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Startup founders must overcome information overload

2020, September 18 - 4:06am
Mercedes Bent Contributor Share on Twitter Mercedes Bent is a partner at Lightspeed where she invests in consumer, edtech and fintech companies.

Many of the founders I have spoken to said one of their biggest early challenges was figuring out how to sift through all the advice they receive.

Advice overload plagues everyone and founders have it especially bad, given that most startups have a board of advisors. Founders described needing conviction in their decisions and preserving carved out time for their own information processing. They viewed the ability to sift through all this advice as a crucial skill to learn. 

“There is so much information out there, you end up driving yourself crazy,” said Devin Lennon, founder of end-of-life advice service Death Doula Devin. “Figuring out who is more helpful than others was difficult. Typically people with more experience tended to be more helpful, but not always,” said Hardbound founder Nathan Bashaw. “We wasted a lot of time talking to the wrong people.”

According to Ryan Williams, CEO and co-founder of proptech platform Cadre, “The real challenge is who you listen to for which points. You get information overload. The real skill is pattern recognition over time of who is actually useful for good information — knowing who to listen to and for what. You get a lot of conflicting advice. That’s where I’ve grown the most.”

Categories: Business News

Does early-stage health tech need more ‘patient’ capital?

2020, September 18 - 3:36am

Crista Galli Ventures, a new early-stage health tech fund in Europe, officially launched last week. The firm offers “patient capital” — with only a single LP (the Danish family office IPQ Capital) — and promises to provide portfolio companies with deep healthcare expertise and the extra runway needed to get over regulatory and efficacy hurdles and to the next stage.

The firm has an initial $65 million to deploy and is led by consultant radiologist Dr. Fiona Pathiraja. With offices in London and Copenhagen, it operates as an “evergreen” fund, meaning it doesn’t follow traditional five-year VC fundraising cycles.

In fact, Crista Galli Ventures’ pitch is that traditional venture isn’t well-suited to early-stage health tech where it can take significantly longer to find product-market fit with healthcare practitioners and systems and then become licensed by local regulators.

To dig deeper into this and CGV’s investment remit more generally, I interviewed Pathiraja about what she looks for in health tech founders and startups. We also discussed Crista Galli LABS, which operates alongside the main fund and backs founders from underrepresented backgrounds at the pre-seed stage.

TechCrunch: You describe Crista Galli Ventures (CGV) as an early-stage health tech fund that offers patient capital and backs companies in Europe. In particular, you cite deep tech, digital health and personalised healthcare. Can you elaborate a bit more on the fund’s remit and what you look for in founders and startups at such an early stage?

Dr. Fiona Pathiraja: We like founders with bold ideas and international ambitions. We look for mission-driven founders who believe their companies can make a real and positive impact on the lives of people and patients the world over.

We will look for founders who deeply understand the problem they are trying to tackle from all angles — especially the patient’s perspective, but also that of the clinician and relevant regulators — and we want to see that they are building their solutions to solve this. This means they will make an effort to understand the complex and nuanced healthcare landscape and all the stakeholders in it.

In terms of founder characteristics, in my opinion, the best founders will be mission driven, able to tell a compelling story, and motivate others to join them. Grit and resilience are important and several of our portfolio companies were founded around 6-8 years ago and they are doggedly continuing to build.

Categories: Business News

Forage, formerly InsideSherpa, raises $9.3 million Series A for virtual work experiences

2020, September 18 - 2:46am

Tech’s coveted internships were some of the first roles to be cut as offices closed and businesses shuttered in response to the coronavirus. A number of companies across the country, including Glassdoor, StubHub, Funding Circle, Yelp, Checkr and even the National Institutes of Health, canceled their internship programs altogether.

For InsideSherpa co-founders Tom Brunskill and Pasha Rayan, the canceled internships were an opportunity. InsideSherpa, a Y Combinator graduate, hosts virtual work experience programs for college students all around the world.

College students, searching for a way to get job-ready, flocked to the platform from Northern Italy to South-East Asia, to all over the United States. Enrollments in InsideSherpa grew more than 86%, up to 1 million students.

The educational service successfully attracted student interest, and now, has landed investor interest. Today, InsideSherpa announced that it raised $9.3 million in Series A funding, led by Lightspeed Venture Partners . The startup has now raised $11.6 million in known venture funding. Other investors include FundersClub, Y Combinator and Arizona State University.

The financing will be used to grow InsideSherpa’s staff, with more engineering, product and sales roles. Along with the financing, InsideSherpa announced that it has rebranded to Forage.

Forage isn’t selling an internship replacement, but instead comes in one degree before the recruitment process. Students can go to the website and take a course from large companies such as Deloittee, Citi, BCG and GE. The course, designed in collaboration with the particular company and Forage, gives students a chance to “explore what a career would look like at their firm before the internship or entry-level application process opens,” Brunskill explains.

Forage is focused on partnering with large companies that employ upwards of 1,000 students per year via internships to help open up new pipelines. The corporate partners pay a subscription fee per year to post courses, and students can access all courses for free.

Popular courses include the KPMG Data Analytics Program, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Software Engineering Program and the Microsoft Engineering Program.

While Forage declined to disclose ARR, it confirmed that it was profitable heading into its fundraise, which formally closed in July.

Within edtech, flocks of companies have tried (and failed) to deliver on the promise of skills-based learning and employment opportunities as an outcome. The strategy of getting cozy with corporate partners isn’t unique to Forage, but the team views it as a competitive advantage. Of course, the effectiveness of that strategy matters more than the fact that it exists in the first place. Forage did not disclose efficacy information, but said that “some” corporate partners hired up to 52% of the cohort from their programs.

When Brunskill and Rayan first started Forage in 2017, they imagined a mentoring marketplace to connect students to young professionals. Three years later, much has changed.

“While students were interested in the product, they weren’t using it the way we intended,” he said. “Students kept saying to us ‘we just want an internship at company X, can you get me one?’ ”

While Brunskill doesn’t believe there’s any silver bullet solution to fixing education or recruitment systems, he remains optimistic in Forage’s future. After all, even if democratizing access to skills is the first step in a bigger race, it’s not an easy one.

Who really benefits from reskilling?

Categories: Business News

With Goat Capital, Justin Kan and Robin Chan want to keep founding alongside the right teams

2020, September 18 - 2:07am

Justin Kan and Robin Chan have each been angel investing for more than a decade. They’re starting a new fund together now, though, to stay involved as cofounders of more startups.

Goat Capital is a hybrid incubator versus a pure seed investment firm, Chan explains. It will be writing checks ranging between roughly half a million and $3 million dollars, and it is only planning to raise $40 million — so the checks will be selective.

The offering is that “you’re going to be working with Justin and Robin,” he says, as a direct collaboration to help your company succeed. With $25 million closed already from themselves and several family offices, the fund has begun investing globally with particular interests in digital health, ecommerce, digital entertainment and gaming, robotics and climate change.

The goal is not just about being the Greatest Of All Time, Kan adds. In a startup, you “climb high heights and eat shit to get there. That tenacity is what we want.”

