Productivity software has had a huge couple of years, yet for all of the great note-taking apps that have launched, consumers haven’t gotten a lot of quality options for Google Calendar replacements.
This week, Woven, a calendar startup founded by former Facebook CIO Tim Campos is shaking up the premium tier of their scheduling software, hoping that productivity-focused users will pay to further optimize the calendar experience just as they have paid up for subscription email services like Superhuman and note-taking apps like Notion.
There’s been a pretty huge influx of investor dollars into the productivity space which has shown a lot of promise in bottoms-up scaling inside enterprises by first aiming to sell their products to individuals. Woven has raised about $5 million to date with investments from Battery Ventures, Felicis Ventures and Tiny Capital, among others.
“Time is the most valuable asset that we have,” Campos told TechCrunch. “We think there’s a real opportunity to do much more with the calendar.”
Their new product will help determine just how much demand there is for a pro-tier calendar that aims to make life easier for professionals than Google Calendar or Outlook Calendar cares to. The new product, which is $20 per month ($10 during an early access period if you pay for a year), builds on the company’s free tier product giving users a handful of new features. There’s still quite a bit of functionality in the free tier still, which is sticking around, but the lack of multi-account support is one of the big limitations there.
Image credit: via Woven.
The core of Woven’s value is likely its Calendly-like scheduling links which allow single users to quickly show when they’re free, or give teams the ability to eliminate back-in-forth entirely when scheduling meetings by scanning everyone’s availability and suggesting times that are uniformly available. In this latest update, the startup has also launched a new feature called Open Invite which allows users to blast out links to join webinars that recipients can quickly register for.
One of Woven’s top features is probably Smart Templates which aims to learn from your habits and strip down the amount of time it takes to organize a meeting. Selecting the template can automatically set you up with a one-time Zoom link, ping participants for their availability with Woven’s scheduling links and take care of mundane details. Now, the titles automatically update depending on participants, location or company information as well. While plenty of productivity happens on the desktop, the startup is trying to push the envelope on mobile as well. They’ve added an iMessage integration to quickly allow people to share their availability and schedule meetings inside chat.
The product updates arrive soon after the announcement of the company’s Zoom “Zapp,” which shoves the app’s functionality inside Zoom and will likely be a bit sell to new users.
“I have to choose my words carefully,” says Joe Castelino of Stevens Creek Volkswagen in San Jose, Ca., when asked about the software on which most car dealerships rely for inventory information, to manage marketing, to handle customer relationships and to otherwise help sell cars.
Castelino, the dealership’s service director, laughs as he says this. But the joke has apparently been on car dealers, most of whom have largely relied on a few frustratingly antiquated vendors for their dealer management systems over the years — along with many more sophisticated point solutions.
It’s the precise opportunity that former Tesla CIO, Jay Vijayan, concluded he was well-positioned to address while still in the employ of the electric vehicle giant.
As Vijayan tells it, he knew nothing about cars until joining Tesla in 2011, following a dozen years of working in product development at Oracle, then VMWare. Yet he learned plenty over the subsequent four years. Specifically, he says he helped to build with Elon Musk a central analysis system inside Tesla, a kind of brain that could see all of the company’s internal systems, from what was happening in the supply chain to its factory systems to its retail platform.
Tesla had to build it itself, says Vijayan; after evaluating the existing software of third company providers, the team “realized that none of them had anything close to what we needed to provide a frictionless modern consumer experience.”
It was around then that a lightbulb turned on. If Tesla could transform the experience for its own customers, maybe Vijayan could transform the buying and selling experience for the much bigger, broader automotive industry. Enter Tekion, a now four-year-old, San Carlos, Ca., company that now employs 470 people and has come far enough along that just attracted $150 million in fresh funding led by the private equity investor Advent International.
With the Series C round — which also included checks from Index Ventures, Airbus Ventures, FM Capital and Exor, the holding company of Fiat-Chrysler and Ferrari — the company has now raised $185 million altogether. It’s also valued at north of $1 billion. (The automakers General Motors, BMW, and the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance are also investors.)
Eric Wei, a managing director at Advent, says that over the last decade, his team had been eager to seize on what’s approaching a $10 billion market annually. Instead, they found themselves tracking incumbents Reynolds & Reynolds, CDKGlobal and Dealertrack, which is owned by Cox Automotive, and waiting for a better player to emerge.
Then Wei was connected to Tekion through Jon McNeill, a former Tesla president and an advisory partner to Advent.
Says Wei of seeing its tech compared with its more established rivals: “It was like comparing a flip phone to an iPhone.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNeill, who worked at Tesla with Vijayan, also sings the company’s praises, noting that Tekion even bought a dealership in Gilroy — the “garlic capital” of California — to use as a kind of lab while it was building its technology from scratch.
Such praise is nice, but more importantly, Tekion is attracting the attention of dealers. Though citing competitive reasons, Vijayan declined to share how many have bought its cloud software — which connects dealers with both manufacturers and car buyers and is powered by machine learning algorithms — he says it’s already being used across 28 states.
One of these dealerships is the national chain Serra Automotive, whose founder, Joseph Serra, is now an investor in Tekion.
Another is that Volkswagen dealership in San Jose, where Castelino — who doesn’t have a financial interest in Tekion — speaks enthusiastically about the time and expenses his team is saving because of Tekion’s platform.
For example, he says a customers need only log-in now to flag a particular issue. After that, with the help of an RFID tag, Stevens Creek knows exactly when that customer pulls into the dealership and what kind of help they need, enabling people to greet him or her on arrival. Tekion can also make recommendations based on a car’s history. It might, for instance, suggest to a customer a brake fluid flush “without an advisor having to look through a customer’s history,” he says.
As important, he says, the dealership has been able to cut ties with a lot of other software vendors, while also making more productive use of its time. Says Castelino, “As soon as a [repair order] is live, it’s in a dispatcher’s hand and a technician can grab the car.”
