“A lot of founders mix up raising money with making money.”
This quote, which Career Karma founder Ruben Harris mentioned off-hand on a phone call with me, has been on my mind for months. In fact, raising money can cost you money, in the form of that sweet, sweet ownership and equity.
That’s why Clearbanc, a startup I have covered for years, has always had a compelling pitch.
The company, co-founded by Michele Romanow and Andrew D’Souza, positions itself as an alternative equity-free capital solution for early-stage founders. Flexing its “20-minute term sheet” the startup uses an algorithm to shift through a startup’s data, and if it has positive ad spend and positive unit economics, they make an investment worth anything from $10,000 to over $10 million. It makes money through a revenue-share agreement versus an equity stake.
“While we’ve invested in over 4,000 businesses using this model, we’ve also turned away over 50,000 who weren’t at this scale or level of repeatability,” D’Souza tells TechCrunch. So, the startup told me this week that they have raised $10 million to create a new product: ClearAngel.
The startup is trying to back anyone with an online business that has early revenue, but pre-broad traction. Clearbanc wants to replace friends and family money, a concept that D’Souza says is “quite elitist,” with its own version of an angel check, while also offering founder services such as supply chain analysis, introductions to networks and competitive landscape analysis.
The startup just needs to make around $1,000 in monthly revenue to qualify for cash. In return for an investment between $10,000 to $50,000, founders have to pay up to 2% of their revenue over four years.
Clearbanc’s repayment works for some startups, but for others, a traditional bank loan could work better. Its biggest hurdle, I’d argue, is that if a startup has great revenue already, you might not want to take a revenue-share agreement loan.
As for if a startup takes ClearAngel capital and doesn’t make the minimum revenue?
“Then the ClearAngel product isn’t working,” he said. “There are bound to be some companies who still can’t make it, that’s the risk we take.”
Alternative capital has pros and cons, just like venture capital has pros and cons. If the end goal is to become a billion-dollar business, what’s the best route to do that? Is taking a revenue-share agreement going to hurt your chances as a pre-seed startup trying to raise capital? Does YC care at all?
Those are some of my biggest questions, and we’ll explore all (and more!) in my alternative financing panel next week for TC Sessions: Justice. It costs $5 to attend the entire conference, and speakers include Backstage Capital’s Arlan Hamilton and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
Remember that you can get Startups Weekly in your inbox before anyone else, if you subscribe. It’s free! As always, you can find me @nmasc_ on Twitter or e-mail me at [email protected] That is free too!
Coinbase files to go public
After being valued at $100 billion in the secondary markets, Coinbase has finally filed to go public. The S-1, as Winnie founder Sara Mauskopf tweeted, is #goals. The crypto unicorn, as my colleague Alex Wilhelm notes, grew just over 139% in 2020, a massive improvement on its 2019 results.
Here’s what to know:
I caught up with Eric Eldon, managing editor at TechCrunch and former Startups Weekly writer, about the recent work he’s been doing with Kirsten Korosec, our transportation editor.
Here’s what he had to say: Startup employees may not be going into the office as often again — or ever. But everyone will still need to go places, or at least want to! How will they do it? What will we do? How will our altered set of needs and wants reshape cities, right as new technologies are fundamentally altering transportation, too? We’re going to be covering this topic in-depth this year, as we all figure out how to go back to work.
Spain wants startups to succeed on its soil
The Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, has announced plans to turn itself into an entrepreneurial nation. The Startup Act is the first piece of dedicated legislation meant to help create tech innovation within Spain. The goals are to promote innovation, new capital through domestic and foreign investments, and to seed the future of Spain as a hub for new companies.
Here’s what to know: Driving innovation can start with relaxing on regulatory concerns.
Among a package of some 50 support measures, the entrepreneurial strategy makes a reference to “smart regulation” and floats the idea of sandboxing for testing products publicly (i.e. without needing to worry about regulatory compliance first).
Other news this week:
Some personal news
As loyal Equity listeners may have already noticed, we’ve been quietly experimenting with the concept of adding on a third show to our weekly production. This week, we told the world! Along with our current shows, which help listeners start and end the week with tech news, we’re going to bring on a Wednesday deep dive into a topic, subject area or person. Our first mid-week episode went live this week, and it was all about space (so yes, expect a lot of puns and Elon jokes).
The show is about to celebrate its four-year anniversary, and I’m about to celebrate my one-year anniversary as a co-host. We’re all so thankful for your support, and can’t wait to bring you more laughs and learnings.
