked up a $70 million, a super-sized Series B that it will be using to continue expanding to more markets in the U.S.

Conceived four years ago while Kevin Tan, the CEO who co-founded the company with Jamie Marshall, was still a student at Yale studying physics, Snackpass has grown by remaining true to its higher-ed roots. The startup now has 500,000 users across 13 college towns, and has seen its growth explode 7x in the last three months alone. This round values the startup at over $400 million.

This latest tranche of funding is coming from an interesting group of investors. Led by Craft Ventures, it also includes Andreessen Horowitz (which led its $21 million Series A), General Catalyst, Y Combinator, and a long list of individual backers that speaks to the attention Snackpass is getting and the place it’s carving out for itself as a go-to food platform for millennials and younger users.

That list includes AirAngels, the Airbnb alumni investor syndicate; Bastian Lehmann of the Uber-acquired delivery giant Postmates (et tu, Bastian?); David Grutman, a hospitality entrepreneur; Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors; Gaingels; HartBeat Ventures, Kevin Hart’s venture fund; musician celebs the Jonas Brothers; Shrug Capital (the VC that says it’s interested in consumer startups that are actually interesting to “non-tech” audiences); Pags Group, the family office of the Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca; hip DJ Steve Aoki; Turner Novak of Banana Capital; William Barnes of Moving Capital; and the Uber alumni investor syndicate.

The vast majority of food-ordering platforms these days are focused on delivery and, in many cases, ways of getting an edge over other platforms in executing on that — a push that often comes at the expense of margins than are thinner than a Roman pizza. Snackpass’s big breakthrough, if you could call it that, was to simply dial back from that one-upmanship, moving away from that premise altogether, aiming to disrupt something much more mundane: the queue.

Tan said Snackpass asked its users what they would do if they weren’t using the app, and they said, “Oh, I just stand in line to order,” he told me in an interview.

“The market share right now is owned by people standing in line at the register, and placing their order. Our vision is that in five years that will no longer exist, like, there will be no more registers. We don’t think it makes any sense.”

He notes that for those who really want delivery, people can opt for that, too — Snackpass integrates with delivery services like UberEats to fulfill that — but 90% of the orders on Snackpass are pickup, meaning that not only does the company then not have to deal with its own fleets of delivery people, and the infrastructure of that, but the operating costs to provide that are also not there.

It turns out that actually a lot of young people seem happy to pop out to get something nice to eat. It means they get to socialise, and take a selfie with their food or drink (boba tea figures strongly) at the venue where it’s being bought. It becomes an experience.

It’s also where the market is in another sense. “What people don’t realize is delivery is only 8% of the restaurant industry,” Tan told me. “And while it’s very much competed for by like big companies, and it’s a huge market, the restaurant industry, is like, much bigger, it’s $800 billion. And 90% of that purchasing is still offline,” he continued, referring to the many people who just queue up, order, buy, and leave. “It’s anonymous, and it’s on the verge of disruption. And we’re focused on that much bigger blue ocean.”

Its formula seems to be working with its target users. Tan said that the service has 80% penetration with students in the markets where it has launched. The average customer orders four and a half times a month, with some customers ordering every day. “You can actually see that it’s like, five to ten times more engagement than the delivery platforms, like UberEats.”

The company’s commissions vary and start at 7% and it’s current suite includes online ordering, self-service kiosks, digital menus, marketing services, and a customer referral program. It’s already profitable (in certain markets) but as it continues to grow (and maybe extend to other demographics) you can imagine it adding and expanding on all of these.

There is something about Snackpass that reminds me a lot of Snapchat, not just that the names have a similar ring to them, and not just that they have resonated with college-aged users (and not just that they both squarely target them). It’s something of the whimsy of the app, and how it takes a light touch in its approach to do something that might otherwise feel cumbersome, or mundane, or what, basically, older people do.

Right now, there isn’t much of a social “user graph” per se on Snackpass, nor does it integrate particularly deeply with any specific social apps, but you could imagine a partnership there down the line, especially considering that Snap is getting a whole lot more involved with commerce now.

“In building a social experience around food through shared rewards, gifting, and a social activity feed, Snackpass has created a dynamic and attractive restaurant ordering system,” says Bryan Rosenblatt, partner, Craft Ventures, in a statement. “The growth of its marketplace and virality of the product coupled with Snackpass’ outstanding  team and vision, make it the ultimate solution for consumers and businesses alike. We are thrilled to help take Snackpass to the next level with this latest round of funding.”

