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Barbershop technology startup theCut sharpens its platform with new $4.5M round

By Christine Hall

TheCut, a technology platform designed to handle back-end operations for barbers, raised $4.5 million in new funding.

Nextgen Venture Partners led the round and was joined by Elevate Ventures, Singh Capital and Leadout Capital. The latest funding gives theCut $5.35 million in total funding since the company was founded in 2016, founder Obi Omile Jr. told TechCrunch.

Omile and Kush Patel created the mobile app that provides information and reviews on barbers for potential customers while also managing appointments, mobile payments and pricing on the back end for barbers.

“Kush and I both had terrible experiences with haircuts, and decided to build an app to help find good barbers,” Omile said. “We found there were great barbers, but no way to discover them. You can do a Google search, but it doesn’t list the individual barber. With theCut, you can discover an individual barber and discover if they are a great fit for you and won’t screw up your hair.”

The app also enables barbers, perhaps for the first time, to have a list of clients and keep notes and photos of hair styles, as well as track visits and spending. By providing payments, barbers can also leverage digital trends to provide additional services and extras to bring in more revenue. On the customer side, there is a search function with barber profile, photos of their work, ratings and reviews, a list of service offerings and pricing.

Omile said there are 400,000 to 600,000 barbers in the U.S., and it is one of the fastest-growth markets. As a result, the new funding will be used to hire additional talent, marketing and to grow the business across the country.

“We’ve gotten to a place where we are hitting our stride and seeing business catapulting, so we are in hiring mode,” he added.

Indeed, the company generated more than $500 million in revenue for barbers since its launch and is adding over 100,000 users each month. In addition, the app averages 1.5 million appointment bookings each month.

Next up, Omile wants to build out some new features like a digital store and the ability to process more physical payments by rolling out a card reader for in-person payments. TheCut will also focus on enabling barbers to have more personal relationships with their customers.

“We are building software to empower people to be the best version of themselves, in this case barbers,” he added. “The relationship with customers is an opportunity for the barber to make specific recommendations on products and create a grooming experience.”

As part of the investment, Leadout founder and managing partner Ali Rosenthal joined the company’s board of directors. She said Omile and Patel are the kind of founders that venture capitalists look for — experts in their markets and data-driven technologists.

“They had done so much with so little by the time we met them,” Rosenthal added. “They are creating a passionate community and set of modern, tech-driven features that are tailored to the needs of their customers.”

 

Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

By Christine Hall

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

SimpliFed serves up $500,000 pre-seed toward infant nutrition support

By Christine Hall

Feeding babies can take many different forms, and is also an area where parents can feel less supported as they navigate this new milestone in their lives.

Enter SimpliFed, an Ithaca, New York-based company providing virtual lactation and a baby feeding support platform. The startup announced Friday that it raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding led by Third Culture Capital.

Andrea Ippolito, founder and CEO of SimpliFed. Image Credits: SimpliFed

CEO Andrea Ippolito, a biomedical engineer and mother of two young children, had the idea for SimpliFed three years ago. She struggled with breastfeeding after having her first child and, realizing that she was not alone in this area, set out to figure out a way to get anyone access to information and support for infant feeding.

“Post discharge is when the rubber meets the goal for us,” she told TechCrunch. “This is a huge pain point for Medicaid, and it is not just about increasing access, but providing ongoing support for feeding and the quagmire that is health insurance. We want to help moms reach their infant feeding goals, no matter how they choose to feed, and to figure out what feeding looks like for them.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers nurse for up to six months. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60% of mothers don’t breastfeed for as long as they intend due to reasons like difficulty lactating or the baby latching, sickness or an unsupportive work environment.

SimpliFed’s platform is a judgement-free zone providing evidence-based information on nutritional health for babies. It isn’t meant to replace typical care that mother and baby will receive before and after delivery, but to provide support when issues arise, Ippolito said. Parents can book a free, initial 15-minute virtual consultation with a lactation expert and then subsequent 60-minute sessions for $100 each. There is also a future membership option for those seeking continuing care.

The new funds will be used to hire additional employees to further develop the telelactation platform and grow the company’s footprint, Ippolito said. The platform is gearing up to go through a clinical study to co-design the program with 1,000 mothers. She also wants to build out relationships with payers and providers toward a longer-term goal of becoming in-network and paid through reimbursement from health plans.

Julien Pham, managing partner at Third Culture Capital, said he met Ippolito at MIT Hacking Medicine a decade ago. A physician by training, he saw first-hand how big of an opportunity it is to demystify providing the best nutrition for babies.

“The U.S. culture has evolved over the years, and millennials are the next-generation moms who have a different ask, and SimpliFed is here at the right time,” Pham said. “Andrea is just a dynamo. We love her energy and how she is at the front line of this as a mother herself — she is most qualified to do this, and we support her.

