The Nuro EC-1

Six years ago, I sat in the Google self-driving project’s Firefly vehicle — which I described, at the time, as a “little gumdrop on wheels” — and let it ferry me around a closed course in Mountain View, California.

Little did I know that two of the people behind Firefly’s ability to see and perceive the world around it and react to that information would soon leave to start and steer an autonomous vehicle company of their very own.

Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far.

Yet, Nuro has remained largely in the shadows of other autonomous vehicle companies. Perhaps it’s because Nuro’s focus on autonomous delivery hasn’t captured the imagination of a general public that envisions themselves being whisked away in a robotaxi. Or it might be that they’re quieter.

Those quiet days might be coming to an end soon.

This series aims to look under Nuro’s hood, so to speak, from its earliest days as a startup to where it might be headed next — and with whom.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Mark Harris, a freelance reporter known for investigative and long-form articles on science and technology. Our resident scoop machine, Harris is based in Seattle and also writes for Wired, The Guardian, The Economist, MIT Technology Review and Scientific American. He has broken stories about self-driving vehicles, giant airships, AI body scanners, faulty defibrillators and monkey-powered robots. In 2014, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.

The lead editor of this EC-1 was Kirsten Korosec, transportation editor at TechCrunch (that’s me), who has been writing about autonomous vehicles and the people behind them since 2014; OK maybe earlier. The assistant editor for this series was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman. The EC-1 series editor is Danny Crichton.

Nuro had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Harris nor Korosec have any financial ties to Nuro.

The Nuro EC-1 comprises four articles numbering 10,600 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Here are the topics we’ll be dialing into:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#automation, #automotive, #california, #cvs, #dave-ferguson, #dominos-pizza, #dominos, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-1, #electric-vehicles, #emerging-technologies, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #fedex, #google, #kroger, #mit, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #robotaxi, #robotics, #science-and-technology, #seattle, #self-driving-cars, #tc, #technology, #transportation, #walmart

How Google’s self-driving car project accidentally spawned its robotic delivery rival

Nuro doesn’t have a typical Silicon Valley origin story. It didn’t emerge after a long, slow slog from a suburban garage or through a flash of insight in a university laboratory. Nor was it founded at the behest of an eccentric billionaire with money to burn.

Nuro was born — and ramped up quickly — thanks to a cash windfall from what is now one of its biggest rivals.

Nuro was born — and ramped up quickly — thanks to a cash windfall from what is now one of its biggest rivals.

In the spring of 2016, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu were teammates on Google’s self-driving car effort. Ferguson was directing the project’s computer vision, machine learning and behavior prediction teams, while Zhu (widely JZ) was in charge of the car’s perception technologies and cutting-edge simulators.

“We both were leading pretty large teams and were responsible for a pretty large portion of the Google car’s software system,” Zhu recalls.

As Google prepared to spin out its autonomous car tech into the company that would become Waymo, it first needed to settle a bonus program devised in the earliest days of its so-called Chauffeur project. Under the scheme, early team members could choose staggered payouts over a period of eight years — or leave Google and get a lump sum all at once.

Ferguson and Zhu would not confirm the amount they received, but court filings released as part of Waymo’s trade secrets case against Uber suggest they each received payouts in the neighborhood of $40 million by choosing to leave.

“What we were fortunate enough to receive as part of the self-driving car project enabled us to take riskier opportunities, to go and try to build something that had a significant chance of not working out at all,” Ferguson says.

Within weeks of their departure, the two had incorporated Nuro Inc, a company with the non-ironic mission to “better everyday life through robotics.” Its first product aimed to take a unique approach to self-driving cars: Road vehicles with all of the technical sophistication and software smarts of Google’s robotaxis, but none of the passengers.

In the five years since, Nuro’s home delivery robots have proven themselves smart, safe and nimble, outpacing Google’s vehicles to secure the first commercial deployment permit for autonomous vehicles in California, as well as groundbreaking concessions from the U.S. government.

