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As the venture market tightens, a debt lender sees big opportunities

By Connie Loizos

David Spreng spent more than 20 years in venture capital before dipping his toe into the world of revenue-based financing and realizing there was a growing appetite for alternatives to venture capital. Indeed, since forming debt-lending company Runway Growth Capital in mid-2015, Spreng has been busy writing checks to a variety of mostly later-stage companies on behalf of his institutional investors. (One of these, Oak Tree Capital Management in LA, is a publicly-traded credit firm.)

He expects he’ll be even busier in 2020. The reason — if you haven’t noticed already — is a general slowing down in what has been a very long boom cycle. “We’re in the late innings of a very long game,” said Spreng today, calling from Davos, where he has been attending meetings this week. “I don’t think the cycle is going to end this second. But where we went from a growth-at-all-costs mentality, boards are now saying, ‘let’s find a balance between top line growth and capital efficiency — let’s figure out a path to profitability.’ ”

Why is that good for Spreng and his colleagues? Because when a cycle ends, venture capitalists get stingier with their portfolio companies, writing fewer checks to support startups that aren’t hitting it out of the park, and often taking a bigger bite under more onerous terms when they do reinvest to counter the added risk they’re taking.

Why Front’s Series C matters, the latest on Lambda and The Athletic makes media look good

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Danny and Alex are back with more than ever to get through. 2020 has come out of the gate fast when it comes to news, so much so that we had to leave out of the show way more than we wanted. Things like the newest members of the $100 million ARR club, One Medical’s proposed IPO pricing, the Clubhouse funding round and Placer.ai’s latest investment.

But we did manage to chat through a host of news, including:

All that and we had fun. One more thing: Don’t fret, we’re going to bring guests back in just a few weeks. So if you’ve missed hearing from Folks Who Actively Invest, fear not, the VCs will be back.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

It’s time for tech startups to get political

By Walter Thompson
Xiao Wang Contributor
Xiao Wang is CEO at Boundless, a technology startup that has helped thousands of immigrant families apply for marriage green cards and U.S. citizenship while providing affordable access to independent immigration attorneys.

Between 2005 and 2018, the five biggest U.S. tech firms collectively spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying federal policymakers. But they shelled out even more in 2019: Facebook boosted its lobbying budget by 25%, while Amazon hiked its political outlay by 16%. Together, America’s biggest tech firms spent almost $64 million in a bid to shape federal policies.

Clearly, America’s tech giants feel they’re getting value for their money. But as CEO of Boundless, a 40-employee startup that doesn’t have millions of dollars to invest in political lobbying, I’m proposing another way. One of the things we care most about at Boundless is immigration. And while we’ve yet to convince Donald Trump and Stephen Miller that immigrants are a big part of what makes America great — hey, we’re working on it! — we’ve found that when you have a clear message and a clear mission, even a startup can make a big difference.

So how can scrappy tech companies make a splash in the current political climate? Here are some guiding principles we’ve learned.

1) Speak out

You can’t make a difference if you don’t make some noise. A case in point: Boundless is spearheading the business community’s pushback against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “public charge rule.” This sweeping immigration reform would preclude millions of people from obtaining U.S. visas and green cards — and therefore make it much harder for American businesses to hire global talent — based on a set of new, insurmountable standards. We’re doing that not by cutting checks to K Street but by using our own expertise, creativity and people skills — the very things that helped make our company a success in the first place.

By leveraging our unique strengths — including our own proprietary data — we’ve been able to put together a smart, business-focused amicus brief urging courts to strike down the public charge rule. And because we combine immigration-specific expertise with a real understanding of the issues that matter most to tech companies, we’ve been able to convince more than 100 other firms  — such as Microsoft, Twitter, Warby Parker, Levi Strauss & Co. and Remitly — to cosign our amicus brief. Will that be enough to persuade the courts and steer federal policy in immigrants’ favor? The jury’s still out. But whatever happens, we take satisfaction in knowing that we’re doing everything we can on behalf of the entire immigrant community, not just our customers, in defense of a cause we’re passionate about.

2) Take a stand

Taking a stand is risky, but staying silent is a gamble, too: Consumers are increasingly socially conscious, and almost nine out of 10 said in one survey that they prefer to buy from brands that take active steps to support the causes they care about. It depends a bit on the issue, though. One survey found that trash-talking the president will win you brownie points from millennials but cost you support among Baby Boomers, for instance.

So pick your battles — but remember that media-savvy consumers can smell a phony a mile off. It’s important to choose causes you truly stand behind and then put your money where your mouth is. At Boundless, we do that by hiring a diverse workforce — not just immigrants, but also women (we’re over 60%), people of color (35%) and LGBTQ+ (15%) — and putting time and energy into helping them succeed. Figure out what authenticity looks like for your company, and make sure you’re living your values as well as just talking about them.

3) Band together

Tech giants might have a bigger megaphone, but there are a lot of startups in our country, and quantity has a quality all its own. In fact, the Small Business Administration reported in 2018 that there are 30.2 million small businesses in the United States, 414,000 of which are classified as “startups.” So instead of trying to shout louder, try forging connections with other smart, up-and-coming companies with unique voices and perspectives of their own.

At Boundless, we routinely reach out to the other startups that have received backing from our own investor groups — national networks such as Foundry Group, Trilogy Equity Partners, Pioneer Square Labs, Two Sigma Ventures and Flybridge Capital Partners — in the knowledge that these companies will share many of our values and be willing to listen to our ideas.

For startups, the venture capitalists, accelerators and incubators that helped you launch and grow can be an incredible resource: Leverage their expertise and Rolodexes to recruit a posse of like-minded startups and entrepreneurs that can serve as a force multiplier for your political activism. Instead of taking a stand as a single company, you could potentially rally dozens of companies — from a range of sectors and unique weights in their fields — on board for your advocacy efforts.

4) Use your superpowers

Every company has a few key superpowers, and the same things that make you a commercial success can help to sway policymakers, too. Boundless uses data and design to make the immigration process more straightforward, and number-crunching and messaging skills come in handy when we’re doing advocacy work, too.

Our data-driven report breaking down naturalization trends and wait times by location made a big splash, for instance, and not just in top-ranked Cleveland. We presented our findings to Congress, and soon afterward some Texas lawmakers began demanding reductions in wait times for would-be citizens. We can’t prove our advocacy was the deciding factor, but it’s likely that our study helped nudge them in the right direction.

