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France fines Google $268M for adtech abuses and gets interoperability commitments

By Natasha Lomas

France’s competition watchdog, L’Autorité de la concurrence, has fined Google up to €220 million (~$268M) in a case related to self-preferencing within the adtech market which the watchdog found constituted an abuse by Google of a dominant position for ad servers for website publishers and mobile apps.

L’Autorité began looking into Google’s adtech business following complaints from a number of French publishers.

Today it said Google had requested a settlement — and is “not disputing the facts of the case” — with the tech giant proposing certain ‘interoperability’ commitments that the regulator has accepted, and which will form a binding part of the decision.

The watchdog called the action a world first in probing Google’s complex algorithmic ad auctions.

Commenting in a statement, L’Autorité’s president, Isabelle de Silva, said: “The decision sanctioning Google has a very special meaning because it is the first decision in the world to look into complex algorithmic processes. Auctions through which online display advertising works. The investigation, carried out particularly quickly, revealed the processes by which Google, relying on its considerable dominant position on ad servers for sites and applications, was favored over its competitors on both ad servers and SSP platforms. These very serious practices penalized competition in the emerging online advertising market, and have enabled Google not only to preserve but also to increase its dominant position. This sanction and these commitments will make it possible to restore a level playing field for all players, and the ability of publishers to make the most of their advertising space. ”

At specific issue is preferential treatment Google granted to its own proprietary technologies — offered under the Google Ad Manager brand — on both the demand and supply sides; via the operation of its DFP ad server (which allows publishers of sites and applications to sell their spaces advertising), and its sales platform SSP AdX (which organizes the auction process allowing publishers to sell their ‘impressions’ or advertising inventories to advertisers), per the watchdog.

L’Autorité found that Google’s preferential treatment of its adtech harmed competitors and publishers.

Reached for comment, a Google spokeswoman referred us to this blog post discussing the settlement where Maria Gomri, a legal director for Google France, writes that it has “agreed on a set of commitments to make it easier for publishers to make use of data and use our tools with other ad technologies” — before detailing the steps it has pledged to take.

The publishing groups that made the original complaint against Google in France were News Corp Inc., the Le Figaro group and the Rossel La Voix group, although Le Figaro withdrew its referral last November — at the same time as it signed a content-licensing deal with Google, related to Google’s News Showcase product (a vehicle Google has spun up as legislators in different markets around the world have taken steps to force it to pay for some content reuse).

France’s competition watchdog had earlier ordered Google to negotiate with publishers over remuneration for reuse of their content, following the transposing into national law of updated, pan-EU copyright rules — which extend neighbouring rights to publishers’ news snippets. So the adtech giant’s operations remain under scrutiny on that front too.

Google agrees to interoperability changes

Google has agreed to improve the interoperability of Google Ad Manager services with third-party ad server and advertising space sales platform solutions, per L’Autorité, as well as agreeing to end provisions that favor itself.

“The practices in question are particularly serious because they penalized Google’s competitors in the SSP market and the publishers of sites and mobile applications,” it writes in a press release (translated from French with Google Translate). “Among these, the press groups — including those who were [the source] of the referral to the Authority — were affected even though their economic model is also strongly weakened by the decline in sales of paper subscriptions and the decline in associated advertising revenue.”

L’Autorité confirmed it has accepted Google’s commitments — and makes them binding in its decision. The commitments will be mandatory for a three year period, per the agreement.

The commitments Google has offered appear to speak to some operational details that have emerged via a Texas antitrust lawsuit also targeting Google’s adtech.

Earlier this year, documents surfaced via that suit which appeared to show the tech giant operated a secret program that used data from past bids in its digital ad exchange to allegedly give its own ad-buying system an advantage over competitors, per the WSJ — which reported that the so-called ‘Project Bernanke’ program was not disclosed to publishers who sold ads through Google’s exchange.

In the area of data access, Google has committed to the L’Autorité to devise a solution to ensure that all buyers which use Google Ad Manager to participate in its ad exchange receive equal access to data from its auctions — “to help them efficiently buy ad space from publishers”. Including when publishers use an off-platform technique called ‘Header Bidding’ (which enables publishers to run an auction among multiple ad exchanges but which, as a result of how Google operates, has meant such buyers may be at a data disadvantage vs those participating through Google’s own platform).

Google claims it is “usually not technically possible” for it to identify participants in Header Bidding auctions, and thus that it cannot share data with those buyers. But it’s now committed to address that by working “to create a solution that ensures that all buyers that a publisher works with, including those who participate in Header Bidding, can receive equal access to data related to outcomes from the Ad Manager auction”.

It notes that “in particular” it will be “providing information around the ‘minimum bid to win’ from previous auctions”, going forward — which would address one disadvantageous blind-spot for publishers taking an off-platform route to try to earn more ad revenue.

Another commitment from Google to the French watchdog is a pledge to increase flexibility for publishers using its Ad Manager product — including by letting them set custom pricing rules for ads that are in sensitive categories and implementing product changes aimed at improving interoperability between Ad Manager and third-party ad servers.

Google also writes that it is “reaffirming” that it won’t limit Ad Manager publishers from negotiating specific terms or pricing directly with other sell-side platforms (SSPs); and says it is committing to continue to provide publishers with controls to include or exclude certain buyers at their discretion when they use its product.

