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Early bird extension gives you more time to save on passes to TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising

By Alexandra Ames

Startup life, especially in the early innings, is nothing short of hectic. Who wouldn’t love a clone or two to help get everything done? Well, we can’t clone you, but we can give you more time to sign up and save on a pass to TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising on July 8-9.

We’re extending the early bird deadline to Friday, June 4 at 11:59 pm (PT). Sweet! That should help calm the cray-cray and save you $100 on admission to our virtual two-day bootcamp experience. Of course, you don’t need to wait. Buy your pass now while it’s top-of-mind and feel the joy of having one less task on your to-do list.

Not familiar with TC Early Stage? It’s specifically designed to help new startup founders learn essential entrepreneurial skills to build a successful startup. We tap the very best experts in the startup ecosystem, and they deliver actionable insights you can put in place now, when you need them most.

At TC Early Stage 2021, top-tier investors, veteran founders and respected subject-matter experts will lead highly interactive sessions on topics ranging from fundraising and marketplace positioning to growth marketing and content development. Get answers to your burning questions.

Here’s just one example. Rebecca Reeve Henderson, founder and CEO of Rsquared Communication, will hold forth on how to create an effective earned media strategy for your startup. Talk about an essential skill. Want more examples?

  • Mike Duboe, general partner at Greylock will share the latest growth trends in consumer and B2B technology.
  • Sarah Kunst, founding partner at Cleo Capital, will focus on best practices and offer solid advice on how to get ready to fundraise.

We’re announcing more speakers every week, and we’ll share the event agenda soon, so stay tuned.

TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising takes place on July 8-9, and now you have an extra month to save $100. Calm the cray-cray and take one important, business-building task of your to-do list. Buy your early-bird pass to TC Early Stage 2021 before June 4. We can’t wait to see you there!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 – Marketing & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Heirlume raises $1.38M to remove the barriers of trademark registration for small businesses

By Darrell Etherington

Platforms like Shopify, Stripe and WordPress have done a lot to make essential business-building tools, like running storefronts, accepting payments, and building websites accessible to businesses with even the most modest budgets. But some very key aspects of setting up a company remain expensive, time-consuming affairs that can be cost-prohibitive for small businesses — but that, if ignored, can result in the failure of a business before it even really gets started.

Trademark registration is one such concern, and Toronto-based startup Heirlume just raised $1.7 million CAD (~$1.38 million) to address the problem with a machine-powered trademark registration platform that turns the process into a self-serve affair that won’t break the budget. Its AI-based trademark search will flag if terms might run afoul of existing trademarks in the U.S. and Canada, even when official government trademark search tools, and even top-tier legal firms might not.

Heirlume’s core focus is on levelling the playing field for small business owners, who have typically been significantly out-matched when it comes to any trademark conflicts.

“I’m a senior level IP lawyer focused in trademarks, and had practiced in a traditional model, boutique firm of my own for over a decade serving big clients, and small clients,” explained Heirlume co-founder Julie MacDonnell in an interview. “So providing big multinationals with a lot of brand strategy, and in-house legal, and then mainly serving small business clients when they were dealing with a cease-and-desist, or an infringement issue. It’s really those clients that have my heart: It’s incredibly difficult to have a small business owner literally crying tears on the phone with you, because they just lost their brand or their business overnight. And there was nothing I could do to help because the law just simply wasn’t on their side, because they had neglected to register their trademarks to own them.”

In part, there’s a lack of awareness around what it takes to actually register and own a trademark, MacDonnell says. Many entrepreneurs just starting out seek out a domain name as a first step, for instance, and some will fork over significant sums to register these domains. What they don’t realize, however, is that this is essentially a rental, and if you don’t have the trademark to protect that domain, the actual trademark owner can potentially take it away down the road. But even if business owners do realize that a trademark should be their first stop, the barriers to actually securing one are steep.

“There was an an enormous, insurmountable barrier, when it came to brand protection for those business owners,” she said. “And it just isn’t fair. Every other business service, generally a small business owner can access. Incorporating a company or even insurance, for example, owning and buying insurance for your business is somewhat affordable and accessible. But brand ownership is not.”

Heirlume brings the cost of trademark registration down from many thousands of dollars, to just under $600 for the first, and only $200 for each additional after that. The startup is also offering a very small business-friendly ‘buy now, pay later’ option supported by Clearbanc, which means that even businesses starting on a shoestring can take step of protecting their brand at the outset.

In its early days, Heirlume is also offering its core trademark search feature for free. That provides a trademark search engine that works across both U.S. and Canadian government databases, which can not only tell you if your desired trademark is available or already held, but also reveal whether it’s likely to be able to be successfully obtained, given other conflicts that might arise that are totally ignored by native trademark database search portals.

Heirlume search tool comparison

Image Credits: Heirlume

Heirlume uses machine learning to identify these potential conflicts, which not only helps users searching for their trademarks, but also greatly decreases the workload behind the scenes, helping them lower costs and pass on the benefits of those improved margins to its clients. That’s how it can achieve better results than even hand-tailored applications from traditional firms, while doing so at scale and at reduced costs.

Another advantage of using machine-powered data processing and filing is that on the government trademark office side, the systems are looking for highly organized, curated data sets that are difficult for even trained people to get consistently right. Human error in just data entry can cause massive backlogs, MacDonnell notes, even resulting in entire applications having to be tossed and started over from scratch.

“There are all sorts of datasets for those [trademark requirement] parameters,” she said. “Essentially, we synthesize all of that, and the goal through machine learning is to make sure that applications are utterly compliant with government rules. We actually have a senior level trademark examiner that that came to work for us, very excited that we were solving the problems causing backlogs within the government. She said that if Heirlume can get to a point where the applications submitted are perfect, there will be no backlog with the government.”

Improving efficiency within the trademark registration bodies means one less point of friction for small business owners when they set out to establish their company, which means more economic activity and upside overall. MacDonnell ultimately hopes that Heirlume can help reduce friction to the point where trademark ownership is at the forefront of the business process, even before domain registration. Heirlume has a partnership with Google Domains to that end, which will eventually see indication of whether a domain name is likely to be trademarkable included in Google Domain search results.

This initial seed funding includes participation from Backbone Angels, as well as the Future Capital collective, Angels of Many and MaRS IAF, along with angel investors including Daniel Debow, Sid Lee’s Bertrand Cesvet and more. MacDonnell notes that just as their goal was to bring more access and equity to small business owners when it comes to trademark protection, the startup was also very intentional in building its team and its cap table. MacDonnell, along with co-founders CTO Sarah Guest and Dave McDonnell, aim to build the largest tech company with a majority female-identifying technology team. Its investor make-up includes 65% female-identifying or underrepresented investors, and MacDonnell says that was a very intentional choice that extended the time of the raise, and even led to turning down interest from some leading Silicon Valley firms.

