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The SEC wants disgraced VC Mike Rothenberg to cough up more than $30 million

By Connie Loizos

Nearly three year ago to the day, TechCrunch reported on suspected fraud committed by Mike Rothenberg, a self-described “millennial venture capitalist” who’d made a name for himself not only by eponymously branding his venture firm but for spending lavishly to woo startup founders, including on Napa Valley wine tours, at luxury boxes at Golden State Warriors games and most famously, hosting an annual “founder field day” at the San Francisco Giants’s baseball stadium that later inspired a scene in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”

The Securities & Exchange Commission had initially reached out to Rothenberg in June of 2016 and by last August, Rothenberg had been formally charged for misappropriating up to $7 million on his investors’ capital. He settled with the agency without making an admission of guilt, and, as part of the settlement, he stepped down from what was left of the firm and agreed to be barred from the brokerage and investment advisory business with a right to reapply after five years.

Now, comes the money part. Following a forensic audit conducted in partnership with the accounting firm Deloitte, the SEC is seeking $18.8 million in disgorgement penalties from Rothenberg, and an additional $9 million civil penalty. The SEC is also asking that Rothenberg be forced to pay pre-judgment interest of $3,663,323.47

According to a new lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the SEC argues that Rothenberg raised a net amount of approximately $45.9 million across six venture funds from at least 200 investors, yet that he took “fees” on their capital that far exceeded what his firm was entitled to during the life of those funds, covering up these “misdeeds” by “modifying accounting entries to make his misappropriation look like investments, entering into undisclosed transactions to paper over diverted money, and shuffling investments from one [f]und to another to conceal prior diversions.”

Ultimately, it says, Deloitte’s examination demonstrated that Rothenberg misappropriated $18.8 million that rightfully belong to Rothenberg Ventures, $3.8 million of which was transferred to Rothenberg personally; $8.8 million of which was used to fund other entities under his control (including a car racing team and a virtual reality studio); and $5.7 of which was used to pay the firm’s expenses “over and above” the management and administrative fees it was entitled to per its management agreements.

We reached out to Rothenberg this morning. He has not yet responded to our request to discuss the development.

It sounds from the filing like he doesn’t have wiggle room to fight it, in any case. According to the SEC’s suit, the “Rothenberg Judgment” agreed upon last summer left monetary relief to be decided by a court’s judgment, one that “provides that Rothenberg accepts the facts alleged in the complaint as true, and does not contest his liability for the violations alleged, for the purposes of this motion and at any hearing on this motion.”

In the meantime, the lawsuit contains interesting nuggets, including an alleged maneuver in which Rothenberg raised $1.3 million to invest in the game engine company Unity but never actually bought shares in the company, instead diverting the capital to other entities. (He eventually paid back $1 million to one investor who repeatedly asked for the money back, but not the other $300,000.)

Rothenberg also sold a stake in the stock-trading firm Robinhood for $5.4 million, says the SEC, but rather than funnel any proceeds to investors, he again directed the money elsewhere, including, apparently, to pay for a luxury suite during Golden State Warriors games for which he shelled out $136,000.

In a move that one Rothenberg investor finds particularly galling, the SEC claims that Rothenberg then turned around and rented that box through an online marketplace that enables people to buy and sell suites at various sports and entertainment venues, receiving at least $56,000 from the practice.

Ostensibly to keep up appearances, Rothenberg also gave $30,000 to the Stanford University Athletics Department (he attended Stanford as an undergrad) and spent thousands of dollars on ballet tickets last year and early this year, says the SEC’s filing.

Regardless of what happens next, one small victor in the SEC’s detailed findings is Silicon Valley Bank, a sprawling enterprise that has aggressively courted the tech industry since its 1983 founding. Last year, at the same time that Rothenberg was agreeing to be barred from the industry, he made a continued show of his innocence by filing suit against SVB to “vindicate the interests of its funds and investors,” the firm said in a statement at the time.

