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Novakid’s investors bet $35M that it can teach kids English

By Natasha Mascarenhas

If you’re trying to develop fluency in a non-native tongue, language immersion is a crucial part of the learning process. Surrounding yourself with native speakers helps with pronunciation, context building, and most of all, confidence.

But what if you’re an eight-year-old kid in Spain learning English and can’t swing a solo trip to the United States for the summer?

Novakid, founded by Maxim Azarov, wants to be your next best option. The San Francisco-based edtech startup offers virtual-only, English language immersion for kids between the ages of four through 12, by combining a mix of different services from live tutors to gamification.

After closing its $4.25 million Series A round last December, Novakid announced today that it is back with a $35 million Series B financing, led by Owl Ventures and Goodwater Capital. Existing investors also participated in the round, including PortfoLion, LearnStart, TMT Investments, Xploration Capital, LETA Capital and BonAngels.

The startup is raising capital in response to an active start to its year. The company’s active client base grew 350% year over year, currently at over 50,000 paying students. The money will be used to get more students into its universe of tools, as well as help Novakid expand into international markets with high populations of speakers who want to learn English.

The company’s suite of services are built around two principles: First, that it can immerse early-age learners into the world of English at scale, and second, that it can actually be fun to use.

When a user signs up, they are first connected to one of Novakid’s 2,000 live tutors for their first class. Tutors must be native English speakers with a B.A. degree or higher, as well as an international teaching certificate such as DELTA, CELTA, TESOL or TEFL.

“One of the things that is really important, even psychologically, is to start listening to the language, start interacting with a live person, and remove being afraid of not understanding something,” Azarov said. The company wants to recreate the conditions of how a kid likely learned their first language.

In the class, the tutors only speak English, and users are encouraged to do the same to slowly build and mistake their way into confidence. While the live, video-based classes are a key part of Novakid’s product, Azarov said it was important that his company “was not just giving you access to a teacher” as its main value proposition.

“Most of the competitors are taking teachers and making them available remotely so you don’t have to travel and you have a bigger selection,” he said. But if you look at the industry in the bigger picture, guys like Oxford, Cambridge, Pearson who provide content for the language learning industry, their product basically sucks. It’s really bad.” So, Novakid puts most of its energy into rebuilding a curriculum that works with better design, and includes games.

Gamified content lives both in and out of classes. Within the classroom, a teacher may take a student on a VR-enhanced tour through famous landmarks and museums to practice vocabulary. Self-paced content could look like a multiplayer “battle” between two students answering questions within a certain time period to get a better score. Novakid has an entire team dedicated to game design and development.

Students are clicking in. Novakid users spend two-thirds of their time on the website with tutors, and one-third with self-paced content that the company built in-house. The company wants to switch those concentrations because more students are spending time with the asynchronous content around grammar and vocabulary, and teachers are reserved for more complex information like speaking and conversation.

Part of the difficulty of scaling up a language learning business is that users need to stay motivated. Gamification helps with engagement, but Novakid’s clientele of children could also be fast to churn compared to adult learners, simply due to priorities. Azarov said that he sees how some would view selling exclusively to children as a disadvantage, but he views their focus as differentiation.

“You get better brand equity when you’re more focused,” he said. “The way kids learn language is vastly different from the way adults learn language, and I don’t think the general players who do ‘everything from everybody’ will be able to do [the former] as well as we are.” Duolingo recently launched Duolingo ABC, a free English literacy app with hundreds of short-form exercises. While the now-public company has strong branding, Novakid’s strategy differs by adding in more services around live learning and speaking.

So far, the company has proven that its strategy is sticking. Its revenue in 2020 was $9 million, and in 2021 it is expected to hit between $36 million to $45 million in revenue. It declined to disclose the specifics around diversity of the team, but plans to kick off a quite intensive recruiting spree going forward. Azarov plans to add 200 people to his 300-person company in the next six months.

Demand Curve: Questions you need to answer in your paid search ads

By Ram Iyer
Stewart Hillhouse Contributor
Stewart Hillhouse writes actionable growth marketing insights as senior content lead at Demand Curve. By night, he interviews marketers and creatives on his podcast, Top Of Mind. Before getting into marketing, Stewart was a semi-professional lumberjack. He also writes at stewarthillhouse.com.

Around 15% of website traffic comes through paid search ads. But to turn passive searchers into active shoppers, your ads should answer their question and entice them to click.

We’ve tested thousands of paid search ads at Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve. This post breaks down 14 questions your paid search ads should answer to ensure you’re only paying for the highest-intent shoppers.

Question 1: “What’s in it for me?”

An important distinction between paid search and organic search is that paid ads are an interruption. Users of search engines are simply looking for an answer to their question. The people who see your ads don’t owe you anything. Just because you’re paying to have your ad show up first doesn’t mean they’re going to pay attention to it.

To generate genuine interest in your paid ads, reframe your offer as a favor.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Describe the features of your product as the solution to your customers’ problem.
  • Emphasize the outcome your customer seeks.

For example, reframing free delivery as an extra convenience makes the offer that much more attractive.

Use ad extensions by listing additional benefits in the description of the page. For example, including “customized plans” in the pricing extension page signals to your customer that they’ll have control over the cost. This will help to attract the curiosity of even the most cost-conscious buyers.

To capture genuine interest in your paid ads, re-frame your offer as a favor.

Image Credits: Demand Curve

Question 2: “Why should I buy now?”

Approximately 80% of e-commerce shopping carts are abandoned, mostly because shoppers don’t feel any urgency to complete the transaction. Online shoppers aren’t in any rush, as the internet is open 24/7 and inventory feels unlimited.

Use ad copy that bridges the gap between their problem and your solution. The easiest way to create that curiosity bridge is by asking a question.

To answer the question, “Why should I buy now?”, you’re going to have to create an incentive to get them to take action now.

Planted raises another $21M to expand its growing plant-based meat empire (and add schnitzel)

By Devin Coldewey

Swiss alternative protein company Planted has raised its second round of the year, a CHF 19 million (about $21 million at present) “pre-B” fundraise that will help it continue its growth and debut new products. A U.S. launch is in the cards eventually, but for now Planted’s exclusively European customers will be able to give its new veggie schnitzel a shot.

Planted appeared in 2019 as a spinoff from Swiss research university ETH Zurich, where the founders developed the original technique of extruding plant proteins and water into fibrous structures similar to real meat’s. Since then the company has diversified its protein sources, adding oat and sunflower to the mix, and developed pulled pork and kebab alternative products as well.

Over time the process has improved as well. “We added fermentation/biotech technologies to enhance taste and texture,” wrote CEO and co-founder Christoph Jenny in an email to TechCrunch. “Meaning 1) we can create structures without form limitation and 2) can add a broader taste profile.”

The latest advance is schnitzel, which is of course a breaded and fried piece of pounded-thin meat style popular around the world, but especially in the company’s core markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Jenny noted that Planted’s schnitzel is produced as one piece, not pressed together from smaller bits. “The taste and texture benefit from fermentation approach, that makes the flavor profile mouth watering and the texture super juicy,” he said, though of course we will have to test it to be sure. Expect schnitzel to debut in Q3.

It’s the first of several planned “whole” or “prime” cuts, larger pieces that can be prepared like any other piece of meat — the team says their products require no special preparation or additives and can be dropped in as 1:1 replacements in most recipes. Right now the big cuts are leaving the lab and entering consumer testing for taste tuning and eventually scaling.