“We want underrepresented founders to be to be funded, and the best way to ensure that change is to empower underrepresented investors,” she said. “I think that we all have a responsibility to actually do do something. We’re all using hashtags right now, and hashtags are not enough […] Our CTO is female, and she’s often been the only female person in the room. We’ve committed to ensuring that women in tech are no longer the only person in the room.”

Early-bird price ends tonight: Buy your pass to TC Early Stage 2021 and save $100

By Alexandra Ames

Last call, founders. Today is your last chance to save $100 on a pass to TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing & Fundraising. Our last founder bootcamp event of the year takes place July 8-9, and it’s time to call on Saint Expeditus — the patron of procrastinators and programmers alike. He’ll help you kick procrastination to the curb, save some cash and gain access to a bevy of top-tier investors, famous founders, marketing magicians, financial wizards and other startup savants. And they all want to help you build a better startup. But you need to buy your pass by 11:59 p.m. (PT) today, April 30.

This TC Early Stage experience goes deep on fundraising and marketing fundamentals. On day one, you’ll choose from a range of presentations and breakout sessions — all interactive with plenty of time for Q&As. Plus video on demand, available after the event ends, means you don’t have to worry about schedule conflicts.

Speakers at Early Stage bring a wealth of experience coupled with authenticity. You’ll walk away with actionable advice for immediate use and an unvarnished look at what it takes to build a startup. No sugar-coating here.

Vlad Magdalin, founder of Webflow, was very candid about the challenges he faced on his journey to success. “You always hear about startups that raise millions of dollars, but you don’t necessarily hear about the ups and downs it takes to get to that point. It’s important for early founders to see that side, too.”

We recently added Lisa Wu, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, to our speaker roster, and we can’t wait to hear why she thinks founders should think like a VC. We’re adding more amazing speakers every week, and the full agenda is coming soon!

On day two, get ready for the Early-Stage Pitch-off. Applications open next week! Throw you hat in the ring and maybe you’ll be one of the 10 early-stage startup founders chosen to pitch live in front of a panel of VC judges and all the Early Stage attendees around the world. Valuable exposure and pitch feedback for all competitors and special prizes for the winner. Stay tuned!

Read about Nalagenetics, the April TC Early Stage Pitch-off winner right here.

You procrastinated, dragged your feet and delayed taking action on this one simple, opportunity-filled task. For the love of Saint Expeditus, buy your pass to TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing & Fundraising before 11:59 pm (PT) tonight, save $100 and build a better startup.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 – Marketing & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Cloud infrastructure market keeps rolling in Q1 with almost $40B in revenue

By Ron Miller

Conventional wisdom over the last year has suggested that the pandemic has driven companies to the cloud much faster than they ever would have gone without that forcing event with some suggesting it has compressed years of transformation into months. This quarter’s cloud infrastructure revenue numbers appear to be proving that thesis correct.

With The Big Three — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reporting this week, the market generated almost $40 billion in revenue, according to Synergy Research data. That’s up $2 billion from last quarter and up 37% over the same period last year. Canalys’s numbers were slightly higher at $42 billion.

As you might expect if you follow this market, AWS led the way with $13.5 billion for the quarter up 32% year over year. That’s a run rate of $54 billion. While that is an eye-popping number, what’s really remarkable is the yearly revenue growth, especially for a company the size and maturity of Amazon. The law of large numbers would suggest this isn’t sustainable, but the pie keeps growing and Amazon continues to take a substantial chunk.

Overall AWS held steady with 32% market share. While the revenue numbers keep going up, Amazon’s market share has remained firm for years at around this number. It’s the other companies down market that are gaining share over time, most notably Microsoft which is now at around 20% share good for about $7.8 billion this quarter.

Google continues to show signs of promise under Thomas Kurian, hitting $3.5 billion good for 9% as it makes a steady march towards double digits. Even IBM had a positive quarter, led by Red Hat and cloud revenue good for 5% or about $2 billion overall.

Synergy Research cloud infrastructure bubble map for Q1 2021. AWS is leader, followed by Microsoft and Google.

Image Credits: Synergy Research

John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy says that even though AWS and Microsoft have firm control of the market, that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made by the companies playing behind them.

“These two don’t have to spend too much time looking in their rearview mirrors and worrying about the competition. However, that is not to say that there aren’t some excellent opportunities for other players. Taking Amazon and Microsoft out of the picture, the remaining market is generating over $18 billion in quarterly revenues and growing at over 30% per year. Cloud providers that focus on specific regions, services or user groups can target several years of strong growth,” Dinsdale said in a statement.

Canalys, another firm that watches the same market as Synergy had similar findings with slight variations, certainly close enough to confirm one another’s findings. They have AWS with 32%, Microsoft 19%, and Google with 7%.

Canalys market share chart with Amazon with 32%, Microsoft 19% and Google 7%

Image Credits: Canalys

Canalys analyst Blake Murray says that there is still plenty of room for growth, and we will likely continue to see big numbers in this market for several years. “Though 2020 saw large-scale cloud infrastructure spending, most enterprise workloads have not yet transitioned to the cloud. Migration and cloud spend will continue as customer confidence rises during 2021. Large projects that were postponed last year will resurface, while new use cases will expand the addressable market,” he said.

The numbers we see are hardly a surprise anymore, and as companies push more workloads into the cloud, the numbers will continue to impress. The only question now is if Microsoft can continue to close the market share gap with Amazon.

The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

By Annie Siebert
Ariel Katz Contributor
Ariel Katz is the founder and CEO of H1, a global healthcare platform that helps life sciences companies, hospitals, academic medical centers and health systems connect with providers, find clinical research, locate industry experts and benchmark their organization.

In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos gave a seminal TED Talk titled “The Electricity Metaphor for the Web’s Future.” In it, he argued that the internet will enable innovation on the same scale that electricity did.

We are at a similar inflection point in healthcare, with the recent movement toward data transparency birthing a new generation of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data. What’s the main difference?

This sector is still somewhat nascent — we are in the first wave of innovation, with much more to come.

Anonymized data is much more freely available, while personal data is being locked even tighter (as it should be) due to regulations like GDPR, CCPA and their equivalents around the world.

The former trend is enabling a host of new vendors and services that will ultimately make healthcare better and more transparent for all of us.

These new companies could not have existed five years ago. The Affordable Care Act was the first step toward making anonymized data more available. It required healthcare institutions (such as hospitals and healthcare systems) to publish data on costs and outcomes. This included the release of detailed data on providers.

Later legislation required biotech and pharma companies to disclose monies paid to research partners. And every physician in the U.S. is now required to be in the National Practitioner Identifier (NPI), a comprehensive public database of providers.

All of this allowed the creation of new types of companies that give both patients and providers more control over their data. Here are some key examples of how.

Allowing patients to access all their own health data in one place

This is a key capability of patients’ newly found access to health data. Think of how often, as a patient, providers aren’t aware of treatment or a test you’ve had elsewhere. Often you end up repeating a test because a provider doesn’t have a record of a test conducted elsewhere.