The implication was that SVB was at fault for some of Rothenberg’s woes because it had not properly wired money to the correct accounts, but the SEC says that SVB was defrauded, providing Rothenberg a $4 million line of credit after being presented with fabricated documents.

A loser — other than Rothenberg and the many people who now feel cheated by him — is Harvard Business School. The reason: it used Rothenberg Ventures as a case study for students after Rothenberg graduated from the program. As we’ve reported previously, that case study — funded by HBS before any hint of trouble at the firm had surfaced  — was co-authored by two professors who had a “significant financial interest in Rothenberg Ventures,” as stated prominently in a curriculum footnote.

Presumably, those ties gave confidence to at least some of the investors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who later provided Rothenberg with money to invest on their behalf.

You can read the SEC’s 20-page motion for disgorgement and penalties below, along with the 48-page report assembled by Deloitte’s forensic accounting partner Gerry Fujimoto.

SEC vs. Mike Rothenberg by TechCrunch on Scribd

Forensic report re Mike Rothenberg/Rothenberg Ventures by TechCrunch on Scribd

Additional reporting by TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez.

Above: Rothenberg Ventures during better days.

Inside the history of Silicon Valley labor, with Louis Hyman

By Arman Tabatabai

As I wrote for TechCrunch recently, immigration is not an issue always associated with tech — not even when thinking about the ethics of technology, as I do here.

So when I was moved to tears a few weeks ago, on seeing footage of groups of 18 Jewish protestors link arms to block the entrances to ICE detention facilities, bearing banners reading “Never Again” in reference to the Holocaust — these mostly young women risking their physical freedom and safety to try to help the children this country’s immigration service is placing in concentration camps today, one of my first thoughts was: I can’t cover that for my TechCrunch column. It’s about ethics of course, but not about tech.

It turns out that wasn’t correct. Immigration is a tech issue. In fact, companies such as Wayfair (furniture), Amazon (web services), and Palantir (the software used to track undocumented immigrants) have borne heavy criticism for their support of and partnership with ICE’s efforts under the current administration.

And as I discussed earlier this month with Jaclyn Friedman, a leading sex ethics expert and one of the ICE protestors arrested in a major demonstration in Boston, social media technology has been instrumental in building and amplifying those protests.

But there’s more. IBM, for example, has an unfortunate and dark history of support for Nazi extermination efforts, and many recent commentators have drawn parallels between what IBM did during the Holocaust and what companies like Palantir are beginning to do now.

Dozens of protestors huddle in the rain outside Palantir HQ.

I say “companies,” plural, with intention: immigrant advocacy organization Mijente recently released news that Anduril, the company founded by Palmer Luckey and composed of Palantir veterans, now has a $13.5 million contract with the Marine corps for their autonomous surveillance “Lattice” towers at four different USMC bases, including one border base. Documents procured via the Freedom of Information Act show the Marines mention “the intrusion dilemma” in their justification for choosing Anduril.

So now it seems the kinds of surveillance tech we know are badly biased at best — facial recognition? Panopticon-style observation? Algorithms of various other kinds — will be put to work by the most powerful fighting force ever designed, for expanded intervention into our immigration system.

Will the Silicon Valley elite say “no”? To what extent will new protests emerge, where the sorts of people likely to be reading this writing might draw a line and make work more difficult for their peers at places like Anduril?

Maybe the problem, however, is that most of us think of immigration ethics as an issue that might touch on a small handful of particularly libertarian-leaning tech companies, but surely it doesn’t go beyond that, right? Can’t the average techie in San Francisco or elsewhere safely and accurately say these problems don’t actually implicate them?

Turns out that’s not right either.

