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Australian startup Pyn raises $8M seed to bring targeted communication in-house

By Ron Miller

Most marketers today know how to send targeted communications to customers, and there are many tools to help, but when it comes to sending personalized in-house messages, there aren’t nearly as many options. Pyn, an early-stage startup based in Australia, wants to change that, and today it announced an $8 million seed round.

Andreessen Horowitz led the investment with help from Accel and Ryan Sanders (the co-founder of BambooHR) and Scott Farquhar (co-founder and co-CEO at Atlassian).

That last one isn’t a coincidence as Pyn co-founder and CEO Joris Luijke used to run HR at the company and later at Squarespace and other companies, and he saw a common problem trying to provide more targeted messages when communicating internally.

“I’ve been trying to do this my entire professional life, trying to personalize the communication that we’re sending to our people. So that’s what Pyn does. In a nutshell, we radically personalize employee communications,” Luijke explained. His co-founder Jon Williams was previously a co-founder at Culture Amp, an employee experience management platform he helped launch in 2011 (and which raised over $150 million), so the two of them have been immersed in this idea.

They bring personalization to Pyn by tracking information in existing systems that companies already use such as Workday, BambooHR, Salesforce or Zendesk, and they can use this data much in the same way a marketer uses various types of information to send more personalized messages to customers.

That means you can cut down on the company-wide emails that might not be relevant to everyone and send messages that should matter more to the people receiving them. And as with a marketing communications tool, you can track how many people have opened the emails and how successful you were in hitting the mark.

David Ulevitch, general partner at a16z, and lead investor in this deal points out that Pyn also provides a library of customizable communications materials to help build culture and set policy across an organization.”It also treats employee communication channels as the rails upon which to orchestrate management practices across an organization [by delivering] a library of management playbooks,” Ulevitch wrote in a blog post announcing the investment.

The startup, which launched in 2019, currently has 10 employees with teams working in Australia and the Bay Area in California. Williams says that already half the team is female and the plan is to continue putting diversity front and center as they build the company.

“Joris has mentioned ‘radical personalization’ as this specific mantra that we have, and I think if you translate that into an organization, that is all about inclusion in reality, and if we want to be able to cater for all the specific needs of people, we need to understand them. So [diversity is essential] to us,” Williams said.

While the company isn’t ready to discuss specifics in terms of customer numbers, it cites Shopify, Rubrik and Carta as early customers, and the founders say that there was a lot of interest when the pandemic hit last year and the need for more frequent and meaningful types of communication became even more paramount.

 

SpotOn raises $125M in a16z-led Series D, triples valuation to $1.875B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Certain industries were hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others, especially in its early days.

Small businesses, including retailers and restaurants, were negatively impacted by lockdowns and the resulting closures. They had to adapt quickly to survive. If they didn’t use much technology before, they were suddenly being forced to, as so many things shifted to digital last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For companies like SpotOn, it was a pivotal moment. 

The startup, which provides software and payments for restaurants and SMBs, had to step up to help the businesses it serves. Not only for their sake, but its own.

“We really took a hard look at what was happening to our clients. And we realized we needed to pivot, just to be able to support them,” co-CEO and co-founder Matt Hyman recalls. “We had to make a decision because our revenues also were taking a big hit, just like our clients were. Rather than lay off staff or require salary deductions, we stayed true to our core values and just kept plugging away.”

All that “plugging away” has paid off. Today, SpotOn announced it has achieved unicorn status with a $125 million Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

Existing backers DST Global, 01 Advisors, Dragoneer Investment Group and Franklin Templeton also participated in the financing, in addition to new investor Mubadala Investment Company. 

Notably, the round triples the company’s valuation to $1.875 billion compared to its $625 million valuation at the time of its Series C raise last September. It also marks San Francisco-based SpotOn’s third funding event since March 2020, and brings the startup’s total funding to $328 million since its 2017 inception.

Its efforts have also led to impressive growth for the company, which has seen its revenue triple since February 2020, according to Hyman.

Put simply, SpotOn is taking on the likes of Square in the payments space. But the company says its offering extends beyond traditional payment processing and point-of-sale (POS) software. Its platform aims to give SMBs the ability to run their businesses “from building a brand to taking payments and everything in-between.” SpotOn’s goal is to be a “one-stop shop” by incorporating tools that include things such as custom website development, scheduling software, marketing, appointment scheduling, review management, analytics and digital loyalty.

When the pandemic hit, SpotOn ramped up and rolled out 400 “new product innovations,” Hyman said. It also did things like waive $1.5 million in fees (it’s a SaaS business, so for several months it waived its monthly fee, for example, for its integrated restaurant management system). It also acquired a company, SeatNinja, so that it could expand its offering.

“Because a lot of these businesses had to go digital literally overnight, we built a free website for them all,” Hyman said. SpotOn also did things like offer commission-free online ordering for restaurants and helped retail merchants update their websites for e-commerce. “Obviously these businesses were resilient,” Hyman said. “But such efforts also created a lot of loyalty.” 

Today, more than 30,000 businesses use SpotOn’s platform, according to Hyman, with nearly 8,000 of those signing on this year. The company expects that number to triple by year’s end.

Currently, its customers are split about 60% retail and 40% restaurants, but the restaurant side of its business is growing rapidly, according to Hyman.

The reason for that, the company believes, is while restaurants initially rushed to add online ordering for delivery or curbside pickup, they soon realized they “wanted a more affordable and more integrated solution.”

Image Credits: SpotOn co-founders Zach Hyman, Doron Friedman and Matt Hyman / SpotOn

What makes SpotOn so appealing to its customers, Hyman said, is the fact that it offers an integrated platform so that businesses that use it can save “thousands of dollars” in payments and software fees to multiple, “à la carte” vendors. But it also can integrate with other platforms if needed.

In addition to growing its customer base and revenue, SpotOn has also boosted its headcount to about 1,250 employees (from 850 in March of 2020). Those employees are spread across its offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Mexico City, Mexico and Krakow, Poland.

SpotOn is not currently profitable, which Hyman says is “by choice.”

“We could be cash flow positive technically whenever we choose to be. Right now we’re just so focused on product innovation and talent to exceed the needs of our clients,” he said. “We chose the capital plan so that we could really just double down on what’s working so well.”

The new capital will go toward further accelerating product development and expanding its market presence.

“We’re doubling down on our single integrated restaurant management system,” Hyman said. 

The raise marks the first time that a16z has put money in the startup, although General Partner David George told TechCrunch he was familiar with co-founders Matt Hyman and Zach Hyman through mutual friends.

George estimates that about 80% of restaurants and SMBs use legacy solutions “that are clunky and outdated, and not very customer friendly.” The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more of these businesses seeking digital options.

“We think we’re in the very early days in the transition [to digital], and the opportunity is massive,” he told TechCrunch. “We believe we’re at the tipping point of a big tech replacement cycle for restaurant and small business software, and at the very early stages of this transition to modern cloud-native solutions.”

George was also effusive in his praise for how SpotOn has executed over the past 14 months.

“There are companies that build great products, and companies that can build great sales teams. And there are companies that offer really great customer service,” he said. “It’s rare that you find two of those and extremely rare to find all three of those as we have in SpotOn.”