The funding round came from “Vorwerk Ventures, Gullspång Re:food, Movendo Capital, Good Seed Ventures, Joyance, ACE & Company (SFG strategy) and Be8 Ventures,” and was described as a follow-on to March’s CHF 17M series A. No doubt the exploding demand for alternative proteins and growing competition in the space has spurred Planted’s investors to opt for more aggressive growth and development strategies.

The company plans to enter several new markets over Q3 and Q4, but the U.S. is still a question mark due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Jenny said they are preparing so that they can make that move whenever it becomes possible, but for now Planted is focused on the European market.

(Update: This article originally misstated the new round as also being CHF 17M — entirely my mistake. This has been corrected.)

MGA Thermal raises $8M AUD led by Main Sequence for its modular energy storage blocks

By Catherine Shu

A photo of MGA Thermal co-founders Erich Kisi and Alex Post

MGA Thermal co-founders Erich Kisi and Alex Post. Image Credits: MGA Thermal

MGA Thermal wants to help utility companies transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources with shoebox-sized thermal energy storage blocks. The company says a stack of 1,000 blocks is about the size of a small car and can store enough energy to power 27 homes for 24 hours. This gives utility providers the ability to store large amounts of energy and have it ready to dispatch even when weather conditions aren’t ideal for generating solar or wind power. The modular blocks also make it easier to convert infrastructure, like coal-fired power plants, into grid-scale energy storage.

MGA Thermal announced today it has raised $8 million AUD (about $5.9 million USD), bring its total funding so far to $9 million AUD. The round was led by Main Sequence, a venture firm founded by Australia’s national science agency that recently launched a new $250 million AUD fund. Alberts Impact Capital, New Zealand’s Climate Venture Capital Fund, The Melt and returning investor CP Ventures participated, along with angel investors like Chris Sang, Emlyn Scott and Glenn Butcher.

Based in Newcastle, Australia, MGA Thermal was founded in April 2019 by Erich Kisi and Alexander Post after nearly a decade spent researching and developing miscibility gap alloys technology at the University of Newcastle. When asked to explain MGA tech in layperson’s terms, Kisi used a delicious analogy.

MGA Thermal’s blocks “essentially comprise metal particles that melt when heated embedded in an inert matrix material. Think of a block as being like a choc-chip muffin heated in a microwave. The muffin consists of a cake component, which holds everything in shape when heated, and the choc chips, which melt,” he told TechCrunch.

“The energy that goes into melting the choc chips is stored and can burn your mouth when you bite into the muffin,” he added. “Melting energy is more intense than merely heating something up and that melting energy is concentrated near the melting temperature so energy can be released in a consistent way.”

MGA Thermal's modular energy storage blocks

MGA Thermal’s modular energy storage blocks. Image Credits: MGA Thermal

Energy stored in MGA Thermal’s blocks can be used to heat water to power steam turbines and generators. In this scenario, blocks are designed with internal tubing for pumping and boiling water, or interact with a heat exchanger. Kisi said MGA Thermal’s blocks enable aging thermal power plans to continue running on renewable energy that would usually be switched off in situations like overheating caused by too much sun or high winds.

Other thermal energy solutions include heating low-cost solid materials in blocks or granules to high temperatures in an insulated container. But many of these materials aren’t good at moving thermal energy around and have temperature limitations, Kisi said. This means thermal energy decreases in temperature as it is discharged, making it less effective.

Another method for storing thermal energy involves molten salts that are heated by a renewable energy source and stored in a hot tank. The hot salt is then pumped through a heat exchanger to make steam, while colder (but still molten) salt is returned to a “cold” tank.

“These systems are widely used in concentrating solar thermal energy but have found little use elsewhere,” Kisi said. “That’s mostly because there is a large infrastructure cost for piping pumps and heaters, and a large amount of power is wasted keeping the salt from freezing.”

MGA Thermal is establishing a manufacturing plant in New South Wales to scale production of its blocks to commercial levels and plans to double its team over the next 12 months so it can make hundreds of thousands of blocks each month. It is also currently working with partners like Swiss company E2S Power ASG and US-based Peregrine Turbine Technologies to deploy its tech in Australia, Europe and North America. For example, E2S Power AG will use MGA Thermal’s tech to repurpose retired and active coal-fired thermal plants in Europe.

While MGA Thermal’s tech has many industrial use cases, like converting power stations, building off-grid storage and supplying power to remote communities and commercial spaces, it can also help consumers consume less fossil fuel. For example, MGA blocks can be used by households to store excess energy generated from rooftop solar panels or small wind turbines. Then that energy can be used to heat homes

“Around the world an estimated three billion people heat their homes by burning fuel,” said Kisi. “That’s a lot of CO2, especially in very cold climates.”

In a statement, Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma said, “A core focus of our new fund is uncovering the scientific discoveries, and helping to turn them into real, tangible technologies so we can reverse our climate impact. Erich Kisi and Alexander Post’s impressive deep research backgrounds, their expert team and innovative technology are paving the way for grid-scale energy storage and boosting the capability of a renewaBle energy future globally.”

Can your startup support a research-based workflow?

By Ram Iyer
João Graça Contributor
João Graça is CTO and co-founder of Unbabel, an AI-powered language operations platform that enables any agent to communicate in any language.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that U.S. companies will spend upward of $100 billion on AI R&D per year by 2025. Much of this spending today is done by six tech companies — Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, Facebook and Apple, according to a recent study from CSET at Georgetown University. But what if you’re a startup whose product relies on AI at its core?

Can early-stage companies support a research-based workflow? At a startup or scaleup, the focus is often more on concrete product development than research. For obvious reasons, companies want to make things that matter to their customers, investors and stakeholders. Ideally, there’s a way to do both.

Before investing in staffing an AI research lab, consider this advice to determine whether you’re ready to get started.

Compile the right research team

Assuming it’s your organization’s priority to do innovative AI research, the first step is to hire one or two researchers. At Unbabel, we did this early by hiring Ph.D.s and getting started quickly with research for a product that hadn’t been developed yet. Some researchers will build from scratch and others will take your data and try to find a pre-existing model that fits your needs.

While Google’s X division may have the capital to focus on moonshots, most startups can only invest in innovation that provides them a competitive advantage or improves their product.

From there, you’ll need to hire research engineers or machine learning operations professionals. Research is only a small part of using AI in production. Research engineers will then release your research into production, monitor your model’s results and refine the model if it stops predicting well (or otherwise is not operating as planned). Often they’ll use automation to simplify monitoring and deployment procedures as opposed to doing everything manually.

None of this falls within the scope of a research scientist — they’re most used to working with the data sets and models in training. That said, researchers and engineers will need to work together in a continuous feedback loop to refine and retrain models based on actual performance in inference.

Choose the problems you want to solve

The CSET research cited above shows that 85% of AI labs in North America and Europe do some form of basic AI research, and less than 15% focus on development. The rest of the world is different: A majority of labs in other countries, such as India and Israel, focus on development.

The next generation of global payments: Afterpay + Square

By Ram Iyer
Dana Stalder Contributor
Dana Stalder is a partner at Matrix Partners. The former commercial chief (Product, Sales and Marketing) at PayPal, he now leads fintech investing at Matrix Partners, where he also invests in consumer marketplaces and enterprise software.

