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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.”

 

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.”

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

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.”

 

Skit raises $23M Series B round led by WestBridge Capital to accelerate its growth

By Kate Park

“Traditional voice-based call center service is difficult and costly. This is where artificial intelligence and voice technology have presented an opportunity for enterprises to overcome the challenges of scale and engagement at their customer contact centers,” co-founder and CEO Skit Sourabh Gupta told TechCrunch.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented increase in call volumes at bank call centers as customers tried to manage their portfolios amid the chaos of work from home policy and financial instability, Gupta said. And that presented an opportunity for companies like Skit.

“Customers have a natural tendency to prefer voice call support over other self-service channels and this has led to the increase in pressure on the traditional interactive voice responses (IVR) systems and support agents to respond to all incoming queries,” he said.

Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence SaaS voice automation company Skit, formerly known as Vernacular.ai, developed its AI-based voice automation platform VIVA, short for Vernacular Intelligent Voice Assistant, which enables corporations to automate 90% of their call center operations powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology.  Its product VIVA covers more than 16 languages and 160 dialects.

Skit announced today it has closed $23 million Series B round to accelerate its growth in domestic and global markets including the US and South East Asia and enhance its voice automation platform.

The company was founded in 2016 by two co-founders, Indian Institute of Technology alumni, Roorkee alumnus, Sourabh Gupta and Akshay Deshraj.

The latest funding was led by WestBridge Capital along with existing investors Kalaari Capital and Exfinity Ventures, IAN Fund, LetsVenture and Sense AI. Angel investors including Prophetic Ventures’ Aaryaman Vir Shah also participated the round. The Series B round brings Skit’s total funding to $30 million.

Skit will use the fresh funding for sales, marketing, further R&D to strengthen its personalized solutions and voice products, as well as its global expansion.

“We want to double down and scale operations in both Indian and global markets. We are also planning on increasing our employee headcount. Through our new headquarters in New York, we want to build a strong customer base in North America by our product available to US enterprises,” Gupta told TechCrunch.

The company said it has quadrupled its amount of revenue and numbers of customers in 2020-2021 since its previous fundraising, $5.1 million Series A, in May 2020. Its average order book has also been growing in CAGR 200-300% every year, Gupta added. It currently has 150 employees.

Skit recently expanded into the US and South East Asia market.

“We noticed that there (South East Asia) is a high potential market for the adoption of conversational AI. Most importantly, these markets are home to a multitude of languages and dialects,” Gupta said in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch.

Given that language and hyper-personalization are Skit’s strongest suit, the company is witnessing increase adoption in South East Asia market, where is easier for the company to expand with similar demographics and business challenges as in India, Gupta explained.

It also opened headquarters in NYC, “It is a mature market, ahead in technology adoption with a level-playing for strong competition,” he said.

Venture advisor at WestBridge Capital Sashi Reddi said in a statement: “Skit’s success in helping India’s largest companies, positions them well to enter the US market where there is a massive need for voice AI solutions.”

The global contact center market size is expected to increase steadily and reach $496 billion by 2027. Skit will potentially address the $300 billion voice customer service market with its voice AI platform VIVA, Gupta said.

Its B2B and B2C clients are in diverse industries including banking, insurance, finance, securities, non-banking finance companies, travels, logistics, food & beverage, e-commerce. It has more than 25 B2B clients including Axis Bank, Hathway, Porter and Barbeque Nation, according to Gupta.

Call centers are traditionally places where there are high costs and high attrition rates, and for the end-users the traditional interactive voice responses (IVRs) and the wait times are irritating. There were longer than usual wait-times, call drops and going through extensive IVR menus and frequent agent transfers which increase customer frustration.

With over 10 million hour of training data, Skit’s VIVA replicates human-like conversation and understands speaker’s intent and can translate other unique speech characteristics that enable more efficient query resolutions, Gupta said.

Skit has been listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia start-ups 2021.

Vista Equity to acquire majority stake in SaaS startup Drift, taking it to unicorn status

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Private equity firm Vista Equity Partners announced today that it is taking a majority stake in Drift, a company which aims to be the Amazon of businesses, with a “growth investment” that propels the venture-backed startup to unicorn status.

Unfortunately, neither party would disclose the amount of the investment, or Drift’s new valuation. But co-founder and CEO David Cancel did say the SaaS company saw 70% growth in its annual recurring revenue (ARR) in 2020 compared to the year prior and is on target for a similar metric this year. It is not yet profitable, as it is focused on growth, he added.

Prior to this financing, Boston-based Drift had raised $107 million in funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital, CRV and General Catalyst since its 2015 inception.

So just what does the company do exactly? The startup says it is out to ”reimagine the B2B buying experience,” according to Cancel. By using its software, Drift’s 50,000 customers are able to bring together sales and marketing teams on one platform to “deliver personalized conversations” that the company says build trust and accelerate revenue. 

Its customers include ServiceNow, Okta, Grubhub, Mindbody, Adobe, Ellie May and Snowflake, among others. Today 75% of Drift’s customers are mid-market enterprise, according to Cancel. 

Over the past five years, Drift has worked to create and define something it describes as “Conversational Marketing” with the goal of helping marketers “harness the digital experience for lead generation.” Or to put it more simply, Drift subscribers can use chatbots to help turn web visits into sales.

The company says it is out to remove the friction between buyers and sellers so they can not only get more leads, but also close more sales. This led Drift to expand its focus to build a platform that includes conversational sales, which integrates chat, email, video and artificial intelligence to power conversations, not just on a customer’s website, but for the sales team too. 

Cancel said that Vista’s strategic growth investment will help the company move even faster, expand globally and launch a new B2B category called “Conversation Commerce,” an interactive approach to conversations that Drift believes has the potential to “transform the entire B2B revenue function.”

Basically, the company is trying to make the B2B buying/selling experience similar to that of a B2C one. At least 80% of B2B buyers are not only looking for, but expect, a buying experience similar to that of a B2C customer, according to Cancel.

So far in 2021, Drift’s customers generated $5 billion in pipeline value by making the customer side of the buying process easier, he said.

For Cancel, a serial entrepreneur who previously founded and sold four other companies, the notion of owning a company with a unicorn valuation was not something he and co-founder and CTO Elias Torres were overly consumed with.