5) Work the media

Whether you’re Bill Gates or a small-business owner, if you’re quoted in The New York Times, then your voice will reach the same people. Reporters love to feel like they’re including quotes from the “little guy,” so make yourself accessible, and learn to give snappy, memorable quotes to reporters, and you’ll soon find that they keep you on speed dial.

Our phones rang off the hook when Trump tried to push through a healthcare mandate by executive order, for instance, and our founders were quoted by top media outlets — from Reuters to Rolling Stone. It takes a while to build media relationships and establish yourself as a credible source, but it’s a great way to win national attention for your advocacy.

6) Know your lawmakers

To make a difference, you’ll need allies in the corridors of power. Reach out to your senators and congresspeople, and get to know their staffers, too. Working in politics is often thankless, and many aides love to hear from new voices, especially ones who are willing to stake out controversial positions on big issues, sound the alarm on bad policies or help move the Overton window to enable better solutions.

We’ve often found that prior to hearing from us, lawmakers simply hadn’t considered the special challenges faced by smaller tech companies, such as lack of internal legal, human and financial resources, to comply with various regulations. And those lawmakers come away from our meetings with a better understanding of the need to craft straightforward policies that won’t drown small businesses in red tape.

Political change doesn’t just happen in the Capital Beltway, so make a point of reaching out to your municipal and state-level leaders, too. In 2018, Boundless pitched to the Civic I/O Mayors Summit at SXSW because we knew that municipal leaders played a critical role in welcoming new Americans into our communities. Local policies and legislation can have a big impact on startups, and the support of local leaders remains a critical foundation for the kinds of change we want to see made to the U.S. immigration system.

Take the next step

It’s easy to make excuses or expect someone else to advocate on your behalf. But if there’s something you think the government could be doing better, then you have an obligation to use your company’s energy, talent and connections to push back and create momentum for reform. Sure, it would be nice to splash money around and hire a phalanx of lobbyists to shape public policy — but it’s perfectly possible to make a big difference without spending a dime.

But first, figure out what you stand for and what strengths and superpowers you can leverage to bear the problems you and your customers face. Above all, don’t be afraid to take a stand.

Crisp, the demand forecast platform for the food industry, goes live

By Jordan Crook

The food industry may be the biggest industry in the world, but it’s also one of the least efficient. BCG says 1.6 billions tons of food, worth $1.2 trillion, is wasted in food every year, and those numbers are only expected to go up.

A number of players have stepped up to try to solve their own portion of the problem, and one such solution is Crisp. The company, which received $14 million in Series A funding last year led by FirstMark Capital, is today going live with its platform (which has been in beta).

Crisp aims to solve the global food waste problem via demand forecasts. Founder and CEO Are Traasdahl, a serial founder, believes that a lack of communication and data flow between the many players in the supply chain is a main cause for all this waste, a great deal of which happens long before the food reaches the consumer.

Right now, forecasting demand is nowhere close to a perfect science for many of these players. From food brands to distributors to grocery stores, the problem is usually solved by looking at a spreadsheet from last year’s sales to try to determine the signals that played into this or that SKU’s sales performance.

And then there was Crisp.

Integrated with almost any ERP software a company might have, Crisp ingests historical data from these food brands and combines that data with signals around other demand drivers, such as seasonality, holidays, price sensitivity and other pricing information, marketing campaigns, competitive landscape, weather that might affect the sale or shipment of certain produce or other ingredients.

Using these data points, and historical sales data, Crisp believes it can give a much more accurate picture of demand over the next day, week, month or year.

But Crisp isn’t just for food brands, such as Nounós Creamery, a Crisp customer that says its reduced scrapped inventory by 80% since switching to the platform. Crisp serves almost every player in the food supply chain, from retailers to distributors to brands to brokers.

And the more customers it gets, the better it is at predicting demand on a very specific level. For instance, the demand forecasting Crisp offers for a particular grocery store, based on external data, will obviously get much better once that grocery store is a customer on the platform.

Traasdahl was initially concerned that his customers would be reluctant to hand over this type of sensitive sales data, and also that players within the industry might be anxious to hand over such data to a platform that’s aggregating everyone’s data, including their competitors’. Turns out, the food industry has more of a “better together” mentality.

“Other industries are not as dependent on each other,” said Traasdahl. “If I am a creamery and need to buy blueberries for my yogurt, I may have five different vendors for those blueberries. And if they don’t get delivered on the right day, Costco will yell at me for being late with the yogurt. Everyone in the supply chain is somewhat dependent on each other.”

For that reason, it’s been easier than expected to attract clients to the platform. The prospect of a collaborative demand forecast platform, which is pulling signals from across the entire industry, is going to be more accurate than siloed demand forecasts produced by a single vendor or brand.

During the beta program, which launched in October, Crisp brought on more than 30 companies to the platform, including Gilbert’s Craft Sausages, SunFed Perfect Produce, Nounós Creamery, Hofseth, REMA and Superior Farms.

Lighter Capital secures $100M to grow its equity-free financing business

By Alex Wilhelm

Lighter Capital announced today that it has secured access to $100 million to lend to growing startups. The firm is best-known for its work with revenue-based financing, in which expanding companies repay borrowed funds out of future receipts. Lighter has also expanded into other, equity-free capital options for startups in the last year.

Lighter is most easily understood as part of the group of firms that provide what TechCrunch has described as “alt-VC,” forms of capital access that do not fit into the traditional venture capital model of selling shares (equity) for cash. With the VC method, venture capitalists raise funds from wealthy capital pools, disbursing the funds in pieces to various private companies for an ownership stake. Those growth-focused firms then try to scale rapidly. Those that succeed become valuable, rendering the venture investment lucrative, and, hopefully, the venture capital fund profitable.

In alt-VC, various forms of debt are put to work, tailored to companies that are growth-oriented, often existing outside of the realm of what traditional banks would consider lending-ready. Startups that are working in software-as-a-service (SaaS) or e-commerce are often considered ideal candidates for alt-VC in its various forms, as returns that can be generated with marginally deployed capital are calculable with reasonable certainty in those fields.

Got all that? Let’s turn to what Lighter Capital is up to.