It’s like that with every step, he insists. “You’re saving 15 minutes again and again, and suddenly, you have three hours where your intake can be higher.”
“More than 50% of our founders still are in their current jobs,” said John Vrionis, co-founder of seed-stage fund Unusual Ventures.
The fund, which closed a $400 million investment vehicle in November 2019, has noticed that more and more startup employees are thinking about entrepreneurship as the pandemic has shown how much room there is for new innovation. To gain a competitive advantage, Unusual is investing small checks into founders before they’re full-time.
Unusual, which cuts an average of eight checks per year into seed-stage companies, isn’t doling out millions to every employee who decides to leave Stripe. The firm is conservative with its spending and takes a more focused approach, often embedding a member from the firm into a portfolio company. It’s not meant to scale to dozens of portfolio companies a year, but instead requires a methodical approach.
One with a healthy pipeline of companies to choose from.
In an Extra Crunch Live chat, Vrionis and Sarah Leary, co-founder of Nextdoor and the firm’s newest partner, said lightweight investing matters in the early days of a company.
“There were a lot of teams that needed capital to start the journey, but frankly, it would have been over burdensome if they took on $2 or $3 million,” Leary said. “[New founders] want to be in a place where they have enough money to get going but not too much money that they get locked into a ladder in terms of expectations that they’re not ready to take advantage of.” The checks that Unusual cuts in pre-seed often range between $100,000 to half a million dollars.
Leary chalks up the boom to the disruption in consumer behavior, which opens up the opportunity for new companies to win.
While certifications for security management practices like SOC 2 and ISO 27001 have been around for a while, the number of companies that now request that their software vendors go through (and pass) the audits to be in compliance with these continues to increase. For a lot of companies, that’s a harrowing process, so it’s maybe no surprise that we are also seeing an increase in startups that aim to make this process easier. Earlier this month, Strike Graph, which helps automate security audits, announced its $3.9 million round, and today, Secureframe, which also helps businesses get and maintain their SOC 2 and ISO 27001 certifications, is announcing a $4.5 million round.
Secureframe’s round was co-led by Base10 Partners and Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. BoxGroup, Village Global, Soma Capital, Liquid2, Chapter One, Worklife Ventures and Backend Capital participated. Current customers include Stream, Hasura and Benepass.
Shrav Mehta, the company’s co-founder and CEO, spent time at a number of different companies, but he tells me the idea for Secureframe was mostly born during his time at direct-mail service Lob.
“When I was at Lob, we dealt with a lot of issues around security and compliance because we were sometimes dealing with very sensitive data, and we’d hop on calls with customers, had to complete thousand-line security questionnaires, do exhaustive security reviews, and this was a lot for a startup of our size at the time. But it’s just what our customers needed. So I started to see that pain,” Mehta said.
After stints at Pilot and Scale AI after he left Lob in 2017 — and informally helping other companies manage the certification process — he co-founded Secureframe together with the company’s CTO, Natasja Nielsen.
“Because Secureframe is basically adding a lot of automation with our software — and making the process so much simpler and easier — we’re able to bring the cost down to a point where this is something that a lot more companies can afford,” Mehta explained. “This is something that everyone can get in place from day one, and not really have to worry that, ‘hey, this is going to take all of our time, it’s going to take a year, it’s going to cost a lot of money.’ […] We’re trying to solve that problem to make it super easy for every organization to be secure from day one.”
The main idea here is to make the arcane certification process more transparent and streamline the process by automating many of the more labor-intensive tasks of getting ready for an audit (and it’s virtually always the pre-audit process that takes up most of the time). Secureframe does so by integrating with the most-often used cloud and SaaS tools (it currently connects to about 25 services) and pulling in data from them to check up on your security posture.
“It feels a lot like a QuickBooks or TurboTax-like experience, where we’ll essentially ask you to enter basic details about your business. We try to autofill as much of it as possible from third-party sources — then we ask you to connect up all the integrations your business uses,” Mehta explained.
The company plans to use much of the new funding to staff up and build out these integrations. Over time, it will also add support for other certifications like PCI, HITRUST and HIPAA.
Milk substitutes are a $1 trillion category and Perfect Day is angling to be the leader in the market. Iger’s ascension to a director position at the company just affirms that Perfect Day is a big business in the big business of making milk replacements.
Unlike almond milk or soy milk companies, Perfect Day is angling to be a direct replacement for bovine dairy using a protein cultivated from mushrooms.
The move comes as Perfect Day ramps up its development of consumer products on its own and through investments in startups like the Urgent Company. That’s the consumer food company Perfect Day backed to commercialize technologies and create more sustainable food brands.
For Iger, the Perfect Day board represents the first new board seat the longtime entertainment powerbroker has taken since he left Apple.
“Innovation and leadership are both key to world changing ideas,” said Iger, in a statement. “Perfect Day has established both innovation in its use of technology and novel approach to fighting climate change, and clear leadership in building a category with a multi-year head start in the industry they’re helping to build. I’m thrilled to join at this pivotal moment and support the company’s swift growth into new categories and markets.”
Iger joins Perfect Day’s co-founders Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, and representatives from the company’s international backers and lead investors, Aftab Mathur, from Temasek Holdings, and Patrick Zhang, of Horizons Ventures.
Until yesterday, Perfect Day was the most well-capitalized protein fermentation company focused on dairy in the world. That’s when Impossible Foods, the alternative meat manufacturer which has raised $1.5 billion from investors, unveiled that it, too, was working on a dairy product.
Perfect Day, by contrast, has raised $360 million in total funding to-date.
“We’re thrilled to have Bob Iger join our team, and are confident his tenured operational expertise and visionary leadership style will further help us scale our ambitions,” said Ryan Pandya, the chief executive and co-founder of Perfect Day, in a statement. “We’re focused on rapid commercialization in the U.S. and globally. But we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re excited and humbled to have a proven leader like Bob to help us thoughtfully transform our purpose-driven aspirations into tangible and sustainable impact.”