Our latest episodes:
Across the week
Seen on TechCrunch
Seen on Extra Crunch
And that’s the jam-packed week! As an insider tip to those that subscribe, I’m starting to cover health tech (along with edtech) for the TC team. So throw me the smartest person you know on the topic, and extra points if that’s you.
No-code Bubble raises $100M to make technical co-founders obsolete – TechCrunch
Among Silicon Valley circles, a fun parlor game is to ask to what extent world GDP levels are held back by a lack of computer science and technical training. How many startups could be built if hundreds of thousands or even millions of more people could code and bring their entrepreneurial ideas to fruition? How many bureaucratic processes could be eliminated if developers were more latent in every business?
The answer of course is on the order of “a lot,” but the barriers to reaching this world remain formidable. Computer science is a challenging field, and despite proactive attempts by legislatures to add more coding skills into school curriculums, the reality is that the demand for software engineering vastly outstrips supply available in the market.
Coding is not a bubble, and Bubble wants to empower the democratization of software development and the creation of new startups. Through its platform, Bubble enables anyone — coder or not — to begin building modern web applications using a click-and-drag interface that can connect data sources and other software together in one fluid interface.
It’s a bold bet — and it’s just received a bold bet as well. Bubble announced today that Ryan Hinkle of Insight Partners has led a $100 million Series A round into the company. Hinkle, a long-time managing director at the firm, specializes in growth buyout deals as well as growth SaaS companies.
If that round size seems huge, it’s because Bubble has had a long history as a bootstrapped company before reaching its current scale. Co-founders Emmanuel Straschnov and Josh Haas spent seven years bootstrapping and tinkering with the product, before securing a $6.5 million seed round in June 2019 led by SignalFire. Interestingly according to Straschnov, Insight was the first venture firm to reach out to Bubble all the way back in 2014. Seven years on, the two have now signed and closed a deal.
Since the seed round, Bubble has been expanding its functionality. As a no-code tool, any missing feature could potentially block an application from being built. “In our business, it’s a features game,” Straschnov said. “[Our users] are not technical, but they have high standards.” He noted that the company introduced a plugins system that allows the Bubble community to build their own additions to the platform.
As the platform matured, it happened to nail the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which saw people scrambling for new skills and improving their prospects for what was then a gloomy job market. Straschnov says that Bubble saw an immediate bump in usage in March and April 2020, and the company has tripled revenue over the past 12 months.
Bubble’s focus for the past eight years has been on helping people turn their ideas into startups. The company’s proposition is that a large number of even venture-backed companies could be built using Bubble without the expense of a large engineering team writing code from scratch.
Unlike other no-code tools which focus on building internal corporate apps, Straschnov says that the company remains as focused today on these new companies as it has always been. “[We’re] not trying to move upmarket just yet — we are trying to do the same thing that AWS and Stripe did five years ago,” he said. Instead of trying to dominate the enterprise, Bubble wants to grow with its nascent customers as they expand in scale.
The company today charges a range of prices depending on the performance and scale requirements of an application. There’s a free tier, and then professional pricing starts at $25/mo all the way to $475/mo for its top-listed offering. Enterprise pricing is also available, as is special pricing for students.
On the latter point, Bubble is looking to invest heavily in education using its newly-raised capital. While the platform is easy to use, the reality is that any design of a web application can be intimidating for a new user, particularly one who isn’t technical. So the company wants to create more videos and documentation while also heavily investing in partnerships with universities to get more students using the platform.
While the no-code space has seen prodigious investment, Straschnov said that “I don’t look at all the no-code players as competition … the true competition we have is code.” He noted that while the no-code label has been assumed by more and more startups, very few companies are focused on his company’s specific niche, and he believes he offers a compelling value proposition in that category.
The company has doubled head count since the beginning of the pandemic, growing from around 21 employees to about 45 today. They are lightly concentrated in New York City, but the company operates remotely, and has folks in 15 states as well as in France. Straschnov says that the company is looking to aggressively hire technical talent to build out the product using its new funds.
Nium crosses $1B valuation with $200M Riverwood Capital-led round – TechCrunch
Business-to-business payments platform Nium announced Monday that it raised more than $200 million in Series D funding and saw its valuation rise above $1 billion.
The company, now Singapore-based but shifting to the Bay Area, touted the investment as making it “the first B2B payments unicorn from Southeast Asia.”
Riverwood Capital led the round, in which Temasek, Visa, Vertex Ventures, Atinum Capital, Beacon Venture Capital and Rocket Capital Investment participated, along with a group of angel investors like DoorDash’s Gokul Rajaram, FIS’ Vicky Bindra and Tribe Capital’s Arjun Sethi. Including the new funding, Nium has raised $300 million to date, Prajit Nanu, co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.