Working capital

Lighter’s new $100 million access to capital (we’ll call it a fund, for lack of a better term) will allow it to accelerate its business, the firm’s CEO Thor Culverhouse told TechCrunch. Lighter has a number of “ideas about how we’re going to grow [its] business,” Culverhouse said in a phone call, and having more “access to capital is a very important element to that growth strategy.”

According to a release, Lighter has “invested” over $200 million in more than 350 companies to date; however, even though Lighter’s loans return capital and could allow for the recycling of funds, the $100 million in new funds represents a step up in capacity for the company. (Lighter is working with HCG for its capital access.)

The new funds will be disbursed in more ways than one. In June of 2019, Lighter added two more traditional forms of debt to its list of offerings: term loans and lines of credit. Culverhouse discussed the additional products with TechCrunch, connecting term loans to revenue-based financing options:

We did two things. When you think about the [revenue-based financing] function we have today, it is a term loan, it’s just that the repayment is based on whatever your monthly recurring revenue is. What we noticed is some people liked that flexibility. We [also] noticed some of our customers said, actually, I’d rather have a very predictable payment stream. And so we came out with another term loan that is like any other term loan, it’s just as a predictable payment stream throughout the year. So they’re very, very much alike. And then we came out with a line of credit, which is more traditionally used for working capital. So it’s a 12-month revolver, if you will.

Here Lighter capital describes a link between revenue-based financing and regular loans that is worth chewing on. Revenue-based financing is merely a loan, tuned modestly for the SaaS world. That’s it. It allows for recurring-revenue focused companies to vary their payments over time, but both a term loan to a growth-oriented startup and a revenue-based financing event are pretty similar at their core.

Which, naturally, makes Lighter’s move into more traditional loans pretty reasonable. With $100 million to put to work, Lighter is going to move some cash. That, in conjunction with the growing set of firms offering similar services, should help a lot of folks fund their companies’ growth without selling shares.

Proxyclick raises $15M Series B for its visitor management platform

By Frederic Lardinois

If you’ve ever entered a company’s office as a visitor or contractor, you probably know the routine: check in with a receptionist, figure out who invited you, print out a badge and get on your merry way. Brussels, Belgium- and New York-based Proxyclick aims to streamline this process, while also helping businesses keep their people and assets secure. As the company announced today, it has raised a $15 million Series B round led by Five Elms Capital, together with previous investor Join Capital.

In total, Proxyclick says it’s systems have now been used to register over 30 million visitors in 7,000 locations around the world. In the UK alone, over 1,000 locations use the company’s tools. Current customers include L’Oreal, Vodafone, Revolut, PepsiCo and Airbnb, as well as a number of other Fortune 500 firms.

Gregory Blondeau, founder and CEO of Proxyclick, stresses that the company believes that paper logbooks, which are still in use in many companies, are simply not an acceptable solution anymore, not in the least because that record is often permanent and visible to other visitors.

Proxyclick’s founding team.

“We all agree it is not acceptable to have those paper logbooks at the entrance where everyone can see previous visitors,” he said. “It is also not normal for companies to store visitors’ digital data indefinitely. We already propose automatic data deletion in order to respect visitor privacy. In a few weeks, we’ll enable companies to delete sensitive data such as visitor photos sooner than other data. Security should not be an excuse to exploit or hold visitor data longer than required.”

What also makes Proxyclick stand out from similar solutions is that it integrates with a lot of existing systems for access control (including C-Cure and Lenel systems). With that, users can ensure that a visitor only has access to specific parts of a building, too.

In addition, though, it also supports existing meeting rooms, calendaring and parking systems and integrates with Wi-Fi credentialing tools so your visitors don’t have to keep asking for the password to get online.

Like similar systems, Proxyclick provides businesses with a tablet-based sign-in service that also allows them to get consent and NDA signatures right during the sign-in process. If necessary, the system can also compare the photos it takes to print out badges with those on a government-issued ID to ensure your visitors are who they say they are.

Blondeau noted that the whole industry is changing, too. “Visitor management is becoming mainstream, it is transitioning from a local, office-related subject handled by facility managers to a global, security and privacy driven priority handled by Chief Information Security Officers. Scope, decision drivers and key people involved are not the same as in the early days,” he said.

It’s no surprise then that the company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its roadmap. Specifically, it’s looking to integrate its solution with more third-party systems with a focus on physical security features and facial recognition, as well as additional new enterprise features.

Industrial technologies get a big backer with Anzu Partners’ new $190 million fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Advances in biology, biochemistry, sensors and automation have the potential to reshape the ways manufacturing in America is done, and a relatively new firm called Anzu Partners has just raised $190 million to invest in companies turning these scientific achievements into new products and services.

Far from Silicon Valley, Anzu is investing in technology companies coming from places as disparate as Durham, Omaha, and Santa Fe, in addition to the traditional technology hub of Boston and its surrounding area.

“We started in early 2016 with a focus on venture capital and early stage private equity,” says firm managing partner Whitney Haring-Smith. “The majority of the transactions that we do are minority, but there are a subset that are control.”

One of those acquisitions, for the optical electronics equipment manufacturer Axsun Technologies, yielded one of the firm’s early exits when the Massachusetts-based company was sold to Excelitas in a roughly $80 million transaction. The firm saw at least one other exit last year when Siemens bought its portfolio company MultiMechanics in November.

Co-founded and managed by former Boston Consulting Group leadership David Seldin and David Michael, the leadership team has expanded to include another BCG, alum, John Ho, who was just named partner with the close fo the fund.

Anzu Partners writes checks in the $3 million to $8 million range and follows that capital with commitments of up to $15 million, according to Haring-Smith.

“We focus today on investing in the technologies that enable tomorrow’s industries,” Haring-Smith said of the firm’s thesis. “We don’t know whether this biologic drug or that biologic drug will succeed but we know that all biologic drugs will need certain things.”

Examples include the company’s investment in the Santa Fe-based NTX Bio, which was made not because the startup manufactures particular biologics for the pharmaceutical industry, but because it makes technology which can produce lower cost, higher purity and higher stability biologics. “It doesn’t make vaccines, but makes vaccine manufacturing more cheap and efficient,” says Haring-Smith. 

The firm has already made six investments from its new fund since it first began fundraising efforts last April.