TechCrunch readers probably know that privacy regulations like Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA give them additional rights around their personal data — like the ability to request that companies delete your data. But how many of you have actually exercised that right?
An Israeli startup called Mine is working to make that process much simpler, and it announced this morning that it has raised $9.5 million in Series A funding.
Ringel explained that Mine scans users’ inboxes to help them understand who has access to their personal data.
“Every time that you do an online interaction, such as you sign up for a service or purchase a flight ticket, those companies, those services leave some clues or traces within your inbox,” he said.
Image Credits: Mine
Mine then cross-references that information with the data collection and privacy policies of the relevant companies, determining what data they’re likely to possess. It calculates a risk score for each company — and if the user decides they want a company to delete their data, Mine can send an automated email request from the user’s own account.
Ringel argued that this is a very different approach to data privacy and data ownership. Instead of building “fences” around your data, Mine makes you more comfortable sharing that data, knowing that you can take control when necessary.
“The product gives [consumers] the freedom to use the internet feeling more secure, because they know they can exercise their right to be forgotten,” he said.
Ringel noted that the average Mine user has a personal data footprint across 350 companies — and the number is more like 550 in the United States. I ran a Mine audit for myself and, within a few minutes, found that I’m pretty close to the U.S. average. (Ringel said the number doesn’t include email newsletters.)
Mine launched in Europe earlier this year and says it has already been used by more than 100,000 people to send 1.3 million data deletion requests.
The legal force behind those requests will differ depending on where you live and which company you are emailing, but Ringel said that most companies will comply even when they’re not legally required to do so, because it’s part of creating a better privacy experience that helps them “earn trust and credibility from consumers.” Plus, “Most of them understand that if you want to go, they’ve already lost you.”
The startup’s core service is available for free. Ringel said the company will make money with premium consumer offerings, like the ability to offload the entire conversation with a company when you want your data deleted. It will also work with businesses to create a standard interface around privacy and data deletion.
As for whether giving Mine access to your inbox creates new privacy risks, Ringel said that the startup collects the “bare minimum” of data — usually just your email address and your full name. Otherwise, it knows “the type of data, but not the actual data” that other companies have obtained.
“We would never share or sell your data,” he added.
The Series A was led by Google’s AI-focused venture fund Gradient Ventures, with participation from e.ventures, MassMutual Ventures, as well as existing investors Battery Ventures and Saban Ventures. Among other things, Ringel said the money will fund Mine’s launch in the United States.
SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.
The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.
Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.
The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.
“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”
SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers. Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.
SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.
With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”
The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.
Over 90% of the fastest-growing open-source companies in 2020 were founded outside the San Francisco Bay Area, and 12 out of the top 20 originate in Europe, according to a new study. The “ROSS Index”, created by Runa Capital lists the fastest-growing open-source startups with public repositories on Github every quarter.
Interestingly, the company judged to be the fastest-growing on the latest list, Plausible, is an ‘open startup’ (all its metrics are published, including revenues) and states on its website that it is “not interested in raising funds or taking investment. Not from individuals, not from institutions and not from venture capitalists. Our business model has nothing to do with collecting and analyzing huge amounts of personal information from web users and using these behavioral insights to sell advertisements.” It says it builds a self-sustainable “privacy-friendly alternative to very popular and widely used surveillance capitalism web analytics tools”.
Admittedly, ‘Github stars’ are not a totally perfect metric to measure the product-market fit of open-source companies. However, the research shows a possible interesting trend away from the VC-backed startups of the last ten years.
There have been previous attempts to create similar lists. In 2017 Battery Ventures published its own BOSS Index, but the index was abandoned. In September 2020 Accel revealed its Open100 market map, which included many open-source startups.
The high churn rates at Github mean the list of companies will change significantly every quarter. For instance, this recent finding by ROOS has only four companies that were mentioned in the previous list (Q2 2020): Hugging Face, Meili, Prisma and Framer.
Of course, open-source doesn’t mean these companies will never monetize or not go on to raise venture capital.
And Runa Capital clearly has an interest in publishing the list. It has invested in several open-source startups, including Nginx (acquired by F5 Networks for $670M), MariaDB and N8N, and recently raised a $157M fund aimed at open-source startups.
Bradley Tusk has become known in recent years for being involved in what’s about to get hot, from his early days advising Uber, to writing one of the first checks to the insurance startup Lemonade, to pushing forward the idea that we should be using the smart devices in our pockets to vote.
Indeed, because he’s often at the vanguard, it wasn’t hugely surprising when Tusk, like a growing number of other investors, formed a $300 million SPAC or special acquisition company, one that he and a partner plan to use to target a business in the leisure, gaming, or hospitality industry, according to a regulatory filing.
Because Tusk — a former political operative who ran the successful third mayoral campaign for Mike Bloomberg — seems adept at seeing around corners, we called him up late last week to ask whether SPACs are here to stay, how a Biden administration might impact the startup investing landscape, and how worried (or not) big tech should be about this election. You can hear the full conversation here. Owing to length, we are featuring solely the part of our conversation that centered on SPACs.
BT: They are down today last I checked. When you only check once in a blue moon, you’re like, ‘Hey, look at how great this is,’ whereas if, like me, you check me every day, you’re like, ‘It lost 4%, where’s my money?’
We got really lucky; Lemonade was our second deal that we did out of our first fund, and the fact that it IPO’d within four years of the company’s founding is pretty amazing.
TC: Is it amazing? I wonder what it says about the common complaint that the traditional IPO process is bad — is it just an excuse?
BT: [CEO] Daniel Schrieber was very clear that he and [cofounder] Shai Wininger had a strategy from day one to go public as quickly as they possibly could, because in his view, an IPO is supposed to represent kind of the the beginning. It’s the ‘Okay, we’ve proven that there’s product market fit, we’ve proven that there’s customer demand; now let’s see what we can really do with this thing.’ And it’s supposed to be about hope and promise and future and excitement. And if you’ve been a private company for 10 years, and you’re worth tens of billions of dollars and your growth is already starting to flatten out a little bit, it’s just much less exciting for public investors.