But what did appeal to the pair was the opportunity to add to the too-short list of U.S.-based unicorns with Latin founders and serve as an inspiration for other entrepreneurs of Latin descent. Cancel’s parents emigrated from Puerto Rico and Cuba while Torres emigrated from Nicaragua in his teens.

“I didn’t really care about that [unicorn] status except for one reason and the reason was that we are both Latino and if we hit this milestone, then we would be part of the less than 1% of Latinos that had ever done that,” Cancel told TechCrunch. “And that was important to us because we believe that we have the responsibility to pay it forward and to help people and to inspire other people who are like us and are often marginalized. We want to show that they can do this too.”

Torres agreed, saying that he and Cancel were “proud to be one of the only Latino-founded companies to ever achieve over $1 billion valuation – a rare, Latino-founded unicorn.”

“We want to see more of us do the same and we will pave the way for other Latino founders and leaders to achieve success,” he added.

By having a majority owner in Vista, which focuses exclusively on backing enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses, Cancel believes that Drift can “get more efficient in some areas.” He also thinks that the firm can help it ramp up its acquisitions pace. (So far it has made three.)

The nearly 600-person company still has its sights on going public, according to Cancel, and believes that by working with Vista, it will have a “clearer path” to do so.

“It’s something we think about a lot,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s still in our future.”

Monti Saroya, co-head of the Flagship Fund and senior managing director at Vista, thinks that Drift represents a “compelling” opportunity for Vista.

“Drift is a company that is experiencing hypergrowth at scale, we and we believe the conversational marketing and sales tools it offers will continue to be in high demand as companies race to modernize their B2B commerce strategies,” he told TechCrunch.

Earlier this year, Vista — which has over $77 billion in assets under management — invested $242 million to acquire a minority stake in Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space.

Meanwhile, Vista’s acquisition of Drift is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Web building platform Duda snaps up e-commerce cart tool Snipcart

By Christine Hall

Duda announced Wednesday that it acquired Canada-based Snipcart, a startup that enables businesses to add a shopping cart to their websites.

The acquisition is Palo Alto-based Duda’s first deal, and follows the website development platform’s $50 million Series D round in June that brings its total funding to $100 million to date. Duda co-founder and CEO Itai Sadan declined to comment on the acquisition amount.

Duda, which works with digital agencies and SaaS companies, has approximately 1 million published paying sites, and the acquisition was driven by the company seeing a boost in e-commerce websites as a result of the global pandemic, he told TechCrunch.

This was not just about a technology acquisition for Duda, but also a talented team, Sadan said. The entire Snipcart team of 12 is staying on, including CEO Francois Lanthier Nadeau; the companies will be fully integrated by 2022 and the first collaborative versions will come out.

When he met the Snipcart team, Sadan thought they were “super experienced and held the same values.”

“We share many of the same types of customers, many of which are API-first,” he added. “If our customers need more headless commerce, they can build their own front end using Snipcart. Their customers will benefit from us growing the team — we plan to double it in the next year and roll out more features at a faster pace.”

The global retail e-commerce market is estimated to grow by 50% to $6.3 trillion by 2024, according to Statista. Duda itself has experienced a year over year increase of 265% in e-commerce sites being built on its platform, which Sadan said was what made Snipcart an attractive acquisition to further accelerate and manage its growth that includes over 17,000 customers.

Together, the companies will offer new capabilities, like payment and membership tools inside of the Duda platform. Many of Duda’s customers come with inventory and don’t want to manage it on another e-commerce platform, so Snipcart will be that component for taking their inventory and making it shoppable on the web.

“Everyone is thinking about how to introduce transactions into their websites and web experiences, and that is what we were looking for in an e-commerce platform,” Sadan said.

 

PayEm comes out of stealth with $27M and its answer to the expense report

By Christine Hall

Itamar Jobani was a software developer working for a medical company and “hated that time of the month” when he had to use the company’s chosen reimbursement tool.

“It was full of friction and as part of the company’s wellness team, I felt an urge to take care of the employee experience and find a better tool,” Jobani told TechCrunch. “I looked for something, but didn’t find it, so I tried to build it myself.”

What resulted was PayEm, an Israeli company he founded with Omer Rimoch in 2019 to be a spend and procurement platform for high-growth and multinational organizations. Today, it announced $27 million in funding that includes $7 million in seed funding, led by Pitango First and NFX, with participation by LocalGlobe and Fresh Fund, as well as $20 million in Series A funding led by Glilot+.

The company’s technology automates the reimbursement, procurement, accounts payable and credit card workflows to manage all of the requests and invoices, while also creating bills and sending payments to over 200 territories in 130 currencies.

It gives company finance teams a real-time look at what items employees are asking for funds to buy, and what is actually being spent. For example, teams can submit a request and go through an approval flow that can be customized with purchasing codes tied to a description of the transaction. At the same time, all transactions are continuously reconciled versus having to spend hours at the end of the month going through paperwork.

“Organizations are running in a more democratized way with teams buying things on behalf of the organization,” Jobani said. “We built a platform to cater to those needs, so it’s like a disbursement platform instead of a finance team always being in charge.”

The global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually and is expected to reach $200 trillion by 2028, according to payment industry newsletter Nilson Report. PayEm is among many B2B payments startups attracting venture capital — for example, last month, Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding at a $1 billion valuation. Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

Meanwhile, PayEm itself saw accelerated growth in the second quarter of 2021, including increasing its transaction volume by four times over the previous quarter and generating millions of dollars in revenue. It now boasts a list of hundreds of customers like Fiverr, JFrog and Next Insurance. It also launched new features like the ability to create corporate cards.

The company, which also has an office in New York, has 40 employees currently, and the new funds will enable the company to triple its headcount, focusing on hiring in the United States, and to bring additional features and payment capabilities to market.

“Each person can have a budget and a time frame for making the purchase, while accounting still feels in control,” Jobani added. “Everyone now has the full context and the right budget line item.”

Korean 3D spatial data tool startup Urbanbase closes $11.1M Series B+ round

By Kate Park

Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.

This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.

Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.

Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.

The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.

Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.

Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.

Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.

“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.

Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.

It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.