Updated to clarify that Snackpass is profitable in some but not all markets; to correct the spelling and names of some of the investors; and to note that Snackpass currently does not work with DoorDash.

PlanetScale raises $30M Series B for its database service

By Frederic Lardinois

PlanetScale, the company behind the open-source Vitess database clustering system for MySQL that was first developed at YouTube, today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Insight Partners, with participation from a16z and SignalFire. With this, the company has now raised a total of $55 million, according to Crunchbase.

Today’s announcement comes only a few weeks after PlanetScale launched its new hosted database platform, also dubbed PlanetScale. The company had previously offered a hosted version of Vitess, but with this new service, it is going a step further and offering what it calls a “developer-first database” that abstracts away all of the infrastructures to ensure that developers won’t have to think about cloud zones, cluster sizes and other details.

Indeed, PlanetScale CEO and co-founder Jiten Vaidya was quite open about the limitations of this earlier product. “What we had built last year was pretty much hosted Vitess, which was no different than how a lot of cloud providers today give you databases,” he said. “So none of this ease of use, none of this elegance, none of these state-of-the-art experiences that the developers want and expect today, we had built into our product.”

But a few months ago, the company brought on former GitHub VP of Engineering Sam Lambert as its Chief Product Officer. Vaidya noted that Lambert brought a lot of developer empathy to PlanetScale and helped it launch this new product.

“People come to you because they’re not database experts, but they have data, they have problems,” Lambert said. “And too many companies, especially in the database world, do not think about the daily lives of their users like we do. They don’t think about the complete journey of what the user is actually trying to do, which is to provide value to their customers. They’re just very impressed with themselves for storing and retrieving data. And it’s like, yep, we’ve been doing that. We’ve been doing that since the 60s. Can we do something else now?”

The company’s users today include the likes of Slack, Figma, GitHub and Square, so it’s clearly delivering value to a lot of users. As Lambert noted, PlanetScale aims to offer them a product that is simple and easy to use. “Just because it is simple and easy to use, and beautiful, honestly — like just beautiful, well-designed tooling — it doesn’t mean it’s inferior. It doesn’t mean it’s missing anything. It means the others are missing the poetry and the additional elements of beauty that you can add to infrastructure products,” he said.

PlanetScale plans to use the new funding to scale its team globally and accelerate the adoption of its platform. Insight Partners Managing Director Nikhil Sachdev will join the company’s board, with the firm’s Managing Director Praveen Akkiraju also joining as a board observer.

“PlanetScale is setting a new bar for simplicity, performance and scalability for cloud-based databases in the serverless era,” said Sachdev. “The developer experience for databases has been painful for too long. PlanetScale is breaking that chain, solving longstanding problems related to scalability and reliability in an extremely elegant, tasteful, and useful way.”

Vantage raises $4M to help businesses understand their AWS costs

By Frederic Lardinois

Vantage, a service that helps businesses analyze and reduce their AWS costs, today announced that it has raised a $4 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz. A number of angel investors, including Brianne Kimmel, Julia Lipton, Stephanie Friedman, Calvin French Owen, Ben and Moisey Uretsky, Mitch Wainer and Justin Gage, also participated in this round.

Vantage started out with a focus on making the AWS console a bit easier to use — and help businesses figure out what they are spending their cloud infrastructure budgets on in the process. But as Vantage co-founder and CEO Ben Schaechter told me, it was the cost transparency features that really caught on with users.

“We were advertising ourselves as being an alternative AWS console with a focus on developer experience and cost transparency,” he said.”What was interesting is — even in the early days of early access before the formal GA launch in January — I would say more than 95% of the feedback that we were getting from customers was entirely around the cost features that we had in Vantage.”

Image Credits: Vantage

Like any good startup, the Vantage team looked at this and decided to double down on these features and highlight them in its marketing, though it kept the existing AWS Console-related tools as well. The reason the other tools didn’t quite take off, Schaechter believes, is because more and more, AWS users have become accustomed to infrastructure-as-code to do their own automatic provisioning. And with that, they spend a lot less time in the AWS Console anyway.