Which is why I had to speak this week with Cornell University historian Louis Hyman. Hyman is a Professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Director of the ILR’s Institute for Workplace Studies, in New York. In our conversation, Hyman and I dig into Silicon Valley’s history with labor rights, startup work structures and the role of immigration in the US tech ecosystem. Beyond that,  I’ll let him introduce himself and his extraordinary work, below.

image1 4

Louis Hyman. (Image by Jesse Winter)

Greg Epstein: I discovered your work via a piece you wrote in the Washington Post, which drew from your 2018 book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary. In it, you wrote, “Undocumented workers have been foundational to the rise of our most vaunted hub of innovative capitalism: Silicon Valley.”

And in the book itself, you write at one point, “To understand the electronics industry is simple: every time someone says “robot,” simply picture a woman of color. Instead of self-aware robots, workers—all women, mostly immigrants, sometimes undocumented—hunched over tables with magnifying glasses assembling parts, sometimes on a factory line and sometimes on a kitchen table. Though it paid a lot of lip service to automation, Silicon Valley truly relied upon a transient workforce of workers outside of traditional labor relations.”

Can you just give us a brief introduction to the historical context behind these kinds of comments?

Louis Hyman: Sure. One of the key questions all of us ask is why is there only one Silicon Valley. There are different answers for that.

The future of car ownership: Cars-as-a-service

By Matt Burns

Car shoppers now have several new options to avoid long-term debt and commitments. Automakers and startups alike are increasingly offering services that give buyers new opportunities and greater flexibility around owning and using vehicles.

Cars-as-a-Service

In the first part of this feature, we explored the different startups attempting to change car buying. But not everyone wants to buy a car. After all, a vehicle traditionally loses its value at a dramatic rate.

Some startups are attempting to reinvent car ownership rather than car buying.

Don’t buy, lease

My favorite car blog Jalopnik said it best: “Cars Sales Could Be Heading Straight Into the Toilet.” Citing a Bloomberg report, the site explains automakers may have had the worst first half for new-vehicle retail sales since 2013. Car sales are tanking, but people still need cars.

Companies like Fair are offering new types of leases combining a traditional auto financing option with modern conveniences. Even car makers are looking at different ways to move vehicles from dealer lots.

Fair was founded in 2016 by an all-star team made up of automotive, retail and banking executives including Scott Painter, former founder and CEO of TrueCar.

Remitly raises $220M to expand from money transfers to financial services, now at ~$1B valuation

By Ingrid Lunden

When it comes to financial services in emerging markets, remittances — people sending money to each other across international borders, often not to established bank accounts — continues to be one of the biggest, with the World Bank estimating that $529 billion was sent in and out of lower-income countries in 2018, up 9% over 2017. And today, Remitly, one of the bigger startups providing these services, is announcing that it has raised $220 million in funding to ride that wave.

CEO and founder Matt Oppenheimer said in an interview that the startup will use the money both to help it continue to keep growing that money transfer business, and to catch new opportunities as they appear, in the form of new financial services for the immigrants and migrants that make up the majority of its customer base.

The money is coming in the form of equity and debt, specifically a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Silicon Valley Bank. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global, Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG, and Top Tier Capital Partners; and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU, and Stripes Group all also participated in the equity round.

Oppenheimer said the equity will both be used to expand its remittance business but mainly to invest in that new wave of services it’s eyeing up. The debt, meanwhile, is to fuel the growth of its “express” fast-send option. “Today we can post funds, but we can also pre-fund for express transfers, and we wanted to have the capacity and the line of credit to be able to fund the pre-funding part, which is growing rapidly,” he said of the debt portion of the financing.

With the equity portion, Remitly’s valuation is now close to $1 billion (specifically around $950 million), sources close to the company say. As a point of comparison, that puts Remitly roughly on par with World Remit, another big player in remittances for emerging markets that raised $175 million in June also at around a $900 million valuation. (Transferwise, which focuses on ‘banked’ accounts and mostly mature markets, earlier this year closed funding that valued it at $3.5 billion.)