Portfolio companies include the Durham-based BioSkryb, which makes technologies to improve gene sequencing; Boston Microfluidics, which develops blood collection devices; GelSight, which makes 3D imaging systems to improve quality control in manufacturing; immunoSCAPE, which profiles immune systems to provide better data on potentially applicable therapeutics for patients; Sofregen, which tissue support and regeneration products based on a novel process for manufacturing silk proteins, and Solchroma Technologies, which uses a unique manufacturing process to make digital displays.

Anzu operates from offices in Tampa, San Diego, Washington, and Boston and Haring-Smith believes that the geographic diversity gives the company a leg up on deals.

With the new fund, the firm expects to expand its geographic footprint to other under-capitalized regions around the U.S.

Where top VCs are investing in adtech and martech

By Arman Tabatabai

Lately, the venture community’s relationship with advertising tech has been a rocky one.

Advertising is no longer the venture oasis it was in the past, with the flow of VC dollars in the space dropping dramatically in recent years. According to data from Crunchbase, adtech deal flow has fallen at a roughly 10% compounded annual growth rate over the last five years.

While subsectors like privacy or automation still manage to pull in funding, with an estimated 90%-plus of digital ad spend growth going to incumbent behemoths like Facebook and Google, the amount of high-growth opportunities in the adtech space seems to grow narrower by the week.

Despite these pains, funding for marketing technology has remained much more stable and healthy; over the last five years, deal flow in marketing tech has only dropped at a 3.5% compounded annual growth rate according to Crunchbase, with annual invested capital in the space hovering just under $2 billion.

Given the movement in the adtech and martech sectors, we wanted to try to gauge where opportunity still exists in the verticals and which startups may have the best chance at attracting venture funding today. We asked four leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in marketing and advertising:

Several of the firms we spoke to (both included and not included in this survey) stated that they are not actively investing in advertising tech at present.

Placer.ai, a location data analytics startup, raises $12 million Series A

By Catherine Shu

Placer.ai, a startup that analyzes location and foot traffic analytics for retailers and other businesses, announced today that it has closed a $12 million Series A. The round was led by JBV Capital, with participation from investors including Aleph, Reciprocal Ventures and OCA Ventures.

The funding will be used on research and development of new features and to expand Placer.ai’s operation in the United States.

Launched in 2016, Placer.ai’s SaaS platform gives its clients to real-time data that helps them make decisions like where to rent or buy properties, when to hold sales and promotions and how to manage assets.

Placer.ai analyzes foot traffic and also creates consumer profiles to help clients make marketing and ad spending decisions. It does this by collecting geolocation and proximity data from devices that are enabled to share that information. Placer.ai’s co-founder and CEO Noam Ben-Zvi says the company protects privacy and follows regulation by displaying aggregated, anonymous data and does not collect personally identifiable data. It also does not sell advertising or raw data.

The company currently serves clients in the retail (including large shopping centers), commercial real estate and hospitality verticals, including JLL, Regency, SRS, Brixmor, Verizon* and Caesars Entertainment.

“Up until now, we’ve been heavily focused on the commercial real estate sector, but this has very organically led us into retail, hospitality, municipalities and even [consumer packaged goods],” Ben-Zvi told TechCrunch in an email. “This presents us with a massive market, so we’re just focused on building out the types of features that will directly address the different needs of our core audience.”

He adds that lack of data has hurt retail businesses with major offline operations, but that “by effectively addressing this gap, we’re helpiong drive more sustainable growth or larger players or minimizing the risk for smaller companies to drive expansion plans that are strategically aggressive.”

Others startups in the same space include Dor, Aislelabs, RetailNext, ShopperTrak and Density. Ben-Zvi says Placer. ai wants to differentiate by providing more types of real-time data analysis.

While there are a lot of companies touching the location analytics space, we’re in a unique situation as the only company providing these deep and actionable insights for any location in the country in a real-time platform with a wide array of functionality,” he said.

*Disclosure: Verizon Media is the parent company of TechCrunch.

Corporate relocation startup Shyft raises $15M

By Anthony Ha

Shyft is announcing that it has raised $15 million in Series A funding to make the moving process less painful — specifically in the situations where your employer is paying for the move.

There other startups are looking to offer concierge-type services for regular moving — I used a service called Moved last year and liked it. But Shyft co-founder and CEO Alex Alpert (who’s spent years in the moving business) told me that there are no direct competitors focused on corporate relocation.

“Even at the highest levels, the process is totally jacked up,” Alpert said. “We saw an opportunity to partner with corporations and relocation management companies to build a customized, tech-driven experience with more choices, more flexibility and to be able to navigate the quoting process seamlessly.”

So when a company that uses Shyft decides to relocate you — whether you’re a new hire or just transferring to a new office — you should get an email prompting you to download the Shyft app, where you can chat with a “move coach” who guides you through the process.

You’ll also be able to catalog the items you want to move over a video call and get estimates from movers. And you’ll receive moving-related offers from companies like Airbnb, Wag, Common, Sonder and Home Chef.

And as Alpert noted, Shyft also partners with more traditional relocation companies like Graebel, rather than treating them as competitors.

Shyft screenshot

The company was originally called Crater and focused on building technology for creating accurate moving estimates via video. It changed its name and its business model back in 2018 (Alpert acknowledged, “It wasn’t a very popular pitch in the beginning: ‘Hey, we’re building estimation software for moving companies.'”) but the technology remains a crucial differentiator.

“Our technology is within 95% accurate at identifying volume and weight of the move,” he said. “When moving companies know the information is reliable, they can bid very aggressively.”

As result, Alpert said the employer benefits not just from having happier employees, but lower moving costs.

The new funding, meanwhile, was led by Inovia Capital, with participation from Blumberg Capital and FJ Labs.

“There’s a total misalignment between transactional relocation services and the many logistical, social, and lifestyle needs that come with moving to a new city,” Inovia Partner Todd Simpson said in a statement. “As businesses shift towards more distributed workforces and talent becomes accustomed to personalized experiences, the demand for a curated moving offering will continue to grow.”

Lame LPs, founder referenceability and the future of VC signaling

By Danny Crichton

I’m still going through some of the comments I received on last week’s articles about the heightened competition among VCs for the best (typically SaaS) venture deals. Some more notes on whether large funds investing in small rounds causes VC signaling risk in a moment, but first, a fun anecdote about how lame LPs (still) are.