The question now for everyone in our business is what happens with Airbnb in a few weeks or whenever they are [staging an IPO]. Will that pixie dust be there, or will they have been around so long that the market is kind of indifferent?
TC: Is that why we’re seeing so many SPACs? Some of that pixie dust is gone. No one knows when the IPO window might shut. Let’s get some of these companies out into the public market while we still can?
BT: No, I don’t I don’t think so. I think SPACs have become a way to raise a lot of money very quickly. It took me two years to raise $37 million for my first venture fund, and three months was the entire process for me to raise $300 million for my SPAC. So it’s a mechanism that is highly efficient and right now is so popular with public market investors that there is just a lot of opportunity, and people are grabbing it. In fact, now you’re hearing about people who are planning SPACs having to pull [them] back because there’s a ton of competition right now.
At the end of the day, the fundamentals still rule. If you take a really bad company public through a SPAC, maybe the excitement of the SPAC gets you an early pop. But if the company has neither good unit economics nor high growth, there’s no real reason to believe it will be successful. And especially for the people in the SPAC, where they have to hold on to it for a little while, by the time the lockup ends, the world has probably figured out that this is not the greatest IPO of all time. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.
TC: You say you raised the SPAC very quickly. How is the investor profile different than that of a typical venture fund investor?
BT: The investors for this SPAC — at least when I did the roadshow, and I think I did 28 meetings over a couple of days — is mainly hedge funds and people who don’t really invest in venture at all, so there was no overlap between my [venture fund] LP base and the people who invested in our SPAC that I’m aware of. These are public market investors who are used to moving very quickly. There’s a lot more liquidity in a SPAC. We have two years to acquire something, but ultimately, it’s a public property, so investors can come in and out as they see fit.
TC: So it’s mostly hedge funds that are getting paid management fees to deploy their capital in this comparatively safe way and that are getting interest on the money invested, too, while it’s sitting around in a trust while [the SPAC managers] look for a target company.
BT: Why it kind of does make sense for [them to back] VCs is they are basically making the bet to say: does this person running the SPAC have enough deal flow, enough of a public profile, enough going on that they are going to come across the right target? And venture investors in many ways fit that profile because we just look at so many companies before deploying capital.
TC: Do you have to demonstrate some kind of public markets expertise in order to convince some of these investors that you know what it takes to take a company public and grow it in the public markets?
BT: I guess. We raised the money, so I guess I passed the test. But I did spend a little under two years on Wall Street; I created the lottery privatization group of Lehman Brothers. And my partner [in the SPAC], Christian Goode, has a lot of experience with big gaming companies. But overall, I think that if you are a venture investor with a ton of deal flow and a good track record but very little or no public market experience, I don’t know that that would disqualify you from being able to rate a SPAC.
Klar, a new online bank based in Mexico City, has become the first big bet that Prosus Ventures (the firm formerly known as Naspers Ventures) is taking in Latin America outside of Brazil.
Founded by Stefan Moller, a former consultant at Bain & Co. who advised large banks, Klar blends Moller’s work experience in Mexico with his connections to the German banking world and the tech team at Berlin -based n26, to create a challenger bank offering deposit and credit services for Mexican customers.
The Mexican market is woefully underserved when it comes to the finance industry, according to Moller. Only 10% of Mexican adults have a credit card, something Moller said is the cheapest consumer lending instrument around.
That’s why Klar launched last year with both credit and debit services. The company has 200,000 banking customers and roughly 27,000 of those customers have taken out loans through the bank. A typical loan is roughly $110, according to Moller, and each loan comes with a 68% annual percentage rate.
If that sounds usurious, that’s because it is — at least by U.S. standards. In the U.S. a typical credit card will run somewhere between 16% and 24%, according to data from WalletHub. In Mexico, Moller said the typical interest rate is 70% (no wonder only 10% of adults have credit cards).
Still, the opportunity to expand credit and debit services made sense to Prosus, which led the company’s Series A round alongside investors including the International Finance Corporation and former investors Quona capital, who led Klar´s SEED round, Mouro Capital (formerly Santander Innoventures) and aCrew.
Banafsheh Fathieh, the Prosus Ventures principal who led the investment for the firm, said that the commitment to Klar will likely be the first of many investments that her firm makes in the region — both in fintech and likely in Mexico’s tech ecosystem more broadly.
Prosus is famous for making early bets on emerging technology companies in developing markets. Perhaps most famously the firm’s parent company was an early investor in Tencent — a multi-million dollar bet that has generated billions in returns.
“Prosus Ventures partners with entrepreneurs that are solving big societal problems with technology, in a uniquely local way. We invest in sectors of the economy where technology can lead to meaningful change in the lives of consumers. Klar has identified a massive need in the Mexican financial market and brings a unique solution through their credit and debit offering,” said Banafsheh Fathieh from Prosus Ventures, in a statement. “In less than a year, the team has shown an ability to build a world-class digital bank for the masses, one focused on financial access and inclusion. We are very excited to partner with them on that mission.”
The Unusual Ventures team has investments spanning the consumer and enterprise space, including Robinhood, AppDynamics, Mulesoft, Winnie and more. That short list could be the basis for a fascinating chat, but I also want to hear their thoughts on the democratization of venture capital, their appetite ahead of the election and the future of remote work. A big goal of mine is to squash some of the buzzwords we hear on tech Twitter so we can get an honest take on where one VC firm is sitting right now in a chaotic year.
As we wrote last week, this year has been everything but business as usual for the venture and tech community. And we still have an election ahead of us! I’ll ask Leary and Vrionis to share their framework for working through a looming event such as a presidential election and get their ideas on how early-stage is working more broadly.