The B2B payments sector is already hot, yet underpenetrated, according to some experts. To give an idea just how hot, Nium was seeking $150 million for its Series D round, received commitments of $300 million from eager investors and settled on $200 million, Nanu said.
“This is our fourth or fifth fundraise, but we have never had this kind of interest before — we even had our term sheets in five days,” he added. “I believe this interest is because we’ve successfully managed to create a global platform that is heavily regulated, which gives us access to a lot of networks. This is an environment where payment is visible, and our core is powering frictionless commerce and enabling anyone to use our platform.”
Nium’s new round adds fuel to a fire shared by a number of companies all going after a global B2B payments market valued at $120 trillion annually: last week, Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments. In March, Higo brought in $3.3 million to do the same in Latin America, while Balance, developing a B2B payments platform that allows merchants to offer a variety of payment methods. raised $5.5 million in February.
Nium’s approach is to provide access to a global payment infrastructure, including card issuance, accounts receivable and payable, and banking-as-a-service through a single API. The company’s network enables customers to then send funds to more than 100 countries, pay out in more than 60 currencies, accept funds in seven currencies and issue cards in more than 40 countries, Nanu said. The company also boasts money transfer, card issuances and banking licenses in 11 jurisdictions.
Francisco Alvarez-Demalde, co-founding partner and managing partner at Riverwood, said in an email that the combination of software — plus regulatory licenses — and operating a fintech infrastructure platform on behalf of neobanks and corporates is a global trend experiencing hyper-growth.
Riverwood followed Nium for many years, and its future vision was what got the firm interested in being a part of this round. Alvarez-Demalde said that “Nium has the incredible combination of a great market opportunity, a talented founder and team, and we believe the company is poised for global growth based on underlying secular technology trends like increasing real-time payment capabilities and the proliferation of cross border commerce.
“As a central payment infrastructure in one API, Nium is a catalyst that unlocks cross-border payments, local accounts and card issuance with a network of local market licenses, partners and banking relationships to facilitate moving money across the world,” he added. “Enterprises of all types are embedding financial services as part of their consumer experience, and Nium is a key global enabler of this trend.”
Nanu said the new funding enables the company to move to the United States, which represents 3% of Nium’s revenue. He wants to increase that to 20% over the next 18 months, as well as expand in Latin America. The investment also gives the company a 12- to 18-month runway for further M&A activity. In June, Nium acquired virtual card issuance company Ixaris, and in July acquired Wirecard Forex India to expose it to India’s market. He also plans to expand the company’s payments network infrastructure, invest in product development and add to Nium’s 700-person headcount.
Nium already counts hundreds of enterprise companies as clients and plans to onboard thousands more in the next year. The company processes $8 billion in payments annually and has issued more than 30 million virtual cards since 2015. Meanwhile, revenue grew by over 280% year over year.
All of this growth puts the company on a trajectory for an initial public offering, Nanu said. He has already spoken to people who will help the company formally kick off that journey in the first quarter of 2022.
“Unlike other companies that raise money for new products, we aim to expand in the existing sets of what we do,” Nanu said. “The U.S. is a new market, but we have a good brand and will use the new round to provide a better experience to the customer.”
I get it, Elizabeth Holmes – TechCrunch
Elizabeth Holmes’ raspy, deep voice helped her raise more than $700 million for her now-defunct company, Theranos. When I step into any boardroom for a pitch, I can hear her croaking her favorite line: “I hope that less people will have to say goodbye too soon to people that they love.”
Sitting across from a venture partner, I wonder if they might feel more compelled by my words if I cut my hair short (really short), or grew a beard, or removed my pregnant belly. Would they take out their checkbook if I were more aggressive in what I promised? Would they be more interested in getting to know my business and me better if I passionately slammed the table?
Actually, very likely.
Holmes adopted a ridiculously low voice to get her startup off the ground in a world full of men. She promised impossible pinprick tests to detect hundreds of diseases and collected influential investors like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Mattis and Betsy DeVos. She wore a Steve Jobs uniform — including the Issey Miyake turtleneck — and built a team of 800 brilliant people. Did she go overboard with her lies? Yes. But she’s not the only one. The Silicon Valley and venture landscape only exacerbated whatever beliefs she already had in her company and inclinations to promise the moon.
Last week at a virtual hearing, she pushed to keep a huge database of information protected from the government. Before that, she claimed to have made $100 million in revenue in 2014, when it was really $100,000. These things, among others, are hands-down inexcusable. But I still believe that she thought she was doing the right thing taking the universal advice of Silicon Valley: “Fake it till you make it.”
