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Updated: 1 hour 36 min ago

Keatz, a European ‘cloud kitchen’ startup, raises further €12M

4 hours 54 min ago

Keatz, one of a growing number of so-called “cloud kitchens” — delivery only restaurant brands running on the rails of Deliveroo and UberEats — has raised €12 million in new funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Project A Ventures, Atlantic Labs, UStart, K Fund and JME Ventures, who are joined by RTP Global. It adds to €7 million raised last May and will be used by the Berlin-based company to further expand its roll-out of cloud kitchens across Europe.

Launched in Spring 2016, Keatz now operates 10 cloud kitchens across Europe, having expanded beyond Berlin to Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and Munich. The startup’s network of satellite kitchens are designed to negate the high front-of-house costs found in conventional restaurants, while also selling takeout food that is better suited to delivery.

“We believe the last unsolved part in food delivery is the preparation of food itself,” Keatz co-founder Paul Gebhardt tells TechCrunch. “Delivery food today is often compromised and sold by companies focusing on hospitality and not delivery food. Classic brick and mortar restaurants simply have a different business model, namely hospitality, which is all about the experience and location and the food is meant to be eaten immediately. Nobody at Nandos or Byron Burger designed the food keeping in mind that the food might travel on a Deliveroo bike for another 15 miles, mostly upside down in a delivery bag”.

Similar to other cloud kitchen startups, such as France’s Taster, Gebhardt says Keatz is changing this by focusing exclusively on food “made for delivery,” including designing dishes that can withstand a minimum 15 journey. The startup has a portfolio of eight delivery-only food brands, which are all prepared in the same shared kitchens.

“Our kitchens are usually between 100-200 square metres big and serve a delivery radius of 1-2 kilometres and we sell exclusively on existing delivery platforms, such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, JustEat, Delivery Hero, and TakeAway. Food arrives warm in nice sustainable packaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, although Gebhardt thinks the future of takeout food will ultimately be drones delivering robot-cooked meals, he says autonomous kitchens are much more in reach than autonomous food delivery and already forms a large part of Keatz’s vision to build “highly automated kitchens”.

“It is much easier for us to iteratively automate our kitchens compared to drone-delivery, which is a fairly binary technological transition,” he explains. “Our existing cloud kitchens today are already much more automated than traditional kitchens, from WiFi-connected convection ovens to a software supported food assembly process. At the end of the day high quality food preparation is an on-demand manufacturing problem: a customer orders a Burrito on UberEats and expects a warm meal 20 minutes later. This is quite a technological challenge we are trying to solve”.

To that end, Keatz’s cloud kitchens can be thought of as akin to a “factory operator”. Rather than developing autonomous kitchen hardware of its own, Gebhardt says the company is partnering with kitchen equipment and automation companies in a similar way to BMW partnering with companies to build its car manufacturing plants.

“Despite our ambition to automate the kitchen, we are also very keen on being a great employer,” he adds, citing above market pay and comprehensive training opportunities. Today, Keatz employs around 200 people across its 10 kitchens in Europe.

Categories: Business News

To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

17 hours 29 min ago

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

Here are the 85+ startups that launched at YC’s W19 Demo Day 1

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

I did not talk to a single company in this batch raising under $10M post (admittedly I only was able to speak with a fraction of the 205).

— Peter Rojas (@peterrojas) March 20, 2019

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

All 88 companies from Y Combinator’s W19 Demo Day 2

Categories: Business News

Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

17 hours 43 min ago

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

Categories: Business News

Robotics process automation startup UiPath raising $400M at more than $7B valuation

18 hours 11 min ago

UiPath, a robotics process automation platform targeting IT businesses, is raising more than $400 million in Series D funding from venture capital investors at a valuation north of $7 billion, sources have confirmed to TechCrunch following a report from Business Insider.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment.

UiPath, founded in 2005, has raised $409 million to date, meaning the new round of capital will double the total capital invested in the startup, as well as its valuation. Its $225 million Series C, raised just six months ago, valued the business at $3 billion, according to PitchBook. UiPath is backed by top-tier investors CapitalG and Sequoia Capital, which co-led its Series C, as well as Accel, Credo Ventures and Earlybird Venture Capital, among others.

The latest funding round is being led by a public institutional investor.

UiPath develops automated software workflows meant to facilitate the tedious, everyday tasks within business operations. RPA is probably a misnomer. It’s not necessarily a robot in the way we think of it today. It’s more like a highly sophisticated macro recorder or workflow automation tool, letting a computer handle a series of highly repeatable activities in a common workflow, like accounts payable.

For example, the process could start by scanning a check, then use OCR to read the payer and the amount, add that information to an Excel spreadsheet and send an email to a human to confirm it has been done. Humans still have a role, especially in processing exceptions, but it provides a way to bring a level of automation to legacy systems, which might not otherwise benefit from more modern tooling.

The company began raising private capital in 2015 and has since experienced rapid growth of its valuation and annual recurring revenue (ARR). UiPath garnered a $1.1 billion valuation with its Series B in March 2018, more than doubled it with its Series C and is again seeing a 2x increase in value with this latest round. This is a result of its swelling ARR.

The company says it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in less than two years. With its Series C, it counted 1,800 enterprise customers and was adding six new customers a day. Sources tell TechCrunch that UiPath did 180 million in ARR last year and is on track to do $450 million in ARR in 2019.

Blue Prism looks to partners to expand robotic process automation with AI

Categories: Business News

How to develop a brand identity system (like Intercom)

18 hours 46 min ago

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles that we’re writing about branding for startups. It’s part of our latest initiative to find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.]  

When designer Ryan Hubbard joined Intercom, a SaaS unicorn that makes customer engagement tools, he knew that he would be working at the forefront of brand design. The company’s leadership empowered its Intercom Brand Studio to help Intercom stand out in an increasingly crowded field.

“I always look to figure out what is possible or push expectations,” Hubbard says. “There’s a more traditional view on brand design — the idea that people are there to create order and make rules. And that’s valid, but it’s not how I look at it.”

Now a senior designer at Medium, Hubbard has a lot more to say on how startups should approach branding to make a memorable impression.  