It’s a nod to their own successes and struggles as founders over the years, and what they have seen as investors and advisors to a wide range of companies around the world (Twitter, Xiaomi, Bird, Uber, Square, Ginkgo Bioworks, Scale.ai, Cruise, Razorpay, Xendit, Equipment Share, Wave, Teachable, Semantic Machines, Rippling, Built Robotics, etc.)

Kan was a cofounder of Justin.tv, which became Twitch as well as Socialcam. He later had an on-demand company called Exec and previously a calendar app called Kiko, both of which sold for small amounts. Most recently, he took a big shot at the traditional legal industry with Atrium, a law firm and legal software startup that raised big rounds of funding before shuttering earlier this year.

His prototype for Goat is Alto Pharmacy, a booming digital health unicorn today that the founders started in his living room.

“We do think founders should be treated like athletes, going for gold really hard… the Olympic metaphor,” Kan qualifies about the name. “That means grinding for years — and having to rest, too. I’m very passionate about mental health and wellness as part of the journey.” (More on that here.)

Chan, meanwhile, sold his gaming startup in China to Zynga a decade ago, then helped lead a failed attempt to buy Blackberry before founding Operator, a well-funded ecommerce company that closed a few years ago. During the pandemic, he helped create Operation Masks, a nonprofit that has been providing PPE across the US. He’s also an ongoing advisor to Sleeper, Bird, Expa and Flipboard.

The focus will be fully global now. Chan explains that even though you’re seeing more challenges to building a truly global company these days, there’s more space for local startups to win big.

“There’s the US internet, the China internet, the India internet, the EU internet — in some ways it makes those markets more valuable to win, like traditional media. Broadcast and cable are highly geographic but the franchise value becomes higher because of the regulatory moat.”

Chan, on that note, met Kan back when he was a director at [current TechCrunch owner] Verizon Wireless, when Justin.tv was trying to negotiate for free data. When I asked if they had worked out a deal during a phone interview, Kan said “you [expletive] didn’t.”

But it did lead to other co-investments later on, including Ramp, Workstream and others, and now this fund.

Today, Kan says that the focus on teams will be as flexible as the times. “When we started, the internet was America,” he says. “If you weren’t there, you weren’t a company. It’s been a complete reversal of that. Now teams are international, talent is international, more and more companies are building remote first — although you’d seen that before given the costs of the Bay. We have an entirely remote company in North Carolina, Grammarly in Europe… it’s more and more the norm. Smart founders are going anywhere to find talent.

For the two partners, this new fund will be about staying connected to that certain startup feeling that is elusive for anyone trying to build something great.

“There’s nothing more magical than being in the first step of a special company,” Chan says. “That glimpse of the future. We wouldn’t get the same feeling at the growth stage versus working with small teams or a single founder. I think we have the instinct.”

Categories: Business News

Sophie Hill on the changing face of retail and surviving 2020

2020, September 18 - 1:40am

Threads is not your average startup and, really, it’s not a startup anymore. It’s over 10 years old, employs more than 150 people and successfully bridged the Series A gap in Europe closing a round of $20 million back in 2018. And so far, it’s surviving 2020. 

COVID-19 has put retail — and the rest of us — on a roller coaster. For some it has minted millions, with captive audiences realizing that they really, really hate that couch and it’s finally time to replace it. For others, like Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney and J. Crew, it has meant bankruptcy. Bankruptcy filings for 2020 are clocking in at 424, according to S&P Global, and look on track to upset the total filings in 2010. 

Threads finds itself heartily in the black on this one.

“We’ve definitely had a challenging year. When we look at Threads’ business model we’re set up to respond very quickly and we have had a strong year. We’re very much in the luxury sector, we specialize in the luxury clientele and we have not seen a decline in our existing customers,” Threads founder and CEO Sophie Hill explained as she joined us at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 virtual conference.

Despite predicting slower growth, Threads is actually attracting new customers, many of whom have been hesitant to make the jump into digital, proving that the luxury market, and customer, is as robust as ever. “We have seen customers purchasing goods at our higher-value price points, which is actually down to the fact that the stores are closed.” 

While this might be the final nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar retail, it’s bigger than that.

“People have been forced to go online, who might not have gone there as a first choice. Many people have found it easier than expected and a real lifeline in lockdown. I think that will hugely change trends,” Hill says. With an ever more competitive retail market, what can help brands stand out? 

For Threads, it’s all about the customer. That means meeting them where they are, be it WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram (though we’ve yet to see the brand appear on TikTok) and delivering a seamless customer experience that centers on two key values: convenience and personalization. Above all, agility breeds resilience. 

Learn what channels are showing high engagement, the discovery process for new platforms poised to take the market and strategies retailers both big and small can use to stay ahead of the curve in the interview below. 

Categories: Business News

Demand Sage raises $3M to make sales and marketing data more accessible

2020, September 18 - 1:08am

Demand Sage, a new startup from the founders of recently-acquired mobile analytics company Localytics, announced this morning that it has raised $3 million in seed funding led by Eniac Ventures and Underscore VC.

When I spoke to CEO Raj Aggarwal, CTO Henry Cipolla and CPO Randy Dailey back in February, they outlined a vision to make it easier for marketers to get the data and insights they need, initially by automatically generating Google Sheets reports using data from HubSpot.

More recently, Demand Sage has been expanding into sales data.

“From our solid base with marketers we noticed sales leaders pulling us in to help them too,” Aggarwal told me via email. “We’ve been able to give them visibility they didn’t have, in areas such as where deals are getting stuck and which activities actually drive revenue. It makes sense since there is a ton of overlap between the sales and marketing functions, especially in SMBs. ”

Aggarwal also said that Demand Sage has expanded its product lineup beyond pre-built report templates by introducing a no-code “Report Builder,” and by testing out an insights tools that could, for example, help salespeople determine which deals need their attention.

In a statement, Vinayak Ranade, CEO of Demand Sage customer Drafted, said, “With every sales and marketing tool I’ve used, eventually you give up and export data to a spreadsheet to dig into the numbers,” whereas with Demand Sage, it’s “like having a Google Sheets power-user that automatically makes the spreadsheets that you really want to see.”

As for how the business has fared during the pandemic, Aggarwal said, “Demand has really jumped. Companies need more cost-effective solutions and greater flexibility as business models shift.”

Localytics founders announce Demand Sage, a startup bringing marketing intelligence to small and mid-sized businesses

Categories: Business News

As the Western US burns, a forest carbon capture monitoring service nabs cash from Amazon & Bill Gates-backed fund

2020, September 18 - 12:59am

Pachama, the forest carbon sequestration monitoring service that tracks how much carbon dioxide is actually captured in forestry offset projects, has raised $5 million in fresh funding from a clutch of high-profile investors, including Amazon and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

The investment is one of several deals that Amazon has announced today through its Climate Pledge Fund. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the firm backed by Bill Gates and other billionaires, led the round, which brings Pachama’s total haul to $9 million so it can scale its forest restoration and conservation emissions reduction monitoring service, the company said.

With the Western United States continuing to burn from several fires that cover acres of drought-impacted forests and deforestation continuing to be a problem around the world, Pachama’s solution couldn’t be more timely. The company’s remote verification and monitoring service using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence measures carbon captured by forests.