She once said, borrowing from previous thought leaders: “This is what happens when you work to change things, and first they think you’re crazy, then they fight you and then all of a sudden you change the world.” I wonder if she just thinks she’s now on part two.
Raising money to start a company is about two things: having connections and making an appearance. Connections are difficult to make when you’re a woman: “Only about 12% of decision-makers at VC firms are women, and most firms still don’t have a single female partner.”
And even if you have connections, building relationships can be a bit weird: My cofounders end up being text buddies with our investors, while I hear news of things in passing. We hit a peak of 2.8% of funding going to women-led startups in 2019, but in 2020, that dropped again to 2.3%, possibly because investors reverted to their standard habits of keeping their cards close during uncertain times. Furthermore, investors generally have expectations that are aligned with male tendencies. For example, identical slides and scripts that are read by men and women are judged very differently, with men overwhelmingly rated higher. Holmes’ deep voice, although off-putting, probably made her more convincing.
It’s not easy to replicate the fundraising success that Holmes had, though. If other women tried to emulate this, they’d likely be penalized: In general, forward men are viewed positively as assertive, while forward women are viewed as emotionally unstable. This is confusing because, inversely, if women retreat to stereotypically feminine behaviors, they are viewed as weak. Hillary Clinton got stuck in this during her presidential race — criticized for being aggressive and cold when stereotypically masculine traits and pegged as weak when showing stereotypically feminine traits.
To make matters worse, it turns out that in pitches, women are asked more preventative questions about potential loss and risk, while men are asked more promotional questions about upside and gains. Women can work around this by answering any preventative question in the positive. Holmes knew this deep down and played into it. That was the only way for her to win.
I am absolutely no “holmie,” but I do understand firsthand her need to role-play. I’ve been overlooked; hell, I’ve even been told to change my product line (bras) because venture capitalists won’t get it. And they didn’t. I gave in.
I don’t want to defend her, and I can’t. It’s so easy to drop a line at a party or a board meeting about how obnoxious she was in her venture, but what irks me is that we focus on her specifically as the problem, completely bypassing the environment that created her. I remember soaking up John Carreyrou’s tantalizing book thinking, “Wow, I’ll never do that,” as I started my company. But as I have seen the pressures and the biases, I can see how the system shaped Holmes.
Why don’t we judge the biased system we created as much as we judge the person it destroyed? She sticks out like a sore thumb because, well, how many Elizabeth Holmeses are there out there? These problems are so ingrained in the system itself, though, that as David Foster Wallace alluded to in the water speech, we can’t see them and we probably aren’t ready to repair them.
The next time someone jokes at a cocktail party about Holmes’ baritone voice, just remind them how dumb is it that we give more money to people with deep voices.
Former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond is now Senior Operating Partner at SOSV, which has invested in unspun.
Sproutl is an online marketplace for gardeners founded by former Farfetch executives – TechCrunch
Meet Sproutl, a marketplace for gardeners living in the U.K. The startup founded by former Farfetch executives has raised a $9 million seed round. It wants to make gardening more accessible by providing a curated list of items, relevant advice as well as inspiration.
Index Ventures is leading the round in the startup with Ada Ventures and several business angels also participating. The funding round originally closed in April of this year.
“A few years ago, we bought a flat in London with a tiny little garden. We were both working full time in quite intense jobs with young kids. I went online assuming that I would be able to sort out this garden space. And I didn’t know a lot about gardening. And I just didn’t find anything that spoke to me as a new gardener. It felt like what was available was more for more knowledgeable people,” co-founder and CEO Anni Noel-Johnson told me.
If you’ve ever tried to search for gardening videos on YouTube, you may have end up on long-winded videos with instructions that don’t make any sense to you. Similarly, there are not a lot of e-commerce websites focused on gardening specifically.
And yet, the market opportunity is quite big. There are millions of gardeners in the U.K. There are also quite a few independent garden centers, nurseries and shops with a turnover of several millions of pounds per year. More importantly, they generate the vast majority of their sales in store. Some of them have never sold anything online.
Sproutl is teaming up with those businesses so that they can find new customers across the U.K. Those third-party sellers list their items on Sproutl while the startup takes care of logistics, packaging sourcing and delivery.
On the marketplace, customers can buy indoor and outdoor plants, pots, gardening essentials and outdoor living products. Partners currently include Rosebourne, Polhill, Millbrook, Middleton, Bellr, Fertile Fibre and Horticus.
