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Volta Trucks raises €37 million to bring electric delivery trucks to the streets of London and Paris

2021, September 16 - 6:00pm

Trucking tends to be associated with highways, but it’s not uncommon to find large delivery vehicles trundling down the tightly packed streets of the world’s most populated cities. According to EV startup Volta Trucks, that’s far from ideal: in London, large commercial vehicles cause around 26% of pedestrian fatalities and around 80% of cyclist fatalities, and account for an outsized portion of carbon emissions.

Volta’s solution is to electrify and redesign the large cargo vehicle — called Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) in Europe — for middle- and last-mile delivery in urban centers. “The traditional design of trucks and city centers really don’t work together, but you can’t just ban trucks from city centers,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Volta Trucks has raised a €37 million ($44 million) funding round to accelerate its plans, starting with a fleet of pilot vehicles in London and Paris.

The debut of electric pickups signals a new EV era

The round was led by New York-based Luxor Capital Group and returning investor Byggmästare Anders J Ahlström Holding of Stockholm. New investors included U.S. electric truck and battery manufacturer Proterra and supply chain management company Agility.

The idea for the company came to Volta co-founder and Swedish serial entrepreneur Carl-Magnus Norden when Elon Musk revealed the Tesla Model 3. Norden realized that there was very little equivalent movement to electrify the world of commercial vehicles, despite the fact that they produce a large share of carbon emissions.

Four years later, Volta (not to be confused with Volta Charging, the European EV charging station company) has come up with a truck that gives the driver a 220-degree view, similar to what one might see on a city bus. The driver’s seat is also in the center of the cab. On the inside of the 16-ton truck, called Volta Zero, will sit a single unit containing an electric motor, transmission and rear axle supplied by OEM supplier Meritor. This unit, called an eAxle, leaves more space between the chassis rails for the battery.

Those batteries will have a 95- to 120-mile range and will be designed by Proterra, a supplier (and now investor) that Volta says will be able to furnish batteries into the longer term and at higher production levels. Volta is imagining that it will produce up to 5,000 trucks by the end of 2023, 14,000 to 15,000 by 2024, and 27,000 trucks by 2025.

Volta plans to also offer a “truck as a service” model, which is a leasing agreement including insurance, charging infrastructure, service repair and maintenance. While Volta also plans on selling trucks outright, the spokesperson said the company anticipates the leasing model will make up 50%, and as high as 80%, of its business.

Volta is gearing up to launch a fleet of six R&D vehicles in London and Paris at the beginning of the year. These trucks will be used for internal validation. The company plans to start about a 33-vehicle pilot program with customers in two major European cities by the middle of next year.

The plan is that this will allow Volta to start full-scale production by the end of 2022. All of the vehicles, with the exception of the six beta trucks, will be manufactured by Steyr Automotive in Austria. The two announced the manufacturing agreement last week.

Volta says it has letters of intent for 2,500 trucks. The goal is to convert these to binding deposit-led orders as Volta moves closer to series production. This round now brings its total funding to date to around €60 million ($71 million).

Categories: Business News

Gogoro will go public on Nasdaq after $2.35B SPAC deal

2021, September 16 - 5:55pm

Gogoro is going public. The company, which is best known for its electric Smartscooters and swappable battery infrastructure, announced today it will list on Nasdaq through a merger with Poema Global, a SPAC affiliated with Princeville Capital. The deal sets Gogoro’s enterprise valuation at $2.35 billion and is targeted to close in the first quarter of 2022. The combined company will be known as Gogoro Inc and trade under the symbol GGR.

Assuming no redemptions, Gogoro anticipates making $550 million in proceeds, including an oversubscribed PIPE (private investment in public equity) of over $250 million and $345 million held in trust by Poema Global. Investors in the PIPE include strategic partners like Hon Hai (Foxconn) Technology Group and GoTo, the Indonesian tech giant created through the merger of Gojek and Tokopedia, and new and existing investors like Generation Investment Management, Taiwan’s National Development Fund, Temasek and Dr. Samuel Yin of Ruentex Group, Gogoro’s founding investor.

The capital will be used on Gogoro’s expansion in China, India and Southeast Asia and further development of its tech ecosystem.

Founded ten years ago in Taiwan, Gogoro’s technology includes smart swappable batteries and their charging infrastructure and cloud software that monitors the condition and performance of vehicles and batteries. Apart from its own brands, including Smartscooters and Eeyo electric bikes, Gogoro also makes its platform available through its Powered by Gogoro Network (PBGN) program, which enables partners to create vehicles that use Gogoro’s batteries and swapping stations.

Gogoro’s SPAC deal comes a few months after it announced major partnerships in China and India. In China, it is working with Yadea and DCJ to build a battery-swapping network, and in India, Hero MotoCorp, one of the world’s largest two-wheel vehicle makers, will launch scooters based on Gogoro’s tech. It also has deals with manufacturers like Yamaha, Suzuki, AeonMotor, PGO and CMC eMOVING.

Gogoro strikes deal with Yadea and DCJ to build a battery-swapping network in China

With these partnerships in place, “we really now need to take our company to the next level,” founder and chief executive officer Horace Luke told TechCrunch. Gogoro decided to go the SPAC route because “you can talk a lot deeper about what the business opportunity is, what the structure is, what the partnerships are, so you can properly value a company rather than a quick roadshow. Given our business plans, it gives us a great opportunity to focus on the expansion,” he said.

One of the reasons Gogoro decided to work with Poema is because “their thesis is quite aligned with ours,” said Bruce Aitken, Gogoro’s chief financial officer. “They have, for example, a sustainability fund, so our passion for green and sustainability merges well with that.”

Gogoro says that in less than five years, it has accumulated more than $1 billion in revenue and more than 400,000 subscribers for its battery swapping infrastructure. The company will launch its China pilot program in Hangzhou in the fourth-quarter of this year, followed by about six more cities next year. In India, Hero MotoCorp is currently developing its first Gogoro-powered vehicle and will begin deploying its battery-swapping infrastructure in New Delhi in 2022.

Gogoro partners with India’s Hero MotoCorp, one of the world’s largest two-wheel vehicle makers

“We see the demand in China as a lot bigger than we first anticipated, so that’s all good news for us, and that’s one of the fundamental reasons why we need to go public because we need to raise the capital and resources needed for us to actually contribute in a big way to these markets,” said Luke.

When asked if Gogoro is planning to strike a similar partnership with GoTo to expand into Southeast Asia, Luke said the “important thing is to recognize that Southeast Asia is the third-largest market outside of China and India for two-wheelers. Gogoro has always had the vision to go after these big markets. GoTo, being a great success in Indonesia, their investment in Gogoro will start conversations, but there isn’t anything to announce at this point other than that they’re joining the PIPE.”

In a press statement, Poema Global CEO Homer Sun said, “We believe the technology differentiation Gogoro has developed in combination with the world-class partnerships it has forged will drive significant growth opportunities in the two largest two-wheeler markets in the world. We are committed with working alongside Gogoro’s outstanding management team to support its geographic expansion plans and its transition to a Nasdaq-listed company.”

Almost everything you need to know about SPACs

 

Categories: Business News

Liveblocks is an API that lets you add real-time collaboration to your product

2021, September 16 - 4:01pm

Meet Liveblocks, a startup that has been working on a set of APIs so that it’s easier to build a collaborative product. Essentially, it lets you create multiplayer experiences on the web or in your app.