Sunday was a big day in fintech: Afterpay has agreed to merge with Square. This agreement sets two of the most admired financial technology companies in recent history on a path to becoming one.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks. Square has built a very significant merchant payment network, and, via Cash App, a thriving high-growth consumer payment service. However, these two lines of business have historically not been integrated. Together, Square and Afterpay will be able to weave all of these services together into a single integrated experience.

Afterpay and Cash App each have double-digit millions of consumers, and Square’s seller ecosystem and Afterpay’s merchant network both record double-digit billions of payment volume per year. From the offline register and the online checkout flow to sending money in just a few taps, Square and Afterpay will tell a complete story of next-generation economic empowerment.

As Afterpay’s only institutional venture investor, I wanted to share some perspective on how we got here and what this merger means for the future of consumer finance and the payments industry.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks.

Critical innovations in fintech

Every five to 10 years, the global payments industry undergoes a critical innovation cycle that determines the winners and losers for the next several decades. The last major transition was the shift to NFC-based mobile payments, which I wrote about in 2015. The major mobile OS vendors (Apple and Google) cemented their position in the global payments stack by deftly bridging the needs of the networks (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) and consumers by way of the mobile devices in their pockets.

Afterpay sparked the latest critical innovation cycle. Conceived in a living room in Sydney by a millennial, Nick Molnar, for millennials, Afterpay had a key insight: Millennials don’t like credit.

Millennials came of age during the global mortgage crisis of 2008. As young adults, they watched their friends and family lose their homes by overextending on mortgage debt, bolstering their already lower trust for banks. They also have record levels of student debt. Therefore, it’s no surprise that millennials (and Gen Z right behind them) strongly prefer debit cards over credit cards.

But it’s one thing to recognize the paradigm shift and quite another to do something about it. Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen did something, ultimately building one of the fastest-growing payments startups in history on their core product: Buy now, pay later … and never any interest.

Afterpay’s product is simple. If you have $100 in your cart and choose to pay with Afterpay, it will charge your bank card (typically a debit card) $25 every two weeks in four installments. No interest, no revolving debt and no fees with on-time payments. For the millennial consumer, this meant they could get the primary benefit of a credit card (the ability to pay later) with their debit card, without the need to worry about all the bad things that come with credit cards — high interest rates and revolving debt.

All upside, no downside. Who could resist? For the early merchants, virtually all of whom relied on millennials as their key growth segment, they got a fair trade: Pay a small fee above payment processing to Afterpay, get significantly higher average order values and conversions to purchase. It was a win-win proposition and, with lots of execution, a new payment network was born.

The rise of Afterpay

Image Credits: Matrix Partners

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery

Afterpay went somewhat unnoticed outside Australia in 2016 and 2017, but once it came to the U.S. in 2018 and built a business there that broke $100 million net revenues in only its second year, it got attention.

Klarna, which had struggled with product-market fit in the U.S., pivoted their business to emulate Afterpay. And Affirm, which had always been about traditional credit — generating a significant portion of their revenue from consumer interest — also noticed and introduced their own BNPL offering. Then came PayPal with “Pay in 4,” and just a few weeks ago, there has been news that Apple is expected to enter the space.

Afterpay created a global phenomenon that has now become a category embraced by mainstream players across the industry — a category that is on track to take a meaningful share of global retail payments over the next 10 years.

Afterpay stands apart. It has always been the BNPL leader by virtually every measure, and it has done it by staying true to their customers’ needs. The company is great at understanding the millennial and Gen Z consumer. It’s evident in the voice, tone and lifestyle brand you experience as an Afterpay user, and in the merchant network it continues to build strategically. It’s also evident in the simple fact that it doesn’t try to cross-sell users revolving debt products.

Most importantly, it’s evident in the usage metrics relative to competition. This is a product that people love, use and have come to rely on, all with better, fairer terms than were ever available to them than with traditional consumer credit.

Consumer loyalty and frequency drives powerful network effect, securing the lifetime value of a consumer

Image Credits: Afterpay H1 FY21 results presentation

Square + Afterpay: The perfect fit

I’ve been building payment companies for over 15 years now, initially in the early days of PayPal and more recently as a venture investor at Matrix Partners. I’ve never seen a combination that has such potential to deliver extraordinary value to consumers and merchants. Even more so than eBay + PayPal.

Beyond the clear product and network complementarity, what’s most exciting to me and my partners is the alignment of values and culture. Square and Afterpay share a vision of a future with more opportunity and fewer economic hurdles for all. As they build toward that future together, I’m confident that this combination is a winner. Square and Afterpay together will become the world’s next generation payment provider.

Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.

“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.

Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.

Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.

Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.

The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.

Why Square is shelling out $29B to snag BNPL player Afterpay

By Alex Wilhelm

Shares of Square are up this morning after the company announced its second-quarter earnings and that it will buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later (BNPL) player in a $29 billion deal. As TechCrunch reported this morning, Afterpay shareholders will receive 0.375 shares of Square in exchange for their existing equity.

Shares of Afterpay are sharply higher after the deal was announced thanks to its implied premium, while shares of Square are up 7% in early-morning trading.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Over the past year, we’ve written extensively about the BNPL market, usually from the perspective of earnings from companies in the space. Afterpay has been a key data source, along with the yet-private Klarna and U.S. public BNPL outfit Affirm. Recall that each company has posted strong growth in recent periods, with the United States arising as a prime competitive market.

Most recently, consumer hardware and services giant Apple is reportedly preparing a move into the BNPL space. Our read at the time was that any such movement by Cupertino would impact mass-market BNPL players more than niche-focused companies. Apple has a fintech base and broad IRL payment acceptance, making it a potentially strong competitor for BNPL services aimed at consumers; BNPL services targeted at particular industries or niches would likely see less competition from Apple.

From that landscape, let’s explore the Square-Afterpay deal. We want to know what Afterpay brings to Square in terms of revenue, growth and reach. We also want to do some math on the price Square is willing to pay for the company — and what that might tell us about the value of BNPL and fintech revenues more broadly. Then we’ll eyeball the numbers and try to decide if Square is overpaying for Afterpay.

What Afterpay brings to Square

As with most major deals these days, Square and Afterpay released an investor presentation detailing their argument in favor of their combination. Let’s dig through it.

Square is a two-part company. It has a large consumer business via Cash App, and it has a large business division that offers payments tech and other fintech services to corporate customers. Recall that Square is also building out banking services for its business customers and that Cash App also serves some banking and investing functionality for consumers.

Hear Startup Alley companies pitch expert VC judges on the next episode of Extra Crunch Live

By Jordan Crook

We know how much you love a good startup pitch-off. Who doesn’t? It combines the thrill of live, high-stakes entertainment with learning about the hottest new thing. Plus, you get to hear feedback from some of the smartest folks in the industry, thus learning how to absolutely crush it at your next pitch meeting with a VC.

With all that in mind, we’re introducing a special summer edition of Extra Crunch Live that’s all pitch-off, all the time.

On August 4, Extra Crunch Live will feature startups exhibiting in the Startup Alley at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 in September. Those startups will pitch their products/businesses to a pair of expert VC judges, who will then give their live feedback.

Extra Crunch Live is usually a combination of an interview with a founder/investor duo and an audience pitch-off. But as it’s summer, and Disrupt is right around the corner, we thought it would be fun to bring you even more pitches and even more feedback.

On August 4, our expert VC judges will be Edith Yeung from Race Capital and Laela Sturdy of CapitalG. Register here for free!

