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Shepherd raises $6.2M seed round to tackle the construction insurance market

By Alex Wilhelm

Shepherd, an insurtech startup focused on the construction market, has closed a $6.15 million seed round led by Spark Capital. The funding event comes after the startup raised a pre-seed round in February led by Susa Ventures, which also participated in Shepherd’s latest fundraising event.

Thinking broadly, Shepherd fits into a theme of neoinsurance providers selling more to other companies than to consumers. Insurtech startups serving consumers enjoyed years of venture capital backing only to find their public debuts met with early optimism followed quickly by eroding share prices.

But companies like Shepherd — and Blueprint Title earlier this week — are wagering on there being margin elsewhere in the insurance world to attack. For Shepherd, the construction market is its target, an industry that it intends to carve into starting with excess liability coverage.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, Justin Levine, told TechCrunch that contractors in the construction space have a number of insurance requirements, including general liability, commercial auto and so forth. But construction projects often also require more liability coverage, which is sold as excess or umbrella policies.

Targeting the middle-market of the construction space — companies doing $25 million to $250 million in projects per year, in its view — Shepherd wants to lean on technology as a way to help underwrite customers.

Levine said that his company’s offering will have two core parts. The first is what you expected, namely a complete digital experience for customers. The CEO likened its digital offering to table stakes for the insurtech world. We agree. But the company gets more interesting when we consider its second half, namely its work to partner with construction tech providers to help it make underwriting decisions.

The startup has partnered with Procore, for example, a company that invested in its business.

The concept of leaning on third-party software companies to help make underwriting decisions makes some sense — companies that are more technology-forward in terms of adopting new techniques and methods won’t have the same underwriting profile as companies that don’t. Generally, more data makes for better underwriting decisions; linking to the software that helps construction companies function makes good sense from that perspective.

The CEO of Procore agrees, telling TechCrunch that an early customer of his business said that its product is “a risk management solution disguised as construction management software.” The more risk that is managed, the lower Shepherd’s loss ratios may prove over time, allowing it to better compete on price.

On the subject of price, Levine thinks that the construction insurance market is suffering at the moment. Rising settlement costs have led to some legacy insurance books in the space with larger-than-anticipated losses, pushing some providers to raise prices. Levine’s view is that that Shepherd’s ability to enter its market without a legacy book of business will help it offer competitive rates.

Excess liability coverage is the “wedge” that Shepherd intends to use to get into the construction insurance market, it said, with intention of launching other products in time. The startup is attacking excess liability coverage first, its CEO said, because it’s the place of maximum pain in the larger construction insurance market.

Frankly, TechCrunch finds the B2B neoinsurance startup market fascinating. Selling policies to consumers has a particular set of cost of goods sold (COGS) — varying based on the type of coverage, of course — and often stark go-to-market costs. Furthermore, customer acquisition costs (CACs) can prove irksome when going up against national brands with huge budgets. Perhaps the business insurance market will prove more lucrative for upstart tech companies. Venture investors are certainly willing to place that particular wager.

Natalie Sandman led the deal for Spark, telling TechCrunch that when she first encountered Shepherd it was working on a different project, but that when it shifted its focus, it struck a chord with her firm. The investor said that the idea of bringing new data to the construction insurance underwriting process may help the company make smarter decisions. In the insurance world, better underwriting choices mean more profitable coverage. Which means greater future cash flows. And we all know that that means for value creation.

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.”

TikTok is building its own AR development platform, TikTok Effect Studio

By Sarah Perez

Both Facebook and Snap offer tools that allow developers to build out augmented reality (AR) experiences and features for their own respective family of apps. Now, TikTok is looking to do the same. The company recently launched a new creative toolset called TikTok Effect Studio, currently in private beta testing, which will allow its own developer community to build AR effects for TikTok’s short-form video app.

On a new website titled “Effect House,” TikTok asks interested developers to sign up for early access to Effect Studio.

On the form provided, developers fill out their name, email, TikTok account info, company, and level of experience with building for AR, as well as examples of their work. The website also asks if they’re using a Mac or PC (presumably to gauge which desktop platform to prioritize), and whether they would test Effect House for work or for personal use.

The project was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, via a tip from Sam Schmir.

TikTok is launching an Effects Studio in beta

h/t @Sam_Schmir pic.twitter.com/K3LS5S2Yoq

— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) August 14, 2021

TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch the website launched earlier in August, but the project itself is still in the early stages of testing in only a few select markets, one of which is the U.S.