The company started with a live presence state API. If you integrate this API in your product, it means that you can show when somebody joins a page, a project or a document by displaying an avatar in a corner. You can also share the position of everyone’s cursor, text selection or content selection in real time.

Liveblocks is currently testing in private beta a live storage API. This is going to be a key feature as it is going to let multiple people view and edit the same data in real-time. For example, you can use it to develop a Google Docs competitor or if you want to add a whiteboard tool to your service.

The service works across multiple browsers and devices. Behind the scenes, the company uses a WebSocket connection for real-time communication. Pricing depends on the number of simultaneous connections that you expect around the same room, document, experience.

“Guillaume Salles and I decided to work together on a browser-based collaborative presentation/video tool. After months of iteration, we realized that we were spending a majority of our time figuring out how to handle the real‑time collaboration aspect of things, instead of focusing on the core mechanics of the tool,” co-founder and CEO Steven Fabre told me.

“We tried existing solutions, but none really stacked up for what we were trying to do so we decided to build our own. That's when it clicked and we decided to drop the presentation/video tool to ‘productify’ the APIs we had built for ourselves so any team could use them to build performant real-time collaborative products,” he added.

The company raised a $1.4 million pre-seed round during the summer. Investors include Boldstart, Seedcamp, Meta fund, Logic & Rhythm, Ian Storm Taylor, Max Stoiber, Moritz Plassnig, Badrul Farooqi and Anthony DiMare.

Right now, the Liveblocks team is just the two founders. With this funding round, the company plans to hire some engineers and launch its live storage API.

Liveblocks’ main advantage is that it’s a high-level API. Ably, a startup I’ve covered recently, focuses more on the low-level aspect of the problem. A React front-end developer can read the documentation and integrate Liveblocks in its product. You don’t have to understand how the infrastructure layer actually works to get started.

Ably raises $70 million for its developer platform that enables realtime features

Categories: Business News

Skello raises $47.3 million for its employee scheduling tool

2021, September 16 - 2:00pm

French startup Skello has raised a $47.3 million funding round (€40 million). The company has been working on a software-as-a-service tool that lets you manage the work schedule of your company. What makes it special is that Skello automatically takes into account local labor laws and collective agreements.

Partech is leading today’s funding round. Existing investors XAnge and Aglaé Ventures are also participating. The startup had previously raised a €300,000 seed round and a €6 million Series A round in 2018.

Skello works with companies across many industries, such as retail, hospitality, pharmacies, bakeries, gyms, escape games and more. And many of them were simply using Microsoft Excel to manage their schedule.

By using Skello, you get an online service that works for both managers and employees. On the manager side, you can view who is working and when. You can assign employees to fill some gaps.

For employees, they can also connect to the platform to see their own schedule. Employees can also say when they are unavailable and request time off. And when something unexpected comes up, employees can trade shifts.

“We really want to put employees at the center of the product,” co-founder and CEO Quitterie Mathelin-Moreaux told me. “They have a mobile app and the idea is to make the work schedule as collaborative as possible in order to allocate resources as efficiently as possible and increase team retention.”

At every step of the scheduling process, Skello manages legal requirements. For instance, Skello remembers mandatory weekly rest periods. The platform knows that your employees can’t work across a long time range. And Skello can count overtime hours, holiday hours, Sunday shifts, etc.

When you’re approaching the end of the month, Skello can generate a report with everyone’s timesheet. You can integrate Skello directly with your payroll tool to make this process a bit less tedious as well.

Skello is currently used across 7,000 points of sale. Now, the company wants to expand to more European countries and increase the size of the team from 150 employees to 300 employees by 2022.

Categories: Business News

Online events platform Delegate Connect gets $10M AUD led by AirTree

2021, September 16 - 1:35pm

Delegate Connect founders Jordan Walsh and Jacob Thomas

Delegate Connect is the latest virtual/hybrid events platform to land funding. The Melbourne-based startup announced today it has raised $10 million AUD (about $7.3 million USD) in seed funding led by AirTree Ventures, which wrote Delegate Connect the biggest seed check in the fund’s history so far. Other participants included Skip Capital, TEN13 and Australian startup founders like LinkTree’s Alex Zaccaria and Go1’s Andrew Barnes.

The capital will be used to build Delegate Connect’s teams in Melbourne, London and Norway, which enable it to handle events around the world, increasing headcount from 45 to more than 100 by December. It also plans to open a United States-based office soon.

Founded in 2017 and bootstrapped until its seed round, Delegate Connect’s business grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, like many other virtual event platforms. Its clients have included the Edinburgh TV Festival, Sportsbet, the World Dental Congress and the World Library and Information Congress. Some of the sectors Delegate Connect focuses on include medical, pharmaceutical and industry associations.

Delegate Connect was created after co-founders Jordan Walsh and Jacob Thomas started a technical production and events business, and looked for a “technology platform that could do everything we needed at a large-scale event, including registration, live-streaming, hosting video-on-demand and integrate seamlessly with the venues.” They decided to build their own, initially as an internal tool. Then during a trip to India in 2019 to work on a symposium, the two realized that there was a wider need for their platform.

“[We] had a lightbulb moment where we thought ‘we are solving a genuine problem here.’ One of the world’s biggest technology companies was flying us to Mumbai to use our system (which wasn’t even built properly) to deliver the technical assets of their event!” Walsh told TechCrunch in an email.

The two finished building the platform at the end of 2019 and launched it in January 2020.

Walsh and Thomas were interested in hybrid events even before COVID-19.

“Hybrid events have been around for along time, especially in the medical, pharmaceutical and associations sectors,” said Walsh. “Before COVID, they typically involved someone broadcasting a live stream from the venue, recording it and then hosting it on-demand after the event. These are all fundamentals of the platform we’ve built, and we’re obsessed with creating a platform that expands the hybrid event experience to do so much more than live streaming and video on demand.”

Some features created for the medical and pharmaceutical sectors include the ability to log hours spent viewing educational or scientific content, which is useful for delegates who are attending events to earn professional development points (CPD), abstract submissions, content-restricted registrations and the ability to run concurrent streams.

Tracking professional development points is a major selling point in particular, since “this is typically super complex technically for clients, and we solve this for them by working out how they accredit, build it in, track it and then process the accreditation,” said Walsh.

If you’ve attended a lot of online events over the past year and a half, you are probably wondering how Delegate Connect is different from platforms like Hopin (which was used for TechCrunch Disrupt last year), Bizzabo, MeetingPlay or Cvent.

One of its main differentiators is that it was built with specific target audiences (medical, pharmaceutical, associations and international congresses) in mind, and plans to launch a self-service platform for them. Delegate Connect is also completely customizable, so events can use it as a white-label solution.

“Ease of use is central to the UX,” Walsh said. “For example, we have full content restrictions through our registration portal, allowing people to register for sessions, days, themes and streams. We can restrict sponsors form seeing other sponsor booths and ensure that content can’t be shared (e.g. if a pharmaceutical company can’t share info with non-pharmacists, we can restrict this) as well as allow certain delegates to view only some content if needed.”

Hopin confirms $400M raise at $5.65B valuation

The delta variant and resurgence of COVID-19 has forced many organizers to turn in-person events into online ones. Walsh said Delegate Connect has handled many last-minute requests and can do so in a matter of hours. For example, in August, the startup was working on a medical conference originally slated to run as a hybrid event from a venue in Japan with thousands of delegates. Just before it was supposed to start, however, the organizers told Delegate Connect that they needed to switch to fully virtual event.

“We can do this easily because the platform doesn’t change. It’s versatile, no matter the delivery method,” said Walsh. “Delegates just need to log in on the day and engage with the content just like they would if they were at the event.”