The essential principle of branding

“The one thing you should probably have buttoned up prior to investing in brand is some kind of clear point of view about who you are as a company and what makes you different,” says Hubbard.

While the elements of a brand are primarily visual, brand identity is based on foundational values and attitudes that define a company.

That’s why it’s essential to start with your company’s unique story. Those who approach branding as an exercise in defining and expressing their core ideas will find it much easier to create a striking and memorable brand.

Intercom has a compelling origin story about friends in Dublin longing for online customer service to mimic the welcoming atmosphere of the coffee shop where they liked to work. Accordingly, Intercom’s brand focuses on values like approachability, personality, warmth and helpfulness.

Those values translate into the brand’s visual language: a smile-like logo, joyful colors, quirky illustration.

“You could start with, ‘What is the story you’re telling?’ ” says Hubbard. “The stronger and better you can be with your story, that’s a really strong foundation for a good brand.”

How to define your look and feel

The basic elements of visual branding include logo, language, colors, imagery and typography. A strong brand is one that can be distilled down to the most basic elements and still be recognizable. Even a single word written a particular way can convey volumes.

“There’s a lot you can communicate with just typography,” says Hubbard. “The best identity systems I’ve seen — not just in tech — are all brands that are really strong with typography.”

Free-flowing creativity is key in experimenting with these elements. You’ll be holding on tight to your brand identity as you refine your story and identify your values. But it’s important to be open to all kinds of creative expression when you start designing.

“Don’t be too precious with exactly how you want everything to look,” advises Hubbard. “You can’t have a predetermined direction in your mind when you’re going into it.”

Get ideas and images out onto the page quickly. Then identify which draft elements light a spark and develop them. It will soon become obvious which connect most strongly.

How to deploy your branding

Once you have a brand identity system in hand, the next step is deploying it consistently. Your brand must be consistent across touch points, both inside and outside the organization.

But don’t mistake consistency for rigidity. If your brand is built on ideas and not just on a simple collection of visual elements, you can be consistent and creative. Allow your brand to have a life of its own, anchored by its core values and principles.

“It’s really easy to create a brand system that gives you no flexibility for expression, so you wind up putting the same thing over there over and over again,” says Hubbard. “If you don’t give yourself any room to do new exciting things with your brand, you’ll get stagnant and forgotten.”

That’s a death knell for any company, but a strong brand identity system will keep your brand at the forefront of customers’ minds.

Help us find the best startup brand designers and agencies in the world — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

Categories: Business News

Rent the Runway hits a $1 billion valuation

21 hours 17 min ago

Rent the Runway just closed a $125 million round led by Franklin Templeton Investments and Bain Capital Ventures. This round values the company at $1 billion. In total, Rent the Runway has raised $337 million in venture funding.

“Shared, dynamic ownership is a movement that Rent the Runway has pioneered over the last decade and we’re excited to continue to lead the market and innovate our subscription service,” Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman said in a statement.

Late last year, Rent the Runway opened a physical location in San Francisco, marking the company’s fifth standalone brick and mortar space. Rent the Runway, which launched about 10 years ago, has expanded from the sole offering of one-time rentals to now three offerings, including two subscription offerings.

With the funding, Rent the Runway plans to scale its subscription business, broaden its clothing and home decor offerings and open additional fulfillment facilities.

Since its founding, a number of other fashion services have cropped up. The most notable one is StitchFix, which went public in 2017. But what differentiates Rent the Runway from the likes of Stitch Fix is that, “they’re trying to get you to buy stuff,” Rent the Runway COO Maureen Sullivan told me back in September. “You’re still buying things that accumulate in your closet.”

Categories: Business News

Veteran tech journalist Dan Frommer launches his own subscription publication, The New Consumer

23 hours 19 min ago

Dan Frommer has worked at some of the best-known publications in tech and business journalism — he was editor in chief of Recode, an editor at Business Insider and he’s even done some writing and chart-making for TechCrunch. But he’s also started his own things, including the tech news site SplatF and the mobile travel guide startup City Notes.

Now, five months after leaving Recode, Frommer is launching a new publication, The New Consumer — an umbrella term he’s using to describe the changing landscape in e-commerce, online advertising and direct-to-consumer brands.

The goal, he said, is to become the first thing that industry executives read in the morning, whether they’re CMOs at Fortune 500 companies or the founders of direct-to-consumer startups or “anyone who’s in the professional world [trying to figure out] what’s next, how are people using technology differently, how is technology influencing how people spend money differently.”

These are all topics covered by the major tech news sites and general-interest publications, but Frommer said he will focus less on “covering the day-to-day moves at tech companies” and more on “the messy lines between the announcements,” and on what is and isn’t working.

“That thing that this company announced a few weeks ago, is it actually working?” he said. “Are people actually using it, is it successful or not and why? What are we learning from it?”

Dan Frommer

The core product at The New Consumer will be the Executive Briefing, a newsletter that Frommer plans to put out twice a week, and that you’ll need to pay a $200 annual subscription fee to read. He said that this month will be a “paid beta,” where you’ll need to subscribe to read the newsletters, but you’ll get 13 months of access for your money, rather than 12.

Frommer also plans to publish non-paywalled feature articles (like this piece about cookware startup Great Jones), and to organize events such as industry dinners, as well.

He added that he’s hopeful that the subscription model can allow him to build a sustainable operation that he can spend all or most of his time on.

“I’m committed to this for the long term,” he said. “This is a job I’d love to be doing for 10 years, 20 years. But I also recognize that I have to iterate a little bit to meet the market where it is.”

The New Consumer is starting out as a one-man operation, with Frommer citing Ben Thompson’s Stratechery as one of his inspirations to build an “individual news agency” that’s focused on newsletters and supported by subscriptions. At the same time, he’s interested in expanding the team if things go well.

“Consumer spending represents the majority of all money around the world,” he said. “This is something that could eventually stretch to all kinds of verticals, from sports to entertainment to personal finance.”