Anni Noel-Johnson, the CEO of the company, was the VP of Trading and Strategy at Farfetch. Sproutl CTO Andy Done also worked at Farfetch at some point as Director of Data Engineering.
Hollie Newton is also going to be a key team member at Sproutl. She previously wrote a best-selling gardening book called ‘How to Grow’. She’s now the Chief Creative Officer at Sproutl.
This is key to understanding Sproutl’s growth strategy. The company plans to provide a ton of content on all things related to your garden — the startup has already released a jargon buster. You might end up on Sproutl the next time you’re looking for gardening advice on Google.
And it’s also going to differentiate the platform from all-encompassing e-commerce platforms, such as Amazon. Other e-commerce companies focused on one vertical in particular, such as ManoMano, have been quite successful. With the right focus, Sproutl could quickly build a loyal customer base as well.
Data-driven iteration helped China’s Genki Forest become a $6B beverage giant in 5 years – TechCrunch
China’s e-commerce and industrial ecosystem is as different from the Western world as its culture. The country took decades to earn its reputation as the Factory of the World, but it now boasts a supply chain and manufacturing ability that few countries can match.
Creative use of the country’s networked manufacturing and logistics hubs make mass production both cheap and easy. Clothing, electronics, toys, automobiles, musical instruments, furniture — you name it and you’ll find a manufacturer in China who can turn your intangible concept into mass-manufacturable reality in mere days. And they’ll do it for cheaper than anywhere else in the world.
It was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
China is also home to one of the world’s largest e-commerce and tech ecosystems. Hundreds of startups dot the landscape, and the amount of money being raised and spent on innovating around the country’s industrial heft is mind-boggling.
So it was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The tech revolution hasn’t yet affected the bottled beverage industry quite as much as it has others. Incumbent giants therefore could lose a sizable chunk of market share if a company could just manage to weave together China’s manufacturing proficiency and agility with the modern tech startup philosophy of “moving fast and breaking stuff.”
Genki Forest, a Chinese direct-to-consumer (D2C) bottled beverage startup, is one such contender. A philosophy centered around iteration informed by data, quick turnarounds and a laser focus on taking advantage of China’s huge e-commerce ecosystem has helped this company’s revenues rise rapidly since it started five years ago. Its sugar-free sodas, milk teas and energy drinks sell in 40 countries and generated revenue of about $450 million in 2020. The company aims to reach $1.2 billion this year.
If anything, Genki Forest’s valuation has shot up even faster. It recently completed its fourth VC round that values it at a whopping $6 billion, triple the price it fetched a year earlier, and it has so far raised at least half a billion dollars.
It’s striking how closely Genki Forest’s operations resemble that of a tech startup. So we thought we should take a closer look and see what this company’s graph can tell us about the new wave of Chinese D2C entrepreneurship looking to take over the globe.
Finding a bigger wave to ride
The bottled beverage industry wasn’t what Genki Forest’s founder, Binsen Tang, initially set out to tackle. His first startup was a successful casual, mostly mobile gaming outfit known as ELEX Technology. It was nowhere near record-breaking, though — some 50 million users logged on to a few popular games in over 40 countries worldwide, including one of the first versions of Happy Farm, a predecessor to Zynga’s Farmville. But Tang wasn’t satisfied and eventually sold ELEX Technology to a publicly listed company for about $400 million in 2014.
Tang would walk away with a few important lessons. He’d learned by now that Chinese products were already competitive globally, whether people realized it or not, and that and geographic arbitrage was real, Happy Farm being the perfect example of this. Lastly, he now knew that it was far more important to choose the right “racetrack” (as Chinese investors and entrepreneurs like to put it) than to have a great product.
Picking the right race to win was perhaps the most important takeaway. It’s also an idea that sets Chinese entrepreneurs apart from their Western counterparts — the most worthwhile endeavors are in identifying the largest and most rewarding market at hand, regardless of one’s previous expertise. It was what led Zhang Yiming to create ByteDance, and Lei Jun to found Xiaomi.
That very philosophy led Tang to build Genki Forest. After selling ELEX Technology, Tang didn’t go back to the business that netted him his first pot of gold. As much as he had benefited from the rise of the mobile internet, he thought there was a far bigger opportunity building a consumer brand and applying the lessons he learned from programming to the manufacture of tangible products.
He soon set up his own investment fund, Challenjers Capital, convinced that the next big tech opportunity in China was in tech’s application to everyday consumer products. He soon began to invest in everything from ramen and hotpots to bottled beverages.