 

Online learning platform CLASS101 bags $26M Series B to support growth

By Kate Park

Everything is switching from offline to online mode, spurred by the pandemic, and that also has turned around things for the creative economy. Creative professionals continue to look for ways to monetize their talents and knowledge through online education platforms like CLASS101 that bring stable incomes and improve opportunities.

CLASS101, a Seoul-based online education platform, announced today it has closed $25.8 million (30 billion won) Series B funding to accelerate its growth in South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

The Series B round was led by Goodwater Capital, with additional participation from previous backers Strong Ventures, KT Investment, Mirae Asset Capital and Klim Ventures.

In 2019, the company raised a $10.3 million (12 billion won) Series A round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia along with Mirae Asset Venture Investment, KT Investment, Strong Ventures and SpringCamp.

Co-founder and CEO of CLASS101 Monde Ko told TechCrunch that the company will use the proceeds to focus on hiring more talent, as well as expanding domestic business and overseas markets in the U.S. and Japan.

Ko and four other co-founders established CLASS101 in 2018, which was pivoted from a tutoring service platform that was founded in 2015, Ko said. It has 350 employees now.

“We will keep supporting creators to monetize their talents and we will also allow creators to expand their revenue streams by selling their goods, digital files and more products via our platform,” Ko said.

When asked about what differentiated it from other peers, CLASS101 provides and ships all the necessary tools and material “Class Kit”, Ko said.

The company offers more than 2,000 classes within a raft of categories, with drawing, crafts, photography, cooking, music and more. It also provides about 230 classes in the U.S. and 220 classes in Japan. There are approximately 100,000 registered creators and 3 million registered users as of August 2021.

CLASS101 launched its platform in the U.S. in 2019 and entered Japan last year. The company opened online classes for kids aged under 14 in 2020.

“CLASS101 is a company that combines the advantages of Patreon and YouTube, offering tailored support for creators while fulfilling users’ learning needs,” co-founder and managing partner at Goodwater Capital Eric Kim said, adding that it is the fastest growing company “in an economic phenomenon in which individuals follow their passions and do what they really enjoy while also making a living from it.”

Fintech startup Jeeves raises $57M, goes from YC to $500M valuation in one year

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Last summer, Jeeves was participating in Y Combinator’s summer batch as a fledgling fintech.

This June, the startup emerged from stealth with $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

Today, the company, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is announcing that it has raised a $57 million Series B at a $500 million valuation. That’s up from a valuation of just north of $100 million at the time of Jeeves’ Series A, which closed in May and was announced in early June.

While the pace of funding these days is unlike most of us have ever seen before, it’s pretty remarkable that Jeeves essentially signed the term sheet for its Series B just two months after closing on its Series A. It’s also notable that just one year ago, it was wrapping up a YC cohort.

Jeeves was not necessarily looking to raise so soon, but fueled by its growth in revenue and spend after its Series A, which was led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), the company was approached by dozens of potential investors and offered multiple term sheets, according to CEO and co-founder Dileep Thazhmon. Jeeves moved forward with CRV, which had been interested since the A and built a relationship with Thazhmon, so it could further accelerate growth and launch in more countries, he said.

CRV led the Series B round, which also included participation from Tencent, Silicon Valley Bank, Alkeon Capital Management, Soros Fund Management and a high-profile group of angel investors including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, Odell Beckham Jr. and The Chainsmokers. Notably, the founders of a dozen unicorn companies also put money in the Series B including (but not limited to) Clip CEO Adolfo Babatz; QuintoAndar CEO Gabriel Braga; Uala CEO Pierpaolo Barbieri, BlockFi CEO Zac Prince; Mercury CEO Immad Akhund; Bitso founder Pablo Gonzalez; Monzo Bank’s Tom Blomfield; Intercom founder Des Traynor; Lithic CEO Bo Jiang as well as founders from UiPath, Auth0, GoCardless, Nubank, Rappi, Kavak and others.

Whew.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering was live in Mexico and Canada and today launched in Colombia, the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. 

Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Jeeves claims that by using its platform’s proprietary Banking-as-a-Service infrastructure, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card (with 4% cash back), non card payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

For example, a growing business can use a Jeeves card in Barcelona and pay it back in euros and use the same card in Mexico and pay it back in pesos, reducing any FX fees and providing instant spend reconciliation across currencies. 

Thazhmon believes that the “biggest thing” the company is building out is its own global BaaS layer, that sits across different banking entities in each country, and onto which the end user customer-facing Jeeves app plugs into.

Put simply, he said, “think of it as a BaaS platform, but with only one app — the Jeeves app — plugged into it.”