The third batch of commitments focus on transparency — and the opacity of adtech has long been a core criticism of the market, including for the competitive dimension as unclear workings by dominant platforms can be used to shield abusive practices from view. (Indeed, L’Autorité already fined Google $166M back in December 2019 for having what it billed then as “opaque and difficult to understand” rules for its ad platform, Google Ads, and for applying them in “an unfair and random manner.”)

On transparency, Google has pledged not to use data from other SSPs to optimize bids in its own exchange in a way that other SSPs can’t reproduce. It also says it’s reupping a promise not to share any bid from any Ad Manager auction participants with any other auction participant prior to completion of the auction.

“Additionally, we’ll give publishers at least three months’ notice for major changes requiring significant implementation effort that publishers must adopt, unless those are related to security or privacy protections, or are required by law,” it further notes.

The commitments made to L’Autorité will apply to how Google operates its adtech in the French market — but are also set to be applied more widely.

“We will be testing and developing these changes over the coming months before rolling them out more broadly, including some globally,” Gomri added in the blog post.

L’Autorité‘s action comes after years of attention paid to the online advertising market.

Back in 2018 it published a report that delved into a number of competitive advantages leveraged by Facebook and Google, noting how the duopoly’s ad targeting offerings benefit from their leadership positions in respective markers and the resultant network effects; and also from their vertical integration model (playing in both publishing and technical intermediation); as well as from the ‘logged’ environments both have developed, requiring users to log in to access ‘free’ services — giving them access to a high volume of sociodemographic and behavioral data to power their ad targeting products, among other competitive advantages.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has also conducted an online ad market study in recent years — findings from which are underpinning ‘pro-competition’ regulatory reform that’s now being targeted at tech giants with ‘strategic market status’ which will, in the future, be subject to an ex ante regime of custom requirements aimed at preemptively preventing market abuse.

The European Commission has, meanwhile, issued multiple antitrust enforcements against Google’s business in recent years — including a $1.7BN fine related to its search ad brokering business, AdSense, in 2019, and a $2.7BN penalty for its price comparison service, Google Shopping, back in 2017, to name two.

More recently, the EU regulators have been reported to be further probing Google’s adtech practices. So more interventions could be forthcoming.

However the Commission’s preferred approach of not imposing specific remedies itself — nor obtaining specific commitments, beyond a general requirement not to continue the sanctioned abuse (or any equivalent behavior) — seems to have failed to move the needle, certainly where Google’s market dominance is concerned.

Still, EU lawmakers’ experience with Google antitrust cases has certainly informed a recent pan-EU plan for a set of ex ante rules to apply to digital ‘gatekeepers’ — incoming under the Digital Markets Act, which was presented by Brussels last December.

Augmented reality NFT platform Anima gets backing from Coinbase

By Lucas Matney

Augmented reality and non-fungible tokens, need I say more? Yes? Oh, well NFTs have certainly had their moment in 2021, but the question of what they do or what can be done with them has certainly been getting voiced more frequently as the speculative gold rush begins to cool off and people start to think more about how digital goods can evolve in the future.

Anima, a small creative crypto startup built by the founders of photo/video app Ultravisual, which Flipboard acquired back in 2014, is looking to use AR to shift how NFT art and collectibles can be viewed and shared. Their latest venture is an effort to help artists bring their digital creations to a bigger digital stage and help find what the future of NFTs looks like in augmented reality.

The startup has put together a small $500K pre-seed round from Coinbase Ventures, Divergence Ventures, Flamingo DAO, Lyle Owerko and Andrew Unger.

“As NFTs move away from being a more speculative market where it’s all about returns on your purchases, I think that’s healthy and it’s good for us specifically because we want to make things that are more approachable,” co-founder Alex Herrity says.

Their broader vision is finding ways for digital objects to interact with the real world, something that’s been a pretty top-of-mind concern for the AR world over the last few years, though augmented reality development has cooled more recently as creators have sunk into a wait-and-see attitude toward new releases from Apple and Facebook. Both the AR and NFT spaces are incredibly early, something Anima’s co-founders were quick to admit, but they think both spaces have matured enough that the gimmicks are out in the open.

“There’s a context shift that happens when you see AR as a vehicle to have a tactile relationship with something that you collected or that you see is a lifestyle accessory versus the common thing now where it’s a little bit more of an experiential gimmick,” co-founder Neil Voss tells TechCrunch.

The team has worked with a couple artists already as they’ve made early experiments in bringing digital art objects into AR and they’re launching a marketplace late next month based on ConsenSys’s Palm platform, where they hope to showcase more of their future partnerships.

 

Breinify announces $11M seed to bring data science to the marketing team

By Ron Miller

Breinify is a startup working to apply data science to personalization, and do it in a way that makes it accessible to non-technical marketing employees to build more meaningful customer experiences. Today the company announced a funding round totalling $11 million.

The investment was led by Gutbrain Ventures and PBJ Capital with participation from Streamlined Ventures, CXO Fund, Amino Capital, Startup Capital Ventures and Sterling Road.

