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Talking shop with Twitter’s recent head of corp dev — and now VC — Seksom Suriyapa

By Connie Loizos

Seksom Suriyapa was seemingly destined to land at a venture firm. A Stanford Law graduate, he worked at two blue-chip investment banks before joining the cybersecurity company McAfee as a senior corp dev employee, later logging six years at the human resources software company SuccessFactors and, in 2018, landing at Twitter, where he headed up its 12-person corporate development team until June.

The bigger surprise is that Suriyapa — who just joined the L.A.-based venture firm Upfront Ventures — didn’t make the leap sooner. “The catalyst was finding a firm that felt like the exact right fit for me,” says Suriyapa.

We talked earlier today with Suriyapa — who lives and will remain in the Bay Area — about his new role at Upfront, where he will be leading its expanding growth-stage practice with firm founder Yves Sisteron.

He also shed light on how Twitter — which has been on a bit of buying spree — thinks about acquisitions these days. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: How did you wind up joining Upfront?

SS: [Longtime partner] Mark Suster and I were introduced through a mutual business acquaintance in the venture world, and I got to know him over a period of time and really came to find him to be a remarkable individual. He’s thoughtful about the business itself, he’s an incredible brand builder. I think you could argue that [Upfront] put L.A. on the venture map.

TC: It was also, for a long time, an early-stage firm, but now it has a ‘barbell’ strategy. Is your new job to make sure it can maintain its stake in its portfolio companies as they grow? Can you shop outside of that portfolio?

SS: The mission for me will be supporting the best of Upfront’s hundred-plus existing portfolio companies that are poised to scale, and also to invest in companies not currency on the platform, and I anticipate [the latter] will happen more and more over time.

TC: Twitter was a lot more active on the corp dev front during the years when you were there. Why?

SS: When i joined in 2018, Jack Dorsey had been CEO for about three years, and really his focus was on the core mission of driving the public conversation, and in doing that, Twitter shrunk itself out of a lot of businesses and [shrunk] people wise as well.

TC: I remember it laid people off in 2016.

SS: And one of the offshoots of that was way less in the way of newer products, so there were no new acquisitions in the three years prior to me joining, and that muscle atrophies if you don’t exercise it. So [ahead of me] Jack had transformed the management team, which had been, relatively speaking, a revolving door of executives until that point, and I was brought in with a specific mandate of reviving a corporate development practice that had been quiet for a few years. I’d known [CFO] Ned Segal when he was a banker at Goldman Sachs and [while] I was at SuccessFactors, so when I heard about the role through the grapevine, I reached out.

TC: So Twitter starts shopping, buying up the news reader service Scroll, the newsletter platform Revue. Were these decisions coming down from the top or vice versa?

SS: The best way to describe it would be that it was product-need driven. The company had a few different objectives. One was to diversify Twitter from its dependency on being an ad-driven business. Something like 80% of revenue comes from ads.

Second, there’s an incredible need to ramp up its machine learning and artificial intelligence as a company. If you’re looking for toxicity in conversation, it’s not scalable to hire tens of thousands of people to do that. You need machine learning to find it. Twitter done well is also able to show you the conversations that are most interesting to you, and to do that, it has to take signals from what you follow and spend time reading and what you interact with, and that, at its core, is ML AI.  [Relatedly] Jack has a vision that anybody who tweets in whatever their native tongue is should be able to talk with someone else in their native tongue as part of a global conversation, and to do that, you need [natural language processing] techniques galore.

TC: There’s also this focus on consumer applications.

SS: That’s the third objective. What are the tools that followers and creators can use in conversation with each other? So [Twitter] added audio [via its Clubhouse rival Spaces]. We bought Revue, which is a competitor to Substack. So there’s a lot of innovation happening around the type of content that someone should expect to see or create on Twitter.

TC: Would you describe these acquisitions as proactive or reactive?

SS: From the outside it would seem reactive, but the reality is we’d been thinking a lot about something like Spaces even before Clubhouse took off. I think what’s noticeable to me is [Spaces] is one of the first times you’ve seen a company like Twitter build up a capability and a new product area that’s going head-to-head going against a company that’s focused only on that realm, and it’s competitive from day one. Twitter beat Clubhouse in [offering an] Android version because it poured resources into it, and I’d argue that a lot of the mechanics of Twitter and the fact that creators are on Twitter puts it in an awesome spot to win this segment.

Twitter also just has a huge amount of expertise in finding toxicity and things you want to be wary of when you’re a social media play, and a company of Clubhouse’s size, at least in its initial days, will have a hard time getting there.

TC: Twitter has so many interests, including around cryptocurrencies and decentralization. 

SS: In terms of priorities at Twitter,  a lot is under wraps in terms of the technologies that we expect [will rise up over] the next five  to 10 years, but [a lot of thought is being given to] the impact of cryptocurrency and the underlying protocols around it and how Twitter participates in a trustless, permissionless [world] where there’s a decentralized internet that can protect people’s privacy and allow people not to worry where their content is stored. People think of Twitter as a consumer app but there’s amazing and considerable diversity under the hood.

TC: Do you think because of the current regulatory environment that it has a better shot at working with companies and projects that might have gotten snapped up by Facebook and Google?

In terms of the regulatory environment, the reality is that even if you take the Facebooks and Googles out of the equation, there are acquirers that are competitive that would step up and buy things, so it’s a little short-sighted to think of just those two. But even when they were active, we were winning [deals]. A lot of the companies we acquired self-selected to be at Twitter because they like what it stands for, they like the way that Jack Dorsey leads the organization, and they believe in the stands that he takes and the positions that he and his leadership espouse.

TC: You’re now representing a very different brand. How will your work at Twitter help you compete for deals on behalf of Upfront?

SS: I have this network of incredible entrepreneurs around the world because of companies across my career that I’ve helped acquire or tried to acquire or who are running businesses; I also [have relationships with] VCs at different stages who actively spot businesses around the world [and introduce them to corp dev teams]. You might also know that Twitter has a diversity and inclusion program where they intend to have 25% of leadership be diverse over the next several years, so my team was often involved in finding the best ways to find diverse targets to buy. I also led a series of LP investments into newly emerging funds, some LatinX-founded, some women-founded, some Black-founded, some that were diverse from a geographic standpoint that are scouting companies in far flung places . . .

TC: Does Twitter also make direct investments?

SS: We did direct investments but [backing fund managers] is a more leveraged approach. Most of them are seed funds and they’ll in turn invest in 30 to 60 companies each. But yes, I scouted companies in far flung places, including [India’s] ShareChat where I served on the board for two years. [Editor’s note: TechCrunch reported earlier this year that Twitter explored buying ShareChat at an earlier point; the company has since raised numerous rounds of funding and was most recently valued by its investors at nearly $3 billion.]

TC: You have a lot of relationships, but it would still seem really hard to compete for growth-stage deals when so many other outfits are now investing there, too. How do you plan to compete?

SS: I will clearly be drawing on those networks to find deals. I’ll be investing in sectors where Upfront has already invested in, but initially I’ll be double-clicking [in areas[ I have strong interest in, including around the creator economy ecosystem, because I did so much of that at Twitter, and “Web 3.0,” this permissionless [evolution that Twitter is also focused on]. But I won’t kid myself. You compete by learning what your value proposition is. At Twitter, my strategy was winning on speed, knowing people earlier, and [underscoring] Twitter’s value proposition [to close deals]. I can’t talk about my [VC] strategy without having implemented yet; I’ll have to figure out what’s most interesting to entrepreneurs that the megafunds don’t offer.

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Extra Crunch roundup: Cohort analysis, YC Demo Day recaps, building your supply chain

By Walter Thompson

The ongoing fintech revolution continues to level the playing field where legacy companies have historically dominated startups.

To compete with retail banks, many newcomers are offering customers credit and debit cards; developer-friendly APIs make issuance relatively easy, and tools for managing processes like KYC are available off the shelf.