Zoom fatigue no more: Rewatch raises $20M to index, transcribe and store enterprise video content

By Ingrid Lunden

We don’t hear as much these days about “Zoom fatigue” as we did in the first months after the Covid-19 pandemic kicked off last year, but what’s less clear is whether people became more tolerant to the medium, or if they’d found ways of coping with it better, or if they were hopeful that tools for coping would soon be around the corner.

Today, a startup that has come up with a solution to handling all that video is announcing some funding to grow, on the understanding that whatever people are doing with video today, there will be a lot more video to handle in the future, and they will need more than just a good internet connection, microphone and video camera to deal with it.

Rewatch, which has built a set of tools for organizations to create a “system of record” for their internal video archives — not just a place to “rewatch” all of their older live video calls, but to search and organise information arising from those calls — has closed a $20 million round of funding.

Along with this, Rewatch from today is opening up its platform from invite-only to general availability.

This latest round is a Series A and is being led by Andreessen Horowitz, with Semil Shah at Haystack and Kent Goldman at Upside Partners, as well as a number of individuals, also participating.

It comes on the heels of Rewatch announcing a $2 million seed round only in January of this year. But it’s had some buzz in the intervening months: customers that have started using Rewatch include GitHub (where co-founders Connor Sears and Scott Goldman previously worked together), Brex, Envoy, and The Athletic.

The issue that Rewatch is tackling is the fact that a lot more of our work communications are happening over video. But while video calling has been hailed as a great boost to productivity — you can work wherever you are now, as long as you have a video connection — in fact, it’s not.

Yes, we are talking to each other a lot, but we are also losing information from those calls because they’re not being tracked as well as they could be. And, by spending all of our time talking, many of us are working on other things less, or are confined into more rigid times when we can.

Rewatch has built a system that plugs into Zoom and Google Meet, two of the most-used video tools in the workplace, and automatically imports all of your office’s or team’s video chats into a system. This lets you browse libraries of video-based conversations or meetings to watch them on-demand, on your time. It also provides transcripts and search tools for finding information in those calls.

You can turn off the automatic imports, or further customize how meetings are filed or accessibility. Sears said that Rewatch can be used for any video created on any platform, for now those require manually importing the videos into the Rewatch system.

Sears also said that over time it will also be adding in ways to automatically turn items from meetings into, say, work tickets to follow them up.

While there are a number of transcription services available on tap these days, as well as any number of cloud-based storage providers where you can keep video archives, what is notable about Rewatch’s is that it’s identified the pain point of managing and indexing those archives and keeping them in a single place for many to use.

In this way, Rewatch is highlighting and addressing what I think of as the crux of the productivity paradox.

Essentially, it is this: the tech industry has given us a lot of tools to help us work better, but actually, the work required to use those tools can outweigh the utility of the tools themselves.

(And I have to admit, this is one of the reasons why I’ve grown to dislike Slack. Yes, we all get to communicate on it, and it’s great to have something to connect all of us, but it just takes up so much damn time to read through everything and figure out what’s useful and what is just watercooler chat.)

“We go to where companies already are, and we automate, pull in video so that you don’t have to think about it,” Sears said. “The effort around a lot of this takes a lot of diligence to make sure people are recording and transcribing and distributing and removing. We are making this seamless and effortless.”

It sometimes feels like we are on the cusp, technologically, of leaning on tools by way of AI and other innovations that might finally cross that chasm and give us actual productivity out of our productivity apps. Dooly, which raised funding last week, is looking to do the same in the world of sales software (automatically populating various sales software with data from your phone, video and text chats, and other sources), is another example of how this is playing out.

Similarly, we’re starting to see an interesting wave of companies emerge that are looking for better ways to manage and tap into all that video content that we now have swimming around us. AnyClip, which announced funding yesterday, is also applying better analytics and search to internal company video libraries, but also has its sights on a wider opportunity: organizing any video trove. That points, too, to the bigger opportunity for Rewatch.

For now, though, enterprises and businesses are an opportunity enough.

“As investors we get excited about founders first and foremost, and Connor and Scott immediately impressed us with their experience, clear articulation of the problem, and their vision for how Rewatch could be the end-all solution for video and knowledge management in an organization,” noted David Ulevitch, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a blog post. “They both worked at GitHub in senior roles from the early days, as a Senior Director of Product Design and a Principal Engineer, respectively, and have first-hand experience scaling a product. Since founding Rewatch in early 2020, they have very quickly built a great product, sold it to large-scale customers, and hired top-tier talent, demonstrating rapid founder and company velocity that is key to building an enduring company.”

Reface now lets users face-swap into pics and GIFs they upload

By Natasha Lomas

Buzzy face-swapping video app Reface is expanding its reality-shifting potential beyond selfies by letting users upload more of their own content for its AI to bring to life.

Users of its iOS and Android apps still can’t upload their own user generated video but the latest feature — which it calls Swap Animation — lets them upload images of humanoid stuff (monuments, memes, fine art portraits, or — indeed — photos of other people) which they want animated, choosing from a selection of in-app song snippets and poems for the AI-incarnate version to appear to speak/sing etc.

Reface’s freemium app has, thus far, taken a tightly curated approach to the content users can animate, only letting you face swap a selfie into a pre-set selection of movie and music video snippets (plus memes, GIFs, red carpet celeb shots, salon hair-dos and more).

But the new feature — which similarly relies on GAN (generative adversarial network) algorithms to work its reality-bending effects — expands the expressive potential of the app by letting users supply their own source material to face swap/animate.

Some rival apps do already offer this kind of functionality — so there’s an element of Reface catching up to apps like Avatarify, Wombo and Deep Nostalgia.

But it’s also going further as users can also swap their own face into their chosen source content. So you could, for example, get to see yourself as a singing Venus de Milo, or watch your visage recite a poem from the middle of a pop-art painting like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn.

The Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup is still being cautious as it expands what users can do with its high tech face-shifting tool — saying it will be manually moderating all uploads from the new feature.

Rivals in the deepfake space are arguably pushing its hand to open up functionality faster, though, with apps like Avatarify already letting users animate their own snaps. And — notably — a Reface spokeswoman told us it’s planning to make user generated video uploads available “in the near future”.

Pro users are getting a little taster — as they can upload their own GIFs to face swap into with this latest feature release too.

“We’re really excited to see what Reface users do with swap-reenactment, which is a major technical milestone in terms of the machine learning technology inside of the app,” said CEO Dima Shvets in a statement. “Reface content creators have been clamoring for more tools for personalized content and self-expression – and this feature delivers, dramatically extending the opportunities for realizing their vision and creativity.” 

The still young app has proved popular over its short run, garnering viral buzz via social media shares as users were keen to show off their funny face swaps.

As of March 2021 Reface said it had 100M installs some 14 months since going live. 

Brazil’s Loft adds $100M to its accounts, $700M to its valuation in a single month

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Nearly exactly one month ago, digital real estate platform Loft announced it had closed on $425 million in Series D funding led by New York-based D1 Capital Partners. The round included participation from a mix of new and existing investors such as DST, Tiger Global, Andreessen Horowitz, Fifth Wall and QED, among many others.

At the time, Loft was valued at $2.2 billion, a huge jump from its being just near unicorn territory in January 2020. The round marked one of the largest ever for a Brazilian startup.

Now, today, São Paulo-based Loft has announced an extension to that round with the closing of $100 million in additional funding that values the company at $2.9 billion. This means that the 3-year-old startup has increased its valuation by $700 million in a matter of weeks.