It’s the biggest round of funding yet for the startup, and for some context, it was valued at just $230 million when it last disclosed the number. (Remitly did not disclose valuation in its most recent funding before this one, a $115 million round led by Naspers that finally closed in the beginning of 2018.)

Today, Remitly’s services cover 16 “send” (originating) and 44 “receive” countries, covering a total of some 700 “corridors” where the company specialises in providing an easy way — either online or by phone — for individuals to send money, with the service localised on the receiving end to come in formats that are most popular in each specific market.

The company said that average annual revenue growth has been at around 100% each year for the past three. Oppenheimer — who coincidentally used to be an executive for one of its new backers, Barclays — wouldn’t break out which markets were growing faster than the others, but that figure includes both Remitly’s more mature corridors as well as those that it’s added in recent years.

The plan for diversification is not surprising. The remittance market is extremely fragmented and — with the rise of smartphones that have untethered users from physical retail locations — getting even more so, with incumbents like Western Union accounting for less than 20 percent of the market today, bigger startups like TransferWise also looking like it’s also increasingly eyeing emerging markets as well, and completely new concepts like using the blockchain to transfer money also potentially disrupting the disruptors.

That means pricing on money transfers for a section of that market that is already price-sensitive — immigrants and migrants — is very competitive, which in turn means a hit on remittance companies’ margins. Remitly itself has varying rates for different markets based on demand: sending money for example to Kenya from the UK currently costs nothing if you’re using MPESA accounts (other corridors obviously have higher costs than this).

Oppenheimer wouldn’t specify what kinds of other financial services it’s considering until they are closer to getting launched.

“We’re still working on that, but you can imagine the immigrant or migrant journey and the challenges that they face as they move to a new country,” he said. “It can have a painful impact not having a credit history: how do you get a loan, or set up a bank account? That is the strategic angle… The idea is to transform the lives of immigrants and their families.”

That mindset has been what helped Remitly raise this recent round. Generation — the investment firm co-founded by Al Gore — has made it a mission to put its money into sustainability. In its case, this means not only planet health but people health, in the form of services that improving the lives. Financial services for emerging markets is an important area for it in that regard.

Lucia Rigo, a director in growth equity at Generation who is joining Remitly’s board with this round, said that Generation had been looking at the remittance market for a while and had honed in on Remitly as a key company within it that ticked all the right boxes in terms of its mission, its journey so far, its numbers, and most importantly its prospects.

“Foreign-born or foreign-resident populations in developed markets is a segment that is just not catered for well,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of digital means for sending money today, which is definitely driving down the cost of doing so, but we also think that digital penetration is just at its early stages, and new markets will drive differentiation and that will expand the customer base, and Remitly’s services.”

Fresh tickets to our 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party

By Emma Comeau

Our 14th Annual TechCrunch Summer Party is a mere two weeks away, and we’re serving up a fresh new batch of tickets to this popular Silicon Valley tradition. Jump on this opportunity, folks, because our previous releases sold out in a flash — and these babies won’t last long, either. Buy your ticket today.

Our summer soiree takes place on July 25 at Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden. Picture it: A cold brew, an ocean view, tasty food and relaxed conversations with other amazing members of the early-startup tech community.

TechCrunch parties have a reputation as a place where startup magic happens. And there will be plenty of magical opportunity afoot this year as heavy-hitter VCs from Merus Capital, August Capital, Battery Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, Data Collective, General Catalyst and Uncork Capital join the party.

There’s more than one way to make magic at our summer fete. If you’re serious about catching the eye of these major VCs, consider buying a Startup Demo Package, which includes four attendee tickets.

Fun fact: Box founders Aaron Levie and Dylan Smith met one of their first investors, DFJ, at a party hosted by TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. It’s one of our favorite success stories.

Check out the party details:

  • When: July 25 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Park Chalet in San Francisco
  • How much: $95
  • Startup Demo Package: $2,000

No TechCrunch party is complete without a chance to win great door prizes, including TechCrunch swag, Amazon Echos and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

Buy your ticket today and enjoy a convivial evening of connection and community in a beautiful setting. Opportunity happens, and it’s waiting for you at the TechCrunch Summer Party.