Have thoughts about venture? Send them to me → danny@techcrunch.com

I was catching up with an ambitious founder of a VC firm this weekend, and we were talking about fundraising for VC firms, and, particularly, the process of connecting with limited partners. Like startup founders, investment firms typically submit fund proposal decks and data rooms to potential LPs, who are then supposed to evaluate said material and either move toward an investment, ask for more information or run the hell away.

Unlike VCs, however, LPs have apparently not caught on to the fact that access to this information is much more trackable than it was in the past. VCs now realize that their perusal of a deck on DocSend is being monitored by founders, and I have heard from more than one VC over the years that they have their executive assistants click through a deck in a deliberately slow fashion to make it look like they are putting more thought and attention into reading a founder’s fundraise deck than they really are.

LPs though have no such inkling that this is going on apparently. From the VC firm founder this weekend (paraphrasing), “What’s amazing is that I get asked for my data room, and then the potential LP will setup a time two weeks in the future to meet again. Fifteen minutes before our meeting, I get an email notification that they finally opened up the data room and started accessing its files.”

The best part is where the potential LP then waxes on about how much thought they put into their feedback to the VC.

Founder referenceability

As I explained last week, the paradox of big VC funds today is that they are actually doing more of the smaller startup fundraises as a way to secure access to later-stage deals.

So for many deals today, those later-stage cap tables are essentially locking out new investors, because there is already so much capital sitting around the cap table just salivating to double down.

That gets us straight to the paradox. In order to have access to later-stage rounds, you have to already be on the cap table, which means that you have to do the smaller, earlier-stage rounds. Suddenly, growth investors are coming back to early-stage rounds (including seed) just to have optionality on access to these startups and their fundraises.

One response I heard from a seed VC is that they focus on “founder referenceability.” What they mean by that is they use their existing portfolio founders as the key persuasion tool to convince new founders to take their term sheet over other (larger) competitors.

This particular seed investor argued (whether true or not) that they spend copious amounts of time in a concentrated manner with their portfolio companies, helping them with recruiting, business strategy, and customer development. That’s compared to larger firms, who have dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of seed investments and where founders can easily feel abandoned and without any support. “We win every time when founders talk to our portfolio companies,” was the general sentiment.

And yet. For founders living and dying by the ambiguity of their market, their product, their talent and their future, that imprimatur of a big-brand-name VC firm — even with paltry founder recommendations — is extremely hard to turn down. As a founder, do you want the VC who is going to work his or her ass off to help build your company, or the VC whose selection of your startup gives you (and likely your employees and your customers) the peace of mind that things are going really, really well?

The sense I get is that the viewpoint is shifting to the former from the latter, but the reality is that most founders can’t turn down the allure of the big name fund, even if they get an abundant set of glowing references about a lesser-known firm. Ultimately, that hard-working VC can help you with key hires and customers, but the reputation of a big firm will grease the wheel of every decision that gets made about your startup.

VC signaling

The other line of responses I got — including an extensive missive from a partner at a top 20 firm — is that VC signaling still limits the impact of a lot of the largest funds to invest earlier. Founders realize, the thinking goes, that taking money from a fund that can lead the next three rounds is bad, since if their investor doesn’t lead those rounds, it signals to other VCs that something is wrong with the company.

I increasingly feel VC signaling is a completely phantom pattern these days (disagree? Tell me your story → danny@techcrunch.com). Not only do I think that VCs increasingly ignore these types of signals, I think the VCs who hustle the most aggressively are targeting the early seed checks of other funds in particular and intercepting their best deals.

Why does this work? For one, large firms haven’t really figured out how to manage the information flows from hundreds of portfolio companies simultaneously, so they consistently miss the inflection points of their own startups — points that smart VCs with good noses for opportunity identity faster.

Second, there is indeed something about referenceability and founder abandonment — a number of founders have told me that they send out a multitude of tweaked investor updates that include more or less information based on the relationship they have with an investor. Often their lead investor is getting the least information — and doesn’t even realize it. It’s a subtle hack for handling what could otherwise be an awkward situation. It also helps to create FOMO around a round that is particularly exploited by startup angels eager to find the largest early uptick in their portfolio.

Third and finally, as with all good VC investors, seeing an investment with a fresh pair of eyes rather than through the cynical air of experience can often lead to radically different investment decisions. An incumbent investor may have heard all the data and promises from a founder for one, two, or three years, and fails to see the slight changes happening at the end, while a new investor without that background can make a new decision based on the best evidence in front of them today.

The lesson to me isn’t that investors suddenly decided to ignore signals. It is that with so much competition for startup cap tables, having the right numbers and a great product story and narrative will overcome any other VC signal, positive or negative. And for the VCs themselves, there’s nothing quite like snatching the best golden egg from a competitor’s nest while they are out flying around searching for the next great deal, which if they had looked a little closer, just happened to be right in front of them.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

By Jake Bright

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech venture announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to do finance in Africa.

Court rules Mike Rothenberg must fork over more than $31 million to settle SEC allegations

By Sarah Buhr

Mike Rothenberg, the once high-flying VC bent on bringing the party to Silicon Valley, must now pay a whopping $31.4 million to settle a California federal court ruling in favor of Security and Exchange Commission allegations.

TechCrunch deemed Rothenberg a “virtual Gatsby” back in 2016, when we first broke the news about the downfall of his venture capital firm, Rothenberg Ventures. It seemed he took it as a compliment, changing his Instagram handle to @virtualgatsby. Indeed, the name seemed appropriate for a man who seemingly lived a party-boy lifestyle and spent lavishly to woo startup founders — including going on Napa Valley wine tours, holding an annual “founder field day” where he rented the whole San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium and spending unsparingly to executive produce a video for Coldplay.

But the party life came to a halt when top leadership jumped ship and the SEC started looking into the books. The SEC formally charged Rothenberg in August of 2018 for misappropriating millions of dollars of his investors’ capital and funneling that money into his own bank account. Rothenberg settled with the SEC at the time and, as part of the settlement, was barred from the brokerage and investment advisory business for five years.

Rothenberg was later caught up in several lawsuits, including one from Transcend VR for fraud and breach of contract, which ended in a settlement. Another suit between Rothenberg and his former CFO, David Haase, ended with Rothenberg being ordered to pay $166,000 in damages.