To learn more about the low barriers to entry — and the inherent challenges of creating a unique card offering — reporter Ryan Lawler interviewed:

  • Michael Spelfogel, founder, Cardless
  • Anu Muralidharan, COO, Expensify
  • Peter Hazlehurst, founder and CEO, Synctera
  • Salman Syed, SVP and GM of North America, Marqeta

Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


We’re off on Monday, September 6 to celebrate America’s Labor Day holiday, but we’ll be back with new stories (and a very brief newsletter) on Tuesday morning.

Thanks very much for reading,

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

 

6 tips for establishing your startup’s global supply chain

Image Credits: Suriyapong Thongsawang (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The barrier to entry for launching hardware startups has fallen; if you can pull off a successful crowdfunding campaign, you’re likely savvy enough to find a factory overseas that can build your widgets to spec.

But global supply chains are fragile: No one expected an off-course container ship to block the Suez Canal for six days. Due to the pandemic, importers are paying almost $18,000 for shipping containers from China today that cost $3,300 a year ago.

After spending a career spinning up supply chains on three continents, Liteboxer CEO Jeff Morin authored a guide for Extra Crunch for hardware founders.

“If you’re clear-eyed about the challenges and apply some rigor and forethought to the process, the end result can be hard to match,” Morin says.

Our favorite startups from YC’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Y Combinator’s Summer 21 Demo Day, Part 1

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Twice each year, we turn our attention to Y Combinator’s latest class of aspiring startups as they hold their public debuts.

For YC Summer 2021 Demo Day, the accelerator’s fourth virtual gathering, Natasha Mascarenhas, Alex Wilhelm, Devin Coldewey, Lucas Matney and Greg Kumparak selected 14 favorites from the first day of one of the world’s top pitch competitions.

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

Image Credits: Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images

Few people thought about virtual events before the pandemic struck, but this format has fulfilled a unique and important need for organizations large and small since early 2020. But what will virtual events’ value be as more of the world attempts a return to “normal”?

To find out, we caught up with top executives and investors in the sector to learn about the big trends they’re seeing — as the sequel to a survey we did in March 2020.

We surveyed:

  • Xiaoyin Qu, founder and CEO, Run The World
  • Rosie Roca, chief customer officer, Hopin
  • Hemant Mohapatra, partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners India
  • Paul Murphy, former investor in Hopin with Northzone (currently co-founder of Katch)

Tracking startup focus in the latest Y Combinator cohort

Alex Wilhelm and Anna Heim wrapped up TechCrunch’s coverage of the summer cohort from Y Combinator’s Demo Day with an evaluation of how the group fared in comparison to their expectations.

They were surprised by the number of startups focusing on no-and low-code software, and pleased by the unanticipated quantity of new companies focusing on space.

“It seems only fair to note that some categories of startup activity simply met our expectations in terms of popularity,” noting delivery-focused startups including dark stores and kitchens.

Popping up less than expected? Crypto and insurtech.

Read on for the whole list of startups that caught the eye of The Exchange.

Use cohort analysis to drive smarter startup growth

Image Credits: erhui1979 / Getty Images

Cohort analysis is what it sounds like: evaluating your startup’s customers by grouping them into “cohorts” and observing their behavior over time.

In a guest column, Jonathan Metrick, the chief growth officer at Sagard & Portage Ventures, offers a detailed example explaining the value of this type of analysis.

Questions? ​​Join us for a Twitter Spaces chat with Metrick on Tuesday, September 7, at 3 p.m. PDT/6 p.m. EDT. For details and a reminder, follow @TechCrunch on Twitter.

Barbershop technology startup theCut sharpens its platform with new $4.5M round

By Christine Hall

TheCut, a technology platform designed to handle back-end operations for barbers, raised $4.5 million in new funding.

Nextgen Venture Partners led the round and was joined by Elevate Ventures, Singh Capital and Leadout Capital. The latest funding gives theCut $5.35 million in total funding since the company was founded in 2016, founder Obi Omile Jr. told TechCrunch.

Omile and Kush Patel created the mobile app that provides information and reviews on barbers for potential customers while also managing appointments, mobile payments and pricing on the back end for barbers.

“Kush and I both had terrible experiences with haircuts, and decided to build an app to help find good barbers,” Omile said. “We found there were great barbers, but no way to discover them. You can do a Google search, but it doesn’t list the individual barber. With theCut, you can discover an individual barber and discover if they are a great fit for you and won’t screw up your hair.”

The app also enables barbers, perhaps for the first time, to have a list of clients and keep notes and photos of hair styles, as well as track visits and spending. By providing payments, barbers can also leverage digital trends to provide additional services and extras to bring in more revenue. On the customer side, there is a search function with barber profile, photos of their work, ratings and reviews, a list of service offerings and pricing.

Omile said there are 400,000 to 600,000 barbers in the U.S., and it is one of the fastest-growth markets. As a result, the new funding will be used to hire additional talent, marketing and to grow the business across the country.

“We’ve gotten to a place where we are hitting our stride and seeing business catapulting, so we are in hiring mode,” he added.

Indeed, the company generated more than $500 million in revenue for barbers since its launch and is adding over 100,000 users each month. In addition, the app averages 1.5 million appointment bookings each month.

Next up, Omile wants to build out some new features like a digital store and the ability to process more physical payments by rolling out a card reader for in-person payments. TheCut will also focus on enabling barbers to have more personal relationships with their customers.

“We are building software to empower people to be the best version of themselves, in this case barbers,” he added. “The relationship with customers is an opportunity for the barber to make specific recommendations on products and create a grooming experience.”

As part of the investment, Leadout founder and managing partner Ali Rosenthal joined the company’s board of directors. She said Omile and Patel are the kind of founders that venture capitalists look for — experts in their markets and data-driven technologists.

“They had done so much with so little by the time we met them,” Rosenthal added. “They are creating a passionate community and set of modern, tech-driven features that are tailored to the needs of their customers.”

 

For VCs, the game right now is musical chairs

By Connie Loizos

In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a venture capitalist. Nearly everyone in the industry is raking in money, either through long-awaited exits or because more capital flooding into the industry has meant more money in management fees  — and sometimes both.

Still, a growing number of early-stage investors with whom we talk to on a routine basis are wary about the pace of dealmaking. It’s not just that it’s a lot harder to write checks at what feels like a reasonable clip at the moment, or that most VCs feel they can no longer afford to be price sensitive. Many of the founders with whom they work are being handed follow-on checks before figuring out how best to deploy their last round of funding.

Consider that from 2016 through 2019, an average of 35 deals a month featured rounds of $100 million or more, according to the data company CB Insights. This year, 126 companies a month on average have been raising those kinds of megarounds. The froth is hardly contained to maturing companies. Even the median U.S. Series A valuation hit $42 million in the second quarter, driven in part crossover investors like Tiger Global, which closed 1.26 deals per business day in Q2. (Andreessen Horowitz wasn’t far behind.)

It makes for some bewildering times, including for longtime investor Jeff Clavier, the founder the early-stage venture firm Uncork Capital. Like many of his peers, Clavier is benefiting from the booming market. Among Uncork’s portfolio companies, for example is LaunchDarkly, a company that helps software developers avoid missteps. The seven-year-old company announced $200 million in Series D funding last month at a $3 billion valuation. That’s triple the valuation it was assigned early last year.

“It’s an awesome company, so I’m very excited for them,” says Clavier.

At the same time, he added, “You have to put this money to work in a very smart way.”

That’s not so easy in this market, where founders are inundated with interest and, in some cases, are talking term sheets after the first Zoom with an investor. (“The most absurd thing we’ve heard are funds that are making decisions after a 30-minute call with the founder,” says TX Zhou, the cofounder of L.A.-based seed-stage firm Fika Ventures, which itself just tripled the amount of assets it’s managing.)