Pro Tip: If you miss out this time, sign up here and we’ll let you know when we release the next group of tickets.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at the TechCrunch 14th Annual Summer Party? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

By Gregg Schoenberg

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.

‘This is Your Life in Silicon Valley’: Former Pinterest President, Moment CEO Tim Kendall on Smartphone Addiction

By Sunil Rajaraman

Welcome to this week’s transcribed edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley. We’re running an experiment for Extra Crunch members that puts This is Your Life in Silicon Valley in words – so you can read from wherever you are.

This is Your Life in Silicon Valley was originally started by Sunil Rajaraman and Jascha Kaykas-Wolff in 2018. Rajaraman is a serial entrepreneur and writer (Co-Founded Scripted.com, and is currently an EIR at Foundation Capital), Kaykas-Wolff is the current CMO at Mozilla and ran marketing at BitTorrent. Rajaraman and Kaykas-Wolff started the podcast after a series of blog posts that Sunil wrote for The Bold Italic went viral.

The goal of the podcast is to cover issues at the intersection of technology and culture – sharing a different perspective of life in the Bay Area. Their guests include entrepreneurs like Sam Lessin, journalists like Kara Swisher and politicians like Mayor Libby Schaaf and local business owners like David White of Flour + Water.

This week’s edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley features Tim Kendall, the former President of Pinterest and current CEO of Moment. Tim ran monetization at Facebook, and has very strong opinions on smartphone addiction and what it is doing to all of us. Tim is an architect of much of the modern social media monetization machinery, so you definitely do not want to miss his perspective on this important subject.

For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Sunil Rajaraman: Welcome to season three of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley. A Podcast about the Bay Area, technology, and culture. I’m your host, Sunil Rajaraman and I’m joined by my cohost, Jascha Kaykas-Wolff.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff: Are you recording?

Rajaraman: I’m recording.

Kaykas-Wolff: I’m almost done. My phone’s been buzzing all afternoon and I just have to finish this text message.

Rajaraman: So you’re one of those people who can’t go five seconds without checking their phone.

Demo your early-stage startup at the TechCrunch Summer Party

By Emma Comeau

Nothing says summer in Silicon Valley better than the TechCrunch Summer Party. In its 14th year, we’re celebrating the startup spirit and culture at the Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden, on July 25. Who doesn’t love ocean views?

And nothing says relaxed networking in Silicon Valley more than showcasing your early-stage startup at our summer soiree. It’s a great opportunity to demo your business and place your face in front of influential people in a convivial atmosphere. Each demo table includes four summer party tickets — bring your whole crew. There’s a limited number of tables available, so book your startup demo package now.

Experience world-class networking and still have time to enjoy the venue, drink craft beer, sip a signature a cocktail or two and nosh on yummy appetizers. Maybe it’s the relaxed setting, the shared camaraderie or maybe it’s the libations — who can say for sure — but TechCrunch parties tend to be the place where start-uppers meet the people who go on to change their lives — future investors, co-founders or buyers.

Plus there’ll be several VC firms in attendance who are partnering with us for the event.

  • August Capital
  • Battery Ventures
  • Data Collective
  • Uncork Capital

Summer Party details you need to know:

  • When: July 25 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Park Chalet in San Francisco
  • Attendee ticket: $95
  • Startup demo package: $2,000 — includes four attendee tickets, one cocktail table, tabletop sign, power and internet access

There will be plenty of games and prizes. Yes, we love giving away prizes, like TechCrunch swag, Amazon Echos and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

Come to the TechCrunch Summer Party at the Park Chalet and showcase your early-stage genius to a passel of influential start-uppers in a fun, relaxed setting. It’s a great opportunity to meet your future. Buy your demo table today, and we’ll hoist a craft beer to your success.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at the TechCrunch 14th Annual Summer Party? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Why is Andreessen Horowitz (and everyone else) investing in Latin America now?