Breinify co-founder and CEO Diane Keng says that she and co-founder and CTO Philipp Meisen started the company to bring predictive personalization based on data science to marketers with the goal of helping them improve a customer’s experience by personalizing messages tailored to individual tastes.

“We’re big believers that the world, especially consumer brands, really need strong predictive personalization. But when you think about consumer big brands or the retailers that you buy from, most of them aren’t data scientists, nor do they really know how to activate [machine learning] at scale,” Keng told TechCrunch.

She says that she wanted to make this type of technology more accessible by hiding the complexity behind the algorithms powering the platform. “Instead of telling you how powerful the algorithms are, we show you [what that means for the] consumer experience, and in the end what that means for both the consumer and you as a marketer individually,” she said.

That involves the kind of customizations you might expect around website messaging, emails, texts or whatever channel a marketer might be using to communicate with the buyer. “So the AI decides you should be shown these products, this offer, this specific promotion at this time, [whether it’s] the web, email or SMS. So you’re not getting the same content across different channels, and we do all that automatically for you, and that’s [driven by the algorithms],” she said.

Breinify launched in 2016 and participated in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield competition in San Francisco that year. She said it was early days for the company, but it helped them focus their approach. “I think it gave us a huge stage presence. It gave us a chance to test out the idea just to see where the market was in regards to needing a solution like this. We definitely learned a lot. I think it showed us that people were interested in personalization,” she said. And although the company didn’t win the competition, it ended up walking away with a funding deal.

Today the startup is growing fast and has 24 employees, up from 10 last year. Keng, who is an Asian woman, places a high premium on diversity.

“We partner with about four different kinds of diversity groups right now to source candidates, but at the end of the day, I think if you are someone that’s eager to learn, and you might not have all the skills yet, and you’re [part of an under-represented] group we encourage everyone to apply as much as possible. We put a lot of work into trying to create a really well rounded group,” she said.

Klaviyo’s next-gen email marketing platform engorges on $320M at a $9.5B valuation

By Danny Crichton

Email marketing is decades old, but it’s a category that has surprising life in it. Multiple generations of email marketing companies have come through and sustained success, from Constant Contact to Mailchimp. These brands often become household names — after all, you probably have hundreds of emails with their logos attached to the email footer.

Klaviyo is not as much of a household name right now, but it is absolutely on its way to the paramount of the next-generation of email marketing startups.

The company announced today that it has raised $320 million in new capital in a Series D round, led by Sands Capital, a private and public equity investor that has, among many areas of focus, a thesis in ecommerce. That brings the company’s total fundraising to $675 million, following a $200 million Series C round from just six months ago.

Klaviyo was the subject of one of our most recent EC-1 analyses, where we looked at the company’s history of growth, how it is rebuilding what’s been dubbed “owned marketing” (i.e. marketing channels that a business owns like email rather than channels owned by platforms like Facebook and Instagram), how marketers are using Klaviyo post-COVID, and some startup growth lessons from the business as well.

There is nearly 10,000 words of analysis packed into that whole story, so read that or save it for the weekend if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of Klaviyo’s story and how it is fitting in to the wider email marketing space. But suffice it to say that the company’s secret sauce is perhaps obvious: it’s a marketing company that’s pretty damn good at marketing. That’s allowed it to pull in gargantuan numbers of new customers as many retailers and brick-and-mortar businesses fled online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its press statement, the company wrote that “Klaviyo’s customer base doubled over the past 12 months and the company now serves over 70,000 paying customers, a more than 110% increase from 2019 — ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, in more than 120 countries.” It also said that it plans to increase its head count from 800 to 1,300 people this year.

The company is headquartered in Boston, and Klaviyo’s all-but decacorn valuation is a major win for the Boston enterprise ecosystem, which continues to percolate on high.

In addition to Sands, Counterpoint Global, Whale Rock Capital Management, ClearBridge Investments, Lone Pine Capital, Owl Rock Capital, and Glynn Capital also joined the round as new investors. Previous investors Accel and Summit Partners also participated.

5 ways to raise your startup’s PR game

By Annie Siebert
Adam LaGreca Contributor
Adam LaGreca is the founder of 10KMedia and previously led communications for DigitalOcean, Datadog and Gremlin.

There’s a lot of noise out there. The ability to effectively communicate can make or break your launch. It will play a role in determining who wins a new space — you or a competitor.

Most people get that. I get emails every week from companies coming out of stealth mode, wanting to make a splash. Or from a Series B company that’s been around for a while and hopes to improve their branding/messaging/positioning so that a new upstart doesn’t eat their lunch.

You have to stop thinking that what you are up to is interesting.

How do you make a splash? How do you stay relevant?

Worth noting is that my area of expertise is in the DevOps space and that slant may crop up occasionally. But these five specific tips should be applicable to virtually any startup.

Leverage your founders

This is especially important if you are a small startup that not many people know about. Journalists don’t want to hear opinions from your head of marketing or product — they want to hear from the founders. What problems are they solving? What unique opinions do they have about the market? These are insights that mean the most coming from the people that started the company. So if you don’t have at least one founder that can dedicate time to being the face, then PR is going to be an uphill battle.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do to support these efforts. Create a list of all the journalists that have written about your competitors. Read those articles. How can your founder add value to these conversations? Where should you be contributing thought leadership? What are the most interesting perspectives you can offer to those audiences?