More money can mean a much longer lifeline for a company. But as many investors have learned the hard way, it can also serve as a distraction, as well as hide fundamental issues with a business until it’s too late to address them.

Taking on more money also oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with a bigger valuation, and lofty valuations comes with their own positives and negatives. On the plus side, of course, big numbers can attract more attention to a company from the press, from customers, and from potential new hires.  At the same time, “The more money you raise, the higher the valuation it is, it catches up with you on the next round, because you got to clear that watermark,” says Renata Quintini of the venture firm Renegade Partners, which focuses largely on Series B-stage companies.

Again, in today’s market, trying to slow down isn’t always possible. Quintini says that some founders her firm has talked to have said, “‘I’m not going to raise any more because I cannot go faster; I cannot deploy more than my model is already supporting.'” For others, she continues, “You’ve got to look at what’s happening around you, and sometimes if your competitors are raising and they’re going to have a bigger war chest . . and [they’re] pushing the market forward . . . and maybe they can out-hire you or they can outspend you in certain areas where they can generate more traction than you . . .” that next check, often at the higher valuation, begins to look like the only option.

Many VCs have argued that today’s valuations make sense because companies are creating new markets, growing faster than before, and have more opportunities to expand globally, and certainly, in some cases, that it is true. Indeed, companies that were previously believed to be richly priced by their private investors, like Airbnb and Doordash, have seen their valuations soar as publicly traded companies.

Yet it’s also true that for many more companies, “valuation is completely disconnected from the [companies’] multiples,” says Clavier, echoing what other VCs acknowledge privately.

That might seem to be the kind of problem that investors love to face. But as been the case for years now, that depends on how long this go-go market lasts.

Clavier says that one of his own companies that “did a great Series A and did a great Series B ahead of its time is now being preempted for a Series C, and the valuation is just completely disconnected from their actual reality.”

He said he’s happy for the outfit “because I have no doubt they will catch up. But this is the point: they will have to catch up.”

For more from our conversation with Clavier, by the way, you can listen here.

Shepherd raises $6.2M seed round to tackle the construction insurance market

By Alex Wilhelm

Shepherd, an insurtech startup focused on the construction market, has closed a $6.15 million seed round led by Spark Capital. The funding event comes after the startup raised a pre-seed round in February led by Susa Ventures, which also participated in Shepherd’s latest fundraising event.

Thinking broadly, Shepherd fits into a theme of neoinsurance providers selling more to other companies than to consumers. Insurtech startups serving consumers enjoyed years of venture capital backing only to find their public debuts met with early optimism followed quickly by eroding share prices.

But companies like Shepherd — and Blueprint Title earlier this week — are wagering on there being margin elsewhere in the insurance world to attack. For Shepherd, the construction market is its target, an industry that it intends to carve into starting with excess liability coverage.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, Justin Levine, told TechCrunch that contractors in the construction space have a number of insurance requirements, including general liability, commercial auto and so forth. But construction projects often also require more liability coverage, which is sold as excess or umbrella policies.

Targeting the middle-market of the construction space — companies doing $25 million to $250 million in projects per year, in its view — Shepherd wants to lean on technology as a way to help underwrite customers.

Levine said that his company’s offering will have two core parts. The first is what you expected, namely a complete digital experience for customers. The CEO likened its digital offering to table stakes for the insurtech world. We agree. But the company gets more interesting when we consider its second half, namely its work to partner with construction tech providers to help it make underwriting decisions.

The startup has partnered with Procore, for example, a company that invested in its business.

The concept of leaning on third-party software companies to help make underwriting decisions makes some sense — companies that are more technology-forward in terms of adopting new techniques and methods won’t have the same underwriting profile as companies that don’t. Generally, more data makes for better underwriting decisions; linking to the software that helps construction companies function makes good sense from that perspective.

The CEO of Procore agrees, telling TechCrunch that an early customer of his business said that its product is “a risk management solution disguised as construction management software.” The more risk that is managed, the lower Shepherd’s loss ratios may prove over time, allowing it to better compete on price.

On the subject of price, Levine thinks that the construction insurance market is suffering at the moment. Rising settlement costs have led to some legacy insurance books in the space with larger-than-anticipated losses, pushing some providers to raise prices. Levine’s view is that that Shepherd’s ability to enter its market without a legacy book of business will help it offer competitive rates.

Excess liability coverage is the “wedge” that Shepherd intends to use to get into the construction insurance market, it said, with intention of launching other products in time. The startup is attacking excess liability coverage first, its CEO said, because it’s the place of maximum pain in the larger construction insurance market.

Frankly, TechCrunch finds the B2B neoinsurance startup market fascinating. Selling policies to consumers has a particular set of cost of goods sold (COGS) — varying based on the type of coverage, of course — and often stark go-to-market costs. Furthermore, customer acquisition costs (CACs) can prove irksome when going up against national brands with huge budgets. Perhaps the business insurance market will prove more lucrative for upstart tech companies. Venture investors are certainly willing to place that particular wager.

Natalie Sandman led the deal for Spark, telling TechCrunch that when she first encountered Shepherd it was working on a different project, but that when it shifted its focus, it struck a chord with her firm. The investor said that the idea of bringing new data to the construction insurance underwriting process may help the company make smarter decisions. In the insurance world, better underwriting choices mean more profitable coverage. Which means greater future cash flows. And we all know that that means for value creation.

Fintech startup Jeeves raises $57M, goes from YC to $500M valuation in one year

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Last summer, Jeeves was participating in Y Combinator’s summer batch as a fledgling fintech.

This June, the startup emerged from stealth with $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

Today, the company, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is announcing that it has raised a $57 million Series B at a $500 million valuation. That’s up from a valuation of just north of $100 million at the time of Jeeves’ Series A, which closed in May and was announced in early June.

While the pace of funding these days is unlike most of us have ever seen before, it’s pretty remarkable that Jeeves essentially signed the term sheet for its Series B just two months after closing on its Series A. It’s also notable that just one year ago, it was wrapping up a YC cohort.

Jeeves was not necessarily looking to raise so soon, but fueled by its growth in revenue and spend after its Series A, which was led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), the company was approached by dozens of potential investors and offered multiple term sheets, according to CEO and co-founder Dileep Thazhmon. Jeeves moved forward with CRV, which had been interested since the A and built a relationship with Thazhmon, so it could further accelerate growth and launch in more countries, he said.

CRV led the Series B round, which also included participation from Tencent, Silicon Valley Bank, Alkeon Capital Management, Soros Fund Management and a high-profile group of angel investors including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, Odell Beckham Jr. and The Chainsmokers. Notably, the founders of a dozen unicorn companies also put money in the Series B including (but not limited to) Clip CEO Adolfo Babatz; QuintoAndar CEO Gabriel Braga; Uala CEO Pierpaolo Barbieri, BlockFi CEO Zac Prince; Mercury CEO Immad Akhund; Bitso founder Pablo Gonzalez; Monzo Bank’s Tom Blomfield; Intercom founder Des Traynor; Lithic CEO Bo Jiang as well as founders from UiPath, Auth0, GoCardless, Nubank, Rappi, Kavak and others.

Whew.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering was live in Mexico and Canada and today launched in Colombia, the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. 

Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Jeeves claims that by using its platform’s proprietary Banking-as-a-Service infrastructure, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card (with 4% cash back), non card payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

For example, a growing business can use a Jeeves card in Barcelona and pay it back in euros and use the same card in Mexico and pay it back in pesos, reducing any FX fees and providing instant spend reconciliation across currencies. 

Thazhmon believes that the “biggest thing” the company is building out is its own global BaaS layer, that sits across different banking entities in each country, and onto which the end user customer-facing Jeeves app plugs into.

Put simply, he said, “think of it as a BaaS platform, but with only one app — the Jeeves app — plugged into it.”