While robotaxi companies struggle with technical hitches and regulatory red tape, Nuro has already made thousands of robotic pizza and grocery deliveries across the U.S., and Ferguson (as president) and Zhu (as CEO) are now heading a company that as of its last funding round in November 2020 valued it at $5 billion with more than 1,000 employees.

But how did they get there so fast, and where are they headed next?

Turning money into robots

“Neither JZ nor I think of ourselves as classic entrepreneurs or that starting a company is something we had to do in our lives,” Ferguson says. “It was much more the result of soul searching and trying to figure out what is the biggest possible impact that we could have.”

#artificial-intelligence, #automation, #autonomous-vehicles, #dave-ferguson, #dominos-pizza, #ec-1, #electric-vehicles, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #fidelity-management-research-company, #google, #greylock-capital, #machine-learning, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #series-a, #softbank, #startups, #transportation, #waymo, #woven-planet

Why regulators love Nuro’s self-driving delivery vehicles

Nuro’s delivery autonomous vehicles (AVs) don’t have a human driver on board. The company’s founders Dave Ferguson (president) and Jiajun Zhu’s (CEO) vision of a driverless delivery vehicle sought to do away with a lot of the stuff that is essential for a normal car to have, like doors and airbags and even a steering wheel. They built an AV that spared no room in the narrow chassis for a driver’s seat, and had no need for an accelerator, windshield or brake pedals.

So when the company petitioned the U.S. government in 2018 for a minor exemption from rules requiring a rearview mirror, backup camera and a windshield, Nuro might have assumed the process wouldn’t be very arduous.

They were wrong.

If Nuro is to become the generation-defining company its founders desire, it will be due as much to innovation in regulation as advances in the technology it develops.

In a 2019 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) “[wondered] about the description of pedestrian ‘crumple zones,’ and whether this may impact the vehicle’s crash-worthiness in the event of a vehicle-to-vehicle crash. Even in the absence of passengers, AAMVA has concerns about cargo ejection from the vehicle and how Nuro envisions protections from loose loads affecting the driving public.”

The National Society of Professional Engineers similarly complained that Nuro’s request lacked information about the detection of moving objects. “How would the R2X function if a small child darts onto the road from the passenger side of the vehicle as a school bus is approaching from the driver’s side?” it asked. It also recommended the petition be denied until Nuro could provide a more detailed cybersecurity plan against its bots being hacked or hijacked. (R2X is now referred to as R2)

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (now the Alliance Automotive Innovation), which represents most U.S. carmakers, wrote that the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) should not use Nuro’s kind of petition to “introduce new safety requirements for [AVs] that have not gone through the rigorous rule-making process.”

“What you can see is that many comments came from entrenched interests,” said David Estrada, Nuro’s chief legal and policy officer. “And that’s understandable. There are multibillion dollar industries that can be disrupted if autonomous vehicles become successful.”

To be fair, critical comments also came from nonprofit organizations genuinely concerned about unleashing robots on city streets. The Center for Auto Safety, an independent consumer group, thought that Nuro did not provide enough information on its development and testing, nor any meaningful comparison with the safety of similar, human-driven vehicles. “Indeed, the planned reliance on ‘early on-road tests … with human-manned professional safety drivers’ suggests that Nuro has limited confidence in R2X’s safe operation,” it wrote.

Nuro-R2-specs-infographic

Nuro’s R2 delivery autonomous vehicle. Image Credits: Nuro

Despite such concerns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) granted Nuro the exemptions it sought in February last year. Up to 5,000 R2 vehicles could be produced for a limited period of two years and subject to Nuro reporting any incidents, without a windshield, rearview mirror or backup camera. Although only a small concession, it was the first — and so far, only — time the U.S. government had relaxed vehicle safety requirements for an AV.

Now Estrada and Nuro hope to use that momentum to chip away at a mountain of regulations that never envisaged vehicles controlled by on-board robots or distant humans, extending from the foothills of local and state government to the peaks of federal and international safety rules.

