It might be time for neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops to start thinking about a subscription business — at least according to a new Y Combinator-backed startup called Per Diem. The company is announcing today that it has raised $2.3 million in seed funding led by Two Sigma Ventures.
As co-founder CEO Tomer Molovinsky put it, Per Diem helps local businesses “build their own Amazon Prime.” He said that he and his co-founder/CTO Doron Segal started working on this during the pandemic, as local businesses became more willing to consider new models to increase loyalty and regular purchases.
Not that this is an entirely new concept. In fact, Molovinsky said a number of the startup’s early customers already offered subscriptions of their own, like Norman’s Farm Market with its CSA subscription for produce, or IVX Coffee with a program initially focused on filling up reusable mugs with coffee.
But apparently these programs were usually managed through spreadsheets or an “old-school Rolodex,” making them increasingly difficult to manage as they grew. So Per Diem has built software to handle things like ordering, pickups/deliveries and payments.
Image Credits: Per Diem
“Today we offer support for both local delivery and shipping, and then we plan to build that out [with] different types of integrations, delivery partners and shipping partners,” Molovinsky said. “But we’re building on that core fundamental, which is that this is a brick-and-mortar business. That’s the ultimate differentiator.”
In other words, Per Diem emphasizes creating a strong in-store experience for subscribers, since that’s where they build a real relationship with the business.
“I don’t want to build a future where … I’m getting all my food from warehouses in another state,” Segal added. “I want to be able to say, ‘Oh, I get my food from John, I get my coffee from Linda.'”
Per Diem says that after Norman’s Farm Market used the software to offer vegetable box subscription on its website, it sold over 500 subscriptions in the first month alone. And IVX is now able to offer a full menu of espresso, match and coffee (drip and bean) subscriptions, with the average subscriber visiting the store five days a week.
Per Diem founders Doron Segal and Tomer Molovinsky. Image Credits: Per Diem
The startup is currently focused on New York, but it’s already working with businesses in Phoenix and Washington, D.C. as well, and Molovinsky said there are no real geographic limitations.
Ultimately, he said he’s hoping to create “more value” for businesses, which could eventually mean cross-promoting different subscriptions or creating a neighborhood-wide subscription.
“We want to stay focused on what are the things we can unlock for [our customers],” he said. “They’re struggling with email marketing, so we added tools like that into our system. Over time, we can build up our system to continue to strengthen the relationship between the customer and the business.”
You’ll need to prick up your ears for this slice of deepfakery emerging from the wacky world of synthesized media: A digital version of Albert Einstein — with a synthesized voice that’s been (re)created using AI voice cloning technology drawing on audio recordings of the famous scientist’s actual voice.
The startup behind the ‘uncanny valley’ audio deepfake of Einstein is Aflorithmic (whose seed round we covered back in February).
While the video engine powering the 3D character rending components of this ‘digital human’ version of Einstein is the work of another synthesized media company — UneeQ — which is hosting the interactive chatbot version on its website.
Alforithmic says the ‘digital Einstein’ is intended as a showcase for what will soon be possible with conversational social commerce. Which is a fancy way of saying deepfakes that make like historical figures will probably be trying to sell you pizza soon enough, as industry watchers have presciently warned.
The startup also says it sees educational potential in bringing famous, long deceased figures to interactive ‘life’.
Or, well, an artificial approximation of it — the ‘life’ being purely virtual and Digital Einstein’s voice not being a pure tech-powered clone either; Alforithmic says it also worked with an actor to do voice modelling for the chatbot (because how else was it going to get Digital Einstein to be able to say words the real-deal would never even have dreamt of saying — like, er, ‘blockchain’?). So there’s a bit more than AI artifice going on here too.
“This is the next milestone in showcasing the technology to make conversational social commerce possible,” Alforithmic’s COO Matt Lehmann told us. “There are still more than one flaws to iron out as well as tech challenges to overcome but overall we think this is a good way to show where this is moving to.”
In a blog post discussing how it recreated Einstein’s voice the startup writes about progress it made on one challenging element associated with the chatbot version — saying it was able to shrink the response time between turning around input text from the computational knowledge engine to its API being able to render a voiced response, down from an initial 12 seconds to less than three (which it dubs “near-real-time”). But it’s still enough of a lag to ensure the bot can’t escape from being a bit tedious.
Laws that protect people’s data and/or image, meanwhile, present a legal and/or ethical challenge to creating such ‘digital clones’ of living humans — at least not without asking (and most likely paying) first.
Of course historical figures aren’t around to ask awkward questions about the ethics of their likeness being appropriated for selling stuff (if only the cloning technology itself, at this nascent stage). Though licensing rights may still apply — and do in fact in the case of Einstein.
“His rights lie with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is a partner in this project,” says Lehmann, before ‘fessing up to the artist licence element of the Einstein ‘voice cloning’ performance. “In fact, we actually didn’t clone Einstein’s voice as such but found inspiration in original recordings as well as in movies. The voice actor who helped us modelling his voice is a huge admirer himself and his performance captivated the character Einstein very well, we thought.”
Turns out the truth about high-tech ‘lies’ is itself a bit of a layer cake. But with deepfakes it’s not the sophistication of the technology that matters so much as the impact the content has — and that’s always going to depend upon context. And however well (or badly) the faking is done, how people respond to what they see and hear can shift the whole narrative — from a positive story (creative/educational synthesized media) to something deeply negative (alarming, misleading deepfakes).
Concern about the potential for deepfakes to become a tool for disinformation is rising, too, as the tech gets more sophisticated — helping to drive moves toward regulating AI in Europe, where the two main entities responsible for ‘Digital Einstein’ are based.
Earlier this week a leaked draft of an incoming legislative proposal on pan-EU rules for ‘high risk’ applications of artificial intelligence included some sections specifically targeted at deepfakes.
Under the plan, lawmakers look set to propose “harmonised transparency rules” for AI systems that are designed to interact with humans and those used to generate or manipulate image, audio or video content. So a future Digital Einstein chatbot (or sales pitch) is likely to need to unequivocally declare itself artificial before it starts faking it — to avoid the need for Internet users to have to apply a virtual Voight-Kampff test.
For now, though, the erudite-sounding interactive Digital Einstein chatbot still has enough of a lag to give the game away. Its makers are also clearly labelling their creation in the hopes of selling their vision of AI-driven social commerce to other businesses.
BrandProject —a firm that’s backed successful direct-to-consumer commerce startups like Freshly (acquired by Nestlé), Persona (also acquired by Nestlé) and Chef’s Plate (acquired by Hello Fresh) — is announcing that it has raised $43 million for what it says is its first traditional venture fund.
Founded Andrew Black, who previously co-founded Virgin Mobile Canada and served as president of LEGO Americas, BrandProject previously invested from a $12 million fund tied BrandProject Studio, where the money is just a small part of what’s being offered — apparently six of the firm’s eight team members are entirely focused on supporting startups, often serving as de facto CTOs, CFOs and CMOs.
With the new BrandProject Capital fund, the firm will be able to make larger investments in (somewhat) more mature companies. Black estimated that the new fund will be writing checks of between $1 million and $3 million; the goal is for half of the deals to be new investments, while the other half consists of follow-on investments in startups from BrandProject Studio.
“We’re going to be supporting the same type of businesses out of Studio or Capital, but with Studio, nothing’s too early for us — we’re all about team, team, team,” said Partner Hayden Williams. “But if it’s a Capital deal, we’re going to look for some evidence that something working, even if it’s a small scale.”
The focus will continue to be direct-to-consumer brands, and although the pandemic has led to tremendous e-commerce growth, Black said it hasn’t changed the BrandProject strategy.
Image Credits: BrandProject
“We haven’t adjusted our investment focus at all because of COVID,” he said. “We’ve always invested behind categories, brands and segments that we just think the world needs.”