Image Credits: Jeeves

The startup has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by more than 5,000% since January, and both revenue and spend volume has increased more than 1,100% (11x) since its Series A earlier this year, according to Thazhmon.

Jeeves now covers more than 12 currencies and 10 countries across three continents. Mexico is its largest market. Jeeves is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile and Thazhmon expects that by year’s end, it will be live in all of North America and Europe. Next year, it’s eyeing the Asian market, and Tencent should be able to help with that strategically, he said.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon told TechCrunch. “Our model is very similar to that of Uber’s launch model where we can launch very quickly because we don’t have to rebuild an entire infrastructure. When we launch in countries, we actually don’t have to rebuild a stack.”

Jeeves’ user base has been doubling every 60 days and now powers more than 1,000 companies across LatAm, Canada and Europe, including Bitso, Kavak, RappiPay, Belvo, Runa, Moons, Convictional, Muncher, Juniper, Trienta, Platzi, Worky and others, according to Thazhmon. The company says it has a current waitlist of over 15,000.

Jeeves plans to use its new capital toward its launch in Colombia, the U.K. and Europe. And, of course, toward more hiring. It’s already doubled its number of employees to 55 over the past month.

Former a16z partner Matt Hafemeister was so impressed with what Jeeves is building that in August he left the venture capital firm to join the startup as its head of growth. In working with the founders as an investor, he concluded that they ranked “among the best founders in fintech” he’d ever interacted with.

The decision to leave a16z also related to Jeeves’ inflection point, Hafemeister said. The startup is nearly doubling every month, and had already eclipsed year-end goals on revenue by mid-year.

It is evident Jeeves has found early product market fit and, given the speed of execution, I see Jeeves establishing itself as one of the most important fintech companies in the next few years,” Hafemeister told TechCrunch. “The company is transitioning from a seed company to a Series B company very quickly, and being able to help operationalize processes and play a role in their growth and maturity is an incredible opportunity for me.”

CRV General Partner Saar Gur (who is also an early investor in DoorDash, Patreon and Mercury) said he was blown away by Jeeves’ growth and how it has been “consistently hitting and exceeding targets month over month.” Plus, early feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive, Gur said.

“Jeeves is building products and infrastructure that are very difficult to execute but by doing the ‘hard things’ they offer incredible value to their customers,” he told TechCrunch. “We haven’t seen anyone build from the ground up with global operations in mind on day one.”

HomeLight closes on $100M Series D at a $1.6B valuation as revenue surges

By Mary Ann Azevedo

HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.

Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.

Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.

The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.

Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.

“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.

In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.

HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said. 

“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”

Image Credits: HomeLight

Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place. 

In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.

Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.

“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”

He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”

Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.

Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.

“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”

HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months. 

Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.

“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”

YouTravel.Me packs up $1M to match travelers with curated small group adventures

By Christine Hall

YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.

Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.

Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.

Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”

Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.

Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.

“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”

After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.

The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.

Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.

“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”

 

AON3D closes $11.5M Series A, partners with Astrobotic to send 3D-printed parts to the moon

By Aria Alamalhodaei

3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.

3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.

The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.

“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”

By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.

The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.

They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.

Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.

The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.

That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.

Image Credits: Astrobotic

“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.

Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.

Pixalate tunes into $18.1M for fraud prevention in television, mobile advertising

By Christine Hall

Pixalate raised $18.1 million in growth capital for its fraud protection, privacy and compliance analytics platform that monitors connected television and mobile advertising.

Western Technology Investment and Javelin Venture Partners led the latest funding round, which brings Pixalate’s total funding to $22.7 million to date. This includes a $4.6 million Series A round raised back in 2014, Jalal Nasir, founder and CEO of Pixalate, told TechCrunch.

The company, with offices in Palo Alto and London, analyzes over 5 million apps across five app stores and more 2 billion IP addresses across 300 million connected television devices to detect and report fraudulent advertising activity for its customers. In fact, there are over 40 types of invalid traffic, Nasir said.

Nasir grew up going to livestock shows with his grandfather and learned how to spot defects in animals, and he has carried that kind of insight to Pixalate, which can detect the difference between real and fake users of content and if fraudulent ads are being stacked or hidden behind real advertising that zaps smartphone batteries or siphons internet usage and even ad revenue.

Digital advertising is big business. Nasir cited Association of National Advertisers research that estimated $200 billion will be spent globally in digital advertising this year. This is up from $10 billion a year prior to 2010. Meanwhile, estimated ad fraud will cost the industry $35 billion, he added.

“Advertisers are paying a premium to be in front of the right audience, based on consumption data,” Nasir said. “Unfortunately, that data may not be authorized by the user or it is being transmitted without their consent.”

While many of Pixalate’s competitors focus on first-party risks, the company is taking a third-party approach, mainly due to people spending so much time on their devices. Some of the insights the company has found include that 16% of Apple’s apps don’t have privacy policies in place, while that number is 22% in Google’s app store. More crime and more government regulations around privacy mean that advertisers are demanding more answers, he said.

The new funding will go toward adding more privacy and data features to its product, doubling the sales and customer teams and expanding its office in London, while also opening a new office in Singapore.

The company grew 1,200% in revenue since 2014 and is gathering over 2 terabytes of data per month. In addition to the five app stores Pixalate is already monitoring, Nasir intends to add some of the China-based stores like Tencent and Baidu.

Noah Doyle, managing director at Javelin Venture Partners, is also monitoring the digital advertising ecosystem and said with networks growing, every linkage point exposes a place in an app where bad actors can come in, which was inaccessible in the past, and advertisers need a way to protect that.

“Jalal and Amin (Bandeali) have insight from where the fraud could take place and created a unique way to solve this large problem,” Doyle added. “We were impressed by their insight and vision to create an analytical approach to capturing every data point in a series of transactions —  more data than other players in the industry — for comprehensive visibility to help advertisers and marketers maintain quality in their advertising.”

 

SoftBank deepens commitment to LatAm with two new partners focused on early-stage investing

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In March 2019, SoftBank Group International made headlines when it announced the SoftBank Innovation Fund, which started out with a $2 billion commitment to invest in tech startups in Latin America.

A lot has changed since then. SoftBank changed the name of the fund to the SoftBank Latin America Fund, or LatAm Fund for short. The Japanese investment conglomerate has dramatically ramped up its investing in the region, and so have a number of other global investors. In fact, venture capitalists poured an estimated $6.2 billion into Latin American startups in the first half of 2021.

As evidence of its continued commitment to the region, SoftBank Group announced today that it has added two new managing partners to its LatAm Fund team: Rodrigo Baer and Marco Camhaji. The two will focus on “identifying and supporting” early-stage companies across the Latin American region, SoftBank told TechCrunch exclusively.

Baer and Camhaji will report to SoftBank Executive President & COO Marcelo Claure, who points out that the firm’s LatAm fund has invested in more than two-thirds of the nearly two dozen unicorns currently operating in the region. He said that SoftBank is today “one of the largest and most active” technology investors in the region.

 

The move is significant in that the hires represent an expansion of SoftBank LatAm Fund’s mandate and means that the firm is now backing companies at all stages in the region.

By bringing Baer and Camhaji on board, Claure said in a statement, SoftBank will “be better able to identify high-growth companies and support them at every step of their lifecycle.”

SoftBank describes Baer as one of the pioneers of Brazil’s venture capital industry. He has invested in more than 20 companies since 2010. According to Crunchbase, he co-founded Warehouse Investimentos in 2010, where he led deal-sourcing efforts. He joined the investment team of Redpoint eVentures, a LatAm-based early-stage VC fund, in June 2014. He also was previously an engagement manager at McKinsey and worked at Aurora Funds, a healthcare-services focused fund based in the US. He is also active with Endeavor and multiple angel groups. 

Prior to joining SoftBank, Camhaji was a business development principal at Amazon, establishing strategic partnerships with fintechs in Latin America. He also served as the CEO of Adianta, a Brazilian B2B invoice financing company. Previously, Camahji was a founder and partner at Yellow Ventures, making seed investments in technology startups. He was also a partner and CFO of Redpoint eVentures.

