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Kandji nabs $60M Series B as Apple device management platform continues to thrive

By Ron Miller

During the pandemic, having an automated solution for onboarding and updating Apple devices remotely has been essential, and today Kandji, a startup that helps IT do just that, announced a hefty $60 million Series B investment.

Felicis Ventures led the round with participation from SVB Capital, Greycroft, Okta Ventures and The Spruce House Partnership. Today’s round comes just 7 months after a $21 million Series A, bringing the total raised across three rounds to $88.5 million, according to the company.

CEO Adam Pettit says that the company has been growing in leaps in bounds since the funding round last October.

“We’ve seen a lot more traction than even originally anticipated. I think every time we’ve put targets up onto the board of how quickly we would grow, we’ve accelerated past them,” he said. He said that one of the primary reasons for this growth has been the rapid move to work from home during the pandemic.

“We’re working with customers across 40+ industries now, and we’re even seeing international customers come in and purchase so everyone now is just looking to support remote workforces and we provide a really elegant way for them to do that,” he said.

While Pettit didn’t want to discuss exact revenue numbers, he did say that it has tripled since the Series A announcement. That is being fueled in part he says by attracting larger companies, and he says they have been seeing more and more of them become customers this year.

As they’ve grown revenue and added customers, they’ve also brought on new employees, growing from 40 to 100 since October. Pettit says that the startup is committed to building a diverse and inclusive culture at the company and a big part of that is making sure you have a diverse pool of candidates to choose from.

“It comes down to at the onset just making the decision that it’s important to you and it’s important to the company, which we’ve done. Then you take it step by step all the way through, and we start at the back into the funnel where are candidates are coming from.”

That means clearly telling their recruiting partners that they want a diverse candidate pool. One way to do that is being remote and having a broader talent pool to work with. “We realized that in order to hold true to [our commitment], it was going to be really hard to do that just sticking to the core market of San Diego or San Francisco, and so now we’ve expand expanded nationally and this has opened up a lot of [new] pools of top tech talent,” he said.

Pettit is thinking hard right now about how the startup will run its offices whenever they allowed back, especially with some employees living outside major tech hubs. Clearly it will have some remote component, but he says that the tricky part of that will be making sure that the folks who aren’t coming into the office still feel fully engaged and part of the team.

Tiger Global backs Indian crypto startup at over $500M valuation

By Manish Singh

Coinswitch Kuber, a startup that allows young users in India to invest in cryptocurrencies, said on Thursday it has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market and also the place where the future of private cryptocurrencies remains uncertain for now.

Tiger Global financed the entire Series B funding round of Coinswitch Kuber and valued the three-year-old Indian startup at over $500 million. The announcement of Series B comes just three months after Coinswitch closed its $15 million Series A round from Ribbit Capital, Sequoia Capital India, and Kunal Shah. The Bangalore-based startup has raised $41.5 million to date.

TechCrunch reported earlier this month that the New York-headquartered technology hedge fund had led or was in advanced stages of talks to lead investments in many Indian startups including Coinswitch.

Coinswitch Kuber is one of the handful of startups operating in the cryptocurrency space today. The crypto exchange allows users to buy slivers of several popular cryptocurrencies. A user on Coinswitch, for instance, can buy small sachets of bitcoin and other currencies for as low as 100 Indian rupees ($1.3)-worth.

The startup said it has amassed over 4.5 million users, more than half of whom are aged 25 or younger. In the past 11 months, Coinswitch Kuber said it processed transactions over $5 billion.

But how the startup, which aims to add 5.5 million by the end of this year, performs in the future is not entire in its hand.

While trading of private cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is currently legal in India, New Delhi is widely expected to introduce a law that bans all private cryptocurrency.

Ashish Singhal, co-founder and chief executive of Coinswitch Kuber, said he is optimistic that India will not ban private cryptocurrencies, but said the startup closed the financing round with Tiger Global before New Delhi’s indication to formulate a law.

“This investment round brings us at par with some of the most sought after cryptocurrency companies in the world and sets us up for the long run,” said Singhal.

In recent months, some crypto startups in India have started to explore a contingency plan in the event the nation does end up banning cryptocurrency trading in the country. Many startups are today building in India, but focusing on serving customers overseas.

“As they build India’s leading cryptocurrency platform, CoinSwitch is well positioned to capture the tremendous growing interest in crypto among retail investors. We are excited to partner with CoinSwitch as they innovate in this emerging asset class,” said Scott Shleifer, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Business continuity planning is a necessity for your fund and portfolio

By Ram Iyer
Will Poole Contributor
Will Poole is co-founder and managing partner of Capria Ventures, a global financial services firm leading, partnering with and funding the largest network of fund managers collaborating to deliver superior returns and scaled impact in emerging markets.

Just shy of a year ago, I sent an email to our global fund manager partners and to our direct portfolio CEOs titled “Only the decisive survive.” At that time, not many outside of China were concerned about COVID-19. However, I was obsessed.

Hearing stories from fund manager friends with operations in China, I knew things were worse than what the Chinese press were telling the world. And I live only five miles south of the location of the first COVID death in the U.S. The pandemic was accelerating exponentially, and I wanted to get all of our partners to open their eyes to the risks and prepare as well as they could.

I’m not writing with that level of intensity or urgency this time, but I am concerned. We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

My partner Susana invested in 90 funds over 20 years — she’s seen everything from motorcycle accidents to depression take out fund managers and CEOs. Life works that way sometimes, and it’s not always someone else. It’s the “What happens if I get hit by a bus scenario?” In this case, the bus happens to be a global pandemic.

One of our funds in Asia recently reported COVID cases in three CEOs among their 23 companies. While developed market infections and deaths are trending down, many countries are seeing serious new outbreaks, and some, like Brazil, are doing badly.

Pandemic forecasting site IHME predicts a growing caseload across sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and Pacific regions. The LAC region is trending down overall, but some countries, including Colombia, are expected to experience a second (or third) wave of infections.

As the Economist said in mid-February, “Coronavirus is not done with humanity yet.”

Planning for your fund

A month or so ago, we were trying to move forward with an investment in a fund in Africa with whom we had been speaking and doing due diligence for a few months. They went radio silent for over two weeks. We didn’t know whether to be miffed, concerned for their health, or what.