One of the limited partners who invested in the new fund is probably BrandProject’s biggest success story — Freshly co-founder and CEO Michael Wystrach, who sold his healthy meal startup to Nestlé for $1.5 billion. Wystrach recalled reading about BrandProject in TechCrunch and, after looking the firm up, sending unsolicited meals to Partner Jay Bhatti in New York.
At that point, Freshly had only raised friends-and-family funding, and Wystrach admitted, “We would have taken a check from anyone.” But he said he was lucky that Bhatti liked the food and the firm decided to invest, with Black becoming an interim co-CEO, Bhatti serving as interim CTO and Partner Andrew Bridge serving as an interim CMO.
“What I loved about BrandProject is that they never came in and told us what kind of business we’re building,” he continued. “It was never a case where they said, ‘You need to do this.’ It was our business, and they were team members in helping us build the business.”
To illustrate the idea behind the new fund, Wystrach compared the investment ecosystem to the U.S. schools: “Where Andrew and the team come in, they’re K through 8 or maybe K through 6, they’re very hands on … With the new fund, maybe they’re moving to middle school.”
Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.
When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.
In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.
Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.
“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.
Image Credits: Soona
Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”
The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.
“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.
Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”
Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.
Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather the less structured prospect of open streets — to be online in two years.
“We are not constraining ourselves to work in any one use case,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in an interview. But to roll out auotonomous systems everwhere, he added, “we realize there are areas where we will need regulatory compliance,” among other factors. The deal is non-exclusive, and both can work with other partners if they choose, the companies confirmed.
The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million. Oxbotica has not disclosed valuation but Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, confirmed in an interview that the valuation went up with this latest investment.
The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.
Walmart, until February, owned one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.
More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.
In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.
A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.
But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.
As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.
That could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.
The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.
My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.
So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.
In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado said it will be looking to make more investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities. While this is the company’s first investment into Oxbotica, it has made a number of investments into other startups, and collaborated to work on the next stage of technology. This has included research to build a robotic arm — which robotic pickers is something it will be introducing soon — as well as the recent acquisition of two robotics companies, Kindred and Haddington, for $262 million; and investments in robotics startups Karakuri and Myrmex, and more,
Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:
“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Newman, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”
But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.
“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”
Newman noted that while on-street self-driving might still be some years away, it’s less of a moonshot concept today than it used to be, and that Oxbotica is on the road to it already. “You can get to the moon in stages,” he said.
Updated with interviews with both companies, and to correct that Walmart closed its deal to sell ASDA in February.
It might be strange to hear this from a firm that just raised a $55 million equity fund, but the team at Upper90 would like to remind you that equity isn’t the only funding that’s available.
Upper90 is led by CEO Billy Libby (former head of quantitative education sales at Goldman Sachs) and Chairman Jason Finger (co-founder of Seamless), and it was the first investor in both Thrasio and Clearbanc. The firm offers debt and equity funding, and it just closed a $195 million fund in December — but the fund announced today is Upper90’s first to be devoted purely to equity financing.
Finger said he and Libby have taken this combined approach because there are often predictable parts of an online business, where (for example) “if I’m doing some marketing, I know that $1 on Facebook will generate $8 of revenue.” In those cases, “equity is the most expensive way you can finance growth,” and he said it “really fundamentally bothered me that the founders and early investors who took a lot of the risks, dedicating their life on a 24/7 basis” would often end up owning a small percentage of the company.
That doesn’t mean debt is the only solution, but in Finger’s words, founders should stop seeing big equity rounds as “a badge of honor.” Instead, they can work with Upper90 to find the “optimal capital structure” combining both elements.
“Life isn’t binary,” he added. “Part of the reason we launched an equity fund in the [e-commerce] rollup sector is that equity is an important piece for you to get the highest quality lender — they’re going to want to know that there’s equity protection underneath their credit facility.”
He also suggested that making an equity investment turns Upper90 into a “long-term partner” for the companies it backs, freeing the team from being “purely focused on the returns related to our credit.”
As alluded to earlier, Libby and Finger see the e-commerce aggregation market as one that’s particularly well-suited to their approach. (Thrasio is perhaps the best-known startup rolling up Amazon sellers, while Clearbanc offers its own revenue-based financing to e-commerce and SaaS companies.)
“I always say: What’s new is old,” Libby told me. “If we had this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about rolling up gyms and dry cleaners and smoothie shops […] The infrastructure that Amazon has developed allows people to be entrepreneurs in a week, so I think that we’re still extremely early in this trend. There are going to be so many more people starting their own store on Amazon.”
And eventually, he suggested Upper90 could take a similar approach in other industries: “A content creator who starts a YouTube channel is not that different than the Amazon store owner. Five years from now, we could be talk about, what’s the value of a subscriber on YouTube, what’s the value of an influencer’s following on Instagram, how can we bring some of that revenue forward?”
Graphic designer Paul Rand once famously said that the public was more familiar with bad design than good design. While he was referring to most of the design in the world being “bad”, these days that phrase might take on a second meaning: people typically only notice and talk about (and usually complain about) design when it is ugly, or works badly. Conversely, if it’s good, and it works, you don’t hear much.
Today a startup called UserZoom that has built a platform used by companies like Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce and many others stay off the bad design radar — with tools to evaluate their design and identify where and when it doesn’t work, and how to link it up better with bigger customer experience strategies — is announcing some significant funding to expand its business.
The company has raised $100 million — money that CEO and co-founder Alfonso de la Nuez said will be used to continue building its tools and mission to make design as critical to a company’s mission as sales might be to an e-commerce company. Alongside this, it has made an acquisition, of another experience insights company called EnjoyHQ, to expand its research operations.
“We feel companies are only scratching the surface of what they could be doing,” he said. “We think experience management could become the third system of record, similar to ERP or CRM.”
This funding is being led by Owl Rock, with other unnamed investors participating. Prior to this, UserZoom raised some $34 million. It is not disclosing valuation, but de la Nuez notes that this latest investment represents a minority stake UserZoom, that the startup is profitable and grew revenues by 40% last year, and that it’s currently on an annual run rate of $80 million.
De la Nuez and UserZoom are currently based out of Los Gatos in the South Bay Area, but the company actually got its start in Barcelona, Spain, where de la Nuez and his co-founder Xavier Mestres originally ran a more old-school user experience design consulting company.
“We had physical labs, testing sites, were we ran focus groups,” he recalled. “It was tedious and manual.”
Years of working like that, and he and Mestres and a third co-founder who has since left the company, Javier Darriba, decided to see how and if they could retool the concept as a piece of software.
Their timing was perfect: It was 2007, the year of the iPhone debut, and the smaller screen of that device, and Apple’s prowess in nailing design and user experience, suddenly got the tech world (and the rest of the world) thinking about how they, too, could rethink their own digital experiences. You might think of it as an earlier iteration of the kind of digital transformation that people talk about today.
The company was growing in Spain at a time when it was much harder for startups to raise substantial rounds, so UserZoom made the decision move to California, but Mestres, who is the CTO, still runs the startup’s engineering, design and customer support teams (100 out of 300 staff in all) out of Barcelona. The cost base of employing tech people in Spain are completely different from the Bay Area, “and it’s helped us become profitable,” de la Nuez said.
The core of the company’s product is a platform that runs what it refers to as “XIM” (Experience Insights Management), which lets customers test out any digital experience — be it something on the web, or a phone, or a smartwatch or an interactive voice service, and soon, other interfaces such as automotive. (And it’s a list that is likely to grow as more hardware and services are built.) It can recruit testers to evaluate design, product interaction, marketing decisions that the company is trying out, and so on.