Edith Yeung started out as an investor at 500 Startups and is now a general partner at Race Capital. She’s an expert on both the China and Silicon Valley investment landscape and has made more than 50 investments, with a portfolio that includes 50 startups, including Lightyear/Stellar (valued $1.2 billion), Silk Labs (acquired by Apple), Chirp (acquired by Apple), Fleksy (acquired by Pinterest), Human (acquired by Mapbox), Solana, Oasis Labs, Nebulas, Hooked, DayDayCook, AISense and many more.

Laela Sturdy is a 10x unicorn operator-turned-investor whose investments are worth nearly $200 billion. She joined CapitalG, the investment arm of Alphabet, in 2013, and her portfolio includes Stripe, UiPath, Duolingo, Gusto, Webflow and Unqork, among many others.

As a special thank you, all attendees of this episode of Extra Crunch Live will be entered into a random drawing for a chance to win one of three free tickets to TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. Following the event, we’ll randomly select three winners and send details on how to redeem their passes. Do you need to submit any additional information to enter the drawing? Nope. All you need to do is register for Extra Crunch Live by clicking here and attend the event on August 4.

The tale of two edtech IPOs

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. Last week, Natasha and Alex jumped on Twitter Spaces to discuss the tale of two edtech IPOs: Duolingo, the consumer language learning company, and Powerschool, the enterprise K-12 software platform. It was a rare moment in the sun for the recently-revitalized sector, which saw two companies list on the NASDAQ on the same dang day.

Special shout out to our producer Chris Gates for handling this impromptu live chat, tech difficulties and all, and bringing it to your ears on this lovely Monday. Don’t forget that Equity is largely on break this week!

Here’s what we got into, featuring some edtech entrepreneurs nice enough to drop on by:

  • China’s edtech crackdown and how it is impacting startups both internationally and domestically. The regulations, one of which will force for-profit tutoring companies to turn into non-profits, are also getting the cold shoulder from U.S. edtech VCs, it seems.
  •  As Lightspeed Ventures investor Mercedes Bent so aptly put it, the news is somewhat ironic: “[T]he US edtech IPO market is on fire (after being dormant for so long) and the China edtech market is crumbling (after being on fire for so long).”
  • Evidence of that can be found in the Duolingo IPO pricing arc. The company first posted a strong estimate of its worth, raised its range, priced above that raised interval, and still managed to trade higher. The company is still up more than $30 from its IPO price.
  • Powerschool was a bit different. It priced at $18 per share, the low-end of its $18 to $20 range. The company is up from its IPO price, albeit a much more modest two, or three percent in today’s early trading.

In the second half of the show, we brought on the following host of edtech founders to share their hot takes about the current state of edtech:

Before we go, Equity is on a “break” this week, as we do some soul searching and refresh before our next run of shows. Obviously we still had to shaare this episode, and um, are recording another episode this week too, but you, my dear friend, will hear from us again next Monday.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Yaydoo secures $20M, aims to simplify B2B collections, payments

By Christine Hall

It’s no secret that the technology for easy business-to-business payments has not yet caught up to its peer-to-peer counterparts, but Yaydoo thinks it has the answer.

The Mexico City-based B2B software and payments company provides three products, VendorPlace, P-Card and PorCobrar, for managing cash flow, optimizing access to smart liquidity, and connecting small, midsize and large businesses to an ecosystem of digital tools.

Sergio Almaguer, Guillermo Treviño and Roberto Flores founded Yaydoo — the name combines “yay” and “do” to show the happiness of doing something — in 2017. Today, the company announced the close of a $20.4 million Series A round co-led by Base10 Partners and monashees.

Joining them in the round were SoftBank’s Latin America Fund and Leap Global Partners. In total, Yaydoo has raised $21.5 million, Almaguer told TechCrunch.

Prior to starting the company, Almaguer was working at another company in Mexico doing point-of-sale. His large enterprise customers wanted automation for their payments, but he noticed that the same tools were too expensive for small businesses.

The co-founders started Yaydoo to provide procurement, accounts payable and accounts receivables, but in a simpler format so that the collection and payment of B2B transactions was affordable for small businesses.

Image Credits: Yaydoo

The idea is taking off, and vendors are adding their own customers so that they are all part of the network to better link invoices to purchase orders and then connect to accounts payable, Almaguer said. Yaydoo estimates that the automation workflows reduced 80% of time wasted paying vendors, on average.

Yaydoo is joining a sector of fintech that is heating up — the global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually. Last week, B2B payments platform Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding on a $1 billion valuation. Others attracting funding recently include Paystand, which 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.

The new funding will enable the company to attract new hires in Mexico and when the company expands into other Latin American countries. Yaydoo is also looking at future opportunities for its working capital business, like understanding how many invoices customers are setting, the access to actual payments, and how money flows out and in so that it can provide insights on working capital funding gaps. The company will also invest in product development.

The company has grown to over 800 customers, up from 200 in the first quarter of 2020. Its headcount also grew to 100 from 30 during the same time. In the last 12 months, over 70,000 companies have transacted on the Yaydoo network, and total payment volume grew to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yaydoo is a SaaS subscription model, but the new funding will also enable the company to create a pool of potential customers with a “freemium” offering with the goal of converting those customers into the subscription model as they grow, Almaguer said.

Rexhi Dollaku, partner at Base10 Partners, said the firm saw the way B2B payments were becoming modernized and “was impressed” by the Yaydoo team and how it built a complicated infrastructure, but made it easy to use.

He believes Latin America is 10 years behind in terms of B2B payments but will catch up sooner than later because of the digital transformation going on in the region.

“We are starting to see early signs of the network being built out of the payments product, and that is a good indication,” Dollaku said. “With the funding, Yaydoo will be also able to provide more financial services options for businesses to address a working fund gap.”

Newtopia closes first fund of $50M to invest in LatAm startups

By Christine Hall

Early-stage venture capital fund Newtopia VC launched Monday with $50 million to invest in tech startups based in Latin America.

The fund will invest between $250,000 and $1 million in startups at the seed stage to help them achieve the milestones needed on the path to raising a Series A.

Newtopia is led by five major players in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem:

  • Patricio Jutard, co-founder of MURAL;
  • Mariano Mayer, former national secretary for entrepreneurs and SMEs in Argentina and founder of Marea Venture Partners;
  • Sacha Spitz, co-founder and partner of Yavu Ventures and former director at the Universidad de San Andrés incubation program;
  • Jorge Aguado, former national science, technology and innovation secretary in Argentina;
  • Juan Pablo Lafosse, founder and former CEO of Almundo.

The group has already invested in startups in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, including Aleph (B2B SaaS for e-commerce), Apperto (social commerce), Choiz (healthtech), Exactly (DeFi), Elevva (e-commerce brands), Inipay (fintech), Leef (sustainability), Wibson (e-privacy) and Yerbo (wellness).

Mayer told TechCrunch that he sees a great moment happening in Latin America around global venture capital firms — like Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and SoftBank —making bets in the region, especially targeting later-stage investments. There are home-grown venture capital firms doing well, too, citing Kazek’s $1 billion funds.

“However, we see a gap in investments in seed and road to Series A,” he added. “We aim to help entrepreneurs in those stages. Newtopia started with conversations during the pandemic, and now we see a big momentum for transformation of traditional sectors and the talent to make businesses out of these opportunities.”