In August, Shu Nyatta, a managing partner at SoftBank who co-leads its $5 billion Latin America Fund, pointed out a dynamic that might seem obvious but is rarely articulated: Technology in LatAm is often more about inclusion rather than disruption.

“The vast majority of the population is underserved in almost every category of consumption. Similarly, most businesses are underserved by modern software solutions,” Nyatta told TechCrunch. “There’s so much to build for so many people and businesses. In San Francisco, the venture ecosystem makes life a little better for individuals and businesses who are already living in the future. In LatAm, tech entrepreneurs are building the future for everyone else.

Some recent SoftBank investments in the region include:

  • Kavak, a used car marketplace born in Mexico but now also operating in Brazil and Argentina. “Think of Carvana, but for emerging markets.”
  • Rappi, where “DoorDash-meets-Instacart,” operating across Latin America.
  • QuintoAndar, a Brazilian real estate marketplace.
  • Creditas unlocks the equity trapped in homes and cars and other important assets for Brazilians.
  • Gympass is a marketplace for fitness and wellness, provided through the enterprise to employees.

As global investors continue to flood the region with capital, it’s clear that SoftBank is getting even more aggressive about backing startups in Latin America.

Stockeld Dreamery loves cheese so much that it raised $20M to make it out of legumes

By Christine Hall

Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.

The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.

Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.

“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”

Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.

Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”

The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.

Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.

“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.

Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.

Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.

Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.

The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.

“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”

Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.

“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”

Bright Cellars lands more funding to personalize its subscription-based wines

By Connie Loizos

Bright Cellars, a six-year-old subscription-based wine seller has, like many upstarts, evolved over time. While it once sent its club members third-party wines that fit their particular profiles, Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Bright Cellars says it’s now amassing enough data about its customers that it no longer sells wines made by other brands. Instead, while some of its “original” offerings are admittedly sold by other labels under different names, it is increasingly finding success by directing its winemaker partners to tweak the recipe, so to speak.

“We’re optimizing wine like you might optimize a more digital product,” says co-founder and CEO, Richard Yau, a San Francisco native whose startup entered into a regional accelerator program early on and stayed, though the company is now largely decentralized.

We talked earlier today with Yau about that shift, which investors are supporting with $11.2 million in Series B funding, led by Cleveland Avenue, with participation from earlier backers Revolution Ventures and Northwestern Mutual. (The company has now raised roughly $20 million altogether).

Yau also talked about industry trends that he’s seeing because of all that data collection.

TC: You’re building a portfolio of wines. What does that mean?

RY: We don’t own any land. We’re working primarily with suppliers [as do big companies like Gallo and Constellation], but at a larger scale than before, so we now get to shape what wines taste like and look like, and we can optimize across variables like how sweet should this wine be? How acidic? What do we want its color and brand and label to look like and which segment of our customers will really enjoy this wine the most?

TC: What’s one of your concoctions?

RY: We have a sparkling wine that’s produced in the Champagne method — not a Champagne wine; it’s a domestic wine — using grape varietals that no one uses for sparkling wine, and it’s one of the top-rated wines on our platform. Sparkling wine has been really good for us.

TC: How many subscribers do you have?

RY: We can’t share that, but we saw an acceleration in not just new subscribers throughout the pandemic but also in terms of seeing a larger share of [customers’] wallets going to D2C, and that impacted us pretty positively. Even as things eased up over the summer, we saw that people were cooking and eating at home more [and drinking wine].

TC: What’s the average price of a bottle of wine on the platform?

RY: $20 to $25.

TC: Where are your grape suppliers?

RY: A lot are on the West Coast, in Washington and California, but we also have grape suppliers internationally, including in South America and Europe.

TC: How many wines do you offer, and how long do you trial a wine?

RY: We’ve tested around 600, and at any given time, we’ll have 40 to 50 wines on the platform. We don’t stock everything forever; those that don’t do as well, we basically eliminate.

TC: A lot of D2C brands eventually branch into real-world locations. You aren’t doing that. Why not?

RY: It’s possible that we might at some point, but we like being D2C and it makes a lot of sense in a world where our members now work from home and are home to receive packages. It lines up with e-commerce trends in general. If you’re not buying your groceries at the store anymore, you aren’t buying wines at the store, either.

TC: From where are these bottles shipped?

RY: From a variety of places, but primarily from Santa Rosa [in the Bay Area].

TC: Have you seen the impact the weather is having on California winemakers, some of whom are now spraying sunscreen on their grapes to protect them?

RY: [Climate change] has certainly affected the wine industry. One of the fortunate things about us is we have flexibility in the suppliers we’re working with, so from a business-health perspective, we haven’t been as affected by that. Because a lot of our operations are in California, we did a couple of years ago have some interruptions with distribution where we weren’t able to ship some days; we were also impacted by warm temperatures. But fortunately, so far for this year, we haven’t had any operational or supply-chain disruptions.

TC: Have you been approached by one of legacy firms about a partnership or acquisition?

RY: We’ve had conversations, more in terms of partnerships because we have lots of data and can help them. For example, we can launch a new wine and get feedback almost like a focus group to figure out who likes what. We can split test two different blends for a wine and figure out which does better. That’s where conversations with legacy wine companies have happened.

TC: So they’d pay you for your data.

RY: We’re not opposed to selling data in the future, but we’ve approached it more like, here’s an opportunity to learn about how innovation works at a larger wine company. We don’t expect to be able to do what Constellation does well — with its large salesforce and distributors in every state — but what we can do in a complementary way is understand the consumer.

TC: What have you learned that might surprise outsiders?

RY: Petite sirah [offerings] do as well, if not better than, cabernet and pinot noir on the platform. Cab and pinot are fully 50 times the market size of petite sirah, but we see that our members really like it.

People also like merlot a lot more than they think — pretty much across all demographics. People like to hate merlot, but when we look at red blends that do well . . .

TC: What do people have against merlot?

RY: [Laughs.] Have you ever seen “Sideways?” That has something to do with it, still. Meanwhile, pinot noir remains popular, but people don’t like it as much as [other wine sellers] think.

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

By Karan Bhasin

Few people thought of virtual events before the pandemic struck, but this format has fulfilled a unique and important need for companies and organizations large and small during the pandemic. But what will virtual events’ value be as more of the world attempts to return to life before COVID-19?

To find out, we caught up with top executives and investors in the sector to learn about the big trends they’re seeing — as the sequel to this survey we did in March 2020.

Certain use cases have been proven, they say. Today, you can find numerous small niche events available year-round that might have been buried in the back of a larger in-person conference before 2020. For organizations, internal virtual events can also be instrumental in helping connect and promote engagement for remote-first teams.

However, some respondents acknowledged that low-quality virtual events are growing ever more common, and everyone agreed that there is much more work to be done.

We surveyed:

Xiaoyin Qu, founder and CEO, Run The World

With the pandemic hopefully becoming more manageable soon, do you feel a return to in-person events is inevitable?

Certain types of events will go back to in person. Obviously, something to do with a President’s Club — the company rewards you with a party in Hawaii — that kind of thing will not go virtual. I think events more focused on increasing reach will continue to trend toward virtual.

“Hybrid is just another buzzword to say that both online and offline events formats will coexist. Of course they will.”

We’re also seeing that many events are getting smaller, more niche. Before the pandemic, if we look at a general pediatric conference, for example, an attendee may only be interested in two topics out of the 200 offered. But now we’ve seen that there’s a rise in many niche events that focus on very specific topics, which helps streamline these events for attendees.

I think such events are still going to happen virtually just because they’re easier to organize and people can have more in-depth conversations. Internal virtual events for employees is another category that is getting more traction, because companies have been going remote. So many the internal events like the company happy hour — events that help employees engage better — we think that’s still going to happen virtually. So there are a number of use cases we think will continue to be virtual and are probably better virtual.