Image Credits: Jeeves

The startup has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by more than 5,000% since January, and both revenue and spend volume has increased more than 1,100% (11x) since its Series A earlier this year, according to Thazhmon.

Jeeves now covers more than 12 currencies and 10 countries across three continents. Mexico is its largest market. Jeeves is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile and Thazhmon expects that by year’s end, it will be live in all of North America and Europe. Next year, it’s eyeing the Asian market, and Tencent should be able to help with that strategically, he said.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon told TechCrunch. “Our model is very similar to that of Uber’s launch model where we can launch very quickly because we don’t have to rebuild an entire infrastructure. When we launch in countries, we actually don’t have to rebuild a stack.”

Jeeves’ user base has been doubling every 60 days and now powers more than 1,000 companies across LatAm, Canada and Europe, including Bitso, Kavak, RappiPay, Belvo, Runa, Moons, Convictional, Muncher, Juniper, Trienta, Platzi, Worky and others, according to Thazhmon. The company says it has a current waitlist of over 15,000.

Jeeves plans to use its new capital toward its launch in Colombia, the U.K. and Europe. And, of course, toward more hiring. It’s already doubled its number of employees to 55 over the past month.

Former a16z partner Matt Hafemeister was so impressed with what Jeeves is building that in August he left the venture capital firm to join the startup as its head of growth. In working with the founders as an investor, he concluded that they ranked “among the best founders in fintech” he’d ever interacted with.

The decision to leave a16z also related to Jeeves’ inflection point, Hafemeister said. The startup is nearly doubling every month, and had already eclipsed year-end goals on revenue by mid-year.

It is evident Jeeves has found early product market fit and, given the speed of execution, I see Jeeves establishing itself as one of the most important fintech companies in the next few years,” Hafemeister told TechCrunch. “The company is transitioning from a seed company to a Series B company very quickly, and being able to help operationalize processes and play a role in their growth and maturity is an incredible opportunity for me.”

CRV General Partner Saar Gur (who is also an early investor in DoorDash, Patreon and Mercury) said he was blown away by Jeeves’ growth and how it has been “consistently hitting and exceeding targets month over month.” Plus, early feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, Gur said.

“Jeeves is building products and infrastructure that are very difficult to execute but by doing the ‘hard things’ they offer incredible value to their customers,” he told TechCrunch. “We haven’t seen anyone build from the ground up with global operations in mind on day one.”

Panorama raises $60M in General Atlantic-led Series C to help schools better understand students

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Panorama Education, which has built out a K-12 education software platform, has raised $60 million in a Series C round of funding led by General Atlantic.

Existing backers Owl Ventures, Emerson Collective, Uncork Capital, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Tao Capital Partners also participated in the financing, which brings the Boston-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $105 million.

Panorama declined to reveal at what valuation the Series C was raised, nor did it provide any specific financial growth metrics. CEO and co-founder Aaron Feuer did say the company now serves 13 million students in 23,000 schools across the United States, which means that 25% of American students are enrolled in a district served by Panorama today. 

Over 50 of the largest 100 school districts and state agencies in the country use its platform. In total, more than 1,500 school districts are among its customers. Clients include the New York City Department of Education, Clark County School District in Nevada, Dallas ISD in Texas and the Hawaii Department of Education, among others.

Since March 2020, Panorama has added 700 school districts to its customer base, nearly doubling the 800 it served just 18 months prior, according to Feuer.

Just what does Panorama do exactly? In a nutshell, the SaaS business surveys students, parents and teachers to collect actionable data. Former Yale graduate students Feuer and Xan Tanner started the company in an effort to figure out the best way for schools to collect and understand feedback from their students.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to many students attending school virtually, the need to address students’ social and emotional needs has probably never been more paramount. Many children and teenagers have suffered depression and anxiety due to being isolated from their peers, and some believe the impact on their mental health has been even greater than any negative academic repercussions.

Students, for example, are asked questions to determine how safe they feel at school, how much they trust their teachers and how much potential they think they have.

“We help schools survey students, teachers and parents to understand the environment and experiences of the school,” Feuer told TechCrunch. “And then we help schools measure social and emotional development so that in the same way you might have rigorous data on math, you can now get information about social emotional learning and well-being.”

In the past year, for example, 25 million people across the country have taken a Panorama survey, which has resulted in quite a bit of information. The company is able to integrate with all of a district’s existing data systems so that it can pull together a “panorama” of its data, plus the information about a student.

“It’s really powerful because a teacher can then log in and see everything about a student in one place,” Feuer said. “But most importantly, we give teachers the tools to plan actions for a student.”

The company claims that by using its software, districts can see benefits such as improved graduation rates, fewer behavior referrals, more time engaged in learning and students building “stronger supportive relationships with adults and peers.”