Making a splash in the marketing world

By Miranda Halpern

“There are three common blunders that most SaaS marketers make time and again when it comes to clarity and high-converting content,” says Konrad Sanders, founder and CEO of The Creative Copywriter, “1. Not differentiating from competitors. 2. Not humanizing ‘tech talk.’ 3. Not tuning their messaging to prospects’ stage of awareness at the appropriate stage of the funnel.”

In an oversaturated market, how can you differentiate yourself? This week in marketing, Sanders took the time to answer that, break down B2B SaaS marketing, and tell us how marketers can do it right. Anna Heim, Extra Crunch daily reporter, interviewed Robert Katai, a Romanian marketing expert, as part of our TechCrunch Experts series. If there’s a growth marketer that you think we should know about, fill out our survey and tell us why!

Marketer: One Net Inc.
Recommended by: The Good Ride
Testimonial: “Exceptional SEO expertise. My e-comm startup relies 100% on SEO traffic and three years ago we were delisted from Google because we didn’t understand about duple content. One Net fixed our site and optimized it for Google, which allowed us to get back into the SERPs. Bottom line is: They saved our business.”

Marketer: Natalia Bandach, Hypertry
Recommended by: Jean-Noel Saunier, Growth Hacking Course
Testimonial: “Natalia is someone with an out-of-the-box approach to growth drivers and experimentation, full of creative solutions and many ideas that she quickly tests through experimentation. Rather than focusing on one area, she tries to verify what makes the most sense to a business and designs experiments that are crucial not only short but also long term. She is an ethical growth manager, likes to know that the business brings real value and is ready to pivot in every direction, [which] she does fast, however, with a focus on the team’s well-being, professional growth and always avoiding burnout.”

Help TechCrunch find the best growth marketers for startups.

Provide a recommendation in this quick survey and we’ll share the results with everybody.

Marketer: Avi Grondin, Variance Marketing
Recommended by: Adam Czach, Explorator Labs
Testimonial: “They have a hands-on approach and worked with my team to not only drive results, but educate us on how we can grow our company further.”

Marketer: Nate Dame, Profound Strategy
Recommended by: Amanda Valle, Adobe
Testimonial: “They offered a robust content research, management and writing platform, which is enabling us to manage, produce and collaborate around our content better.”

Marketer: Oren Greenberg, Kurve
Recommended by: Michael Lorenzos
Testimonial: “He’s the most well-versed growth marketer I’ve met with a wide range of expertise and an uncanny ability to zoom in and out for business context and tactical implementation.”

(Extra Crunch) Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?: Konrad Sanders, a content strategist in addition to being the founder and CEO at The Creative Copywriter, wrote about SaaS marketing for Extra Crunch. He dove into what SaaS marketers are getting wrong, how to stand out in the crowded industry and the importance of how to approach each section of your funnel. Sanders says, “By creating content for every stage of the funnel, you’ll address your prospects’ concerns at the appropriate point in the buyer journey and increase the chances that when they do come to make a purchase, it’s with you.”

Romanian marketing expert Robert Katai explains how to get the most out of your content: This week, Anna profiled Robert Katai. Katai told her all about Romania’s startup scene and his views on repurposing content. When speaking about using content for carousels on Instagram and LinkedIn, he says, “The first slide should grab attention — it can be a question. The second slide can be a link to the interview so that even if people don’t click it, it will be on their minds. Then you can have slides with insights.” Read the full interview to find out what the third slide should be!

Tell us who your favorite startup growth marketing expert to work with is by filling out our survey.

Extra Crunch roundup: Pre-pitch tactics, Warby Parker S-1, Israel’s fintech ecosystem

By Walter Thompson

Forget what you’ve heard: There are many shortcuts to success.

Tapping into someone else’s experience is a tried-and-true method, which is why two-time Y Combinator participant Chris Morton wrote a guest post for Extra Crunch with advice for founders hoping to be accepted by the famed accelerator.

Morton, who has also reviewed thousands of YC applications, shares his thoughts on when to submit an application, what to do if you miss the deadline and whether you’ll need to relocate if accepted.

“Remember that your application should be good enough to get an interview, not win a prize,” says Morton. “Go back to work instead of spending more time perfecting an application.”


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Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription


Robert Katai

Image Credits: Robert Katai under a license.

In an interview with reporter Anna Heim, Romania-based marketer Robert Katai discussed some of the methods he uses to help clients refine their content and branding strategies.

“Today, content creation is free — everybody can do it. The hard part is how you distribute and amplify that.”

Katai also shared his impressions of Romania’s startup ecosystem, suggestions for maintaining top-of-mind status with customers, and reinforced the often-overlooked need to continually repurpose content to grab mindshare.

Like our other growth marketing interviews, there’s no paywall.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week! I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Why global investors are flocking to back Latin American startups

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Latin America’s increasingly dynamic venture capital scene has been making headlines of late. To learn more about why investors are so enthusiastic, senior reporter Mary Ann Azevedo spoke to several who are actively engaged with the region:

  • Shu Nyatta, managing partner, SoftBank
  • Ethan Choi, partner, Accel
  • Julie Ruvolo, director of venture capital, LAVCA
  • Bill Cilluffo, partner, QED Investors
  • Ana Cristina Gadala-Maria, principal, QED Investors
  • Ross Darwin, principal, Owl Ventures

“I am not surprised by all the activity,” Mary Ann writes. “However, I am a bit taken aback by the sheer number of rounds, the caliber of firms leading them and the sky-high valuations.

“It seems that the region is finally, and deservedly, being taken seriously. This is likely just the beginning.”

Corporate venture capital follows the same trend as other VC markets: Up

Corporations are not remaining on the sidelines of the fiery 2021 venture capital game, Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim note in The Exchange.

After parsing data from CB Insights and Stryber and chatting with a handful of investors, Alex and Anna concluded that the corporate venture capital market looks a lot like other VC markets.

“Perhaps this should not be a surprise,” they write. “We’ve seen non-venture funds flow into the later stages of startup land, pushing VCs toward earlier-stage and more venture-y deals. Why would CVCs be immune to the same trend?”

Ramp and Brex draw diverging market plans with M&A strategies

Image Credits: Bryan Mullennix (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Corporate spending management startup Brex raised a $300 million Series C and acquired Buyer just a week after rival Brex announced it had acquired Israeli fintech Weav.

Ryan Lawler and Alex Wilhelm dug into the Ramp-Brex rivalry, and what those acquisitions say about their diverging strategies.