It also couldn’t be more personal. Pachama’s founder, Diego Saez-Gil, lost his own home in the wildfires that tore through California earlier this year.

“We will need to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and carbon credits can be the funding mechanism,” Saez-Gil wrote in a direct message.

Pachama joins two other companies that are jointly financed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund.

Other big corporate investors also backed Pachama. Groupe Arnault’s investment arm, Aglaé Ventures, and Airbnb’s alumni fund, AirAngels invested, as did a number of prominent family offices and early-stage funds. Sweet Capital, the fund investing the personal wealth of gaming company King.com’s management team; Serena Ventures (the investment vehicle for tennis superstar Serena Williams) and Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital fund also invested in the round, along with Third Kind Ventures and Xplorer Ventures.

“There is growing demand from businesses with ESG commitments looking for ways to become carbon neutral, and afforestation is one of the most attractive carbon removal options ready today at scale,” said Carmichael Roberts, of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in a statement. “By leveraging technology to create new levels of measurement, monitoring, and verification of carbon removal—while also onboarding new carbon removal projects seamlessly—Pachama makes it easier for any company to become carbon neutral. With its advanced enterprise tools and resources, the company has enormous potential to accelerate carbon neutrality initiatives for businesses through afforestation.”

Categories: Business News

Caroline Brochado and Sophia Bendz on the boom in Europe’s early and growth-stage startups

2020, September 18 - 12:37am

As part of Disrupt 2020 we wanted to look at the contrasting positions of both early and later-stage investing in Europe. Who better to unpack this subject than two highly experienced operators in these fields?

After a career at Spotify and then as a VC at Atomico, Sophia Bendz has rapidly gained a reputation in Europe as a keen early-stage investor. She recently left Atomico to pursue her early and seed-stage passion with Cherry Ventures. Bendz is a prolific angel investor, with a total of more than 44 deals in the last nine years. Her angel investments include AidenAI, Tictail, Joints Academy, Omnius, LifeX, Eastnine, Manual, Headvig, Simple Feast and Sana Labs. She is known for being a champion of the femtech space, and her angel investments in that space include Clue, Grace Health, Daye, O School and Boost Thyroid.

Carolina Brochado, the former Atomico partner and most recently a partner at SoftBank Vision Fund’s London office, recently joined EQT Ventures to help launch EQT’s Growth fund, which is positioned between ventures and private equity. Brochado led investments in a number of promising companies at Atomico,  including logistics company OnTruck, health tech company Hinge Health and restaurant supply chain app Rekki.

After establishing that these two knew each other while at Atomico, I asked Bendz why she headed back into the seed-stage arena.

“I’m a trained marketeer and storyteller by heart… What makes me excited is new markets opportunities, people, culture, teams. So with that, in combination with my angel investing, I think I’m better suited to be in the earlier stages of investing. When I was investing before joining Atomico, I said to myself, I want to learn from the best, I want to see how it’s done, how you structure the process and how you think about the bigger investments.”

Brochado says the European “cat is out of the bag,” as it were:

When I first moved to Europe in 2012 and first joined Atomico, after having been at a very small startup, there was still a massive gap in funding and Europe versus the U.S. I think you know the European secret is no longer a secret, and you have incredible funds being started at that early-stage seed and Series A, and because I was here in 2012, I’ve seen the amazing pipeline of growth companies that are coming up the curve, how the momentum of those companies is accelerating and how the market cap of those businesses are growing. And so I just became super excited about helping those businesses scale… I just now felt like bridging that gap in between was really exciting.

One of the perennial topics that come up time and time again is whether or not founders should go with VC partners who have previously been operators, versus those with a finance background.

“Looking back, my years at Spotify, we had great investors, but there were not many of them that had the experience of scaling a big company,” Bendz said. “So, I’m happy to give [a startup] more than just the check in a way that I would have wished I had a sounding board when I was 25 and tackling that challenge at Spotify.”

Brochado concurred: “Having operators in the room is just is an incredible gift I think to a fund and at certain levels, having people that understand you know different forms of financing and different structures can also be incredibly helpful to founders who may not necessarily have that background. So I think that the funds that do it best have that diversity.”

Bendz is passionate about investing in female founders and femtech: “It’s such a massive business opportunity that is completely untapped. We’ve seen it many times when you have a female investment partner [that] the pipeline opens up and you get more deal flow from female founders…. So I think we have a lot of work to do. I think it’s definitely improved a lot in the last couple of years but not enough… That is one of the drivers for why I put my money where my mouth is and invest in lifting the founders, but also because there are incredibly interesting business opportunities… There are so many opportunities and products or services that we will see being developed. When we have a more equal society, and more women, both building their own companies, coding and also investing… I can’t wait to see what that world will look like.”

Brochado’s view is that “even beyond founders… the best managers today are putting a lot of focus on this and I think what’s exciting is, I think we’re past the point where you have to explain to people why diversity matters.”

Is there a post-Series A chasm?

Bendz thinks: “We have more big funds in Europe [now]. We have a really solid ground here in Europe of A, B and C investors.”

Brochado said: “It’s definitely getting better. You don’t hear as many founders say that to do my Series B or my Series C I have to move to the Valley as you used to. But there’s a lot of room still for growth investors in Europe. I think Series B is the hardest round actually because, at seed or Series A, you can raise on very early traction or the quality of the management team. At Series B the price goes up but the risk doesn’t necessarily go down as much. And so I think that’s where you really need investors who are sector or thematic focused, who can come with conviction and also some knowledge around the company to really propel that company forward.”

Did they both see European entrepreneurs still making silly mistakes, or has the ecosystem mastered?

Brochado thinks 10 years ago it was hard for European founders as a lot of the talent to scale companies was still in the U.S. “What you’ve seen is a lot of big companies grow up in Europe, a lot of people come back from the U.S., and so I think that pool of talent now is larger, which is very helpful. I don’t think it’s yet at the scale of where the U.S. is. But it gives us, you know as investors, a great window of opportunity to help get some of that talent for our portfolio companies.”

The impact of COVID-19

Bendz thinks we will “see a much slower spring, but… I think it has been overall a good exercise for some companies, and I have not seen a slower deal flow. I’ve actually done more angel deals this spring than I normally do… Some businesses have definitely accelerated their whole business concept because of COVID. Investments are being made even though we haven’t met the founders. We’re able to do everything remotely so I think the system is kind of adjusting.”

Brochado’s view is that at the growth stage “there’s been a flight to quality. So actually, the really great companies or the companies that are seeing great tailwinds or companies that will still be category-leading once [have] seen a lot of interest. It’s been a very busy summer, which usually it isn’t, particularly at the growth stage… I think a lot of money is still in the system, and has flown into technology. And so if you look at how tech in the public markets has performed it’s performed extremely well. And that includes European public companies and within tech.”

Watch the full panel below.