If Nuro is to become the generation-defining company its founders desire, it will be due as much to innovation in regulation as advances in the technology it develops.

Regulate for success

“I don’t think any of the credible, big AV players want this to be a free-for-all,” said Dave Ferguson, Nuro’s co-founder and president. “We need the confidence of a clear regulatory framework to invest the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars necessary to manufacture vehicles at scale. Otherwise, it’s really going to limit our ability to deploy.”

#alliance-of-automobile-manufacturers, #auto-safety, #automation, #automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #av, #california, #dave-ferguson, #department-of-defense, #ec-1, #extra-crunch, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #google, #government, #lyft, #national-highway-traffic-safety-administration, #national-science-foundation, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #robotics, #self-driving-car, #startups, #transport, #transportation, #u-s-department-of-transportation, #united-states

How Nuro became the robotic face of Domino’s

Pandemic pizza was definitely a thing.

U.S. consumers forked out a record-breaking $14 billion to have pizza delivered to their doors in 2020, and nearly half of that total was spent with just one brand: Domino’s.

“Domino’s is the home of pizza delivery,” said Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief innovation officer. “Delivery is at the core of who we are, so it’s very important for us to lead when it comes to the consumer experience of delivery.”

U.S. consumers forked out a record-breaking $14 billion to have pizza delivered to their doors in 2020, and nearly half of that total was spent with just one brand: Domino’s.

In its latest TV ad, an order of Domino’s pizza speeds to its destination inside a Nuro R2X delivery autonomous vehicle (AV). The R2X (now known as R2) deftly avoids potholes, falling trees and traffic jams caused by The Noid — a character created by Domino’s in the 1980s to symbolize the difficulties of delivering a pizza in 30 minutes or less.

The reality is much more sedate. Domino’s currently has just one R2X that operates from a single Domino’s store on the generally calm streets of Woodland Heights in Houston, Texas. And since the AV’s introduction in April, The Noid has yet to put in an appearance.

“The R2X adds a bunch of efficiencies while not taking away from any existing capabilities,” Maloney said. “As we start getting the bot into regular operation, we’ll see if it plays out the way we expect it to. So far, all the indications are good.”

Nuro-Domino

Nuro and Domnio’s launched the autonomous pizza delivery service in Huston in April this year. Image Credits: Nuro

Partnerships are key for Nuro. The company’s business model is to sign contracts with established brands that either have their own branded vehicles or use traditional delivery companies like UPS or the U.S. Postal Service.

Nuro is carrying out trials and pilot deliveries with a number of companies, including fast casual restaurant chain Chipotle, Kroger grocery stores, CVS pharmacies, bricks-and-mortar retail behemoth Walmart, and, most recently, global parcel courier FedEx. While it is a dizzyingly impressive list for a company less than five years old, their interest was driven as much by global trends as by Nuro’s technology, admits Cosimo Leipold, head of partnerships at Nuro.

“Everybody today wants what they want and they want it faster than ever, but frankly they’re not willing to pay for it,” Leipold said. “We’ve reached a point where almost every company is going to have to offer delivery services, and now it’s just the question of how they’ll do it in the best possible way and with the most possible control.”

Nuro’s delivery AVs — aka bots — offer the tantalizing promise of safe, reliable and efficient delivery without sacrificing revenue and customer data to third-party platforms like Grubhub, DoorDash or Instacart. Alongside Nuro’s stated aim of driving the cost of delivery down to zero, it is little surprise that Nuro now finds itself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose the partners it wants — and the less enviable position of having to choose which partner to prioritize.

Here’s the story of how one of Nuro’s biggest partnerships came to be, and the lessons and companies that will drive its future growth.

Deliveries with extra cheese

Domino’s has a long history of innovating in delivery, usually accompanied by a strong marketing campaign. In the 1980s, the company bought 10 customized Tritan Aerocar 2s, a Jetsons-styled three-wheeler, for use as delivery vehicles. In 2015, the company unveiled the DXP, a Chevrolet Spark modified with a single seat and a built-in warming oven, designed specifically for transporting pizza.