Virtual events startups have high hopes for after the pandemic

Categories: Business News

Vietnam-based CoderSchool gets $2.6M pre-Series A to scale online course platform

2021, September 16 - 10:00am

CoderSchool, a Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam-based online coding school startup, announced today $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding to scale up its online coding school platform.

This round was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from returning seed investors Iterative, XA Network and iSeed Ventures. CoderSchool raised a seed round led by TRIVE Ventures in 2018.

CoderSchool will use the funding to accelerate its online teaching platform growth and technology infrastructure expansion for the company’s technical education programs that guarantee employment upon graduation.

The company, founded in 2015 by Charles Lee and Harley Trung, who previously worked as software engineers, pivoted from offline to online in early 2020 to bring high-quality technical training to everyone, everywhere. After switching to a fully online learning program, the company recorded 100% quarter-over-quarter (QoQ) growth in fully online enrollment, it said in a statement.

“Coding is the future. At CoderSchool, we believe everyone in Southeast Asia deserves a chance to be part of that future,” the company co-founder and CEO Lee said.

In Vietnam, the demand for IT talent is dramatically increasing by 47% a year, while supply is only increasing by 8% year-on-year.

“The need for strong engineers and developers in Southeast Asia has never been as pertinent as it is today with the growth of tech companies and digital businesses,” said Michele Daoud, partner of Monk’s Hill Ventures. “We have been impressed by the team’s focus on setting the standard for coding education in the region. We are excited to partner with CoderSchool to provide both opportunity and access to the millions of aspiring students in Vietnam.”

Vietnam after-school learning startup Marathon raises $1.5M pre-seed round

Given the strong engineer demand in Vietnam, the domestic market size is estimated between $100 million – $200 million, and still increasing every year, according to Lee. CoderSchool has been focusing on Vietnam for the last six years, but plans to enter the global market following the next round, Lee said, without providing exact timetable.

CoderSchool, which offers full-stack web development, machine learning and data sciences courses at a lower cost, has trained more than 2,000 alumni up to date, and recorded over 80% job placement rate for full-time graduates, getting jobs at companies such as BOSCHE, Microsoft, Lazada, Shopee, FE Credit, FPT Software, Sendo, Tiki and Momo.

“After having taught over 2,000 students, we’ve been able to refine our [coding education] content. We rewrote our full-stack web development course — from Ruby, Phyton to JavaScript — in two years, and added new machine learning and data science courses to our program,” Lee told TechCrunch.

CorderSchool’s online program enables students to interact with instructors and classmates before, during and after scheduled class sessions with its human-driven learning strategy. CoderSchool currently has 15 instructional staff, and plans to hire 35 additional instructors by Q4 2022.

CoderSchool’s data analytics has improved individual student performance while also allowing CoderSchool to increase its classroom size at scale, reaching a peak of 107 enrollments in a data science class.

Apple expands its free coding courses and materials for educators

Lambda School raises $74M for its virtual coding school where you pay tuition only after you get a job

Categories: Business News

Goldman says $2.2B purchase of BNPL provider GreenSky will help expand Marcus

2021, September 16 - 7:28am

This morning, Goldman Sachs announced plans to acquire B2B2C lender GreenSky in a deal worth $2.24 billion. The acquisition, which is still subject to regulatory approval and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021, is positioned to bolster the firm’s consumer business and offer new products and new ways to attract consumers to its Marcus by Goldman Sachs brand of finance products.

Goldman launched Marcus five years ago as a consumer-focused brand in part to compete with a growing set of fintech startups, neobanks, and online trading platforms that have sprung up over the last decade. While it has attracted 8 million users since launch — putting it ahead of many so-called challenger banks — Marcus still trails Chime and Robinhood among banking and trading apps (at least among number of users).

But with the purchase of GreenSky, it’s hoping to add another way to pull consumers into its Marcus funnel.

GreenSky operates a platform that facilitates loans for big-ticket items like home improvement projects or elective dental or medical procedures. It enables brands like Home Depot, as well as medical and dental practices, to offer installment loans to customers at the point of sale, thereby increasing sales and conversions for its clients. GreenSky then sells off those loans to a number of banks and other lending partners.

The deal could be seen as a way for Goldman to buy its way into the “buy now, pay later” trend, offering Marcus users additional ways to finance their purchases. That market has taken off lately, as evidenced by Square’s acquisition of Afterpay, PayPal’s acquisition of Paidy, and Amazon striking a deal to offer BNPL financing through Affirm.

But according to Stephanie Cohen, the global co-head of Consumer & Wealth Management at Goldman Sachs, the acquisition is as much about bringing GreenSky’s customers into the Marcus ecosystem. She also believes that by bringing GreenSky into Goldman Sachs and lending off its balance sheet, there’s no limit to the scale at which it can grow.

That said, don’t expect Goldman or Marcus to begin offering BNPL lending for everyday shopping anytime soon, as Cohen says GreenSky is attractive in part due to the big-ticket nature of home improvement lending.

To learn more about the firm’s plans, we spoke with Cohen about the deal and asked how GreenSky fits in with Marcus and the rest of Goldman’s business. The full interview, slightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Categories: Business News

The responsibilities of AI-first investors

2021, September 16 - 6:14am
Ash Fontana Contributor Share on Twitter Ash Fontana, a managing director at Zetta Ventures, is the author of “The AI-First Company: How to Compete and Win with Artificial Intelligence.” More posts by this contributor

Investors in AI-first technology companies serving the defense industry, such as Palantir, Primer and Anduril, are doing well. Anduril, for one, reached a valuation of over $4 billion in less than four years. Many other companies that build general-purpose, AI-first technologies — such as image labeling — receive large (undisclosed) portions of their revenue from the defense industry.

Investors in AI-first technology companies that aren’t even intended to serve the defense industry often find that these firms eventually (and sometimes inadvertently) help other powerful institutions, such as police forces, municipal agencies and media companies, prosecute their duties.

Most do a lot of good work, such as DataRobot helping agencies understand the spread of COVID, HASH running simulations of vaccine distribution or Lilt making school communications available to immigrant parents in a U.S. school district.

The first step in taking responsibility is knowing what on earth is going on. It’s easy for startup investors to shrug off the need to know what’s going on inside AI-based models.

However, there are also some less positive examples — technology made by Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO was used to hack 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human-rights activists, business executives and the fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a report by The Washington Post and 16 media partners. The report claims the phones were on a list of over 50,000 numbers based in countries that surveil their citizens and are known to have hired the services of the Israeli firm.

Investors in these companies may now be asked challenging questions by other founders, limited partners and governments about whether the technology is too powerful, enables too much or is applied too broadly. These are questions of degree, but are sometimes not even asked upon making an investment.

I’ve had the privilege of talking to a lot of people with lots of perspectives — CEOs of big companies, founders of (currently!) small companies and politicians — since publishing “The AI-First Company” and investing in such firms for the better part of a decade. I’ve been getting one important question over and over again: How do investors ensure that the startups in which they invest responsibly apply AI?

Let’s be frank: It’s easy for startup investors to hand-wave away such an important question by saying something like, “It’s so hard to tell when we invest.” Startups are nascent forms of something to come. However, AI-first startups are working with something powerful from day one: Tools that allow leverage far beyond our physical, intellectual and temporal reach.

AI not only gives people the ability to put their hands around heavier objects (robots) or get their heads around more data (analytics), it also gives them the ability to bend their minds around time (predictions). When people can make predictions and learn as they play out, they can learn fast. When people can learn fast, they can act fast.