Substack celebrates its first birthday with 25K paying newsletter subscribers

Categories: Business News

Epic Games CEO says Apex Legends hasn’t made a dent in Fortnite

2019, March 21 - 11:21pm

In the wake of Apex Legends, which has briskly grown to 50 million players, many have wondered whether Fortnite has felt the impact.

But Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told GamesBeat that Apex hasn’t really made a dent. Without being asked about Apex Legends, Sweeney said “an Apex Legends worth” of players have come over to Fortnite.

“We’re very close to hitting 250 million Fortnite players,” said Sweeney. “Since Apex Legends came out, we’ve gained an Apex Legends worth of Fortnite players, which is amazing.”

He went on to say that the only game that noticeably takes Fortnite gamers away from Fortnite is FIFA.

“We hit a Fortnite non-event peak twice after Apex was out,” said Sweeney. “We haven’t seen any visible cut into Fortnite. It’s a funny thing. The only game you can see where its peaks cut into Fortnite playtime is FIFA. It’s another game for everybody, wildly popular around the world.”

On the one hand, Apex only has about one-fifth of the players that Fortnite has. In a world where Netflix sees Fortnite as a greater threat than HBO, the scale of the two games isn’t comparable.

However, Apex is picking up some serious steam. It only took seven days for Apex to hit 25 million users (it took Fortnite 41 days), and one month to hit 50 million users (it took Fortnite more than four months).

As impressive as that is, it’s also to be expected that a game like Apex, a relative latecomer to the Battle Royale genre, would grow faster by reaping the benefits of the entire industry’s years of work and growth. It’s also worth noting that EA paid a pretty penny to successfully launch Apex Legends, with Ninja alone earning $1 million for streaming the game at launch.

“What Apex Legends has done is re-energized a lot of shooter players, people who come in and out of shooters depending on what’s popular,” said Sweeney. “It’s awesome to see other games picking up on battle royale, adding their unique spin to it and advancing the state of the industry.”

Adding a unique spin is exactly what Apex Legends has done. They’ve taken the fundamental building blocks of Battle Royale and the free-to-play model and tweaked them to be, in some ways, better.

Where play is concerned, Apex is a markedly team-oriented game, complete with a beautifully executed non-verbal comms system and a Jumpmaster mechanic to encourage teammates to land and play as a unit. Plus, Apex uses a hero system to give each character their own unique abilities.

This not only makes each fight interesting, but it gives Apex a different way to monetize beyond its recently launched BattlePass. The company just introduced its first new character, which can be unlocked with Apex Coins, the games virtual currency.

Only time will tell if Respawn and EA can build something as sticky as Fortnite, which has truly become a pop culture phenomenon. But there is one clear winner in this epic competition between Fortnite and Apex, and that’s gamers.

Categories: Business News

MoviePass co-founder’s new startup PreShow gives you free movie tickets for watching ads

2019, March 21 - 11:00pm

As founding CEO of MoviePass, Stacy Spikes has already changed the way we think about paying for movie tickets. Now he’s pursuing a new approach — providing a free ticket to people who watch 15 to 20 minutes of ads.

Spikes noted that when it comes to watching movies outside the theater, there are three basic business models — pay-per-view, subscription and ad-supported. MoviePass brought a subscription approach into theaters, but Spikes (who stepped down as MoviePass CEO in 2016) told me he kept wondering, “Well, why can’t you have an ad-supported version that will allow you to go to movies for free?”

It’s hard to imagine digital advertising being worth enough to really pay for that ticket, but Spikes insisted, “You’re paying your way. This is not going to be a loss-leader model. It’s an ad-revenue based business.”

To make that work, he said the new service, called PreShow, is bringing a of couple innovations to the table. First, there’s facial recognition technology that ensures you’re actually present and watching the ad.

Spikes demonstrated this feature for me last week, showing me how his face unlocked the PreShow app. Once he’d chosen the film he wanted to watch, he was presented with a package of video ads that were specifically selected to run with that movie — and any time he looked away from the screen or moved too far away from his phone, the ads would stop playing. (Apparently the sensitivity can be dialed up or down depending on user feedback.)

Spikes also said the ads should tie into the film in some way, whether that’s thematically, or by highlighting products that are also featured in the movie. And they’ll always include an opportunity to further engage with the advertiser.

So although 15 to 20 minutes might sound like a long time to watch ads, it should be more interesting for the viewer than just a random collection of promotional videos. And for the advertisers that are already paying for product placement in a film, this could be a way to reinforce their message with consumers who are actually watching the movie. (Spikes also compared this to the marketing packages that usually play before showtime in theaters — hence the company name.)

By watching one of these 15 to 20-minute packages, you should earn enough points to purchase a ticket at the theater using a virtual credit card provided by PreShow. Technically, those points can be used to buy any movie ticket, but Spikes said you won’t be able to earn more than two tickets at once, “so people don’t stockpile.”

As for whether PreShow is competing with his old company, Spikes said, “I don’t think they’re competitive in any way. If you compare a subscription platform to an ad platform to a pay-per-view platform, they’re different animals.”

Stacy Spikes

The plan is to start testing the service with a select group of users in the next three to six months, and to find those users, PreShow is launching a Kickstarter campaign today. Pledge levels range from $15 to $60, with the amount you pay determining how early you get access, and how many friend invites you receive.

Spikes said he’s less interested in raising money (which is why the campaign’s official goal is only $10,000) and more in attracting film lovers who want to try the app.

“It’s a way to have innovation happen more organically, versus if you just open it up for the general public,” Spikes said.

Categories: Business News

Ludlow Ventures raises $45M for third fund

2019, March 21 - 11:00pm

Ludlow Ventures raised another $45 million to invest in young startups. The Detroit-based venture firm is today announcing it closed its third fund since the firm’s founding in 2010. Founding and managing partner Jonathon Triest tells TechCrunch the firm set out to raise another $45 million and was immediately oversubscribed.

Triest says Ludlow Ventures, with its two other partners of Brett deMarrais and Blake Robbins, is surfacing deals on the coasts before anyone else and is doing so from Detroit. Even though the firm is based in downtown Detroit, its past investments are scattered throughout the States, from Boston to Detroit to Flagstaff to San Francisco. It seems the three partners will go anywhere to fund compelling startups.