Data scientists: Bring the narrative to the forefront

By Ram Iyer
Peter Wang Contributor
Peter Wang is CEO and co-founder of data science platform Anaconda. He’s also a co-creator of the PyData community and conferences, and a member of the board at the Center for Humane Technology.

By 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be created each day, according to some estimates. (For perspective, one exabyte of storage could hold 50,000 years of DVD-quality video.) It’s now easier than ever to translate physical and digital actions into data, and businesses of all types have raced to amass as much data as possible in order to gain a competitive edge.

However, in our collective infatuation with data (and obtaining more of it), what’s often overlooked is the role that storytelling plays in extracting real value from data.

The reality is that data by itself is insufficient to really influence human behavior. Whether the goal is to improve a business’ bottom line or convince people to stay home amid a pandemic, it’s the narrative that compels action, rather than the numbers alone. As more data is collected and analyzed, communication and storytelling will become even more integral in the data science discipline because of their role in separating the signal from the noise.

Yet this can be an area where data scientists struggle. In Anaconda’s 2020 State of Data Science survey of more than 2,300 data scientists, nearly a quarter of respondents said that their data science or machine learning (ML) teams lacked communication skills. This may be one reason why roughly 40% of respondents said they were able to effectively demonstrate business impact “only sometimes” or “almost never.”

The best data practitioners must be as skilled in storytelling as they are in coding and deploying models — and yes, this extends beyond creating visualizations to accompany reports. Here are some recommendations for how data scientists can situate their results within larger contextual narratives.

Make the abstract more tangible

Ever-growing datasets help machine learning models better understand the scope of a problem space, but more data does not necessarily help with human comprehension. Even for the most left-brain of thinkers, it’s not in our nature to understand large abstract numbers or things like marginal improvements in accuracy. This is why it’s important to include points of reference in your storytelling that make data tangible.

For example, throughout the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with countless statistics around case counts, death rates, positivity rates, and more. While all of this data is important, tools like interactive maps and conversations around reproduction numbers are more effective than massive data dumps in terms of providing context, conveying risk, and, consequently, helping change behaviors as needed. In working with numbers, data practitioners have a responsibility to provide the necessary structure so that the data can be understood by the intended audience.

Saltbox raises $10.6M to help booming e-commerce stores store their goods

By Mary Ann Azevedo

E-commerce is booming, but among the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs of online businesses are finding a place to store the items they are selling and dealing with the logistics of operating.

Tyler Scriven, Maxwell Bonnie and Paul D’Arrigo co-founded Saltbox in an effort to solve that problem.

The trio came up with a unique “co-warehousing” model that provides space for small businesses and e-commerce merchants to operate as well as store and ship goods, all under one roof. Beyond the physical offering, Saltbox offers integrated logistics services as well as amenities such as the rental of equipment and packing stations and access to items such as forklifts. There are no leases and tenants have the flexibility to scale up or down based on their needs.

“We’re in that sweet spot between co-working and raw warehouse space,” said CEO Scriven, a former Palantir executive and Techstars managing director.

Saltbox opened its first facility — a 27,000-square-foot location — in its home base of Atlanta in late 2019, filling it within two months. It recently opened its second facility, a 66,000-square-foot location, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that is currently about 40% occupied. The company plans to end 2021 with eight locations, in particular eyeing the Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles markets. Saltbox has locations slated to come online as large as 110,000 square feet, according to Scriven.

The startup was founded on the premise that the need for “co-warehousing and SMB-centric logistics enablement solutions” has become a major problem for many new businesses that rely on online retail platforms to sell their goods, noted Scriven. Many of those companies are limited to self-storage and mini-warehouse facilities for storing their inventory, which can be expensive and inconvenient. 

Scriven personally met with challenges when starting his own e-commerce business, True Glory Brands, a retailer of multicultural hair and beauty products.

“We became aware of the lack of physical workspace for SMBs engaged in commerce,” Scriven told TechCrunch. “If you are in the market looking for 10,000 square feet of industrial warehouse space, you are effectively pushed to the fringes of the real estate ecosystem and then the entrepreneurial ecosystem at large. This is costing companies in significant but untold ways.”

Now, Saltbox has completed a $10.6 million Series A round of financing led by Palo Alto-based Playground Global that included participation from XYZ Venture Capital and proptech-focused Wilshire Lane Partners in addition to existing backers Village Capital and MetaProp. The company plans to use its new capital primarily to expand into new markets.

The company’s customers are typically SMB e-commerce merchants “generating anywhere from $50,000 to $10 million a year in revenue,” according to Scriven.

He emphasizes that the company’s value prop is “quite different” from a traditional flex office/co-working space.

“Our members are reliant upon us to support critical workflows,” Scriven said. 

Besides e-commerce occupants, many service-based businesses are users of Saltbox’s offering, he said, such as those providing janitorial services or that need space for physical equipment. The company offers all-inclusive pricing models that include access to loading docks and a photography studio, for example, in addition to utilities and Wi-Fi.

Image Credits: Saltbox

Image Credits: Saltbox

The company secures its properties with a mix of buying and leasing by partnering with institutional real estate investors.

“These partners are acquiring assets and in most cases, are funding the entirety of capital improvements by entering into management or revenue share agreements to operate those properties,” Scriven said. He said the model is intentionally different from that of “notable flex space operators.”

“We have obviously followed those stories very closely and done our best to learn from their experiences,” he added. 

Investor Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing partner of Wilshire Lane Partners, said his firm was impressed with the company’s ability to “structure excellent real estate deals” to help them continue to expand nationally.

He also believes Saltbox is “extremely well-positioned to help power and enable the next generation of great direct to consumer brands.”

Playground Global General Partner Laurie Yoler said the startup provides a “purpose-built alternative” for small businesses that have been fulfilling orders out of garages and self-storage units.

Saltbox recently hired Zubin Canteenwalla  to serve as its chief operating offer. He joined Saltbox from Industrious, an operator co-working spaces, where he was SVP of Real Estate. Prior to Industrious, he was EVP of Operations at Common, a flexible residential living brand, where he led the property management and community engagement teams.