This is legwork and research you can do before looping founders into the conversation. Getting your PR going can be like trying to push a broken-down car up the road: If the founders see you exerting effort to get things moving on your own, they’re more likely to get beside you and help.

Here’s an example: It may be unreasonable to ask a founder to sit down and write a 1,000-word thought leadership piece by the end of the week, but they very likely have 20 minutes to chat, especially if you make it clear that the contents of the conversation will make for great thought leadership pieces, social media posts, etc.

The flow looks like:

  1. You come up with topic ideas based on research.
  2. The founder picks their favorite.
  3. You and the founder schedule a 20-minute chat to get their thoughts on paper.
  4. You write up the content based on those thoughts.

Even startups on tight budgets can maximize their marketing impact

By Ram Iyer
Dominik Angerer Contributor
Dominik Angerer is CEO and co-founder of headless CMS Storyblok, which provides best practice guidance for startups on how to build a sustainable approach to marketing their content.

Search engine optimization, PR, paid marketing, emails, social — marketing and communications is crowded with techniques, channels, solutions and acronyms. It’s little wonder that many startups strapped for time and money find defining and executing a sustainable marketing campaign a daunting prospect.

The sheer number of options makes it difficult to determine an effective approach, and my view is that this complexity often obscures the obvious answer: A startup’s best marketing asset is its story. The knowledge and expertise of its team, together with the why and the how of its offering provides the most compelling content.

Leveraging this material with best practice techniques enables any startup, no matter how limited its budget, to run an effective marketing campaign.

Many startups make the mistake of choosing systems and employing procedures to solve the immediate needs of the department that requires them.

I know this approach works, because this is exactly what I did with my co-founder Alex Feiglstorfer when we set up Storyblok. To be clear, we are developers not marketers. However, our previous experience building CMS systems taught us that the main driver of organic engagement for most businesses was customer conversations around content.

Specifically, sharing experiences, expertise and what we learned. We had committed nearly all of our available cash to developing our product, so we knew that the only way to market Storyblok was to do it all ourselves.

As a result, we focused solely on problem-solving content. This took the form of tutorials on web development and opinion pieces on headless CMS and other topics within our areas of expertise. The trick was that what we published wasn’t made just for marketing, it was based on our own internal documentation of problems we encountered as we developed our product. In essence, we were “learning in public.” Through this approach we were able to acquire thousands of customers in our first year.

Retelling this story isn’t to blow my own trumpet, it’s to make clear that you don’t have to be a marketer by training or commit a huge amount of time and resources to successfully market your startup. So, how do you get started?

Getting your structure and technology right

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how you organize your startup’s marketing function, there are some basic principles that apply in nearly every situation. A recent survey of 400+ executives from CMS Wire helpfully identified the following factors as the “top digital customer experience challenges” for businesses:

  1. Limited budget/resources.
  2. Siloed systems and fragmented customer data.
  3. Limited cross-department alignment/collaboration.
  4. Outdated/limited technology, operations or processes.
  5. Lack of in-house expertise/skills.

Challenges two to four are the pitfalls that we can focus on avoiding. They are directly related to how a startup produces, organizes and distributes its content.

With regard to the siloing of systems and fragmentation of customer data, the overriding goal is to ensure all your systems are integrated and speak to one another. In practice, this means that the data gathered in different departments — whether its feedback from sales, engagement on your website, customer service responses or product development information — is collected in a uniform and methodical manner and is readily accessible across the business.

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.

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.

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.

Alyce, an AI-based personalised corporate gifting startup, raises $30M

By Ingrid Lunden

Swag has a long and patchy history in the world of business. For every hip pair of plaid socks, there are five t-shirts you may never wear, an itchy scarf, a notepad your kids might use, and an ugly mug; and most of all, likely thousands of dollars and lots of time invested to make those presents a reality. Now, a startup that has built a service to rethink the concept behind corporate gifts and make them more effective is today announcing a round of funding to continue expanding its business — and one sign that it may be on to something is its progress so far.

Alyce, a Boston startup that has built an AI platform that plugs into various other apps that you might use to interact and track your relationships with others in your working life — sales prospects, business partners, colleagues — and then uses the information to personalise gift recommendations for those people, has raised $30 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue building out its platform, signing up more users, and hiring more people for its team.

This round is being led by General Catalyst, with Boston Seed Capital, Golden Ventures, Manifest, Morningside and Victress Captial — all previous backers — also participating.

Alyce says that it has grown 300% year-over-year between 2019 and 2020, tackling a corporate gifting and promotional items industry that ASI Market Research estimates is worth around $24.7 billion annually. Its customers today include Adobe’s Marketo, G2, Lenovo, Wex, Invision, DialPad, GrubHub, and 6Sense.

As with so many other apps and services that aim at productivity and people management, Alyce notes that this year of working remotely — which has tested many a relationship and job function, led to massive inbound and outbound digital activity (the screen is where everything gets played out now), and frankly burned a lot of us out — has given it also a new kind of relevance.