But there was more to come from the SEC, following a forensic audit in partnership with the firm Deloitte showing the misuse or misappropriation of $18.8 million in investor funding. Under that examination, Deloitte showed Rothenberg had used the money either personally, to float his flashy lifestyle, or for other extravagances, such as building a race car team and a virtual reality studio. Rothenberg has now been ordered to pay back the $18.8 million he took from investors, another $9 million in civil penalties, plus $3.7 million in interest.

Neither the SEC nor Rothenberg have responded for comment. It’s also important to note none of the charges so far have been criminal, but were handled in civil court, as the SEC does not handle criminal cases.

Through all of it, Rothenberg never admitted any guilt for his actions and it is important to note that, because of this he will be able to practice again after the bar is lifted in five years. He’s also made some decent early investments in startups like Robinhood, and many investor sources TechCrunch spoke to over the years seemed quite loyal to him as an investor, despite the charges, employee mass exodus and fund implosion that followed.

And it seems this saga is not over yet. Rothenberg told MarketWatch in a recent interview that he thought the ruling was, “historically excessive and vindictively punitive,” that he planned to appeal it and would be suing Silicon Valley Bank, which Rothenberg used to funnel several investments, over the matter.

Rothenberg Ventures already filed suit against Silicon Valley Bank in August of 2018, the same day the SEC filed formal charges against Rothenberg himself. In that suit, Rothenberg alleged negligence, fraud and deceit on the part of the bank and sought a trial before jury. Silicon Valley Bank said it would defend against the case at the time.

We’ve reached out to Silicon Valley Bank and are waiting to hear back. The real question is, if Rothenberg were to come back to investing in Silicon Valley, would anyone still trust him?

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Compound’s Mike Dempsey on virtual influencers and AI characters

By Eric Peckham

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 1 of 3: the investor perspective

In a series of three interviews, I’m exploring the startup opportunities in both of these spaces in greater depth. First, Michael Dempsey, a partner at VC firm Compound who has blogged extensively about digital characters, avatars and animation, offers his perspective as an investor hunting for startup opportunities within these spaces.

Deep tech VCs on what they view as some of the most impactful young startups right now

By Connie Loizos

During this week’s Democratic debate, there was a lot of talk, unsurprisingly, about ensuring the future of this country’s children and grandchildren. Climate change was of particular interest to billionaire Tom Steyer, who said repeatedly that addressing it would be his top priority were he elected U.S. president.

As it happens, earlier the same day, we’d spent time on the phone with two venture capitalists who think of almost nothing else every day. The reason: they both invest in so-called deep tech, and they meet routinely with startups whose central focus is on making the world habitable for generations of people to come — as well as trying to produce outsize financial returns, of course.

The two VCs with whom we talked know each other well. Siraj Khaliq is a partner at the global venture firm Atomico, where he tries to find world-changing startups that are enabled by machine learning, AI, and computer vision. He has strong experience in the area, having cofounded The Climate Corporation back in 2006, a company that helps farmers optimize crop yield and that was acquired by Monsanto in 2013 for roughly $1 billion.

Seth Bannon is meanwhile a founding partner of Fifty Years, a nearly five-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage fund whose stated ambition is backing founders who want to solve the world’s biggest problems. The investors’ interests overlap so much that Khaliq is also one of Fifty Years’s investors.

From both, we wanted to know which companies or trends are capturing their imagination and, in some cases, their investment dollars. Following are excerpts from our extended conversation earlier this week. (We thought it was interesting; hopefully you will, too.)

TC: Seth, how would you describe what you’re looking to fund at your firm?

SB: There’s a Winston Churchill essay [penned nearly 100 years ago] called “Fifty Years Hence” that describes what we do. He predicts genomic engineering, synthetic biology, growing meat without animals, nuclear power, satellite telephony.  Churchill also notes that because tech changes so quickly that it’s important that technologists take a principled approach to their work. [Inspired by him] we’re backing founders who can make a ton of money while doing good and focusing on health, disease, the climate crisis . . .

TC: What does that mean exactly? Are you investing in software?

SB: We’re not so enthusiastic about pure software because it’s been so abstracted away that it’s become a commodity. High school students can now build an app, which is great, but it also means that competitive pressures are very high. There are a thousand funds focused on software seed investing. Fortunately, you can now launch a synthetic biology startup with seed funding, and that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. There are a lot of infrastructural advancements happening that makes [deep tech investing even with smaller checks] interesting.

TC: Siraj, you also invest exclusively on frontier, or deep tech, at Atomico . What’s your approach to funding startups?

SK: We do Series A [deals] onward and don’t do seed stage. We primarily focus on Europe. But there’s lot of common thinking between us and Seth. As a fund, we’re looking for big problems that change the world, sometimes at companies that won’t necessarily be big in five years but if you look out 10 years could be necessary for humanity. So we’re trying to anticipate all of these big trends and focus on three or four theses a year and talk as much as we can with academics and other experts to understand what’s going on. Founders then know we have an informed view.

Last year, we focused on synthetic biology, which is a becoming so broad a category that it’s time to start subdividing it. We were also doing AI-based drug discovery and quantum computing and we started to spend some time on energy as well. We also [continued an earlier focus on ] the future of manufacturing and industry. We see a number of trends that make [the latter] attractive, especially in Europe where manufacturing hasn’t yet been digitized.

TC: Seth, you mentioned synthetic biology infrastructure. Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing that’s interesting on this front?

SB: You’ve maybe heard of directed evolution, technology that allows biologists to use the power of evolution to get microbes or other biological machines to do what they want them to do that would have been impossible before. [Editor’s note: here, Bannon talked a bit about Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was awarded the prize in 2018 for developing the technique.]

So we’re excited to back [related] startups. One, Solugen, enzymatically makes industrial chemicals [by combining genetically modified enzymes with organic compounds, like plant sugars]. Hydrogen peroxide is $6 billion dollar industry, and it’s currently made through a petroleum-based process in seven-football-field-long production plants that sometimes explode and kill people.

TC: Is this then akin to Zymergen, which develops molecules in order to create unique specialty materials?

SB: Zymergen mainly works as a kind of consultant to help companies engineer strains that they want. Solugen is a vertically integrated chemicals company, so it [creates its formulations], then sells directly into industry.

TC: How does this relate to new architectures?

SB: The way to think about it is that there’s a bunch of application-level companies, but as synthetic biology companies start to take off, there’s a bunch of emerging infrastructure layer companies. One of these is Ansa Biotechnologies, which has a fully enzymatic process or writing DNA. Like Twist, which went public, they make DNA using a chemical process [to sell to clients in the biotechnology industry. [Editor’s note: More on the competition in this emerging space here.]