Categories: Business News

Impact, a YC-style accelerator for the entertainment industry, spins out from Imagine Entertainment with backing from Benchmark

2020, September 18 - 12:00am

Hollywood has been better known for making films and TV shows about the tech industry than it has been for being a part of it, but today a new enterprise is launching, backed by a major Silicon Valley venture firm, that hopes to hit pause on that image.

Imagine Impact, a content accelerator that launched two years ago under production powerhouse Imagine Entertainment to impart a “Y Combinator” approach to sourcing new work and connecting it with production opportunities, has raised a Series A round of funding from Benchmark, the VC firm that has backed Uber, Twitter, Dropbox, Snapchat and many more — funding that it plans to use to continue building out its accelerator model as well as launching new technology ventures, it said.

With the investment, Imagine Impact is effectively spinning out of Imagine Entertainment, and rebranding as a standalone company called Impact Creative Systems.

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the high profile duo that in 1985 started the film and TV production company that has been behind a string of hits, stay on as founders, but Impact (as the firm calls itself) will be run day to day by CEO Tyler Mitchell. (And all three will be talking with us on the Disrupt stage today about this and more.)

Mitchell says that the amount of the investment, the first outside money that Impact has taken, is not being disclosed but that it’s in line with a typical Benchmark Series A. That would put it between $10 million and $20 million. The investment is being led by Bill Gurley, who will join the board with the deal.

The funding will be used to help the firm spearhead new ventures that continue building out the idea of taking a new approach to networking and finding career opportunities throughout the entertainment industry, breaking down some of the barriers of how business has always been done — through networks of who you know, lots of lunches and other hobnobbing. The idea is for the projects coming out of Impact to be underpinned not just with a tech ethos, but with actual technology.

First up is the launch later this year of The Creative Network, which Imagine describes as “an online marketplace and professional networking platform designed specifically for entertainment industry professionals to help bring efficiency and access to Hollywood.” It’s a little like LinkedIn meets Behance.

Up to now, Impact has been focusing its energies on building out its accelerators and securing deals for the writers in its cohorts, with the whole set-up inspired by the famous Silicon Valley accelerator.

The YC playbook is used in two ways. The first is in the model it’s using, where it opens applications to anyone interested to applying, and then provides those selected with mentorship, time and a little financing to do their creative work. The second comes in the form of the mentors having a lot of connections in the industry and using those to help the writers connect with others to produce their work.

The accelerator model has seen an accelerating amount of interest. Impact now has built a second accelerator outside of LA, in Australia; it has started a podcast featuring interviews with famous actors, directors and others (pointing to other kinds of content that it might spin out as business projects). And its inked a deal with Netflix Films to help source and develop content globally.

And perhaps most interestingly for laying groundwork for The Creative Network, it has built up a network of 30,000 writers across 80 countries; it has helped develop 72 projects; and 25 of those are now with major studios.

Those efforts have also had some tech built around them. Mitchell said that a beta of sorts for The Creative Network was built originally to use for the accelerator. “We built it because we were just three people running the accelerator and didn’t have the human resources available to send out or read potentially thousands of scripts” — specifically 3,000 script submissions in 72 hours — “so we built a mobile app.” Features include the ability to push submissions, make watermarks and track emails in the bigger database, the said.

“We talk about ourselves as a dating app,” joked Mitchell. “You have to get four people to fall in love with one story or writer or piece of material” to advance, he said, “the producer, director, star and financier. That involves a lot of phone calls and relationships and phone tag. It can be a very long process to triangulate and build the right teams.”

While efforts so far have been focused on building ways of connecting writers with producers, the bigger picture is to build a network that can bring in the rest of the ecosystem, including directors, actors and the extensive technical and admin talent needed to get a project off the ground and on to a screen. All of these connections up to now have been firmly stuck in the analogue world, making them slow, limited in terms of inclusiveness, and obviously very ripe for technological disruption.

“It takes 500-1,000 people in total to bring a project to life,” Mitchell said. And the bigger opportunity for connecting networks is massive. Mitchell estimates that just in the US, the production business employs 2.6 million people and accounts for some $177 billion in wages each year and it’s growing.

“The old way of sourcing talent in the entertainment industry is based on who you know, which presents high barriers-to-entry for the fresh voices we need to hear from,” said Gurley, in a statement. “Impact is knocking down these barriers through a marketplace model that reduces information asymmetry and levels the playing field. Ultimately this leads to more opportunities and better outcomes for everyone involved.”

Indeed, Hollywood has been between a rock and a hard place when it comes to changing up its ways.

On one side, the industry regularly faces criticism for lacking diversity in its ranks and failing to identify with the masses. Complaints include too few women in decision-making roles and the difficulty of finding work if you don’t fit into particular age and appearance types; accusations of racism (OscarsSoWhite being a recurring theme each awards season); and more.

On the other, the media industry — including how consumers watch video — is rapidly evolving. For better or worse, the TV was once the absolute epicenter of how a family came together and saw what was happening in the world outside. Those Happy Days are gone now, so to speak. People watch YouTube and TikTok, Snapchat and Netflix, and while some of that definitely is still tapping into the older Hollywood ecosystem — Netflix, of course, repurposes a lot of traditional TV and film content, and commissions its own — it also speaks to just how rapidly the mediums and their delivery are changing.

While the first efforts of Impact are addressing the first group of these issues, one follow up question — the sequel, you might say — might be how and if Impact chooses to use its networks, tech and strategy to think about the second of these.

Before coming to the entertainment industry (he was been a writer and producer for years before this) Mitchell said he had a background in finance and has “always been entrepreneurial.” The tech scene in LA has definitely been growing over the years — it’s home to Snap and others — meaning its ripe for tapping for hiring more people for the startup.

“We’re talking with data scientists to build better algorithms for the Network and yes we’re hiring engineers,” he said. “We’ve attracted some incredible talent and the majoirty of the investment is going to scaling our team.” Impact now has 11 full time technical staff, he said. 

“We could not be more thrilled to be working with Benchmark. They have an unrivaled track record in building marketplaces and companies that have changed the world,” said Grazer, in a statement. “From the moment we met Bill, it was clear that he understood and believed in our vision. Benchmark is not just an investor, but a true partner, whose expertise you can’t put a price on.” 

“With Benchmark, we are now in a better place to serve the greater creative community worldwide,” said Howard, in a statement. “Their investment enables us to go wider and deeper in bringing great storytellers to the forefront and connecting them to the entertainment industry.”

Categories: Business News

Which 5 cloud startup categories are the hottest?

2020, September 17 - 11:23pm

Hello from the midst of Disrupt 2020: after this short piece for you I am wrapping my prep for a panel with investors from Bessemer, a16z and Canaan about the future of SaaS. Luckily, The Exchange this morning is on a very similar topic.

The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.

Today we’re parsing some data that Bessemer and Forbes shared regarding their yearly Cloud 100 list. It’s a grouping of private cloud and SaaS companies, giving us a good look into valuation trends over time and also where the most valuable startups are focusing their efforts.

The data show a changing focus from the biggest and most impressive private SaaS and cloud companies. And the valuation trends show how growing private valuations could limit future returns, given historical results.

Of course, modern cloud valuations make it hard to be bearish on SaaS revenue multiples, but all the same, how much higher can they go? Every startup looks cheap when money is cheap. Let’s get into the numbers.