“From a high level, all of the recent deal-making in corporate cards and spend management shows that it’s not enough to just help companies track what employees are expensing these days,” they write.

“As the market matures and feature sets begin to converge, the players are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition.”

Boston’s startup market is more than setting records in scorching start to year

Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim interviewed VCs and corralled data to present a detailed picture of Boston’s startup funding scene.

“Boston is benefiting from larger structural changes to at least the U.S. venture capital market, helping close historical gaps in its startup funding market and access funds that previously might have skipped the region,” they write.

“And local university density isn’t hurting the city’s cause, either, boosting its ability to form new companies during a period of rich investment access.”

Europe’s quick-commerce startups are overhyped: Lessons from China

Image of a motorcycle courier speeding down a street.

Image Credits: Andrew Holt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Half of the companies offering instant grocery delivery in Europe were founded last year as the pandemic reshaped most aspects of our existence.

To date, they’ve raised about $2 billion, but Picus Capital’s Alexander Kremer says startup lessons from China suggest that “instant delivery is not the magic bullet to crack the dominance” of old-school grocery players.

“If the performance of online grocery platforms in China (a market five to seven years ahead of Europe in terms of online retail) is anything to go by, a range of B2C business models would be more likely to displace the traditional grocery retailers.”

D2C specs purveyor Warby Parker files to go public

For The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm examines the S-1 filing from Warby Parker, “a consumer hardware company with two main sales channels, largely attractive economics, falling losses and rising adjusted profitability. You could even argue that it handled the pandemic well, despite COVID-19’s negative impact on its operations.”

But how are its growth prospects?

Dear Sophie: Can I still get a green card through marriage if I’m divorcing?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

I received a conditional green card after my wife and I got married in 2019. Recently, we have made the difficult decision to end our marriage. I want to continue living and working in the United States.

Is it still possible for me to complete my green card based on my marriage through the I-751 process or do I need to do something else, like ask my employer to sponsor me for a work visa?

— Better to Have Loved and Lost

Using AI to reboot brand-client relationships

Artificial intelligence robot arm and businessman completing gear jigsaw puzzle (teamwork).

Image Credits: Getty Images under an alashi (opens in a new window)license.

Marketing automation can help boost key metrics, but it can also be a disservice to brands by perpetually devaluing goods and services, ShareThis’ Michael Gorman writes in a guest column.

Companies with a narrow focus on driving conversions are missing the bigger picture: AI can help create richer experiences that identify consumer actions and intent while also improving customer experiences.

“We live in a world rich with data, and insights are growing more vibrant every day,” he writes.

Israel’s maturing fintech ecosystem may soon create global disruptors

Abstract of israel map network, internet and global connection concept, Wire Frame 3D mesh polygonal network line, design sphere, dot and structure. Vector illustration eps 10. (Abstract of israel map network, internet and global connection concept, W

Image Credits: Thitima Thongkham (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Fintech startups based in Israel raised more than $1.8 billion in 2019, but in Q1 2021, companies in the category raised $1.1 billion.

Facilitating a wide range of services, more than a dozen fintech unicorns have already emerged in a country that has a population slightly smaller than Los Angeles County, many of them started by entrepreneurs who lacked financial backgrounds.

“So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond?” asks Flint Capital’s Tel Aviv-based investor, Adi Levanon.

Forbes jumps into hot media liquidity summer with a SPAC combo

For The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm takes stock of Forbes’ SPAC combination during a week when POLITICO was snatched up for more than $1 billion by Axel Springer and just a few months after BuzzFeed went public via a blank-check company.

“Is it the most exciting debut? No,” he writes.

“But it does highlight that with enough sheer gumption, one can take a magazine business into the digital age and keep aggregate revenue growing. That’s worth something.”

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?

A square peg forced into a round hole. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

Image Credits: mevans (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Technical jargon is one of the most annoying aspects of technology marketing.

Sadly, it tends to perpetuate itself: Marketers are terrified of making a wrong move, so they tend to copy what everyone else is doing.

If you want to attract customers and drive higher conversions, cut the jargon.

“Do everything you can to be immediately understood and you’ll have a much better chance of cutting through the noise and pushing clear and persuasive benefits in a way no prospect can resist,” advises Konrad Sanders, CEO of The Creative Copywriter.

Sastrify snags $7M to help SMEs manage SaaS buying

By Natasha Lomas

With so much startup activity in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) space it can be a challenge for businesses to figure out which of these SaaS (SaaSes?) are actually useful and worth continuing to shell out for. Well, Cologne-based startup Sastrify is here to help — offering what it describes as a “highly automated” platform (covering some 20,000+ SaaS solutions) to help other businesses with procurement and management of third-party services.

It may not sound the sexist startup business to be in but despite only launching earlier this year, Sastrify is already cash-flow positive — and can tout “a high 6-digit recurring revenue” just a few months post-launch. Not bad for a startup that was only founded last summer.

Today it’s announcing closing a $7M seed round from HV Capital and the founders of FlixMobility, Personio and SumUp. That follows a $1.3M pre-seed raised back in late 2020, ahead of its launch.

Sastrify tells us it has around 50 customers at this stage — including “unicorn startups like Gorillas”. It says its approach works best for growing companies with 100+ employees, and is perhaps especially suited to European tech scale ups.

On the competitive front the startup points to US-based Vendr and Tropic, which may further explain the regional focus (although it’s not only selling in Europe).

Sastrify’s sales pitch to SMEs includes that current customers have seen an average 6.5x return on their investment — in addition to what it bills as “thousands of working hours” saved from “wasted” activities related to SaaS procurement.

Cost savings are another carrot — which the startup claiming its customers are “typically” saving around 20-30% of their SaaS cost.

So how does it actually make it easier for businesses to navigate the pros & cons of the smorgasbord of SaaS(es) now out there?

“Our main mantra is: ‘Effective procurement asks the right questions at the right time’,” says co-founder Sven Lackinger, who previously co-founded a SaaS startup himself of course (evopark), exiting that company back in 2018.

“To ensure that we’ve defined and implemented a 5-step process into our platform, covering the whole life-cycle of SaaS applications within enterprises. Our clients can search for the suitable SaaS solutions while we guide them through the right evaluation process per use case and tool (e.g. what are similar companies using?).