#autonomous-vehicles, #av, #dominos-pizza, #ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #ford-motors, #greylock-capital, #john-lilly, #kroger, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #refraction-ai, #robotics, #self-driving-car, #startups, #transportation, #united-states, #walmart

Here’s what the inevitable friendly neighborhood robot invasion looks like

In early 2021, a Nuro autonomous delivery vehicle pulled to a halt at a four-way stop in its hometown of Mountain View, California to let a user cross. This seemingly humdrum moment quickly looked like a decidedly science fiction storyline — the user was a small sidewalk robot from another startup on its own mission.

“Obviously, we yielded to it, but it was, wow, we have entered a different world,” said Amy Jones Satrom, head of Operations at Nuro.

Mountain View is home to competitor Waymo and other autonomous vehicle testing activity. But for those who want to take part in that science fiction scene, Houston provides the full experience.

Nuro’s operations team has to delicately balance speed, safety, convenience and congestion, even as the company embarks on a growth spurt that will see robots spreading to other cities, states and partners in the months ahead.

Waymo is testing self-driving trucks in Houston, and a fully driverless shuttle service is due to start public service there early next year. Nuro’s Texas effort started in April, when an R2 robot began its commercial pizza delivery service in partnership with Domino’s. Some customers ordering pizzas from the Domino’s Woodland Heights store will see the option to have their pies delivered by robot.

Customers can trace the progress of the self-driving vehicle on the Domino’s app and, when it pulls up outside their home, tap in a unique PIN on its touchscreen to access their order. Nuro is also operating in Houston with Kroger supermarkets and FedEx.

Nuro-validation test

Nuro team on test track during early validation in AZ, before first ever public road deployment in Arizona. Image credit: Nuro

“One of the things we laugh about is how customers constantly talk to the bot,” Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief innovation pfficer said. “It’s almost like they think it’s ‘Knight Rider.’ It’s very common for customers to thank it or say goodbye, which is great because that indicates we’re creating an engaging experience that they’re not frustrated by.”

Creating an experience, where people want to chat with their new robot neighbors instead of chasing them down the street with pitchforks, falls to Jones Satrom’s operations team. It has to delicately balance speed, safety, convenience and congestion, even as Nuro embarks on a growth spurt that will see robots spreading to other cities, states and partners in the months ahead.

Here’s how it manages that, and what the future holds for Nuro’s ever-so-gentle robot invasion.

Mapping the territory

Few people are as well suited to overseeing Nuro’s high-stakes robot rollout as Jones Satrom, who started her career as a nuclear engineer on an aircraft carrier and previously managed the integration of Kiva Systems’ robots into Amazon’s warehouses.

#artificial-intelligence, #autonomous-vehicles, #av, #dave-ferguson, #dominos-pizza, #ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #greylock-capital, #houston, #john-lilly, #nuro, #nuro-ec-1, #refraction-ai, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #walmart, #waymo

The RapidSOS EC-1

Three digits, so little time.

Numbers can take on profound cultural significance, but few numbers have quite the resonance as 911, the emergency number for the United States. Few want to dial it, but when they must, it works — every single time. One industry trade association estimates that 240 million 911 phone calls are made every year, ranging from the quotidian loud dog to the exceptional terrorist attack.

While it may be a singular number, 911 calls are directed to roughly 5,700 public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country, all with independent operations, variegated equipment, disparate software, multifarious organizational structures, and vast inequalities of staffing and resources.

“Every 911 center is very different and they are as diverse and unique as the communities that they serve,” Karin Marquez, who we will meet later, put it. You have massive urban centers with dozens of staffers and the best equipment, and “you have agencies in rural America that have one person working 24/7 and they’re there to answer three calls a day.”

These organizations face a tough challenge: Transitioning their systems to incorporate information from billions of new consumer devices into the heart of 911 response. Location from mobile GPS, medical information from health profiles, video footage from cameras — all of this could be useful when police, firefighters and paramedics arrive on a scene. But how do you connect hundreds of tech companies to a myriad of 911 technology providers?