Europe charges Apple with antitrust breach, citing Spotify App Store complaint

By Natasha Lomas

The European Commission has announced that it’s issued formal antitrust charges against Apple, saying today that its preliminary view is Apple’s app store rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers.

The Commission begun investigating competition concerns related to iOS App Store (and also Apple Pay) last summer.

“The Commission takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple’s own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple’s App Store,” it wrote today. “The Commission is also concerned that Apple applies certain restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.”

Commenting in a statement, EVP and competition chief Margrethe Vestager, said: “App stores play a central role in today’s digital economy. We can now do our shopping, access news, music or movies via apps instead of visiting websites. Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

Apple sent us this statement in response:

“Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud for the role we played in that. Spotify does not pay Apple any commission on over 99% of their subscribers, and only pays a 15% commission on those remaining subscribers that they acquired through the App Store. At the core of this case is Spotify’s demand they should be able to advertise alternative deals on their iOS app, a practice that no store in the world allows. Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.”

Vestager is due to hold a press conference shortly — so stay tuned for updates.

This story is developing… 

A number of complaints against Apple’s practices have been lodged with the EU’s competition division in recent years — including by music streaming service Spotify; video games maker Epic Games; and messaging platform Telegram, to name a few of the complainants who have gone public (and been among the most vocal).

The main objection is over the (up to 30%) cut Apple takes on sales made through third parties’ apps — which critics rail against as an ‘Apple tax’ — as well as how it can mandate that developers do not inform users how to circumvent its in-app payment infrastructure, i.e. by signing up for subscriptions via their own website instead of through the App Store. Other complaints include that Apple does not allow third party app stores on iOS.

Apple, meanwhile, has argued that its App Store does not constitute a monopoly. iOS’ global market share of mobile devices is a little over 10% vs Google’s rival Android OS — which is running on the lion’s share of the world’s mobile hardware. But monopoly status depends on how a market is defined by regulators (and if you’re looking at the market for iOS apps then Apple has no competitors).

The iPhone maker also likes to point out that the vast majority of third party apps pay it no commission (as they don’t monetize via in-app payments). While it argues that restrictions on native apps are necessary to protect iOS users from threats to their security and privacy.

Last summer the European Commission said its App Store probe was focused on Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, as well as restrictions applied on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of apps.

It also said it was investigating Apple Pay: Looking at the T&Cs and other conditions Apple imposes for integrating its payment solution into others’ apps and websites on iPhones and iPads, and also on limitations it imposes on others’ access to the NFC (contactless payment) functionality on iPhones for payments in stores.

The EU’s antitrust regulator also said then that it was probing allegations of “refusals of access” to Apple Pay.

In March this year the UK also joined the Apple App Store antitrust investigation fray — announcing a formal investigation into whether it has a dominant position and if it imposes unfair or anti-competitive terms on developers using its app store.

US lawmakers have, meanwhile, also been dialling up attention on app stores, plural — and on competition in digital markets more generally — calling in both Apple and Google for questioning over how they operate their respective mobile app marketplaces in recent years.

Last month, for example, the two tech giants’ representatives were pressed on whether their app stores share data with their product development teams — with lawmakers digging into complaints against Apple especially that Cupertino frequently copies others’ apps, ‘sherlocking’ their businesses by releasing native copycats (as the practice has been nicknamed).

Back in July 2020 the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from Apple CEO Tim Cook himself — and went on, in a hefty report on competition in digital markets, to accuse Apple of leveraging its control of iOS and the App Store to “create and enforce barriers to competition and discriminate against and exclude rivals while preferencing its own offerings”.

“Apple also uses its power to exploit app developers through misappropriation of competitively sensitive information and to charge app developers supra-competitive prices within the App Store,” the report went on. “Apple has maintained its dominance due to the presence of network effects, high barriers to entry, and high switching costs in the mobile operating system market.”

The report did not single Apple out — also blasting Google-owner Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook for abusing their market power. And the Justice Department went on to file suit against Google later the same month. So, over in the U.S., the stage is being set for further actions against big tech. Although what, if any, federal charges Apple could face remains to be seen.

At the same time, a number of state-level tech regulation efforts are brewing around big tech and antitrust — including a push in Arizona to relieve developers from Apple and Google’s hefty cut of app store profits.

While an antitrust bill introduced by Republican Josh Hawley earlier this month takes aim at acquisitions, proposing an outright block on big tech’s ability to carry out mergers and acquisitions.

Although that bill looks unlikely to succeed, a flurry of antitrust reform bills are set to introduced as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grapple with how to cut big tech down to a competition-friendly size.

In Europe lawmakers are already putting down draft laws with the same overarching goal.

In the EU the Commission has proposed an ex ante regime to prevent big tech from abusing its market power, with the Digital Markets Act set to impose conditions on intermediating platforms who are considered ‘gatekeepers’ to others’ market access.

In the UK, which now sits outside the bloc, the government is also drafting new laws in response to tech giants’ market power — saying it will create a ‘pro-competition’ regime that will apply to platforms with so-called  ‘strategic market status’ — but instead of a set list of requirements it wants to target specific measures per platform.

Indonesian consumer research startup Populix gets $1.2M in pre-Series A funding

By Catherine Shu

Indonesia is one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world, but consumer data is still hard to find for many businesses, especially smaller ones. Populix wants to make research easier for companies, through a respondent app that now has 250,000 users in 300 Indonesian cities. The startup announced today it has raised $1.2 million in an oversubscribed pre-Series A round led by returning investor Intudo Ventures, with participation from Quest Ventures.

Populix has now raised a total of $2.3 million since it was founded in January 2018, including a $1 million seed round also led by Intudo. The company’s revenue grew five times in 2020 and it signed up 52 new enterprise clients in 10 countries, as the COVID-19 pandemic limited traditional forms of consumer surveys, like in-person questionnaires. Its customers range in size from tech startups to multinational conglomerates.

The new capital will be used for product launches, marketing and hiring. Populix is currently in the process of launching a self-service product called Paket Hemat Populix (PHP) for clients like SMEs or university researchers that want to conduct their own surveys and monitor results in real time.

A Zoom group photo of Populix's co-founders: chief executive officer Timothy Astandu, chief operating officer Eileen Kamtawijoyo and chief technical officer Jonathan Benhi

Populix’s founding team

The company’s co-founders are chief executive officer Timothy Astandu, chief operating officer Eileen Kamtawijoyo and chief technical officer Jonathan Benhi. Astandu and Kamtawijoyo met while both were graduate students in business management at the University of Cambridge.

“When we were studying, we looked at developed markets, and in developed markets, consumer insights is such a big thing that all the brands are using it already,” said Astandu. “But it’s something that’s not available in developing countries like Indonesia,” where many companies still conduct research offline despite its very high smartphone engagement rates. For example, if a coffee brand wants to understand consumer sentiment, it will send people with surveys into a cafe or grocery store and ask customers to fill them out in return for a small gift.