Baillie Gifford led the Series D-2 round, which also included participation from Tarsadia, Flight Deck, Caffeinated and others. Individuals also put money in the extension, including the founders of Better (Vishal Garg), GoPuff, Instacart, Kavak and Sweetgreen.

Loft has seen great success in its efforts to serve as a “one-stop shop” for Brazilians to help them manage the home buying and selling process. 

Image courtesy of Loft

In 2020, Loft saw the number of listings on its site increase “10 to 15 times,” according to co-founder and co-CEO Mate Pencz. Today, the company actively maintains more than 13,000 property listings in approximately 130 regions across São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, partnering with more than 30,000 brokers. Not only are more people open to transacting digitally, more people are looking to buy versus rent in the country.

“We did more than 6x YoY growth with many thousands of transactions over the course of 2020,” Pencz told TechCrunch at the time of the company’s last raise. “We’re now growing into the many tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of active listings.”

The decision to raise more capital so soon was due to a variety of factors. For one, Loft has received “overwhelming investor interest” even after “a very, very oversubscribed main round,” Pencz said.

“We have seen a continued acceleration in our market share growth, especially in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two markets we currently operate in,” he added. “We saw an opportunity to grow even faster with additional capital.”

Pencz also pointed out that Baillie Gifford has relatively large minimum check size requirements, which led to the extension being conducted at a higher price and increased the total round size “by quite a bit to be able to accommodate them.”

While the company was less forthcoming about its financials as of late, it told me last year that it had notched “over $150 million in annualized revenues in its first full year of operation” via more than 1,000 transactions.

The company’s revenues and GMV (gross merchandise value) “increased significantly” in 2020, according to Pencz, who declined to provide more specifics. He did say those figures are “multiples higher from where they were,” and that Loft has “a very clear horizon to profitability.”

Pencz and Florian Hagenbuch founded Loft in early 2018 and today serve as its co-CEOs. The aim of the platform, in the company’s words, is “bringing Latin American real estate into the e-commerce age by developing online alternatives to analogue legacy processes and leveraging data to create transparency in highly opaque markets.” The U.S. real estate tech company with the closest model to Loft’s is probably Zillow, according to Pencz.

In the United States, prospective buyers and sellers have the benefit of MLSs, which in the words of the National Association of Realtors, are private databases that are created, maintained and paid for by real estate professionals to help their clients buy and sell property. Loft itself spent years and many dollars in creating its own such databases for the Brazilian market. Besides helping people buy and sell homes, it offers services around insurance, renovations and rentals.

In 2020, Loft also entered the mortgage business by acquiring one of the largest mortgage brokerage businesses in Brazil. The startup now ranks among the top-three mortgage originators in the country, according to Pencz. When it comes to helping people apply for mortgages, he likened Loft to U.S.-based Better.com.

This latest financing brings Loft’s total funding raised to an impressive $800 million. Other backers include Brazil’s Canary and a group of high-profile angel investors such as Max Levchin of Affirm and PayPal, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and David Vélez, CEO and founder of Brazilian fintech Nubank. In addition, Loft has also raised more than $100 million in debt financing through a series of publicly listed real estate funds.

Loft plans to use its new capital in part to expand across Brazil and eventually in Latin America and beyond. The company is also planning to explore more M&A opportunities.

Katie Haun on saying yes to Coinbase and where a16z’s crypto fund is placing its bets now

By Connie Loizos

Coinbase, the newly public cryptocurrency exchange, has had it share of ups and downs. Still, the nearly nine-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit got a lot right ahead of its highly successful direct listing this week, including, seemingly, inviting in former federal prosecutor Katie Haun to join its board in 2017.

At the time, Haun had just spent 11 years working for the Justice Department, handling cases relating to violent murders and organized crime and, later, the fast-growing world of cryptocurrencies. In fact, as part of her job, Haun had gotten to know Coinbase and other up-and-coming startups to better understand digital currencies and decentralized systems. Because Haun, who won every case she argued, was ready for a change, when Brian Armstrong reached out about a formal role, she said yes. (A year later, Andreessen Horowitz, which wrote its first check to Coinbase in 2013, separately brought her aboard as the venture firm’s first woman general partner.)

The combination has proved powerful and lucrative. As an independent board member at the outset, Haun was given shares for her service that are reportedly now worth roughly $150 million (a16z’s stake is valued at more than $11 billion). Meanwhile, Haun — who recently renewed her board term — says the company’s most impactful days are still ahead.

We talked yesterday with Haun about Coinbase’s valuation, its evolution from here and her work with a16z’s crypto fund, which she co-leads with longtime general partner and fellow Coinbase board member Chris Dixon, and where the team has likely “seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years,” she said. She also noted that a16z has been pouring the majority of its money into tokens. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You were working on these intense cases, including murder trials and at some point, your superiors at the Justice Department offer you the chance to figure out what Bitcoin is all about. How did that lead you to Coinbase?

KH: I actually came to know Coinbase through some of the work I was doing on crypto cases in the government in the early days, I founded the U.S. government’s first cryptocurrency task force out of the Justice Department and part of our job was to go meet with companies or entrepreneurs in the space and get to know what they were up to and how we could work with them. Of course, as with any industry, the government’s objectives didn’t always align with the crypto industry’s. But sometimes there were synergies [and] sometimes they might need to reach someone in the government at one of these companies. Coinbase was not the only crypto company that I was interfacing with in those government days. There were many others. But that’s how I first came to know it.

TC: Because not everyone is going to know the specifics of your career, you played a role in prosecuting Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and also discovering two corrupt federal agents involved in that case. Is that right?

KH: I actually did not prosecute Ross Brecht, I did not prosecute the Silk Road case. What I did prosecute is what we’ll call the twist to the Silk Road case, and that was that a couple of the agents on one of the task forces that was investigating Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road actually turned out to be double agents working both against the government while being federal agents. When I [first received] a tip that we had a rogue federal agent, I thought it was a conspiracy theory. So I thought I would go look into that, mostly to just clear this individual’s name.

TC: Was this a career federal employee?

KH: Yes, this was a federal agent for well over a decade, and it turned out there were two, and they weren’t working together–

TC: Which is even weirder!

KH: Right? The other one was also a career federal agent, which is extremely rare. It happens on TV, where you have corrupt police or law enforcement. But I can tell you that in reality, having been a federal prosecutor for over a decade, this was certainly a first for me. And so I looked into the high level, and what we found was that, let’s just say hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time — now it would be tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars at today’s prices of cryptocurrency — moving around. When we looked into it initially, we thought it must just be some poorly backstopped undercover operation. But the more we looked at it, that transfer patterns were not making sense, and they turned out to be going to personal accounts, which then really piqued our interest.

[In fact] companies like Coinbase [and] other exchanges that kept compliant records were instrumental to our ability to solve that case because of the information that we were getting from those exchanges, but also, the blockchain itself. Without the blockchain, I can definitively say we never would have solved that case. Those agents would still be federal agents today. Had they just been using wires or fiat, we would never have been able to solve the case because they were going to financial institutions across the globe and flashing the badge and saying ‘delete these records.’ They could not do that on the blockchain.

TC: In terms of traceability, a16z has investments in some NFT companies, including Dapper Labs, a blockchain company working with the NBA and others to create NFTs, and, more recently, OpenSea, which is itself an NFT marketplace. Can I ask what you think of the potential for people to use NFTs to move money illegally from point A to B? It’s something I wrote about recently. 