“We then take over the whole buying process, aka automatically reaching out to different vendors, ai-/OCR-based comparing and benchmarking for offers. Once the tool is implemented, we make sure to track usage frequently (via regular, automated surveys to tool owners) and re-evaluate over time so there is no ongoing waste of licenses.”

“We have a more automated platform [than Vendr and Tropic] and can also resell licenses to our customers directly (e.g. for Google, Microsoft and others) to ensure best prices and fast delivery,” he also tells us. “This allows us to offer a faster and cheaper solution which is more suited to the European market (where the average SaaS expense per company is still smaller than in the US).” 

If you’re outsourcing all this other stuff to SaaS providers, why not get a specialist service to stay on top of how you do that too, is the basic idea.

The 30-strong Sastrify team will be using the seed funding to accelerate sales, marketing and product dev so it can expand its SaaS management service to more companies in Europe and beyond.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, partner at HV Capital, added: “Cloud software adoption is massively accelerating and almost every company nowadays uses SaaS products but does not buy and manage them efficiently. Sastrify’s astonishing growth underlines the broad customer value the team has already created. It is early days but Sastrify could create an SAP Arriba with a payment solution for SMB – a massive market just in Europe.”

As 5G demand grows, Sitenna helps telcos find more cell tower locations, faster

By Danny Crichton

The buildout of 5G networks continues apace, with wide-scale deployments across much of the developed world. Yet, one of the largest challenges with closing the gaps in coverage maps are constraints on 5G transmissions. Because of the spectrum that 5G technology uses compared to 4G, telecom operators need to install many times more towers to deliver the advertised bandwidth with the same quality signal that users expect.

Installing cell towers is a daunting proposition though. An operator has to find exactly the right location in terms of line of sight to users, then make sure the location has power and internet access, and then negotiate a contract with the property owner to keep the tower there for a decade or more. Now repeat tens of thousands of times (and maybe even more).

Sitenna, which will debut next week as part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day, wants to radically speed up the process of selecting tower sites and securing contracts, creating a marketplace for landlords, tower operators and telcos alike.

Tower siting and access to poles have in some cases emerged as national infrastructure priorities. In the United States, the challenges around installing new towers — and new towers quickly — became a top priority of the FCC during the Trump administration, which launched a 5G FAST Plan to try to ease regulations around tower installation.

Sitenna’s founders Daniel Campion and Brian Sexton saw an opportunity with such programs to help with the movement. Over the past year, they have built out what is essentially a marketplace that on one hand, helps property owners figure out if they have an asset that’s worth investigating for telecom usage, and on the other, helps tower operators select and digitally sign deals for installation.

Sitenna co-founder and CEO Daniel Campion. Image Credits: Sitenna

The company launched in the United Kingdom in June, and “it kind of resonated,” Campion said, noting that 65,000 real estate assets and roughly 15% of the towers in the UK are now on the platform. The company has kicked off two pilots with Vodafone and its tower provider Cornerstone. He said the company intends to enter the U.S. market in the first quarter of next year.

While the company is starting with a marketplace, like many startups today, it is also augmenting that marketplace with B2B SaaS tools. In its case, that means tools for telcos to manage the process of onboarding a new tower location and then managing the asset. “Once they find the site, they ping pong emails back and forth,” Campion said. “So we have built some tools to help them on their workflows.”

Sitenna’s platform allows landlords and tower operators to inspect and transact tower locations. Image Credits: Sitenna

While there is definitely a large wave of tower installations underway now with the transition to 5G wireless, that wave doesn’t mean that tower installation will suddenly dry up in a few years. Campion notes that there is a “continual refresh of 15-20% on the carrier side” due to everything from changing usage patterns and building redevelopment to just standard hardware replacement.

And of course, there is always 6G, which while completely amorphous today, is a real thing that I get invites to conferences for. There’s always going to be a next generation of wireless, and Sitenna wants to become the center for managing that infrastructure.

Stonehenge Technology Labs bags $2M, gives CPG companies one-touch access to metrics

By Christine Hall

Stonehenge Technology Labs wants consumer packaged goods companies to gain meaningful use from all of the data they collect. It announced $2 million in seed funding for its STOPWATCH commerce enhancement software.

The round was led by Irish Angels, with participation from Bread and Butter Ventures, Gaingels, Angeles Investors, Bonfire Ventures and Red Tail Venture Capital.

CEO Meagan Kinmonth Bowman founded the Arkansas-based company in 2019 after working at Hallmark, where she was tasked with the digital transformation of the company.

“This was not a consequence of them not being good marketers or connected to mom, but they didn’t have the technology to connect their back end with retailers like Amazon, Walmart or Hobby Lobby,” she told TechCrunch. “There are so many smart people building products to connect with consumers. The challenge is the big guys are doing things the same way and not thinking like the 13-year-olds on social media that are actually winning the space.”

Kinmonth Bowman and her team recognized that there was a missing middle layer connecting the world of dotcom with brick and mortar. If the middle layer could be applied to the enterprise resource plans and integrate public and private data feeds, a company could be just as profitable online as it could be in traditional retail, she said.

Stonehenge’s answer to that is STOPWATCH, which takes in over 100 million rows of data per workspace per day, analyzes the data points, adds real-time alerts and provides the right data to the right people at the right time.

Dan Rossignol, a B2B SaaS investor, said the CPG world is also about consumerizing our life, and the global pandemic showed that even at home, people could have a productive day and business. Rossignol likes to invest in underestimated founders and saw in Stonehenge a company that is getting CPGs out from underneath antiquated technologies.

“What Meagan and her team are doing is really interesting,” he added. “At this stage, it is all about the people, and the ability to bet on doing something larger.”

Kinmonth Bowman said she had the opportunity to base the company in Silicon Valley, but chose Bentonville, Arkansas instead to be closer to the more than 1,000 CPG companies based there that she felt were the prime customer base for STOPWATCH.

The platform was originally created as a subsidiary of a consulting company, but in 2018, one of their clients told them they just wanted the software rather than also paying for the consulting piece. The business was split, and Stonehenge went underground for eight months to make a software product specifically for the client.