“We felt it was important to do consumer sentiment in Indonesia, because it’s going to be a big market and Indonesia has seen very little innovation so far,” Astandu added. “That gives us a chance to disrupt it, in the sense that it has always catered to the big clients. It’s always the multinationals in Indonesia that buy it, but you are seeing an emerging middle class, a lot of SMEs and perhaps they actually need research and data more than big companies.”

After returning to Indonesia, Astandu and Kamtawijoyo began working on a more accurate and accessible alternative to traditional surveys, developing Populix while part of Gojek’s Xcelerate program. Then they met Benhi, who was previously an engineer at Discuss.io, a Seattle-based video platform for consumer research.

Populix’s clients conduct research through its respondent app, also called Populix, which keeps users engaged through daily polls, games and news, in return for incentives like cash offers or rebate programs. Populix can be customized for a wide range of research, ranging from short surveys to longitudinal studies that take place over a period of time, and is used to track brand health, prepare for product launches or gauge customer satisfaction. For example, a coffee brand used Populix to see how it was doing compared to competitors on a monthly basis and study consumer reactions before launching a ready-to-drink coffee. E-commerce companies have also used it to ask people where they shop online, what they look for and how they feel about the customer experience on different platforms.

“We can speed up the recruitment process, because we already have respondents available in our database for practically any kind of study,” said Kamtawijoyo.

Populix is currently developing new products to track market movements, using data collection tech like optical character recognition to scan invoices from major e-commerce platforms. It says its data classification system can recognize over 73% of all items on invoices.

Other companies in the same space include established players like YouGov and Kantar, and Singapore-based Milieu Insight, a market research and data platform that operates in several Southeast Asian countries. Astandu said one of the main ways Populix differentiates is by focusing on mobile surveys, since Indonesia is the fourth-largest smartphone market in the world (after China, India and the United States) and the penetration rate is still growing.

The founders said Populix will continue focusing on Indonesia with its pre-Series A funding, but plans to look at other developing markets with fragmented consumer data, like the Philippines and Vietnam, after raising its Series A round.

In a press statement, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “With consumer habits undergoing dramatic changes in recent years due to rising incomes and widespread embrace of digital commerce, Populix is providing clients with actionable insights into the latest consumption characteristics and trends of Indonesians. We are excited to double down on our support for Populix as it continues to roll out new technology-driven consumer insights products and solutions to meet the needs of clients both big and small.”

Save $100 on TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising before this Friday

By Alexandra Ames

Save $100 and learn how to build a stronger startup — that’s what we’re talking about! The crème de la crème of the startup ecosystem will gather on July 8-9 to share their expertise and impart their hard-won wisdom at TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising.

Here’s where the saving money bit comes in. Early-bird pricing is still in play, for just a few more days. Save $100 — but only if you purchase your pass before Friday, April 30 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

We’re building a veritable hit parade of investors, founders and top subject-matter experts to deliver highly interactive and engaging sessions focused on essential entrepreneurial skills. Learn best practices, avoid pitfalls and walk away with a realistic view of what to expect on the road to building a startup.

Chloe Leaaetoa, the founder of Socicraft, attended Early Stage 2020 and shared this takeaway with us.

You learn from industry leaders and seasoned founders — people who’ve already been there and done that. They were genuine and honest about industry expectations. Plus, they shared first-hand accounts, which made them more relatable.

We’ve already announced that Mike Duboe, Sarah Kunst and Rahul Vohra will join us at TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising, and we’ll be announcing more speakers every week. Keep checking back!

You’re a smart bunch so you’ve no doubt noticed that Early Stage 2021 (the July edition) will include a lot of information on every startup founder’s favorite topic: fundraising. Take a look at just some of the many top-flight financial experts who will be in the house and on the stage. We can’t wait to share the specific topics they’ll discuss. Again, stay tuned!

  • Arvind Purushotham: Managing Director & Global Head Venture Investing, Citi Ventures
  • Rebecca Reeve Henderson: Founder & CEO, Rsquared Communication
  • Benjamin Sun: Co-founder & General Partner, Primary Venture Partners
  • Adina Tecklu: Principal, Khosla Ventures

And don’t forget about the TC Early-Stage Pitch-off that takes place on day two. We’ll start accepting applications soon, and that’s when Team TechCrunch gets busy and chooses 10 early-stage startup founders to throw down in front of a panel of VC judges. Prizes, glory, exposure and fun! Be sure to check out Nalagenetics — winner of the April Early Stage 2021 pitch-off.

TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing and Fundraising takes place July 8-9. Ready to learn everything you can to build a successful startup empire? Ready to save $100 in the process? Then buy your pass before the early-bird deadline shuts off the savings on April 30, at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 – Marketing & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Weav raises $4.3M to knit together a universal API for commerce platforms

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Weav, which is building a universal API for commerce platforms, is emerging from stealth today with $4.3 million in funding from a bevy of investors, and a partnership with Brex.

Founded last year by engineers Ambika Acharya, Avikam Agur and Nadav Lidor after participating in the W20 YC batch, Weav joins the wave of fintech infrastructure companies that aim to give fintechs and financial institutions a boost. Specifically, Weav’s embedded technology is designed to give these organizations access to “real time, user-permissioned” commerce data that they can use to create new financial products for small businesses.  

Its products allow its customers to connect to multiple platforms with a single API that was developed specifically for the commerce platforms that businesses use to sell products and accept payments. Weav operates under the premise that allowing companies to build and embed new financial products creates new opportunities for e-commerce merchants, creators and other entrepreneurs. 

Left to right: Co-founders Ambika Acharya, Nadav Lidor and Avikam Agur; Image courtesy of Weav

In a short amount of time, Weav has seen impressive traction. Recently, Brex launched Instant Payouts for Shopify sellers using the Weav API. It supports platform integrations such as Stripe, Square, Shopify and PayPal. (More on that later.) Since its API went live in January, “thousands” of businesses have used new products and services built on Weav’s infrastructure, according to Lidor. Its API call volume is growing 300% month over month, he said.

And, the startup has attracted the attention of a number of big-name investors, including institutions and the founders of prominent fintech companies. Foundation Capital led its $4.3 million seed round, which also included participation from Y Combinator, Abstract Ventures, Box Group, LocalGlobe, Operator Partners, Commerce Ventures and SV Angel. 

A slew of founders and executives also put money in the round, including Brex founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi; Ramp founder Karim Atiyeh; Digits founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang; Hatch founder Thomson Nguyen; GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas; Vouch founder Sam Hodges; Plaid’s Charley Ma as well as executives from fintechs such as Square, Modern Treasury and Pagaya.

Foundation Capital’s Angus Davis said his firm has been investing in fintech infrastructure for over a decade. And personally, before he became a VC, Davis was the founder and CEO of Upserve, a commerce software company. There, he says, he witnessed firsthand “the value of transactional data to enable new types of lending products.”

Foundation has a thesis around the type of embedded fintech that Weav has developed, according to Davis. And it sees a large market opportunity for a new class of financial applications to come to market built atop Weav’s platform.