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What sort of trends do you think will emerge once in-person events are possible again?

Another important trend we’re seeing is that a lot of organizers have begun hosting events more frequently. They were doing large conferences in the past, but now they’re pivoting or they’re rethinking their strategy. They realize that hosting maybe 10 events a year is better than hosting one big event every year. A traditional conference is usually multiday, with maybe 200 different topics and 100 different speakers. Now a lot of people are thinking about spreading it out throughout the year.

Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike review: Utility that shreds

By Rebecca Bellan

A recent move to Auckland, New Zealand — a city with lackluster public transit and hills that can turn a quick bike ride to the store into a sweaty workout — piqued my interest in e-bikes. 

Strong demand and skyrocketing prices, however, made it difficult to access these coveted e-bikes here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. That changed after learning about Ubco, the New Zealand-based electric utility bike startup that recently raised $10 million from investors. 

The company provided me with the Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike for nearly a month, which gave me plenty of time to put it to the test. 

I may not be Ubco’s target audience, although I did my best to use the bike as its design suggests, and packed it up with bags of books and other heavy things that might simulate the weight of delivered garlic bread, mail and other packages. The Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike is made for city utility riding, with the option of going off-road, which I would later try with gusto.

The company’s flagship is the Ubco 2X2 Work Bike, an electric dirt bike that was originally designed to help farmers. The fresh capital the company raised in June will be used to expand into existing verticals like food delivery, postal service and last-mile logistics, scale a commercial subscription business and target sales growth in the United States. 

Domino’s drivers in Auckland, and I hear in the U.K., can be seen delivering hot pizzas on Ubco bikes, and the company has a range of other national clients, like the New Zealand Post, the Defense Force, the Department of Conservation, and Pāmu, or Landcorp Farming Limited, as well as other local restaurants and stores.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The handoff

CEO and co-founder Timothy Allan drove out from the company headquarters in Tauranga to hand off the bike personally. It was a sunny day in my neighborhood, and I listened impatiently as he described the various bits and bobs, how to work the machine and how to charge it.

Allan helped me download the Ubco app to pair my phone with the bike, which, among other functionalities, allowed me to select beginner mode, which would cap the vehicle speed at around 20 miles per hour. I made a mental note so that I could write about it here, but was determined to reach the top speed of 30 miles per hour right away. 

I did, and it was … pretty sick. I’m not supposed to gush, but man! It’s a sweet ride. Here’s why:

Appearance

The Adventure Bike comes standard in white and sits on 17X2.75-inch multi-use tires with aluminum rims, both of which are DOT compliant. My version also had Maori decals on the frame, in a nod to the indigenous people of New Zealand.  

The bike’s height is about 41 inches and the seat comes to 32 inches. From wheel to wheel, it’s about 72 inches. The payload, including the rider, is about 330 pounds, so both my partner (6’2” man) and I (5’7” female) rode this bike with ease, needing only to adjust the wide rearview mirrors sticking out of the handlebars. And no, we didn’t ride it together. This bike is designed as a one-seater. 

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

That said, there’s a little cargo rack above the back wheel, which holds the license plate (apparently these are classified as mopeds, which require registration in many places) and any other cargo one might carry. I didn’t try, but I reckon it could hold at least five pizza boxes tied down with a bungee cord. The bike rack also allows for saddlebags to be strapped on. Ubco sells what it calls the Pannier Back Pack, a weather-resistant roll-top cargo bag, for $189 that slots in very nicely and is actually a quality bag with 5.28-gallon capacity. 

Accessories aside, the alloy frame is lightweight and step-through, which I love in a bike — it lets me start to shift myself off before I fully park and I feel super agile and swift. Speaking of parking, the rules are different everywhere, I assume, but here, you park it on the street or in parking spaces, not on the sidewalk. It’s got a kickstand to hold it in place, and you can lock the front wheel so no one can just wheel it away. They could, however, probably chuck it into the back of their pickup truck if they so chose, since it’s only 145 pounds. 

The appearance of the bike stood out, and not just to me. During my multi-week test drive, numerous tradesmen and bike folks went out of their way to compliment its design, the exact demographic that Ubco is aiming for. 

Rideability

The lightness of the bike means that it’s easy to take off and find your balance. The battery is also in the middle of the frame, just near where your feet sit, which anchors the bike and gives you a stable center of gravity.

The lightweight nature of the bike is a blessing and a curse. Cutting a turn is easy, but on a windy day and an open road, there were moments I worried that I’d be knocked off it — but maybe that had more to do with riding next to a 10-wheeler on the street. Because it’s so light, it did feel a bit strange to me to be in the street lane with the other bigger, meaner cars rather than in the bike lanes.

The bike accelerates quickly via the fully electronic throttle control, even up steep hills, due to the high torque geared drivetrain. The drivetrain has two 1kw Flux2 motors with sealed bearings, active heat management and active venting for residual moisture — a necessity in this moistest of cities.

The acceleration sound, which mimics those of a gas-powered dirt bike but with a softer electronic tone, was a surprising plus. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my sense of sound to tell how fast I was going until I rode the Ubco. 

The braking system was a bit touchy. It felt very sensitive to me, probably because hydraulic and regenerative brakes are operating together on the vehicle. There’s also a passive regenerative braking system, which I gather is what put the brakes on for me when I was just trying to coast down one of those mammoth hills.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Both the front suspension, 130 mm, and rear suspension, 120 mm, have a coil spring with a hydraulic dampener and have preload and rebound adjustment. In other words, the shocks are awesome. Even when I actively drove myself off sidewalks and over speed bumps, I could barely feel a thing. 

To test its off-road capabilities, I took the bike to Cornwall Park, where I ran it at full speed on the grass, swerving between trees, flying over roots and rocks, doing doughnuts in the field. It was good fun and I felt completely in control of the vehicle. I can imagine why farmers have turned to the Work Bike.

When it was time to test out its use as a delivery bike, I packed the two saddlebags with books and groceries and took it for a spin. Still a great ride, although I was a little wobbly turning corners until I got the hang of it.

Value

Since the Ubco Adventure Bike doesn’t neatly fit into a specific bike category, it’s not a simple price comparison. An electric moped, like a Lexmoto Yadea or a Vespa Elettrica, could set you back anywhere from $2,400 or $7,000, respectively. Electric dirt bikes could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 for something like a KTM or Alta Motors. 

With that in mind, the Ubco Adventure Bike costs $6,999 with a 2.1 kW power supply and $7,499 for a 3.1 kW power supply. Depending on what you want it for, I’d say it’s somewhere around mid-range for a bike like this. Since you’d probably use it for work-related activities, it could get a tax write-off. Plus, you want quality in a bike that’s down to do some heavy lifting, and Ubco has plenty of that. It’s not only a handy utility bike, but it’s also got some excellent tech under the proverbial hood, which we’ll get to later. 

Ubco estimates a 10- to 15-year life expectancy, depending on use. Over-the-air software updates, replacing parts and full refurbishments can help keep the bike going for longer. The company encourages riders to send back the dead bikes because it’s committed to full product stewardship.

That said, if you wanted to buy a bike now, it’d be a preorder (unless your local Ubco dealer had some in stock). Ordering now could get you an Ubco by September if you live in the States. The company says it’s still feeling the effects of COVID, with high demand and a stretched supply chain causing delays. The preorder requires a $1,000 deposit. 

Ubco also has a subscription model, which is mainly available for enterprise customers at the moment and priced on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s piloting subscriptions for individuals in Auckland and Tauranga before rolling the program out globally. Subscriptions will start at around NZD $300 per month for a 36-month term.

Range

The Adventure Bike comes with either the 2.1 kWh battery pack, which has around 40 to 54 miles of range, or the 3.1 kWh, with 60 to 80 miles.