Kinmonth Bowman admits the technology itself is not that sexy — it is using exact transfer loads to extract data from hundreds of systems into a “lake house,” and then siloing it by retailer and other factors and then presenting the data in different ways. For example, the CEO will want different metrics than product teams.

Over the past year, the company has doubled its revenue and also doubled the amount of contracts. It already counts multiple Fortune 100 companies and emerging brands as some of its early users and plans to use the new funding to hire a sales team and go after some strategic relationships.

Stonehenge is also working on putting together a diverse workforce that mimics the users of the software, Kinmonth Bowman said. One of the challenges has been to get unique talent to move to Arkansas, but she said it is one she is eager to take on.

Meanwhile, Brett Brohl, managing partner at Bread and Butter Ventures, said the Stonehenge team “is just crazy enough, smart and driven” to build something great.

“All of the biggest companies have been around for a long time, but not a lot of large organizations have done a good job digitizing their businesses,” he said. “Even pre-COVID, they were building fill-in-the-blank digital transformations, but COVID accelerated technology and hit a lot of companies in the face. That was made more obvious to end consumers, which puts more pressure on companies to understand the need, which is good for STOPWATCH. It went from paper to Excel spreadsheets to the next cloud modification. The time is right for the next leap and how to use data.”

Accounting platform Synder raises $2M to automate e-commerce bookkeeping

By Christine Hall

As Synder’s two co-founders Michael Astreiko and Ilya Kisel wrap up their time at Y Combinator, they also announced their seed round of $2 million from TMT Investments.

Though the round was acquired before going into the accelerator program, the Belarus-based pair wanted to wait to publicly share the milestone. As they focus their sights on their next journey of growth and expansion, the new funding will go toward attracting more clients, visibility and sales.

The company bills itself as an easy accounting platform for e-commerce businesses. It was originally founded as CloudBusiness in 2016 and developed accounting automation and management of business finances for small and mid-size businesses.

Astreiko and Kisel started Synder, in 2018 and a year later focused on the company full-time to develop an easy way for commerce companies to shift to omnichannel sales, something Astreiko told TechCrunch can be “a huge pain” due to the complexity of different payment systems and high fees.

“There are a lot of solutions on the market, but you still have to have special knowledge to operate within accounting or commerce,” Kisel said. “For us, the simplicity means that it is worth it if you can have access in several clicks to consolidated inventory, profits and liabilities. Small businesses sometimes are not sharing this information due to competition, but if something is working and easy, they will definitely share it.”

Synder does the heavy lifting for companies by connecting sales channels like Amazon, Shopify, eBay and Etsy into one platform that users can manage with one-click operations. It also created a way to help the accounting stream so that all of the different payment methods can still be used, Kisel said.

The company is already working with 4,000 clients, and will now be fast-tracking their expansion, but will need the right people on board to help the company grow, Astreiko said.

Igor Shoifot, a partner at TMT Investments, said he will join Synder’s board after the company graduates from YC. He likes the simplicity of what the company is doing.

“Often the best solutions are economical, succinct and elegant — you can be onboarded in 10 minutes,” he added. “There is really nobody that really provides a similar solution that was that easy or didn’t require downloading or installing something. I also like their focus on growth, the fact they have no burn and they are making money.”

Synder’s business model is a subscription SaaS model that starts off as a free trial, and users can purchase additional services inside the platform to fit small and large companies.

Its more than 15 employees are spread around Europe, and the company just started hiring in the areas of marketing and sales in the U.S.

 

Zeal banks $13M to offer employers a ‘build your own’ payroll product infrastructure

By Christine Hall

Embedded fintech company Zeal secured $13 million in Series A funding to continue developing its platform for building individualized payroll products.

Spark Capital led the Series A, with participation from Commerce Ventures and a group of individual investors, including Marqeta CEO Jason Gardner and CRO Omri Dahan, Robinhood founder Vlad Tenev, UltimateSoftware executives Mitch Dauerman and Bob Manne and Namely founder Matt Straz. The latest round now gives the company $14.6 million in total funding, which includes a $1.6 million seed round in 2020, CEO Kirti Shenoy told TechCrunch.

The Bay Area company’s origin was as Puzzl, a payment processing startup for the gig economy, founded in 2018 by Shenoy and CTO Pranab Krishnan. It was part of Y Combinator’s 2019 cohort. The pair had to pivot the company after needing to move some of its thousands of 1099 contractors to W2 employee status.

They went looking for payroll processors that could handle high volumes of payroll automatically, like ADP or Paycor, but found they didn’t match some of the capabilities Shenoy and Krishnan wanted, including to pay workers daily and customize earning components.

To ensure other companies didn’t run into the same problem, they decided to build a payroll API that enables their customers to build their own payroll products, even being able to pay their workers everyday. Traditionally, companies would layer together antiquated third-party payroll tools and spend millions of dollars on consulting fees. Zeal’s API tool modernizes the payroll process and takes on the payroll liability while managing the back-end payment logistics, Shenoy said.

Currently, enterprises use Zeal to pay large volumes of workers and keep payment data on their own native systems, while software platforms that sell business-to-business services use Zeal to build their own payroll product to sell to their customers.

“Our mission is to touch every American paycheck with our tax and payment technology, ensuring that American employees are paid correctly and efficiently,” Krishnan said.

And that is a complex goal: there are 200 million American employees, over $8.8 trillion of payroll is processed annually in the U.S. and the country’s 11,000 tax jurisdictions produce over 25,000 income tax code changes a year.

Meanwhile, Shenoy cited IRS data that showed more than 40% of small and medium businesses pay at least one payroll penalty per year. That was one of the drivers for Zeal’s latest product, the Abacus gross-to-net calculator, which payroll companies can use to ensure they are compliant in paying their income taxes.

The co-founders intend to use the new funding to build out their team and strengthen compliance measures to ensure its track record with enterprises.

“We are starting to win more enterprise deals and moving millions of dollars each day,” Shenoy said. “This has been a legacy space for so long, so companies want to work with a provider to move fast.”

Shenoy predicts that more companies will shift to hyper-customized experiences in the next five to 10 years. Whereas the default was a company like ADP, companies will want to control their own data and build products so their customers can do everything payroll-related from one platform.

As part of the investment, Spark Capital’s partner Natalie Sandman has joined Zeal’s board of directors. She previously invested in other embedded fintech companies like Affirm and Marqeta and thinks there are new experiences in the sector that APIs can unlock.