“We were excited by Weav’s vision of a universal API for commerce platforms,” Davis wrote via email. “Much like Plaid and Envestnet brought universal APIs to banking for consumers, Weav enables a new class of B2B fintech applications for businesses.”

How it works

Weav says that by using its API, companies can prompt their business customers to “securely” connect their accounts with selling platforms, online marketplaces, subscription management systems and payment gateways. Once authenticated, Weav aggregates and standardizes sales, inventory and other account data across platforms and develops insights to power new products across a range of use cases, including lending and underwriting; financial planning and analysis; real-time financial services and business management tools.

For the last few years, there’s been a rise of API companies, as well as openness in the financial system that’s largely been focused on consumers, Lidor points out.

“For example, Plaid brings up very rich data about consumers, but when you think about businesses, oftentimes that data is still locked up in all kinds of systems,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re here to provide some of the building blocks and the access to data from everything that has to do with sales and revenue. And, we’re really excited about powering products that are meant to make the lives of small businesses and e-commerce, sellers and creators much easier and be able to get them access to financial products.”

In the case of Brex, Weav’s API allows the startup to essentially offer instant access to funds that otherwise would take a few days or a few weeks for businesses to access.

“Small businesses need access as quickly as possible to their revenue so that they can fund their operations,” Lidor said.

Brex co-CEO Henrique Dubugras said that Weav’s API gives the company the ability to offer real-time funding to more customers selling on more platforms, which saved the company “thousands of engineering hours” and accelerated its rollout timeline by months.

Clearly, the company liked what it saw, considering that its founders personally invested in Weav. Is Weav building the “Plaid for commerce”? Guess only time will tell.

Billion-dollar B2B: cloud-first enterprise tech behemoths have massive potential

By Annie Siebert
Dharmesh Thakker Contributor
Dharmesh Thakker is a general partner at Battery Ventures and a former managing director at Intel Capital.

More than half a decade ago, my Battery Ventures partner Neeraj Agrawal penned a widely read post offering advice for enterprise-software companies hoping to reach $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

His playbook, dubbed “T2D3” — for “triple, triple, double, double, double,” referring to the stages at which a software company’s revenue should multiply — helped many high-growth startups index their growth. It also highlighted the broader explosion in industry value creation stemming from the transition of on-premise software to the cloud.

Fast forward to today, and many of T2D3’s insights are still relevant. But now it’s time to update T2D3 to account for some of the tectonic changes shaping a broader universe of B2B tech — and pushing companies to grow at rates we’ve never seen before.

One of the biggest factors driving billion-dollar B2Bs is a simple but important shift in how organizations buy enterprise technology today.

I call this new paradigm “billion-dollar B2B.” It refers to the forces shaping a new class of cloud-first, enterprise-tech behemoths with the potential to reach $1 billion in ARR — and achieve market capitalizations in excess of $50 billion or even $100 billion.

In the past several years, we’ve seen a pioneering group of B2B standouts — Twilio, Shopify, Atlassian, Okta, Coupa*, MongoDB and Zscaler, for example — approach or exceed the $1 billion revenue mark and see their market capitalizations surge 10 times or more from their IPOs to the present day (as of March 31), according to CapIQ data.

More recently, iconic companies like data giant Snowflake and video-conferencing mainstay Zoom came out of the IPO gate at even higher valuations. Zoom, with 2020 revenue of just under $883 million, is now worth close to $100 billion, per CapIQ data.

Graphic showing market cap at IPO and market cap today of various companies.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures via FactSet. Note that market data is current as of April 3, 2021.

In the wings are other B2B super-unicorns like Databricks* and UiPath, which have each raised private financing rounds at valuations of more than $20 billion, per public reports, which is unprecedented in the software industry.

Sales scheduling platform Chili Piper raises $33M Series B funding led by Tiger Global

By Mike Butcher

Chili Piper, which has a sophisticated SaaS appointment scheduling platform for sales teams, has raised a $33 million B round led by Tiger Global. Existing investors Base10 Partners and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC) also participated. This brings the company’s total financing to $54 million. The company will use the capital raised to accelerate product development. The previous $18M A round was led by Base10 and Google’s Gradient Ventures 9 months ago.

It’s main competitor is Calendly, started 21/2 years previously, which recently achieved a $3Bn valuation.

Launched in 2016, Chili Piper’s software for B2B revenue teams is designed to convert leads into attended meetings. Sales teams can also use it to book demos, increase inbound conversion rates, eliminate manual lead routing, and streamline critical processes around meetings. It’s used by Intuit, Twilio, Forrester, Spotify, and Gong.

Chili Piper has a number of different tools for businesses to schedule and calendar accountments, but its key USP is in its use by ‘inbound SDR Sales Development Representatives (SDR)’, who are responsible for qualifying inbound sales leads. It’s particularly useful in scheduling calls when customers hit websites ask for a salesperson to call them back.

Nicolas Vandenberghe, CEO, and co-founder of Chili Piper said: “When we started we sold the house and decided to grow the company ourselves. So all the way until 2019 we bootstrapped. Tiger gave us a valuation that we expected to get at the end of this year, which will help us accelerate things much faster, so we couldn’t refuse it.”

Alina Vandenberghe, CPO, and Co-founder said: “We’re proud to have so many customers scheduling meetings and optimizing their calendars with Chili Piper’s Instant Booker.”

Since the pandemic hit, the husband-and-wife founded company has gone fully remote, with 93 employees in 81 cities and 21 countries.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global said: “When we met Nicolas and Alina, we were fired up by their product vision and focus on customer happiness.”

TJ Nahigian, Managing Partner at Base10 Partners, added: “We originally invested in Chili Piper because we knew customers needed ways to add fire to how they connected with inbound leads. We’ve been absolutely blown away with the progress over the past year, 2020 has been a step-change for this company as business went remote.”

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.

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.

Coinbase sets direct listing reference price at $250/share, valuing the company at as much as $65B

By Alex Wilhelm

Coinbase, the American cryptocurrency trading giant, has set a reference price for its direct listing at $250 per share. According to the company’s most recent SEC filing, it has a fully-diluted share count of 261.3 million, giving the company a valuation of $65.3 billion. Using a simple share count of 196,760,122 provided in its most recent S-1/A filing, Coinbase would be worth a slimmer $49.2 billion.

Regardless of which share count is used to calculate the company’s valuation, it’s new worth is miles above its final private price set in 2018 when the company was worth $8 billion.

Immediate chatter following the company’s direct listing reference price was that the price could be low. While Coinbase will not suffer usual venture capital censure if its shares quickly appreciate as it is not selling stock in its flotation, it would still be slightly humorous if its set reference price was merely a reference to an overly conservative estimate of its worth.

Its private backers are in for a bonanza either way. Around four years ago in 2017 Coinbase was worth just $1.6 billion, according to Crunchbase data. For investors in that round, let alone its earlier fundraises, the valuation implied by a $250 per-share price represents a multiple of around 40x from the price that they paid.