Of its last 10 investments, only two were from the Midwest (Bloomscape and Provi), while the rest were from the New York City-area and California. The firm has followed this strategy since its founding and it’s clearly working.

Like its second fund, Ludlow Ventures raised $45 million for this fund and intends to use it to keep investing in founders seeking pre-seed and seed funds. Triest tells us the firm could have raised more cash for this fund but chose to keep it at the same amount as its second fund so as to not have to worry about deploying excess capital. This time around, the partners expect to write larger checks to fewer companies.

“We strongly believe that the currency of seed-stage investing is all about relationships,” Triest told TechCrunch. “We seek to form the most authentic and deep friendships with the people we invest in — not some founder-friendly marketing vernacular, but real meaningful friendships. That gives us great transparency into a company, and sets us up to help the best we can.”

This relationship is on full display in Triest’s take on carpool karaoke. Called Carpool.VC, Triest and deMarrais play host to founders and investors as they drive around Detroit and other cities. It’s a good show. Is it better than James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke? Yes. Most things are.

I first spoke to Triest in 2014. At the time, Ludlow was on its first fund, though Triest had been investing as an angel prior to that. At the time he called Ludlow Ventures a VC without an ego; from everything I can see, that sentiment still properly describes the firm and its three partners.

Categories: Business News

LogRocket nabs $11M Series A to fix web application errors faster

2019, March 21 - 10:00pm

Every time a visitor experiences an issue on your website, it’s going to have an impact on their impression of the company. That’s why companies want to resolve issues in a timely manner. LogRocket, a Cambridge, Mass. startup, announced an $11 Million Series A investment today to give engineering and web development teams access to more precise information they need to fix issues faster.

The round was led by Battery Ventures with participation from seed investor Matrix Partners. When combined with an earlier unannounced $4 million seed round, the company has raised of total of $15 million.

The two founders, Matthew Arbesfeld and Ben Edelstein, have been friends since birth, growing up together in the Boston suburbs. After attending college separately at MIT and Columbia, the two friends both moved to San Francisco where they worked as engineers building front-end applications.

The company idea grew from the founders’ own frustration tracking errors. They found that they would have to do a lot of manual research to find problems, and it was taking too much time. That’s where they got the idea for LogRocket .

“What LogRocket does is we capture a recording in real time of all the user activity so the developer on the other end can replay exactly what went wrong and troubleshoot issues faster,” Arbesfeld explained.

Screenshot: LogRocket

The tool works by capturing HTML and CSS code of troublesome activity of each user and putting them together in a video. When there is an error or problem, the engineer can review the video and watch exactly what the user was doing when he or she encountered an error, allowing them to identify and resolve the problem much more quickly.

Arbesfeld said the company doesn’t actually have to store video because it is capturing code related to problems instead of the entire experience. “We’re looking at frustrating moments of the user, so that we can focus on the problem areas,” he explained.

Customers can access the data in the LogRocket dashboard, or it can be incorporated into help desk software like Zendesk. The company is growing quickly, with 25 employees and 500 customers in just 18 months since inception, including Reddit, Ikea and Bloomberg.

As for the funding, they see this as the start of a long-term journey. “Our goal is to get out to a much wider audience and build a mature sales and marketing organization,” Arbesfeld said. He sees a future with thousands of customers and ambitious revenue goals. “We want to continue to use the data we have to offer more proactive insights into highest impact problems,” he said.

Categories: Business News

Guesty, a tech platform for property managers on Airbnb and other rental sites, raises $35M

2019, March 21 - 7:14pm

The growth of Airbnb — and likewise other platforms like Booking.com, VRBO and HomeAway for listing and renting short-term accommodation in private homes — has spawned an ecosystem of other businesses and services, from those who make money renting their homes, to cleaning companies that make properties “Airbnb-ready,” to those who help design listings that will get more clicks. Airbnb has seen some wild success so far, but it turns out that being a part of that ecosystem can be a lucrative business, too.

Today, Guesty — an Israeli startup that provides a suite of tools aimed at property managers that list on these platforms — is announcing that it has raised $35 million, money that it will use to fuel its growth, after seeing the number of properties managed in some 70 countries through its tech double to over 100,000 in the last year.

The company is not disclosing valuation with this round, which was led by Viola Growth with participation from Vertex Ventures, Journey Ventures, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, La Maison Compagnie d’Investissement, TLV Partners and Magma Ventures. But Amiad Soto, the CEO and co-founder, noted that it too has “more than doubled” since its last funding almost a year ago. PitchBook notes that round was around $90 million post-money, so this would put the current valuation at at least $180 million, likely more.

The idea for Guesty came about like many of the best startup ideas do: out of a personal need. In 2013, twin brothers Amiad and Koby were renting out their own apartments on Airbnb, and found themselves spending a lot of time doing the work needed to list and manage those properties.

Their first stab at a business was an all-in-one service to help hosts get their properties ready and subsequently tidied up for listings. “I was cleaning apartments, Koby was doing the business development, and my girlfriend was doing the laundry,” Soto told me in an interview. They quickly realised that this was never going to scale, “and also that our competitive advantage was building software. We are computer geeks.”

So the company quickly pivoted to building a platform that could provide all the tools that property managers — who work with individual property hosts/owners and had started emerging as key players as Airbnb itself scaled out — needed to juggle multiple listings. (That girlfriend is now his wife, so seems like they may have pivoted just in time.)

Guesty started as SuperHost and, like Airbnb, went through the Y Combinator accelerator. It eventually rebranded to Guesty, and it now provides tools in a dozen areas that touch property managers and the job they do: Channel Manager (“channel” being the platform where the property is being listed), Multi-Calendar, Unified Inbox, Automation Tools, Mobile Management App, Branded Website Task Management, Reporting Tools, Owners Portal, Payment Processing, Analytics, Open API, 24/7 Guest Communication.

The plan is to complement that in coming years with more “smart” tools: the company is introducing AI and machine learning elements that will help it suggest more services to users, and for managers to use to do their jobs better.