China’s quickly expanding e-commerce ecosystem and the plethora of D2C businesses flourishing on Alibaba and JD.com would also influence his decision to sell directly to his target audience rather than take the traditional route. But to truly understand his motivations, we need to take a look at the extremely unique D2C environment in China and how it has changed over the years.
What’s different about Chinese D2C?
“China doesn’t need any more good platforms,” Tang told his team in an internal email in 2015, “but it does need good products.” Tang was talking about how the age of building infrastructure for e-commerce in China was largely over; it was now time to create brands that could take advantage of the advanced distribution network that had been laid out.
Other investors noticed as well. Albus Yu, principal at China Growth Capital, told me that his fund had stopped making investments in independent consumer-facing platforms or marketplaces for a while. “2014 might have been the last year it was economically feasible to start such a business due to the soaring cost of acquiring customers and the strength of incumbents,” he said.
Indeed, 2015 was the year when CACs began to exceed or at least rival ARPUs for Alibaba and JD.com.
In China, that distribution network was present across the digital and physical worlds. Online, there was immense market power concentrated in the hands of just two players: Alibaba and JD.com, which used to have, and still maintain, 80% or above in market share.
In fact, the dominance of Alibaba, in particular, was so overwhelming that for years, VCs invested not in D2C, but in “Taobao brands,” since that was the only channel one needed to conquer in order to make it.
Customer acquisition was therefore straightforward — throw everything into advertising on Alibaba’s Tmall platform, especially during its annual flagship shopping festival, Singles’ Day. Even today, garnering a top spot in one of the category leaderboards remains a surefire way to build brand awareness, investor interest, as well as sales records.
Physically, the Chinese market also differs greatly from much of the developed West. Years of heavy investment in logistics by the private sector, accelerated by government support and infrastructure buildout, means that delivery costs have come down significantly over the years, even dipping below $0.40 per package wholesale as of this year. Innovations such as return insurance have also sped up customer adoption.
By 2016, China was shipping 30 billion packages a year, already accounting for 44% of global shipments. That number has been doubling every three years and is expected to exceed 100 billion this year. And the low cost of delivery is one of the biggest reasons for China’s outsized e-commerce market — the largest globally and estimated to reach $2.8 trillion in 2021, more than triple that of the No. 2, the U.S.
Present-day China also presents another edge: Proximity to an advanced, flexible manufacturing network and supply chain for the vast majority of consumer products, and the ability to outsource almost everything to them.
The original equipment manufacturers of years past have long since evolved into original design manufacturers. An expected consequence of being “the Factory of the World” for so many years, making goods for some of the best brands in the world, is that some of the knowledge was bound to transfer.
It may be difficult for outsiders to understand just how strong China’s networked manufacturing hubs are these days. What used to take weeks now takes mere days, the lead times shortened drastically by software, robots and other advancements. For example, Chinese cross-border ultra-fast-fashion company Shein has compressed design-to-ship timelines to as little as seven days.
And it’s definitely not just for making crop tops. The turnaround can be astonishingly fast even when manufacturing completely unfamiliar goods, such as when electric vehicle maker BYD turned its factory into the world’s largest face mask plant in just two weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.
Companies leverage this manufacturing flexibility and agility for more than just speed. Chinese cosmetics upstart Perfect Diary uses it to launch twice as many SKUs as foreign competitors. In addition, the quick turnaround allows agile brands to take advantage of that most ephemeral of IP, memes.
It’s not to say that the Chinese supply chain is inaccessible to foreign entrepreneurs. Best-selling mattress maker Zinus, for example, is founded by a South Korean, but its products are manufactured in China and sold mostly on Amazon to U.S. customers.
It’s just that very few non-Chinese companies have figured out how to tap as deeply into the supply chain as this new crop of Chinese D2C brands, which can require years of working not just alongside but physically inside the factories, building trust and know-how. Shein, for example, watches carefully what other brands are making by staying close to the factories.
The China opportunity
Before global sensations such as TikTok weakened the mantra, “copy to China” used to be a dominant characterization of Chinese startups. In December 2015, when Tang registered the Genki Forest trademark, that was still very much a relevant strategy.
Should we be worried about insurtech valuations? – TechCrunch
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Hello everyone, I hope you had a lovely week. I turned 32 after experiencing sleep-destroying heartburn. So, a little good and a little bad. But that didn’t stop the markets. Nope. Not a bit. Which means we have a lot to talk about, including falling insurtech stocks and what the situation might mean for startups, and a raft of IPOs. This will be fun!
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of our chats with newly public companies Kaltura, Couchbase and Enovix, let’s talk insurtech.