Thanks to all of you who have joined us for our ongoing live chat series, which has brought on big names in tech such as Sydney Sykes, Alexia von Tobel, Mark Cuban and more (all recordings are still accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers to watch and learn from).
If you’re new, welcome! You’ll be able to ask our experts questions live as long as you’re an EC member (sign up for Extra Crunch here).
Come hang, bring snacks and prep some good questions. We’d love to have you.
Below are links so you can make it:
The web of collaboration apps invading remote work toolkits have led to plenty of messy workflows for teams that communicate in a language of desktop screenshots and DMs. Tracing a suggestion or flagging a bug in a company’s website forces engineers or designers to make sense of the mess themselves. While task management software has given teams a funnel for the clutter, the folks at Jam question why this functionality isn’t just built straight into the product.
Jam co-founders Dani Grant and Mohd Irtefa tell TechCrunch they’ve closed on $3.5 million in seed funding and are ready to launch a public beta of their collaboration platform which builds chat, comments and task management directly onto a website, allowing developers and designers to track issues and make suggestions quickly and simply
The seed round was led by Union Square Ventures, where co-founder Dani Grant previously worked as an analyst. Version One Ventures, BoxGroup and Village Global also participated alongside some noteworthy angels including GitHub CTO Jason Warner, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and former Robinhood VP Josh Elman.
Like most modern productivity suites, Jam is heavy on integrations so users aren’t forced to upend their toolkits just to add one more product into the mix. The platform supports Slack, Jira, GitHub, Asana, Loom and Figma, with a few more in the immediate pipeline. Data syncs from one platform to the other bidirectionally so information is always fresh, Grant says. It’s all built into a tidy sidebar.
Grant and Irtefa met as product managers at Cloudflare, where they started brainstorming better ways to communicate feedback in a way that felt like “leaving digital sticky notes all over a product,” Grant says. That thinking ultimately pushed the duo to leave their jobs this past May and start building Jam.
The startup, like so many conceived during this period, has a remote founding story. Grant and Irtefa have only spent four days together in-person since the company was started, they raised their seed round remotely and most of the employees have never met each other in-person.
The remote team hopes their software can help other remote teams declutter their workflows and focus on what they’re building.
“On a product team, the product is the first tab everyone opens and closes,” Grant says. “So we’re on top of your product instead of on some other platform”
Before Nick Macario launched Verifiable, the Austin-based company that just raised $3 million for its api toolkit that verifies healthcare credentials, he ran a series of other businesses designed to offer public credentials for professionals.
His first foray into the world of identity management services was the personal website builder, branded.me. After that company was sold, Macario launched Remote.com, an outsourced provider of human resources services that was constantly running background checks and verifying employee credentials.
That’s where Macario got the idea for Verifiable and struck on a market opportunity that’s exploding thanks to the proliferation of telemedicine and on-demand services, and the shortage of qualified medical candidates to fill positions and meet growing demand.
This boom in remote medical services is one reason why Macario, working with co-founder and chief technology officer, Vivekanand Rajkumar, was able to raise $3 million from investors including Tiger Global, Liquid2 Ventures, Struck Capital, Soma Capital, Jack Altman, Max Mullen, and Sahil Lavingia.
“We’re at an inflection point with healthcare,” said Macario. “There are large volumes of healthcare verifications and certifications that are being verified manually… and the lack of infrastructure and credentialing is a big part of the bottleneck holding healthcare back.”
Verifiable uses Dock, a blockchain based ledger company that issues digital credentials and anchors them to a public ledger.
Verifiable provides an API that connects to hundreds of primary sources to keep updated records on the 17 million licensed healthcare providers working in the U.S.
Companies like Talkspace, Sesame and Verge Health are already using the API to automate real-time verifications for more than 50,000 healthcare providers.
“From a broader scale, we’re automating credentialing processes, but specifically we’re automating licensing verification and monitoring,” Macario said.
The Verifiable chief executive estimates that several billions of dollars in revenue and fines are lost every year because healthcare providers don’t keep up with the credentialing and licensing practitioners need to work in the U.S.
“It’s not a one-and-done verification,” says Macario. “You need to check on a monthly basis to make sure that providers are compliant.”
Verifiable’s management service can range anywhere from two to ten dollars depending on how deeply a potential employer wants to dive to confirm the standing and licensing of their practitioners. The price is based on the number of verifications and the number of healthcare providers that need to be verified.
And while Verifiable is starting with a specific focus on verification, the company has much bigger vision. “Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data. It connects to many different areas of healthcare,” Macario said.
We’re starting in a specific focus with verification.. Where we’re excited about going is identity and healthcare provider data… it connects to many different areas of healthcare.
In the computing world, there are probably more types of chips available than your local supermarket snack aisle. Diverse computing environments (data centers and the cloud, edge, mobile devices, IoT, and more), different price points, and varying capabilities and performance requirements are scrambling the chip industry, resetting who has the lead right now and who might take the lead in new and emerging niches.
While there has been a spate of new chip startups like Cerebras, SiFive, and Nuvia funded by venture capitalists in the past two years, Flex Logix got its footing a bit earlier. The company, founded in 2014 by former Rambus founder Geoff Tate and Cheng Wang, has collectively raised $27 million from investors Lux Capital and Eclipse Ventures, along with Tate himself.
Flex Logix wants to bring AI processing workflows to the compute edge, which means it wants to offer technology that adds artificial intelligence to products like medical imaging equipment and robotics. At the edge, processing power obviously matters, but so does size and price. More efficient chips are easier to include in products, where pricing may put constraints on the cost of individual components.
In the first few years of the company, it focused on developing and licensing IP around FPGAs, or reprogrammable chips that can be changed after manufacturing through software. These flexible chips are critical in applications like AI or 5G, where standards and models change rapidly. It’s a market that is dominated by Xilinx and Altera, which was acquired by Intel for $16.7 billion back in 2015.