“As everyone was flooded with spam last year unsubscribing soared,” Greg Segall, founder and CEO of Alyce, said in a statement. “When a prospect opts out, that’s forever. It’s clear that both brands and customers crave the same thing – a much more purposeful and relatable way to engage.”

Alyce’s contribution to more quality engagement comes in the form of AI-fueled personalization.

Linking up with the other tools people typically use to track their communications with people — they include Marketo, Salesforce, Vidyard and Google’s email and calendar apps — the system has been built with algorithms that read details from those apps to construct some details about the preferences and tastes of the intended gift recipient. It then uses that to come up with a list of items that might appeal to that person from a wider list that it has compiled, with some 10,000 items in all. (And yes, these can also include more traditional corporate swag items like those socks or mugs.) Then, instead of sending an actual gift, “Swag Select”, as Alyce’s service is called, sends a gift code that lets the person redeem with his or her own choice from a personalised, more narrowed-down list of items.

Alyce itself doesn’t actually hold or distribute the presents: it connects up with third parties that send these out. (It prices its service based on how much it is used, and how many more tools a user might want to have to personalise and send out gifts.)

Yes, you might argue that a lot of this sounds actually very impersonal — the gift giver is not directly involved in the selection or sending of a present at all, which instead is “selected” by way of AI. Essentially, this is a variation of the personalization and recommendation technology that has been built to serve ads, suggest products to you on e-commerce sites, and more.

But on the other hand, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of trying to figure out what to get someone, which can be a challenge when you really know a person, and even harder when you don’t, while at the same time helping to create and fulfill a gesture that, at the end of the day, is about being thoughtful of them, not really the gift itself.

(You could also argue, I think, that since the gift lists are based on a person’s observations about the recipient, there is in fact some personal touches here, even if they have been run through an algorithmic mill before getting to you.)

And ultimately, the aim of these gifts is to say “thank you for this work relationship, which I appreciate”, or “please buy more printer paper from me” — not “I’m sorry for being rude to you at dinner last night.” Although… if this works as it should, maybe there might well be an opportunity to extending the model to more use cases, for example brands looking for ways to change up their direct mail marketing campaigns, or yes, people who want to patch things up after a spat the night before.

Notably, for General Catalyst, it’s interested indeed in the bigger gifting category, pointing to the potential of how this service could be scaled in the future.

“At General Catalyst, we are proud to lead the latest round of funding for Alyce as the company has reimagined the gifting category with technology and impact. The ability to deliver products and experiences that both the giver and recipient feel good about is incredibly powerful,” said Larry Bohn, Managing Director at General Catalyst, in a statement.

Casted raises $7M to scale its B2B podcast platform

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Historically, podcasts have been aimed at consumers. The value to be gained in the B2B world is something that has been largely untapped.

For Lindsay Tjepkema — who has been entrenched in the world of B2B marketing for more than 15 years — the opportunity was massive. So in 2019, she founded Casted, an audio and video podcast product aimed at B2B marketers.

And now Casted has raised $7 million in Series A funding led by Revolution Ventures

Existing backers High Alpha Capital, Elevate Ventures and Tappan Hill Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings Indianapolis-based Casted’s total raised to about $9.3 million since its inception.

2020 was a good year for Casted. The startup quadrupled its revenue, tripled its customer base and doubled the size of its team during the course of the 12-month period. It has an impressive list of customers, including PayPal, HubSpot, Drift and ZoomInfo. Casted’s platform is also “the system of record” for Salesforce’s 25+ podcasting shows.

And to make things even more impressive, that revenue growth looks more like 8x year over year, according to Tjepkema.

She believes the company’s value prop goes beyond just giving companies a way to get their podcasts out there. Its ability to analyze data and turn that into intelligence for sales and marketing is what really sets it apart, she said.

“If you’re a podcaster, and you’re doing it to grow a large audience, monetize and sell advertising, the number of downloads is important,” Tjepkema told TechCrunch. “But when you’re a B2B company or an enterprise company, the number of downloads doesn’t help. You need to know who’s engaged, how are people interacting with the content and then how is that going to impact revenue and pipeline, and customer loyalty and lifetime value.”

For starters, Casted’s SaaS platform gives marketing teams a way to publish content. Once published, Casted provides access to a “fully searchable content archive” with transcription services and tagging. It then also helps the company amplify that content via cross-channel distribution. And finally — largely by integrating with digital marketing platforms such as HubSpot, WordPress and Marketo — Casted’s software provides analytics on what a specific user is paying attention to. Those data-driven analytics becomes valuable information for sales and marketing teams in terms of who to target and why.

“Because everything that’s in the platform is transcribed, there are ways to clip it up and share it across other channels and get that into the hands of your sales team so they can use it to make their conversations with their customers even easier,” Tjepkema said. 

Revolution Ventures Managing Partner David Golden said that marketing technology has been a difficult sector for his firm to invest in, considering the volume of companies providing a variety of services such as email optimization and sales automation and business intelligence.

“But what Lindsay and her team was building out was clearly a new category in this space and the sort of slap-your-forehead category. Of course, podcasting for B2B marketing makes all the sense in the world when you look at the evolution of tools that have been available to business marketers, such as blogs, white papers and webinars,” Golden told TechCrunch. “It was just going to be a matter of time before audio and video would be important pieces of that toolbox, and there was nobody doing it.”