Sandman felt the payroll-building pain points herself when she worked at Zenefits. At the time, the company was trying to do the same thing, but there were no APIs to connect with. There were all of these spreadsheets to transfer data, but one wrong deduction would trickle down and cause a tax penalty.

Shenoy and Krishnan are both “customer-obsessed,” she said, and are balancing speed with thoughtfulness when it comes to understanding how their customers want to build payroll products.

She is seeing a macro shift to audience-driven human resources where bringing new employees online will mean embedding them into products that will be more valuable versus the traditional spreadsheet.

“To me, it is a no-brainer that APIs provide flexibility in the way wages and deductions need to be made,” Sandman said. “You can lose trust in your employer. Payroll is at the deepest trust point and where you want transparency and a robust solution to solve that need.”

Job offer management platform Compa emerges from stealth with $3.9M

By Christine Hall

If you haven’t noticed yet, the hiring market is a hot one — and getting more complicated as enterprise talent acquisition leaders face technology gaps while assessing candidates. This leads to difficulty in determining compensation.

Enter Compa. The offer management platform provides “deal desk” software for recruiters to more easily manage their compensation strategies to create and communicate offers that are easy to understand and are unbiased.

Charlie Franklin, co-founder and CEO of Compa, told TechCrunch it was frustrating to lose a candidate at the compensation stage, so the company created its software to reduce the challenge of relying on crowdsourcing data or surveys to compare pay.

“Recruiters often lack the data and tools to figure out how much to pay people and communicate that effectively,” Franklin told TechCrunch. “We see talent acquisitions teams like a sales team. If you think of it from that perspective, they need to close a candidate, but to ask the recruiter to operate off of a spreadsheet slows that process down.”

Compa co-founders, from left, Charlie Franklin, Joe Malandruccolo and Taylor Cone. Image Credits: Compa

With Compa, recruiters can input pay expectations and compare recent offers and collaborate with other team members and hiring managers to reach pay consensus quicker. The software automates all of the market intelligence in real time and provides insights about compensation across similar industries and organizations.

The company, based in both California and Massachusetts, emerged from stealth Thursday with $3.9 million in seed funding led by Base10 Partners. Participation in the round also came from Crosscut Ventures and Acadian Ventures, as well as a group of strategic angel investors including 2.12 Angels, Oyster HR CEO Tony Jamous and Scout RFP co-founders Stan Garber and Alex Yakubovich.

Jamison Hill, partner at Base10 Partners, said via email his firm was doing research in the ESG “megatrend,” particularly looking for startups focused on compensation management, when it came across Compa.

He was attracted to the founders’ “clarity and conviction” on the company’s vision, their understanding of the pay gap in the market, how Compa’s solution would “create a new wave of smarter, more-data driven recruiting teams” and how it was enabling employers to use compensation and a positive offer management approach to differentiate itself from competitors.

“They deeply understand the nuances that come with enterprise-level HR teams and bring that expertise to every aspect of Compa’s product offering, which is why we believe Compa can emerge as a leader in this trend and chose to partner with this very special team,” Hill added.

Franklin, who previously led human resources M&A at Workday, founded Compa last year with  Joe Malandruccolo, who was on the engineering side at Facebook and Oculus, and Taylor Cone, who has done innovation consulting for organizations like Stanford University.

The company was bootstrapped prior to going after the seed round and will use the capital to expand the team and create additional products that fit into its mission of “making compensation fair and competitive for everyone,” Franklin said.

Going forward, he adds that job offers and compensation need to catch up to how quickly the world is changing. As more people work remotely and companies want to attract a diverse workforce, compensation will be an important factor.

“This is a long-term trend we are seeing in HR — compensation becoming more transparent — not just a spreadsheet shared internally, but a transition from secretive to open and accountable, Franklin said. “Technology is catching up to that, and we have the ability to produce outcomes that drive differences in pay.”

 

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?

By Ram Iyer
Konrad Sanders Contributor
Konrad Sanders is founder, CEO, and content strategist at The Creative Copywriter, a tech-specialist copywriting and content agency.

Which terms come to mind when you think about SaaS?

“Solutions,” “cutting-edge,” “scalable” and “innovative” are just a sample of the overused jargon lurking around every corner of the techverse, with SaaS marketers the world over seemingly singing from the same hymn book.

Sadly for them, new research has proven that such jargon-heavy copy — along with unclear features and benefits — is deterring customers and cutting down conversions. Around 57% of users want to see improvements in the clarity and navigation of websites, suggesting that techspeak and unnecessarily complex UX are turning customers away at the door, according to The SaaS Engine.

That’s not to say SaaS marketers aren’t trying: Seventy percent of those surveyed have been making big adjustments to their websites, and 33% have updated their content. So how and why are they missing the mark?

They say there’s no bigger slave to fashion than someone determined to avoid it, and SaaS marketing is no different. To truly stand out, you need to do thorough competitor analysis.

There are three common blunders that most SaaS marketers make time and again when it comes to clarity and high-converting content:

  1. Not differentiating from competitors.
  2. Not humanizing “tech talk.”
  3. Not tuning their messaging to prospects’ stage of awareness at the appropriate stage of the funnel.

We’re going to unpack what the research suggests and the steps you can take to avoid these common pitfalls.

Blending into the competition

It’s a jungle out there. But while camouflage might be key to surviving in the wild, in the crowded SaaS marketplace, it’s all about standing out. Let’s be honest: How many SaaS homepages have you visited that look the same? How many times have you read about “innovative tech-driven solutions that will revolutionize your workflow”?

The research has found that of those using SaaS at work, 76% are now on more platforms or using existing ones more intensively than last year. And as always, with increased demand comes a boom in competition, so it’s never been more important to stand out. Rather than imitating the same old phrases and copy your competitors are using, it’s time to reach your audience with originality, empathy and striking clarity.

But how do you do that?

Tuna raises $3M to address complexity of e-commerce payments in Latin America

By Christine Hall

Tuna, which means “fine tune” in Portuguese, is on a mission to “fine tune” the payments space in Latin America and has raised two seed rounds totaling $3 million, led by Canary and by Atlantico.