The company couldn’t offer a timeframe as to when these tools would become more broadly available. Instead, TikTok characterized Effect Studio as an early “experiment,” adding that some of its experiments don’t always make it to launch. Plus, other experiments may undergo significant changes between their early beta phases and what later becomes a public product.

That said, the launch of an AR toolset would make TikTok more competitive with industry rivals, who today rely on creative communities to expand their apps’ features sets with new features and experiences. Snap, for example, launched a $3.5 million fund last year directed toward Snapchat AR Lens creation. Meanwhile, at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in June, the company announced it had grown its Spark AR platform to over 600,000 creators across 190 countries, making it the largest mobile AR platform worldwide.

Image Credits: screenshot of TikTok website

TikTok, too, has been increasing its investment in developer tools over the past couple of years. However, its focus as of late has been on toolkits aimed at third-party developers who want to integrate more closely with TikTok in their own apps. Today, TikTok’s developer website provides access to tools that allow app makers to add TikTok features to their apps like user authentication flows, sound sharing, and others that allow users to publish videos from a third-party editing app out to TikTok.

The new TikTok Effect Studio isn’t meant to be used with third-party apps, however.

Instead, it’s about building AR experiences (and possibly, other creative effects), that would be provided to TikTok users directly in the consumer-facing video app.

Though willing to confirm its broader goals for TikTok Effect Studio, the company declined to share specific details about the exact tools may be included, citing the project’s early days.

“We’re always thinking about new ways to bring value to our community and enrich the TikTok experience,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Currently, we’re experimenting with ways to give creators additional tools to bring their creative ideas to life for the TikTok community,” they added.

Commercial real estate lending startup Lev brings in $30M on a $130M valuation

By Christine Hall

Commercial real estate has been slow to embrace technology; though it has an addressable financing market of more than $40 billion, putting together a deal is still mostly manual, paper-heavy and complicated.

New York-based Lev is taking on this problem by automating workflows online and gathering hundreds of millions of data points into machine learning software to ensure financing accuracy. To do this, the commercial real estate financing transaction platform raised $30 million to give it a $130 million valuation just two years into its inception.

The latest financing comes four months after the company raised $10 million in seed funding led by NFX. Greenspring led the latest round, with participation from First American Title. Existing investors NFX, Canaan Partners, JLL Spark, Animo Ventures and Ludlow Ventures also joined in to give Lev total investments of more than $34 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Lev founder and CEO Yaakov Zar previously co-founded Boston-based Dispatch, which built tools for home services businesses. It was when he and his wife went through the homebuying process — and their mortgage fell through — that Zar decided to look at real estate financing.

He channeled his frustration into becoming a licensed mortgage loan originator. After relocating to New York, Zar was helping a friend at a nonprofit organization refinance their building and got a firsthand look at what he said was a fragmented commercial real estate mortgage industry.

Companies like Blend are addressing the problem of real estate lending, Zar told TechCrunch, but very few are focusing on commercial real estate, where lending is sensitive to interest rates and total amortization. In addition, property owners have a burden of refinancing every five to 10 years.

“Legacy businesses like JLL, which is an investor, Cushman Wakefield and CBRE work on lending, but they are much more ‘relationship focused’ than tech focused,” Zar said. “We think that it is a necessary part because the deals are so large and complex that you need a relationship for them, but transactions less than $1 billion are pretty straightforward. On experience and product, no one is close to us.”

Initially, Zar and his team wanted to build the “Rocket Mortgage of commercial real estate lending,” but found that to be difficult because real estate brokers are putting together their own pitch books for lenders. Instead, Lev is building a technology platform of more than 5,000 lenders with information on what projects they like to finance. It then analyzes a customer’s portfolio and connects them in minutes with the right lender, taking 1% of the loan amount for each transaction as payment. Lev is also working to be able to close deals online.

Zar wasn’t looking for funding when he was approached by investors, but said he was introduced to some people who liked the company’s growth and trajectory and decided to accept the funding offer.

He intends to use the new funding on product development, with the aim of giving a term sheet in seconds and closing a loan in seven days. Right now it can take a week or two to get the term sheet and 45 to 90 days to close a loan.

The company has about 40 employees currently in its New York headquarters, Miami R&D center, Los Angeles outpost and remotely. Continued investments will be made to expand the team.