Revolution estimates that B2B content makes up roughly just 15% of the podcasting content out there today.

“Given the growth on the consumer side, we think this could be up to a $20 billion market by five years from now,” Golden said.

The company, he added, is just one of a growing number of martech companies based in Indianapolis, including ExactTarget (which was acquired by Salesforce for $2.5 billion).

Looking ahead, Casted said the new capital will go toward expanding its 25-person team and scaling the platform with new integrations and partnerships. 

Sequoia Capital India on its early investment in Appier, the fund’s latest exit

By Catherine Shu

Chih-Han Yu, chief executive officer and co-founder of Appier Group Inc., right, holds a hammer next to a bell during an event marking the listing of the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, at the company's office in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chih-Han Yu, chief executive officer and co-founder of Appier Group Inc., right, holds a hammer next to a bell during an event marking the listing of the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, at the company’s office in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Appier’s initial public offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange yesterday was a milestone not only for the company, but also Sequoia Capital India, one of its earliest investors. Founded in Taiwan, Appier was the fund’s first investment outside of India, and is now also the first company in its portfolio outside of India to go public. In an interview with TechCrunch, Sequoia Capital managing director Abheek Anand talked about what drew the firm to Appier, which develops AI-based marketing software.

Before shifting its focus to marketing, Appier’s founders—chief executive officer Chih-Han Yu, chief operating officer Winnie Lee and chief technology officer Joe Su—worked on a startup called Plaxie to develop AI-powered gaming engines. Yu and Su came up with the idea when they were both graduate students at Harvard, but found there was little demand at the time. Anand met them in 2013, soon after their pivot to big data and marketing, and Sequoia Capital India invested in Appier’s Series A a few months later.

“It’s easy to say in retrospect what worked and what didn’t work. What really stands out without trying to write revisionist history is that this was just an incredibly smart team,” said Anand. “They had probably the most technical core DNA of any Series A company that we’ve met in years, I would argue.” Yu holds a PhD in computer science from Harvard, Wu earned a PhD in immunology at Washington University in St. Louis and Su has a M.S. in computer science from Harvard. The company also filled its team with AI and machine learning researchers from top universities in Taiwan and the United States.

At the time, Sequoia Capital “had a broad thesis that there would be adoption of AI in enterprises,” Anand said. “What we believed was there were a bunch of people going after that problem, but they were trying to solve business problems without necessarily having the technical depth to do it.” Appier stood out because they “were swinging at it from the other end, where they had an enormous amount of technical expertise.”

Since Appier’s launch in 2012, more companies have emerged that use machine learning and big data to help companies automate marketing decisions and create online campaigns. Anand said one of the reasons Appier, which now operates in 14 markets across the Asia-Pacific region, remains competitive is its strategy of cross-selling new products and focusing on specific use cases instead of building a general purpose platform.

Appier’s core product is a cross-platform advertising engine called CrossX that focuses on user acquisition. Then it has products that address other parts of their customers’ value chain: AiDeal to help companies send coupons to the customers who are most likely to use them; user engagement platform AIQUA; and AIXON, a data science platform that uses AI models to predict customer actions, including the likelihood of repeat purchases.

“I think the number one thing that the company has spent a lot of time on is focusing on efficiency,” said Anand. “Customers have tons of data, both external and first-party, that they’re processing to drive business outcomes. It’s a very hard technical problem. Appier starts with a solution that is relatively easy to break into a customer, and then builds deeper and deeper solutions for those customers.”

Appier’s listing is also noteworthy because it marks the first time a company from Taiwan has listed in Japan since Trend Micro’s IPO in 1998. Japan is one of Appier’s biggest markets (customers there include Rakuten, Toyota and Shiseido), making the Tokyo Stock Exchange a natural fit, Anand said, even though most of Sequoia Capital India’s portfolio companies list in India or the United States.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange also stood out because of its retail investor participation, liquidity and total volume. Some of Appier’s other core investors, including JAFCO Asia and SoftBank Group Corp., are also based in Japan. But though it has almost $30 billion in average trading volume, the vast majority of listings are domestic companies. In a recent report, Nikkei Asia cited a higher corporate tax rate and lack of potential underwriters, especially for smaller listings, as a potential obstacles for foreign companies.

But Appier’s debut may lead the way for other Asian startups to chose the Tokyo Stock Exchange, said Anand. “Getting ready for the Japanese exchange meant having the right accounting practices, the right reporting, a whole bunch of compliance stuff. It was a long process. In some ways we were leading the charge for external companies to get there, and I’m sure over time it will keep getting easier and easier.”

Argentina’s Digital House raises over $50M to help solve LatAm’s tech talent shortage

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Digital House, a Buenos Aires-based edtech focused on developing tech talent through immersive remote courses, announced today it has raised more than $50 million in new funding.

Notably, two of the main investors are not venture capital firms but instead are two large tech companies: Latin American e-commerce giant Mercado Libre and San Francisco-based software developer Globant. Riverwood Capital, a Menlo Park-based private equity firm, and existing backer early-stage Argentina-based venture firm Kaszek also participated in the financing.