Alex Tabor, Paul Ascher and Juan Pascual met each other on the engineering team of Peixe Urbano, a company Tabor co-founded and he referred to as a “Groupon for Brazil.” While there, they came up with a way to use A/B testing to create a way of dealing with payments in different markets.

They eventually left Peixe Urbano and started Tuna in 2019 to make their own payment product which enables merchants to use A/B testing of credit card processors and anti-fraud providers to optimize their payments processing with one integration and a no-code interface.

Tabor explained that the e-commerce landscape in Latin America was consolidated, meaning few banks controlled more of the market. The address verification system merchants use to verify a purchaser is who they say they are, involves sending information to a bank that is returned to the merchant with a score of whether that match is legitimate.

“In the U.S., that score is used to determine if the purchaser is legit, but they didn’t implement that in Latin America,” he added. “Instead, merchants in Latam have to tap into other organizations that have that data.”

That process involves manual analysis and constant adjusting due to fraud. Instead, Tuna’s A/B tests between processors and anti-fraud providers in real time and provides a guarantee that a decision to swap providers is based on objective data that considers all components of performance, like approval rates, and not just fees.

Over the past year, the company added 12 customers and saw its revenue increase 15%. It boasts a customer list that includes the large Brazilian fashion chain Riachuelo, and its platform integrates with others including VTEX, Magento and WooCommerce.

The share of e-commerce in overall retail is less than 10 percent in Latin America. Marcos Toledo, Canary’s managing partner, said via email that e-commerce in Latam is currently at an inflexion point: not only has the global pandemic driven more online purchases, but also fintech innovation that has occurred in recent years.

In Brazil alone, e-commerce sales grew 73.88% in 2020, but Toledo said there was much room for improvement. What Tuna is building will help companies navigate the situation and make it easier for more customers to buy online.

Toledo met the Tuna team from his partner, Julio Vasconcellos, who was one of the co-founders of Peixe Urbano. When the firm heard that the other Tuna co-founders were starting a business that was applying some of the optimization methods they had created at Peixe Urbano, but for every company, they saw it as an opportunity to get involved.

“The vast tech expertise that Alex, Paul and Juan bring to a very technical business is something that we really admire, as well as their vision to create a solution that can impact companies throughout Latin America,” Toledo said. “The no-code solution that Tuna is building is exciting because it is scalable and can help companies not only get better margins, but also drive their developers to other efforts — and developers have been a very scarce workforce in the region.”

To meet demand for an e-commerce industry that surpassed $200 billion in 2020, Tuna plans to use the new funding to build out its team and grow outbound customer success and R&D, Tabor said.

Up next, he wants to be able to show traction in payments optimization and facilitators in Brazil before moving on to other countries. He has identified Mexico, Colombia and Argentina as potential new markets.

 

Sugar raises $2.5M in seed funding to connect apartment residents

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Sugar, a startup that aims to turn apartment buildings into “interactive communities,” has closed on $2.5 million in seed funding. 

A slew of investors participated in the financing, including MetaProp, Agya Ventures, Concrete Rose, Debut Capital, The Community Fund, Consonance Capital, Lightspeed Scout Fund and Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH syndicate. Also participating were angel investors such as SquareFoot CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, Ben Zises, Diran Otegbade, Oleksiy Ignatyev and Zillow board member Claire Cormier Thielke, also of Sequoia Scout Fund. 

Mali-born Fatima Dicko founded Los Angeles-based Sugar in March 2020. As people began quarantining due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dicko saw an opportunity to help make it easier for people living in apartments and residential communities to “engage with one another in a safe and efficient way.” So she partnered with real estate investment groups and property management companies to build an app for residents of apartments and those communities who might be feeling isolated and disconnected from their neighbors.

“Most residential apps are clunky, outdated and a pain to use. Tasks as simple as paying rent, communicating with your property manager or unlocking doors are cumbersome and tedious,” Dicko said.

Image Credits: CEO and founder Fatima Dicko / Sugar

On top of that, feeling isolated and disconnected from neighbors can also contribute to resident turnover, negative online reviews and, ultimately, decreased revenue for building owners. 

So Dicko set about creating an app that not only gives residents a way to interact with other residents, but also do things like unlock doors without keys, submit maintenance requests and pay their rent. The platform has since grown beyond a pandemic-related use case. Today, the startup has clients globally, including residential communities of varying sizes, real estate investment groups, Airbnb rentals, hotels and other types of residential properties.

Sugar’s product has two components. One is a mobile app for residents and the other is a web-based dashboard for building owners and managers. The mobile app is sold directly to building owners and/or managers. Property managers also have access to the management dashboard to monitor resident engagement metrics and track online ratings and reviews of properties within their portfolios.

Prior to closing the seed round, Sugar achieved “consistent” month-over-month growth resulting in six-figure ARR (annual recurring revenue) just four months after launch, according to Dicko. As of now, Sugar has begun rollout to certain properties within the portfolios of early customers, such as Equilibrium Real Estate Investment Group, CGI Investment group and Apartment Management Consultants (AMC). Combined, the firms manage over 655 properties and 150,000 active doors in 22 states.

Sugar has also secured 90-day pilots with major property management companies such as Bozzuto, which manages over 78,000 residences and is seeking to boost resident engagement, Dicko said.

Its ability to integrate keyless entry hardware products into a community engagement dashboard is a point of differentiation for Sugar, according to Dicko. 

“Our consumer app is sticky, which benefits users and owners. Sugar believes that access control is the most important feature in order to increase usage of the platform,” she said. “Because the product can plug into hardware and enable users to unlock doors and share digital keys from inside the app, this will enable increased product adoption leading to more engagement inside the community portal.”

She said another big differentiator is the ability to integrate into a building’s current hardware or software stack. Prior to attending Stanford Business School, Dicko spent several years as a senior product engineer at Procter & Gamble. It was there that she says she got excited about the idea of creating new solutions to solve old problems.

Sugar currently has nine full-time employees compared to two employees last year. It plans to make key hires in both engineering and sales with its new capital.

Kunal Lunawat of Agya Ventures said his firm was impressed with Dicko’s “tenacity, drive and ability to attract and assess good talent.”

“Everyone talks about community in residential buildings but no one is building a product that specifically solves for it,” he said. “The focus on community rests central to Sugar’s ethos, and that is why several of the world’s leading property managers are flocking to their software.” 

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