In the last year or so we’ve seen a number of insurtech startups go public, including Root (auto insurance), Metromile (car insurance), and Lemonade (rental insurance). Here’s a quick digest of how their performance looks today:
- Root: $7.72 per share, 71.4% down from its $27 per share IPO price.
- Metromile: $7.26 per share, down 64.4% from its post-combination highs.
- Lemonade: $86.97 per share, up 199.9% from its IPO price of $29 per share.
Recall that Root and Metromile began to trade after Lemonade, so their declines are not over a longer time horizon, but a shorter interval. Which makes the situation all the more interesting.
What’s going on? Well, two of the three insurtech public offerings (SPACs, IPOs, etc.) are sharply underwater. That doesn’t bode incredibly well for Hippo, which is pursuing its own SPAC-led combination that should be wrapping up in short order. The huge declines don’t seem bullish for insurtech startups, who will have to answer private-market investor doubts concerning their value.
Does Lemonade’s strong post-IPO performance allay concerns? It’s tricky. The company has been busy expanding into new markets, including auto insurance. The company did take a somewhat material hit from the Texas freeze earlier this year — per its most recent earnings report — but past those two data points it’s not entirely clear what the company is doing that the other two are not. But investors are stoked about Lemonade, and not Root and Metromile. Figuring out why that’s the case, and why their startup is more Lemonade than the other two, is going to be key for the many insurtech startups still scaling toward their own IPOs.
It’s IPO season
The Exchange has been busy on the phones these last two weeks, talking to CEOs of companies going public to try and learn from their recent experiences. So, what follows are notes from calls with folks at Kaltura, Couchbase and Enovix. Enjoy!
- Reminder: Online-video-focused Kaltura filed to go public earlier this year before delaying its IPO and taking another run at the funding event.
- The Exchange spoke with Kaltura CEO Ron Yekutiel, who said that the company’s IPO’s timing was impacted by the early-2021 public market turmoil. That was not a surprise, but it was good to get confirmation regardless.
- That freeze was partially caused by the Archegos implosion, per Yekutiel. That makes sense, but was news to us.
- Yekutiel said that his company wasn’t thrilled about the delay — going public is the only fundraise that you pre-announce, he noted — but added that investors his company had already spoken to the first-time around were still enthused about Kaltura on its second run at an IPO.
- Per the CEO, Kaltura’s preliminary Q2 results showed investors that what it was talking about earlier in the year was coming true. He also stressed uptake in new products as key to the company’s continued growth.
- The CEO was happy with how his company priced and traded during its first day, snagging a flat 20% uptick in value upon trading. He noted that more would have been excessive, and less would have been un-good.
- Regarding the lower valuation that Kaltura priced at compared to its March-era IPO price range, Yekutiel said that you don’t get a third chance to make a first impression and that his company wanted to get the offering done. So they did. Points for not getting lost in their own head.
- Kaltura is up 17.5% from its $10 per-share IPO price as of the time of writing.
One anecdote, if I may. Kaltura won an early TechCrunch40 — the precursor to the TechCrunch50 event, itself a predecessor to today’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference series — thanks to a single vote cast via physical token. Yekutiel still has that token, and showed it to us during our chat. Neat!
- The Exchange spoke with noSQL database company Couchbase’s CEO Matt Cain. Couchbase priced at $24 per share, above its $20 to $23 per-share IPO price range.
- Today it’s worth $33.20, rising 9.2% in today’s trading as of the time of writing.
- Cain was talking from a pretty strict script — a pretty standard situation amongst newly public CEOs worried about fucking up and going to jail — so we didn’t get the precise answers we were looking for. But we still managed to learn a few things, including that Couchbase was yet another company that found the meeting density made possible by remote roadshows to be accretive.
- The CEO was focused on discussing the scale of the opportunity ahead of Couchbase, namely the world of operational databases. It’s hard to find a bigger market, he argued, which made investors excited about what his company might be able to accomplish. Our read here is that there’s probably plenty of surface area for startups in the database world, if the market is as big as Cain reckons it is.
- We wanted to learn a bit more about how public-market investors view open-source powered companies, but didn’t get too much from him on the matter. Still, the company’s IPO is a pretty damn strong one, implying that being OSS-built isn’t exactly a detriment to a company hoping to exit.
- The Exchange wanted to chat with newly public company Enovix because it debuted via a SPAC. Why does that matter? Because there are other battery-focused companies looking to go public via SPACs. So, the chat was good background for later work.
- And we love talking to public companies. Who doesn’t?