For startups choosing a platform, a decision looms: Build or buy?

By Annie Siebert
TX Zhuo Contributor
TX Zhuo is the managing partner of Fika Ventures, focusing on fintech, enterprise software and marketplace opportunities.
Colton Pace Contributor
Colton Pace is an investor at Fika Ventures. He previously held roles investing at Vulcan Capital and Madrona Venture Labs.

Everyone warns you not to build on top of someone else’s platform.

When I first started in VC more than 10 years ago, I was told never to invest in a company building on top of another company’s platform. Dependence on a platform makes you susceptible to failure and caps the return on your investment because you have no control over API access, pricing changes and end-customer data, among other legitimate concerns.

I am sure many of you recall Facebook shutting down its API access back in 2015, or the uproar Apple caused when it decided to change the commission it was charging app developers in 2020.

Put simply, founders can no longer avoid the decision around platform dependency.

Salesforce in many ways paved the way for large enterprise platform companies, being the first dedicated SaaS company to surpass $10 billion in annual revenue supported by its open application development marketplace. Salesforce’s success has given rise to dominant platforms in other verticals, and for founders starting companies, there is no avoiding that platform decision these days.

Some points to consider:

  • Over 4,000 fintech companies, including several unicorns, have built their platforms on top of Plaid.
  • Recruiters may complain about the cost, but 95% still utilize LinkedIn.
  • More than 20,000 companies trust Segment to be their system of record for customer data.
  • Shopify powers over 1 million businesses across the globe.
  • Epic has the medical records of nearly 50% of the U.S. population.

What does this mean for founders who decide to build on top of another platform?

Increase speed to market

PostScript, an SMS/MMS marketing platform for commerce brands, built its platform on Shopify, giving it immediate access to over 1 million brands and a direct customer acquisition funnel. That has allowed PostScript to capture 3,500 of its own customers and successfully close a $35 million Series B in March 2021.

Ability to focus on core functionality

Varo, one of the fastest-growing neobanks, started in 2015 with the principle that a bank could put customers’ interests first and be profitable. But in order to deliver on its mission, it needed to understand where its customers were spending their money. By partnering with Plaid, Varo enabled more than 176,000 of its users to connect their Varo account to outside apps and services, allowing Varo to focus on its core mission to provide more relevant financial products and services.

Gain credibility by association

Autodesk acquires Upchain

By Frederic Lardinois

Autodesk, the publicly-traded software company best known for its CAD and 3D modeling tools, today announced that it has acquired Upchain, a Toronto-based startup that offers a cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM) service. The two companies, which didn’t disclose the acquisition price, expect the transaction to close by July 31, 2021.

Since its launch in 2015, Upchain raised about $7.4 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. The central idea behind the service was that existing lifecycle management solutions, which are meant to help businesses take new products from inception production and collaborate with their supply chain in the process, were cumbersome and geared toward large multi-national enterprises. Upchain’s focus is on small and mid-sized companies and promises to be more affordable and usable than other solutions. It’s customer base spans a wide range of industries, ranging from textiles and apparel to automotive, aerospace, industrial machines, transportation and entertainment.

“We’ve had a singular focus at Upchain to up-level cloud collaboration across the entire product lifecycle, changing the way that people work together so that everyone has access to the data they need, when they need it,” Upchain CEO and founder John Laslavic said in today’s announcement. “Autodesk shares our vision for radically simplifying how engineers and manufacturers across the entire value chain collaborate and bring a top-quality product to market faster. I look forward to seeing how Upchain and Autodesk, together, take that vision to the next level in the months and years to come.”

For Autodesk, this is the company’s 15th acquisition since 2017. Earlier this year, the company made its first $1 billion acquisition when it bought Portland, OR-based Innovyze, a 35-year-old company that focuses on modeling and lifecycle management for the water management industry. 

“Resilience and collaboration have never been more critical for manufacturers as they confront the increasing complexity of developing new products. We’re committed to addressing those needs by offering the most robust end-to-end design and manufacturing platform in the cloud,” said Andrew Anagnost, President and CEO of Autodesk. “The convergence of data and processes is transforming the industry. By integrating Upchain with our existing offerings, Autodesk customers will be able to easily move data without barriers and will be empowered to unlock and harness valuable insights that can translate to fresh ideas and business success.”

Building customer-first relationships in a privacy-first world is critical

By Ram Iyer
Travis Clinger Contributor
Travis Clinger is SVP, head of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, a data connectivity platform safely moving data through the pipes connecting most every brand, tech platform, publisher and advertiser on the open internet.
Jeff Nienaber Contributor
Jeff Nienaber is senior director, global audience ads at Microsoft Advertising, which provides intelligent solutions that empower advertisers to deliver engaging, personalized experiences to over half a billion people worldwide.

In business today, many believe that consumer privacy and business results are mutually exclusive — to excel in one area is to lack in the other. Consumer privacy is seen by many in the technology industry as an area to be managed.

But the truth is, the companies who champion privacy will be better positioned to win in all areas. This is especially true as the digital industry continues to undergo tectonic shifts in privacy — both in government regulation and browser updates.

By the end of 2022, all major browsers will have phased out third-party cookies — the tracking codes placed on a visitor’s computer generated by another website other than your own. Additionally, mobile device makers are limiting identifiers allowed on their devices and applications. Across industry verticals, the global enterprise ecosystem now faces a critical moment in which digital advertising will be forever changed.

Up until now, consumers have enjoyed a mostly free internet experience, but as publishers adjust to a cookie-less world, they could see more paywalls and less free content.

They may also see a decrease in the creation of new free apps, mobile gaming, and other ad-supported content unless businesses find new ways to authenticate users and maintain a value exchange of free content for personalized advertising.

When consumers authenticate themselves to brands and sites, they create revenue streams for publishers as well as the opportunity to receive discounts, first-looks, and other specially tailored experiences from brands.

To protect consumer data, companies need to architect internal systems around data custodianship versus acting from a sense of data entitlement. While this is a challenging and massive ongoing evolution, the benefits of starting now are enormous.