The Coinbase direct listing was turbocharged recently when the company provided a first-look at its Q1 2021 performance. As TechCrunch reported at the time, the company’s recent growth was impressive, with revenue scaling from $585.1 million in Q4 2020, to $1.8 billion in the first three months of this year. The new numbers set an already-hot company’s public debut on fire.

Place your bets now concerning where Coinbase might open, and how high its value may rise. It’s going to be quite the show.

What’s fueling hydrogen tech?

By Kirsten Korosec

Hydrogen — the magical gas that Jules Verne predicted in 1874 would one day be used as fuel — has long struggled to get the attention it deserves. Discovered 400 years ago, its trajectory has seen it mostly mired in obscurity, punctuated by a few explosive moments, but never really fulfilling its potential.

Now in 2021, the world may be ready for hydrogen.

This gas is capturing the attention of governments and private sector players, fueled by new tech, global green energy legislation, post-pandemic “green recovery” schemes and the growing consensus that action must be taken to combat climate change.

Joan Ogden, professor emeritus at UC Davis, started researching hydrogen in 1985 — at the time considered “pretty fringy, crazy stuff.” She’s seen industries and governments inquisitively poke at hydrogen over the years, then move on. This new, more intense focus feels different, she said.

The funding activity in France is one illustration of what is happening throughout Europe and beyond. “Back in 2018, the hydrogen strategy in France was €100 million — a joke,” Sabrine Skiker, the EU policy manager for land transport at Hydrogen Europe, said in an interview with TechCrunch. “I mean, a joke compared to what we have now. Now we have a strategy that foresees €7.2 billion.”

The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance forecasts public and private sectors will invest €430 billion in hydrogen in the continent by 2030 in a massive push to meet emissions targets. Globally, the hydrogen generation industry is expected to grow to $201 billion by 2025 from $130 billion in 2020 at a CAGR of 9.2%, according to research from Markets and Markets published this year. This growth is expected to lead to advancements across multiple sectors including transportation, petroleum refining, steel manufacturing and fertilizer production. There are 228 large-scale hydrogen projects in various stages of development today — mostly in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Hydrogen breakdown

When the word “hydrogen” is uttered today, the average non-insider’s mind likely gravitates toward transportation — cars, buses, maybe trains or 18-wheelers, all powered by the gas.

But hydrogen is and does a lot of things, and a better understanding of its other roles — and challenges within those roles — is necessary to its success in transportation.

Hydrogen is already being heavily used in petroleum refineries and by manufacturers of steel, chemicals, ammonia fertilizers and biofuels. It’s also blended into natural gas for delivery through pipelines.

Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier — one with exceptional long-duration energy storage capabilities, which makes it a complement to weather-dependent energies like solar and wind. Storage is critical to the growth of renewable energy, and greater use of hydrogen in renewable energy storage can drive the cost of both down.

However, 95% of hydrogen produced is derived from fossil fuels — mostly through a process called steam-methane reforming (SMR). Little of it is produced via electrolysis, which uses electricity to split hydrogen and oxygen. Even less is created from renewable energy. Thus, not all hydrogen is created equal. Grey hydrogen is made from fossil fuels with emissions, and blue hydrogen is made from non-renewable sources whose carbon emissions are captured and sequestered or transformed. Green hydrogen is made from renewable energy. 

Where the action is

The global fuel cell vehicle market is hit or miss. There are about 10,000 FCVs in the U.S., with most of them in California — and sales are stalling. Only 937 FCVs were sold in the entire country in 2020, less than half the number sold in 2019. California has 44 hydrogen refueling stations and about as many in the works, but a lack of refueling infrastructure outside of the state isn’t helping American adoption.

Let’s talk about gaslighting and fundraising

By Natasha Mascarenhas

“Most of the startups I give advice to about how to raise venture capital shouldn’t be raising venture capital,” an investor recently told me. While the idea that every startup isn’t venture-backable might run counter to the narrative to the barrage of funding news each week, I think it’s important to double click on the topic. Plus, it keeps coming up, off the record, on phone calls with investors!

As venture grows as an asset class, the access to capital has broadened from a dollar perspective, but I do think the difficulties that remain is an important dynamic to call out (and something no one talks about during an upmarket). Beyond the fact that only a small subset of startups truly can pull off scaling to the point of venture-level returns, it is still hard for even qualified founders to raise venture capital. Venture capital is still a heavily white, male-led industry, and as a result contains bias that disproportionately limits access for underrepresented founders.

Eniac founding partner Hadley Harris applied this dynamic to the current market boom in a recent tweet: A lot of people are misunderstanding this VC funding market. More money is flowing into the market but the increase is not evenly distributed. The market believes winners can be much bigger but not necessary that there will be more winners. It’s still very hard for most to raise a VC.

To say otherwise is to gaslight the early-stage or first-time founders that have spent months and months trying to raise their first institutional dollars and failed. So ask yourself: Seed rounds have indeed grown bigger, but for who? What comes at the cost of the $30 million seed round? Are the founders that can raise overnight from diverse backgrounds? Are investors backing first-time founders as much as they are backing second- or third-time entrepreneurs?

The answers might leave you debating about the boundaries, and limitations, of the upcoming hot-deal summer.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the disconnect between due diligence and fundraising right now. Now we’ve moved onto the disconnect, and bifurcation, within first-check fundraising itself. There is so much more we can get into about the fallacy of “democratization” in venture capital, from who gets to start a rolling fund to the lack of assurance within equity crowdfunding campaigns.

We’ll get through it all together, and in the meantime make sure to follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ for more hot takes throughout the week.

In the rest of this newsletter, we will talk about fintech politics, the Affirm model with a twist, and sneakers-as-a-service.

Ex-Coinbase talks politics

The inimitable Mary Ann Azevedo has been dominating the fintech beat for us, covering everything from the latest Uruguayan unicorn to Acorn’s scoop of a debt management startup. But the story I want to focus on this week is her interview with ex-Coinbase counsel & former Treasury official, Brian Brooks.

Here’s what to know: Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong notoriously released a memo last year denouncing political activism at work, calling it a distraction. In this exclusive interview, Brooks spoke about how blockchain is the answer to financial inclusion, and argued why politics needs to be taken out of tech.

We don’t want bank CEOs making those decisions for us as a society, in terms of who they choose to lend money to, or not. We need to take the politics out of tech. All of us do a lot of different things, and we have no idea on a given day, whether what we’re doing is popular with our neighbors or popular with our bank president or not. I don’t want the fact that I sometimes feel Republican to be a reason why my local bank president can deny me a mortgage.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

The Affirm for X model

While Affirm may have popularized the “buy now, pay later” model, the consumer-friendly business strategy still has room to be niched down into specific subsectors. I ran into one such startup when covering Plaid’s inaugural cohort of startups in its accelerator program.

Here’s what to know: Walnut is a new seed-stage startup that is a point-of-sale loan company with a healthcare twist. Unlike Affirm, it doesn’t make money off of fees charged to consumers.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Everything you could ever want to know about StockX

In our latest EC-1, reporter Rae Witte has covered a startup that leads one of the most complex and culturally relevant marketplaces in the world: sneakers.