(One example of how this might work: If you have a property manager in New York City, and the city regulator changes something in the tax code for properties in Brooklyn, this will now be suggested through to managers whose properties are affected, and this can help with pricing modeling down the line if the manager, say, wanted to keep a specific margin on rentals.)

Perhaps because short-term property renting is a relatively new area of the accommodation and residential market, it’s fairly fragmented, and so Guesty is providing a clear move to consolidate and simplify some of that work.

“There are about 700 different services and other things that go into short-term property rentals,” Soto noted when I asked him about this. “It would take me hours to go through it all with you.”

And indeed, the market itself is much bigger than what Guesty is currently working with. Soto estimates there are around 7 million properties now collectively getting listed on these short-term letting platforms, speaking to the opportunity ahead.

Guesty very much got its start with Airbnb, and that helped it not only establish what property managers needed, but also to forge a close relationship with Airbnb at a time when it wasn’t yet building many bridges to third-party services. Soto said Guesty built its own private API to use with Airbnb, and subsequently helped inform how Airbnb eventually built an API that others could use.

It’s still a trusted partner in that regard. Now that Airbnb is moving into multi-dwelling arrangements — that is, rooms in hotels (which will now expand with its HotelTonight acquisition), plus multiple apartments in single buildings for big groups that might want to secure bookings at several places at once — it will very soon be launching a tool for these kinds of listings. Guesty has helped in the building of that, too.

Still, the opportunity for short-term lettings is bigger than Airbnb itself these days. Booking.com and its many subsidiary businesses have made a big move into this area, as have many other companies, and Guesty now handles bookings on a number of “channels.”

Soto said on average, the number of bookings on its platform that are listing on Airbnb is 60 percent, with some vacation spots seeing the percentage much lower, and some urban markets seeing a much higher penetration.

Equally, there are a ton of companies that have been building technology to ease the process of listing and managing properties on all these platforms, including Vacasa, Turnkey, Airsorted, Kigo and many more.

This might be one of those cases where being an early mover in identifying a market opportunity has worked in a startup’s favor. Guesty’s strong work with Airbnb has helped the startup build stronger ties with those companies that hope to compete with it and give Airbnb a run for its money: Booking.com, Soto notes, is a premier partner these days.

“Guesty was the first to recognize the potential of the property management market and has quickly become a category leader with its vertical-oriented, end-to-end approach,” said Natalie Refuah, partner at Viola Growth, in a statement.

“Technology and AI continue to disrupt the innovation stack, acting as a catalyst to the digitization of ‘traditional’ areas such as real estate and travel, Refuah added. “Guesty is leading the charge, fostering a more seamless experience for property managers while providing clear advantages to customers and ultimately, their guests. We believe that with its experienced and elite executive team, Guesty is fully equipped to modernize and revolutionize the property management ecosystem.” Refuah is also joining Guesty’s board of directors.

Categories: Business News

The Plum Guide raises $18.5M to expand its ‘vacation homes for the elite’ service

2019, March 21 - 3:00pm

Fancy knowing how “the other half” lives? Well, part of it is down to tools that have been built specifically for them. Michelin Guide will tell you about the best restaurants on the planet. Similarly, the The Plum Guide bills itself as the “Michelin Guide for Homes” as it picks from more than 25 different sites the world’s best vacation rentals, holiday homes, short-term lets and Airbnbs, then puts them into one site. It does this using a combination of data and human curation.

It has now raised £14 million ($18.5 million) from some of Europe’s leading early-stage investors to support its rollout to 12 new cities this year.

The Plum Guide differs from mass-market booking platforms by selecting only the top 1 percent of properties in any city to feature on its site. By the end of 2019, that will mean almost 12,000 verified homes in the most sought-after cities for holiday rentals.

The latest funding round is led by Talis Capital, with participation from Latitude and Hearst Ventures, as well as Octopus Ventures — which led the Series A funding round.

It needs all this money because as well as using a data approach, it also sends actual human beings to vet every property in person and apply a “scientific Plum Guide test,” which covers 150 points, from proximity to cafes and transport, to speed of Wi-Fi.

Since launching in London in 2015, the company claims to have achieved year-on-year growth of three times revenues, for three years running, adding homes in five new cities to the platform and seeing repeat bookings jump 27 percent after it opened in Paris, its second location after London. It says customer referrals drive a quarter of all bookings.

In a statement, Doron Meyassed, founder and CEO, said: “We are on a mission to build a marketplace of the world’s most beautiful holiday homes. This isn’t some vague qualitative ambition. We mean it. We are taking a systematic and obsessive approach to vetting every single home on the planet and accepting only the top 1%.”

“We are clearly targeting a highly discerning group of affluent professionals that live in global megacities, love to travel and value great design, quality and locations,” says Meyassed. “Previously they have stayed away from the open marketplace booking platforms, which they consider too risky compared with the reassurance that a hotel provides.”

In other words, the startup is eating away at the luxury hotel market.

Matus Maar, managing partner and co-founder at Talis Capital, said: “The consumer market has entered into an age of curation where data, ratings and reviews need to be carved into useful information to support buying decisions. We see huge value in businesses and teams that create a competitive advantage by being strategically data driven.”

George Henry, partner at LocalGlobe, commented: “Travel and accommodation continues to be a fast-growing market but the supply has become incredibly fragmented, especially in the p2p market. As consumer travel has always suffered from a very low NPS, we believe that a differentiated brand offering a more hands-on service powered by expert curation and data is going to continue to deliver a very unique experience.”

The Plum Guide is in direct competition with the big home-booking platforms (Airbnb, Booking.com, Home Away etc.), but claims it competes by using its algorithm to build a database of all the homes available in the city, then systematically putting it through five rounds of filtration to come up with the top homes. It also competes by “matchmaking” people with the best homes.

Categories: Business News

Morphin instantly Deepfakes your face into GIFs

2019, March 21 - 5:43am

Want to star in your favorite memes and movie scenes? Upload a selfie to Morphin, choose your favorite GIF and your face is grafted in to create a personalized copy you can share anywhere. Become Tony Stark as he suits up like Iron Man. Drop the mic like Obama, dance like Drake or slap your mug on Fortnite characters.