Newtopia is offering both investment and a hands-on mentorship model to guide startups through the initial stages so they can grow regionally or globally. The fund has already amassed a community of more than 70 founders to invest, advise and be venture partners to the portfolio companies.

The Newtopia 10-Week Program works with companies to find product-market fit, achieve initial goals and set a foundation for further growth. The firm opened the call for applicants and will select 10 startups to receive a spot in the program and $100,000 each.

By taking a lead in early-stage investing, it will feed the rest of the venture capital firms that are doing later-stage investing, Mayer said.

He sees investments growing in Latin America every year, estimating there was a record $4 billion spread across the region, turning some companies into unicorns, including Jutard’s Mural, which raised $50 million in July. That has more than validated that there will be more money in coming years, Mayer added.

Jutard said the fund’s founders were all investing or mentoring companies on their own, but the new funding will enable them to structure that assistance to help hundreds of startups rather than a handful.

“Early-stage companies go through an emotional rollercoaster where they feel alone, encounter times when it is hard to sell their product or recruit, so we are focused on building a community of support,” Jutard added.

BoxGroup closes on $255M across two funds to back startups at their earliest stages

By Mary Ann Azevedo

BoxGroup has quietly, yet diligently, been funding companies at the early stage for over a decade. The 11-year-old firm in fact was the first investor in Plaid, a fintech company that nearly got sold to Visa last year for billions of dollars.

It has seen a number of impressive exits over the years, proving an eye that can detect winners before the winners themselves may even realize it. In fact, it’s that early faith in companies that partner David Tisch believes has been key to BoxGroup’s success.

“If you’re starting a company and you’re going to raise money, that first yes is the hardest. And it’s that’s the one that gives you the confidence, the excitement – to know that there’s somebody out there that’s going to believe in this and give you money for it,” Partner David Tisch told TechCrunch. “We really do try to pride ourselves on being that first yes on a regular basis. So the earlier we meet companies, the better.”

Today, BoxGroup is announcing it has beefed up its war chest so that it can be that “first yes” to more companies with the closure of two new funds totaling $255 million of capital. BoxGroup Five is the firm’s fifth early stage fund, and is aimed at investing in emerging tech companies at the pre-seed and seed stages. BoxGroup Strive is its second opportunity fund that will back companies in their subsequent follow-on rounds. Each fund amounts to $127.5 million. 

Over the years, BoxGroup has made over 300 investments including having invested in the earliest rounds of Ro, Plaid, Airtable, Workrise, Scopely, Bowery Farms, Ramp, Titan, Warby Parker, Classpass, Guideline and Glossier. It has had a number of impressive exits in Flatiron Health, PillPack, Matterport, Oscar, Mirror, Bark, Bread and Trello. 

Besides being the first firm to write Plaid a check, BoxGroup was also the first investor in PillPack, which ended up selling to Amazon for just under $1 billion in 2018.

BoxGroup Five – the firm’s early-stage fund – will invest in about 40 to 50 new companies a year with investments ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.

“We want to be the second or third biggest check in a round,” Tisch said.

Image Credits: BoxGroup; Adam Rothenberg (left), Nimi Katragadda (bottom), Greg Rosen (top), David Tisch (right)

The opportunity fund occasionally makes later-stage investments in new companies, but mostly just continues to support companies it invested in at an earlier stage. For example, BoxGroup first invested in id.me in 2010.

“The company is sort of an 11-year overnight success that we’ve been backing for over a decade now,” Tisch said. “It’s an example of us just continuing to support companies through their life cycle.”

BoxGroup also pre-seeded digital healthcare startup Ro, but also funded every round it’s raised since, including its most recent $500 million funding at a $5 billion valuation

Tisch describes the BoxGroup six-person team as “generalists” in terms of the spaces it invests in, with a portfolio consisting of startups in the consumer, enterprise, fintech, healthcare, marketplace, synthetic biology and climate sectors.

Interestingly, BoxGroup’s last fund closures – which totaled $165 million – marked the first time the firm had accepted outside capital in nine years. Prior to that point, it had been funded with only personal capital. Its LPs are a mixed group of endowments, foundations and family offices.

For BoxGroup, building authentic relationships with founders is at the root of what the firm does, says Partner Nimi Katragadda. That includes taking bets on founders, sometimes more than once, even if one of their companies didn’t work out. It means backing just ideas in some cases, and people.

“This cannot be transactional, it has to be personal,” she said. “We want to go on a journey with someone for a decade as they build their business…. We’re comfortable with what early means, including a lot of assumptions, more vision than traction, and raw product.”

Partner Adam Rothenberg agrees, saying: “Our goal is to be the friend in the room. We believe in honesty, tough love, and transparency in building relationships with founders. We focus on the “how” more than the “what” — how a founder thinks, how they will build product, and how they think about attracting talent.”

With offices in San Francisco and New York, the firm will likely be growing in the near future as BoxGroup is looking to add on some “first-line investors,” Tisch said.

Recently, Greg Rosen was named a partner at the firm. Rosen originally joined BoxGroup in 2015, where he spent three years before leaving to join Benchmark. He re-joined BoxGroup in early 2020 and joins the firm’s three other partners: Tisch, Rothenberg and Katragadda. 

While the world of venture is crazy hot right now, Tisch said the firm keeps itself grounded with a wisdom that can only be gained with experience and in time.

“There is seemingly infinite capital waiting to be deployed,” he said. “Without calling the cycle, we know that over time markets go up and down…No matter where we are in a given cycle, smart and determined minds will come together to build important technology companies. Our job is to make sure we are meeting those founders and choosing wisely about which ones to partner with for 10+ year journeys.”

Singapore-based Nektar.ai gets $6M to help B2B sales team collaborate more effectively

By Catherine Shu

A photo of Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Organizing information about prospective deals is a challenging task for B2B sales teams, since salespeople usually rely on multiple tools (email, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc) to talk with buyer committees. It becomes even more unwieldy when sales teams work remotely. Nektar.ai is a B2B sales productivity startup that wants to help sales team by reducing the amount of time they spend on manual data entry and providing analytics that can increase their revenue. The Singapore-based company announced today it has raised $6 million in seed funding, led by B Capital Group.

3One4 Capital and returning investor Nexus Venture Partners also participated, along with angel investors like Amit Midha, president of Asia Pacific and Japan at Dell; Ritesh Agarwal the founder and CEO of OYO Hotels;, Kevin Merritt, former president of Tyler Technologies’ data and insights division; Evan Davidson, SentinelOne’s vice president of Asia Pacific and Japan; Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers; and Tom Donlea, Ekata’s vice president and general manager of APAC.

Combined with its previous round, $2.15 million led by Nexus Venture Partners and announced in November 2020, the new funding brings Nektar.ai’s total seed capital to $8.1 million. The company says this is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a SaaS company based in Asia. Nektar.ai’s workforce is remote-first and the company says half of its team are women.

Nektar.ai has been in stealth mode since it was founded in 2020 by Abhijeet Vijayvergiya and Aravind Ravi Sulekha, working with hundreds of clients in private beta mode. Its waitlist is currently open for sign-ups, with plans to launch publicly in the first half of 2022. Part of Nektar.ai’s seed funding will be used to build a go-to-market team focused on the United States.