Putting privacy front and center creates a sustainable digital ecosystem that enables better advertising and drives business results. There are four steps to consider when building for tomorrow’s privacy-centric world:

Transparency is key

As we collectively look to redesign how companies interact with and think about consumers, we should first recognize that putting people first means putting transparency first. When people trust a brand or publishers’ intentions, they are more willing to share their data and identity.

This process, where consumers authenticate themselves — or actively share their phone number, email or other form of identity — in exchange for free content or another form of value, allows brands and publishers to get closer to them.

1Password acquires SecretHub and launches new enterprise secrets management tool

By Frederic Lardinois

1Password, the password management service that competes with the likes of LastPass and BitWarden, today announced a major push beyond the basics of password management and into the infrastructure secrets management space. To do so, the company has acquired secrets management service SecretHub and is now launching its new 1Password Secrets Automation service.

1Password did not disclose the price of the acquisition. According to CrunchBase, Netherlands-based SecretHub never raised any institutional funding ahead of today’s announcement.

For companies like 1Password, moving into the enterprise space, where managing corporate credentials, API tokens, keys and certificates for individual users and their increasingly complex infrastructure services, seems like a natural move. And with the combination of 1Password and its new Secrets Automation service, businesses can use a single tool that covers them from managing their employee’s passwords to handling infrastructure secrets. 1Password is currently in use by more then 80,000 businesses worldwide and a lot of these are surely potential users of its Secrets Automation service, too.

“Companies need to protect their infrastructure secrets as much if not more than their employees’ passwords,” said Jeff Shiner, CEO of 1Password. “With 1Password and Secrets Automation, there is a single source of truth to secure, manage and orchestrate all of your business secrets. We are the first company to bring both human and machine secrets together in a significant and easy-to-use way.”

In addition to the acquisition and new service, 1Password also today announced a new partnership with GitHub. “We’re partnering with 1Password because their cross-platform solution will make life easier for developers and security teams alike,” said Dana Lawson, VP of partner engineering and development at GitHub, the largest and most advanced development platform in the world. “With the upcoming GitHub and 1Password Secrets Automation integration, teams will be able to fully automate all of their infrastructure secrets, with full peace of mind that they are safe and secure.”

JXL turns Jira into spreadsheets

By Frederic Lardinois

Atlassian’s Jira is an extremely powerful issue tracking and project management tool, but it’s not the world’s most intuitive piece of software. Spreadsheets, on the other hand, are pretty much the de facto standard for managing virtually anything in a business. It’s maybe no surprise then that there are already a couple of tools on the market that bring a spreadsheet-like view of your projects to Jira or connect it to services like Google Sheets.

The latest entrant in this field is JXL Spreadsheets for Jira (and specifically Jira Cloud), which was founded by two ex-Atlassian employees, Daniel Franz and Hannes Obweger. And in what has become a bit of a trend, Atlassian Ventures invested in JXL earlier this year.

Franz built the Good News news reader before joining Atlassian, while his co-founder previously founded Radiant Minds Software, the makers of Jira Roadmaps (now Portfolio for Jira), which was acquired by Atlassian.

Image Credits: JXL

“Jira is so successful because it is awesome,” Franz told me. “It is so versatile. It’s highly customizable. I’ve seen people in my time who are doing anything and everything with it. Working with customers [at Atlassian] — at some point, you didn’t get surprised anymore, but what the people can do and track with JIRA is amazing. But no one would rock up and say, ‘hey, JIRA is very pleasant and easy to use.’ ”

As Franz noted, by default, Jira takes a very opinionated view of how people should use it. But that also means that users often end up exporting their issues to create reports and visualizations, for example. But if they make any changes to this data, it never flows back into Jira. No matter how you feel about spreadsheets, they do work for many people and are highly flexible. Even Atlassian would likely agree because the new Jira Work Management, which is currently in beta, comes with a spreadsheet-like view and Trello, too, recently went this way when it launched a major update earlier this year.

Image Credits: JXL

Over the course of its three-month beta, the JXL team saw how its users ended up building everything from cross-project portfolio management to sprint planning, backlog maintenance, timesheets and inventory management on top of its service. Indeed, Franz tells me that the team already has some large customers, with one of them having a 7,000-seat license.

Pricing for JXL seems quite reasonable, starting at $1/user/month for teams with up to 10 users. Larger teams get increasingly larger discounts, down to $0.45/user/month for licenses with over 5,000 seats. There is also a free trial.

One of the reasons the company can offer this kind of pricing is because it only needs a very simple backend. None of a customer’s data sits on JXL’s servers. Instead, it sits right on top of Jira’s APIs, which in turn also means that changes are synced back and forth in real time.

JXL is now available in the Atlassian Marketplace and the team is actively hiring as it looks to build out its product (and put its new funding to work).

Meroxa raises $15M Series A for its real-time data platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Meroxa, a startup that makes it easier for businesses to build the data pipelines to power both their analytics and operational workflows, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Drive Capital. Existing investors Root, Amplify and Hustle Fund also participated in this round, which together with the company’s previously undisclosed $4.2 million seed round now brings total funding in the company to $19.2 million.

The promise of Meroxa is that can use a single platform for their various data needs and won’t need a team of experts to build their infrastructure and then manage it. At its core, Meroxa provides a single Software-as-a-Service solution that connects relational databases to data warehouses and then helps businesses operationalize that data.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“The interesting thing is that we are focusing squarely on relational and NoSQL databases into data warehouse,” Meroxa co-founder and CEO DeVaris Brown told me. “Honestly, people come to us as a real-time FiveTran or real-time data warehouse sink. Because, you know, the industry has moved to this [extract, load, transform] format. But the beautiful part about us is, because we do change data capture, we get that granular data as it happens.” And businesses want this very granular data to be reflected inside of their data warehouses, Brown noted, but he also stressed that Meroxa can expose this stream of data as an API endpoint or point it to a Webhook.

The company is able to do this because its core architecture is somewhat different from other data pipeline and integration services that, at first glance, seem to offer a similar solution. Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools on top of these data streams.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“We aren’t a point-to-point solution,” Meroxa co-founder and CTO Ali Hamidi explained. “When you set up the connection, you aren’t taking data from Postgres and only putting it into Snowflake. What’s really happening is that it’s going into our intermediate stream. Once it’s in that stream, you can then start hanging off connectors and say, ‘Okay, well, I also want to peek into the stream, I want to transfer my data, I want to filter out some things, I want to put it into S3.”

Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools to utilize the real-time data stream. With this flexibility, Hamidi noted, a lot of the company’s customers start with a pretty standard use case and then quickly expand into other areas as well.

Brown and Hamidi met during their time at Heroku, where Brown was a director of product management and Hamidi a lead software engineer. But while Heroku made it very easy for developers to publish their web apps, there wasn’t anything comparable in the highly fragmented database space. The team acknowledges that there are a lot of tools that aim to solve these data problems, but few of them focus on the user experience.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“When we talk to customers now, it’s still very much an unsolved problem,” Hamidi said. “It seems kind of insane to me that this is such a common thing and there is no ‘oh, of course you use this tool because it addresses all my problems.’ And so the angle that we’re taking is that we see user experience not as a nice-to-have, it’s really an enabler, it is something that enables a software engineer or someone who isn’t a data engineer with 10 years of experience in wrangling Kafka and Postgres and all these things. […] That’s a transformative kind of change.”

It’s worth noting that Meroxa uses a lot of open-source tools but the company has also committed to open-sourcing everything in its data plane as well. “This has multiple wins for us, but one of the biggest incentives is in terms of the customer, we’re really committed to having our agenda aligned. Because if we don’t do well, we don’t serve the customer. If we do a crappy job, they can just keep all of those components and run it themselves,” Hamidi explained.

Today, Meroxa, which the team founded in early 2020, has over 24 employees (and is 100% remote). “I really think we’re building one of the most talented and most inclusive teams possible,” Brown told me. “Inclusion and diversity are very, very high on our radar. Our team is 50% black and brown. Over 40% are women. Our management team is 90% underrepresented. So not only are we building a great product, we’re building a great company, we’re building a great business.”  

Jack Ma’s Ant called to end anti-competition in payments

By Rita Liao

The details for Ant’s overhaul have arrived. Ant Group, the fintech affiliate of Alibaba controlled by Jack Ma, will become a financial holding company that will bring more regulatory scrutiny over how it lends and generates profits, China’s central bank said on Monday.

Ant started as an online payments processor for Alibaba marketplaces and has over time blossomed into an empire of payments, lending, wealth management and insurance. Its encroachment onto the existing financial industry had not been particularly welcome in China, and a few years ago, the giant began positioning itself as a “technology provider” rather than one competing with big banks and conventional wealth managers.

Despite these efforts, the government wanted to further rein in the fintech giant.

As part of what the government dubs a “rectification plan” for Ant, of which initial public offering was called off in November as regulators sought to curb the power of the country’s internet giants, Ant will “correct its anti-competitive practices.” That entails giving consumers more options in payment methods and removing unscrupulous tricks that lure users into getting loans.

Ant, which has over 1 billion annual users around the world, most of whom are in China, is also asked to end its monopoly on user data and ensure the information safety of individuals and the nation.

As a financial holding company, Ant will also need to control the liquidity risk of its financial products and shrink the size of its money-market fund, one of the world’s biggest.

Industry experts bullish on $500M KKR investment in Box, but stock market remains skeptical

By Ron Miller

When Box announced it was getting a $500 million investment from private equity firm KKR this morning, it was hard not to see it as a positive move for the company. It has been operating under the shadow of Starboard Value, and this influx of cash could give it a way forward independent of the activist investors.

Industry experts we spoke to were all optimistic about the deal, seeing it as a way for the company to regain control, while giving it a bushel of cash to make some moves. However, early returns from the stock market were not as upbeat as the stock price was plunging this morning.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, principal analyst at Deep Analysis, a firm that follows the content management market closely, says that it’s a significant move for Box and opens up a path to expanding through acquisition.

“The KKR move is probably the most important strategic move Box has made since it IPO’d. KKR doesn’t just bring a lot of money to the deal, it gives Box the ability to shake off some naysayers and invest in further acquisitions,” Pelz-Sharpe told me, adding “Box is no longer a startup its a rapidly maturing company and organic growth will only take you so far. Inorganic growth is what will take Box to the next level.”

Dion Hinchcliffe, an analyst at Constellation Research, who covers the work from home trend and the digital workplace, sees it similarly, saying the investment allows the company to focus longer term again.

“Box very much needs to expand in new markets beyond its increasingly commoditized core business. The KKR investment will give them the opportunity to realize loftier ambitions long term so they can turn their established market presence into a growth story,” he said.

Pelz-Sharpe says that it also changes the power dynamic after a couple of years of having Starboard pushing the direction of the company.

“In short, as a public company there are investors who want a quick flip and others that want to grow this company substantially before an exit. This move with KKR potentially changes the dynamic at Box and may well put Aaron Levie back in the driver’s seat.”

Josh Stein, a partner at DFJ and early investor in Box, who was a long time board member, says that it shows that Box is moving in the right direction.

“I think it makes a ton of sense. Management has done a great job growing the business and taking it to profitability. With KKR’s new investment, you have two of the top technology investors in the world putting significant capital into going long on Box,” Stein said.

Perhaps Stein’s optimism is warranted. In its most recent earnings report from last month, the company announced revenue of $198.9 million, up 8% year-over-year with FY2021 revenue closing at $771 million up 11%. What’s more, the company is cash-flow positive, and has predicted an optimistic future outlook.

“As previously announced, Box is committed to achieving a revenue growth rate between 12-16%, with operating margins of between 23-27%, by fiscal 2024,” the company reiterated in a statement this morning.

Investors remains skeptical, however, with the company stock price getting hammered this morning. As of publication the share price was down over 9%. At this point, market investors may be waiting for the next earnings report to see if the company is headed in the right direction. For now, the $500 million certainly gives the company options, regardless of what Wall Street thinks in the short term.

KKR hands Box a $500M lifeline

By Ron Miller

Box announced this morning that private equity firm KKR is investing $500 million in the company, a move that could help the struggling cloud content management vendor get out from under pressure from activist investor Starboard Value.