Over the last eight years, RapidSOS has become the go-to solution for addressing this problem. With more than $190 million raised, including an $85 million round this past February, RapidSOS now covers nearly 5,000 PSAPs and processes more than 150 million emergencies every year, and it’s technology is almost certainly integrated into the smartphone you’re carrying and many of the devices you have lying around (the company counts about 350 million connected devices with its software).

Yet, like many emergencies, the company’s story is one of reverses, misdirections and urgency as its founders worked to find a model to jump-start 911 response. RapidSOS may well be the only startup to pivot from a consumer app to a govtech/enterprise hybrid, and it has the most extensive directory of partnerships and integration relationships of any startup I have ever seen. Now, as it expands to Mexico, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, this startup with its roots in a rural farm in Indiana, is redefining emergency response globally for the 21st Century.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Danny Crichton. In addition to being the EC-1 series editor, managing editor at TechCrunch, and regularly talking about himself in the third person, Danny has been writing about disaster tech and first covered RapidSOS back in 2015 prior to its public launch. The lead editor for this story was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

RapidSOS had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Crichton has no financial ties to RapidSOS, and his ethics disclosure statement is available here.

The RapidSOS EC-1 comprises four articles numbering 12,400 words and a reading time of 50 minutes. Here are the topics we’ll be dialing into:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#911, #america, #communication, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #emergency-response, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #federal-communications-commission, #government, #govtech, #gps, #indiana, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #smartphone, #startups, #tc, #telecommunications, #united-kingdom, #united-states

Smoking pizza ovens and pilfered dollar bills, or the early story of RapidSOS

The irony of 911 is that it’s a number that everyone knows (at least in the United States), and yet, no one really thinks about it. Few of us will dial 911 more than a handful of times in our lives, and even when we do, we will meet the police officers and paramedics who respond, never the 911 call taker who handled the dispatch. These systems and the people behind them garner meager attention, whether from Congress, state legislatures, the public or anyone else outside the emergency response community.

Except, that is, for Michael Martin.

RapidSOS’ story is one of a mission, a community, a team and a dream that every emergency should have the best chance to be resolved as positively as possible.

He, along with Nick Horelik and Matt Bozik very early on, became fascinated by the complexity and lack of innovation in the sector. “Uber had just come out. I could press a button and get a car. Why can’t I just press a button and get an ambulance? And then it sparks this curiosity,” Martin said. He sought knowledge, but for such a critical system, information was sparse. “The Wikipedia article on George Clooney is way longer than the one on 911,” he noted.

So began a nearly decade-long journey with RapidSOS that would see Martin and his team first attempt to build a consumer-safety app called Haven before pivoting exclusively to helping dozens of tech companies, including Apple and Google and device companies like SiriusXM, connect to a myriad of 911 software vendors. Along the way, they experienced the full vagaries of startup life, frenetically pivoting from product to product as they tried to get consumers to even care about emergencies.

It wasn’t easy, and it took years before the company finally hit its stride. But RapidSOS’s story is one of a mission, a community, a team and a dream that every emergency should have the best chance to be resolved as positively as possible.

Indiana: The callroads of America

Martin grew up outside the rural town of Rockport, Indiana, population about 2,500 today. His mother was the local doctor, and he and his brother habituated to the openness and ennui of rural farming life. “We grew up on 35 acres of land; we had an enormous garden and a little hobby orchard and stuff like that,” he said. “We had ‘Drive-Your-Tractor-To-School Day.’”

#911, #api, #apple, #braemar-energy-ventures, #ec-1, #emergency-response, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #federal-communications-commission, #finance, #google, #government, #harvard, #highland-capital, #indiana, #kickstarter, #michael-martin, #motorola-solutions, #nashville, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #startups, #tc, #telecommunications, #teller, #uber, #venture-capital

RapidSOS learned that the best product design is sometimes no product design

Sometimes, the best missions are the hardest to fund.