Like any tool, one can use these tools for good or for bad. You can use a rock to build a house or you can throw it at someone. You can use gunpowder for beautiful fireworks or firing bullets.

Substantially similar, AI-based computer vision models can be used to figure out the moves of a dance group or a terrorist group. AI-powered drones can aim a camera at us while going off ski jumps, but they can also aim a gun at us.

This article covers the basics, metrics and politics of responsibly investing in AI-first companies.

The basics

Investors in and board members of AI-first companies must take at least partial responsibility for the decisions of the companies in which they invest.

Investors influence founders, whether they intend to or not. Founders constantly ask investors about what products to build, which customers to approach and which deals to execute. They do this to learn and improve their chances of winning. They also do this, in part, to keep investors engaged and informed because they may be a valuable source of capital.

Categories: Business News

Tiger Global-led $100M investment makes Apna India’s fastest unicorn

2021, September 16 - 5:30am

A 22-month-old startup that is helping millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India learn new skills and find jobs has become the youngest firm to join the coveted unicorn status in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna announced on Thursday that it has raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global. The new round — a Series C — valued Apna at $1.1 billion. TechCrunch reported last month that Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, was in talks to lead a $100 million financing round in the startup at the unicorn valuation.

Owl Ventures, Insight Partners, Sequoia Capital India, Maverick Ventures and GSV Ventures also participated in the new round, which is the third investment secured by Apna this year. Apna was valued at $570 million in its Series B round in June this year.

The investors’ excitement comes as Apna has demonstrated an impressive growth in recent months. The startup has amassed over 16 million users on its 15-month-old eponymous Android app, up from 10 million in June this year.

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the South Asian market.

Apna has built a platform that provides a community to these workers. In the community, they engage with each other, exchange notes to perform better at interviews and share tips to negotiate better compensation.

Image Credits: Apna

On top of this, Apna connects these workers to potential employers. In an interview with TechCrunch, Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh said more than 150,000 employers — including Zomato, Bharti AXA, Urban Company, BYJU’S, PhonePe, Burger King, Delhivery, Teamlease and G4S Global — are on the platform, and over 5 million jobs are active.

The startup, whose name is inspired from a cheerful 2019 Bollywood song, has facilitated over 18 million job interviews in the past 30 days, he said. Apna is currently operational in 28 Indian cities.

The idea for Apna came, Parikh has said, after he was puzzled to find that even as there are hundreds of millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India, locating them when you need assistance with a task often proves very difficult.

Prior to starting Apna, Parikh, who previously worked at Apple, met these workers and went undercover as an electrician and floor manager to understand the problems they were facing. The problem, he found, was the disconnect. Workers had no means to find who needed them for jobs, and they were also not connected with one another. The community aspect of Apna, which now has over 70 such groups, is aimed at addressing this challenge.

The Apna app allows these workers to learn new skills to become eligible for more work opportunities. Apna has emerged as one of the fastest growing upskilling platforms — and that would explain why GSV Ventures and Owl Ventures, two high-profile firms known to back edtech startups, are investing in the Bangalore-based firm.

“Apna’s viral adoption is driven by a novel social and interactive approach to connecting employers with job seekers. We expect job seekers in search of meaningful connections and vetted opportunities to drive Apna’s continued explosive growth across India — and the world,” said Griffin Schroeder, partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Now the startup, which has started to monetize the platform, is ready to aggressively expand. Parikh said Apna will continue to expand to more cities in India and by early next year, Apna will begin its global expansion. Parikh said the startup is eyeing expansion in the USA, South East Asia and Middle East and Africa.

“We have already created a dent. Now we want to impact the lives of 2.3 billion,” he said. “We will require crazy amounts of resources and a world-class team to deliver. It’s a herculean task, and is going to take a village. But somebody has to solve it.”

Tiger Global goes super aggressive in India

Categories: Business News

5 things you need to win your first customer

2021, September 16 - 3:48am
Bryan Dsouza Contributor Bryan Dsouza leads product marketing at Grammarly, and previously led various product management and product marketing roles across B2C and B2B at Microsoft.

A startup is a beautiful thing. It’s the tangible outcome of an idea birthed in a garage or on the back of a napkin. But ask any founder what really proves their startup has taken off, and they will almost instantly say it’s when they win their first customer.

That’s easier said than done, though, because winning that first customer will take a lot more than an Ivy-educated founder and/or a celebrity investor pool.

To begin with, you’ll have to craft a strong ideal customer profile to know your customer’s pain points, while developing a competitive SWOT analysis to scope out alternatives your customers can go to.

Your target customer will pick a solution that will help them achieve their goals. In other words, your goals should align with your customer’s goals.

You’ll also need to create a shortlist of influencers who have your customer’s trust, identify their decision-makers who make the call to buy (or not), and create a mapped list of goals that align your customer’s goals to yours.

Understanding and executing on these things can guarantee you that first customer win, provided you do them well and with sincerity. Your investors will also see the fruits of your labor and be comforted knowing their dollars are at good work.

Let’s see how:

1. Craft the ideal customer profile (ICP)

The ICP is a great framework for figuring out who your target customer is, how big they are, where they operate, and why they exist. As you write up your ICP, you will soon see the pain points you assumed about them start to become more real.

To create an ICP, you will need to have a strong articulation of the problem you are trying to solve and the customers that experience this problem the most. This will be your baseline hypothesis. Then, as you develop your ICP, keep testing your baseline hypothesis to weed out inaccurate assumptions.

Getting crystal clear here will set you up with the proper launchpad. No shortcuts.

Here’s how to get started:
  1. Develop an ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) framework.
  2. Identify three target customers that fit your defined ICP.
  3. Write a problem statement for each identified target customer.
  4. Prioritize the problem statement that resonates with your product the most.
  5. Lock on the target customer of the prioritized problem statement.
Practice use case:

You are the co-founder at an upcoming SaaS startup focused on simplifying the shopping experience in car showrooms so buyers enjoy the process. What would your ICP look like?

2. Develop the SWOT

The SWOT framework cannot be overrated. This is a great structure to articulate who your competitors are and how you show up against them. Note that your competitors can be direct or indirect (as an alternative), and it’s important to categorize these buckets correctly.

Categories: Business News

In growth marketing, signal determines success

2021, September 16 - 3:43am
Jonathan Martinez Contributor Share on Twitter Jonathan Martinez is a former YouTuber, UC Berkeley alum and growth marketing nerd who's helped scale Uber, Postmates, Chime and various startups. More posts by this contributor

Unlike a weak phone signal solely causing a grainy sound, in growth marketing, it can mean the difference between a successful program or a massive cash bleed. As we move toward an increasingly privacy-centric world, it is even more necessary for companies to nail down signal early on.

So what exactly is “signal” in growth marketing? It can carry many different meanings, but holistically speaking, it’s the event data in our arsenal to help guide decisions. When it comes to paid acquisition, it’s vital to optimize and pass back the correct event data to paid channels. This is so that targeting and bidding algorithms have the most enriched data to utilize.

I’ve seen startups spend thousands of dollars inefficiently as a result of not having optimal signal in their paid acquisition campaigns. I’ve also spent millions at companies such as Postmates refining our signal to the best possible state. I’d like every startup to avoid the painful mistake of not having this set up correctly, instead making the most of every important ad dollar.