The battery is run off a management system, called “Scotty,” to monitor real-time performance and safety. The battery, which is sealed with alloy and vented during use, is made with 18650 lithium-ion cells, which means it’s a powerful battery that can handle up to 500 charging cycles. Ubco says its batteries are designed to be disassembled at the end of life.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The 10amp alloy fast charger can fuel the battery fully within four to six hours. You can charge it while it’s still in the vehicle by just connecting it to a power outlet, or you can unlock the battery and yank it out (it’s a little heavy) and charge it inside. Note: Charging is loud. Not sure if this is standard, but probably is. 

I charged it every two to three days, but that will depend on use and where you are. It’s winter in Auckland, so a bit cold, which affects battery life, and the hills are brutal, which also use up a lot of battery life.

I’d ride it downtown and around my neighborhood every day, but I’d wager a delivery driver would need to charge it nightly. As I mentioned earlier, the battery can be removed for charging, so if you take it to work, you can always take it up to the office or wherever to charge while you’re doing other things. 

Tech features

Vehicle management system

The vehicle runs off what Ubco calls its Cerebro vehicle management system, which integrates all electronic and electrical functions of the vehicles and provides control and updates via Bluetooth. Ubco builds with end of life in mind, so the CAN bus is isolated so future CAN devices can be easily integrated. 

Now, one of my first questions, given the heftiness of this bike and the likelihood of gig economy workers who would ride it for work living in urban dwellings, was this: How can I ensure no one will steal this thing when it’s on the street, because there’s no way I’m lugging it up to my fifth-floor walkup?

Like I said, you can lock the wheel in place, which would make it far more difficult for someone to wheel it off. If someone did decide to capture the whole cumbersome vehicle, Ubco would be able to track it for you. Each Ubco bike has telemetry, aka a SIM card, hardwired inside, and that can help provide data that can be used for location, servicing, theft, safety, route planning, etc. 

This VMS architecture is made for handling fleets via Ubco’s enterprise subscription vehicles, but it obviously has other uses, like providing peace of mind (personally, I’d still lock it up with chains, but I’m a New Yorker and trust no one). Obviously, if you think this telemetry is creepy, you can opt out, but it does come standard with subscriptions, allowing subscribers to track their bike’s location on the app.

Display

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Mounted on the handlebar is an LCD display that shows speed, power levels and more. Also on the handlebars are switch controls for high or low beams, indicators and a horn. I found the indicators to be a bit sticky and sometimes I would slip and hit the horn. What I wish the handlebars also had was a mount for your phone so you could follow directions. I had my headphones in and was listening to Google Maps tell me how to get around, but that felt less safe and efficient. 

Turning it on

You can turn the power on with a keyless fob by either clicking the button on the fob or the button on the handlebars. I will note that the keyless fob button is weirdly sensitive. At multiple points, I had it in my pocket with my phone or other pocket inhabitants and it must have knocked into the button, turning the vehicle off while I was riding it. Thankfully, that never happened anywhere busy, but that’s something to be wary about. 

App

As I mentioned earlier, you could pair your phone, as well as other users’ phones, to the bike using the app. The app allows you to choose learner mode or restricted mode, which controls ride settings; turn the bike and lights on and off; change the metrics; and check the status of things like battery life, speed and motor temperature. It’s basically all the info on the dash, but on an app. I didn’t really feel the need to use it.

Lights

The LED headlights are on at all times when the vehicle is turned on, but there’s also a high and low beam, as well as peripheral parking lights, all of which are designed for disassembly at the end of life. There are also LED rear, brake and number plate lights, as well as DOT-approved indicator lights.

Other stuff

Among the features that don’t fit neatly into the other categories, there’s the field kit, which is fastened to the lift-up seat and contains a user manual and tools to set up and maintain the 2X2, which is really handy. Usually, when people buy an Ubco bike, it comes in a box and there are “a few simple steps to follow to get it ready to ride.” There’s also an UBCO University course that shows how to set it up. If you buy from one of Ubco’s dealers, they’ll unpack it and set it up when you come to collect it. 

Maintenance

Maintenance comes with the cost of a monthly subscription. Ubco has a network of technicians placed wherever the company sells its bikes if they’re in need of fixing. If there’s no authorized mechanic nearby, Ubco’s head office will work with customers to help them fix the bike. Ubco did not respond to information about how many authorized mechanics are in its network.

Again, being from New York, I’ve seen probably thousands of delivery riders on bikes and mopeds, oven mitts covered in a plastic bag taped onto the handlebars so drivers can keep their hands warm during the colder months. This bike can handle a hefty load for delivering goods, it’s quick and agile for weaving in and out of traffic, and it’s easy to ride and use.

The subscription offering, especially for enterprise, makes this a great city utility bike that can probably handle a range of weather conditions. I already know it can handle rain and mud, so all signs point to success in the sloshy, icy hell of a Northern city winter. And for the adventurer — the person who just wants to ride something sweet on- and off-road, out of the city and into the wilderness — this is also a great consumer ride that will last you quite a while.

Forum Brands secures $100M in debt financing to acquire more e-commerce brands

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Forum Brands, an e-commerce acquisition platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in debt funding from TriplePoint Capital.

The financing comes just just over two months after the startup raised $27 million in an equity funding round led by Norwest Venture Partners.

Brenton Howland, Ruben Amar and Alex Kopco founded New York-based Forum Brands in the summer of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re buying what we think are A+ high-growth e-commerce businesses that sell predominantly on Amazon and are looking to build a portfolio of standalone businesses that are category leaders, on and off Amazon,” Howland told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “A source of inspiration for us is that we saw how consumer goods and services changed fundamentally for what we think is going to be for decades and decades to come, accelerating the shift toward digital.”

Since we covered the company in June, Forum Brands says it has acquired several new brands, including Bonza, a seller of pet products, and Simka Rose, a baby-focused brand specializing in eco-friendly products. Simka sells in the U.S. and the EU and is an example of how Forum is expanding globally, Amar said.

Howland and Amar emphasize that the Forum team continues to focus on quality over quantity when evaluating potential acquisitions. Although they meet with 15-20 founders a week, they are selective in which companies they choose to acquire.

“We continue to be a quality-first buyer, and not quantity-driven,” Amar said, noting that the company will still help a company build its brand even if it does not yet meet Forum’s quality threshold or if the founders are just not yet ready to sell.

The new funds will be used to, naturally, acquire more e-commerce companies. As part of the debt financing, Sajal Srivastava, co-CEO and co-founder of TriplePoint Capital, will be joining Forum’s board of directors.

“We are impressed not only by Forum’s long-term strategy and ability to leverage technology and deep collective e-commerce and M&A experience but also by how Forum cultivates relationships with their sellers both before and after partnering with them,” he said in a written statement.

At the time of its June raise, Forum had about 20 employees. As of today, it has about 40.

Forum’s technology employs “advanced” algorithms and over 100 million data points to populate brand information into a central platform in real time, instantly scoring brands and generating accurate financial metrics.

On August 31, we covered the news that on the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same announced some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, closed on $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

Insurify, a ‘virtual insurance agent,’ raises $100M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

How many of us have not switched insurance carriers because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of comparison shopping?

A lot, I’d bet.

Today, Insurify, a startup that wants to help people make it easier to get better rates on home, auto and life insurance, announced that it has closed $100 million in an “oversubscribed” Series B funding round led by Motive Partners.

Existing backers Viola FinTech, MassMutual Ventures, Nationwide, Hearst Ventures and Moneta VC also put money in the round, as well as new investors Viola Growth and Fort Ross Ventures. With the new financing, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Insurify has now raised a total of $128 million since its 2013 inception. The company declined to disclose the valuation at which the money was raised.

Since we last covered Insurify, the startup has seen some impressive growth. For example, it has seen its new and recurring revenue increase by “6x” since it closed its Series A funding in the 2019 fourth quarter. Over the last three years, Insurify has achieved a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 151%, according to co-founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia. It has also seen consistent “2.5x” year-over-year revenue growth, she said.