That testing interface is essentially started as product development begins, the idea being that customers can apply the principle of “agile development” as they continue to work on the product, rather than leave all of that to be tested after a product is technically already completed.
As a company users UserZoom, the results of tests can be shared among different stakeholders who can make notes on how product development would work (or wouldn’t work) with how they are envisioning, say, a new sales strategy or engagement goal. It also helps develop KPIs for customers to determine how and if a design is meeting KPIs.
These can cover not just basic goals like “more conversions” or “less shopping cart abandonment” or “opting in to cookies” but also whether a design is meeting accessibility goals. (As seen with the recent controversy around Ravelry, this is indeed a growing issue and one that de la Nuez said will be getting more attention at UserZoom.)
The space of UX and testing to improve it is a pretty crowded and well-funded one, with others in it including LogRocket, UserTesting, ContentSquare, companies focusing on specific verticals, like AB Tasty and many others. What’s giving UserZoom an edge, it seems, is not just its extensive and impressive customer base, but its focus on trying to provide an end-to-end concept of design and experience and how it might fit in with a bigger business strategy.
“In today’s digital economy, the quality of the customer and user experience is the driving factor that helps businesses retain customers and generate increased revenue,” said Pravin Vazirani, managing director at Owl Rock, in a statement. “Despite this, many organizations are still unable to properly extract and manage the potential insights that lie within a customer journey. UserZoom enables companies to harness these insights and drive improved digital experiences.” Andy Lefkarites, an investor at Owl Rock said in a statement, “We see a tremendous market opportunity for UserZoom, which enables companies of all sizes and industries to continually enhance and prioritize their digital experience strategy. We are pleased to be able to support UserZoom with growth capital to enable them to seize that opportunity.”
Amazon on Thursday announced a $250 million venture fund to invest in Indian startups and entrepreneurs focusing on digitization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the key overseas market.
The announcement comes at a time when the American e-commerce group, which has previously invested over $6.5 billion in its India business, faces heat from government bodies, and the small and medium-sized businesses that it purports to serve.
Through the new venture fund, called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund, Amazon said it wants to invest in startups that focus on helping small businesses come online, sell online, automate and digitize their operations, and expand to customers worldwide.
Agriculture and healthcare are two additional areas Amazon is focusing on with its new venture fund, but it said it is open to looking at tech startups from other sectors if their work intersects with SMBs.
In the agri-tech sector, Amazon is looking to invest in Indian startups that are using technology to make agri-inputs more accessible to farmers, provide credit and insurance to farmers, reduce food wastage, and improve the quality of produce to consumers. In the healthcare sector, Amazon said it will invest in startups that are enabling healthcare providers to leverage telemedicine, e-diagnosis, AI powered treatment recommendations.
The announcement was made at Amazon’s annual event, called Sambhav, that focuses on India-based SMBs. At the virtual event, Amazon also unveiled ‘Spotlight North East’, an initiative to bring 50,000 artisans, weavers and small businesses online from the eight states in the North East region of India by 2025 and to boost exports of key commodities like tea, spices and honey from the region.
In the first edition of Sambhav last year, Amazon announced it would be investing $1 billion to help digitize 10 million small and medium sized businesses. Amazon said earlier this month that it had created 300,000 jobs in India since January 2020, and enabled exports for Indian-made goods worth $3 billion.
The company said more than 50,000 offline retailers and neighborhood stores — called kirana locally — are using Amazon marketplace and about 250,000 new sellers have also joined the platform. The company said today it aims to onboard 1 million offline retailers and neighbourhood stores by 2025 through the Local Shops on Amazon program.
Not far from Sambhav’s first event last year, which was attended by Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the street and expressed their concerns about what they alleged was unfair practices employed by Amazon to crush them.
A similar protest was seen today. You can hear some of their stories here. It’s an ongoing challenge for Amazon, which has long struggled to stay out of controversy in India.
An influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country in February this year after a report claimed that the American e-commerce group had given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers in India, publicly misrepresented its ties with those sellers and used them to circumvent foreign investment rules in the country.
The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) “demanded” serious action from the Indian government against Amazon following revelations made in a Reuters story. “For years, CAIT has been maintaining that Amazon has been circumventing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] laws of India to conduct unfair and unethical trade,” it said.
Several international technology giants including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in Indian startups in recent years. Amazon, too, has backed a number of firms including ride-hailing startup Shuttl, and consumer brand MyGlamm. Last month, it acquired retail startup Perpule for about $20 million.
A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.
A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.
The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.
Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.
TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.
The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.
It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.
Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.
It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.
In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.
“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.
Know something, say something. Send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755-8849. You can also send files or documents using our SecureDrop. Learn more.
After inking a deal to work together almost three years ago, U.S. supermarket chain Kroger and U.K. online grocer Ocado today took the wraps off the first major product of that deal. Kroger has launched a new Ocado-powered customer fulfillment center in Monroe, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati, a gigantic warehouse covering 375,000 square feet and thousands of products for packing and delivering Kroger orders from online shoppers.
Built with a giant grid along the floor, “the shed”, as Ocado calls its warehouses, will feature some 1,000 robots alongside 400 human employees to pick, sort and move items. It is expected to process as much as $700 million in sales annually, the sales of 20 brick-and-mortar stores.
Those orders, in turn, will be delivered in temperature-controlled Kroger Delivery vans, built on the model of Ocado’s vans in the U.S. and able to store up to 20 orders. These will also be run using Ocado software, mapping algorithms to optimize deliveries along the fastest and most fuel-efficient routes.
Image Credits: Kroger
Kroger and Ocado’s partnership was a long time in the making, but the focus on what has come out of it is probably at its keenest right now, given the huge boost online shopping has had in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting push for more social distancing, has driven a lot of people to the internet to shop, opting for deliveries over physical store visits for some or all of their food and other weekly essentials.
That trend has also spelled more competition in the space, too: the likes of Amazon, Walmart, other traditional grocers getting their digital strategies in order and online players all are hoping for a piece of the market of consumers now ready to buy online.
That tide has also lifted Kroger’s boat. In a call today with journalists, Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO, said that delivery had grown 150% for Kroger last year.
While some of that may well melt back into physical shopping as and when COVID-19 cases wane (fingers crossed), many in the industry believe that the genie has been let out of the bottle, so to speak: Many consumers introduced to shopping online will stay, at least in part, and so this is about building infrastructure to meet that new demand.
(And there is some data that backs that up: Ocado CEO and co-founder Tim Steiner noted that at Ocado, pre-pandemic the average order value for the company was £105 ($144). That grew to £180 last year, and is now at £120.)
Kroger, like many brick-and-mortar players, has been building out multiple fronts in its digital strategy. Alongside Ocado, the company has also been investing in technology to boost the efficiency of its in-store operations (for example, by working with companies like Shelf Engine), and it has a grocery delivery partnership with Instacart.
Kroger’s partnership with Instacart will remain in place, not least because it covers a much wider geography than the Ocado approach, which is live now in Cincinnati, and sounds like it will also expand to Florida. While Kroger today said that CFCs will vary in size and be built on the concept of “modules” (the Monroe facility is built on seven modules), this is still a capital intensive approach compared to the Instacart model, so might overall face a slower rollout and perhaps only make sense in Kroger’s denser markets.
“The two partnerships are critical to Kroger and our customers,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s CIO, in the call today. “We expect to work very closely in strategic partnership with Instacart and with Ocado.”
Ocado, an early player that started out in the U.K. back in 2000, is seen by many as the industry standard for how to build and run an online-only grocery business.
But rather than growing by taking its direct grocery business outside the U.K., the company has been expanding its reach by way of using the technology that it has built for itself and turning it into a product — a process that is still very much in development, with the company working now on robotic pickers and other autonomous systems, along with other technology to power and make its delivery service more efficient.