Also, if you look at plant-based alternatives to meat, they’re more sustainable but also far more expensive than traditional beef. Why is that? Well plant-based chicken is more expensive because the processing infrastructure being used is more than 10 years behind real chicken processing, where you’ll see robot arms that cut up chicken so efficiently that it looks like a Tesla factory. [Alternative meat] companies are basically using these extruders built in the ’70s because the industry has been so small, and that’s because there’s been a lot of skepticism from the investment community in these companies. Or there was. The performance of Beyond Meat’s IPO ended it. Now there’s a rush of founders and dollars into that space, and whenever you have a space where the core infrastructure has been neglected, there’s opportunity. A former mechanical engineer with Boeing has started a company, Rebellyous Foods, to basically build the AWS for the plant-based food industry, for example. She’s using [the machines she’s building] to sell plant-based chicken nuggets [but that’s the longer-term plan].

TC: Siraj, You say last year you started to spend time on energy. What’s interesting to you as it relates to energy?

SK: There’s been some improvement in how we capture emissions, but [carbon emissions] are still very deleterious to our health and the planet’s health, and there are a few areas to think about [to address the problem]. Helping people measure and control their consumption is one approach, but also we think about how to produce new energy, which is a shift we [meaning mankind] need to undertake. The challenge [in making that shift] is often [capital expenditures]. It’s hard for venture investors to back companies that are [building nuclear reactors], which makes government grants the best choice for early innovation oftentimes. There is one company, Seaborg, that has figured out a clever reactor. It’s not a portfolio company but it’s [compelling].

SB: We also really like what Seaborg is doing. These [fourth generation] nuclear companies have a whole host of approaches that allow for smaller, safer reactors that you wouldn’t mind having in your backyard. But Siraj put his finger on it: as an early-stage deep tech investor, we have to consider the capital plan of a company, and if it needs to raise billions of dollars, early investors will get really diluted, so early-stage venture just isn’t the best fit.

TC: There are areas you like, though, because costs have fallen so much.

SB: Yes. Satellite telephony used to be one of those areas. Some of the satellites in space right now cost $350 million [to launch] and took three to four years to build, which would be really hard for any early-stage investor to fund, But now, a new generation of companies is building satellites for one-tenth of the cost in months, not years. That’s a game changer. They can iterate faster. They can build a better product. They don’t have to raise equity to build and launch either; they can raise from a debt financier, [from whom they can] borrow money and pay it back over time. That model isn’t available to a company like Uber or Lyft, because those companies can’t say, ‘X is going to cost us Y dollars and it will pay back Z over time.’

TC: What of concerns that all these cheap satellites are going to clog up the sky pretty quickly?

SB: It’s a real concern. Most [of today’s satellites] are low earth satellites, and the closer to the earth they are, the brighter they are; they reflect the sun more, the more satellites we’re seeing instead of stars. I do think it’s incumbent on all of these companies to think about how they are contributing to the future of humanity. But [when you can transmit more information from satellites], the stability of governments improves, too, so maybe the developed world needs to sacrifice a bit. I think that’s a reasonable tradeoff. If on the other hand, we’re putting up satellites to help people buy more crap . . .

TC: It’s like the argument for self-driving cars in a way. Life becomes more efficient, but they’ll require far more energy generation, for example. There are always second-order consequences.

SK: But think of how many how many people are killed in driving accidents, versus terrorist attacks. Humans have many great qualities, but being able to drive a lethal machine consistently isn’t one of them. So when we take that into perspective, it’s really important that we build autonomous vehicles. You [voice] a legitimate concern and often when there are step changes, there are discontinuities along the way that lead to side effects that aren’t great. That comes down to several things. FIrst, infastructure will have to keep up. We’ll also have to create regulations that don’t lead to the worst outcomes. One our investments, Lilium in Munich, has built an entirely electric air taxi service that’s built on vertical takeoff. It’s nimble. It’s quiet enough to operate in city environments.

On roads, cars are constrained by 2D terrain and buildings, but [in the air] if you can do dynamic air traffic control, it opens up far much efficient transport. If you can get from downtown London to Heathrow [airport] in five minutes versus 50 minutes in a Tesla, that’s far more energy efficient.

The paradox of 2020 VC is that the largest funds are doing the smallest rounds

By Danny Crichton

I talked yesterday about how VCs are just tired these days. Too many deals, too little time per deal, and constant hyper-competition with other VCs for the same equity.

One founder friend of mine noted to me last night that he has already received inbound requests from more than 90 investors over the past year about his next round — and he’s not even (presumably) fundraising. “I may have missed a few,” he deadpans, and really, how could one not?

All that frenetic activity though leads us to the paradox at the heart of 2020 venture capital: it’s the largest funds that are writing the earliest, smallest checks.

That’s a paradox because big funds need big rounds to invest in. A billion dollar fund can’t write eight hundred $1 million seed checks with dollars left over for management fees (well, they could, but that would be obnoxious and impossible to track). Instead, the usual pattern is that as a firm’s fund size grows, its managing partners increasingly move to later-stage rounds to be able to efficiently deploy that capital. So the $200 million fund that used to write $8 million series As transforms into a $1 billion fund writing $40 million series Bs and Cs.

That’s logical. Yet, the real logic is a bit more complicated. Namely, that everyone is raising huge funds.

As this week’s big VC report from the National Venture Capital Association made clear, 2019 was in many ways the year of the big fund (and SoftBank didn’t even raise!). 21 “mega-funds” launched last year (defined as raising more than $500 million), and that was actually below the numbers in 2018.

All that late-stage capital is scouring for late-stage deals, but there just aren’t that many deals to do. Sure, there are great companies and potentially great returns lying around, but there are also dozens of funds plotting to get access to that cap table, and valuation is one of the only levers these investors have to stand out from the fray.

This is the story of Plaid in many ways. The fintech data API layer, which Visa announced it is intending to acquire this past week for $5.3 billion, raised a $250 million series C in late 2018 from Index and Kleiner, all according to Crunchbase. Multiple VC sources have told me that “everyone” looked at the deal (everyone being the tired VCs if you will).