KH: Money laundering is something I prosecuted at the Justice Department, I prosecuted one of the largest ever, if not the largest ever, online money laundering case: the case against BTC-E. We also led an investigation into the Mount Gox hack and we harnessed blockchain technology to help solve those cases, ironically.

I did read your article, Connie, and I found it really interesting, because at first I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, NFTs’ and ‘let’s see how could criminals exploit this,’ because the thing about criminal actors is they are often early adopters of new technologies. I’ve said before, they’re beta testers.

I think when you think about money laundering, the thing you have to step back and realize is that 99.9% of money laundering crimes with fiat today succeed, which is staggering. I think there’s this perception out there that ‘Oh, when wires or fiat money or physical goods are used, money launderers can’t do their thing,’ and that’s just completely contrary to reality.

What I would say is that crypto is a step-level function improvement. The reason I say that is because it leaves these what I call digital breadcrumbs in a way that the physical world or you cash, even wires, by the way, though wires are somewhat digital, cash, physical goods don’t quite leave. With NFT’s, I think that ultimately actually it makes it easier for investigators to trace because of those digital breadcrumbs.

TC: Speaking of NFTs and some of your firm’s deals, how would you describe your pacing right now?

KH: We’re deploying currently out of our second crypto fund. And I think it’s really exciting to start seeing a lot of these things work and capture mainstream attention. And just frankly, there’s been a lot of launches also in the last six months. So that’s also been really exciting. So although the pace is definitely frenetic, it’s an incredibly exciting time in the space. Obviously, yesterday was a milestone for Coinbase but also just for the entire crypto ecosystem.

In terms of pace and how many deals we’re seeing, I would say that we’ve seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years, and stay tuned for some of our announcements there, because we’ve done a lot in this last quarter and they haven’t all yet been announced. There’s really an explosion of activity in the space.

We’re also doubling down on investments we’ve made years ago. You mentioned Dapper Labs. The Andreessen Horowitz Crypto Funds have invested in Dapper Labs several times over the years, including out of our first crypto fund, so it’s just really exciting to see now all of the progress that team has made.

TC: How does the process of evaluating these crypto deals differ in comparison with traditional startups?

KH: Some categories are the same and some are completely different. One thing we always look for is a founding team  that has a real vision and that can execute; Coinbase is a tremendous case study in that. We also consider the total addressable market. And we look at not just the product and tech but also its defensibility. Could others come along and quickly take over this idea? Those are some of the characteristics that are the same.

What’s different in crypto is first, regulatory and compliance. Have code audits been done, [have] vulnerabilities [been] found? What’s your plan for security, particularly if you’re talking about areas like decentralized finance.

We’re also [focused on] token economics. What we’re investing in at Andreessen Horowitz Crypto now largely is tokens. Because we’re a [registered investment advisor], we have that flexibility. We still think there are plenty of [opportunities] that merit equity investment; Coinbase is a prime example of an equity investment, not a token investment, but we’re increasingly doing a lot in the token space. I would say, the majority of our funds are deployed in tokens. And when you’re talking about tokens, you want to have really thought through token economics at the outset. Has the team set aside enough tokens for the community? Once the protocol is live, what does that look like? Are they going to Airdrop tokens? What’s their go-to-market strategy? Are they incentivizing early employees with tokens? So I would say the token economic model is something that we look at very heavily.

TC: Are you saying that the firm is looking at buying tokens, meaning buying slugs of currency, versus investing in foundational technology?

KH: We see tokens as foundational technology because we see these protocols, in many cases, as foundational technology.

I think what you might be asking me is, are we investing in the tokens versus the equity of a particular company, and the answer is very much yes. I could say the vast majority of our crypto funds are deployed into the tokens themselves, the assets themselves now [including] Bitcoin or Ethereum, for example. Then apart from that, we hold tokens in a number of different protocols that we acquired just through acquiring tokens — not because we owned equity in a company that distributed the tokens.

In some instances, we have owned equity, where a team has then created a token, and we get token rights as part of our original equity investment. But increasingly, what we’re seeing is the ability to just go buy tokens. We can buy them over the counter and we are definitely doing that.

TC: What percentage of the crypto fund’s assets are invested directly in Bitcoin and Ethereum? Is it a sizable percentage?

KH: We’ve never disclosed an actual percentage, but we definitely have a sizable position in both Bitcoin and Ethereum, which I can say because we’ve disclosed that before. So that’s really all I’m comfortable saying.

TC: That Bitcoin is now so valuable has been a boon for Coinbase, which makes most of its revenue off transaction volume. Can you help readers understand how this company is worth $87 billion today? Presumably it won’t be as reliant on those fees going forward (owing to pressure from rival companies).

Sure, it’s definitely true that the company has plans to diversify from just purely transactional revenue, although make no mistake, transactional revenue continues to be an important segment of the business now but also in the future.

However, I think we see diversification away from that in terms of recurring subscriptions or services. The best way to think about Coinbase is that it’s at the ground floor in some ways, because right now you have 56 million people on the Coinbase platform but well over 100 million people around the globe doing things right now with crypto: buying it, selling, even holding crypto assets. And we really see that as the ground floor because we’re seeing projects that are enabling entirely new industries.

Within crypto, we’ve talked about one already: NFTs. There’s [decentralized finance]. But there’s just so much more out there, like digital identity.

One of the things we’ve seen with crypto is that we can’t always predict where those new behaviors or products and services will lead. I mean, when the iPhone came out, did we think that would lead to behaviors like ride hailing, the gig economy, TikTok streaming? One of the things that we see for Coinbase is that it’s very well-positioned — because it’s a crypto first company — to capitalize on all kinds of different behaviors in the crypto economy that we don’t even yet know about.

TC: A lot of wealth was generated inside of Coinbase this week, with presumably a major divide between the haves and have nots. How does a company in this position deal with that issue?

KH: People who are attracted to Coinbase are attracted for a number of reasons. Economics is certainly one of them. But the candidates I see coming through Coinbase, there’s something about the vision that attracts them to the vision of the company and to crypto as a movement and as a technology.

I can also tell you that management team is very much here for the long haul and is very much invested in building the future. At 7:22 a.m. the morning after the offering, [Coinbase sent out an email] saying: “Okay, on to the next thing, let’s keep the focus.” And by the way, the same thing was true when the price of Bitcoin hit $10,000. I just happened to be in the Coinbase offices and the mood was, let’s keep building.

TC: Can you comment on whether Andreessen Horowitz sold part of its shares in this week’s offering and if so, what percentage? I’m assuming that the firm took some money off the table.

KH: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of that.

Note: Because a16z is an RIA, Haun made clear during our interview that she wasn’t offering investment advice or directing her statements at any investor or prospective investor in a16z funds.

Astranis raises $250M at a $1.4B valuation for smaller, cheaper geostationary communications satellites

By Darrell Etherington

Space startup Astranis has raised a $250 million Series C round to provide it with a capital injection to help scale manufacturing of its unique MicroGEO satellites — geostationary communications satellites that are much smaller than the typical massive, expensive spacecraft used in that orbital band to provide communications and connectivity to specific points on Earth.

The Astranis Series C was led by BlackRock-managed funds, and includes participation from a host of new investors including Baillie Gifford, Fidelity, Koch Strategic Platforms and more. Existing investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Venrock, and more also chipped in, with the raise valuing the company at $1.4 billion post-money.