A changing sector focus

The Cloud 100 cycles companies in and out as time passes. As the list is focused on private companies, cloud and SaaS firms that sell to another company or go public leave the cohort. And new companies join, keeping the total group at precisely 100 companies.

Here are the top five sectors those 100 companies are focused on, in order of popularity:

Categories: Business News

Here’s what’s happening at Disrupt 2020 today

2020, September 17 - 11:12pm

Rise, shine and build your business startup fans. It’s day four of Disrupt 2020, and this is your daily snapshot of just some of the heavy-hitters, events, breakout sessions and all-around opportunity that’s yours for the taking.

Looking for the complete lineup? You’ll find it in the Disrupt agenda. Note: unless otherwise stated, all times are PST. Kicking yourself for not jumping on the opportunity bandwagon? Simply buy a Disrupt pass here, and kick your regrets to the curb.

Buckle up, folks — you’re in for a great day.

Athleisure wear is one of the hottest trends in retail, and it’s certainly a popular work-at-home wardrobe during a pandemic. Head to the Disrupt Stage and join comedian/tech investor Kevin Hart and Fabletics’ Adam Goldenberg for Retail is in the Details. They’ll talk about the company’s future and the type of tech Hart may invest in next (9:05 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.).

Everybody loves robots, but not many people know more about them than Boston Dynamics’ Robert Playter. You’ll find him on the Disrupt Stage talking about the company’s transition from robotics research to commercial production. Don’t miss Putting Robots to Work (10:00 a.m. – 10:20 a.m.)

We trust you haven’t missed a minute of the always-thrilling Startup Battlefield pitch competition. Still, a reminder never hurts. Session four takes place on the Disrupt Stage. Don’t miss watching today’s cohort lay it all on the line for a shot at $100,000 (10:40 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.).

Okay folks this session, Under the Radar, is a big, big deal. Legendary VC and Silicon Valley force of nature, Benchmark’s Peter Fenton joins us on the Disrupt Stage for a rare interview. Topic? The future of startups and venture capital (11:45 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.).

Head to the Extra Crunch Stage for product development tips from current and former product heads at places like Facebook, Zoom, Slack, Hulu and Oculus. Zoom’s Oded Gal, Advisor’s Eugene Wei, Slack’s Tamar Yehoshua and Inspirit’s Julie Zhuo will discuss How to Iterate Your Product (11:50 a.m. – 12:45 p.m.).

Data security is everyone’s concern — from budding startup founders all the way up to the NSA. Don’t miss Spycraft and Cybersecurity and the opportunity to hear Anne Neuberger, head of the NSA’s new Cybersecurity Directorate. She’ll take to the Disrupt Stage and discuss cyber threats, disrupting foreign adversaries and helping you improve your own cybersecurity (1:00 p.m. – 1:20 p.m.).

Whew, that rundown should whet your appetite for the day ahead. Connect, inspire, collaborate and take advantage of all the tips, advice, tools and opportunity Disrupt 2020 offers.

Still standing on the sidelines? You have two full days left to Disrupt and reject regret. Buy a Disrupt pass right now.

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Categories: Business News

Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra asks 6 VCs how to raise funding when the sky is falling

2020, September 17 - 10:13pm
Rahul Vohra Contributor Share on Twitter Rahul Vohra is the founder and CEO of email app Superhuman.

When I wrote about how to run your startup in a downturn, the world was on the brink of recession. The economy contracted sharply — and the effects of the 2020 recession will persist.

If you are a founder, you can help. You can build companies that connect people, create employment and spark lasting change.

“Building is how we reboot the American dream,” declared Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz. In his rallying cry “It’s Time to Build” he writes: “We need to break the rapidly escalating price curves for housing, education and healthcare, to make sure that every American can realize the dream, and the only way to do that is to build.”

Yet building requires capital. How do you raise funding when the economy is on its knees? I spoke with six top venture capitalists to find out:

  • Bill Trenchard, general partner, First Round Capital
  • Dan Rose, chairman, Coatue Ventures
  • Brianne Kimmel, founder, Work Life
  • Sarah Guo, general partner, Greylock
  • Merci Grace, partner, Lightspeed
  • Charles Hudson, managing partner, Precursor Ventures
How has investment behavior changed during the pandemic?
  • Deal velocity has gone up.
  • The bar for investments is rising.
  • VCs are nurturing existing investments and “proto-founders.”

The recession did not cause activity to stall. In fact, deal velocity has gone up.

“It’s almost like a superheated environment right now,” says Bill Trenchard, general partner at First Round. “The speed with which partnerships can quickly meet with a company that’s of interest is so much higher in the Zoom world. It’s changing our thinking around velocity in the market, which was already very high.”

“We’ve been as active as we were before,” agrees Dan Rose, chairman at Coatue Ventures. “Maybe even slightly more active because I think more good companies are raising as kind of an insurance policy. When it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to meet with founders in person anymore, we snapped to Zoom.”

Velocity may be rising, but investors now require more data to reach conviction.

“The pricing is still the same but we see risk going up,” says Bill Trenchard. “You need to be very rigorous on your investment theses and how you’re looking at companies. We’ve been looking for more grapple hooks and more data for things that we do invest in, so that we have more conviction when we do.”

“There’s been almost an immediate shift in terms of expectations from VCs,” says Brianne Kimmel, founder of early stage venture firm Work Life. “Companies have been forced to come in with more richness and customer development, a clear path to revenue, a lot more of a strategic approach around the core mechanics of the business and more specifically the business model.”

Sarah Guo, general partner at Greylock, also has high expectations for founders.

Categories: Business News

X1 Card is a credit card based on your income, not your credit score

2020, September 17 - 10:00pm

There are many reasons why you could have a good or a bad credit score. But if you’re just entering the job market, you may end up with reliable income and a low limit on your credit card. X1 Card wants to solve that by setting limits based on your current and future income instead of your credit score.

The company says some customers can expect limits up to five times higher than what they would get from a traditional credit card. And that limit can move up if you get a promotion at your job for instance.

“The consumer credit card industry has been almost untouched by tech and has relied on the archaic credit score system. Max [Levchin], David [Sacks] and I have similar scores — that makes no sense!” co-founder Deepak Rao told me. “We reimagined the credit card from the ground up to have smarter limits, intelligent features, modern rewards and a new look.”

Depending on your creditworthiness, you’ll get a variable APR of 12.9 to 19.9% and a balance transfer fee of 2%. There’s no annual subscription fee and X1 Card doesn’t change any late fee or foreign transaction fee.

Behind the scene, X1 Card is built by Thrive, the company that created ThriveCash, a loan platform that lets you get a credit line based on offer letters for an upcoming summer internship or your first full-time job after college.

You can then borrow as much as 25% of your total internship salary or 25% of your first three paychecks if it’s a full-time job. There are some fees, but it can be helpful if you’re signing a new lease and you don’t have any money on your bank account for instance.

Thrive has raised $10.25 million in funding from PayPal and Affirm founder Max Levchin, former Twitter COO Adam Bain, Craft Ventures general partner David Sacks and others. Read TechCrunch’s Natasha Mascarenhas article on ThriveCash if you want to learn more about that product.