For the founders of RapidSOS, improving the quality of emergency response by adding useful data, like location, to 911 calls was an inspiring objective, and one that garnered widespread support. There was just one problem: How would they create a viable business?

The roughly 5,700 public safety answering points (PSAPs) in America weren’t great contenders. Cash-strapped and highly decentralized, 911 centers already spent their meager budgets on staffing and maintaining decades-old equipment, and they had few resources to improve their systems. Plus, appropriations bills in Congress to modernize centers have languished for more than a decade, a topic we’ll explore more in part four of this EC-1.

Who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

People obviously desire better emergency services — after all, they are the ones who will dial 911 and demand help someday. Yet, they never think about emergencies until they actually happen, as RapidSOS learned from the poor adoption of its Haven app we discussed in part one. People weren’t ready to pay a monthly subscription for these services in advance.

So, who would pay? Who was annoyed enough with America’s antiquated 911 system to be willing to shell out dollars to fix it?

Ultimately, the company iterated itself into essentially an API layer between the thousands of PSAPs on one side and developers of apps and consumer devices on the other. These developers wanted to include safety features in their products, but didn’t want to engineer hundreds of software integrations across thousands of disparate agencies. RapidSOS’ business model thus became offering free software to 911 call centers while charging tech companies to connect through its platform.

It was a tough road and a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Without call center integrations, tech companies wouldn’t use the API — it was essentially useless in that case. Call centers, for their part, didn’t want to use software that didn’t offer any immediate value, even if it was being given away for free.

This is the story of how RapidSOS just plowed ahead against those headwinds from 2017 onward, ultimately netting itself hundreds of millions in venture funding, thousands of call agency clients, dozens of revenue deals with the likes of Apple, Google and Uber, and partnerships with more software integrators than any startup has any right to secure. Smart product decisions, a carefully calibrated business model and tenacity would eventually lend the company the escape velocity to not just expand across America, but increasingly across the world as well.

In this second part of the EC-1, I’ll analyze RapidSOS’ current product offerings and business strategy, explore the company’s pivot from consumer app to embedded technology and take a look at its nascent but growing international expansion efforts. It offers key lessons on the importance of iterating, how to secure the right customer feedback and determining the best product strategy.

The 411 on a 911 API

It became clear from the earliest stages of RapidSOS’ journey that getting data into the 911 center would be its first key challenge. The entire 911 system — even today in most states — is built for voice and not data.

Karin Marquez, senior director of public safety at RapidSOS, who we met in the introduction, worked for decades at a PSAP near Denver, working her way up from call taker to a senior supervisor. “When I started, it was a one-man dispatch center. So, I was working alone, I was answering 911 calls, non-emergency calls, dispatching police, fire and EMS,” she said.

RapidSOS senior director of public safety Karin Marquez. Image Credits: RapidSOS

As a 911 call taker, her very first requirement for every call was figuring out where an emergency is taking place — even before characterizing what is happening. “Everything starts with location,” she said. “If I don’t know where you are, I can’t send you help. Everything else we can kind of start to build our house on. Every additional data [point] will help to give us a better understanding of what that emergency is, who may be involved, what kind of vehicle they’re involved in — but if I don’t have an address, I can’t send you help.”

#911, #api, #apple, #disaster-response, #ec-1, #emergency-response, #enterprise, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #google, #government, #michael-martin, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #startups, #tc, #uber, #venture-capital

How RapidSOS used creative tactics to build partnerships and a BD engine at scale

One of the most challenging aspects of leading a startup is the seeming impossibility of building partnerships and executing business development. Large companies are sclerotic and bureaucratic, taking eons in terms of startup years to make decisions that for them are small, but for a new company, can be life itself. Every startup ultimately needs to break through those logjams, and sometimes, they need to lock in quite a few partnerships to be successful.

And then there is RapidSOS. With a two-sided business built around relationships with dozens if not hundreds of companies on both sides of the coin, it needed to gain competency in building partnerships really early and really quickly as it scaled its data platform to improve emergency 911 calls. We’ve already covered the company’s origin story and business in parts one and two of this EC-1, and now I want to turn to the secret sauce: How a scrappy cadre of startup folks were able to break down the walls that imperil partnerships at some of the largest tech companies in the world.