This brings the total funding raised by Astranis to over $350 million, including both equity and debt financing. Astranis got started only in 2016, and was part of the YC Winter 2016 cohort. While a lot of other companies are looking to build satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit to provide low-cost broadband on Earth, Astranis, led by co-founder and CEO John Gedmark, is focused on the GEO band, where the large legacy communications satellites currently operate, orbiting the Earth at a fixed position and providing connectivity to a set area on Earth.

Gedmark has told me previously that the company’s offering is very different from the LEO constellations being put up and operated by companies including SpaceX, because they’re essentially a much more targeted, nimble solution that works with existing ground infrastructure. Customers who have a specific regional need for connectivity can get Astranis to put one one up at a greatly reduced cost compared to a traditional GEO communications satellite, and do so to replace or upgrade aging existing satellite network infrastructure, for example.

It’s worth noting that BlackRock, which led this round, has also been a key participant in the PIPE components of high-profile space startup SPACs like launcher company Astra’s. Not saying that’s the exit plan this round is setting up, but definitely something to think about.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

Formation raises $4M led by Andreessen Horowitz to train truly ‘exceptional’ software engineers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Sophie Zhou Novati worked as a senior engineer at Facebook and then Nextdoor, where she struggled to hire great engineers for her team.

Frustrated, she decided to try training engineers to meet her team’s hiring standards by mentoring at a local coding bootcamp. After two and a half years of mentoring on nights and weekends, Novati decided to turn her passion into a career.

She and her husband, Michael, founded Formation with a couple of goals in mind. For one, they wanted to offer personalized training to help people not just learn to code, but to become “exceptional” software engineers. Sophie was also struck by the diversity of the people she witnessed going through coding bootcamps, but she realized that those graduates weren’t getting access to the same opportunities that students from traditional universities do.

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophia Zhou Navati

Formation co-founder and CEO Sophia Zhou Navati

With Formation, her goal is to personalize the training experience via a remote fellowship program that combines automated instruction with access to a “network of top tier mentors” from companies such as Facebook and Google. After one year in beta, Formation is unveiling its Engineering Fellowship, where every fellow gets a “personalized training plan tailored to their unique career ambitions.” So far, it’s placed just over 30 people in engineering roles at companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Lyft with an average starting salary of $120,000.

Formation aims to offer an experience beyond bootcamps, which Sophie argues “have gotten too big, too fast, churning hundreds or thousands of students through fixed curriculums without individualized attention.”

The startup attracted the attention of Andreessen Horowitz, which just led its $4 million seed round. Designer Fund, Combine, Lachy Groom, Slow Ventures and engineers from Airbnb, Notion, Rippling and others also participated in the financing.

“The first thing that really struck me about this community is just how diverse it is. Forty-four percent of graduates are reporting that they identify as nonmale, and the percentage of Black and Latinx graduates is nearly double the national average at traditional universities,” Sophie told TechCrunch. “But the problem is that only about 55% of bootcamp grads are getting a job as a software engineer, and of the ones that do, their median salary is only about $65,000. At the same time, companies everywhere are just desperately looking for ways to diversify their talent pool.”

Instead of having students follow a fixed curriculum, Formation leverages adaptive learning technology to build a personalized training plan tailored to each student’s specific skillset and career goals. The platform continuously assesses their skills and adapts their roadmap, according to Sophie.

About half of the people participating in Formation’s program are current engineers already working in the industry in some capacity. 

Connie Chan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, said she’s been examining the edtech space for a while, including companies building new tools for teaching and upleveling coding skills. 

Formation stood out to her as the “only true tech-based and scalable solution that optimizes each student’s mastery of important skills.” Its ability to dynamically change based on a student’s performance in particular was compelling.

“The founder-product fit is also super clear — Sophie brings her own best-in-class engineering experience to Formation, as well as her long-time passion for mentoring,” Chan wrote via email.

Note-taking app Mem raises $5.6 million from Andreessen Horowitz

By Lucas Matney

The competition for note-taking is as fierce as it has ever been with plenty of highly-valued productivity startups fighting for an audience it can potentially serve endless productivity offshoots. In the past year, Notion raised at a $2 billion valuation, Coda raised at $636 million, and Roam raised at $200 million.

A new competitor in the space is emerging out of stealth with fresh funding from Andreessen Horowitz. The free app, called Mem, is an early access platform dedicated to pushing users to quickly jot down their thoughts without focusing too heavily on the underlying organization of them. The startup’s founders have vast ambitions for what their platform could become down the road, tapping into further advances in machine learning and even AR.

“Really the differentiation is [information] that is summonable ubiquitously wherever you are,” Mem co-founder Kevin Moody tells TechCrunch. “So, in the near term, through your desktop app with Mem Spotlight as a heads-up display for wherever you are, in the medium term through an assistive mobile application, and then in the long term, imagine contact lenses that are overlaying useful content to you in the world.”

Moody and his co-founder Dennis Xu tell TechCrunch they’ve raised $5.6 million in a seed round led by a16z with additional participation from their Cultural Leadership Fund, Will Smith’s dreamers.vc, Floodgate, Unusual Ventures and Shrug Capital. The round also was host to a handful of angel investors including Harry Stebbings, Julia Lipton, Tony Liu, Rahul Vohra and Todd Goldberg, among others.

In its current iteration, Mem push users towards “lightweight organization” rather than clicking through folders and links to find the perfect place to nestle their thoughts. Users can quickly tag users or dedicated topics in their notes. The user workflow relies pretty heavily on search and chronological organization, presenting users with their most recently accessed notes. Users can also set reminders for certain notes, bringing a popular email framework to note-taking.

For users of stock apps like Apple Notes, these interface quirks may not sound very jarring, though the design is still a departure from apps like Notion and Airtable which have heavily focused on structure over immediacy.

Mem Spotlight

Perhaps Mem’s biggest shift is how users access the information they’ve dumped into the platform. The founders say they want to avoid their app being seen as a “destination,” instead hoping users rely heavily on a keyboard-shortcut-prompted overlay called Mem Spotlight that allows them to search out information that they may need for an email, presentation or text message. The broader hope of the founders and investors behind Mem is that the team can leverage the platform’s intelligence over time to better understand the data dump from your brain — and likely other information sources across your digital footprint — to know you better than any ad network or social media graph does.

“What would it mean to just capture passively your digital footprint and then make use of that as though it were structured,” Moody posits. “If we can actually have our own Mem modeling of all of these entities, whether it’s text, or maybe it’s contacts, the people that you know, or it’s the events that you’re going to and these different sources feed into Mem, what would it mean for Mem to be able to have a product that is the ‘you’ API?”

For now, the startup’s app isn’t quite as grandiose in scale as what the founders may see in its future, but as Mem continues to onboard early users from its waitlist and add to its desktop functionality, the company is driving towards a platform they hope feels more instrumental to how its users “remember” information.

Lowkey raises $7 million from a16z to help game streamers capitalize on short-form video

By Lucas Matney

While the growth of game-streaming audiences have continued on desktop platforms, the streaming space has felt surprisingly stagnant at times, particularly due to the missing mobile element and a lack of startup competitors.

Lowkey, a young gaming startup that builds software for game streamers, is aiming to build out opportunities in bit-sized clips. The startup wants to be a hub for both creating and viewing short gaming clips but also sees a big opportunity in helping streamers cut down their existing content for distribution on platforms like Instagram and TikTok where short-form gaming content sees a good deal of engagement.