Nektar.ai was designed for SaaS revenue teams who have to manage information across many channels, including email, calendars, web conferences, Slack, CRM tools, LinkedIn and WhatsApp. This makes it hard for them to collaborate, follow playbooks (or sets of best practices) and get a full understanding of their deals pipeline and revenue. Nektar.ai integrates with different apps, surfaces key data and delivers it to the most convenient collaboration tool for a team, like Slack.

Vijayvergiya told TechCrunch that over the last six months, Nektar.ai accelerated product development because “we saw a strong demand for a guided selling solution in the market,” onboarding more than 200 prospects from its waitlist.

Nektar.ai launched a web console for managers, a Chrome extension and integrations with Salesforce, Google Workspace and Slack. It also added a new feature called Capture Bot, an AI-based system that automatically extracts important information from salespeople’ online interactions with buyer committees, surfacing data that would otherwise be tucked away in different inboxes and calendars. This increases the accuracy of their CRM tools and allows sales managers to see how engaged their teams are with potential customers and how prospective deals are progressing.

For individual representatives, Nektar.ai’s tools let them spend less time on manual data entry. They also get analytics like multithreading scores that help them identify how deals were won or lost. For example, Vijayvergiya said one client found they won deals if they had at least four contacts with a buyer committee after the demo stage. As a result, its sales representatives began engaging with more than four members of the buyer committee on all potential deals.

Another way Nektar.ai helps SaaS sales teams save money and time is building databases of first-party contacts from their inboxes. Vijayvergiya said one client was able to save $50,000 by organizing their existing contacts instead of purchasing third-party contact data.

In a statement, B Capital Group general partner Gabe Greenbaum said, “Nektar.ai’s solutions provide great value to distributed revenue teams, which is even more important as enterprises conduct further business across global markets. B Capital is always eager to work with experienced and knowledgeable founders, and we’re confident that Abhijeet, Aravind and the Nektar.ai team will continue their strong momentum on the path to becoming the industry-leading tool for enterprise sales productivity.”

Mixlab raises $20M to provide purrfect pharmacy experience for pet parents

By Christine Hall

Pet pharmacy Mixlab has developed a digital platform enabling veterinarians to prescribe medications and have them delivered — sometimes on the same day — to pet parents.

The New York-based company raised a $20 million Series A in a round of funding led by Sonoma Brands and including Global Founders Capital, Monogram Capital, Lakehouse Ventures and Brand Foundry. The new investment gives Mixlab total funding of $30 million, said Fred Dijols, co-founder and CEO of Mixlab.

Dijols and Stella Kim, chief experience officer, co-founded Mixlab in 2017 to provide a better pharmacy experience, with the veterinarian at the center.

Dijols’ background is in medical devices as well as healthcare investment banking, where he became interested in the pharmacy industry, following TruePill and PillPack, which he told TechCrunch were “creating a modern pharmacy model.”

As more pharmacy experiences revolved around at-home delivery, he found the veterinary side of pharmacy was not keeping up. He met Kim, a user experience expert, whose family owns a pharmacy, and wanted to bring technology into the industry.

“The pharmacy industry is changing a lot, and technology allows us to personalize the care and experience for the veterinarian, pet parent and the pet,” Kim said. “Customer service is important in healthcare as is dignity and empathy. We kept that in mind when starting Mixlab. Many companies use technology to remove the human element, but we use it to elevate it.”

Mixlab’s technology includes a digital service for veterinarians to streamline their daily medication workflow and gives them back time to spend with patient care. The platform manages the home delivery of medications across branded, generic and over-the-counter medications, as well as reduces a clinic’s on-site pharmacy inventories. Veterinarians can write prescriptions in seconds and track medication progress and therapy compliance.

The company also operates its own compound pharmacy where it specializes in making medications on-demand that are flavored and dosed.

On the pet parent side, they no longer have to wait up to a week for medications nor have to drive over to the clinic to pick them up. Medications come in a personalized care package that includes a note from the pharmacist, clear and easy-to-read instructions and a new toy.

Over the past year, adoptions of pets spiked as more people were at home, also leading to an increase in vet visits. This also caused the global pet care industry to boom, and it is now projected to reach $343 billion by 2030, when it had been valued at $208 billion in 2020.

Pet parents are also spending more on their pets, and a Morgan Stanley report showed that they see pets as part of their family, and as a result, 37% of people said they would take on debt to pay for a pet’s medical expenses, while 29% would put a pet’s needs before their own.

To meet the increased demand in veterinary care, the company will use the new funding to improve its technology and expand into more locations where it can provide same-day delivery. Currently it is shipping to 47 states and Dijols expects to be completely national by the end of the year. He also expects to hire more people on both the sales team and in executive leadership positions.

The company is already operating in New York and Los Angeles and growing 3x year over year, though Dijols admits operating during the pandemic was a bit challenging due to “a massive surge of orders” that came in as veterinarians had to shut down their offices.

As part of the investment, Keith Levy, operating partner at Sonoma Brands and former president of pet food manufacturer Royal Canin USA, will join Mixlab’s board of directors. Sonoma Brands is focused on growth sectors of the consumer economy, and pets was one of the areas that investors were interested in.

Over time, Sonoma found that within the veterinary community, there was space for a lot of players. However, veterinarians want to home in on one company they trust, and Mixlab fit that description for many because they were getting medication out faster, Levy said.

“What Mixlab is doing isn’t completely unique, but they are doing it better,” he added. “When we looked at their customer service metrics, we saw they had a good reputation and were relentlessly focused on providing a better experience.”

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Unicorns are ready for a haircut

By Natasha Mascarenhas

The digitization of your haircut may not have been on your 2020 bucket list, but 2021 has an even more surprising line item: Tech-powered barbershops are now a business proposition valued at nearly a billion dollars.

Squire is a back-end barbershop management tool for independent businesses. I first covered it in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The startup raised millions of dollars days before its key clientele — barber shops — were shut down across the country. The company eventually went from defense to offense in its growth strategy, finding itself as a key partner for any barbershop that needed to start offering contactless payments, digital appointment booking and a more seamless customer experience built for a generation used to doing everything online.

This week, Squire tripled its valuation thanks to a Tiger-Global-led round. The company is now worth $750 million, after being valued at around $75 million when we first spoke to them.

When I spoke to co-founder Dave Salvant, who launched the company with Songe LaRon in 2016, he explained how the company is now in a spot to expand into other barbershop-specific value propositions — either through acquisitions or partnerships. This week, for example, Squire announced that it launched a payment processing arm with Bond, a venture-backed fintech infrastructure company. The company also partnered with Gusto to bring on HR services for its clientele. Salvant noted how the progress of tech, especially financial services, lets them offer up a strong product without needing to build everything in-house.

While these are partnerships for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Squire begin to scoop up companies that can unlock value from its existing datasets of how barbershops function and what kind of capital comes in and out of those doors.

Behind the numbers:

It’s a company to watch that fits into the narrative of pandemic rocked, then proven startups looking to expand with fresh capitalization. Less common, though, is that Squire is now en route to becoming a historical and unfortunately still rare Black-led unicorn. More data points, the better.

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll discuss Robinhood’s public debut and why a CEO thinks everyone needs to be them for a day. You can find me on Twitter @nmasc_.

Robinhood sells Robinhood

illustration of robinhood feather logo spraypainted on a brick wall

Image Credits: TechCrunch

The long-awaited Robinhood IPO is no longer long-awaited. After pricing at the lower end of its range, the consumer investing and trading app’s shares went down sharply, teetering between 8% to 10%.