Here’s what to know: StockX, in her words, has built a stock market of hype, and her series goes into its origin story, authentication processes and a market map.

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Around TechCrunch

Found, a new podcast joining the TechCrunch network, has officially launched! The Equity team got a behind-the-scenes look at what triggered the new podcast, the first guests and goals of the show. Make sure to tune into the first episode.

Also, if you run into any paywalls while browsing today’s newsletter, make sure to use discount code STARTUPSWEEKLY to get 25% off an annual or two-year Extra Crunch subscription.

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

Okta launches a new free developer plan

New Jersey announces $10M seed fund aimed at Black and Latinx founders

Education nonprofit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

6 VCs talk the future of Austin’s exploding startup ecosystem

Dear Sophie: Help! My H-1B wasn’t chosen!

Seen on Extra Crunch

5 machine learning essentials nontechnical leaders need to understand

How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup

Giving EV batteries a second life for sustainability and profit

And that’s a wrap! Thanks for making it this far, and now I dare you to go make the most out of the rest of your day. And by make the most, I mean listen to Taylor’s Version.

Warmly,

N

China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

By Rita Liao

Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.

SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

Facebook takes down 16,000 groups trading fake reviews after another poke by UK’s CMA

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has removed 16,000 groups that were trading fake reviews on its platform after another intervention by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the regulator said today.

The CMA has been leaning on tech giants to prevent their platforms being used as thriving marketplaces for selling fake reviews since it began investigating the issue in 2018 — pressuring both eBay and Facebook to act against fake review sellers back in 2019.

The two companies pledged to do more to tackle the insidious trade last year, after coming under further pressure from the regulator — which found that Facebook-owned Instagram was also a thriving hub of fake review trades.

The latest intervention by the CMA looks considerably more substantial than last year’s action — when Facebook removed a mere 188 groups and disabled 24 user accounts. Although it’s not clear how many accounts the tech giant has banned and/or suspended this time it has removed orders of magnitude more groups. (We’ve asked.)

Facebook was contacted with questions but it did not answer what we asked directly, sending us this statement instead:

“We have engaged extensively with the CMA to address this issue. Fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews. Our safety and security teams are continually working to help prevent these practices.”

Since the CMA has been raising the issue of fake review trading, Facebook has been repeatedly criticised for not doing enough to clean up its platforms, plural.

Today the regulator said the social media giant has made further changes to the systems it uses for “identifying, removing and preventing the trading of fake and/or misleading reviews on its platforms to ensure it is fulfilling its previous commitments”.

It’s not clear why it’s taken Facebook well over a year — and a number of high profile interventions — to dial up action against the trade in fake reviews. But the company suggested that the resources it has available to tackle the problem had been strained as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated impacts, such as home working. (Facebook’s full year revenue increased in 2020 but so too did its expenses.)

According to the CMA changes Facebook has made to its system for combating traders of fake reviews include:

  • suspending or banning users who are repeatedly creating Facebook groups and Instagram profiles that promote, encourage or facilitate fake and misleading reviews
  • introducing new automated processes that will improve the detection and removal of this content
  • making it harder for people to use Facebook’s search tools to find fake and misleading review groups and profiles on Facebook and Instagram
  • putting in place dedicated processes to make sure that these changes continue to work effectively and stop the problems from reappearing

Again it’s not clear why Facebook would not have already been suspending or banning repeat offenders — at least, not if it was actually taking good faith action to genuinely quash the problem, rather than seeing if it could get away with doing the bare minimum.

Commenting in a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, essentially makes that point, saying: “Facebook has a duty to do all it can to stop the trading of such content on its platforms. After we intervened again, the company made significant changes — but it is disappointing it has taken them over a year to fix these issues.”

“We will continue to keep a close eye on Facebook, including its Instagram business. Should we find it is failing to honour its commitments, we will not hesitate to take further action,” Coscelli added.

A quick search on Facebook’s platform for UK groups trading in fake reviews appears to return fewer obviously dubious results than when we’ve checked in on this problem in 2019 and 2020. Although the results that were returned included a number of private groups so it was not immediately possible to verify what content is being solicited from members.

We did also find a number of Facebook groups offering Amazon reviews intended for other European markets, such as France and Spain (and in one public group aimed at Amazon Spain we found someone offering a “fee” via PayPal for a review; see below screengrab) — suggesting Facebook isn’t applying the same level of attention to tackling fake reviews that are being traded by users in markets where it’s faced fewer regulatory pokes than it has in the UK.

Screengrab: TechCrunch

Nigeria’s SEC warns investment platforms to stop trading ‘unregistered’ foreign securities

By Tage Kene-Okafor

In a circular released by Nigeria’s capital market regulator SEC today, investment platforms providing access to foreign securities might be treading on dangerous grounds.

According to the SEC regulations that have just been brought to light, these platforms are trading foreign securities not registered in the country and have been warned to stop doing so. Capital market operators in partnership with them have also been warned to renege on providing brokerage services for foreign securities.

Over the past three years, Robinhood-esque platforms like Bamboo, Trove, Chaka and Rise have sprung forth in the Nigerian fintech space. They offer Nigerians access to stocks, bonds and other securities in both local and international markets. These platforms have grown in popularity among the middle class and provide a haven to protect earnings from naira devaluations.

That said, there’s a vast difference in how they operate when compared to Robinhood. In addition to being a trading app, Robinhood offers online brokerages (introducing and clearing) and also zero commission trading. Nigerian investment platforms do not, and while any trading platform can get a brokerage license in the U.S., it can be a Herculean task to obtain one in Nigeria. This is where capital market operators (local and foreign brokerage firms in this case) come into play, forming strategic partnerships with these companies so Nigerians can access both local and foreign fractional securities.

After a series of regulatory onslaught from different government bodies on tech startups last year, the SEC followed suit in December. It singled out Chaka, one of the platforms and accused it of selling and advertising stocks. The regulator’s definition of the alleged offence was that Chaka “engaged in investment activities, including providing a platform for purchasing shares in foreign companies such as Google, Amazon, and Alibaba, outside the Commission’s regulatory purview and without requisite registration.”

The company’s CEO, Tosin Osibodu, denied any wrongdoing, and since the turn of the year, not much has been heard from the SEC and Chaka regarding this matter until the release of today’s circular. Unsurprisingly, the regulator continued from where it left off, only this time, all investment platforms including brokerage firms — not just Chaka — are involved. SEC’s subtle directive is to stop selling, issuing or offering for sale any foreign securities not listed on any exchange registered in Nigeria.

What this inherently means from now on is that investment platforms will have their work cut out and might only offer individuals access to only local stocks and securities. This affects the business models of these startups. And the core value they provide, which is to help Nigerians store monetary value and hedge against naira devaluation is at the threat of being wiped out.