Ocado’s “AWS” strategy of turning tech that it has built for itself into a product to sell to others has born fruit: it now has partnerships to power online grocery services, and specifically fulfillment centers, in Japan (with Aeon), France (with Casino) and Canada (with Sobeys). That means the Kroger rollout is now a tested model, but it’s still a very notable move for the company to break into the U.S. while at the same time giving Kroger a much-needed bit of infrastructure to better compete with bigger players in the country like Walmart and Amazon.
In that regard, it will be interesting to see how and if Kroger leverages its much bigger Ocado-powered infrastructure for its other projects. The company is working with Mirakl to develop its own marketplace for third-party retailers, going head to head with similar offerings from — yes — Amazon and Walmart.
Meet Sunday, a new startup that is going to attract some headlines as it has raised a $24 million seed round at a $140 million post-money valuation. That’s a lot of money for a company that started just a few months ago but that’s because Sunday wants to move quickly.
Sunday is getting noticed because it is founded by Victor Lugger, Tigrane Seydoux and Christine de Wendel — Lugger and Tigrane have been working together for several years as they’re the founders of Big Mamma. Christine de Wendel headed Zalando in France before joining ManoMano as COO.
If you’re not familiar with Big Mamma, they’ve launched a dozen Italian restaurants in France. They also manage La Felicità, the food court at Station F.
Some people love those restaurants because the food is good and it’s relatively affordable. Some people hate it because Big Mamma is also particularly well known for its long queues and the fact that you always feel like you have to eat quickly for the next group. But it’s clear that it’s been working well for the past few years.
Managing Big Mamma during a pandemic led to Sunday, a spin-off company incorporated in the U.S. The restaurant company wanted to offer a way to check the menu and pay without touching anything. Like many restaurants, they put QR codes on the tables to that customers can scan them with their phones and load a website.
But Sunday didn’t stop at the menu as it also connects directly to the cash register system. Sunday supports Oracle Micros, Brinks, Tiller, Zelty, Revo, CashPad, etc. This way, clients can also scan the QR code, check their tab and pay directly from their phone. When they’re done eating, they can pay by themselves, stand up and leave.
After trying Sunday in Big Mamma restaurants, the company saw some encouraging results. 80% of customers chose to pay using the QR code, which means that restaurants saved 15 minutes in wait time on average leading to a better table turnover rate.
And this is key to understanding Sunday. It’s easy to sell a new payment system to a restaurant if it leads to more revenue. Popular restaurants that feel like they’re always looking for empty tables could greatly benefit from Sunday.
It also opens up some new possibilities. For instance, guests can split the bill directly at the table — everyone loads up Sunday and pay. Sunday is based on QR codes right now, but the company isn’t attached to QR codes specifically. You could imagine loading your bill using RFID chips, a tablet, etc.
The vision is clear — Sunday wants to build the Fast Checkout of restaurants. The startup thinks online checkout is going to merge with offline, brick-and-mortar checkout.
Sunday customers don’t pay any monthly subscription fee or setup fee. You only pay processing fees based on usage. And those fees tend to be lower than the card machine you’re currently using.
The startup’s seed round was led by Coatue with New Wave participating. New Wave is a new European seed fund led by Pia d’Iribarne and backed by Xavier Niel. Multiple hospitality and tech investors are also participating.
The idea is to raise a lot of money, sign up a lot of restaurants and take over the market right now while there’s an opportunity during the pandemic. They have hired 40 people already and they’re signing deals with restaurants even though most of them are still closed in Europe.
Sunday isn’t a tech achievement per se — it’s an execution play. The company that can roll out this kind of checkout experience faster than the others is going to take over the market.
When restaurants are going to be open again, you may notice Sunday QR codes in France at Eataly, PNY, Paris Society, Eric Frechon, Groupe Bertrand’s restaurants (Burger King France, Hippopotamus, Groupe Flo…). Similarly, in the U.K., Sunday is partnering with JKS Group (Hoppers, Brigadiers, Gymkhana…), Corbin & King and others. Sunday is also talking with companies in the U.S. and Spain.
Overall, there are more than a thousand restaurants currently adopting Sunday.
“We follow the same model as the one we used when launching restaurants with Big Mamma. Seven years ago, we invested three times more than the others to compress fixed costs and deliver a better product,” Sunday co-founder and CEO Victor Lugger told me.
The startup already has an ambitious product roadmap. Eventually, you could imagine having your own Sunday account that remembers your past bills, tracks your allergies, saves your favorite payment method, etc. Once again, it’ll come down to execution.
Justin Mast has a simple reason for starting his plant retail startup Bloomscape in Detroit.
“This is home,” he told me. “This is where I have a really strong network and I knew I’d be able to find a lot of support.”
Mast didn’t grow up in Detroit proper, but he’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city. He recalled a weekend in Detroit after finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when he was “totally blown away” by the city’s energy.
And when it came time to launch Bloomscape in 2018, Mast said it made sense to do so from Detroit because of Michigan’s “strong heritage in the horticulture industry” — in floriculture, for example, it ranks as one of the biggest producers in the United States.
That heritage isn’t abstract to him. Mast said his family has been involved in the industry for five generations on his father’s side (including three generations in the Netherlands) and three generations on his mother’s. He worked in the family greenhouse as a child and even starting a roadside plant stand.
Image Credits: Bloomscape
“This was my version of a lemonade stand,” he said — albeit a lemonade stand that became popular enough that Mast needed to recruit his siblings for help, and that eventually provided him with enough money to buy a used car.
Bloomscape launched in 2018, and Mast said that from the beginning, the startup’s advantage was “to really know the ins and outs of the business.” That allowed Bloomscape to ship larger plants (like birds of paradise and Chinese fan palms), and more recently to expand with outdoor plants and garden “bloom kits.”
“By focusing on one of the least glamorized parts of this industry, the supply chain, we are able to design this process for shipping larger plants, at scale, throughout the country,” he said. “We’re shipping out tropical plants in the dead of winter, thousands of times a week, with a real high level of consistency. We know the plants really well, we how they perform, how they move through a supply chain, we know the nuances of FedEx and UPS, we know what growers are growing quality product.”
Bloomscape has raised a total of $24 million, most recently in a Series B last fall led by General Catalyst, with participation from Annox Capital’s Bob Mylod, Home Depot board member Jeff Boyd, former Seventh Generation and Burt’s Bees CEO John Replogle and existing investors Revolution Ventures and Ludlow Ventures.
Bloomscape bloom kits
When I asked whether investors had ever pressured him to move the startup to Silicon Valley, Mast said, “We’ve had successful funding rounds, but even in most successful rounds, not everyone’s going to be the right fit.” So it sounds like the issue came up, but Mast made sure that everyone who actually invested saw the startup’s location as an advantage, or at least “if they saw it as a disadvantage, they were willing to overlook it.”
Nor has the location proven to be an issue when it comes to hiring. Mast said the company successfully lured Aaron Averbuch (formerly based in Seattle and a vice president of engineering at Placed and Snap) to Detroit to become CTO. He also noted that Detroit is close to the University of Michigan, and that “all the schools in Chicago and Pittsburgh are within a few hours’ drive.”
Mast added that the last six months have been “a particularly exciting time” to run a startup in Detroit, with the success of companies like StockX, Floyd and Autobooks.
“We’re thrilled to be here,” he said.
The race is on for companies building e-commerce empires by rolling up smaller, promising businesses that sell via Amazon and other marketplaces and growing by using some economies of scale to operate them as one. In the latest development, Berlin Brands Group has raised $240 million that it says it will be using to acquire smaller but promising enterprises in Europe and North America — specifically the U.S. — that are already making between $1 million and $100 million in sales via marketplaces like Amazon.