“But one consistent thing — across the board — was that people were having a really, really hard time twelve times a year, where they would get a shock AWS bill and had to figure out what happened. What Vantage is doing today is providing a lot of value on the transparency front there,” he said.

Over the course of the last few months, the team added a number of new features to its cost transparency tools, including machine learning-driven predictions (both on the overall account level and service level) and the ability to share reports across teams.

Image Credits: Vantage

While Vantage expects to add support for other clouds in the future, likely starting with Azure and then GCP, that’s actually not what the team is focused on right now. Instead, Schaechter noted, the team plans to add support for bringing in data from third-party cloud services instead.

“The number one line item for companies tends to be AWS, GCP, Azure,” he said. “But then, after that, it’s Datadog Cloudflare Sumo Logic, things along those lines. Right now, there’s no way to see, P&L or an ROI from a cloud usage-based perspective. Vantage can be the tool where that’s showing you essentially, all of your cloud costs in one space.”

That is likely the vision the investors bought in as well and even though Vantage is now going up against enterprise tools like Apptio’s Cloudability and VMware’s CloudHealth, Schaechter doesn’t seem to be all that worried about the competition. He argues that these are tools that were born in a time when AWS had only a handful of services and only a few ways of interacting with those. He believes that Vantage, as a modern self-service platform, will have quite a few advantages over these older services.

“You can get up and running in a few clicks. You don’t have to talk to a sales team. We’re helping a large number of startups at this stage all the way up to the enterprise, whereas Cloudability and Cloud Health are, in my mind, kind of antiquated enterprise offerings. No startup is choosing to use those at this point, as far as I know,” he said.

The team, which until now mostly consisted of Schaechter and his co-founder and CTO Brooke McKim, bootstrapped to company up to this point. Now they plan to use the new capital to build out its team (and the company is actively hiring right now), both on the development and go-to-market side.

The company offers a free starter plan for businesses that track up to $2,500 in monthly AWS cost, with paid plans starting at $30 per month for those who need to track larger accounts.

Anduril raises $450M as the defense tech company’s valuation soars to $4.6B

By Taylor Hatmaker

The AI-powered defense company founded by tech iconoclast Palmer Luckey has landed a $450 million round of investment that values the startup at $4.6 billion just four years in.

In April, reports suggested that the company was on the hunt for fresh investment and headed for a valuation between four and five billion, up from $1.9 billion in July 2020.

The new Series D round was led by angel investor and serial entrepreneur Elad Gil, a former Twitter VP and Googler with a track record of investments in companies with exponential growth. Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, 8VC, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, Valor Equity Partners and D1 Capital Partners also participated in the round.

“Just as old incumbent institutions with little to no organizational renewal impacted our ability to respond to COVID, the defense industry has undergone significant consolidation over the last 30 years,” Gil wrote in a blog post on the investment. “There has not been a new defense technology company of any scale to directly challenge these incumbents in many decades…”

Anduril launched quietly in 2017 but grew quickly, picking up contracts with Customs and Border Protection and the Marine Corps during the Trump administration. Luckey, the young high-flying founder who sold Oculus to Facebook before being booted from the company, emerged as one of President Trump’s most prominent boosters in the generally Trump-averse tech industry.

The company makes defense hardware, including long-flying drones and surveillance towers that connect to a shared software platform it calls Lattice. The technology can be used to secure military bases, monitor borders and even knock enemy drones out of the sky, in the case of Anduril’s counter-UAS tech known as “Anvil.”

Anduril co-founder and CEO Brian Schimpf describes the company’s mission as one of “transformation,” pairing relatively affordable hardware with sensor fusion and machine learning technologies through a contract partner more nimble than established giants in the defense sector.

“This new round of funding reflects our confidence that the Department of Defense sees the same problems we do, and is serious about deploying emerging technologies at scale across land, sea, air and space domains,” Schimpf said.

The company set its sights on work with the Department of Defense from its earliest days and last year was one of 50 vendors tapped by the DoD to test tech for the Air Force’s own piece of the Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2) project, which seeks to build a smart warfare platform to connect all service members, devices and vehicles that power the U.S. military.

The company’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection also matured from a pilot into a program of record last year. Anduril supplies the agency with connected surveillance towers capable of autonomously monitoring stretches of the U.S. border.