Panorama plans to use its new capital toward continued product development, further deepening its district partnerships and naturally, toward hiring. Panorama currently has about 250 employees.

Notably, Panorama had not raised capital in a couple of years simply because, according to Feuer, it did not need the money.

“We met General Atlantic and realized the opportunity to reach the next level of impact for our schools,” he told TechCrunch. “But it was important to me that we didn’t need to raise the money. We chose to because we want to be able to invest in the business.”

Tanzeen Syed, managing director at General Atlantic, said edtech has been an important area of focus for this firm.

“When we looked at the U.S. education system, we thought that there was a massive opportunity and that we’re in the very early innings of using software and technology to really enhance the student experience,” he said.

When it came to Panorama, he believes “it’s not just a business” for the company.

“They truly and deeply care about providing students and administrators with the tools to make the student experience better,” Syed told TechCrunch. “And they’re maniacally focused on developing the sort of product to allow them to do that. In addition to that, we spoke with a lot of schools and districts and the feedback came back consistently positive.”

Explosion snags $6M on $120M valuation to expand machine learning platform

By Ron Miller

Explosion, a company that has combined an open source machine learning library with a set of commercial developer tools, announced a $6 million Series A today on a $120 million valuation. The round was led by SignalFire, and the company reported that today’s investment represents 5% of its value.

Oana Olteanu from SignalFire will be joining the board under the terms of the deal, which includes warrants of $12 million in additional investment at the same price.

“Fundamentally, Explosion is a software company and we build developer tools for AI and machine learning and natural language processing. So our goal is to make developers more productive and more focused on their natural language processing, so basically understanding large volumes of text, and training machine learning models to help with that and automate some processes,” company co-founder and CEO Ines Montani told me.

The company started in 2016 when Montani met her co-founder, Matthew Honnibal in Berlin where he was working on the spaCy open source machine learning library. Since then, that open source project has been downloaded over 40 million times.

In 2017, they added Prodigy, a commercial product for generating data for the machine learning model. “Machine learning is code plus data, so to really get the most out of the technologies you almost always want to train your models and build custom systems because what’s really most valuable are problems that are super specific to you and your business and what you’re trying to find out, and so we saw that the area of creating training data, training these machine learning models, was something that people didn’t pay very much attention to at all,” she said.

The next step is a product called Prodigy Teams, which is a big reason the company is taking on this investment. “Prodigy Teams  is [a hosted service that] adds user management and collaboration features to Prodigy, and you can run it in the cloud without compromising on what people love most about Prodigy, which is the data privacy, so no data ever needs to get seen by our servers,” she said. They do this by letting the data sit on the customer’s private cluster in a private cloud, and then use Prodigy Team’s management features in the public cloud service.

Today, they have 500 customers using Prodigy including Microsoft and Bayer in addition to the huge community of millions of open source users. They’ve built all this with just 17 people, even as they continue to slowly add employees, expecting to reach 20 by the end of the year.

She believes if you’re thinking too much about diversity in your hiring process, you probably have a problem already. “If you go into hiring and you’re thinking like, oh, how can I make sure that the way I’m hiring is diverse, I think that already shows that there’s maybe a problem,” she said.

“If you have a company, and it’s 50 dudes in their 20s, it’s not surprising that you might have problems attracting people who are not white dudes in their 20s. But in our case, our strategy is to hire good people and good people are often very diverse people, and again if you play by the [startup] playbook, you could be limited in a lot of other ways.”

She said that they have never seen themselves as a traditional startup following some conventional playbook. “We didn’t raise any investment money [until now]. We grew the team organically, and we focused on being profitable and independent [before we got outside investment],” she said.

But more than the money, Montani says that they needed to find an investor that would understand and support the open source side of the business, even while they got capital to expand all parts of the company. “Open source is a community of users, customers and employees. They are real people, and [they are not] pawns in [some] startup game, and it’s not a game. It’s real, and these are real people,” she said.

“They deserve more than just my eyeballs and grand promises. […] And so it’s very important that even if we’re selling a small stake in our company for some capital [to build our next] product [that open source remains at] the core of our company and that’s something we don’t want to compromise on,” Montani said.

HomeLight closes on $100M Series D at a $1.6B valuation as revenue surges

By Mary Ann Azevedo

HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.

Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.

Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.

The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.

Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.

“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.

In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.

HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said. 

“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”

Image Credits: HomeLight

Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place. 

In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.

Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.

“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”

He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”

Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.

Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.

“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”

HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months. 

Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.

“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”

YouTravel.Me packs up $1M to match travelers with curated small group adventures

By Christine Hall

YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.

Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.

Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.

Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”

Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.

Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.

“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”

After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.

The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.

Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.

“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”

 

AON3D closes $11.5M Series A, partners with Astrobotic to send 3D-printed parts to the moon

By Aria Alamalhodaei

3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.