The funding is coming in the form of debt, not equity, and it is coming specifically from UniCredit, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, BBG founder and CEO Peter Chaljawski said in an interview. BBG is profitable and earlier this year it committed more than $300 million off its balance sheet for buying up and operating companies, and so with this debt round, it now has $540 million for that purpose.
“We’re in a wonderful situation with a proven business model, and this is the cheapest money you could get,” he said of the decision to go for debt, a choice often made by startups that are in capital-intensive modes but either reluctant or do not need to give up equity to raise capital to scale if they are generating cash. In the case of BBG it’s the latter, since the company is profitable. “This is better than equity. BBG does not have any debt as of 2020, and we had cash on hand for our first acquisitions, 20 brands that we bought in cash from our balance sheet. Now we want to accelerate that even more.”
BBG has to date mostly built its business around starting up and scaling its own in-house brands that sell on Amazon and elsewhere — starting first with home audio equipment, coming out of Chaljawski’s own interests in sound technology from a previous life as a budding dance music DJ. Its brands include Klarstein (kitchen appliances), auna (home electronics and music equipment), Capital Sports (home fitness) and blumfeldt (garden).
In a big move to scale and build out what it’s established itself, last year BBG shifted over to the roll-up model: leveraging a more buying power to cut better deals with manufacturers and other suppliers, consolidating some of the other functions like marketing, and providing a more comprehensive set of analytics around what is selling best, who is buying, how best to market an item, and more. It says it has 1.3 million square feet of warehouse space in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and is one of the biggest Amazon sellers in Europe today.
The basic idea of rolling up businesses that sell on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) has been around for years in fact, but the notable and more recent shift is that it has taken on a startup profile in part because of how some of the latest entrants are leveraging big data analytics, the latest innovations in manufacturing and logistics technology and a founder-led, e-commerce ethos to grow the model.
“Without data, you would go nowhere in this business,” Chaljawski said. “But on top of that, there is something you can’t pull from market data — a toolbox of manufacturing and engineering expertise that we use to evaluate products.” He says that BBG’s data scientists build algorithms that millions of products, and hundreds of thousands of sellers, to produce the data that it uses both to source potential acquisitions and to run the business.
U.S. players like Thrasio — which itself closed a $1.2 billion Series C for the same purposes: rolling up and scaling — have led the charge. But in recent months we’ve seen a number of others also move into the space, buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from investors very keen to ride the e-commerce wave and the vision of tapping into some of the economies of scale and the marketplace model that have been such a juggernaut for Amazon.
It’s a two-sided marketplace, and Amazon has focused primarily on earning money from operating the marketplace itself and sales to consumers, so that leaves a huge opportunity on the table for someone else (or as it happens, many others) to tackle the opportunity to address the needs and services of the other side of that marketplace: the sellers.
In addition to BBG and Thrasio, others in the same space include Branded, which launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding earlier this year; SellerX, Heyday, Heroes, Perch, among several others. Even removing the very-highly capitalized Thrasio and BBG from the equation, these companies have collectively raised or committed from their own balance sheets hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up small but promising third-party merchants.
If that sounds like a crowded market, well, it probably is. These are also startups, after all, and so the chances that some of these roll-up consolidators will not be that skilled at running multiple companies — with their disparate supply chains, customer bases, replacement cycles and marketing strategies — are as risky as in any other area of e-commerce startup interest.
On the other hand, though, there are a lot of opportunities to play for here.
By one estimate, there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, a number that appears to be growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Out of those, Thrasio estimates that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) that are making $1 million or more per year in revenues.
We have pointed out before that within that bigger number of merchants, there are a huge amount of clones and companies of questionable quality. What is interesting is that there are distinct companies, built around more originality and flair, swimming in that sea: some of them have broken through and floated, while others that have not.
So for a company like BBG, the opportunity lies in the fact that for many of these smaller but promising merchants, they have not been built with longer-term growth visions in place. The merchants might not be prepared for the kind of scaling, investment or operational commitment that would need to be made to keep their businesses going, or they simply don’t have the appetite for it. BBG’s selling point — as it is with others in this space — is that they do.
And BBG’s added pitch is that they can help open another door, to Europe. In the region, Amazon on average has about a 10% market share of marketplaces, BBG estimates, with regional players accounting for more marketplace activity than in the U.S. BBG not only has the links into selling on these other marketplaces, but the promise is that it can help improve how a brand will sell on Amazon itself in the region, given its traction in the market already. Conversely, it hopes to do the same for European brands by giving them a better window into selling in the U.S.
Looking ahead, BBG may well tap an equity round in the near future to bring on investors to shape its own growth and set a valuation for the company, Chaljawski said. He also is realistic about the profusion of companies like his, and is “sure” there will be some casualties down the road. He also believes that we may start to see some emerge around specific verticals as an alternative.
“Yes, I’m sure consolidation will happen, but I also think that we’ll see some specialization, with roll-ups focusing on one vertical or another. I think it will be a mix,” he said.
A startup tapping into the concept of the circular economy, where people don’t buy items outright but pay an incremental amount to use them temporarily, has raised some funding to scale its business in Europe and beyond. Grover, a Berlin-based startup that runs a subscription model where people can rent out consumer electronics like computers, smart phones, games consoles and scooters for set fees, has picked up €60 million ($71 million).
The funding is coming in the form of €45 million in equity and €15 million in venture debt.
The company, which as of September last year had 100,000 subscriptions and now has around 150,000, said it aims to triple its active users by the end of this year to 450,000 by the end of 2021. It will be using the funds both to expand to more markets: both to grow its business in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (where it’s already operating) and to launch in Spain and the US, and to add in more product categories into the mix, including health and fitness devices, consumer robots and smart appliances.
And, it plans to invest in more innovation around its rental services. These have seen a new wave of interest in particular in the past year of pandemic life, which has put a strain on many people’s finances; definitely made it harder to plan for anything, including what gadgets you might need one week or the next; and turned the focus for many people on consuming less, and getting more mileage out of what they and others already have.
“Now more than ever, consumers value convenience, flexibility and sustainability when they shop for and use products. This is especially true when it comes to technology and all of the possibilities that it has to offer — whether that’s productivity, fun, or staying in touch with our loved ones,” said Michael Cassau, CEO and founder of Grover, in a statement. “The fresh funding allows us to bring these possibilities to even more people across the world. It enables us to double down on creating an unparalleled customer experience for our subscribers, and to push the boundaries of the most innovative ways for people and businesses to access and enjoy technology. The strong support from our investors confirms not only the important value our service brings to people, but also Grover’s vast growth potential. We’re still just scratching the surface of a €1 trillion global market.”
JMS Capital-Everglen led the Series B equity round, with participation also from Viola Fintech, Assurant Growth, existing investors coparion, Augmentum Fintech, Circularity Capital, Seedcamp and Samsung Next, and unnamed founders and angel investors from Europe and North America, among others. Kreos Capital issued the debt.
Samsung is a strategic investor: together with Grover it launched a subscription service in December that currently covers select models from its S21 series. “Samsung powered by Grover,” as it’s called, has started out out in Germany, so one plan may be to use some of this investment to roll that out to other markets.
The funding is coming on the heels of a year when Berlin-based Grover said its business grew 2.5x (that is, 150%). Its most recent annual report noted that it had 100,000 active users as of September of last year, renting out 18,000 smartphones, 6,000 pairs of AirPods and over 1,300 electric scooters in that period. It also said that in the most recent fiscal year, it posted net revenues of about $43 million, with $71 million in annual recurring revenue, and tipping into profitability on an Ebitda basis.
It raised €250 million ($297 million) in debt just before the start of the pandemic, and previously to that also raised a Series A of $44 million in 2018, and $48 million in 2019 in a combination of equity and debt in a pre-Series B. It’s not disclosing its valuation.