The startup announced today that they’ve closed a $7 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from a host of angel investors including Figma’s Dylan Field, Loom’s Joe Thomas and Plaid’s Zach Perret & William Hockey.

We last covered Lowkey in early 2020 when the company was looking to build out a games tournament platform for adults. At the time, the company had already pivoted after going through YC as Camelot but which allowed audiences on Twitch and YouTube pay creators to take on challenges. This latest shift brings Lowkey back to the streaming world but more focused on becoming a tool for streamers and a hub for viewers.

One of the challenges for streamers has been adapting widescreen content for a vertical video form factor, but CEO Jesse Zhang says that it’s not really a problem with most modern games. “Games inherently want to focus you attention on the center of the screen,” Zhang tells TechCrunch. “So, almost all clips extend really cleanly to like a mobile format, which is what we’ve done.”

Twitch and YouTube Gaming have proven to be pretty uninterested in short-form content, favoring the opportunities of long-form stream that allow streamers to press broadcast and upload 30 minutes+ streams. Lowkey users can easily upload footage captured from Lowkey’s desktop app or directly import a linked stream. This allows content creators to upload and comment on their own footage or remix and respond to another streamer’s content.

Lowkey’s desktop app is available on Windows and their new mobile app is now live for iOS.

Apple invests $50M into music distributor UnitedMasters alongside A16z and Alphabet

By Matthew Panzarino

Independent music distribution platform and tool factory UnitedMasters has raised a $50M series B round led by Apple. A16z and Alphabet are participating again in this raise. United Masters is also entering a strategic partnership with Apple alongside this investment. 

If you’re unfamiliar with UnitedMasters, it’s a distribution company launched in 2017 by Steve Stoute, a former Interscope and Sony Music executive. The focus of UnitedMasters is to provide artists with a direct pipeline to data around the way that fans are interacting with their content and community, allowing them to connect more directly to offer tickets, merchandise and other commercial efforts. UnitedMasters also generally allows artists to retain control of their own masters.

Neither of these conditions are at all typical in the music industry. In a typical artist deal, recording companies retain all audience and targeting data as well as masters. This limits an artist’s ability to be agile, taking advantage of new technologies to foster a community. 

While Apple does invest in various companies, it typically does so out of its Advanced Manufacturing Fund to promote US manufacturing or strategically in partners that make critical components of its hardware like silicon foundries or glass manufacturing. Apple does a lot more purchasing than investing, typically, buying a company every few weeks or so to supplement one product effort or another. UnitedMasters, then, would be a relatively unique partnership, especially in the music space. 

I spoke to UnitedMasters CEO Steve Stoute about the deal and what it means for the businesses 1M current artists and new ones. Stoute credits Apple executive Eddy Cue having a philosophy aligned with the UnitedMasters vision with getting this deal done. 

“We want all artists to have the same opportunity,” says Stoute. “Currently, independent artists have less opportunity for success and we’re trying to remove that stigma.”

This infusion, Stoute says, will be used to hire talent that are mission oriented to take UnitedMasters global. They’re seeking local technical talent and artists talent to build out the platform worldwide. 

“Every artist needs access to a CTO,” Stoute says. “Some of the value of what a manager is today for an artist needs to be transferred to that role.”

UnitedMasters wants to provide that technical edge at scale, allowing artists to build out their fanbase at a community level.

Currently, UnitedMasters has deals with the NBA, ESPN, TikTok, Twitch and others that allow artists to tap big brand deals that would normally be brokered by a label and manager. It also has a direct distribution app that allows publishing to all of the major streaming services. Most importantly, they can check stream, fan and earnings data at a glance. 

“Steve Stoute and UnitedMasters provide creators with more opportunities to advance their careers and bring their music to the world,” said Apple’s Eddy Cue in a release statement. “The contributions of independent artists play a significant role in driving the continued growth and success of the music industry, and UnitedMasters, like Apple, is committed to empowering creators.”

“UnitedMasters has completely transformed the way artists create, retain ownership in their work, and connect with their fans,” said Ben Horowitz, Co-Founder and General Partner of Andreessen Horowitz in a release. “We are excited to work with Steve and team to build a better, bigger, and far more profitable world for musical artists.” 

We are currently at an inflection point in the way that artists and fans connect with one another. Though there have been seemingly endless ways for artists to get their messages out or speak to fans using social media and other platforms, the actual business of distributing work to a community and making money from that work has been out of their hands completely since the beginning of the recording industry. Recent developments like NFTs, DAOs and social tokens, as well as an explosion of DTC frameworks have begun to re-write that deal. But the major players have yet to make the truly aggressive strides they need to in order to embrace this ‘artist centric’ new world. 

The mechanics of distribution have been based on a framework defined by DRM and the DMCA for decades. This framework was always marketed as a way to protect value for the artist but was in fact architected to protect value for the distributor. We need a rethinking of the entire distribution layer.

As I mentioned when reporting the UnitedMasters + TikTok deal, it’s going to be instrumental in a more equitable future for artists:

It’s beyond time for the creators of The Culture to benefit from that culture. That’s why I find this UnitedMasters deal so interesting. Offering a direct pipeline to audiences without the attendant vulture-ism of the recording industry apparatus is really well-aligned with a platform like TikTok, which encourages and enables “viral sounds” with collaborative performances. Traditional deal structures are not well-suited to capturing viral hype, which can rise and fall within weeks without additional fuel.

In music, Apple is at the center of this maelstrom along with a few other major players like Spotify. One of the big misses in recent years for Apple Music, in my opinion, was Apple’s failure to turn Apple Music Connect into an industry-standard portal that allowed artists to connect broadly with fans, distribute directly, sell tickets and merchandise but — most importantly — to foster and own their community. 

A UnitedMasters tie up isn’t a straight line to that goal, but it’s definitely got the ingredients. I’m looking forward to seeing what this produces. 

Image Credits: Steve Stoute

NBA Top Shot maker Dapper Labs is now worth $2.6 billion thanks to half of Hollywood, the NBA, and Michael Jordan

By Jonathan Shieber

From the early success of Crypto Kitties to the explosive growth of NBA Top Shot, Dapper Labs has been at the forefront of the cryptocurrency collectible craze known as NFTs.

Now the company is reaping the benefits of its trailblazing status with a new $305 million financing led by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, sports, and investing.

The new round values the company at a whopping $2.6 billion, according to multiple media reports, and comes at a time when NFTs have captured the popular imagination.

Leading the company’s financing was Coatue, the financial services firm that’s behind many of the biggest later stage tech deals. But heavy hitters from the entertainment world also took their cut — these are folks like NBA legend Michael Jordan as well as current players and funds including Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Lowry, Spencer Dinwiddie, Andre Drummond, Alex Caruso, Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Hart, Udonis Haslem, JaVale McGee, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Thad Young, and Richard Seymour’s 93 Ventures.

Entertainment and music heavyweights including Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, Will Smith and Keisuke Honda’s Dreamers VC, Shawn Mendes and Andrew Gertler’s AG Ventures, Shay Mitchell, and 2 Chainz also bought in on the action.

And from the venture world comes other strategic investors like Andreessen Horowitz, The Chernin Group, USV, Version One, and Venrock.

The company said it would use the funds to continue building out NBA Top Shot and expanding the updated digital trading card platform to other sports and a broader creator community.