Now after three years in stealth developing image-mapping technology, Morphin is ready to launch its put-you-in-a-GIF maker. While it might look like just a toy, investors see real business potential. Morphin raised $1 million last summer from Betaworks, the incubator that spawned Giphy, plus Founders Fund, Precursor, Shrug Capital and Boost.vc’s accelerator.

Elon Musk as Iron Man

“We believe in the future you’ll be able to be the main character in your own film. Imagine a super hero movie where you’re the main protagonist?,” co-founder Loic Ledoux asks. “That sounded like science fiction a few years ago and now with AI and computer vision we definitely see our tech going there.”

Ledoux also wants to reclaim faceswaps as something fun rather than a weapon for misinformation. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision. But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self expressions and storytelling.” And since Morphin re-generates the whole clip from scratch with CGI animation, they look right at a glance, but clearly aren’t manipulated copies of the original video designed to fool anyone.

Kanye performs magic

Morphin started three years ago with the intention to build personalized avatars for games and VR so you could be a FIFA soccer player or Skyrim knight. Ledoux had started a 3D printing company to explore opportunities in scanning and modeling when he saw a chance to connect your real and virtual faces. He teamed up with his co-founder Nicholas Heriveaux, who’d spent 13 years working on 3D tech while modding games like Grand Theft Auto to insert his avatar and assets.

What they quickly recognized was that “People were just reacting to themselves on the screen,” ignoring the gameplay, Ledoux recalls. “Being able to see yourself as a hero was the underlying sentiment, so we focused on video completely.” Recognizable GIFs became its preferred medium, as they combine familiarity and the ability to convey complex emotions with a template that’s easy to personalize so they stand out.

Morphin’s tech no longer requires 3D scanning hardware and it works with just a regular selfie. You just snap a headshot, select a GIF from its iOS or Android app’s library and a few seconds later you have a CGI version of yourself in the scene (with no watermark) that you can export and post. “We wanted it to be super straightforward because we wanted people to relate to the content,” Ledoux notes. Over 1 million scenes have been created by 50,000 beta users, and each time a celebrity shares one of the GIFs Morphin has been sending them for marketing, scores of their followers demand to know which app they were using.

Morphin’s nine-person French team will have to keep innovating to stay ahead of avatar-making competitors like the ubiquitous Snapchat Bitmoji, Genies, Moji Edit and Mirror AI. Facebook, Microsoft and Google all have launched or are building their own avatar creators. But these typically live as 2D stickers or 3D AR animations you overlay on the real world. By using GIFs as a canvas, Morphin takes the pressure off your visage looking perfect and instead emphasizes the message you’re trying to get across.

The challenge will be for Morphin to become a consistent part of people’s communication stack. It’s easy to imagine playing with it and posting a few GIFs. But iconic new GIFs don’t emerge each day and without a social network to stay for, Morphin is at risk of becoming merely a forgotten tool. The app might need TikTok-style challenges like submitting the best personalized GIF to match a prompt or a GIF browsing feed to keep people coming back.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

Morphin isn’t racing to monetize yet, but sees a chance to sell longer premium video scenes à la carte or as an unlimited subscription. Ledoux eventually hopes to unlock new forms of storytelling beyond existing GIFs. There’s also a chance for Morphin to highlight sponsored clips from upcoming movies or TV shows. “In the long-term we’re more interested in the analogy of Lil Miquela and how people are interacting with digital characters,” Ledoux explains, citing a virtual pop star whose developer Brud recently raised at a $125 million valuation.

One of the most exciting things about Morphin is that it will allow people to take the spotlight no matter how they look. Often times certain races, genders and looks are unfairly excluded from starring in today’s most popular media. But Morphin could let the underrepresented take their rightful place as stars of the screen.

Your faithful author Josh Constine dropping the mic like Obama

Categories: Business News

Skymind raises $11.5M to bring deep learning to more enterprises

2019, March 21 - 2:26am

Skymind, a Y Combinator-incubated AI platform that aims to make deep learning more accessible to enterprises, today announced that it has raised an $11.5 million Series A round led by TransLink Capital, with participation from ServiceNow, Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures, UpHonest Capital and GovTech Fund. Early investors Y Combinator, Tencent, Mandra Capital, Hemi Ventures, and GMO Ventures, also joined the round/ With this, the company has now raised a total of $17.9 million in funding.

The inclusion of TransLink Capital gives a hint as to how the company is planning to use the funding. One of TransLink’s specialties is helping entrepreneurs develop customers in Asia. Skymind believes that it has a major opportunity in that market, so having TransLink lead this round makes a lot of sense. Skymind also plans to use the round to build out its team in North America and fuel customer acquisition there.

“TransLink is the perfect lead for this round, because they know how to make connections between North America and Asia,” Skymind CEO Chris Nicholson told me. “That’s where the most growth is globally, and there are a lot of potential synergies. We’re also really excited to have strategic investors like ServiceNow and Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures backing us for the first time. We’re already collaborating with ServiceNow, and Skymind software will be part of some powerful new technologies they roll out.”

It’s no secret that enterprises know that they have to adapt AI in some form but are struggling with figuring out how to do so. Skymind’s tools, including its core SKIL framework, allow data scientists to create workflows that take them from ingesting the data to cleaning it up, training their models and putting them into production. The promise here is that Skymind’s tools eliminate the gap that often exists between the data scientists and IT.

“The two big opportunities with AI are better customer experiences and more efficiency, and both are based on making smarter decisions about data, which is what AI does,” said Nicholson. “The main types of data that matter to enterprises are text and time series data (think web logs or payments). So we see a lot of demand for natural-language processing and for predictions around streams of data, like logs.”

Current Skymind customers include the likes of ServiceNow and telco company Orange, while some of its technology partners that integrate its services into their portfolio include Cisco and SoftBank .

It’s worth noting that Skymind is also the company behind Deeplearning4j, one of the most popular open-source AI tools for Java. The company is also a major contributor to the Python-based Keras deep learning framework.