The company’s service falls into a wider category of startups building services around the subscription economy model, which has touched asset-intensive categories like cars, but also much lighter, internet-only consumables like music and video streaming.
Indeed, Grover has been regularly referred to as the “Netflix for gadgets,” in part a reference to the latter company’s history starting out by sending out physical DVDs to people’s homes (which they returned when finished to get other films under a subscription model).
Similar to cars and films, there is definitely an argument to be made for owning gadgets on a subscription. The pricier that items become — and the more of them that there are battling for a share of consumer’s wallets against many of the other things that they can spend money to own or use — the less likely it is that people will be completely happy to fork out money or build in financing to own them, not least because the value of a gadget typically depreciates the minute a consumer does make the purchase.
At the same time, more consumers are subscribing, and often paying electronically, to services that they use regularly: whether it’s a Prime subscription, or Spotify, the idea with Grover — and others that are building subscriptions around physical assets — is to adopt the friction-light model of subscribing to a service, and apply it to physical goods.
And for retailers, it’s another alternative to offer customers — alongside buying outright, using credit, or offering by-now-pay-later or other kinds of financing, in order to close a deal. Shopping cart abandonment, and competition for shoppers online, are very real prospects, so anything to catch incremental wins, is a win. And if they are working in a premium (cost-per-month of use, say) to give customers possession of the gadget in question, if they manage to secure enough business this way, it actually might prove to be even more lucrative than outright sales, especially if the maintenance of those goods is offloaded to a third party like Grover.
Although some people have regularly been wary of the idea of used consumer electronics, or other used goods, that has been shifting. There have been a number of companies seeing strong growth in the last year on the back of helping consumers resell their own items. This has been helped in part by buyers being more focused on spending less (and sellers maybe earning back some money in the process), but also being keen to reduce their own footprints in the world by using items that are already out in circulation. In Europe alone, last week, Brighton-based MPB raised nearly $70 million for its used-camera equipment marketplace. Other recent deals have included used-goods marketplace Wallapop in Spain raising $191 million and clothing-focused Vestiaire Collective raising $216 million.
What is interesting here is — whether it’s a sign of the times, or because Grover might have cracked the subscription model for gadgets — the company seems to be progressing in an area that has definitely seen some fits and bumps over the years.
Lumoid out of the U.S. also focused on renting out tech gear but despite finding some traction and inking a deal with big box retailer Best Buy, it failed to raise the funding it needed to run its service and eventually shut down. It’s also not alone in trying to tackle the market. Others in the same space include Tryatec and Wonder, which seems to be focused more on trying out technology from startups.
The big question indeed is not just whether Grover will find more of a market for its rental/subscription model, but also whether it has cracked those economics around all of the supply chain management, shipping and receiving goods, reconditioning or repairing when needed, and simply keeping strong customer service throughout all of that. As we’ve seen many times, a good idea on one level can prove extremely challenging to execute on another.
A month ago, Coupang arrived on Wall Street with a bang. The South Korean e-commerce giant — buoyed by $12 billion in 2020 revenue — raised $4.55 billion in its IPO and hit a valuation as high as $109 billion. It is the biggest U.S. IPO of the year so far, and the largest from an Asian company since Alibaba’s.
But long before founder Bom Kim rang the bell, I knew him as a fellow founder on the hunt for a good idea. We stayed in touch as he formed his vision for what would become Coupang, and I built it alongside him as an investor and board member.
As a board member, I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.
Bom fearlessly turned down an acquisition offer from then-market-leader Groupon, ferociously learned what he didn’t know, made a daring pivot even after becoming a billion-dollar company, and iteratively built a vision for end-to-end market dominance.
In 2008, I met Bom while playing a weekend game of pickup basketball at Stuyvesant High School. We realized we had a mutual acquaintance through my recently-sold startup, Community Connect Inc. He told me about the magazine he had sold and his search for a next move. So we agreed to meet up for lunch and go over some of his ideas.
To be honest, I don’t remember any of those early ideas, probably because they weren’t very good. But I really liked Bom. Even as I was crapping on his ideas, I could tell he was sharp from how he processed my feedback. It was obvious he was super smart and definitely worth keeping in touch with, which we continued to do even after he relocated to go to HBS.
I soon began investing in and incubating businesses, starting mostly with my own capital. When I got a call from an executive recruiter working for a company in Chicago called Groupon — who told me they were at a $50 million run rate in only a few months — I became fascinated with their model and started talking to some of the investors, former employees, and merchants.
Inspired, and as a new parent, I decided to launch a similar daily-deal business for families: Instead of skydiving and go-kart racing, we offered deals on kids’ music classes and birthday party venues. While I was working on this idea, John Ason, an angel investor in Diapers.com, said I should meet with the founder and CEO Marc Lore. By the end of the meeting, Marc and I etched a partnership to launch DoodleDeals.com co-branded with Diapers.com. The first deal did over $70,000 — great start.
I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.
All that time, I kept in touch with Bom. In February 2010, we were catching up over lunch at the Union Square Ippudo, and he asked if I had heard of Buywithme, a Boston-based Groupon clone. He hadn’t yet heard about Groupon, so I explained the business model and shared the numbers. He thought something similar might transfer well to South Korea, where he was born and his parents still lived.
This kind of conversation is exactly why I love working with founders early, even before the idea forms: You learn a lot about them as they explore, wrestle with uncertainty, and eventually build conviction on a business they plan to spend the next decade-plus building. Ultimately, success comes down to founders’ belief in themselves; when you develop the same belief in them as an investor, it is pretty magical. I was starting to really believe in Bom.
I’m not Korean — I am ethnically Chinese — so Bom put together slides on the Korean market and why it was perfect for the daily-deal model. In short: a very dense population that’s incredibly online. Image Credits: Ben Sun
I told Bom he should drop out of business school and do this. He said, “You don’t think I can wait until I graduate?” I responded, “No way! It will be over by then!”
First-mover advantage is real in a business like this, and it didn’t take Bom long to see that. He raised a small $1.3 million seed round. I invested, joined the board. Because of my knowledge of the deals market and my entrepreneurial experience, Bom asked me to get hands-on in Korea — not at all typical for an investor or even a board member, but I think of myself as a builder and not just a backer, and this is how I wanted to operate as an investor.
Once he realized time was of the essence, Bom was heads down. For context, he was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nancy, who also went to Harvard undergrad and was a successful lawyer. Imagine telling your fiancée, “Honey, I am dropping out of business school, moving to Korea to start a company. I will be back for the wedding. Not sure if I will ever be coming back to the U.S.”
I emailed Bom, saying: “Bom — honestly as a friend. Enjoy your wedding. It is a real blessing that your fiancée is being so supportive of you doing this. Launching a site a few weeks before the wedding is going to be way too distracting and she won’t feel like your heart is in it. Launching a few weeks later is not going to make or break this business. Trust me.”
Bom didn’t listen. He launched Coupang in August 2010, two weeks before the wedding. He flew back to Boston, got married, and — running on basically no sleep — sneaked out for a 20-minute nap in the middle of his reception. Right after the wedding, he flew back to Seoul. Nancy has to be one of the most supportive and understanding partners I have ever seen. They are now married and have two kids.
Tiger Global has invested in DealShare, a startup in India that has built an e-commerce platform for middle and lower-income groups of consumers, just three months after the Indian firm concluded its previous $21 million Series C funding round.
The New York-headquartered firm has the $100 million Series D round in three-year-old social commerce startup DealShare, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Tiger Global declined to comment, and a founder of the Indian startup didn’t return an email over the weekend.
DealShare kickstarted its journey the day Walmart acquired Flipkart, the startup’s founder and chief executive Vineet Rao said at a virtual conference late last year. Rao said that even as Amazon and Flipkart had been able to create a market for themselves in the urban Indian cities, much of the nation was still underserved. There was an opportunity for someone to jump in, he said.