- Asked if combination-and-trade-under-new-ticker-symbol day was like an IPO to his firm, Rust said that it was. Fair enough.
- The company’s combination date for its SPAC slipped from Q2 to Q3, we noticed. Why was that? Some SEC changes regarding accounting, in short. Not a big deal was our impression from the chat, but one that did cause a slight delay to Enovix’s trading date.
- Why go public via a SPAC? Cash, but also the particular sponsor of their combination, which Rust said was a key resource in terms of operational knowledge. The company has also hired from its SPAC sponsor’s network, which felt notable. (Hey look, actual investor value-add!)
- Asked why his company is worth less than the impending SES SPAC, another battery company that has yet to generate revenue, Rust said that the value of his company in its SPAC deal was a negotiation, and that if the company is successful, whether it was valued at $1.1 billion or $1.4 billion wouldn’t really matter.
- What’s fun about Enovix is that it is not starting with its impending battery tech aimed at EVs. Instead, it’s targeting high-end electronics. Why? Quick cycles to get batteries into hardware and possible pricing power. It does intend to get into EVs in time, however.
- The company is worth $17.33 per share, giving it what Yahoo Finance describes as a $2.5 billion valuation. That’s a good markup from what it expected and could bode well for SES’s own, future debut.
Yo, that was a lot. Thanks for sticking with me. And thanks for reading The Exchange’s little newsletter. You can catch up on all our work here if you want some long-form reads on the global venture capital market, edtech and other topics. Stay cool!
The DL on CockroachDB – TechCrunch
As college students at Berkeley, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis created a successful open-source graphics program, GIMP, which got the attention of Google. The duo ultimately joined Google, and even personally got kudos from Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Kimball and Mattis quickly rose to prominence within the company, and then chose to leave it all behind to start what would eventually become CockroachDB. Years later, Cockroach Labs has over 250 employees and has received investments from the likes of Benchmark, GV, Index Ventures and Redpoint totaling more than $350 million, according to Crunchbase. The company is now on route to what some think is an “inevitable IPO.”
The story of CockroachDB, from its origin to its future, was told in a four-part series in our latest EC-1:
I’m biased, but it’s a must-read that gets into tensions that any startup founder can relate to: from navigating heavyweight competitors, to growing past free tiers, to maintaining your users’ attention. It’s the eighth EC-1 we’ve published to date, which my colleague and TC Managing Editor Danny Crichton estimates puts us at 90,000 words all about startup beginnings, product development, marketing and more.
In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll get into that WeWork book, bite-sized entrepreneurship and some SPACs. Follow me on Twitter @nmasc_. Or don’t, it’s your choice!
The Cult of We
This week on Equity, Alex and I interviewed Eliot Brown, who wrote “The Cult of We” along with Maureen Farrell. Our conversation riffed on some of the book’s eyebrow-raising details and anecdotes, but mainly focused on what WeWork’s rise and fall did to the state of startups and tech journalism more broadly.
Here’s what to know: Not much has changed. Jokes aside, Brown shared his notes on how the current boom in startup financings has a worrisome air of frenzy and fluff. He also chatted about how sometimes the most illuminating question can be a simple one: What makes you a tech company?
More money, more problems?
TikTok what again?
TikTok kept popping up throughout the week. Index Ventures, for example, noted how the firm’s TikTok account has amassed an impressive following and is a channel to talk to the younger generations. Nothing like some short-form videos to stay hip and relatable while raising $3 billion in one go.
Here’s what to know: While TikTok has certainly changed the world, I worry when I see the allure of bite-sized content get edtech’d. Bite-sized content can be a nifty way to spread content, but it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Duolingo, which priced its IPO this week, still struggles to show meaningful learning outcomes and optimizes more for motivation than comprehension. This tension is a key note for companies like Numerade and Sololearn, which both raised this week, to not overly TikTok learning materials.
Other edtech content for your eyes:
It’s been awhile since I’ve used that acronym in Startups Weekly. That said, special purpose acquisition vehicles are still very much a thing and are still very much worth paying attention to.
Here’s what to know: Lucid Motors’ SPAC merger was just approved. Reporter Aria Alamalhodaei writes that the move came after executives extended the deadline to vote to merge by one day after not enough investors showed up. “The issue is unusual but could become more common as more companies eschew the traditional IPO path to public markets and instead merge with SPACs,” she writes.
If you haven’t already, please fill out TC’s ongoing growth marketing survey. We’re using these recommendations of top-tier growth marketers around the world to shape our editorial coverage and to build out TechCrunch Experts.
Across the week
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