Skymind raises $3M to bring its Java deep-learning library to the masses

Categories: Business News

Music’s next big startup Splice raises $57.5M to sell samples

2019, March 21 - 12:38am

Tech has a bad reputation for pulling money out of musicians’ pockets, but Splice is changing that. The audio sample marketplace and music production collaboration tool has now paid out $15 million to artists since 2013, doubling in the last year. Splice lets musicians sell their sounds for royalty-free use, and songs by Eminem, Ariana Grande and Marshmello that were powered by those samples have topped the charts. Splice charges $7.99 per month for unlimited access to its array of 3 million synthesizers, drum hits, vocal flares and other sounds. Despite being designed for serious musicians, Splice’s suite of tools now has 2.5 million monthly users, up from 1.5 million a year ago.

Steve Martocci

“Music is going through a beautiful moment,” says Steve Martocci, Splice’s co-founder and CEO who formerly built and sold GroupMe. “The tailwinds from the success of streaming are great. As more people realize how big the market it, how much people want to create music, there’s a huge opportunity here.”

Now Union Square Ventures and True Ventures are seizing on that opportunity, co-leading a $57.5 million Series C for Splice. “It’s all about scale,” Martocci tells me. “We’re investing in ourselves. Continuing to build new products. Continuing to work with bigger artists. We think there’s so much about the creative process and ecosystem of musicians that needs to be fixed. We want to diversify the content available so all artists in all genres feel like we have what they need.”

The round, which includes DFJ Growth, Flybridge, Lerer Hippeau, Liontree, Founders Circle Capital and Matt Pincus, brings Splice to $104.5 million in total funding. Splice wouldn’t disclose the valuation, but using the industry standard of selling 20 percent equity for a Series C, Splice could be valued in the ballpark of $285 million. That would make it one of the top music startups that isn’t selling streaming, tickets or hardware. Its success has also begun to draw competition from companies like Native Instruments, which launched its Sounds.com marketplace last year.

Splice’s subscription revenue is pooled and then doled out to artists based on whose samples got the most downloads. Creators range from bedroom tinkerers to Drake’s Grammy-winning producer Boi-1da. Martocci confirms that artists receive the majority of Splice’s sample marketplace revenue, saying, “they’re very favorable deals.” That’s especially great for the music production industry, because a lot of Splice’s sample creators aren’t celebrity DJs; Martocci says they’re audio engineers and other “people behind the scenes getting an opportunity to step into the light with an amazing revenue opportunity, but also an opportunity to be seen for their creative contributions.”

Splice began with a eureka moment at a concert. A friend asked Martocci why there weren’t great tools for producing music like there are for building software like GroupMe. After eventually leaving his chat app that Skype acquired, Martocci connected with Splice co-founder Matt Aimonetti and discovered he’d been an audio engineer for half of his life. They saw a chance to build a GitHub for music, with version control and admin permissions for making saving and collaborating on productions simple. By 2015 Splice had launched its Sounds subscription library, and the next year began selling rent-to-own software synthesizers to make avoiding piracy affordable for creators.

Fast-forward and Martocci tells me prioritization across Splice’s different product lines will be one of its big challenges. Luckily, he has a new crew of lieutenants to help. Former product lead for Apple Music and Beats by Dre VP Ryan Walsh has joined as chief product officer because, Martocci says, “he felt like his mission in music was unfinished.” Former chief financial officer of Marvel Entertainment Chris Acquaviva is now Splice’s CFO, who offers deep licensing expertise. And bringing the creator community vibe, MakerBot’s former CHRO, Kavita Vora, has become Splice’s chief people officer.

In an era when tech public image has been tested by non-stop scandals from the industry giants, Splice is pulling in ace talent that want to work on something unequivocally positive. Martocci tells me parents tell him that their kids spend all their time playing Fortnite and making music on Splice, but the latter is screen time they’re happy to encourage.

Categories: Business News

Skedulo raises $28M for its mobile workforce management service

2019, March 21 - 12:00am

Skedulo, a service that helps businesses manage their mobile employees, today announced that it has raised a $28 million Series B funding round led by M12, Microsoft’s venture fund. Existing investors Blackbird and Castanoa Ventures also participated in this round.

The company’s service offers businesses all the necessary tools to manage their mobile employees, including their schedules. A lot of small businesses still use basic spreadsheets and email to do this, but that’s obviously not the most efficient way to match the right employee to the right job, for example.

“Workforce management has traditionally been focused on employees that are sitting at a desk for the majority of their day,” Skedulo CEO and co-founder Matt Fairhurst told me. “The overwhelming majority — 80 percent — of workers will be deskless by 2020 and so far, there has been no one that has addressed the needs of this growing population at scale. We’re excited to help enterprises confront these challenges head-on so they can compete and lean into rapidly changing customer and employee expectations.”

At the core of Skedulo, which offers both a mobile app and web-based interface, is the company’s so-called “Mastermind” engine that helps businesses automatically match the right employee to a job based on the priorities the company has specified. The company plans to use the new funding to enhance this tool through new machine learning capabilities. Skedulo will also soon offer new analytics tools and integrations with third-party services like HR and financial management tools, as well as payroll systems.

The company also plans to use the new funding to double its headcount, which includes hiring at least 60 new employees in its Australian offices in Brisbane and Sydney.

As part of this round, Priya Saiprasad, principal of M12, will join Skedulo’s board of directors. “We found a strong sense of aligned purpose with Priya Saiprasad and the team at M12 — and their desire to invest in companies that help reduce cycles in a person’s working day,” Fairhurst said. “Fundamentally, Skedulo is a productivity company. We help companies, the back-office and mobile workforce, reduce the number of cycles it takes to get work done. This gives them time back to focus on the work that matters most.”

Categories: Business News

Movius raises $45M for its business communications service

2019, March 20 - 10:00pm

Atlanta-based Movius, a company that allows companies to assign a separate business number for voice calls and texting to any phone, today announced that it has raised a $45 million Series D round led by JPMorgan Chase, with participation from existing investors PointGuard Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Anschutz Investment company. With this, the company has now raised a total of $100 million.