Flex Logix saw an opportunity to be “the ARM of FPGAs” by helping other companies develop their own chips. It built customer traction for its designs with organizations like Sandia National Laboratory, the Department of Defense and Boeing. More recently, it has been developing its own line of chips called InferX X1, creating a hybrid business model not unlike the model that Nvidia will have after its acquisition of ARM clears through regulatory hurdles.
With that background out of the way, Flex Logix unveiled the availability of its X1 chip, which is currently slated to be offered at four speeds ranging from 533Mhz to 933Mhz. CEO Tate stressed on our call that the company’s key differential is price: those chips will be priced between $99-$199 depending on chip speed for smaller orders, and $34-$69 per chip for large-scale orders.
It’s a chip, alright. Ain’t a lot of great stock art. But here is the X1. Photo via Flex Logix.
The reason those chips are cheaper is that they are significantly smaller than competing chips from Nvidia in its Jetson chip lineup according to Tate, up to 1/7 the size. Smaller chips generally have lower costs, since each wafer in a chip fab can hold more chips, amortizing the cost of manufacturing over more chips. According to the company, its chips outperform Nvidia’s Xavier module, although independent benchmarks aren’t available.
“Every customer we talk to wants more processing power per dollar, more processing power per unit of power … and with our die-size advantage we can give them more for their money,” Tate explained.
Customer samples for these new chips are expected to arrive in the first quarter next year, with scale manufacturing in the second quarter.
The company’s plan is to continue both sides of its business and continue to grow and mature its technology. “Our embedded FPGA businesses is now, as a standalone, profitable. The amount of money we’re bringing in exceeds the engineering and business. And now we’re developing this new business for inference which ultimately should be a bigger business because the market is growing very fast in the inference space,” Tate explained.
The company’s board consists of Peter Hébert and Shahin Farshchi of Lux, Pierre Lamond at Eclipse, and Kushagra Vaid, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft Azure. The company is based in Mountain View, California.
Vectary, a design platform for 3D and Augmented Reality (AR), has raised a $7.3 million round led by European fund EQT Ventures. Existing investor BlueYard (Berlin) also participated.
Vectary makes high-quality 3D design more accessible for consumers, garnering over one million creators worldwide, and has more than a thousand digital agencies and creative studios as users.
With the coronavirus pandemic shifting more people online, Vectary says it has seen a 300% increase in AR views as more businesses start showcasing their products in 3D and AR.
Vectary was founded in 2014 by Michal Koor (CEO) and Pavol Sovis (CTO), who were both from the design and technology worlds.
The complexity of using and sharing content created by traditional 3D design tools has been a barrier to the adoption of 3D, which is what Vectary addresses.
Although Microsoft, Facebook and Apple are making it easier for consumers, the creative tools remain lacking. Vectary believes that seamless 3D/AR content creation and sharing will be key to mainstream adoption.
Designers and creatives can use Vectary to apply 2D design on a 3D object in Figma or Sketch; create 3D customizers in Webflow with Embed API; and add 3D interactivity to decks.
A startup that is aiming to digitize millions of neighborhood stores in Bangladesh just raised the country’s largest Series A financing round.
Dhaka-headquartered ShopUp said on Tuesday it has raised $22.5 million in a round co-led by Sequoia Capital India and Flourish Ventures. For both the venture firms, this is the first time they are backing a Bangladeshi startup. Veon Ventures, Speedinvest, and Lonsdale Capital also participated in the four-year-old ShopUp’s Series A financing round. ShopUp has raised about $28 million to date.
Like its neighboring nation, India, more than 95% of all retail in Bangladesh goes through neighborhood stores in the country. There are about 4.5 million such mom-and-pop stores in the country and the vast majority of them have no digital presence.
ShopUp is attempting to change that. It has built what it calls a full-stack business-to-business commerce platform. It provides three core services to neighborhood stores: a wholesale marketplace to secure inventory, logistics (including last mile delivery to customers), and working capital, explained Afeef Zaman, co-founder and chief executive of ShopUp, in an interview with TechCrunch.
Image Credits: ShopUp
These small shops are facing a number of challenges. They are not getting inventory on time or enough inventory and they are paying more than what they should, said Zaman. And for these businesses, more than 73% (PDF) of all their sales rely on credit instead of cash or digital payments, creating a massive liquidity crunch. So most of these businesses are in dire need of working capital.
Zaman declined to reveal how many mom-and-pop shops today use ShopUp, but claimed that the platform assumes a clear lead in its category in the country. That lead has widened amid the global pandemic as more physical shops explore digital offerings to stay afloat, he said.
The number of neighborhood shops transacting weekly on the ShopUp platform grew by 8.5 times between April and August this year, he said. The pandemic also helped ShopUp engage with e-commerce players to deliver items for them.
“Sequoia India has been a strong supporter of the company since it was part of the first Surge cohort in early 2019 and it’s been exciting to see the company become a trailblazer facilitating digital transformation in Bangladesh,” said Klaus Wang, VP, Sequoia Capital, in a statement.
The startup has no intention to become an e-commerce platform like Amazon that directly engages with consumers, Zaman said. E-commerce is still in its nascent stage in Bangladesh. Amazon has yet to enter the country and increasingly Facebook is filling that role.
ShopUp sees immense opportunity in serving neighborhood stores, he said. The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to deepen its partnerships with manufacturers and expand its tech infrastructure.
It opened an office in Bengaluru earlier this year to hire local tech talent in the nation. Indian e-commerce platform Voonik merged with ShopUp this year and both of its co-founders have joined the Bangladeshi startup. Zaman said the startup will hire more engineering talent in India.
This marks the second AI-fueled networking company Juniper has acquired in the last year and a half after purchasing Mist Systems in March 2019 for $405 million. With 128 Technology, the company gets more AI SD-WAN technology. SD-WAN is short for software-defined wide area networks, which means networks that cover a wide geographical area such as satellite offices, rather than a network in a defined space.