The startup began as an e-commerce platform on WhatsApp, where it offered hundreds of products to consumers. It didn’t take long before a major consumer spending pattern was visible, Rao said. People were only interested in buying items that were selling at discounted rates, said Rao.
Over time, that idea has become part of DealShare’s core offering. Today it incentivizes consumers — by offering them discounts and cashbacks — to share deals on products with their friends. The startup, which has since launched its own app and website, now operates in over two dozen cities in India.
Consumers wanted products that were relevant to them and they wanted to buy these items at a price that instilled the most value for their bucks, said Rao. “We focused on locally produced items instead of national brands. Even today, 80% to 90% of items we sell are locally produced,” he said.
How DealShare model works. (Image and data by Bain & Company)
Amazon and Flipkart have captured less than 3% of the retail market in India, leaving room for firms to explore other models. Social commerce is one of the bets we’re seeing being play out in India. The other bet gaining traction is digitizing neighborhood stores in the country — without so much of the social element — that dot tens of thousands of towns, cities and villages in India.
The investment comes as Tiger Global looks to close over two dozen deals in India this year, TechCrunch reported on Monday. Tiger Global, which recently closed a $6.7 billion fund, last week led investments in social network ShareChat, business messaging platform Gupshup, and investment app Groww, and participated in fintech app CRED’s round, helping all of these startups attain the much sought after unicorn status.
Meesho, the market leading social commerce in India, also turned a unicorn last week after SoftBank led a $300 million round in the Indian firm, valuing it at $2.1 billion.
DealShare counts WestBridge, Falcon Edge Capital’s Alpha Wave, Z3Partners, and Omidyar Network among its investors.
Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.
In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.
SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.
Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.
In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.
“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”
The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.
For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.
Efforts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama appear to have failed, Facebook takes down fake review groups and a monkey plays Pong with its brain. This is your Daily Crunch for April 9, 2021.
The big story: Amazon beats back union push
Union organizers lost a much-publicized election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, with more than half of the 3,215 ballots cast ultimately voting against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a blog post. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”
However, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum suggested that there will “very likely” be a rerun election, and his organization is demanding “a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election.”
The tech giants
Facebook takes down 16,000 groups trading fake reviews after another poke by UK’s CMA — The CMA has been leaning on tech giants to prevent their platforms from being used as marketplaces for selling fake reviews.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Watch a monkey equipped with Elon Musk’s Neuralink device play Pong with its brain — A macaque named Pager was eventually able to control the in-game action entirely with its mind via the Link hardware and embedded neural threads.
Mortgage is suddenly sexy as SoftBank pumps $500M in Better.com at a $6B valuation — The COVID-19 pandemic and historically low mortgage rates fueled an acceleration in online lending.
SnackMagic picks up $15M to expand from build-your-own snack boxes into a wider gifting marketplace — The company hit a $20 million revenue run rate in eight months and turned profitable in December.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
So you want to raise a Series A — Kleiner Perkins’ Bucky Moore shares sector-agnostic advice.
How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup — Jorge Torres and Adam Carrigan of MindDB tell their funding story.
Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup — From building out Facebook’s first office in Austin to putting together most of Quora’s team, Bain Capital Ventures managing director Sarah Smith has done a bit of everything when it comes to hiring.
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
The 2022 Chevrolet Bolt EUV lowers the cost of entry for some of GM’s most advanced tech — The optional Super Cruise puts it on course to compete with the Tesla Model Y.
APKPure app contained malicious adware, say researchers — APKPure is a widely popular app for installing older or discontinued Android apps from outside of Google’s app store.
Last call for Detroit startups to apply for TechCrunch’s Detroit City Spotlight pitch-off — The deadline is today, April 9.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
The office shut-down at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year spurred huge investment in digital transformation and a wave of tech companies helping with that, but there were some distinct losers in the shift, too — specifically those whose business models were predicated on serving the very offices that disappeared overnight. Today, one of the companies that had to make an immediate pivot to keep itself afloat is announcing a round of funding, after finding itself not just growing at a clip, but making a profit, as well.
SnackMagic, a build-your-own snack box service, has raised $15 million in a Series A round of funding led by Craft Ventures, with Luxor Capital also participating.
(Both investors have an interesting track record in the food-on-demand space: Most recently, Luxor co-led a $528 million round in Glovo in Spain, while Craft backs/has backed the likes of Cloud Kitchens, Postmates and many more).
The funding comes on the back of a strong year for the company, which hit a $20 million revenue run rate in eight months and turned profitable in December 2020.
Founder and CEO Shaunuk Amin said in an interview that the plan will be to use the funding both to continue growing SnackMagic’s existing business, as well as extend into other kinds of gifting categories. Currently, you can ship snacks anywhere in the world, but the customizable boxes — recipients are gifted an amount that they can spend, and they choose what they want in the box themselves from SnackMagic’s menu, or one that a business has created and branded as a subset of that — are only available in locations in North America, serviced by SnackMagic’s primary warehouse. Other locations are given options of pre-packed boxes of snacks right now, but the plan is to slowly extend its pick-and-mix model to more geographies, starting with the U.K.
Alongside this, the company plans to continue widening the categories of items that people can gift each other beyond chocolates, chips, hot sauces and other fun food items, into areas like alcohol, meal kits, and non-food items. There’s also scope for expanding to more use cases into areas like corporate gifting, marketing and consumer services, and analytics coming out of its sales.
Amin calls the data that SnackMagic is amassing about customer interest in different brands and products “the hidden gem” of the platform.
“It’s one of the most interesting things,” he said. Brands that want to add their items to the wider pool of products — which today numbers between 700 and 800 items — also get access to a dashboard where they monitor what’s selling, how much stock is left of their own items, and so on. “One thing that is very opaque [in the CPG world] is good data.”
For many of the bigger companies that lack their own direct sales channels, it’s a significantly richer data set than what they typically get from selling items in the average brick and mortar store, or from a bigger online retailer like Amazon. “All these bigger brands like Pepsi and Kellogg not only want to know this about their own products more but also about the brands they are trying to buy,” Amin said. Several of them, he added, have approached his company to partner and invest, so I guess we should watch this space.
SnackMagic’s success comes from a somewhat unintended, unlikely beginning, and it’s a testament to the power of compelling, yet extensible technology that can be scaled and repurposed if necessary. In its case, there is personalization technology, logistics management, product inventory and accounting, and lots of data analytics involved.
The company started out as Stadium, a lunch delivery service in New York City that was leveraging the fact that when co-workers ordered lunch or dinner together for the office — say around a team-building event or a late-night working session, or just for a regular work day — oftentimes they found that people all hankered for different things to eat.
In many cases, people typically make separate orders for the different items, but that also means if you are ordering to all eat together, things would not arrive at the same time; if it’s being expensed, it’s more complicated on that front too; and if you’re thinking about carbon footprints, it might also mean a lot less efficiency on that front too.
Stadium’s solution was a platform that provided access to multiple restaurants’ menus, and people could pick from all of them for a single order. The business had been operating for six years and was really starting to take off.
“We were quite well known in the city, and we had plans to expand, and we were on track for March 2020 being our best month ever,” Amin said. Then, Covid-19 hit. “There was no one left in the office,” he said. Revenue disappeared overnight, since the idea of delivering many items to one place instantly stopped being a need.
Amin said that they took a look at the platform they had built to pick many options (and many different costs, and the accounting that came with that) and thought about how to use that for a different end. It turned out that even with people working remotely, companies wanted to give props to their workers, either just to say hello and thanks, or around a specific team event, in the form of food and treats — all the more so since the supply of snacks you typically come across in so many office canteens and kitchens were no longer there for workers to tap.