3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.

The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.

“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”

By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.

The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.

They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.

Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.

The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.

That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.

Image Credits: Astrobotic

“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.

Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.

Pancake aims to make customers flip for its virtual home design platform

By Christine Hall

Pancake brought in a $350,000 seed round to develop its home design platform that leverages furniture you already have in your home with a designer’s fresh eye on your space.

Maria Jose Castro and Roberto Meza, both from Costa Rica, started the company in 2020, based on their own experience of transitioning to work-from-home and needing to outfit a space. However, design services can be expensive, and therefore not accessible to everyone.

Pancake is reinventing the way you can work with an interior designer and get a rendering of your space to work from. Customers can go on the website and book a session with a designer, providing them with measurements and photos of the room.

The designer then prepares a rendering of the space and a deck to explain the design and how the customer will do it — and if paint or furniture is needed that isn’t already available, Pancake will show the customer where to find it. Future features of the site will include connecting with furniture providers, Jose Castro told TechCrunch.

Meza called the company “furniture-as-a-service,” with the main focus to reuse what already exists in a space to create healthy, sustainable spaces that someone can work in, live in and enjoy all at the same time. While that may seem like a tall order, he said that with everyone suddenly together during the global pandemic, relationships are better when people are in a space they like.

“Wellness in construction is what I do, and we wanted to create that with Pancake,” he added. “Sometimes it is the little things that create a space and makes you feel good, or not feel good.”

Pancake plans to use its funding to further develop its platform and add new features like an ecological footprint calculator so customers can see how sustainable their designs are. The company also prides itself on transparent pricing. An average two-hour session with a designer is $199, and the designer will add to the budget if items like paint and new furniture are needed.

Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid, is the lead investor in the seed round. He said that he doesn’t typically invest at the seed stage, but was impressed with the progress Pancake has made in a short period of time. This includes marketing tests on social media platforms that yielded a respectable return on investment, he added.

Meanwhile, Pancake has facilitated over 100 designer sessions and has begun to see referrals and repeat customers who want to design additional rooms in their house. That has translated into 200% month over month revenue growth, on average, despite having to stop for four months during the pandemic, Meza said. Up next, the company will continue to build out its brand and revenue model as it advances to a Series A round next year.

 

Pixalate tunes into $18.1M for fraud prevention in television, mobile advertising

By Christine Hall

Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.

Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.

The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.

Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.

Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.

“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”

While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.

The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.

The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.

Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.

“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions —  more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”

 

Corelight secures $75M Series D to bolster its network defense offering

By Carly Page

Corelight, a San Francisco-based startup that claims to offer the industry’s first open network detection and response (NDR) platform, has raised $75 million in Series D investment led by Energy Impact Partners. 

The round — which also includes a strategic investment from Capital One Ventures, Crowdstrike Falcon Fund and Gaingels — brings Corelight’s total raised to $160 million, following a $50 million Series C in October 2019, a $25 million Series B in September 2018 and a $9.2 million Series A in July 2017.

While it’s raised plenty of capital in the past few years, the startup isn’t planning its exit just yet. Brian Dye, CEO of Corelight, tells TechCrunch that given Corelight’s market opportunity and performance — the startup claims to be the fastest-growing NDR player at scale — it plans to invest in growth and expects to raise additional capital in the future. 

“Public listing time frames are always hard to forecast, and we view the private markets as attractive in the short term, so we expect to remain private for the next couple years and will look at market conditions then to decide our next step,” Dye said, adding that Corelight plans to use its latest investment to fuel the acceleration of its global market presence and to develop new data and cloud-based offerings.

“Aside from go-to-market expansion, we are investing to ensure that the insight we provide both continues to lead the industry and can be readily used by customers of all types,” he added. 

Corelight, which competes with the likes of FireEye and STG-owned McAfee, was founded in 2013 when Dr. Vern Paxson, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, joined forces with Robin Sommer and Seth Hall to build a network visibility solution on top of an open source framework called Zeek (formerly Bro). 

Paxson began developing Zeek in 1995 when he was working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The software is now widely regarded as the gold standard for both network security monitoring and network traffic analysis and has been deployed by thousands of organizations around the world, including the U.S. Department of Energy, various agencies in the U.S. government and research universities like Indiana University, Ohio State and Stanford.

Stockeld Dreamery loves cheese so much that it raised $20M to make it out of legumes

By Christine Hall

Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.

The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.

Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.

“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”

Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.

Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”

The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.

Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.

“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.

Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.

Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.

Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.

The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.

“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”

Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.

“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”

Bright Cellars lands more funding to personalize its subscription-based wines

By Connie Loizos

Bright Cellars, a six-year-old subscription-based wine seller has, like many upstarts, evolved over time. While it once sent its club members third-party wines that fit their particular profiles, Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Bright Cellars says it’s now amassing enough data about its customers that it no longer sells wines made by other brands. Instead, while some of its “original” offerings are admittedly sold by other labels under different names, it is increasingly finding success by directing its winemaker partners to tweak the recipe, so to speak.