Thrive gives loans to students based on summer internships and job offers

Coming back to X1 Card, the card is a stainless steel Visa card that works with Apple Pay and Google Pay. It helps you track your subscriptions in different ways. First, you can cancel your subscription payments from the app. If you’re trying out a new service and they require you to enter your credit card information to start a free trial, you can also generate an auto-expiring virtual credit card.

If you receive a refund, X1 Card sends you a notification. You can also attach receipts to your transaction in the app.

When it comes to rewards, X1 Card uses points. You get 2x points on all purchases by default — there’s no category or retailers that give you special rewards. If you spend more than $15,000 using the card in a year, you get 3X points. If you refer a friend, you get 4X points on your purchases for a month — each new referral adds an extra month with 4X points. Points can be redeemed at retail partners, such as Apple, Airbnb, Delta, Everlane, etc.

In other words, it’s a credit card. But what makes this product more interesting than your average Chase-branded card is that it wants to disrupt the credit score system. It’s going to be interesting to see if people can really get higher limits with that system.

Image credits: X1 Card

Categories: Business News

Connected fitness startup Tonal raises another $110 million

2020, September 17 - 9:03pm

Connected home fitness startup Tonal announced today that it has raised an additional $110 million. The latest round of funding includes existing investor L Catterton and new names, including Delta-v Capital, Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Mousse Partners, along with athletes Stephen Curry, Paul George, Michelle Wie and Bobby Wagner. The round brings the Bay Area-based company’s total funding up to $200 million.

Image Credits: Tonal

It’s a pretty massive round for the strength training company, especially as the space have become increasingly crowded in recent years. It’s clear, however, that investors are eager to get on-board with technologies that can help approximate the gym experience at home, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down public workout facilities all over the world.

Tonal raises $45 million to bring strength training to more living rooms

Even as some have begun to reopen, many have done so with limited capacity. And many members are practicing abundance of caution when it comes to returning to gyms. There is, after, all a high risk factor of spread. Given that fact, the home workout it likely to continue to see growth in the coming months and year. There’s also the fact that Lululemon recently acquired Mirror, arguably Tonal’s biggest name competitor for $500 million.

Lululemon set to acquire home fitness startup Mirror for $500M

What sets Tonal apart from much of the competition, however, is a strength training element in addition to the reflective screen. The system utilizes resistance technologies to approximate more traditional dumbbell/barbell-based weight training.

Here’s Curry explaining why he’s a fan: “I’ve had a Tonal for almost two years. While in quarantine during COVID, I have relied heavily on it to maintain my strength training and believe it is revolutionizing how people will work out now and in the future.”

Tonal also used the occasion to note that it has begun working with the Mayo Clinic for physical therapy trials, with results expected to be posted early next near. It’s also working with a number of hotels/resorts, including Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows, the Waldorf Astoria Boca Raton Resort and Club and the JW Marriott Anaheim.

Categories: Business News

Supercell’s CEO talks about its majority owner Tencent, finding its next hit and more

2020, September 17 - 8:47pm

Mobile games maker Supercell has been one of the great, understated breakthroughs of the European startup world. The Helsinki-based mobile games maker built an empire out of Clash of Clans, raking in tons of money and catching the eye of world-class investors and eventually a new strategic majority shareholder in the form of Tencent at a $10.2 billion valuation.

That was in 2016. So how does a hot startup keep its edge?

As part of this year’s virtual Disrupt, we sat down to talk with the company’s founder and CEO, Ilkka Paananen, about that and the other challenges and opportunities facing the company, and asked for his tips and opinion on spinning up and running startups in Europe today.

Times are definitely not easy right now: all of us are living through a global health pandemic, and economies as a result of that are teetering; and there is an interesting sea change happening as gaming companies (along with other content makers) face off against big tech, where there’s a question of whether platforms or the games themselves have the upper hand. (The most visible and recent example of that: the counter-lawsuits between Epic and Apple over in-app payments.)

For Supercell specifically, its majority owner, Tencent, is in hot water in the U.S. (a major market for Supercell); and it’s sitting on a still-popular but now-ageing game franchise that you could argue is in the middle of its own Battle Royale against the many other big games that are vying for people’s attention (and spending power to keep playing and levelling up). In short, the company itself, now 10 years old, may itself be facing more existential questions of who are we now, and what comes next?

As you’ll see in the video below, Paananen is very sanguine and calm, which is to say quite Finnish, about a lot of this.

Even without the experience thus far of Supercell under his belt, he has been in the industry for years. Supercell is his second big hit company: before that he founded Sumea, which was acquired by Digital Chocolate, where he became president in the now-defunct bigger studio’s heyday. And, he has been and is an investor, too: most recently Paananen backed Zwift, the gamefied home fitness startup, in its most recent, $450 million round, which included him joining the company’s board. All of this is to say that he can see the bigger picture.

The Tencent issues in the U.S., he said, are something that the company is watching. But not only are they unresolved — indeed just this week, ahead of any proposed bans on Tencent properties and WeChat in particular, the U.S. government issued more clarification on how people are liable for using WeChat. In any case, Paananen said in the interview that he believes that Supercell doesn’t fall under the U.S. executive order to be shut down, because Tencent is only a shareholder, not a full owner. He’s still waiting to see how it all plays out.

“Our current understanding [is that] it’s about WeChat not Tencent as a whole,” he said, “and that it doesn’t apply to Tencent-invested companies like Supercell.” (Also: one of the good things to have come out of not getting fully acquired, it seems.)

Similarly, Paananen is not overly concerned about the fact that its big hit, while still one of the highest-grossing apps globally, is getting on and slowly bringing in fewer revenues.

Judging by the fact that Supercell has yet to follow up with another successful franchise, and has killed quite a few attempts in the meantime, the process to produce a hit, in fact, still seems to be as elusive to a company that has produced a hit already as it is to those that have not.

“It would be nice to be always on this kind of a growth curve, but the reality is… it’s very much about hits or misses,” he said.

“Sometimes figures go up, and sometimes they go down [so] what’s your time horizon? We never ever think about the next quarter, and very, very rarely think about it and maybe next year, I think that’s a target in itself, you know. We try to think in decades. Our dream is to build a game so as many people as possible will play for a very long time. We are inspired by companies like, say, Nintendo. And if you’re going to take that… then that changes your perspective.”

The company has been building out its options, though, making about three investments a year in other gaming startups, and some full acquisitions of studios, to diversify the team and bring in more options for new games in the future. Later in the Q&A with viewers, Paananen said Supercell has no plans yet for anything in AR or VR, with a firm belief that mobile, and the mechanics of a touch screen, are the best for what it’s building.

It seems the most valuable lesson Paananen has learned, it turns out, is the thing that continues to be his top priority: building the right team for the long haul.

Making sure you have a group that can work together, inspire each other and be productive has been the constant, one that perhaps means even more as the company grows bigger and we continue to work under very decentralised circumstances.

“We are currently on the look-out for people from all around the world to join Supercell to build the best teams and then of course the best games,” he said.