The raise brings Digital House’s total funding raised to more than $80 million since its 2016 inception. The Rise Fund led a $20 million Series B for Digital House in December 2017, marking the San Francisco-based firm’s investment in Latin America.

Nelson Duboscq, CEO and co-founder of Digital House, said that accelerating demand for tech talent in Latin America has fueled demand for the startup’s online courses. Since it first launched its classes in March 2016, the company has seen a 118% CAGR in revenues and a 145% CAGR in students. The 350-person company expects “and is on track” to be profitable this year, according to Duboscq.

Digital House CEO and co-founder Nelson Duboscq. Image Credits: Digital House

In 2020, 28,000 students across Latin America used its platform. The company projects that more than 43,000 will take courses via its platform in 2021. Fifty percent of its business comes out of Brazil, 30% from Argentina and the remaining 20% in the rest of Latin America.

Specifically, Digital House offers courses aimed at teaching “the most in-demand digital skills” to people who either want to work in the digital industry or for companies that need to train their employees on digital skills. Emphasizing practice, Digital House offers courses — that range from six months to two years — teaching skills such as web and mobile development, data analytics, user experience design, digital marketing and product development.

The courses are fully accessible online and combine live online classes led by in-house professors, with content delivered through Digital House’s platform via videos, quizzes and exercises “that can be consumed at any time.” 

Digital House also links its graduates to company jobs, claiming an employability rate of over 95%.

Looking ahead, Digital House says it will use its new capital toward continuing to evolve its digital training platforms, as well as launching a two-year tech training program — dubbed the the “Certified Tech Developer” initiative — jointly designed with Mercado Libre and Globant. The program aims to train thousands of students through full-time two-year courses and connect them with tech companies globally. 

Specifically, the company says it will also continue to expand its portfolio of careers beyond software development and include specialization in e-commerce, digital marketing, data science and cybersecurity. Digital House also plans to expand its partnerships with technology employers and companies in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. It also is planning some “strategic M&A,” according to Duboscq.

Francisco Alvarez-Demalde, co-founder & co-managing partner of Riverwood Capital, noted that his firm has observed an accelerating digitization of the economy across all sectors in Latin America, which naturally creates demand for tech-savvy talent. (Riverwood has an office in São Paulo).

For example, in addition to web developers, there’s been increased demand for data scientists, digital marketing and cybersecurity specialists.

“In Brazil alone, over 70,000 new IT professionals are needed each year and only about 45,000 are trained annually,” Alvarez-Demalde said. “As a result of such a talent crunch, salaries for IT professionals in the region increased 20% to 30% last year. In this context, Digital House has a large opportunity ahead of them and is positioned strategically as the gatekeeper of new digital talent in Latin America, preparing workers for the jobs of the future.”

André Chaves, senior VP of Strategy at Mercado Libre, said the company saw in Digital House a track record of “understanding closely” what Mercado Libre and other tech companies need.

“They move as fast as we do and adapt quickly to what the job market needs,” he said. “A very important asset for us is their presence and understanding of Latin America, its risks and entrepreneurial environment. Global players have succeeded for many years in our region. But things are shifting gradually, and local knowledge of risks and opportunities can make a great difference.”

Our favorite companies from Y Combinator’s W21 Demo Day: Part 2

By Devin Coldewey

We’ve reached the end of Y Combinator’s biggest Demo Day, which saw more than 300 companies pitching back-to-back over eight hours.

Earlier, we highlighted some of the companies that caught our eye in the first half of the day. Now we’re back with our favorite companies from the second half. From a marketplace to help you resell formalwear to a startup that offers self-driving street cleaners, it’s quite the mix.

If you’d like to browse all of the companies from this batch YC has a catalog of publicly-launched W21 companies here.

Terra

Heading into this particular demo day, I had my eyes peeled for startups focused on delivering services via an API instead of offering managed software. Happily, there have been a number to dig into, including Pitbit.ai, Bimaplan, Enode and Terra.

Terra stood out to me because it solves a problem I care deeply about, namely fitness data siloization. My running data is stuck in one app, biking data in another, and my weight-lifting data is stuck in my head, though I doubt Terra has an API for that interface quite yet.

What Terra does is permit fitness app developers to better connect their services, which permits the sharing of data back and forth. Presenters likened their startup to Plaid — a popular thing to do in recent quarters — saying that what the fintech startup did for banking data, Terra would do for fitness and health information.

Getting developers to sign on will be tricky, as I presume all of the apps I use in an exercise context would prefer to be my main workout home. But I don’t want that, so here’s hoping Terra realizes its vision.

— Alex

AgendaPro

Calling itself “Shopify for beauty and wellness” in Latin America, AgendaPro wants to help small businesses in the region book customers online and collect payments. 

The company’s idea isn’t as radical as some companies that we heard from today — Carbon capture! Faster drug discovery! — but the company did share several metrics that made us sit up. First, AgendaPro has reached $152,000 in MRR, or just over $1.8 million in ARR. And representatives shared that its gross margins are 89%. As far as software margins goes, that’s pretty damn good.

The startup has more than 3,000 merchants using its service at the moment, and it claims that there are more than four million businesses that it could service. If AgendaPro can get software and payments revenues from even a respectable fraction of those companies, it will be a big, big business. And who doesn’t love vertical SaaS?