By Jonathan Shieber

Investments by U.S. venture capital firms into Latin America are skyrocketing and one of the firms leading the charge into deals is none other than Silicon Valley’s Andreessen Horowitz .

The firm that shook up Silicon Valley with potentially over-generous term sheets and valuations and an overarching thesis that “software is eating the world” has been reluctant to test its core belief… well… pretty much anywhere outside of the United States.

That was true until a few years ago when Andreessen began making investments in Latin America. It’s the only geography outside of the U.S. where the firm has committed significant capital and the pace of its investments is increasing.

Andreessen isn’t the only firm that’s making big bets in companies south of the American border. SoftBank has its $2 billion dollar investment fund, which launched earlier this year, to invest in Latin American deals as well. (Although the most recent SoftBank Innovation Fund investment in GymPass is likely an indicator that the fund, much like SoftBank’s “Vision” fund, has a pretty generous interpretation of what is and is not a Latin American deal.)

“We previously didn’t invest internationally, [because] we weren’t as well set up to help these companies,” says Angela Strange, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “Part of the reason for why LatAm is proximity.”

‘This is Your Life in Silicon Valley’: Philz Coffee CEO Jacob Jaber on tech culture and Blue Bottle

By Sunil Rajaraman

Welcome to this week’s transcribed edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley. We’re running an experiment for Extra Crunch members that puts This is Your Life in Silicon Valley in words – so you can read from wherever you are.

This is your Life in Silicon Valley was originally started by Sunil Rajaraman and Jascha Kaykas-Wolff in 2018. Rajaraman is a serial entrepreneur and writer (Co-Founded Scripted.com, and is currently an EIR at Foundation Capital), Kaykas-Wolff is the current CMO at Mozilla and ran marketing at BitTorrent. Rajaraman and Kaykas-Wolff started the podcast after a series of blog posts that Sunil wrote for The Bold Italic went viral. The goal of the podcast is to cover issues at the intersection of technology and culture – sharing a different perspective of life in the Bay Area. Their guests include entrepreneurs like Sam Lessin, journalists like Kara Swisher and politicians like Mayor Libby Schaaf and local business owners like David White of Flour + Water.

This week’s edition of This is Your Life in Silicon Valley features Jacob Jaber, the CEO of Philz Coffee. During this episode, we try to convince TechCrunch’s Kate Clark why Philz Coffee is a better option than Starbucks. Jacob also talks about the tech community, his business goals, and whether he’d ever consider leaving San Francisco.

You don’t want to miss this week’s edition of TIYLISV, which is extremely lively and may change your coffee-drinking habits.

For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Sunil Rajaraman: Welcome to season three of “This is Your Life in Silicon Valley” a podcast about the Bay Area, technology, and culture. I’m your host, Sunil Rajaraman, and I’m joined by my cohost, Jascha Kaykas-Wolff.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff: I always wonder if things that happen on Twitter are actually real or not. Like is it just all made up stuff, or do people actually interact with each other and then see each other in the real world.

Dissecting value systems and exclusion in ‘big tech’, with Jessica Powell (Part Two)

By Arman Tabatabai

In this second of my two-part conversation on the ethics of technology with Jessica Powell, the former head of PR at Google turned author of the wonderful satirical novel, The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional But Essentially True Silicon Valley Story, we discuss the meaning of “genius” in the tech world; why Silicon Valley multi-millionaires vote for socialists; and whether it is possible to use the master’s code to destroy his app.

But first, an excerpt that might seem absurd at first, but considering that so many tech companies are currently working on or talking about space travel, it’s hard to be sure whom Powell is even satirizing here:

“Slow down,” Niels said. “Are you joking with me?”