Lev grew 10 times in volume in the past year, closing approximately $100 million of loans in 2020. Zar expects to close over $1 billion in 2021.

“Customers come back to us repeatedly, and there are a ton of referrals,” Zar said. “We want to be the platform on which capital market transactions are processed. You need an advantage to network and find great deals. I don’t want to mess with that, but when you find it, bring it to us, we will close it and provide the asset management with the best option to close online and manage the deal from a single platform.”

Meanwhile, Pete Flint, general partner at NFX, told TechCrunch that he got to know the Lev team over the last 18 months, checking in on the company during various stages of the global pandemic, and was impressed at how the company navigated it.

As co-founder of Trulia, he saw firsthand the problems in the real estate industry over search and discovery, but as that problem was being solved, the focus shifted to financing. NFX is also an investor in Tomo and Ribbon, which both focus on residential financing.

Wanting to see what opportunities were on the commercial real estate side, Flint heard Lev’s name come up more and more among brokers and industry insiders.

“As we got to know the Lev team, we recognized that they were the best team out there to solve this problem,” Flint said. “We are also among an amazing group of people complementing the round. The folks that are deep industry insiders will put a helpful lens on strategy and business development opportunities.”

 

JLL, Khosla lead Jones’ $12.5M Series A for real estate vendor compliance

By Christine Hall

Commercial real estate tenants and property managers have to abide by strict liability rules that any vendor entering the property must have insurance certificates and meet other requirements. The approval process for this currently can take days and is still largely done on paper.

Enter Jones. The New York-based commercial real estate startup is curating a marketplace of pre-approved vendors for tenants and property managers to find and hire the people they need in a compliant way.

To continue advancing its network, the company announced Monday it raised $12.5 million in Series A funding led by JLL Spark and Khosla Ventures that also included strategic investors Camber Creek, Rudin Management, DivcoWest and Sage Realty. This new investment brings Jones’ total raised to $20 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Jones, founded in 2017, also manages certifications and approvals, moving the whole process online. Its technology can process an insurance certificate in less than an hour and reduce the overall vendor approval time to 2.5 days — from 12 days — with 99.9% accuracy, co-founder and CEO Omri Stern told TechCrunch.

The accuracy portion is key. With much of the work being done by hand, current accuracy is at about 30%, he added. In addition, the certifications are lengthy, and it is typically up to property managers to parse through the insurance documents to identify what is missing rather than spending time with tenants.

“In the consumer world, a homeowner expects to go on a marketplace and find a service and hire them,” Stern said. “Office managers and tenants can’t get their preferred vendors through the approval process, so we want to provide a similar digital experience that they can consume and use in real estate.”

He says Jones’ differentiator from competitors is that all of the stakeholders are in place: a group of high-profile real estate customers, including Lincoln Property Co., Prologis, DivcoWest, Rudin Management, Sage Realty and JLL.

Yishai Lerner, co-CEO of JLL Spark, agrees, telling TechCrunch that commercial real estate is one of the largest and last asset classes that is undergoing a technology transformation, similar to what fintech was 20 years ago.

He estimates the U.S. market to be $16 trillion, of which technology could unlock a lot of the value. That opportunity was one of the drivers for JLL to create JLL Spark, where Jones is one of the first investments.

Though Lerner spent time with property management teams on the ground, he became up close and personal with the problem when his wife, while moving offices, found out her vendors were not allowed in the building because they didn’t have the right insurance.

“We learned that property managers spend half of their time just working to verify the compliance of vendors coming into their building,” Lerner said. “We wondered why there wasn’t technology for this. Jones was doing construction at the time, and we brought them into commercial real estate because they had an example of how technology could solve the problem.”

Meanwhile, the Series A comes at a time when Stern is seeing Jones’s SaaS tool take off in the past 10 months. He would not get specific with growth metrics, but did say that what is driving growth is “competing against the status quo” as companies are searching for and adapting workflow solutions.

The company intends to use the new funds on product development in both quicker and easier approvals and bringing on new vendors. Jones already works with tens of thousands of vendors. It will also focus on integration, offering an API that could be used in other industry verticals where compliance is necessary.

Stern would also like to continue building the team. Having brought in real estate experts, he is now also looking for people with backgrounds in fintech, cybersecurity and insurtech to bring in additional perspectives.

“We are building an incredible company with the opportunity to be the next big digital marketplace,” he added.

 

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