For RapidSOS, which had to scale to support hundreds of partners over the years, the key has been building its team and training them for the unique partners they have signed agreements with.

The key, as we will learn, is a set of creative tactics that the company used to bind as many stakeholders into its business as possible. We’ll look at what these partnerships are and how they are formed, and then explore how RapidSOS integrated with software vendors in the 911 space. We’ll also explore how it educated call takers at public safety answering points (PSAPs), worked with its customer partners, and finally, how it built its advisory board and an industrywide initiative around health profiles to become a key thought leader in the market.

The art of the partnership

“Partnership” is a notably and intentionally vague term often thrown around startup circles. Simply put, it describes a business relationship, generally consummated with a contract or statement of work, that brings two companies together over a common initiative. Unlike a mere sale, where one company supplies a product and perhaps customer support in exchange for compensation, partnerships tend to be much broader and more strategic, and can include everything from cross-promotion and channel marketing to engineering assistance, venture investment, exclusivity commitments and more.

#ec-1, #government, #startups, #tc

After a decade, Congress might finally bring 911 into the internet age

When it comes to user-interface design, 911 is about as good as it gets. It’s the “most recognized number in the United States,” Steve Souder, a prominent 911 leader, points out. Simple, fast, and it works from any telephone in the United States. No matter what the emergency is, the call takers on the other side will triage and dispatch assistance.

I’ve taken that ubiquity and simplicity for granted over the past three parts of this EC-1 on RapidSOS as we’ve looked at the startup’s origin story, business and products, as well as its partnerships and business development engine. The company is deeply enmeshed with 911, which means that the prospects of 911 as a system will heavily determine the trajectory of RapidSOS in the coming years, or at least, until its international expansion hits scale and it isn’t so dependent on the U.S. market.

Right now, a $15 billion funding bill to invest in NG911 has been proposed in Congress as part of the LIFT America infrastructure bill that is currently winding its way through the appropriations process and negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders.

Now, you might think, “911, how could they screw that up?” But this is America, and you’d be surprised.

Despite the daily heroic work of tens of thousands of 911 personnel who keep this brittle system afloat, the reality today is that America’s emergency call infrastructure is in a perilous state. After more than a decade of heavy advocacy, the transition to the “next generation” of 911 (dubbed NG911), which would replace a voice-centric model with an internet-based one designed around data streams, has been trundling along, with some early traction but little universality.

As a Congressional Research Service report described it just a few years ago, “funding has been a challenge, and progress has been relatively slow.” Three years later, the words are just as true as they were then.

Given that RapidSOS’ future ultimately relies on a competent government capable of providing core infrastructure, this fourth and final part of the EC-1 will look at the current state of 911 services and what their prospects are, and finally, how one should ultimately judge RapidSOS given all that we have seen.

The three-digit number that feels like it is three-digits old

911 was invented in the late 1960s to unify America around one emergency number. Early forays to create emergency lines had sprouted up across cities and states, but each used their own system and telephone number, creating massive complications for travelers and people living on jurisdictional boundaries. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 crime task force recommended creating a single number for emergency calls as a crime-prevention tool, and on February 16, 1968, the first 911 call was dialed in Haleyville, Alabama.

#911, #america, #amy-klobuchar, #anna-eshoo, #communication, #congress, #ec-consumer-applications, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #federal-communications-commission, #government, #gps, #home-security-systems, #michael-martin, #rapidsos, #rapidsos-ec-1, #senate, #startups, #tc, #telecommunications, #united-states

The CockroachDB EC-1

Every application is a palimpsest of technologies, each layer forming a base that enables the next layer to function. Web front ends rely on JavaScript and browser DOM, which rely on back-end APIs, which themselves rely on databases.