Here’s the information released by the regulator as seen on its website:

The attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the Commission) has been drawn to the existence of several providers of online investment and trading platforms which purportedly facilitate direct access of the investing public in the Federal Republic of Nigeria to securities of foreign companies listed on Securities Exchanges registered in other jurisdictions. These platforms also claim to be operating in partnership with Capital Market operators (CMOs) registered with the Commission.

The Commission categorically states that by the provisions of Sections 67-70 of the Investments and Securities Act (ISA), 2007 and Rules 414 & 415 of the SEC Rules and Regulations, only foreign securities listed on any Exchange registered in Nigeria may be issued, sold or offered for sale or subscription to the Nigerian public. Accordingly, CMOs who work in concert with the referenced online platforms are hereby notified of the Commission’s position and advised to desist henceforth.

The Commission enjoins the investing public to seek clarification as may be required via its established channels of communication on investment products advertised through conventional or online mediums.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Mercato raises $26M Series A to help smaller grocers compete online

By Sarah Perez

The pandemic upended the way people shop for their everyday needs, including groceries. Online grocery sales in the U.S. are expected to reach 21.5% of the total grocery sales by 2025, after leaping from 3.4% pre-pandemic to 10.2% as of 2020. One business riding this wave is Mercato, an online grocery platform that helps smaller grocers and speciality food stores get online quickly. After helping grow its merchant sales by 1,300% in 2020, Mercato has now closed on $26 million in Series A funding, the company tells TechCrunch.

The round was led by Velvet Sea Ventures with participation from Team Europe, the investing arm of Lukasz Gadowski, co-founder of Delivery Hero. Seed investors Greycroft and Loeb.nyc also returned for the new round Gadowski and Mike Lazerow of Velvet Sea Ventures have also now joined Mercato’s board.

Mercato itself was founded in 2015 by Bobby Brannigan, who had grown up helping at his family’s grocery store in Brooklyn. But instead of taking over the business, as his Dad had hoped, Brannigan left for college and eventually went on to bootstrap a college textbook marketplace, Valore Books, to $100 million in sales. After selling the business, he returned his focus to the family’s store and found that everything was still operating the way it had been decades ago.

Image Credits: Bobby Brannigan of Mercato

“He had a very basic website, no e-commerce, no social media, and no point-of-sale system,” explains Brannigan. “I said, ‘I’m going to build what you need.’ This was my opportunity to help my dad in an area that I knew about,” he adds.

Brannigan recruited some engineers from his last company to help him build the software systems to modernize his dad’s store, including Mercato’s co-founders Dave Bateman, Michael Mason, and Matthew Alarie. But the team soon realized could do more than help just Brannigan’s dad — they could also help the 40,000 independent grocery stores just like him better compete with the Amazon’s of the world.

The result was Mercato, a platform-as-a-service that makes it easier for smaller grocers and speciality food shops to go online to offer their inventory for pickup or delivery, without having to partner with a grocery delivery service like Instacart, AmazonFresh or Shipt.

The solution today includes an e-commerce website and data analytics platform that helps stores understand what their customers are looking for, where customers are located, how to price their products, and other insights that help them to better run their store. And Mercato is now working on adding on a supply platform to help the stores buy inventory through their system, Brannigan notes.

“Basically, the vision of it is to give them the tech, the systems, and the platform they need to be successful in this day and age,” notes Brannigan.

He likens Mercato as a sort of “Shopify for groceries,” as it gives stores their own page on Mercato where they can reach customers. When the customer visits Mercato on the web or via its app, they can enter in their zip code to see which local stores offer online shopping. Some stores simply redirect their existing websites to their Mercato page, as they can continue to offer other basic information, like address, hours, and other details about their stores on the Mercato-provided site, while gaining access to Mercato’s over 1 million customers.

However, merchants can also opt for a white-label solution that they can plug into their own website, which uses their own branding.

The stores can further customize the experience they want to offer customers, in terms of pickup and delivery, and the time frames for both they want to commit to. If they want to ease into online grocery, for example, they can start with next-day delivery services, then speed thing up to same-day when they’re ready. They can also set limits on how many time slots they offer per hour, based on staffing levels.

Image Credits: Mercato

Unlike Instacart and others which send shoppers to stores to fill the orders, Mercato allows the merchants themselves to maintain the customer relationship by handling the orders themselves, which they can receive via email, text or even robo-phone calls.

“They’re maintaining that relationship,” says Brannigan. “Usually, it’s a lot better if it’s somebody from the store [doing the shopping] because they might know the customer; they know the kind of product they’re looking for. And if they don’t have it, they know something else they can recommend — so they’re like a really efficient recommendation engine.”

“The big difference between an Instacart shopper and the worker in the store is that the worker in the store understands that somebody is trying to put a meal on the table, and certain items could be an important ingredient,” he notes. “For the shoppers at Instacart, it’s about a time clock: how quickly can they pick an order to make the most money.”

The company contracts with both national and regional couriers to handle the delivery portion, once orders are ready.

Mercato’s system was put to test during the pandemic, when demand for online grocery skyrocketed.

This is where Mercato’s ability to rapidly onboard merchants came in handy. The company says it can take stores online in just 24 hours, as it has built out a centralized product catalog of over a million items. It then connects with the store’s point-of-sale system, and uploads and matches the store’s products to their own database. This allows Mercato to map around 95% of the store’s products in a matter of minutes, with the last bit being added manually — which helps to build out Mercato’s catalog even further. Today, Mercato can integrate with virtually all point-of-sale (POS) solutions in the grocery market, which is more than 30 different systems.

As customers shop, Mercato’s system uses machine learning to help determine if a product is likely in stock by examining movement data.

“One of the challenges in grocery is that most stores actually don’t know how many quantities they have in stock of a product,” explains Brannigan. “So we launch a store, we integrate with the POS. And with the POS we can see how quickly a product is moving in-store and online. Based on movement, we can calculate what is in stock.”

This system, he says, continues to get smarter over time, too.

“We’re certainly three to five years ahead, and we’re not going back,” says Brannigan of the COVID impacts to the online grocery business. “It’s very plentiful now in many places, in terms of e-commerce offerings. And the nature of retail businesses is competitive. So if 1% of people are online, it might not drive other people. But if you have 15% of stores online, then other stores have to get online or they won’t be able to compete,” he notes.

Mercato generates revenue both from its consumer-facing membership program, with plans that range from $96/year – $228/year, depending on distance, and from the merchants themselves, who pay a single digit percentage transaction fee on orders — a lower percentage than what restaurant delivery companies charge.

The company has now scaled its service to over 1,000 merchants across 45 U.S. states, including big cities like New York, Chicago, L.A. D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and others.

With the additional funding, Mercato aims to expand its remotely distributed team of now 80 employees, as well as its data analytics platform, which will help merchants make better decisions that impact their business. It also plans to refresh the consumer subscription to add more benefits and perks that make it more compelling.

Mercato declined to share its valuation or revenue, but as of the start of the pandemic last year, the company had said it was reaching a billion in sales and a $700 million run rate.

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