The selection

When starting out, it may seem obvious to optimize toward a north-star metric such as a purchase. If spend is very minimal, that could mean that the conversion volume will be low across campaigns. On the flip side, if the optimization event is set at a top-of-funnel event such as a landing page view, the signal strength may be very weak. The reason that the strength may be weak is due to passing back a low-intent event as successful to the paid channels. By marking a landing page view as successful, paid channels such as Facebook will continue to find users that are similar to these lower-propensity users that are converting.

Let’s take an example of a health-and-wellness app with a goal of driving memberships to their coaching program. They’re just starting out with exploring paid acquisition and spending $5,000 per week on Facebook. Below is a look at their events in the funnel, weekly volume and cost per event:

Example of a health-and-wellness app and their weekly conversion volume at $5,000 spend. Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez

In the above example, we can see that there’s significant volume for landing page views. As we go down the simplified flow, there is less volume as users drop off the funnel. Almost everyone’s instinct would be to optimize for either the landing page view, because there’s so much data, or the subscription event, because it’s the strongest. I would argue (after extensive testing across multiple ad accounts) that neither of these events would be the correct pick. With landing page views as an optimization event, the users have an egregiously low propensity since the landing page view to subscription conversion rate is 0.61%.

The correct event to optimize for here would either be sign up or trial start because they have sufficient enough volume and are strong signals of a user converting to the north-star metric (subscription). Looking at the conversion rate between sign up and subscription, it’s a much healthier 10.21%, versus the 0.61% from landing page view.

I’m always a huge proponent of testing all events, as there can definitely be big surprises in what may work best for you. When testing events, make sure that there’s a stat-sig baseline that’s being followed to make decisions. Additionally, I think it’s a great practice to test events regularly early on because conversion rates can change as other channel variables are adjusted.

Flow adjustments

In certain cases, the current events that are set up aren’t optimal for paid acquisition campaigns. I’ve seen this happen frequently with startups that have long windows of time between conversion events. Take a startup such as Thumbtack, which provides a marketplace of providers who can help with home repairs. After someone signs up to their app, the user may place a request but not hire someone until a few weeks later. In this case, making flow adjustments could potentially improve the signal and data that you collect from users.

A solution that Thumbtack could implement to gather a stronger signal would be to add another step between the request being placed and hiring someone. This could potentially be a survey with propensity check questions that could ask how soon the user needs help or how important their project is from a 1–10.

Example of in-app survey responses to “How important is your project?” Image Credits: Jonathan Martinez.

After accumulating the data, if there’s a high correlation between survey answers and someone starting their project, we can start to explore optimizing for that event.

In the above example, we see that users who responded with “9” have a 7.66% likelihood to convert. Therefore, this should be the event we optimize for. Artificially adding steps that qualify users in a longer flow can help steer optimization targeting in the right direction.

Enhancing signal

Let’s imagine that you have the most ideal flow that captures large volumes of event signal without much of a delay to your optimization event. That’s still far from perfect. There are myriad solutions that can be implemented to further enhance the signal.

For Facebook specifically, there are connections such as CAPI that can be integrated to pass back data in a more accurate way. CAPI is a method of passing back web events server-to-server rather than relying on cookies and the Facebook pixel. This helps mitigate browsers that block cookies or users who may delete their web history. This is just one example. I won’t run through all the channels, but each has its own solution to help enhance event signal being passed back to it.

iOS 14 signal

This wouldn’t be a column written in 2021 without mention of iOS 14 and the strategies that can be leveraged for this growing user segment. I’ve written another piece about iOS-14-specific tactics, but I’ll cover it here on a broad level. If the north-star metric (i.e., purchase) event can be triggered within 24 hours of the initial app launch, then that’s golden.

This would bring large volumes of high-intent data that would not be at the mercy of the SKAD 24-hour event timer. For most companies, this may sound like a lofty goal, so the target should be to have an event fire within 24 hours that is a high-likelihood indicator of someone completing your north-star metric. Think of which events happen in the flow that lead to someone eventually purchasing. Maybe someone adding a payment method happens within 24 hours and historically has a 90% conversion rate to someone purchasing. An “add payment info” event would be a great conversion event to use in this case. The landscape of iOS 14 is constantly changing but this should apply for the immediate future.

Incrementality and staying ahead

As a rule of thumb, incrementality checks should constantly be performed in growth marketing. It gives an important read on whether advertising dollars are bringing in users that wouldn’t have converted had they not seen an ad.

When comparing optimization events, this rule still applies. Make sure that costs per action aren’t the only metric that’s being used as a measure of success, but instead, use the incremental lift on each conversion event as the ultimate key performance indicator. In this piece, I detail how to run lean incrementality tests without swarms of data scientists.

So how do you stay ahead and continue moving the needle on your growth marketing campaigns? First and foremost, constantly question the events you’re optimizing for. And second, leave no stone unturned.

If you’re using the same optimization event forever, it will be a disservice to your campaign performance potential. By experimenting with flow changes and running tests on new events, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. When iterating on the flow, think about user behavior and events from the user’s perspective. Which flow events, if added, would correlate to a high propensity conversion segment?

Categories: Business News

Beware the hidden bias behind TikTok resumes

2021, September 16 - 2:38am
Nagaraj Nadendla Contributor Share on Twitter Nagaraj Nadendla is SVP of development at Oracle Cloud HCM, where he leads the development of cloud recruitment solutions including Oracle Recruiting and Taleo.

Social media has served as a launchpad to success almost as long as it has been around. The stories of going viral from a self-produced YouTube video and then securing a record deal established the mythology of social media platforms. Ever since, social media has consistently gravitated away from text-based formats and toward visual mediums like video sharing.

For most people, a video on social media won’t be a ticket to stardom, but in recent months, there have been a growing number of stories of people getting hired based on videos posted to TikTok. Even LinkedIn has embraced video assets on user profiles with the recent addition of the “Cover Story” feature, which allows workers to supplement their profiles with a video about themselves.

As technology continues to evolve, is there room for a world where your primary resume is a video on TikTok? And if so, what kinds of unintended consequences and implications might this have on the workforce?

Why is TikTok trending for jobs?

In recent months, U.S. job openings have risen to an all-time high of 10.1 million. For the first time since the pandemic began, available jobs have exceeded available workers. Employers are struggling to attract qualified candidates to fill positions, and in that light, it makes sense that many recruiters are turning to social platforms like TikTok and video resumes to find talent.

But the scarcity of workers does not negate the importance of finding the right employee for a role. Especially important for recruiters is finding candidates with the skills that align with their business’ goals and strategy. For example, as more organizations embrace a data-driven approach to operating their business, they need more people with skills in analytics and machine learning to help them make sense of the data they collect.

Recruiters have proven to be open to innovation where it helps them find these new candidates. Recruiting is no longer the manual process it used to be, with HR teams sorting through stacks of paper resumes and formal cover letters to find the right candidate. They embraced the power of online connections as LinkedIn rose to prominence and even figured out how to use third-party job sites like GlassDoor to help them draw in promising candidates. On the back end, many recruiters use advanced cloud software to sort through incoming resumes to find the candidates that best match their job descriptions. But all of these methods still rely on the traditional text-based resume or profile as the core of any application.

Videos on social media provide the ability for candidates to demonstrate soft skills that may not be immediately apparent in written documents, such as verbal communication and presentation skills. They are also a way for recruiters to learn more about the personality of the candidate to determine how they’d fit into the culture of the company. While this may be appealing for many, are we ready for the consequences?

We’re not ready for the close-up

While innovation in recruiting is a big part of the future of work, the hype around TikTok and video resumes may actually take us backward. Despite offering a new way for candidates to market themselves for opportunities, it also carries potential pitfalls that candidates, recruiters and business leaders need to be aware of.