Insurify has built a machine learning-based virtual insurance agent that integrates with more than 100 carriers to digitize — and personalize — the insurance shopping experience. There are others in the insurtech space, but none that we know of currently tackling home, auto and life insurance. For example, Jerry, which has raised capital twice this year, is focused mostly on auto insurance, although it does have a home product. The Zebra, which became a unicorn this year, started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. Over time, it has also evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. But it too is mostly focused on auto.

Zacharia said that since Insurify’s Series A funding, it has expanded its home insurance marketplace, deepened its carrier integrations to provide users an “instant” purchase experience and launched its first two embedded insurance products through partnerships with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions and Nationwide (the latter of which also participated in the Series B funding round).

Image Credits: Insurify

Last year, when ShyScanner had to lay off staff, Insurify scooped up much of its engineering team and established an office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zacharia, a former Gartner executive, was inspired to start the company after she was involved in a minor car accident while getting her MBA at MIT. The accident led to a spike in her insurance premium and Zacharia was frustrated by the “complex and cumbersome” experience of car insurance shopping. She teamed up with CTO Tod Kiryazov to build Insurify, which the pair describe as a virtual insurance agent that offers real-time quotes.

“We decided to build the most trusted virtual insurance agent in the industry that allows for customers to easily search, compare and buy fully digitally — directly from their mobile phone, or desktop, and really get a very smart, personalized experience based on their unique preferences,” Zacharia told TechCrunch. “We leverage artificial intelligence to be able to make recommendations on both coverage as well as carrier selection.”

Notably, Insurify is also a fully licensed agent that takes over the fulfillment and servicing of the policies. Since the company is mostly working as an insurance agent, it gets paid new and renewed commission. So while it’s not a SaaS business, its embedded insurance offerings have SaaS-like monetization.

“Our goal is to provide an experience for the end consumer that allows them to service and manage all of their policies in one place, digitally,” Zacharia said. “We think that the data recommendations that the platform provides can really remove most of the friction that currently exists in the shopping experience.”

Insurify plans to use its fresh capital to continue to expand its operations and accelerate its growth plans. It also, naturally, wants to add to its 125-person team.

“We want to build into our API integrations so customers can receive real-time direct quotes with better personalization and a more tailored experience,” Kiryazov said. “We also want to identify more embedded insurance opportunities and expand the product functionality.”

The company also down the line wants to expand into other verticals such as pet insurance, for example.

Insurify intends to use the money in part to build brand awareness, potentially through TV advertising.

“Almost half of our revenue comes from self-directed traffic,” Zacharia said. “So we want to explore more inorganic growth.”

James “Jim” O’Neill, founding partner at Motive Partners and partner Andy Rear point out that online purchasing now accounts for almost all of the growth in U.S. auto insurance. 

“The lesson from other markets which have been through this transition is that customers prefer choice, presented as a simple menu of products and prices from different insurers, and a straightforward online purchasing process,” they wrote via email. “The U.S. auto market is huge: even a slow transition to online means a massive opportunity for Insurify.”

In conducting their due diligence, the pair said they were impressed with how the startup is building a business model “that works for customers, insurers and white-label partners.”

Harel Beit-On, founder and general partner at Viola Growth, believes that the quantum leap in e-commerce due to COVID-19 will completely transform the buying experience in almost every sector, including insurance.

“It is time to bring the frictionless purchasing experience that customers expect to the insurance space as well,” she said. “Following our fintech fund’s recent investment in the company, we watched Insurify’s immense growth, excellent execution with customer acquisition and building a brand consumers trust.”

Flat.mx raises $20M from VCs, proptech unicorn founders to fix Mexico’s ‘broken’ real estate market

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Flat.mx, which wants to build a real estate “super app” for Latin America, has closed on a $20 million Series A round of funding.

Anthemis and 500 Startups co-led the investment, which included participation from ALLVP and Expa. Previously, Flat.mx had raised a total $10 million in equity and $25 million in debt. Other backers include Opendoor CEO and CEO and co-founder Eric Wu, Flyhomes’ co-founder and CEO Tushar Garg and Divvy Homes’ co-founder Brian Ma.

Founded in July 2019, Mexico City-based Flat.mx started out with a model similar to that of Opendoor, buying properties, renovating them and then reselling them. That September, the proptech startup had raised one of Mexico’s largest pre-seed rounds to take the Opendoor real estate marketplace model across the Rio Grande.

“The real estate market in Mexico is broken,” said co-founder Bernardo Cordero. “One of the biggest problems is that it takes sellers anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to sell. So we launched the most radical solution we could find to this problem: an instant offer. This product allows homeowners to sell in days instead of months, a fast and convenient experience they can’t find anywhere else.”

Building an instant buyer (ibuyer) in Mexico — and Latin America in general — is a complex endeavor. Unlike in the U.S., Mexico doesn’t have a Multiple Listing Service (MLS). As such, pricing data is not readily available. On top of that, agents are not required to be certified so the whole process of buying and selling a home can be informal.

And since mortgage penetration in Mexico is also low, it can be difficult for buyers to have access to reasonable financing options.

“To build an iBuyer, we had to solve the transaction end-to-end,” said co-founder Victor Noguera. “We had to build the MLS, a third-party marketplace, a contractor marketplace, financial products, broker technology, and a home maintenance provider, along with other services. In other words, we have been building the real estate Superapp for Latam.”

Flat.mx says its certified remodeled properties have gone through a 200+ point inspection and “a full legal review.” 

Flat.mx is growing sales by 70% quarter-over-quarter, and has increased its inventory by 10x over the last year, according to its founders. It has also nearly tripled its headcount from 30 at the middle of last year to over 85 today. So far, Flat.mx has conducted thousands of home valuations and over 100 transactions.

Image Credits: Flat.mx

The pandemic only helped boost interest.

“Our low touch digital solution was key for having a strong business during the pandemic. We were able to create quick liquidity for sellers at a time in Mexico where it was complicated to sell,” said Cordero. “Our model allows sellers to sell with one visit instead of having to receive over 40 potential buyers at a time where they wanted to sell but also wanted to avoid contact with many buyers.”

The company plans to use its new capital to continue to develop what it describes as a “one-stop shop where homeowners and buyers will be able to get all the services they need in one place.”

The founders believe that rather than just try to tackle one aspect of the homebuying process, it makes more sense in emerging markets to address them all.

“We believe that each one of our products makes the others stronger and creating this ecosystem of products will continue to give us an important advantage in the market,” said Noguera. The startup plans to also use the capital from the round to expand its presence in Mexico for iBuying, and to invest in data and financial products.

Image Credits: Flat.mx

Naturally, Flat.mx’s investors are bullish.

Archie Cochrane, principal investor at Anthemis Group, said his firm views Flat.mx as an integral part of its embedded finance thesis in the context of the Mexican property sector. 

“The iBuyer model itself is well understood and developed in many parts of the world, but it is also a complex model with many variables that requires a seasoned and astute team to execute the strategy,” Cochrane wrote via email. “When we met Victor and Bernardo, it was clear that their clarity of vision and deep understanding of the broader opportunity set would allow them to succeed over the long term.

Tim Chae, managing partner at 500 Startups, said he envisions that Flat.mx will become “the go-to route” for buyers, sellers, agents and lenders in Mexican real estate. 

“There are nuances and specific problems that are unique to Mexico that Flat.mx has done a great job identifying and solving,” he said. 

ALLVP Partner Fernando Lelo de Larrea said that essentially after years of “unkept promises,” software is finally transforming the real estate industry in Mexico. 

“Most models replicate successful models from the more mature U.S. proptech space,” he said. “Since we started investing in proptech, we’ve never seen such an innovative approach to seizing a trillion dollar opportunity.”

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