“We’re optimizing wine like you might optimize a more digital product,” says co-founder and CEO, Richard Yau, a San Francisco native whose startup entered into a regional accelerator program early on and stayed, though the company is now largely decentralized.

We talked earlier today with Yau about that shift, which investors are supporting with $11.2 million in Series B funding, led by Cleveland Avenue, with participation from earlier backers Revolution Ventures and Northwestern Mutual. (The company has now raised roughly $20 million altogether).

Yau also talked about industry trends that he’s seeing because of all that data collection.

TC: You’re building a portfolio of wines. What does that mean?

RY: We don’t own any land. We’re working primarily with suppliers [as do big companies like Gallo and Constellation], but at a larger scale than before, so we now get to shape what wines taste like and look like, and we can optimize across variables like how sweet should this wine be? How acidic? What do we want its color and brand and label to look like and which segment of our customers will really enjoy this wine the most?

TC: What’s one of your concoctions?

RY: We have a sparkling wine that’s produced in the Champagne method — not a Champagne wine; it’s a domestic wine — using grape varietals that no one uses for sparkling wine, and it’s one of the top-rated wines on our platform. Sparkling wine has been really good for us.

TC: How many subscribers do you have?

RY: We can’t share that, but we saw an acceleration in not just new subscribers throughout the pandemic but also in terms of seeing a larger share of [customers’] wallets going to D2C, and that impacted us pretty positively. Even as things eased up over the summer, we saw that people were cooking and eating at home more [and drinking wine].

TC: What’s the average price of a bottle of wine on the platform?

RY: $20 to $25.

TC: Where are your grape suppliers?

RY: A lot are on the West Coast, in Washington and California, but we also have grape suppliers internationally, including in South America and Europe.

TC: How many wines do you offer, and how long do you trial a wine?

RY: We’ve tested around 600, and at any given time, we’ll have 40 to 50 wines on the platform. We don’t stock everything forever; those that don’t do as well, we basically eliminate.

TC: A lot of D2C brands eventually branch into real-world locations. You aren’t doing that. Why not?

RY: It’s possible that we might at some point, but we like being D2C and it makes a lot of sense in a world where our members now work from home and are home to receive packages. It lines up with e-commerce trends in general. If you’re not buying your groceries at the store anymore, you aren’t buying wines at the store, either.

TC: From where are these bottles shipped?

RY: From a variety of places, but primarily from Santa Rosa [in the Bay Area].

TC: Have you seen the impact the weather is having on California winemakers, some of whom are now spraying sunscreen on their grapes to protect them?

RY: [Climate change] has certainly affected the wine industry. One of the fortunate things about us is we have flexibility in the suppliers we’re working with, so from a business-health perspective, we haven’t been as affected by that. Because a lot of our operations are in California, we did a couple of years ago have some interruptions with distribution where we weren’t able to ship some days; we were also impacted by warm temperatures. But fortunately, so far for this year, we haven’t had any operational or supply-chain disruptions.

TC: Have you been approached by one of legacy firms about a partnership or acquisition?

RY: We’ve had conversations, more in terms of partnerships because we have lots of data and can help them. For example, we can launch a new wine and get feedback almost like a focus group to figure out who likes what. We can split test two different blends for a wine and figure out which does better. That’s where conversations with legacy wine companies have happened.

TC: So they’d pay you for your data.

RY: We’re not opposed to selling data in the future, but we’ve approached it more like, here’s an opportunity to learn about how innovation works at a larger wine company. We don’t expect to be able to do what Constellation does well — with its large salesforce and distributors in every state — but what we can do in a complementary way is understand the consumer.

TC: What have you learned that might surprise outsiders?

RY: Petite sirah [offerings] do as well, if not better than, cabernet and pinot noir on the platform. Cab and pinot are fully 50 times the market size of petite sirah, but we see that our members really like it.

People also like merlot a lot more than they think — pretty much across all demographics. People like to hate merlot, but when we look at red blends that do well . . .

TC: What do people have against merlot?

RY: [Laughs.] Have you ever seen “Sideways?” That has something to do with it, still. Meanwhile, pinot noir remains popular, but people don’t like it as much as [other wine sellers] think.

Berlin Brands Group, now valued at $1B+, raises $700M to buy and scale merchants that sell on marketplaces like Amazon

By Ingrid Lunden

Berlin Brands Group — one of the new wave of e-commerce startups hoping to build lucrative economies of scale around buying up smaller brands that sell on marketplaces like Amazon and using technology to run and scale them more efficiently — has picked up a big round of funding to fill out that mission. The startup has closed a round of $700 million, comprising both equity and debt, which it will use in part to continue building its fulfillment and logistics infrastructure, as well as its tech platform, and in part to buy more companies.