The very element that gives video resumes their potential also presents the biggest problems. Video inescapably highlights the person behind the skills and achievements. As recruiters form their first opinions about a candidate, they will be confronted with information they do not usually see until much later in the process, including whether they belong to protected classes because of their race, disability or gender.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) concerns have had a major surge in attention over the last couple of years amid heightened awareness and scrutiny around how employers are — or are not — prioritizing diversity in the workplace.

But evaluating candidates through video could erase any progress made by introducing more opportunities for unconscious, or even conscious, bias. This could create a dangerous situation for businesses if they do not act carefully because it could open them up to consequences such as damage to their reputation or even something as severe as discrimination lawsuits.

A company with a poor track record for diversity may have the fact that they reviewed videos from candidates used against them in court. Recruiters reviewing the videos may not even be aware of how the race or gender of candidates are impacting their decisions. For that reason, many of the businesses I have seen implement an option for video in their recruiting flow do not allow their recruiters to watch the video until late in the recruiting process.

But even if businesses address the most pressing issues of DE&I by managing bias against those protected classes, by accepting videos there are still issues of diversity in less protected classes such as neurodiversity and socioeconomic status. A candidate with exemplary skills and a strong track record may not present themselves well through a video, coming across as awkward to the recruiter watching the video. Even if that impression is irrelevant to the job, it could still influence the recruiter’s stance on hiring.

Furthermore, candidates from affluent backgrounds may have access to better equipment and software to record and edit a compelling video resume. Other candidates may not, resulting in videos that may not look as polished or professional in the eyes of the recruiter. This creates yet another barrier to the opportunities they can access.

As we sit at an important crossroads in how we handle DE&I in the workplace, it is important for employers and recruiters to find ways to reduce bias in the processes they use to find and hire employees. While innovation is key to moving our industry forward, we have to ensure top priorities are not being compromised.

Not left on the cutting room floor

Despite all of these concerns, social media platforms — especially those based on video — have created new opportunities for users to expand their personal brands and connect with potential job opportunities. There is potential to use these new systems to benefit both job seekers and employers.

The first step is to ensure that there is always a place for a traditional text-based resume or profile in the recruiting process. Even if recruiters can get all the information they need about a candidate’s capabilities from video, some people will just naturally feel more comfortable staying off camera. Hiring processes need to be about letting people put their best foot forward, whether that is in writing or on video. And that includes accepting that the best foot to put forward may not be your own.

Instead, candidates and businesses should consider using videos as a place for past co-workers or managers to endorse the candidate. An outside endorsement can do a lot more good for an application than simply stating your own strengths because it shows that someone else believes in your capabilities, too.

Video resumes are hot right now because they are easier to make and share than ever and because businesses are in desperate need of strong talent. But before we get caught up in the novelty of this new way of sharing our credentials, we need to make sure that we are setting ourselves up for success.

The goal of any new recruiting technology should be to make it easier for candidates to find opportunities where they can shine without creating new barriers. There are some serious kinks to work out before video resumes can achieve that, and it is important for employers to consider the repercussions before they damage the success of their DE&I efforts.

Categories: Business News

Front introduces customer-centric features with deeper CRM integration

2021, September 16 - 1:00am

Customer communication platform Front is holding an event today to introduce three new features. These new features focus on showing you more information about your customers right from Front’s user interface.

If you’re not familiar with Front, the company started as a shared email inbox product so that you can interact with incoming emails as a team. For instance, if your company uses email lists, such as support@companyname.com, sales@companyname.com or jobs@companyname.com, multiple team members can see incoming emails in Front.

Before replying, you can triage conversations by assigning them to specific team members, discuss the current conversation in the comment section or show your email draft before sending it.

Over time, Front has evolved to integrate more communication channels. You can now use Front for SMS conversations, live chat on your website with your customers, Facebook messages, etc. The company has also refined its product with more powerful features.

For instance, you can set up rules to automate your workflow with simple ‘if this then that’ rules. It’s a good way to spread out work across multiple team members and make sure the right person sees the incoming message as quickly as possible.

Today, the company is showcasing features that will be particularly useful for teams that interact with bigger customers, such as sales, support and customer success teams. First, Front users will be able to learn more about the customer they’re interacting with directly from their inbox.

The refreshed context panel works better if the team is interacting with multiple people working for your client. Instead of viewing past conversations with someone in particular, you can view past conversations with everyone working for this client.

Front already integrates with your CRM, such as Salesforce or HubSpot. You can now more easily pull data into the context panel. You can see the name of the account owner, the customer segment and the SLA (service-level agreement) commitment with this customer.

Image Credits: Front

Second, Front is adding new capabilities for its automated routing feature with deeper integrations with your CRM. For instance, you can find the name of the account owner in your CRM and assign incoming emails to the account owner directly.

If the account owner changes in Salesforce, rules will be automatically updated in Front. You can also fetch annual revenue data from your CRM and set a VIP tag if you’re receiving a message from an important customer.

Image Credits: Front

Finally, Front will soon upgrade the analytics pages. For instance, you can track the team’s performance for a specific account and compare that to the SLA.

These updates position Front as a tool that works better for bigger enterprise clients with expensive B2B contracts. Current Front customers include Shopify, Dropbox, Flexport, Checkout.com, Lydia and Airbnb.

Image Credits: Front

Categories: Business News

News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion

2021, September 16 - 12:34am

SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Suzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

Categories: Business News

Forge’s SPAC deal is a bet on unicorn illiquidity

2021, September 15 - 11:42pm

As Warby Parker, Freshworks, Amplitude and Toast look to list in the coming weeks, we shouldn’t forget the SPAC boom. This week, for example, Forge Global (Forge), a technology startup that operates a market for secondary transactions in private companies, announced that it would go public via a blank-check combination.

And while we’re not unpacking every single SPAC combination that crosses our radar, the Forge deal is a good one to spend time parsing.

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Why? Several reasons. First, we’re curious about how the company generates revenue and how diversified its revenue is. We’re also interested in how big the market may prove to be for trading secondary shares in unicorns — late-stage tech startup equity is popular on secondary exchanges. Additionally, we want to know whether the deal feels expensive, because that may help us get a heat-check on the SPAC market more broadly.

First, some details concerning the transaction. Then we get to have fun. To work!

The Forge SPAC

Forge is merging with Motive Capital, a blank-check company that raised $360 million in December 2020.

Per the company’s calculations, the combined entity will sport a roughly $2 billion valuation on a “fully diluted equity value on a pro forma basis.” The company’s anticipated enterprise value is a smaller $1.6 billion thanks to an expected $435 million in cash after the deal’s completion, though that number will change some before it trades.

Skipping the nuances of the transaction — there’s a PIPE, 90% equity rollover from existing shareholders and more, in case you wanted to get into it — what matters is that Forge will be worth around $2 billion in equity terms and have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank after the deal.

The resulting valuation is notable not only for making Forge a unicorn, but also for representing a dramatic upward movement in the worth of the company. PitchBook and Crunchbase data agree that Forge was last valued at $700 million (post-money) when raising $150 million earlier this year. So, the company appears set to provide a solid return to more than just its early backers; even the private investors who put capital into the company rather recently should do well in the deal.

That brings us to the company’s business, and business model. Forge helps pre-IPO companies trade before they float. It’s somewhat ironic that price discovery is something that the company claims its platform can help companies with before they debut, while the company is set to see its private valuation quickly beaten by a public debut.