In April, Anduril acquired Area-I, a company known for small drones that can be launched from a larger aircraft. Area-I counted the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and NASA among its customers, relationships that likely sweetened the deal.

Former Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush returns to entrepreneurship with new startup

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Jonathan Bush, the CEO and co-founder of Athenahealth, is a controversial figure in the controversial field of healthcare.

Over two decades after he started the now-public healthcare company, Bush lost Athenahealth to Elliott Management, an activist investor that bought the company alongside Veritas Capital. During this tense period of time, domestic violence allegations surfaced from his ex-wife, Sarah Seldon. Bush took responsibility for what he described as “regrettable incidents” that happened 14 years ago during a “particularly difficult personal time” in his life. Seldon, who TechCrunch attempted to reach for this story, made a statement then too, explaining that she and him have a “co-parenting relationship” with “respect, collaboration and love.”

After these public incidents, Bush went quiet and only later re-emerged as the executive chairman of Firefly Health, a primary care startup.

Now, Bush is back once again, this time as the co-founder of a new startup that aims to re-invent the digital health data stack, Zus. The company wants to create a shared data platform that doctor’s, regardless of specialty or location, can access to better understand their patients. Think of it as massive, fancy Google Doc built for healthcare, that healthtech startups can use to kickstart their solutions, faster.

Along with its launch, Zus announced today that it has raised a $34 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from F-Prime Capital, Maverick Ventures, Rock Health, Martin Ventures and Oxeon Investments.

Bush’s venture-backed return to entrepreneurship may come as a surprise to some, including himself.

“I loved running Athena very much, all 22 years,” he said. “But I also loved fourth grade, and I don’t want to go back. I didn’t feel like I wanted to run a company again.” He changed his mind for two reasons: first, he expects that building a platform company will be different, and potentially less controversial, than building a traditional services business. Second, he sees “strong calling” to bring his tool to life amid a broader digital health boom.

“These digital health companies will largely not work, if they aren’t dramatically accelerated,” he said. “All of them now are facing this quandary: that it’s very hard to hire engineers, enormous regulation and complexity, one too many types of complexity associated with building technologies in medicine.”

With Zus, he’s trying to create capacity. The company has a lot of plans, which includes a growing library of software tools around patient relationship management, a data aggregation service that helps standardize medical records for sharing purposes, a platform that sits atop this information so that multiple doctors can access the same information, and a patient portal that lets users understand how their data is shared and accessed.

So far, the platform is being used by four partners: Cityblock Health, Dorsata, Firefly Health, which is Bush’s previous employer, and Oak Street Health.

Part of the company’s existence can be tied to recent regulation progress. The 21st Century Cures Act gave patients the right to access their medical records, and by next year, third parties can access that same data as well. Many think this newfound data portability could seed a massive new generation of healthcare apps, although there are some concerns about if patients know what they are signing up for.

Mimi Liu, chief technology officer of Firefly Health, said in a statement that Zus will help build out the parts of its infrastructure stack that can be commoditized, bringing its roll-out time from years to weeks and months. She added that its clinical value proposition will be improved because of the “downstream network effect that comes as a result of information sharing.”

A16z, who led the round, is an investor in Firefly Health, as well as a number of healthcare startups like Incredible Health, Omada, PatientPing, and Cedar.

Julie Yoo, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said that Zus embodies its digital health stack thesis, which argues need for “infrastructure platforms that serve the large and rapidly growing population of digital health companies, such that each company no longer has to build the same underlying tech and operations components over and over again, from scratch.”

When asked about Zus’ differentiation, Yoo said that the company will create a community-based marketplace for digital health companies to set up and trade notes, which she thinks has not yet existed in the sector.

“If anything, one might say that the precursor to this concept was the More Disruption Please (MDP) program at athenahealth, which makes Jonathan Bush uniquely qualified to build this more modern version of said concept,” she said. The MDP program was launched by Bush in 2017 with the goal of filling 200 seats in the Athenahealth’s San Francisco office with upcoming entrepreneurs in healthcare.

Zus isn’t the first company to try to start an AWS for healthcare, and in fact there are numerous companies that all work on the different services that Zus wants to one day own, from administrative workflow to patient data retrieval. But, its holistic approach at a time when regulation is changing and investment is booming, along with an experienced founder with the right connections, could prepare it well for what’s to come.

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