The company plans to use the proceeds in what’s called a “dutch auction” style sale to buy back shares from certain investors for the price determined by the auction, an activity that should take place after the company announces its next earnings report in May. This would presumably involve buying out Starboard, which took a 7.5% stake in the company in 2019.

Last month Reuters reported that Starboard could be looking to take over a majority of the board seats when the company board meets in June. That could have set them up to take some action, most likely forcing a sale.

While it’s not clear what will happen now, it seems likely that with this cash, they will be able to stave off action from Starboard, and with KKR in the picture be able to take a longer term view. Box CEO Aaron Levie sees the move as a vote of confidence from KKR in Box’s approach.

“KKR is one of the world’s leading technology investors with a deep understanding of our market and a proven track record of partnering successfully with companies to create value and drive growth. With their support, we will be even better positioned to build on Box’s leadership in cloud content management as we continue to deliver value for our customers around the world,” Levie said in a statement.

Under the terms of the deal, John Park, Head of Americas Technology Private Equity at KKR, will be joining the Box board of directors. The company also announced that independent board member Bethany Mayer will be appointed chairman of the board, effective on May 1st.

Earlier this year, the company bought e-signature startup SignRequest, which could help open up a new set of workflows for the company as it tries to expand its market. With KKR’s backing, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Box, which is cash flow positive, could be taking additional steps to expand the platform in the future.

Box stock was down over 8% premarket, a signal that perhaps Wall Street isn’t thrilled with the announcement, but the cash influx should give Box some breathing room to reset and push forward.

Messaging platform Gupshup raises $100 million at $1.4 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

A startup that began its journey in India 15 years ago, helping businesses reach and engage with users through texts said on Thursday it has attained the unicorn status and is also profitable.

San Francisco-headquartered Gupshup has raised $100 million in its Series F financing round from Tiger Global Management, which valued the 15-year-old startup at $1.4 billion.

The startup operates a conversational messaging platform, which is used by over 100,000 businesses and developers today to build their own messaging and conversational experiences to serve their users and customers.

Gupshup says each month its clients send over 6 billion messages.

“The growth in business use of messaging and conversational experiences, transforming virtually every customer touchpoint, is nothing short of extraordinary,” said John Curtius, a partner at Tiger Global Management, in a statement.

“Gupshup is uniquely positioned to win in this market with an advanced product, a differentiated strategy with substantial barriers, significant scale with growth, profitability with expanding margins and an experienced team with a proven track record.”

Tens of millions of users in India, including yours truly, remember Gupshup for a different reason, however. For the first six years of its existence, Gupshup was best known for enabling users in India to send group messages to friends.

That model eventually became unfeasible to continue, Beerud Sheth, co-founder and chief executive of Gupshup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“For that service to work, Gupshup was subsidizing the messages. We were paying the cost to the mobile operators. The idea was that once we scale up, we will put advertisements in those messages. Long story short, we thought as the volume of messages increases, operators will lower their prices, but they didn’t. And also the regulator said we can’t put ads in the messages,” he recalled.

That’s when Gupshup decided to pivot. “We were neither able to subsidize the messages, nor monetize our user base. But we had all of this advanced technology for high-performance messaging. So we switched from consumer model to enterprise model. So we started to serve banks, e-commerce firms, and airlines that need to send high-level messages and can afford to pay for it,” he said.

Over the years, Gupshup has expanded to newer messaging channels, including conversational bots and it also helps businesses set up and run their WhatsApp channels to engage with customers.

Sheth said scores of major firms worldwide in banking, e-commerce, travel and hospitality and other sectors are among the clients of Gupshup. These firms are using Gupshup to send their customers with transaction information, and authentication codes among other use cases. “These are not advertising messages or promotional messages. These are core service information,” he said.

The startup, which had an annual run rate of $150 million, will use the fresh capital to broaden its product offering and court clients in more markets.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Pathlight, a performance management tool for customer-facing teams and the individuals in them, raises $25M

By Ingrid Lunden

The longer we continue to work with either all or part of our teams in remote, out-of-physical-office environments, the more imperative it becomes for those teams to have some tools in place to keep the channels of communication and management open, and for the individuals in those teams to have a sense of how well they are performing. Today, one of the startups that provides a team productivity app with that in mind is announcing a round of funding to fuel its growth.

Pathlight, which has built a performance management platform for customer-facing teams — sales, field service and support — to help managers and employees themselves to track and analyze how they are doing, to coach them when and where it’s needed, and to communicate updates and more, has picked up $25 million — money that it will be using to continue growing its customer base and the functionality across its app.

The funding is being led by Insight Partners, with previous backers Kleiner Perkins and Quiet Capital also participating, alongside Uncorrelated Ventures; Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp; David Glazer, CFO of Palantir; and Michael Ovitz, co-founder of CAA and Owner of Broad Beach Ventures. Pathlight has now raised $35 million.

Pathlight today provides users with a range of tools to visualize team and individual performance across various parameters set by managers, using data that teams integrate from other platforms like Salesforce, Zendesk and Outreach, among others.

Using that data and specific metrics for the job in question, managers can then initiate conversations with individuals to focus in on specific areas where things need attention, and provide some coaching to help fix it. It can also be used to provide team-wide updates and encouragement, which sits alongside whatever other tools a person might use in their daily customer-facing work.

[gallery ids="2135006,2135007,2135008,2135009,2135010"]

Since launching in March 2020, the startup has picked up good traction, with customers including Twilio, Earnin, Greenhouse, and CLEAR. But perhaps even more importantly, the pandemic and resulting switch to remote work has underscored how necessary tools like Pathlight’s have become: the startup says that engagement on its platform has shot up 300% in the last 12 months.

Alexander Kvamme, the CEO of Pathlight, said that he first became aware of the challenges of communicating across customer-facing teams, and having transparency on how they are doing as individuals and as a group, when he was at Yelp. Yelp had acquired his startup, reservations service SeatMe, and used the acquisition to build and run Yelp Reservations.

He was quick to realize that there weren’t really effective tools for him to see how individuals in the sales team were doing, how they were doing compared to goals the company wanted to achieve and based on the sales data they already had in other systems, how to work more effectively with people to communicate when something needed changing, and how to tailor all that in line with new variations in the formula — in their case, how to sell new products like a reservations service alongside advertising and other Yelp services for businesses.