Hear about all this, plus Paananen’s opinion on raising money, and more, below.

Categories: Business News

A conversation with Tunde Kehinde of Lidya on finance and the digital divide

2020, September 17 - 8:02pm

Small and medium businesses have been some of the hardest hit in the COVID-19 pandemic. And all that has been as true in emerging markets as it has been for SMBs in the developed world.

Tunde Kehinde has had a front-row seat witnessing and responding to that crisis. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Lidya, a startup out of Nigeria that has built a platform for SMBs to apply for and get loans and other financial services, aimed at markets on the African continent and increasingly also in emerging economies in Europe. We sat down with him as part of our new virtual Disrupt series, where we have been connecting with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world beyond the U.S.

Kehinde has been called the “Jeff Bezos of Africa,” a funny title you might think sounds like tenuous or cheesy marketing until you know more about his history in business and the impact it’s had so far (he’s not that old) in the region — and until you hear him speak.

Kehinde — born in Nigeria and exposed to a lot of the U.S. way of doing things through university years at Howard and then Harvard — was previously the co-founder of one of the biggest tech startups to have come out of the continent — Jumia — an Amazon-style marketplace that is slowly branching out into a wider web of services like payments, food delivery and more.

Initially incubated by Rocket Internet, Jumia raised hundreds of millions of dollars from VCs, scaled to multiple countries on the continent and is now traded publicly on Nasdaq with a current market cap of $660 million — modest by Amazon standards maybe, but a real milestone for African tech.

That alone would probably cause some to wonder if he’s the “next Bezos,” but it’s been his follow-up act at Lidya that paints a broader picture. In short, there is a lot more potential for payment and online commerce services in emerging markets, and focusing on helping small businesses cross the digital chasm is not just a good business opportunity, but a developmental one, too. Capital, specifically the lack thereof, has always been a huge hindrance to growth, and these days it’s an even more critical axiom to address.

You can see the full Disrupt conversation below, where Kehinde covers a lot of ground, not just about his company but about how tech is evolving in the region.

The breakout success of a handful of startups — which include the likes of new digital payments unicorn Interswitch as well as Jumia — venturing into multiple jurisdictions, he noted, is seeing more VCs also increase their interest and investment activity. He thinks the next very important step is to have more exits, which will confer a different kind of credibility and liquidity to the market.

And there should be, he added: There are few places like the African continent that is a blank slate, where you can come in quickly and build a really dominant player, if you have the right capital and team, he said.

“It’s night and day between seven years ago and now,” he added, but also admitted that while financial services and the related world of e-commerce are obvious places to start — it was also the classic category to tackle first in the U.S. and Europe many years earlier — he still sees more interest from VCs in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

His advice for VCs?

“If I were a VC I would look at what have been the biggest successes from folks like me,” he said. “Seeing Jumia and others going public, as more of these things happen the more you can develop a great policy and that will make it easier. I launched, I got to scale, I got return on investment, the right infrastructure can be built.”

Tune in here to hear him also talk about China and how to handle investment from outside Africa; what other big deals in loans for SMBs, such as Kabbage getting acquired by Amex, mean for startups like Lidya, the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on business; identifying opportunities beyond your immediate region; and more.

Categories: Business News

SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

2020, September 17 - 4:38pm

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets (the video is embedded below). Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

SmartNews’ U.S. app unveils new features for the elections, COVID-19 and local weather

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

Categories: Business News

Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy on Indian startup ecosystem, geo-political tension with China and coronavirus

2020, September 17 - 4:25pm

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed down deal-making across the world, dozens of startups in India have raised considerable amounts in recent months. Unacademy, which raised $110 million in February, closed a new round of $150 million this month.

These large check sizes, and the frequency at which they are being bandied out, were almost unheard of in India just 10 years ago. The list of problems these local startups were solving then was also quite smaller back in the day.

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

He co-founded venture capital firm Blume Ventures, where he also serves as a partner, 10 years ago. Blume Ventures is the largest Indian venture capital firm. In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Reddy talked about the state of the startup ecosystem in India, some of the challenges it is confronting today and what lies ahead for the market.

“Fifteen years is what you should consider the active VC build-out in India. For the first five to seven years, we were kind of faking it till we make it. We sold the idea that we can replicate what the U.S. and China have done,” he said.

The breakout moment in India happened when low-cost Android smartphones flooded the market. A handful of startups with consumer-facing services such as Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato emerged to serve the first tens of millions of smartphone users in the country.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market,” he said. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, entered the telecommunications market in the second half of 2016 with the world’s cheapest mobile tariff.

Moreover, for several months, Ambani simply did not charge Jio subscribers anything for access to 4G data. So India at large, once conscious about each megabyte it spent on the internet, suddenly started consuming gigabytes of content everyday. “It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Reddy.

Karthik Reddy is the co-founder of Blume Ventures, the largest Indian venture capital firm

As hundreds of millions of users in India arrived on the internet, scores of startups in the country started to solve more complex problems: Bangalore-based startup Meesho today is helping millions of women sell products digitally; Classplus, a Blume Ventures-backed startup, has built a Shopify-like platform for teachers and coaching centres to serve students directly.

As India grew into the world’s second largest internet consumer, it has also attracted American and Chinese technology groups, all of which are looking for their next billion users. Several major investment firms, including Silver Lake, Alibaba Group, Tencent, GGV Capital, Tiger Global, General Atlantic, KKR, Vista, and Owl Ventures have also arrived and become aggressive in their investments in recent years.

But the geo-political tension between India and China have slightly complicated matters. In April this year, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to China to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country. Chinese investors have ploughed billions of dollars into the Indian startup ecosystem in recent years.

It’s a sensitive topic, given the involvement of the government, that most VCs in India are not comfortable addressing it even off the record. But Reddy weighed in.

“If not an arm or limb, it cuts off a finger or two for your choices. You are a little handicapped,” he said. “But there’s a caveat to that. It’s limited to certain segments of the market. I don’t think China and Hong Kong investors, even though they were very familiar with Chinese VC success story, were really interested in India’s deep tech and cross-border tech,” he said.

Today those areas account for more than a third of the robust ecosystem in India, Reddy argued. “If you look at the entire ecosystem collectively, there’s a single-digit influence of Chinese capital. […] If you ask me personally, 40% of my portfolio is not even remotely affected by it,” he said.

But several large consumer-facing Indian startups, such as Paytm, Zomato and Udaan, do have Chinese investors on their cap tables. Reddy said they would be impacted as uncertainty looms over when — and if — India would offer any relaxation to its current stand.

He said he is hopeful that the government would provide some distinction to VC-managed fund money that is not necessarily Chinese just because it’s run by someone who originated there.

Reddy also spoke about why he thinks early-stage startups, despite the proliferation of VC firms in India focusing on young firms, continue to receive less attention. We also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting his portfolio startups and the industry at large and what advice he has for startup founders to navigate the turbulence times. You can watch this and much more in the interview below.