Here’s what to know: IPO expert and fellow Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm gave us two reasons as to why Robinhood’s stock went down. After all, we’re used to pops in the consumer-facing tech company world.

Robinhood made a big chunk of its IPO available to its own users. Or, in practice, Robinhood curtailed early retail demand by offering its investors and traders shares at the same price and level of access that big investors were given. It’s a neat idea. But by doing so, Robinhood may have lowered unserved retail interest in its shares, perhaps reshaping its early supply/demand curve.

Or maybe the company’s warnings that its trading volumes could decline in Q2 2021 scared off some bulls.

You get to be a CEO, you get to be a CEO!

Burst balloons and party streamers on wooden floor

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

Now that free beer is no longer a company perk, the next best one may have emerged: Let anyone in your company become CEO for a day. Vincit CEO Ville Houttu implemented this program at his company in 2018 and said that the initiative has paid off “tenfold.”

Here’s how it works, per the company:

The program gives our employee the reins for 24 hours with an unlimited budget. The only requirement? The CEO must make one lasting decision that will help improve the working experience of Vincit employees. Whatever the CEO of the Day decides, the company sticks with. They can purchase something for the company, change a policy, update a tool we use … Really, anything that they come up with can be done.

You can see the resulting policies in our story, but in my humble opinion, the end result is definitely better than free beer.

Around TC

  • The TechCrunch Disrupt Agenda just went live. It’s a must-read line up and a must-attend event. Some standouts:
    • Pot, Pottery and Beyond with Seth Rogen (Houseplant), Haneen Davies (Houseplant) and Michael Mohr (Houseplant)
    • Breaking the Bank with Brian Armstrong (Coinbase)
    • Speaking SPAC with Chamath Palihapitiya (Social Capital)
    • Dogmatic Design with Melanie Perkins (Canva)
  • Shout out to Amanda Silberling, a recent addition to the TechCrunch team who has been absolutely crushing her consumer tech beat. Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already!

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

For more public market news, subscribe to The Exchange by Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim.  

Seen on Extra Crunch

Talk soon,

N

5 lessons from Duolingo’s bellwether edtech IPO of the year

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Duolingo landed onto the public markets this week, rallying excitement and attention for the edtech sector and its founder cohort. The language learning business’ stock price soared when it began to trade, even after the unicorn raised its IPO price range, and priced above the raised interval.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

For those that want the entire story of Duolingo, from origin to messy monetization to historical IPO, check out our EC-1. It has dozens of interviews from executives, investors, linguists and competitors.

For today, though, we have fresh additions. We sat down with Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn earlier in the week to discuss not only his company’s IPO, but also what impact the listing may have on startups. Duolingo’s IPO can be looked at as a case study into consumer startups, mission-driven companies that monetize a small base of users, or education companies that recently hit scale. Paraphrasing from von Ahn, Duolingo doesn’t see itself as just an edtech company with fresh branding. Instead, it believes its growth comes from being an engineering-first startup.

Selling motivation, it seems, versus selling the fluency in a language is a proposition that international consumers are willing to pay for, and an idea that investors think can continue to scale to software-like margins.

1. The IPO event will bring “more sophistication” to Duolingo’s core service

Duolingo has gone through three distinct phases: Growth, in which it prioritized getting as many users as it could to its app; monetization, in which it introduced a subscription tier for survival; and now, education, in which it is focusing on tacking on more sophisticated, smarter technology to its service.

For tech firms, the risk of not preparing for leadership changes is huge

By Ram Iyer
Jason Dressel Contributor
Jason Dressel is president of History Factory, which helps companies use their history and heritage to enhance and transform strategy, positioning, marketing and communication.

Every week over the past three and a half years, an average of three CEOs have exited tech companies in the U.S. That tally is higher — in good times and bad — than in any of the other 26 for-profit sectors tracked by executive search firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. You’d think tech companies should be the paradigm of how to prep for leadership transitions, since they operate in such a constant state of flux.

They’re far from it.

A change of command is one of the most delicate moments in the life cycle of any organization. If mishandled, the transition from one CEO to the next can result in a loss of market valuation, momentum and focus, as well as key personnel, customers and partners. It may even become that turning point when an organization begins to slide toward irrelevance.

With so much at stake, 84% of tech execs agree that succession planning is more important than ever because of today’s fast-changing business environment, according to our new survey of corporate America’s leaders. Seven out of 10 survey respondents agreed that tech companies face more scrutiny than other multinationals during a transition.

84% of tech execs agree that succession planning is more important than ever because of today’s fast-changing business environment.

Yet we found that tech execs appear just as unprepared for C-suite transitions as their peers in other sectors. Three out of five respondents said their companies don’t have a documented plan to handle a leadership change, even though, by that same ratio, they acknowledge that a documented plan is the biggest determinant in seamless transitions.

The findings may not be troubling if these respondents were millennial startup founders, years from leaving their companies. The executives we polled, however, hail from 160 companies that have been in business for a minimum of 15 years — 35 are tech companies, the largest industry cohort in the survey.

The smallest companies have at least 1,500 employees and $500 million in annual revenue, while the largest have head counts of over 500,000 and revenue upward of $100 billion. They have been around long enough to understand — and put into place — risk management and crisis planning, including what happens should their leaders fall victim to the proverbial milk truck.

Tech execs should be more rigorous about succession planning for one important reason: institutional memory. Tech firms generally are younger than other companies of a similar size, which partly explains why the median age of S&P 500 companies plunged to 33 years in 2018 from 85 years in 2000, according to McKinsey & Co.

These enterprises clearly have accomplished a lot in their short lives, but in their haste, most have not captured their history, unlike their longer-lived peers in other sectors. Less than half of these tech firms, in fact, have formally recorded their leader’s story for posterity. That puts them at a disadvantage when, inevitably, they will be required to onboard newcomers to their C-suites.

It’s best to record this history well before the intense swirl of a leadership transition begins. Crucially, it will help the incoming and future generations of leadership understand critical aspects of its track record, the lessons learned, culture and identity. It also explains why the organization has evolved as it has, what binds people together and what may trigger resistance based on previous experience. It’s as much about moving forward as looking back.

Most execs in our poll get it, with 85% saying a company’s history can be a playbook for new executives to learn and prepare for upcoming challenges and opportunities. “History is the mother of innovation for any type of company,” one respondent said. “History,” writes another, “includes the roadmap to failures as well as successes.”

But this documented history cannot be a hagiography of the departing CEO. Too often, outgoing execs spend their last years in office constructing their own trophy cases. Even as they conceded their own flat-footedness on transition planning, the majority of execs said they have already taken steps to create and reinforce their personal legacies — two-thirds said they have already completed their own formal legacy planning, many with the blessing of their boards.

It’s ironic, then, that three out of five also said that the legacy of a CEO or founder often overshadows the skill set and experience a successor brings. Two-thirds of tech execs believed that the longer a leader has been in office, the more it complicates a transition.

Tech leaders can do this right and have done so. Asked which five big-name CEO transitions was most successful, respondents’ No. 1 was Apple’s handoff from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook (38%), followed by Microsoft’s page-turn from Steve Ballmer to Satya Nadella (28%). The others, at General Electric, General Motors and Goldman Sachs, each netted no more than 13% of votes.