— Alex

Atom Bioworks

One of the holy grails of biochemistry is a programmable DNA machine. These tools can essentially “code” a molecule so that it reliably sticks to a specific substance or cell type, which allows a variety of follow-up actions to be taken.

For instance, a DNA machine could lock onto COVID-19 viruses and then release a chemical signal indicating infection before killing the virus. The same principle applies to a cancer cell. Or a bacterium. You get the picture — and it looks like Atom Bioworks has something a lot like this.

Where is the e-commerce app ecosystem headed in 2021?

By Annie Siebert
Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the co-founder of PipeCandy, an online merchant graph company that discovers and analyzes business and consumer perception metrics about D2C brands and e-commerce companies.

The pandemic-induced growth of e-commerce is, by now, now well documented.

What is happening in the app ecosystem that supports e-commerce? Is it growing? Are we likely to see consolidations or IPOs? Are there superapps that will emerge?

This post is less about conclusions and more about taking you along while I go through the rabbit hole to satiate my own curiosity.

I see all three trends forming:

  1. Superapps are likely to emerge. I think companies like Bold Commerce will be among the earliest superapps.
  2. There will be consolidations anchored around large SaaS players and roll-ups powered by private equity funds.
  3. There are players like Tiny that acquire early-stage firms and let them run independently.

The closest match to the growing e-commerce stack is the marketing automation stack. While there are significant overlaps, it’s fascinating to compare and contrast the growth of these ecosystems and what drives consolidation.

The closest match to the growing e-commerce stack is the marketing automation stack. While there are significant overlaps, it’s fascinating to compare and contrast the growth of these ecosystems and what drives consolidation.

Between 2015 and 2021, the martech stack grew from 1,800 to 8,000, meaning it roughly doubles every three years.

The explosion of the martech stack is common knowledge and is well documented by Scott Brinker and his famous supergraphics. What’s worth noting is that the consolidation we expected to happen is happening, and yet the pace of new companies coming up in the space makes up for the consolidation — and some more.

According to Brinker, the martech landscape grew 5,233% between 2011 and 2020. The fastest-growing category within martech in 2020 is data and governance, which grew in numbers by 25%. The martech app ecosystem more than tripled between 2015 to 2018, powered by the growth of SaaS and e-commerce industries.

I am an avid tracker of this space, but I am also interested in how we can apply martech’s evolution to the e-commerce stack. The e-commerce stack also grew 3.5 times between 2017 and 2020. But much of the growth is ahead, and so is the upcoming consolidation.

Side raises $150M at $1B valuation to help real estate agents go it alone

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Side, a real estate technology company that works to turn agents and independent brokerages into boutique brands and businesses, announced Monday that it has raised $150 million in Series D funding.

Coatue Management led the round, which brings San Francisco-based Side’s valuation to $1 billion and total funding raised to over $200 million since its 2017 inception. Existing backers Matrix Partners, Trinity Ventures and Sapphire Ventures also participated in the new financing.

The round is notable in that the amount raised is significantly higher than the $35 million Side raised in a Series C round in November 2019. Valuation too increased nearly 7x compared to the $150 million valuation at the time of its Series C. Sapphire Ventures led that investment and managing director Paul Levine, who was previously president and COO of Trulia (through its IPO and multibillion-dollar acquisition by Zillow), joined the company’s board of directors at that time.

The startup pulled in between $30 million and $50 million in revenue in 2020, and expects to double revenue this year. In 2019, Side represented over $5 billion in annual home sales across all of its partners. Today, the company’s community of agent partners represents over $15 billion in annual production volume.

Side was founded by Guy Gal, Edward Wu and Hilary Saunders on the premise that most real estate agents are “underserved and underappreciated” by traditional brokerage models.

CEO Gal said existing brokerages are designed to support “average” agents and as such, the top-producing agents end up having to do “all of the heavy lifting.”

Side’s white label model works with agents and teams by exclusively marketing their boutique brand, while also providing the required technology and support needed on the back end. The goal is to help partner agents “predictably grow” their businesses and improve their productivity.

“The way to think about Side is the way you think about what Shopify does for e-commerce…When partnering with Side, top-producing agents, teams and independent brokerages, for the first time in history, gain full ownership of their own brand and business without having to operate a brokerage,” Gal said. “When you spend years solving the problems of this very specific community of agents, you are able to use software to drive enormous efficiency for them in a way that has never been done before.”

Existing brokerages, he argues, actively discourage agents from becoming top producers and teams, because agents who serve fewer clients can be forced into paying much higher commission fees on every transaction, which means the incentives between brokerages and top agents and teams are misaligned.

“Top producers want to grow and differentiate, and brokerages want them to do less business at higher fees and be one more of the same under the same brand,” Gal said. “Side, rather than discouraging and competing with top producing agents and teams, enables them to grow and scale their own business and brand.”

Today, Side supports more than 1,500 partner agents across California, Texas and Florida.

The startup plans to spend its new capital on “significant hiring” and toward an expansion outside of California, Texas and Florida — the three markets in which it currently operates. It also plans to boost its 300-plus headcount by another 200 employees. 

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