In addition to the new funding, Movius also today announced that it has brought on former Adobe and Sun executive John Loiacono as its new CEO. Loiacono was also the founding CEO of network analytics startup Jolata.

“The Movius opportunity is pervasive. Almost every company on planet Earth is mobilizing their workforce but are challenged to find a way to securely interact with their customers and constituents using all the preferred communication vehicles – be that voice, SMS or any other channel they use in their daily lives,” said Loiacono. “I’m thrilled because I’m joining a team that features highly passionate and proven innovators who are maniacally focused on delivering this very solution. I look forward to leading this next chapter of growth for the company.”

Sanjay Jain, the chief strategy officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Larry Feinsmith, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Technology Innovation, Strategy & Partnerships office, are joining the company’s board.

Movius currently counts more than 1,400 businesses as its customers, and its carrier partners include Sprint, Telstra and Telefonica. What’s important to note is that Movius is more than a basic VoIP app on your phone. What the company promises is a carrier-grade network that allows businesses to assign a second number to their employees’ phones. That way, the employer remains in charge, even as employees bring their own devices to work.

Categories: Business News

Iterable lands $50M Series C investment to expand cross-channel marketing platform

2019, March 20 - 9:33pm

Iterable, a startup that helps companies build complex marketing campaigns across channels to reduce churn and increase usage, announced a $50 million Series C round today.

Investors include Blue Cloud Ventures, CRV, Harmony Partners, Index Ventures and Stereo Capital. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $80 million.

Company co-founder and CEO Justin Zhu says the Iterable platform captures a constant stream of data from consumers from a variety of sources to give marketers the ability to build segments or event triggers based on consumer behavior.

“Customers are streaming real-time updates of who they are, where they’re purchasing, what they’re doing in the app, what they’re up to on the website, and we’re taking all that data and making it available in real time,” Zhu explained.

Photo: Iterable

This could allow marketers to contact people based on behaviors, such as a segment of people who haven’t opened the app in two weeks. Marketers also can use event triggers to automate contact. In the classic scenario of the abandoned shopping cart, a marketer could set a trigger to send an email or an SMS message two hours after the cart was abandoned to prompt the customer to come back.

As a platform, Iterable is offering a set of tools in a single solution that marketers would have had to buy separately. “In the past, what you typically would do is cobble together a variety of point solutions. You may buy a product just for mobile and buy one just for email. You may have engineers cobble together custom code to handle the lifecycle management. With Iterable, that can be all done in one place, and it can be done by a marketer, which would be the focus for their job,” Zhu said.

He said the company is streaming customer data from the various data sources directly to the marketers, so there is no data sharing involved with third parties. “This is a first-party data from our own customers,” he said.

The company is reporting triple-digit year-over-year growth, although it would not share specific revenue numbers. Iterable has 300 customers, including Box, DoorDash and Zillow. It currently has 200 employees spread across three locations, including the company headquarters in San Francisco and offices in Denver and New York City.

Zhu says the company’s vision is to be a global company, and with this funding it plans to expand into Europe and Asia as it continues to build the company.

Categories: Business News

Erectile pharmacy app Ro launches telehealth service for women

2019, March 20 - 9:00pm

Six months ago, Roman, the cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction, dropped the ‘man’ to become ‘Ro.’ At the same time, the company raised a monstrous Series A funding round of $88 million and unveiled Zero, a product meant to help people quit smoking, a root cause of ED.

Now, Ro is addressing a different demographic. Today, it announces ‘Rory,’ a line of products for menopausal women. In total, Rory offers six products treating four conditions, with prices starting at $13 per month. Prescription medication and supplements for hot flashes, over-the-counter treatments for insomnia, prescription vaginal estrogen cream and an all-natural water-based lubricant for vaginal dryness, and Latisse, which helps grow eyelashes, are available for purchase and direct-to-consumer delivery.

All of these conditions, including hair loss and insomnia, can be associated with menopause, or the process, typically at midlife, in which a woman stops menstruating.

To use Rory, which launches in 47 states today, women must complete an online doctor’s visit before they can be prescribed a personalized treatment plan. Rory is also launching a Facebook group and an online community, called Roar, for menopausal women to provide support to one another and to discuss topics from sex positions that help with vaginal dryness to how to sleep better at night.

“We aren’t used to talking about issues like vaginal dryness,” Rory co-founder Rachel Blank told TechCrunch. “Right now, we have [millions] of women experiencing menopause. They are walking around and frankly, their vagina hurts and they are uncomfortable. Really, what we are building at Rory is a lot of the educational content around this to let women know they have choices and they can take control during this phase of life where they feel like their bodies are rebelling against them.”

Rory’s leadership team. From left to right: Melynda Barnes, Rachel Blank and Ro co-founder and CEO Zachariah Reitano.

Unsurprisingly, the Ro founders are all male. In order to launch Rory, the trio — Rob Schutz, Saman Rahmanian and Zachariah Reitano — had to bring on talent knowledgeable of women’s health. Rachel Blank, a former investor at General Catalyst, an investor in Ro, seemed like a natural choice. Blank joined Ro full-time in the fall after learning about the company’s long-term vision to create personalize healthcare for everyone. General Catalyst, for its part, had been an investor in Ro since its August 2017 seed round.

“I was watching their pitch and having had that experience myself and listening to the founders of Ro talk about how much of a difference this platform could make in the lives of men with stigmatized conditions, it really resonated with me that this could really be a powerful tool for women as well,” Blank said.

Blank herself was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can cause the development of a number of cysts in the ovaries, at 21-years-old. She is joined by Rory clinical director Melynda Barnes, a surgeon and otolaryngologist, and Ro co-founder and chief executive officer Zachariah Reitano, who oversees Ro’s growing portfolio of spinout brands.

Ro has raised just over $90 million in venture capital funding to date, hitting a valuation of $154 million with its Series A, according to PitchBook. Its investors include Initialized Capital, Box Group and Slow Ventures, as well as angels like Y Combinator partner Aaron Harris, Benchmark’s Scott Belsky and the chief executives of Casper, Code Academy and Pill Pack.

Roman is a cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction

 

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