BBG confirmed that the investment — one of the biggest to date in the space — boosts its valuation to over $1 billion.

Bain Capital is leading the equity portion of this round. The deal will also see it buy out a previous investor, Ardian, for an undisclosed amount that is separate to the $700 million raise.

This funding round is the second announced by BBG this year. In January it announced it would be investing $302 million off its own balance sheet for M&A, and in April it announced a debt round of $240 million. This latest $700 million is different in that it includes the equity component alongside the equity.

BBG got its start initially developing its own products and selling them on Amazon and other marketplaces — founder and CEO CEO Peter Chaljawski was a DJ in a previous life and started with a focus on audio equipment he developed for himself.

Over time, it saw an opportunity to diversify that into a wider consolidation play, where BBG would also acquire and merge third party brands into its business, tapping into the opportunity to provide the owners of the third-party businesses an exit route and bring those smaller brands more scale, more marketing nous, and more tech to improve the efficiency of their operations.

Today the mix totals 3,700 products and 14 own brands, including Klarstein (kitchen appliances), auna (home electronics and music equipment), Capital Sports (home fitness) and blumfeldt (garden). BBG says it has access to some 1.5 billion e-commerce customers across various marketplaces where it sells goods in Europe, the UK, the U.S. and Asia. Notablym unlike many others in the same space as BBG, it is focused on more than Amazon, with some 100 channels in 28 countries.

That list of “many others in the same space” is a long one and seemingly growing by the day. Yesterday, two of them — Heroes and Olsam — respectively raised $200 million and $165 million. Others leveraging the opportunity of consolidating merchants that sell via Fulfillment by Amazon include  Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia.

As more startups enter the fray, all battling to buy the best of the third-party brands will become more of a challenge, and so the backing of Bain should help BBG shore up against that competition.

“With Bain Capital’s commitment and the additional funding secured, we have set our next milestone on our path to building a global house of brands,” said Chaljawski in a statement. “This allows us to tackle strategic goals of acquiring and developing brands globally, as well as the operational and logistical expansion. Bain Capital’s experience working with founders worldwide will help us continue our evolution as a leading e-commerce company in scaling brands.”

“BBG is a disruptive leader in the rapidly changing consumer goods space. Their ability to develop and scale brands that meet current consumer trends through their highly efficient e-commerce platform gives the company tremendous growth potential in a fast-growing market,” added Miray Topay, MD at Bain Capital Private Equity. “We have partnered with many founder-led management teams and look forward to helping Peter and his team achieve their goal of becoming a global leader in consumer e-commerce”.

Sphere raises $2M to help employees lobby for green 401(k) plans

By Mike Butcher

In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.

California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.

It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.

Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.

Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.

Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”

Forum Brands secures $100M in debt financing to acquire more e-commerce brands

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Forum Brands, an e-commerce acquisition platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in debt funding from TriplePoint Capital.

The financing comes just just over two months after the startup raised $27 million in an equity funding round led by Norwest Venture Partners.

Brenton Howland, Ruben Amar and Alex Kopco founded New York-based Forum Brands in the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re buying what we think are A+ high-growth e-commerce businesses that sell predominantly on Amazon and are looking to build a portfolio of standalone businesses that are category leaders, on and off Amazon,” Howland told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “A source of inspiration for us is that we saw how consumer goods and services changed fundamentally for what we think is going to be for decades and decades to come, accelerating the shift toward digital.”

Since we covered the company in June, Forum Brands says it has acquired several new brands, including Bonza, a seller of pet products, and Simka Rose, a baby-focused brand specializing in eco-friendly products. Simka sells in the U.S. and the EU and is an example of how Forum is expanding globally, Amar said.

Howland and Amar emphasize that the Forum team continues to focus on quality over quantity when evaluating potential acquisitions. Although they meet with 15-20 founders a week, they are selective in which companies they choose to acquire.

“We continue to be a quality-first buyer, and not quantity-driven,” Amar said, noting that the company will still help a company build its brand even if it does not yet meet Forum’s quality threshold or if the founders are just not yet ready to sell.

The new funds will be used to, naturally, acquire more e-commerce companies. As part of the debt financing, Sajal Srivastava, co-CEO and co-founder of TriplePoint Capital, will be joining Forum’s board of directors.

“We are impressed not only by Forum’s long-term strategy and ability to leverage technology and deep collective e-commerce and M&A experience but also by how Forum cultivates relationships with their sellers both before and after partnering with them,” he said in a written statement.

At the time of its June raise, Forum had about 20 employees. As of today, it has about 40.