“Whether it’s five or 3,000 people, the problem doesn’t go away,” he said. “Everyone uses their own systems, and it hurts front line employees when they don’t know how they are doing, or don’t get recognition when they are doing well, or don’t get coaching when they are not. Our thesis was that if software is eating the world, and you as a company are buying more software and analytics, over time managers will be more like data analysts. So we are providing a way for managers to be more data-driven.”

Five years down the line, Kvamme got the bug again to start a company and decided to return to that problem, teaming up with co-founder Trey Doig, the engineer who designed SeatMe and then turned it into Yelp Reservations and is now Pathlight’s CTO.

As they see it, the challenge has still not really been addressed. That’s not to say that there are not a number of companies — competitors to Pathlight — looking to fill that gap as well. Another people management platform called Lattice last year picked up $45 million  (I’m guessing it will be raising money again around about now); HubSpot, Zoho, SalesLoft and a number of others also are taking different approaches to the same challenge: front-line customer-facing people spend the majority of their time and attention on interacting with people, and so there need to be better tools in place to help them figure out how to make that communication more effective, figure out what is working and what is not.

And all of this, of course, is not at all new: it’s not like we all woke up one day and suddenly wanted to know how we are doing at work, or managers suddenly felt they needed to communicate with staff.

What has changed, however, is how we work: many of us have not seen the inside of our offices for more than a year at this point, and for a large proportion of us, we may never return again, or if we do it will be under different circumstances.

All of this means that some of the more traditional metrics and indicators of our performance, praising, management relationships, and learning from team mates simply is not there anymore.

In customer-facing areas like sales, support and field service, that lack of contact may be even more acute, since many of the teams working in these environments have long relied on huddles and communication throughout the day, week and month to continuously tweak work and improve it. So while tools like Pathlight’s will be useful as data analytics provision for teams regardless of how we work, it can be argued that they are even more important right now.

“I think people have started to realize that if you can empower front line to be more independent, your numbers will go up and do better,” Kvamme said.

This is part of what went into the investment decision made here.

“With the acceleration of digital transformation across the enterprise, it’s not enough to rethink the way we work—we must also rethink the way we manage,” said Jeff Lieberman, MD at Insight Partners. “Pathlight is ushering in a new age of data-driven management, an ethos that we believe every enterprise will need to embrace—quickly. We are excited to partner with the Pathlight team as they bring their powerful platform to companies across the world.”

Avant doubles down on digital banking with Zero Financial acquisition

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Avant, an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity, announced today that it has acquired Zero Financial and its neobank brand, Level, to further its mission of becoming a digital bank for the masses.

Founded in 2012, Chicago-based Avant started out primarily as an online lender targeting “underserved consumers,” but is evolving into digital banking with this acquisition. The company notched gross revenue of $265 million in 2020 and has raised capital over the years from backers such as General Atlantic and Tiger Global Management.

“Our path has always been to become the premier digital bank for the everyday American,” Avant CEO James Paris told TechCrunch. “The massive transition to digital over the last 12 months made the timing right to expand our offerings.” 

The acquisition of Zero Financial and its neobank, Level (plus its banking app assets), will give Avant the ability to offer “a full ecosystem of banking and credit product offerings” through one fully digital platform, according to Paris. Those offerings include deposits, personal loans, credit cards and auto loans.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed other than the fact that the acquisition was completed with a combination of cash and stock.

Founded in 2016, San Francisco-based Zero Financial has raised $147 million in debt and equity, according to Crunchbase. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led its $20 million Series A in May of 2019.

Level was unveiled to the public in February of 2020, created by the same California-based team that founded the “debit-style” credit card offering Zero, according to this FintechFutures piece. The challenger bank was created to target millennials dissatisfied with the incumbent banking options.

Zero Financial co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen said that Avant shared his company’s mission “to challenge the status quo by bringing innovative financial services products to consumers who might otherwise be unable to access them.”

Avant, notes Paris, uses thousands of AI-driven data points to determine credit risk. With this acquisition, that lens will be expanded with data, such as a deposit customer’s cash flow, how they manage their finances and whether they pay their bills on time. 

“This will allow us to make credit decisions faster and deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, at any and every stage of their financial journey,” Paris told TechCrunch. “It will also build long-term engagement and loyalty and help grow our reach beyond the 1.5 million customers we’ve served to date.”  

Like a growing number of fintechs, Avant operates under the premise that a person’s ability to get credit shouldn’t be dictated by a credit score alone.

“A significant amount of Americans have poor, bad or no credit at all. For these people, accessing credit isn’t exactly easy and often comes with extra fees,” Paris said. That’s why, he added, Avant has focused on providing options for such consumers with “transparent, rewards-driven products.”

Level’s branchless, all-digital platform offers things such as cashback rewards on debit card purchases, a “competitive APY” on deposits, early access to paychecks and no hidden fees, all of which are especially beneficial for consumers on the path to financial freedom, according to Paris.

Since its inception in 2012, Avant has connected more than 1.5 million consumers to $7.5 billion in loans and 400,000 credit cards. The company launched its credit card in 2017 and over the past two years alone, it has grown its number of credit card users by 170%.

Patreon triples valuation to $4 billion in new raise

By Lucas Matney

Patreon has tripled its valuation to $4 billion in a $155 million funding round led by Tiger Global, the company confirmed to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. 

The creator economy platform, which allows artists to be directly funded by their fans, received new attention amid the Covid-19 pandemic as creators were forced to push more of their work online. The creator payments space has seen a multitude of new entrants in recent months but the eight-year-old Patreon has already built up an extensive network. In a blog post last year, Patreon noted that more than 30,000 creators signed up for the service in the first weeks of March.

The company wrapped a $90 million round in September that valued the company at $1.2 billion. Patreon makes money by taking a 5-12 percent fee from creators depending on which of the company’s services they use.

Other investors in this new round include Woodline Partners, Wellington Management, Lone Pine Capital and New Enterprise Associates, the report notes. 

India’s CRED valued at $2.2 billion in new $215 million fundraise

By Manish Singh

Two-year-old CRED has become the youngest Indian startup to be valued at $2 billion or higher.