Top Shot has already notched over $500 million in sales for its animated trading cards featuring things like LeBron James dunking and the sky (at least for now) is seemingly the limit for the collectible applications of blockchain.

It’s like the one thing that cryptocurrency can do really well and it’s been embraced far beyond the world of sports collectibles. The recent $69 million sale of a digital piece of art at Christies also marks a watershed moment for art world.

“NBA Top Shot is successful because it taps into basketball fandom – it’s a new and more exciting way for people to connect with their favorite teams and players,” said Roham Gharegozlou, CEO of Dapper Labs. “We want to bring the same magic to other sports leagues as well as help other entertainment studios and independent creators find their own approaches in exploring open platforms. NFTs unlock a new model for monetization that benefits the fans much more than advertising or sponsorships.”

Powering the Top Shot system and Dapper Labs’ other offerings is a new blockchain protocol called Flow, which purports to handle mainstream consumer applications at scale, and can support mass adoption.

Flow also allows for transactions using fiat currency and credit cards in addition to provide a much needed ease of cryptocurrency, and can keep customers safe from the fraud or theft common in cryptocurrency systems, according to a statement from Dapper Labs.

Flow enables NFT marketplaces and other decentralized applications that need to scale to handle mainstream demand without extremely high transaction costs (“gas fees”) or environmental concerns, the company said.

“NBA Top Shot is one of the best demonstrations we’ve seen of how quickly new technology can change the landscape for media and sports fans,” said Kevin Durant, Co-Founder of Thirty Five Ventures. “We’re excited to follow the progress with everything happening on Flow blockchain and use our platform with the Boardroom to connect with fans in a new way.”

Already companies like Warner Music Group, Ubisoft, Warner Media, and the UFC, as well as thousands of third party developers, artists, and other creators are using the Flow mainnet to sell collectible cards, and develop custodial wallets.

Additional investors in the round include: MLB players like Tim Beckham and Nolan Arenado; NFL players: Ken Crawley, Thomas Davis, Stefon Diggs, Dee Ford, Malcom Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Matthew, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, DK Metcalf, Tyrod Taylor, and Trent Williams; team ownership including Vivek Ranadive (Kings), and notable sports investors Bolt Ventures.

Closing on $103M, MaC VC is changing the face of venture capital

By Jonathan Shieber

The partners at MaC Venture Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that has just closed on $103 million for its inaugural fund, have spent the bulk of their careers breaking barriers.

Formed when M Ventures (a firm founded by former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty); the first Black talent agency partner in the history of Hollywood, Charles D. King; and longtime operating executive (and former agent) Michael Palank joined forces with Marlon Nichols, a co-founder of the LA-based investment firm Cross Culture Capital, MaC Venture Capital wanted to be a different kind of fund.

The firm combines the focus on investing in software that Fenty had honed from his years spent as a special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz, where he spent five years before setting out to launch M Ventures; and Nichols’ thesis-driven approach to focusing on particular sectors that are being transformed by global cultural shifts wrought by changing consumer behavior and demographics.

“There’s a long history and a lot of relationships here,” said King, one of Hollywood’s premier power players and the founder of the global media company, Macro. “Adrian and I go back to 93 [when] we were in law school. We went on to conquer the world, where he went out to Washington DC and I became a senior partner at WME.”

Palank was connected to the team through King as well, since the two men worked together at William Morris before running business development for Will Smith and others.

“There was this idea of having connectivity between tech and innovation… that’s when we formed M Ventures [but] that understanding of media and culture… that focus… was complimentary with what Marlon was doing at Cross Culture,” King said.

Few firms could merge the cultural revolutions wrought by DJ Herc spinning records in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the internet, but that’s exactly what MaC VC aims to do.

And while the firm’s founding partnership would prefer to focus on the financial achievements of their respective firms and the investments that now comprise the new portfolio of their combined efforts — it includes StokeGoodfairFinessePureStream, and Sote — it’s hard to overstate the significance that a general partnership that includes three Black men have raised $103 million in an industry that’s been repeatedly called out for problems with diversity and inclusion.

MaC Venture Capital co-founders Marlon Nichols, Michael Palank, Charles King, and Adrian Fenty. Image Credit: MaC Venture Capital

“Our LPs invested in us… for lots of different reasons but at the top of the list was that we are a diverse team in so many ways. We’re going to show them a set of companies that they would not have seen from any [other] VC fund,” said Fenty. “We also, in turn, have the same investing thesis when we look at companies. We want to have women founders, African American founders, Latino founders… In our fund now we have some companies that are all women, all African American or all Latino.”

The diversity of the firm’s ethos is also reflected in the broad group of limited partners that have come on to bankroll its operations: it includes Goldman Sachs, the University of Michigan, Howard University, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Foot Locker, and Greenspring Associates.

“We are thrilled to join MaC Venture Capital in this key milestone toward building a new kind of venture capital firm that is anchored around a cultural investment thesis and supports transformative companies and dynamic founders,” said Daniel Feder, Managing Director with the University of Michigan Investment Office, in a statement. “Their unified understanding of technology, media, entertainment, and government, along with a successful track record of investing, give them deep insights into burgeoning shifts in culture and behavior.”

And it extends to the firm’s portfolio, a clutch of startup companies headquartered around the globe — from Seattle to Houston and Los Angeles to Nairobi.

“We look at all verticals. We’re very happy to be generalists,” said Fenty.

A laser focus on software-enabled businesses is complemented by the thesis-driven approach laid out in position papers staking out predictions for how the ubiquity of gaming; conscious consumerism; new parenting paradigms; and cultural and demographic shifts will transform the global economy.

Increasingly, that thesis also means moving into areas of frontier technologies that include the space industry, mixed reality and everything at the intersection of computing and the transformation of the physical world — drawn in part by the firm’s close connection to the diverse tech ecosystem that’s emerging in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing these SpaceX and Tesla mafias spin out, entrepreneurs who have had best-in-class training at an Elon Musk company,” said Palank. “It’s a great talent pool, and LA has more computer science students graduating every year than Northern California.”

With its current portfolio, though early, the venture firm is operating in the top 5% of funds — at least on paper — and its early investments are up 3 times what the firm invested, Nichols said. 

“The way to think about it is MaC is essentially an extension of what we were building before,” the Cross Culture Ventures co-founder said. “We’re sticking with the concept that talent is ubiquitous but access to capital and opportunity is not. We want to be the source and access to capital for those founders.”

Neighbor raises $53M for self-storage marketplace after 5x YoY revenue growth

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, announced Wednesday that it has raised $53 million in a Series B round of funding.

Fifth Wall led the financing, which notably also included participation from returning backer Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) and new investors DoorDash CEO Tony Xu and StockX CEO Scott Cutler. Xu and Cutler will join former Uber CEO Ryan Graves as investors and advisors to the Lehi, Utah-based startup. A16z led Neighbor’s $10 million Series A in January of 2020.

At a time when the commercial real estate world is struggling, self-storage is an asset class that continues to perform extremely well. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.

Colton Gardner, Joseph Woodbury and Preston Alder co-founded Neighbor.com in 2017 with the mission of giving people a more accessible and personal alternative to store their belongings. 

Image Credits: Neighbor

The $40 billion self-storage industry is ripe for a shake-up, considering that most people are used to renting space out of buildings located in not necessarily convenient locations. 