But as one VC who said “no” on the C round defended to me this week, the valuation last year was incredibly rich. The company had revenues in 2018 in the upper tens of millions or so I have been told, which coupled with its publicly-reported $2.65 billion series C valuation implies a revenue multiple somewhere in the 30-50x range — extremely pricey given the company’s on-going fight with banks to ensure it can maintain data access to its users’ accounts.

Jeff Kauflin at Forbes reported that the company’s revenues in 2019 are now in the lower three digits of millions, which means that Visa likely paid a similarly expensive multiple to acquire the company. Kleiner and Index doubled their money in a year or so, and no one should complain about that kind of IRR (particularly in growth investing), but if it weren’t for Visa and the beneficial alchemy of exit timing, all might have turned out very differently.

Worse that just expensive valuations, these later-stage rounds can become very proprietary and exclusive. From the sounds of it, Plaid ran a fairly open process for its series C round, which allowed a lot of firms to look at the deal, helping to drive the valuation up while limiting dilution for earlier investors and the founder. But that’s not the only way to handle it.

Increasingly, firms who invested early are also trying to invest later. That series A investor who put in $5 million also wants to put in the $50 million series B and the $250 million series C. After all, they have the capital, already know the company, have a relationship with the CEO, and can avoid a time-consuming fundraise in the process.

So for many deals today, those later-stage cap tables are essentially locking out new investors, because there is already so much capital sitting around the cap table just salivating to double down.

That gets us straight to the paradox. In order to have access to later-stage rounds, you have to already be on the cap table, which means that you have to do the smaller, earlier-stage rounds. Suddenly, growth investors are coming back to early-stage rounds (including seed) just to have optionality on access to these startups and their fundraises.

As one VC explained to me last week (paraphrasing), “What’s weird today is that you have firms like Sequoia who show up for seed rounds, but they don’t really care about … anything. Valuation, terms, etc. It’s all a play for those later-stage rounds.” I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration to be clear, but ultimately, those one million-dollar checks are essentially a rounding error for the largest funds. The real return is in the mega rounds down the road.

Does that mean seed funds will cease to exist? Certainly not, but it’s hard to make money and build a balanced, risk-adjusted portfolio when your competitors literally don’t care and consider the investment a marketing and access expense. As for founders — the times are still really, really good if you can check the right VC boxes.

We’ve gone Plaid #

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Danny and Alex were back together to riff over a the latest early-stage rounds, the latest on the late-stage front, and more. It was yet another stacked week, forcing us to pick and choose a bit.

Starting off, however, here’s the rounds that caught our eyes this past week:

Leaving the earlier stages and heading to the other end of the spectrum, we touched on Cloudinary passing the $60 million ARR mark, ExtraHop aiming for $100 million ARR mark in short order, and SiteMinder’s new $70 million round that gave it a $750 million valuation after crossing $70 million ARR last year.

Got all that? Like we said, it has been busy.

The two main stories this week on the show were the big Plaid deal, and what’s going on in the United States’s own venture market.

With Plaid, Visa spent more than $5 billion to acquire the financial data API service in one of the first blockbuster exits of the year, making some VCs at Spark Capital and other firms very happy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. venture capital landscape is changing rapidly as more and more regions outside of Silicon Valley bulk up on their startups. The Valley is barely a majority of VC dollars these days, while regions like the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast are raising their profiles quickly. We talk about that, plus the more than a dozen mega funds that launched last year.

Wrapping up, it appears that the venture capitalist classes are tired. Not that we feel too poorly for them, but it goes to show that there’s so much going on these days that no one is getting any rest. No matter how much money they have.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Funnel closes $47M Series B to prepare marketing data for better reporting and analysis

By Steve O'Hear

Funnel, the Stockholm-based startup that offers technology to help businesses prepare — or make “business-ready” — their marketing data for better reporting and analysis, has closed $47 million in Series B funding.

Leading the round is Eight Roads Ventures and F-Prime Capital, with participation from existing investors Balderton Capital, Oxx, Zobito and Industrifonden, in addition to Kreos Capital.

Funnel says it will use the injection of capital to accelerate its plans in the U.S., where the company is seeing “strong demand” from enterprises. It also will invest in its technical teams to further its vision of “creating a single source of truth of marketing, sales and other commerce data.”

Founded in 2014 by Fredrik Skantze and Per Made, who are also behind Facebook advertising tool Qwaya, Funnel set out to let marketers automate their online marketing data from multiple platforms in real time, so that they can more accurately analyse their online marketing spend.

Initially that included visualising the marketing data, but now the company has decided to focus solely on collecting the data from all of the disparate marketing channels, and cleaning it up and normalizing it so that it can be imported into popular business intelligence tools to be analysed.

“[We have] shifted away from visualising the marketing data to ‘just’ collecting and making it business-ready as we have seen that to be the real pain point for customers,” Funnel co-founder and CEO Fredrik Skantze tells TechCrunch.

“Visualisation is done well in existing business intelligence tools once the data is properly prepared. Automating the collection and preparation of the data has proven to be a very hard thing to do right and we wanted to make sure we were the best at this which we now confidently can say we are as we hear that again and again from customers.”

To that end, Skantze explains that Funnel has direct connections to tools like Tableau and Google Data Studio. The idea is that customers can instantly visualize the data in the tools they are already familiar with.

Since we last covered Funnel mid 2017, the overarching trend has been an explosive growth in digital marketing. Skantze says that in 2017, 39% of worldwide marketing spend was digital and mostly e-commerce, gaming and app companies that were putting the majority of their budgets online. Since then, forecasts have been repeatedly adjusted upwards, and in 2020, leading markets like the U.K. are now approaching 70% for digital marketing.

“That means the big brands are putting their big budgets online,” he says. “These brands are moving their marketing online because of the performance promise of digital marketing. But delivering on that performance promise requires being data-driven. This is a huge shift for these organizations that they are gradually coming to grips with as they are traditionally more branding focused. It requires creating new roles like marketing analytics, marketing technologists and putting in place a data infrastructure. This is complex.”

That, of course, plays nicely into the hands of Funnel, which is seeing enterprises far beyond e-commerce and apps utilise its wares. “We have spent the last year building out the enterprise readiness of our product and offering [features] like security certifications and enterprise features to be ready to take on these customers,” adds Skantze.

Meanwhile, during the last year, the Funnel team has grown from 73 to 140, and the company signed new office space for a total of 400 people across Stockholm and Boston, ready for further expansion.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

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