It’s interesting, but perhaps also unsurprising, that one of the by-products of our new way of working has been the rise of more services that cater (no pun intended) to people working in more decentralised ways, and that companies exploring how to improve rewarding people in those environments are also seeing a bump.
Just yesterday, we wrote about a company called Alyce raising $30 million for its corporate gifting platform that is also based on personalization — using AI to help understand the interests of the recipient to make better choices of items that a person might want to receive.
Alyce is taking a somewhat different approach to SnackMagic: it’s not holding any products itself, and there is no warehouse but rather a platform that links up buyers with those providing products. And Alyce’s initial audience is different, too: instead of internal employees (the first, but not final, focus for SnackMagic) it is targeting corporate gifting, or presents that sales and marketing people might send to prospects or current clients as a please and thank you gesture.
But you can also see how and where the two might meet in the middle — and compete not just with each other, but the many other online retailers, Amazon and otherwise, plus the consumer goods companies themselves looking for ways of diversifying business by extending beyond the B2C channel.
“We don’t worry about Amazon. We just get better,” Amin said when I asked him about whether he worried that SnackMagic was too easy to replicate. “It might be tough anyway,” he added, since “others might have the snacks but picking and packing and doing individual customization is very different from regular e-commerce. It’s really more like scalable gifting.”
Investors are impressed with the quick turnaround and identification of a market opportunity, and how it quickly retooled its tech to make it fit for purpose.
“SnackMagic’s immediate success was due to an excellent combination of timing, innovative thinking and world-class execution,” said Bryan Rosenblatt, principal investor at Craft Ventures, in a statement. “As companies embrace the future of a flexible workplace, SnackMagic is not just a snack box delivery platform but a company culture builder.”
The pandemic upended the way people shop for their everyday needs, including groceries. Online grocery sales in the U.S. are expected to reach 21.5% of the total grocery sales by 2025, after leaping from 3.4% pre-pandemic to 10.2% as of 2020. One business riding this wave is Mercato, an online grocery platform that helps smaller grocers and speciality food stores get online quickly. After helping grow its merchant sales by 1,300% in 2020, Mercato has now closed on $26 million in Series A funding, the company tells TechCrunch.
The round was led by Velvet Sea Ventures with participation from Team Europe, the investing arm of Lukasz Gadowski, co-founder of Delivery Hero. Seed investors Greycroft and Loeb.nyc also returned for the new round Gadowski and Mike Lazerow of Velvet Sea Ventures have also now joined Mercato’s board.
Mercato itself was founded in 2015 by Bobby Brannigan, who had grown up helping at his family’s grocery store in Brooklyn. But instead of taking over the business, as his Dad had hoped, Brannigan left for college and eventually went on to bootstrap a college textbook marketplace, Valore Books, to $100 million in sales. After selling the business, he returned his focus to the family’s store and found that everything was still operating the way it had been decades ago.
Image Credits: Bobby Brannigan of Mercato
“He had a very basic website, no e-commerce, no social media, and no point-of-sale system,” explains Brannigan. “I said, ‘I’m going to build what you need.’ This was my opportunity to help my dad in an area that I knew about,” he adds.
Brannigan recruited some engineers from his last company to help him build the software systems to modernize his dad’s store, including Mercato’s co-founders Dave Bateman, Michael Mason, and Matthew Alarie. But the team soon realized could do more than help just Brannigan’s dad — they could also help the 40,000 independent grocery stores just like him better compete with the Amazon’s of the world.
The result was Mercato, a platform-as-a-service that makes it easier for smaller grocers and speciality food shops to go online to offer their inventory for pickup or delivery, without having to partner with a grocery delivery service like Instacart, AmazonFresh or Shipt.
The solution today includes an e-commerce website and data analytics platform that helps stores understand what their customers are looking for, where customers are located, how to price their products, and other insights that help them to better run their store. And Mercato is now working on adding on a supply platform to help the stores buy inventory through their system, Brannigan notes.
“Basically, the vision of it is to give them the tech, the systems, and the platform they need to be successful in this day and age,” notes Brannigan.
He likens Mercato as a sort of “Shopify for groceries,” as it gives stores their own page on Mercato where they can reach customers. When the customer visits Mercato on the web or via its app, they can enter in their zip code to see which local stores offer online shopping. Some stores simply redirect their existing websites to their Mercato page, as they can continue to offer other basic information, like address, hours, and other details about their stores on the Mercato-provided site, while gaining access to Mercato’s over 1 million customers.
However, merchants can also opt for a white-label solution that they can plug into their own website, which uses their own branding.
The stores can further customize the experience they want to offer customers, in terms of pickup and delivery, and the time frames for both they want to commit to. If they want to ease into online grocery, for example, they can start with next-day delivery services, then speed thing up to same-day when they’re ready. They can also set limits on how many time slots they offer per hour, based on staffing levels.
Image Credits: Mercato
Unlike Instacart and others which send shoppers to stores to fill the orders, Mercato allows the merchants themselves to maintain the customer relationship by handling the orders themselves, which they can receive via email, text or even robo-phone calls.
“They’re maintaining that relationship,” says Brannigan. “Usually, it’s a lot better if it’s somebody from the store [doing the shopping] because they might know the customer; they know the kind of product they’re looking for. And if they don’t have it, they know something else they can recommend — so they’re like a really efficient recommendation engine.”
“The big difference between an Instacart shopper and the worker in the store is that the worker in the store understands that somebody is trying to put a meal on the table, and certain items could be an important ingredient,” he notes. “For the shoppers at Instacart, it’s about a time clock: how quickly can they pick an order to make the most money.”
The company contracts with both national and regional couriers to handle the delivery portion, once orders are ready.
Mercato’s system was put to test during the pandemic, when demand for online grocery skyrocketed.
This is where Mercato’s ability to rapidly onboard merchants came in handy. The company says it can take stores online in just 24 hours, as it has built out a centralized product catalog of over a million items. It then connects with the store’s point-of-sale system, and uploads and matches the store’s products to their own database. This allows Mercato to map around 95% of the store’s products in a matter of minutes, with the last bit being added manually — which helps to build out Mercato’s catalog even further. Today, Mercato can integrate with virtually all point-of-sale (POS) solutions in the grocery market, which is more than 30 different systems.
As customers shop, Mercato’s system uses machine learning to help determine if a product is likely in stock by examining movement data.
“One of the challenges in grocery is that most stores actually don’t know how many quantities they have in stock of a product,” explains Brannigan. “So we launch a store, we integrate with the POS. And with the POS we can see how quickly a product is moving in-store and online. Based on movement, we can calculate what is in stock.”
This system, he says, continues to get smarter over time, too.
“We’re certainly three to five years ahead, and we’re not going back,” says Brannigan of the COVID impacts to the online grocery business. “It’s very plentiful now in many places, in terms of e-commerce offerings. And the nature of retail businesses is competitive. So if 1% of people are online, it might not drive other people. But if you have 15% of stores online, then other stores have to get online or they won’t be able to compete,” he notes.
Mercato generates revenue both from its consumer-facing membership program, with plans that range from $96/year – $228/year, depending on distance, and from the merchants themselves, who pay a single digit percentage transaction fee on orders — a lower percentage than what restaurant delivery companies charge.
The company has now scaled its service to over 1,000 merchants across 45 U.S. states, including big cities like New York, Chicago, L.A. D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and others.
With the additional funding, Mercato aims to expand its remotely distributed team of now 80 employees, as well as its data analytics platform, which will help merchants make better decisions that impact their business. It also plans to refresh the consumer subscription to add more benefits and perks that make it more compelling.
Mercato declined to share its valuation or revenue, but as of the start of the pandemic last year, the company had said it was reaching a billion in sales and a $700 million run rate.