Neighbor has developed a unique peer-to-peer model, connecting “renters” in need of storage space with “hosts” in their neighborhood who are willing to lease storage space in their home, garage or even driveway. The company says it has hosts on the platform making more than $50,000 a year in passive income.

“We really grew into a national business over the last year and now have active renters in more states than Public Storage, which is a $43 billion publicly traded company,” CEO Woodbury said.

Neighbor makes money by charging a service fee (a sliding-scale percentage) of each rent. Its algorithms provide suggested rental fees for hosts.

COVID has only accelerated Neighbor’s business, with revenue growing “5x” and organic reservations increasing “7x” year over year.

“If you think about it, fundamentally on the demand side, everyone’s moving out of these major metro areas like New York and San Francisco, and are moving to these more rural locations. All that moving activity has created a lot more storage demand,” Woodbury told TechCrunch. “In addition to that, people are just spending more time at home and cleaning out their homes more. And they no doubt need storage as a result of that.”

 It also doesn’t hurt that the company claims the self-storage offered on its marketplace on average is priced about 40% to 50% less than traditional storage facilities.

Neighbor also partners with commercial real estate operators to turn their under-utilized or vacant retail, multifamily or office space into self-storage. This provides new revenue streams to landlords hurting from the pandemic keeping so many people at home. And that increased demand led to Neighbor’s commercial real estate footprint growing 10x in 2020. 

With its new capital, the company plans to expand its nationwide network of hosts and renters as well as continue to spread awareness of its marketplace.

“We have tens of millions of square feet of self storage on the platform,” Woodbury said. “The beauty of that square footage is that it’s in every single state. But we want to continue to expand nationally and as we grow and mature, we’ll turn our eyes globally as well.”

Interestingly, before leading the round for Neighbor, Fifth Wall approached the company about business development opportunities. Partner Dan Wenhold said he offered to introduce the concept to the real estate venture firm’s LPs, which include more than 65 of the world’s largest owners and operators of real estate from 15 countries. For example, Fifth Wall partners Acadia Realty Trust and Jamestown are already onboarding properties onto Neighbor’s platform. 

“We are sort of the bridge between the largest owners and operators of physical real estate assets and the most disruptive technologies that are impacting those property managers and landlords, Wenhold said. “And Neighbor fits perfectly into that thesis for us.”

After introducing Neighbor to a short list of Fifth Wall’s strategic LP partners, the feedback the firm got “was fantastic,” Wenhold said. 

“A lot of owners in retail, office and even multi-family expressed interest in working with Neighbor to help monetize space,” he added.

The company’s mission also has a sustainable component considering that creating self-storage space out of existing property can help minimize the amount of new construction that takes place.

Fifth Wall, Wenhold added, is aware of the waste and the emissions that come from the construction process to build new space and admires Neighbor’s role in minimizing that.

“Our firm ardently pursued the opportunity to invest in a transformative proptech business like Neighbor,” he said.

Crypto social network BitClout arrives with a bevy of high profile investors, and skeptics

By Lucas Matney

While much of the recent wave of relentless hype around NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — has been most visibly manifested in high-dollar art auctions or digital trading cards sales, there’s also been a relentless string of chatter among bullish investors who see a future that ties the tokens to the future of social media and creator monetization.

Much of the most spirited conversations have centered on a pre-launch project called BitClout, a social crypto-exchange where users can buy and sell tokens based on people’s reputations. The app, which launches out of private beta tomorrow morning, has already courted plenty of controversy inside the crypto community, but it’s also amassed quite a war chest as investors pump tens of millions into its proprietary currency.

Early backers of the platform’s BitClout currency include a who’s who of Silicon Valley investors including Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, the startup’s founder tells TechCrunch. Other investors include Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital, Coinbase Ventures, Winklevoss Capital and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. A report in Decrypt notes that a single wallet connected to BitClout has received more than $165 million worth of Bitcoin deposits suggesting that huge sums have already poured into the network ahead of its public launch.

BitClout falls into an exploding category of crypto companies that are focusing on tokenized versions of social currency. Others working on building out these individual tokens include Roll and Rally, which aim to allow creators to directly monetize their internet presence and allow their fans to bet on them. Users who believe in a budding artist can invest in their social currency and could earn returns as the creator became more famous and their coins accrued more value.

“If you look at people’s existing relationships with social media companies, it’s this very adversarial thing where all the content they produce is not really theirs but it belongs to the corporation that doesn’t share the monetization with them,” BitClout’s founder, who refers to themselves pseudonymously as “diamondhands,” tells TechCrunch. (There’s been some speculation on their identity as a former founder in the cryptocurrency space, but in a call with TechCrunch, they would not confirm their identity.)

The BitClout platform revolves around the BitClout currency. At the moment users can deposit Bitcoin into the platform which is instantly converted to BitClout tokens and can then be spent on individual creators inside the network. When a creator gets more popular as more users buy their coin, it gets more expensive to buy denominations of their coin. Creators can also opt in to receive a certain percentage of transactions deposited into their own BitClout wallets so that they continue to benefit from their own success.

The company’s biggest point of controversy hinges on what has been opt-in and what has been opt-out for the early group of accounts on the platform. Most other social currency offerings are strictly opt-in. Users come to the platform in search of a way to create tokens that allow them to monetize a fanbase and build a social fabric across multiple platforms. The thought being that if the platforms own the audience then you are at their mercy.

BitClout has taken an aggressive growth strategy here, turning that model on its head. The startup has pre-populated the BitClout network with 15,000 accounts after scraping information from popular public Twitter profiles. This means that BitClout users can buy shares of Kim Kardashian’s social coin or Elon Musk’s without those individuals ever having signed up for a profile or agreeing to it. This hasn’t been well-received by all of those who unwittingly had accounts set up on their behalf including many crypto-savvy users who got scooped up in the initial wave of seeding.

The startup’s founder says that this effort was largely an effort to prevent handle squatting and user impersonation but he believes that as the platform opens, a sizable pre-purchase of creator coins reserved for the owners of these accounts will entice those users to verify their handles to claim the funds.

Perhaps BitClout’s most eyebrow raising quirk is that the platform is launching with a way to invest into the platform and convert bitcoin into BitClout, but at launch there’s no way to cash out funds. The project’s founder says that it’s only a matter of time before this is resolved, and points to Coinbase and the Winkelvoss twin’s status as coin holders as a sign of future exchange support to come, but the company has no specifics to share at launch.

While the founders and investors behind the project see a bright future for social currencies on the blockchain, many in the decentralized community have been less impressed with BitClout’s early efforts to achieve viral adoption among creators in a permission-less manner.

“BitClout will make a great case study on how badly crypto projects can mess up incentive engineering when they try to monetize social networks.” Jay Graber, a decentralized platform researcher involved in Twitter’s bluesky effort, said in a tweet. “Trust and reputation are key, and if you create a sketchy platform and mess with people’s reputations without their consent it is not going to go well.”

If BitClout comes out of the gate and manages to convert enough of its pre-seeded early adopter list that there is value in joining its closed ecosystem version of a social token then it may have strong early momentum in an explosive new space that many creators are finding valuable. The concepts explored by others in the social currency space are sound, but this particular execution of it is a high-risk one. The network launches tomorrow morning so we’ll see soon enough.

If the question is #bitclout the answer is yes.

— Jordan Belfort (@wolfofwallst) March 20, 2021

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