Categories: Business News

SmartNews’ U.S. app unveils new features for the elections, COVID-19 and local weather

2020, September 17 - 4:00pm

News discovery app SmartNews’ new election features for U.S. users

At TechCrunch Disrupt today, SmartNews announced the release of major new features for the American version of its news discovery app, designed to make it easier for users to get updates about the elections, COVID-19 and the weather.

Several features focus on the presidential race, and other candidates up for vote this year. SmartNews, which has spent the past two years building its coverage of local news, also added sections devoted to local elections and ballot measures, and information on how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

During his Disrupt session, SmartNews co-founder, chief operating officer and chief engineer Kaisei Hamamato said the goal of the app’s new election features is to make it the “one-stop solution” for voters seeking information.

Another new feature is centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes an expanded case counter that now breaks them down by county; the latest information on local closings, re-opening and other pandemic-related policies; and a vaccine and drug development tracker with a timeline of news articles from different sources.

SmartNews’ new COVID-19 vaccine and drug news tracker

The final new feature is a “hyper-localized” weather report. Launched as Americans in many states are coping with wildfires or extreme weather events like hurricanes, the SmartNews’ Weather Radar uses its patented radar map design to show neighborhood-specific forecasts, including the predicted onset and intensity of rainfall.

SmartNews’ Weather Radar feature

Founded in 2012 in Japan, SmartNews launched its American version in 2014, and shows articles from 3,000 publishing partners around the world. While its news discovery is mostly driven by machine learning-based algorithms, the company’s team also includes veteran journalists who help develop new features. In the United States, SmartNews has focused on addressing increasing media polarization with features intended to help break readers out of the kind of information bubbles they encounter on social media apps.

The News From All Sides feature for the U.S. presidential election

Last year, SmartNews launched its News From All Sides feature in the U.S., which shows articles on a single topic from publications across the political spectrum that users can toggle through using a slider. Created for readers who want to see other perspectives, but might be overwhelmed by online searches, News From All Sides has been adapted for the 2020 presidential election, displaying articles about Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Categories: Business News

Narrator raises $6.2M for a new approach to data modelling that replaces star schema

2020, September 17 - 4:00pm

Snowflake went public this week, and in a mark of the wider ecosystem that is evolving around data warehousing, a startup that has built a completely new concept for modelling warehoused data is announcing funding. Narrator — which uses an 11-column ordering model rather than standard star schema to organise data for modelling and analysis — has picked up a Series A round of $6.2 million, money that it plans to use to help it launch and build up users for a self-serve version of its product.

The funding is being led by Initialized Capital along with continued investment from Flybridge Capital Partners and Y Combinator — where the startup was in a 2019 cohort — as well as new investors including Paul Buchheit.

Narrative has been around for three years, but its first phase was based around providing modelling and analytics directly to companies as a consultancy, helping companies bring together disparate, structured data sources from marketing, CRM, support desks and internal databases to work as a unified whole. As consultants, using an earlier build of the tool that it’s now launching, the company’s CEO Ahmed Elsamadisi said he and others each juggled queries “for eight big companies singlehandedly,” while deep-dive analyses were done by another single person.

Having validated that it works, the new self-serve version aims to give data scientists and analysts a simplified way of ordering data so that queries, described as actionable analyses in a story-like format — or “Narratives“, as the company calls them — can be made across that data quickly — hours rather than weeks — and consistently. (You can see a demo of how it works below provided by the company’s head of data, Brittany Davis.)

(And the new data-as-a-service is also priced in SaaS tiers, with a free tier for the first 5 million rows of data, and a sliding scale of pricing after that based on data rows, user numbers, and Narratives in use.)

Elsamadisi, who co-founded the startup with Matt Star, Cedric Dussud, and Michael Nason, said that data analysts have long lived with the problems with star schema modelling (and by extension the related format of snowflake schema), which can be summed up as “layers of dependencies, lack of source of truth, numbers not matching, and endless maintenance” he said.

“At its core, when you have lots of tables built from lots of complex SQL, you end up with a growing house of cards requiring the need to constantly hire more people to help make sure it doesn’t collapse.”

(We)Work Experience

It was while he was working as lead data scientist at WeWork — yes, he told me, maybe it wasn’t actually a tech company but it had “tech at its core” — that he had a breakthrough moment of realising how to restructure data to get around these issues.

Before that, things were tough on the data front. WeWork had 700 tables that his team was managing using a star schema approach, covering 85 systems and 13,000 objects. Data would include information on acquiring buildings, to the flows of customers through those buildings, how things would change and customers might churn, with marketing and activity on social networks, and so on, growing in line with the company’s own rapidly scaling empire.  All of that meant a mess at the data end.

“Data analysts wouldn’t be able to do their jobs,” he said. “It turns out we could barely even answer basic questions about sales numbers. Nothing matched up, and everything took too long.”

The team had 45 people on it, but even so it ended up having to implement a hierarchy for answering questions, as there were so many and not enough time to dig through and answer them all. “And we had every data tool there was,” he added. “My team hated everything they did.”

The single-table column model that Narrator uses, he said, “had been theorised” in the past but hadn’t been figured out.

The spark, he said, was to think of data structured in the same way the we ask questions, where — as he described it — each piece of data can be bridged together and then also used to answer multiple questions.

“The main difference is we’re using a time-series table to replace all your data modelling,” Elsamadisi explained. “This is not a new idea, but it was always considered impossible. In short, we tackle the same problem as most data companies to make it easier to get the data you want but we are the only company that solves it by innovating on the lowest-level data modelling approach. Honestly, that is why our solution works so well. We rebuilt the foundation of data instead of trying to make a faulty foundation better.”

Narrator calls the composite table, which includes all of your data reformatted to fit in its 11-column structure, the Activity Stream.

Elsamadisi said using Narrator for the first time takes about 30 minutes, and about a month to learn to use it thoroughly. “But you’re not going back to SQL after that, it’s so much faster,” he added.

Narrator’s initial market has been providing services to other tech companies, and specifically startups, but the plan is to open it up to a much wider set of verticals. And in a move that might help with that, longer term, it also plans to open source some of its core components so that third parties can data products on top of the framework more quickly.

As for competitors, he says that it’s essentially the tools that he and other data scientists have always used, although “we’re going against a ‘best practice’ approach (star schema), not a company.” Airflow, DBT, Looker’s LookML, Chartio’s Visual SQL, Tableau Prep are all ways to create and enable the use of a traditional star schema, he added. “We’re similar to these companies — trying to make it as easy and efficient as possible to generate the tables you need for BI, reporting, and analysis — but those companies are limited by the traditional star schema approach.”

So far the proof has been in the data. Narrator says that companies average around 20 transformations (the unit used to answer questions) compared to hundreds in a star schema, and that those transformations average 22 lines compared to 1000+ lines in traditional modelling. For those that learn how to use it, the average time for generating a report or running some analysis is four minutes, compared to weeks in traditional data modelling. 

“Narrator has the potential to set a new standard in data,” said Jen Wolf, ​Initialized Capital COO and partner and new Narrator board member​, in a statement. “We were amazed to see the quality and speed with which Narrator delivered analyses using their product. We’re confident once the world experiences Narrator this will be how data analysis is taught moving forward.”

Categories: Business News

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