Apple’s apparent predominance in this survey might contradict the advice to play down the aggrandizement of an exiting CEO and highlight the compilation and transfer of an organization’s history to the next chief executive. Jobs, after all, painstakingly managed his legacy until the end. But even as he continued to take center-stage, he also made sure to pass along Apple’s institutional knowledge and ethos to Cook over the 13 years they shared space on Apple’s executive floor.

Sooner or later, everyone in the C-suite today — including startup founders — will depart. For the sake of everyone they’ll leave behind, they should begin prepping for that day now.

Yat thinks emoji ‘identities’ can be a thing, and it has $20M in sales to back it up

By Amanda Silberling

I learned about Yat in April, when a friend sent our group chat a link to a story about how the key emoji sold as an “internet identity” for $425,000. “I hate the universe,” she texted.

Sure, the universe would be better if people with a spare $425,000 spent it on mutual aid or something, but minutes later, we were trying to figure out what this whole Yat thing was all about. And few more minutes later, I spent $5 (in USD, not crypto) to buy ☕👉💩❗, an emoji string that I think tells a moving story about my caffeine dependency and sensitive stomach. I didn’t think I would be writing about this when I made that choice.

Kesha’s Yat URL on Twitter

On the surface, Yat is a platform that lets you buy a URL with emojis in it — even Kesha (y.at/🌈🚀👽), Lil Wayne (y.at/👽🎵), and Disclosure (y.at/😎🎵😎) are using them in their Twitter bios. Like any URL on the internet, Yats can redirect to another website, or they can function like a more eye-catching Linktree. While users could purchase their own domain name that supports emojis and use it instead of a Yat, many people don’t have the technical expertise or time to do so. Instead, they can make one-time purchase from Yat, which owns the Y.at domain, and the company will provide your with your own y.at subdomain for you.

This convenience, however, comes at a premium. Yat uses an algorithm to determine your Yat’s “rhythm score,” its metric for determining how to price your emoji combo based on its rarity. Yats with one or two emojis are so expensive that you have to contact the company directly to buy them, but you can easily find a four- or five-emoji identity that’ll only put you out $4.

Beyond that, CEO Naveen Jain — a Y Combinator alumnus, founder of digital marketing company Sparkart, and angel investor — thinks that Yat is ultimately an internet privacy product. Jain wants people to be able to use their Yats in any way they’re able to use an online identity now, whether that’s to make payments, send messages, host a website, or login to a platform.

“Objectively, it’s a strange norm. You go on the internet, you register accounts with ad-supported platforms, and your username isn’t universal. You have many accounts, many usernames,” Jain said. “And you don’t control them. If an account wants to shut you down, they shut you down. How many stories are there of people trying to email some social network, and they don’t respond because they don’t have to?”

Yat doesn’t plan to fuel itself with ad money, since users pay for the product when they purchase their Yat, whether they get it for $4 or $400,000.

In the long run, Yat’s CEO says the company plans to use blockchain technology as a way to become self-sovereign. Yats would become assets issued on decentralized, distributed databases. Today, there are several projects working to create a decentralized alternative to the current domain name system (DNS), which is managed by internet regulatory authority ICANN.  DNS is how you find things on the internet, but uses a centralized, hierarchical system. A blockchain domain name system would have no central authority, and some believe this could be the foundation of a next-gen web, or “Web 3.0.”

Today, words like “blockchain” and “cryptocurrency” don’t appear on the Yat website. Jain doesn’t think that’s compelling to average consumers — he believes in progressive decentralization, which explains why Yats are currently purchased with dollars, not ethereum.

“Something we think is really funny about the cryptocurrency world is that anyone who’s a part of it spends a lot of time talking about databases,” Jain said. “People don’t care about databases. When’s the last time you went to a website and it said ‘powered by MySQL’?”

Y.at, however, was registered at a traditional internet registrar, not on the blockchain.

“We agree that this is early stage, there’s no debate about that,” said Jain. “This is laying the foundation — there are certain elements of the vision that are certainly more of a social contract than actual implementation at this point in time. But this is the vision that we’ve set forth, and we’re working continuously towards that goal.”

Still, until Yat becomes more decentralized, it can’t yet give users the complete control it aspires to. At present, the Terms & Conditions give Yat the authority to terminate or suspend users at its discretion, but the company claims it hasn’t yet booted anyone from the system.

As Yat becomes more decentralized, our terms and conditions won’t be important,” Jain said. “This is the nature of pursuing a progressive decentralization strategy.”

In its “generation zero” phase (an open beta), Yat has sold almost $20 million worth of emoji identities. Now, as the waitlist to get a Yat ends, Yat is posting some rare emoji identities on OpenSea, the NFT marketplace that recently reached a valuation of $1.5 billion.

A still image of a Yat visualizer creation

“For the first time ever, we’re going to be auctioning some Yats on OpenSea, and we’re going to be launching minting of Yats on Ethereum,” Jain said. Before minting Yats as NFTs, users can create a digital art landscape for their Yats through a Visualizer. These features, as well as new emojis in the Yat emoji set, will launch this evening at a virtual event called Yat Horizon.

Yat Creators will now have more rights,” Jain said about the new ability to mint Yats as NFTs. “We are going to continue to pursue progressive decentralization until we achieve our ultimate goal: making Yat the best self-directed, self-sovereign identity system for all.”

Consumers have a demonstrated interest in retaining greater privacy on the internet — data shows that in iOS 14.5, 96% of users opted out of ad tracking. But the decentralization movement hasn’t yet been able to market its privacy advantages to the mainstream. Yat helps solve this problem because even if you don’t understand what blockchain means, you understand that having a personal string of emojis is pretty fun. But, before you spend $425,000 on a single-emoji username, keep in mind that Yat’s vision will only completely materialize with the advent of Web 3.0, and we don’t yet know when or if that will happen.

Calendly CEO Tope Awotona is joining us at Disrupt 2021

By Jordan Crook

It all seems so simple. Instead of the dreaded back-and-forth on email, what if there was a solution that helped two parties (or multiple parties) schedule a call or a hangout?

Calendly was born out of that question. Today, the company is worth more than $3 billion, according to reports, and has more than 10 million users. The growth of the product is insane, with more than 1,000% growth from last year.

But that kind of success doesn’t come without hard work and dedication.

To hear more about the journey from bootstrapped to billions, Calendly founder and CEO Tope Awotona will join us at Disrupt this September.

P.S. Early Bird Tickets to Disrupt end today, Friday, July 30. Book your tickets now! 

Awotona put his entire life savings into Calendly and managed to bootstrap it for years before taking a $350 million funding round led by OpenView and Iconiq.

We’ll chat with Awotona about the early days of Calendly, how he navigated the hyper-growth phase, what made him choose to finally take institutional funding, his thoughts on pricing and packaging, and much more.

Awotona joins an incredible roster of speakers, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Mirror’s Brynn Putnam, Chamath Palihapitiya, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and more. Plus, Disrupt features the legendary Startup Battlefield competition, where startups from across the globe compete for $100,000 and eternal glory.

Disrupt’s virtual format provides plenty of opportunity for questions, so come prepared to ask the experts about the issues that keep you up at night.

One post can’t possibly contain all of Disrupt’s events. Don’t miss the epic Startup Battlefield competition, hundreds of early-stage startups exhibiting in the Startup Alley expo area, special breakout sessions — like the Pitch Deck Teardown — and so much more.

TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 offers tons of opportunities. Don’t miss out on the first one — buy your Disrupt pass today, July 30, by 11:59 pm (PT) for less than $100. It’s a sweet deal!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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