Today, instead of having simply software-defined networking, the newer systems use artificial intelligence to help automate session and policy details as needed, rather than dealing with static policies, which might not fit every situation perfectly.
Writing in a company blog post announcing the deal, executive vice president and chief product officer Manoj Leelanivas sees 128 Technology adding great flexibility to the portfolio as it tries to transition from legacy networking approaches to modern ones driven by AI, especially in conjunction with the Mist purchase.
“Combining 128 Technology’s groundbreaking software with Juniper SD-WAN, WAN Assurance and Marvis Virtual Network Assistant (driven by Mist AI) gives customers the clearest and quickest path to full AI-driven WAN operations — from initial configuration to ongoing AIOps, including customizable service levels (down to the individual user), simple policy enforcement, proactive anomaly detection, fault isolation with recommended corrective actions, self-driving network operations and AI-driven support,” Leelanivas wrote in the blog post.
128 Technologies was founded in 2014 and raised over $96 million, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent round was a $30 million Series D investment in September 2019 led by G20 Ventures and The Perkins Fund.
In addition to the $450 million, Juniper has asked 128 Technology to issue retention stock bonuses to encourage the startup’s employees to stay on during the transition to the new owners. Juniper has promised to honor this stock under the terms of the deal. The deal is expected to close in Juniper’s fiscal fourth quarter, subject to normal regulatory review.
Lawmatics, a San Diego startup that’s building marketing and CRM software for lawyers, is announcing that it has raised $2.5 million in seed funding.
CEO Matt Spiegel used to practice law himself, and he told me that even though tech companies have a wide range of marketing tools to choose from, “lawyers have not been able to adopt them,” because they need a product that’s tailored to their specific needs.
That’s why Spiegel founded Lawmatics with CTO Roey Chasman. He said that a law firm’s relationship with its clients can be divided into three phases — intake (when a client is deciding whether to hire a firm); the active legal case; and after the case has been resolved. Apparently most legal software is designed to handle phase two, while Lawmatics focuses on phases one and three.
The platform includes a CRM system to manage the initial client intake process, as well as tools that can automate a lot of what Spiegel called the “blocking and tackling” of marketing, like sending birthday messages to former clients — which might sound like a minor task, but Spiegel said it’s crucial for law firms to “nurture” those relationships, because most of their business comes from referrals.
Lawmatics’ early adopters, Spiegel added, have consisted of the firms in areas where “if you need a lawyer, you go to Google and start searching ‘personal injury,’ ‘bankruptcy,’ ‘estate planning,’ all these consumer-driven law firms.” And the pandemic led to accelerated the startup’s growth, because “lawyers are at home now, their business is virtual and they need more tools.”
Spiegel’s had success selling technology to lawyers in the past, with his practice management software startup MyCase acquired by AppFolio in 2012 (AppFolio recently sold MyCase to a variety of funds for $193 million). He said that the strategies for growing both companies are “almost identical” — the products are different, but “it’s really the same segment, running the same playbook, only with additional go-to-market strategies.”
The funding was led by Eniac Ventures and Forefront Venture Partners, with participation from Revel Ventures and Bridge Venture Partners.
“In my 10 years investing I have witnessed few teams more passionate, determined, and capable of revolutionizing an industry,” said Eniac’s Tim Young in a statement. “They have not only created the best software product the legal market has seen, they have created a movement.”
Dee Goens and Jacob Horne have both the exact and precisely opposite background that you’d expect to see from two people building a way for creators to build a sustainable economy for their followers to participate in. Coinbase, crypto-hack projects at university, KPMG, Merrill Lynch. But where’s the art?
“Believe it or not, I used to have dreams of being a rapper,” laughs Goens. “There’s a SoundcCloud out there somewhere. With that passion you explore the inner workings of the music industry. I would excitedly ask industry friends about the advance and 360 deal models only to realize they were completely broken.”
And, while many may be well-intentioned, these deal structures often exploit artistry. In many cases taking the majority of an artist’s ownership. “I grew curious why artists were unable to resource themselves from their community in an impactful way — but instead, were forced to seek out potentially predatory relationships. To me, this was bullshit.”
Horne says that he’d always wanted to create a fashion brand.
“I always thought a fashion brand would be something I’d do after crypto,” he tells me. “I love crypto but it felt overly focused on just finance and felt like it was missing something. Then I started to play with the idea of combining these two passions and starting Saint Fame.”
While at Coinbase, Horne hacked on Saint Fame, a side project that leveraged some of the ideas on display in Zora. It was a marketplace that allowed people to sell and trade items with cryptocurrency, buying intermediate variable-value tokens redeemable for future goods.
“I realized that culture itself was shaped and built upon an old financial system that is systemically skewed against artists and communities,” says Horne. “The operating system of ownership was built in the 1600s with the Dutch East India Trading Company and early Nation States. Like what the fuck is up with that?”
We have the internet now, we can literally create and share information to billions of people all at once, and the ownership system is the same as when people had to get on a boat for six months to send a letter. It’s time for an upgrade. Any community on the internet should be able to come together, with capital, and work towards any shared vision. That starts with empowering creators and artists to create and own the culture they’re creating. In the long term this moves to internet communities taking on societal endeavors.”
The answer that they’re working on is called Zora. It’s a marketplace with two main components but one philosophy: sustainable economics for creators.
All too often creators are involved in reaping the rewards for their work only once, but the secondary economy continues to generate value out of their reach. Think of an artist, as an example, that creates a piece and sells it for market value. That’s great, but thereafter, every ounce of work that the artist puts into future work, into building a name and a brand and a community for themselves puts additional value into that piece. The artist never sees a dime from that, relying instead on the value of future releases to pay dividends on the work.
Image Credits: Zora
That’s basically the way it has always worked. I have a little background in this as I used to exhibit and was involved in running a gallery and my father is a fine artist. If he sells a painting today for $300, gets a lot better, more popular and more valued over time, the owner of that painting may re-sell it for hundreds or thousands more. He will never see a dime of that. And God forbid that an artist like him gets too locked into the gallery system, which slices off enormous chunks of the value of a piece for a square of wall space and the marketing cachet of a curator or storefront.