“We have been working on the project for a year,” Gregor said. “Fifty engineers working in secret in Building 1. We’re building a colony on the moon.”

“You mean you have a spaceship and everything? How are you dealing with gravity? Wait, never mind, don’t answer that. What I mean is, since when did Anahata get into the business of humankind?”

“Anahata has always only ever been about humankind. Everything we do is done for — “

“Yeah, yeah, I know, everything we do is to improve humankind. But I mean, a society, Gregor. There are no synergies with our current business. How do you know how to construct a society?”

“Actually, a society is a lot like software. You build it on solid principles, then you iterate. Then you solutionize, and you iterate again.”

“What makes you think you can solve what centuries of wise men have failed to do?”

“Because we have something they don’t have,” Gregor said. He pushed his chair closer, and Niels couldn’t help but lean forward. The broken wooden spindle leaned with him, pushing into his back. But he did not move to swat it away; his eyes were locked on Gregor, their faces almost touching.

“Algorithms,” Gregor whispered.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Niels snorted. “These are humans we’re talking about, not robots. You can’t predict and control human behavior with algorithms.”

“That is an emotional reaction to what is a very logical project. And, yes, an algorithm could have predicted that you would respond that way. Even irrational behavior is rational when seen as a larger grouping of patterns. And as you can imagine, this project is built on patterns of success. Project Y, we call it. It will save Anahata — and, as a result, humankind.”

Greg E.: Let’s talk about the ideas in the book. Your Google -like company, Anahata, is symbolized by a squid that becomes the size of a bus, which is a great symbol of course for what companies like Google have become.

You explore what drives that kind of expansion, and in large part it’s a personal drive. One could say it’s a sex drive, but what I took from it was more a drive to be noticed, needed, recognized, that gets out of proportion.

I was wondering to what extent you felt like some of the crazy foibles of these male engineer characters being obsessed with women and women’s approval, was less about an actual sex drive and more about what the approval of those women would mean to them? They’re finally attractive enough, they’re finally likable enough. How do you feel about that?

Jessica P.: Oh, yeah. I think it definitely has a status thing. So much of the driver of this book is about ego. I think that’s absolutely the case.

Greg E.: At one point, the dichotomy between having a guiding philosophy and just being into your own ego took the form of character you call The Fixer, who is very Zen, and the CEO and big executives go to him essentially saying, “please fix our problem.”

BetterUp raises $103M to fast-track employee learning and development

By Kate Clark

BetterUp, a company that connects employees with expert career and leadership development coaches online, has secured a $103 million Series C from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Threshold Ventures, Freestyle Capital, Crosslink Capital, Tenaya Capital and Silicon Valley Bank.

For access to its mobile coaches, which are meant to expedite development among employees and foster purpose and passion within the workplace, BetterUp offers a SaaS service to enterprises. Its customers include Airbnb, AppDynamics and Instacart, as well as 28 of the Fortune 1000.

The company said recently that the influx of Fortune 1000 customers has led to tripled revenue growth year-over-year.

“We are proud to be enabling innovative companies who recognize that their biggest asset—their people—deserve an elevated employee experience that speaks to who they are as whole persons, not just employees,” BetterUp co-founder and chief executive officer Alexi Robichaux said in a statement. “By combining human expertise, the latest advances in scientific research, and digital technologies including AI and machine learning we’re delivering unprecedented levels of personalized learning at scale.”

San Francisco-based BetterUp has previously raised about $43 million in venture capital funding since it was founded in 2012. It reached a valuation of $125 million with a $30 million Series B in March 2018, according to PitchBook. BetterUp declined to disclose its Series C valuation

BetterUp says its latest round is the largest ever for a “tech-enabled coaching, behavior change and wellness” platform. There isn’t a whole lot of competition in that space just yet. Nonetheless, $100 million is a sizable capital infusion for any startup.