Bangalore-based CRED said on Tuesday it has raised $215 million in a new funding round — a Series D — that valued the Indian startup at $2.2 billion (post-money), up from about $800 million valuation in the $81 million Series C round in January this year.

New investor Falcon Edge Capital and existing investor Coatue Management led the new round. Insight Partners and existing investors DST Global, RTP Global, Tiger Global, Greenoaks Capital, Dragoneer Investment Group, and Sofina also participated in Series D, which brings CRED’s total to-date raise to about $443 million.

TechCrunch reported last month that CRED was in advanced stages of talks to raise about $200 million at a valuation of around $2 billion.

CRED operates an app that rewards customers for paying their credit card bills on time and gives them access to a range of additional services such as credit and a premium catalog of products from high-end brands.

An individual needs to have a credit score of at least 750 to be able to sign up for CRED. By keeping such a high bar, the startup says it is ensuring that people are incentivized to improve their financial behavior. (More on this later.)

CRED today serves more than 6 million customers, or about 22% of all credit card holders — and 35% of all premium credit card holders — in the world’s second largest internet market.

Kunal Shah, founder and chief executive of CRED, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup intends to become the platform for affluent customers in India and also not limit its offerings to financial services.

He said the startup’s aforementioned e-commerce service, for instance, has been growing fast. He attributed the early success to customers enjoying the curation of items on CRED and merchants finding the platform appealing as the ticket size of each transaction on CRED tends to be higher.

Our focus on helping CRED members progress financially and have access to a high-trust environment has given us a massive opportunity to shape responsible behaviour, imagine new use cases, and create a rewarding platform for members.

— Kunal Shah (@kunalb11) April 6, 2021

The startup plans to deploy the fresh funds to scale several of its revenue channels and engage in more experimentations, he said.

When asked whether CRED would like to serve all credit card users in India some day, Shah said the selection criteria limits the startup from doing so, but he was optimistic that more users will improve their scores in the future.

The startup, unlike most others in India, doesn’t focus on the usual TAM (addressable market) — hundreds of millions of users of the world’s second-most populated nation — and instead caters to some of the most premium audiences.

Consumer segmentation and addressable market for fintech firms in India (BofA Research)

“India has 57 million credit cards (vs 830 million debit cards) [that] largely serves the high-end market. The credit card industry is largely concentrated with the top 4 banks (HDFC, SBI, ICICI and Axis) controlling about 70% of the total market. This space is extremely profitable for these banks – as evident from the SBI Cards IPO,” analysts at Bank of America wrote in a recent report to clients.

“Very few startups like CRED are focusing on this high-end base and [have] taken a platform-based approach (acquire customers now and look for monetization later). Credit card in India remains an aspirational product. The under penetration would likely ensure continued strong growth in coming years. Overtime, the form-factor may evolve (i.e. move from plastic card to virtual card), but the inherent demand for credit is expected to grow,” they added.

CRED has become one of the most talked about startups in India, in part because of the pace at which it has raised money of late, its growing valuation, and the fact that it only caters to select customers.

Some users have also said that CRED doesn’t offer as appealing perks as it used to a year ago.

Shah, who is one of the most prolific angel investors in India and delivered one of the rare successful exits in the country with his previous venture, said CRED is already addressing these concerns. A recent feature, which allows customers to use CRED points at over a thousand merchants, for instance, has made the reward more appealing, he said, adding that the startup is slowly incorporating that into its own e-commerce store as well.

“What will soon happen is that customers will realize that these points are asset and not a liability. They will start to see benefits of the points in more places,” he said, adding that the pandemic derailed some of the things CRED had planned.

The startup, which bought back shares worth $1.2 million from employees in January this year, told them in an email today that it will soon be buying back stocks worth $5 million. “As the funding helps CRED invest in its future, hopefully the buyback will help some of you do that too,” the email said.

Startups must curb bureaucracy to ensure agile data governance

By Annie Siebert
Jon Loyens Contributor
Jon Loyens is chief product officer and co-founder of Data.World.

By now, all companies are fundamentally data driven. This is true regardless of whether they operate in the tech space. Therefore, it makes sense to examine the role data management plays in bolstering — and, for that matter, hampering — productivity and collaboration within organizations.

While the term “data management” inevitably conjures up mental images of vast server farms, the basic tenets predate the computer age. From censuses and elections to the dawn of banking, individuals and organizations have long grappled with the acquisition and analysis of data.

By understanding the needs of all stakeholders, organizations can start to figure out how to remove blockages.

One oft-quoted example is Florence Nightingale, a British nurse who, during the Crimean war, recorded and visualized patient records to highlight the dismal conditions in frontline hospitals. Over a century later, Nightingale is regarded not just as a humanitarian, but also as one of the world’s first data scientists.

As technology began to play a greater role, and the size of data sets began to swell, data management ultimately became codified in a number of formal roles, with names like “database analyst” and “chief data officer.” New challenges followed that formalization, particularly from the regulatory side of things, as legislators introduced tough new data protection rules — most notably the EU’s GDPR legislation.

This inevitably led many organizations to perceive data management as being akin to data governance, where responsibilities are centered around establishing controls and audit procedures, and things are viewed from a defensive lens.

That defensiveness is admittedly justified, particularly given the potential financial and reputational damages caused by data mismanagement and leakage. Nonetheless, there’s an element of myopia here, and being excessively cautious can prevent organizations from realizing the benefits of data-driven collaboration, particularly when it comes to software and product development.

Taking the offense

Data defensiveness manifests itself in bureaucracy. You start creating roles like “data steward” and “data custodian” to handle internal requests. A “governance council” sits above them, whose members issue diktats and establish operating procedures — while not actually working in the trenches. Before long, blockages emerge.

Blockages are never good for business. The first sign of trouble comes in the form of “data breadlines.” Employees seeking crucial data find themselves having to make their case to whoever is responsible. Time gets wasted.

By itself, this is catastrophic. But the cultural impact is much worse. People are natural problem-solvers. That’s doubly true for software engineers. So, they start figuring out how to circumvent established procedures, hoarding data in their own “silos.” Collaboration falters. Inconsistencies creep in as teams inevitably find themselves working from different versions of the same data set.

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