Forum’s technology employs “advanced” algorithms and over 100 million data points to populate brand information into a central platform in real time, instantly scoring brands and generating accurate financial metrics.

On August 31, we covered the news that on the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same announced some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, closed on $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

Insurify, a ‘virtual insurance agent,’ raises $100M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

How many of us have not switched insurance carriers because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of comparison shopping?

A lot, I’d bet.

Today, Insurify, a startup that wants to help people make it easier to get better rates on home, auto and life insurance, announced that it has closed $100 million in an “oversubscribed” Series B funding round led by Motive Partners.

Existing backers Viola FinTech, MassMutual Ventures, Nationwide, Hearst Ventures and Moneta VC also put money in the round, as well as new investors Viola Growth and Fort Ross Ventures. With the new financing, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Insurify has now raised a total of $128 million since its 2013 inception. The company declined to disclose the valuation at which the money was raised.

Since we last covered Insurify, the startup has seen some impressive growth. For example, it has seen its new and recurring revenue increase by “6x” since it closed its Series A funding in the 2019 fourth quarter. Over the last three years, Insurify has achieved a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 151%, according to co-founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia. It has also seen consistent “2.5x” year-over-year revenue growth, she said.

Insurify has built a machine learning-based virtual insurance agent that integrates with more than 100 carriers to digitize — and personalize — the insurance shopping experience. There are others in the insurtech space, but none that we know of currently tackling home, auto and life insurance. For example, Jerry, which has raised capital twice this year, is focused mostly on auto insurance, although it does have a home product. The Zebra, which became a unicorn this year, started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. Over time, it has also evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. But it too is mostly focused on auto.

Zacharia said that since Insurify’s Series A funding, it has expanded its home insurance marketplace, deepened its carrier integrations to provide users an “instant” purchase experience and launched its first two embedded insurance products through partnerships with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions and Nationwide (the latter of which also participated in the Series B funding round).

Image Credits: Insurify

Last year, when ShyScanner had to lay off staff, Insurify scooped up much of its engineering team and established an office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zacharia, a former Gartner executive, was inspired to start the company after she was involved in a minor car accident while getting her MBA at MIT. The accident led to a spike in her insurance premium and Zacharia was frustrated by the “complex and cumbersome” experience of car insurance shopping. She teamed up with CTO Tod Kiryazov to build Insurify, which the pair describe as a virtual insurance agent that offers real-time quotes.

“We decided to build the most trusted virtual insurance agent in the industry that allows for customers to easily search, compare and buy fully digitally — directly from their mobile phone, or desktop, and really get a very smart, personalized experience based on their unique preferences,” Zacharia told TechCrunch. “We leverage artificial intelligence to be able to make recommendations on both coverage as well as carrier selection.”

Notably, Insurify is also a fully licensed agent that takes over the fulfillment and servicing of the policies. Since the company is mostly working as an insurance agent, it gets paid new and renewed commission. So while it’s not a SaaS business, its embedded insurance offerings have SaaS-like monetization.

“Our goal is to provide an experience for the end consumer that allows them to service and manage all of their policies in one place, digitally,” Zacharia said. “We think that the data recommendations that the platform provides can really remove most of the friction that currently exists in the shopping experience.”

Insurify plans to use its fresh capital to continue to expand its operations and accelerate its growth plans. It also, naturally, wants to add to its 125-person team.

“We want to build into our API integrations so customers can receive real-time direct quotes with better personalization and a more tailored experience,” Kiryazov said. “We also want to identify more embedded insurance opportunities and expand the product functionality.”

The company also down the line wants to expand into other verticals such as pet insurance, for example.

Insurify intends to use the money in part to build brand awareness, potentially through TV advertising.

“Almost half of our revenue comes from self-directed traffic,” Zacharia said. “So we want to explore more inorganic growth.”

James “Jim” O’Neill, founding partner at Motive Partners and partner Andy Rear point out that online purchasing now accounts for almost all of the growth in U.S. auto insurance. 

“The lesson from other markets which have been through this transition is that customers prefer choice, presented as a simple menu of products and prices from different insurers, and a straightforward online purchasing process,” they wrote via email. “The U.S. auto market is huge: even a slow transition to online means a massive opportunity for Insurify.”

In conducting their due diligence, the pair said they were impressed with how the startup is building a business model “that works for customers, insurers and white-label partners.”

Harel Beit-On, founder and general partner at Viola Growth, believes that the quantum leap in e-commerce due to COVID-19 will completely transform the buying experience in almost every sector, including insurance.

“It is time to bring the frictionless purchasing experience that customers expect to the insurance space as well,” she said. “Following our fintech fund’s recent investment in the company, we watched Insurify’s immense growth, excellent execution with customer acquisition and building a brand consumers trust.”

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