Though career coaching hasn’t become VCs new favorite space — yet — startups creating tools for other startups is a trend that’s taken off in the last couple of years. Just look at Brex . In just two years, the company, which creates corporate cards for startups, has garnered a valuation of $2.6 billion. Gusto, WeWork, Plaid, Stripe, Atrium, Intercom and Outreach are just a few more examples of this emerging category.

“BetterUp is the one company fundamentally investing in the most important part of the future of work — human beings, Lightpseed’s Will Kohler said in a statement. “No other company drives measurable outcomes that change lives and workplaces.”

Which type of funding is actually best for your business?

By Arman Tabatabai
Jared Hecht Contributor
Jared Hecht is the co-founder and CEO of Fundera, an online marketplace for small business financial solutions including small business loans. Prior to Fundera, Hecht co-founded group messaging app, GroupMe.

When starting a tech company, there seems to be a playbook that most entrepreneurs follow. While some may start with a bit of bootstrapping, most will dive straight into raising seed money through investors. In many cases, this is a great path. It’s a path I’ve taken twice myself, first with GroupMe, and then again with Fundera.

Ironically, though, my second venture-backed company is a business focused on helping entrepreneurs find debt financing—a process I’ve gone through only once myself. But after five years of building and scaling this business, it’s made me take a step back and consider the question of when and where debt financing might be a better option for a business than equity financing, and vice versa.

I view these financing vehicles differently now than I did half a decade ago, and think it’s time we start to think a bit wider and diversely about how we finance our growing endeavors.

After all, when entrepreneurs take venture capital, they usually sign up to provide a 10x return on an investor’s capital. This expectation ultimately influences how they operate their business in the short-term. Maybe they’re not always ready for that expectation.

Or maybe they know they need to focus on building a good business before a great one. In this case, debt may be the better vehicle, where the only expectation is to pay it back.

Whether it’s money to get your business off the ground, capital to fuel additional growth, or cash to cover a gap, and whether you’re guiding the growth of a burgeoning startup, a smaller business, or even consulting firm helping other entrepreneurs, you should think critically about how you finance your business.

Here’s what to consider.

The power of debt

Fika Ventures raises $76M to fund the growing LA tech ecosystem

By Kate Clark

The Los Angeles ecosystem is $76 million stronger today as Fika Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm, announces its sophomore investment fund.

Fika invests roughly half of its capital exclusively in startups headquartered in LA, with a particular fondness for B2B, enterprise and fintech companies. The firm was launched in 2017 by general partners Eva Ho and TX Zhuo, formerly of Susa Ventures and Karlin Ventures, respectively. The pair raised $41 million for the debut effort, opting to nearly double that number the second time around as a means to participate in more follow-on fundings.

News of Fika’s second effort comes as investment in LA tech continues to reach record highs. In total, more than $60 billion was invested in LA startups in 2018. So far this year, companies headquartered in the area have attracted roughly $25 billion in equity funding, according to data collected by PitchBook.

“It’s still really underserved from a capital standpoint,” Zhuo said of the LA region. “We feel over the next couple of years, we’ll start to see repeat entrepreneurs come out of these LA companies. The timing is ripe for a fund like ours to capitalize on the opportunity.”

Ho, a former general partner and co-founder of San Francisco seed fund Susa Ventures, told TechCrunch LA is benefiting from the exodus of founders and investors from Silicon Valley: “A lot of the folks from up north have moved down here for better quality of life,” she explained.

“Silicon Valley has gotten a bad rap over the last couple of years so folks move down here, engineers come down here, founders come down,” Ho added. “I’ve watched the ecosystem grow over the last two decades.”

Fika Ventures focuses on the greater B2B ecosystem but has also supported companies solving social issues within housing, education and healthcare. Ho cited an investment in WeeCare, a startup that helps people launch curriculum-based home daycares within their own homes, as an example.

Additional Fika portfolio companies include Asian food delivery business Chowbus, Elementary Robotics, a developer of robot assistants, and Chatdesk, a customer support messaging platform.

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