The same story can be told across the recording industry, fashion, sports and even social media. Lots of middle-people and lots of vigs to pay. And, unsurprisingly, the same creators of color that drive so much of The Culture are the biggest losers, hands down.
The primary Zora product is a market that allows creators or artists to launch products and then continue to participate in their second market value.
Here’s how the Zora team explains it:
On Zora, creators have the ability to set two prices: start price and max price. As community members buy and sell a token, it moves the price up or down. This makes the price dynamic as it opens price discovery on the items by the market. When people buy the token it moves the price closer to its maximum. When they sell, it moves closer to its minimum.
For an excited community like Jeff [Staple’s], this new dynamic price can cause a quick increase in the value of his sneakers. As a creator, they capture the value from selling on a price curve as well as getting a take on trading fees from the market which they now own. What used to trade on StockX is now about to trade on a creator owned market.
There have been some early successes. Designer and marketer Jeff Staple launched a run of 30 Coca-Cola x Staple SB Dunk customs by Reverseland and their value is trending up around 234% since release. A Benji Taylor x Kevin Doan vinyl figure is up 210%.
I have seen some other stabs at this. When he was still at StockX, founder Josh Luber launched their Initial Product Offerings, a Blind Dutch Auction system that allowed the market to set a price for an item, with some of the cut of pricing above market going back to the manufacturer or brand making the offering. The focus there was brands versus individual creators (though they did launch with a Ben Baller slide). Allowing brands to tap into second market value for limited goods is a lot less of a revolution play, but the thesis is similar. I thought that was a good idea then, and I like it even better when it’s being used to democratize rather than maximize returns.
Side note: I love that this team is messing around with interesting ideas like dogfooding their own marketplace with the value of being in their own TestFlight group. I’m sort of like, is that allowed, but at the same time it’s dope and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Zora was founded in May of 2020 (right in the middle of this current panny-palooza). The team is Goens (Creators and Community), Horne (Product), Slava Kim (Design), Dai Hovey (Engineering), Ethan Daya (Engineering) and Tyson Battistella (Engineering).
Zora has raised a $2 million seed round led by Kindred Ventures, with participation from Trevor McFedries of Brud, Alice Lloyd George, Jeff Staple, Coinbase Ventures and others.
But this idea that physical goods or even digitally packaged works have to exist as finite containers of value is not a given either. Goens and Horne are pushing to challenge that too with the first big new product for Zora: community tokens. Built on Ethereum, the $RAC token is the first of its kind from Zora. André Allen Anjos, stage name RAC, is a Portuguese-American musician and producer who makes remixes that stream on the web, original music and has had commercial work featured in major brand ads.
Though he is popular and has a following in the tens of thousands, RAC is not a social media superpower. The token distribution and subsequent activity in trades and sales is purely driven by the buy-in that his fans feel. This is a key learning for a lot of players in this new economy: raw numbers are the social media equivalent of a billboard that people drive by. It may get you eyeballs, but it doesn’t guarantee action. The modern creator is living in a house with their fans, offering them access and interacting via Discord and Snap and comments.
Image Credits: Zora
But those houses are all other people’s houses, which leads into the reason that Zora is launching a token.
The token drop serves multiple purposes:
The future of Zora most immediately involves spinning up a self-service version of the marketplace, allowing creators and entrepreneurs to launch their products without a direct partnership and onboarding. There are many, many uncertainties here and the team has a lot of challenges ahead on the traction and messaging front. But as mentioned, some early releases have shown promise, and the philosophy is sound and much needed. As the creator universe/passion economy/whatever you call it depends on how old you are/fandom merchant wave rises, there is definitely an opportunity to rethink how the value of their contributions are assigned and whether there is a way to turn the long-term labor of building a community into long-term value.
The last traded price of RAC’s tape, BOY, by the way? $3,713, up 18,465%.
Founded by longtime developers and Georgia Institute of Technology alumni, Ken Ahrens, Matthew LeRay and Nate Lee had known each other for roughly twenty years before making the jump to working together.
A circuitous path of interconnecting programming jobs in the devops and monitoring space led the three men to realize that there was an opportunity to address one of the main struggles new programmers now face — making sure that updates to api integrations in a containerized programming world don’t wind up breaking apps or services.
“We were helping to solve incident outages and incidents that would cause downtime,” said Lee. “It’s hard to ensure the quality between all of these connection points [between applications]. And these connection points are growing as people add apis and containers. We said, ‘How about we solve this space? How could we preempt all of this and ensure maintaining release velocity with scalable automation?'”
Typically companies release new updates to code in a phased approach or in a test environment to ensure that they’re not going to break anything. Speedscale proposes test automation using real traffic so that developers can accelerate the release time.
“They want to change very frequently,” said Ahrens, speaking about the development life cycle. “Most of the changes are great, but every once in a while they make a change and break part of the system. The state of the art is to wait for it to be broken and get someone to fix it quickly.”
The pitch SpeedScale makes to developers is that its service can give coders the ability to see the problems before the release. They automate the creation of the staging environment, automation suite and orchestration to create that environment.
“One of the big things for me was when I saw the rise of Kubernetes was what’s really happening is that engineering leaders have been able to give more autonomy to developers, but no one has come up with a great way to validate and I really think that Speedscale can solve that problem.”
The Atlanta-based company, which only just graduated from Y Combinator a few months ago, is currently in a closed alpha with select pilot partners, according to LeRay. And the nine month-old company has raised $2.2 million from investors including Sierra Ventures from the Bay Area and Atlanta’s own Tech Square Ventures to grow the business.
“Apis are a huge market,” Ahrens said of the potential opportunity for the company. “there’s 11 million developers who develop against apis… We think the addressable market for us is in the billions.”