Regardless, let’s talk unicorns.

A solution to the unicorn traffic jam?

One of my favorite long-term issues with the late-stage startup market is that it is far better at creating value than it is at finding an exit point for that accreted value. More simply, the startup market is excellent at creating unicorns but somewhat poor at taking them public.

That antitrust regulatory concerns have made it harder for wealthy tech companies to snap up promising startups that could challenge them is only part of the matter. There just aren’t enough IPOs, even this year, to counterbalance the growth in the number of global unicorns.

That pressure is a good bit of why Forge is an interesting firm. The more unexited unicorns there are in the world, the more demand, presumably, there is for marketplaces like the one it operates, which allows existing shareholders in valuable private companies to drive liquidity for themselves ahead of eventual public-market debuts.

Categories: Business News

Relyance AI scores $25M Series A to ensure privacy compliance at the code level

2021, September 15 - 11:28pm

Relyance AI, an early-stage startup that is helping companies stay in compliance with privacy laws at the code level, announced a $25 million Series A today. At the same time, they revealed a previously unannounced $5 million seed round.

Menlo Ventures and Unusual Ventures led the A round, while Unusual was sole lead on the seed. Serial entrepreneur Jyoti Bansal from Unusual will join the board under the terms of the deal. His partner John Vrionis had previously joined after the seed round. Matt Murphy from Menlo is coming on as a board observer. The company has now raised $30 million.

Relyance takes an unusual approach to verifying that data stays in compliance working at the code level, while ingesting contracts and existing legal requirements as code to ensure that a company is in compliance. Company co-CEO and co-founder Abhi Sharma says that code-level check is key to the solution. “For the first time, we are building the legal compliance and regulation into the source code,” Sharma told me.

WTF is GDPR?

He added, “Relyance is actually embedded within the DevOps pipeline of our customers’ infrastructure. So every time a new ETL pipeline is built or a machine learning model is receiving new source code, we do a compiler-like analysis of how personal sensitive data is flowing between internal microservices, data lakes and data warehouses, and then get a metadata analysis back to the privacy and compliance professionals [inside an organization].”

Leila R. Golchehreh, the other founder and co-CEO, brings a strong compliance background to the equation and has experienced the challenge of keeping companies in compliance firsthand. She said that Relyance also enables companies to define policy and contracts as code.

“Our approach is specifically to ingest contracts. We’ve actually created an algorithm around how [you] actually write a good data protection agreement. We’ve extracted those relevant provisions and we will compare that against [your] operational reality. So if there’s a disconnect, we will be able to raise that as an intelligent insight of a data misalignment,” she said.

With 32 employees, the co-founders hope to double or perhaps even triple that number in the next 12-18 months. Golchehreh and Sharma are a diverse co-founder team and they are attempting to build a company that reflects that. They believe being remote-first gives them a leg up in this regard, but they also have internal policies to drive it.

“The recruiters we work with have a mandate internally to say, ‘Hey, we really want to hire good people and diverse people.’ Relyance as a company is the genesis of two individuals from two completely different ends of the spectrum coming together. And I think hopefully, we can do our job of relaying that into the company as we scale,” Sharma said.

The two founders have been friends for several years and began talking about forming a company together in 2019 over a pizza dinner. The idea began to gel and they launched the company in February 2020. They spent some time talking to compliance pros to understand their requirements better, then in July 2020 began building the solution they have today. They released a beta in February and began quietly selling it in March.

Today they have a number of early customers working with their software, including Dialpad, Patreon, Samsara and True.

Categories: Business News

Airbase adds spend support for international subsidiaries

2021, September 15 - 11:15pm

Airbase, a corporate spend management startup, announced this morning that it now supports subsidiaries in different countries for U.S.-based businesses. As more companies lean into remote work, and a great many startups are founding themselves on multiple continents, the new capability could boost Airbase’s effective total addressable market.

The product news is interesting, but more so when we consider Airbase’s feature decisions in the larger context of the corporate spend management space itself. Startups competing in the market offer customers corporate cards and a software suite to help them manage spend more generally, along with other functionality that varies based on the provider in question.

TechCrunch has spilled much ink in recent months tracking Airbase competitors Ramp and Brex, for example, as they raise capital and look to differentiate their products to better serve their target markets. They are doing so by both pricing decisions and feature choices.

Image Credits: Airbase

Airbase, while perhaps less well-known than its rivals, was early to the decision to charge for its software in addition to deriving interchange revenues from its business. Brex added a paid package of software at an SMB-friendly price point. Ramp is sticking to its zero-cost guns for now.

Now with support for international subsidiaries and currencies for U.S.-based companies, Airbase is executing against its vision to provide spend management services for companies from inception through IPO, founder and CEO Thejo Kote told TechCrunch an interview.

In more detailed terms, Airbase supports payouts to some 200 countries, as well as support for moving money around more generally in a more constrained geographic area.

The product news fits into Airbase’s goal of supporting companies even as they scale. Other competitors in its market have a greater SMB focus, it appears. Not that that is a diss; offering corporate spend services as a free package has proven lucrative for some companies looking to onboard a host of smaller enterprises. Divvy did so and sold for more than $1 billion. And Ramp and Brex are pricing their services to be well within the reaches of smaller firms.

Ramp and Brex draw diverging market plans with M&A strategies

Airbase does offer a free tier, but more as a method of attracting customers that could scale into large accounts in time, it explained. Those larger accounts are the startup’s goal. Kote said during a conversation that his company now has a number of customers paying six figures per year for its software, a change from when the company raised $60 million earlier this year, when such account sizes were rarer.

By adding more capabilities for multinational companies, Airbase may be able to land more large customers, which, in turn, would generate both software and interchange incomes for the startup.

Kote also disclosed new growth metrics for Airbase, though in relative instead of absolute terms. The startup has scaled annual recurring revenue — a metric that calculates annualized subscription software sales at a company — by 3.5x in the last 12 months, he said, and 2x in the last half-year. Kote also disclosed that his company is “approaching” $2 billion in annualized payment volume through its service, up 5x in the last 12 months.

Now in the process of digesting its Series B, Airbase has graduated from baby startup metrics, and we’ll expect something a bit harder the next time we cover the company.

Still, as Airbase looks to support larger companies longer, we’re seeing an interesting divergence between the corporate spend startups battling for North American market share. With three major players charging nothing, a little and a lot, it isn’t hard to guess where each will focus their product efforts in customer terms.

Categories: Business News

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

2021, September 15 - 11:12pm

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned firsthand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 2017 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are, however, others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

Categories: Business News

Ascend raises $5.5M to provide a BNPL option for commercial insurance

2021, September 15 - 10:00pm

Ascend on Wednesday announced a $5.5 million seed round to further its insurance payments platform that combines financing, collections and payables.

First Round Capital led the round and was joined by Susa Ventures, FirstMark Capital, Box Group and a group of angel investors, including Coalition CEO Joshua Motta, Newfront Insurance executives Spike Lipkin and Gordon Wintrob, Vouch Insurance CEO Sam Hodges, Layr Insurance CEO Phillip Naples, Anzen Insurance CEO Max Bruner, Counterpart Insurance CEO Tanner Hackett, former Bunker Insurance CEO Chad Nitschke, SageSure executive Paul VanderMarck, Instacart co-founders Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo and Houseparty co-founder Ben Rubin.

This is the first funding for the company that is live in 20 states. It developed payments APIs to automate end-to-end insurance payments and to offer a buy now, pay later financing option for distribution of commissions and carrier payables, something co-founder and co-CEO Andrew Wynn, said was rather unique to commercial insurance.

Wynn started the company in January 2021 with his co-founder Praveen Chekuri after working together at Instacart. They originally started Sheltr, which connected customers with trained maintenance professionals and was acquired by Hippo in 2019. While working with insurance companies they recognized how fast the insurance industry was modernizing, yet insurance sellers still struggled with customer experiences due to outdated payments processes. They started Ascend to solve that payments pain point.

Startup insurance provider Vouch raises $90M, now valued at $550M

The insurance industry is largely still operating on pen-and-paper — some 600 million paper checks are processed each year, Wynn said. He referred to insurance as a “spaghetti web of money movement” where payments can take up to 100 days to get to the insurance carrier from the customer as it makes its way through intermediaries. In addition, one of the only ways insurance companies can make a profit is by taking those hundreds of millions of dollars in payments and investing it.

Home and auto insurance can be broken up into payments, but the commercial side is not as customer friendly, Wynn said. Insurance is often paid in one lump sum annually, though, paying tens of thousands of dollars in one payment is not something every business customer can manage. Ascend is offering point-of-sale financing to enable insurance brokers to break up those commercial payments into monthly installments.

“Insurance carriers continue to focus on annual payments because they don’t have a choice,” he added. “They want all of their money up front so they can invest it. Our platform not only reduces the friction with payments by enabling customers to pay how they want to pay, but also helps carriers sell more insurance.”

Ascend app

Startups like Ascend aiming to disrupt the insurance industry are also attracting venture capital, with recent examples including Vouch and Marshmallow, which raised close to $100 million, while Insurify raised $100 million.

Wynn sees other companies doing verticalized payment software for other industries, like healthcare insurance, which he says is a “good sign for where the market is going.” This is where Wynn believes Ascend is competing, though some incumbents are offering premium financing, but not in the digital way Ascend is.

He intends to deploy the new funds into product development, go-to-market initiatives and new hires for its locations in New York and Palo Alto. He said the raise attracted a group of angel investors in the industry, who were looking for a product like this to help them sell more insurance versus building it from scratch.

Having only been around eight months, it is a bit early for Ascend to have some growth to discuss, but Wynn said the company signed its first customer in July and six more in the past month. The customers are big digital insurance brokerages and represent, together, $2.5 billion in premiums. He also expects to get licensed to operate as a full payment in processors in all states so the company can be in all 50 states by the end of the year.

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The ultimate goal of the company is not to replace brokers, but to offer them the technology to be more efficient with their operations, Wynn said.

“Brokers are here to stay,” he added. “What will happen is that brokers who are tech-enabled will be able to serve customers nationally and run their business, collect payments, finance premiums and reduce backend operation friction.”

Bill Trenchard, partner at First Round Capital, met Wynn while he was still with Sheltr. He believes insurtech and fintech are following a similar story arc where disruptive companies are going to market with lower friction and better products and, being digital-first, are able to meet customers where they are.

By moving digital payments over to insurance, Ascend and others will lead the market, which is so big that there will be many opportunities for companies to be successful. The global commercial insurance market was valued at $692.33 billion in 2020, and expected to top $1 trillion by 2028.

Like other firms, First Round looks for team, product and market when it evaluates a potential investment and Trenchard said Ascend checked off those boxes. Not only did he like how quickly the team was moving to create momentum around themselves in terms of securing early pilots with customers, but also getting well known digital-first companies on board.

“The magic is in how to automate the underwriting, how to create a data moat and be a first mover — if you can do all three, that is great,” Trenchard said. “Instant approvals and using data to do a better job than others is a key advantage and is going to change how insurance is bought and sold.”

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Categories: Business News

Matillion raises $150M at a $1.5B valuation for its low-code approach to integrating disparate data sources

2021, September 15 - 9:39pm

Businesses and the tech companies that serve them are run on data. At best, it can be used to help with decision-making, to understand how well or badly an organization is doing and to build new systems to run the next generation of services. At its most challenging, though, data can represent a real headache: there is too much of it, in too many places, and too much of a task to bring it into any kind of order.

Enter a startup called Matillion, which has built a platform to help companies harness their data so that it can be used, and what’s more, the platform is not just for data scientists, but it’s written with a “low-code” approach that can be used by a wider group of users.

Today, it is announcing a big round of investment — $150 million at a $1.5 billion valuation — a sign not just of Matillion’s traction in this space, but of the market demand for the tech that it has built.

Don’t hate on low-code and no-code

The company currently has “hundreds” of large enterprise customers, including Western Union, FOX, Sony, Slack, National Grid, Peet’s Coffee and Cisco for projects ranging from business intelligence and visualization through to artificial intelligence and machine learning applications.

General Atlantic is leading the funding, with Battery Ventures, Sapphire Ventures, Scale Venture Partners and Lightspeed Venture Partners — some of the biggest enterprise startup investors in the world — also participating. Matillion last raised money — a Series D of around $100 million — as recently as February this year, at what was an undisclosed valuation at the time.

Announcing this latest round at a $1.5 billion valuation is significant not just for Matillion. The startup was founded in Manchester (it now also has a base in Denver), and this makes it one of a handful of tech startups out of the city — others we’ve recently covered include The Hut Group, Peak AI and Fractory — now hitting the big leagues and helping to put it on the innovation map as an urban center to watch.

Matthew Scullion, the startup’s CEO and founder, explained that the crux of the issue Matillion is addressing is the diamond-in-the-rough promise of big data. Typically, large organizations are producing giant amounts of data every day, hugely valuable information as long as it can be tapped efficiently. The problem is that this data is often sitting across a lot of different places — typically large organizations might have over 1,000 data sources, apps sitting across multiple clouds and servers and storage across Snowflake, Amazon Redshift and Databricks. On top of this, while a lot of that data is very structured, those sources are not necessarily aligned with each other.

“Data has become the new currency, and the world is pivoting to that,” he said. “It’s changing all aspects of how we work, and it is happening very fast. But the problem is that the world’s ability to innovate with data is constrained. It’s not the shortage of data or demand to put it to work, but the point is the world’s ability to make that data useful.”

Matillion has answered that with a framework and system that can both identify data sources and basically bring order to them, without needing to move the data from one place to another in order to be used. It’s an ETL (extract, transform and load) provider, and it is far from being the only one in the market, with others like Dataiku, Talent, SnapLogic, as well as cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft, among the many trying to address this area.

The difference with Matillion, Scullion said, is that it has a democratized platform, so that organizations don’t have to rely on data scientists to get involved in order to use it, by building a low-code interface around it.

“We have made it accessible, intuitive and easy to use by bringing in a low-code approach,” he said. “We’ve developed a platform and data operating system that has all the things in the kit bag that an organization needs to make it useful.”

This is important because, as big data analytics and the tools to build these processes become more mainstream and themselves take on low-code interfaces, Matillion is providing a way for those less technical users to source and use their data, too. This means more efficiency, less cost, and more time for data scientists to work on more difficult problems and do less busy work.

“As organizations look for ways to harness data to make better business decisions, the market for cloud data integration and transformation is expanding,” said Chris Caulkin, managing director and head of Technology for EMEA at General Atlantic. “We believe that Matillion’s low-code ETL platform simplifies the process of constructing data pipelines and preparing data for analysis, enabling citizen data scientists and data engineers alike to play a valuable role in extracting data-based insights. We look forward to supporting the team through its next phase of growth and expansion.”

Categories: Business News

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