As one goes deeper down the stack, engineering decisions become ever more conservative — changing the location of a button in a web app is an inconvenience; changing a database engine can radically upend an entire project.

It’s little surprise then that database technologies are among the longest-lasting engineering projects in the modern software developer toolkit. MySQL, which remains one of the most popular database engines in the world, was first released in the mid-1990s, and Oracle Database, launched more than four decades ago, is still widely used in high-performance corporate environments.

Database technology can change the world, but the world in these parts changes very, very slowly. That’s made building a startup in the sector a tough equation: Sales cycles can be painfully slow, even when new features can dramatically expand a developer’s capabilities. Competition is stiff and comes from some of the largest and most entrenched tech companies in the world. Exits have also been few and far between.

That challenge — and opportunity — is what makes studying Cockroach Labs so interesting. The company behind CockroachDB attempts to solve a long-standing problem in large-scale, distributed database architecture: How to make it so that data created in one place on the planet is always available for consumption by applications that are thousands of miles away, immediately and accurately. Making global data always available immediately and accurately might sound like a simple use case, but in reality it’s quite the herculean task. Cockroach Labs’ story is one of an uphill struggle, but one that saw it turn into a next-generation, $2-billion-valued database contender.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Bob Reselman. Reselman has been writing about the enterprise software market for more than two decades, with a particular emphasis on teaching and educating engineers on technology. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, figures were designed by Bob Reselman and stylized by Bryce Durbin, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

CockroachDB had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Reselman has no financial ties to CockroachDB or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The CockroachDB EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,100 words and a reading time of 37 minutes. Here’s what we’ll be crawling over:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#cockroach-labs, #cockroachdb, #cockroachdb-ec-1, #database, #database-management, #databases, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #mysql, #saas, #startups

CockroachDB, the database that just won’t die

There is an art to engineering, and sometimes engineering can transform art. For Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis, those two worlds collided when they created the widely successful open-source graphics program, GIMP, as college students at Berkeley.

That project was so successful that when the two joined Google in 2002, Sergey Brin and Larry Page personally stopped by to tell the new hires how much they liked it and explained how they used the program to create the first Google logo.

Cockroach Labs was started by developers and stays true to its roots to this day.

In terms of good fortune in the corporate hierarchy, when you get this type of recognition in a company such as Google, there’s only one way you can go — up. They went from rising stars to stars at Google, becoming the go-to guys on the Infrastructure Team. They could easily have looked forward to a lifetime of lucrative employment.

But Kimball, Mattis and another Google employee, Ben Darnell, wanted more — a company of their own. To realize their ambitions, they created Cockroach Labs, the business entity behind their ambitious open-source database CockroachDB. Can some of the smartest former engineers in Google’s arsenal upend the world of databases in a market spotted with the gravesites of storage dreams past? That’s what we are here to find out.

Berkeley software distribution

Mattis and Kimball were roommates at Berkeley majoring in computer science in the early-to-mid-1990s. In addition to their usual studies, they also became involved with the eXperimental Computing Facility (XCF), an organization of undergraduates who have a keen, almost obsessive interest in CS.

#amazon, #cockroach-labs, #cockroachdb, #cockroachdb-ec-1, #data-analysis, #data-management, #databases, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #larry-page, #mysql, #new-york-city, #relational-database, #saas, #snapchat, #startups

How engineers fought the CAP theorem in the global war on latency

CockroachDB was intended to be a global database from the beginning. The founders of Cockroach Labs wanted to ensure that data written in one location would be viewable immediately in another location 10,000 miles away. The use case was simple, but the work needed to make it happen was herculean.

The company is betting the farm that it can solve one of the largest challenges for web-scale applications. The approach it’s taking is clever, but it’s a bit complicated, particularly for the non-technical reader. Given its history and engineering talent, the company is in the process of pulling it off and making a big impact on the database market, making it a technology well worth understanding. In short, there’s value in digging into the details.

Using CockroachDB’s multiregion feature to segment data according to geographic proximity fulfills Cockroach Labs’ primary directive: To get data as close to the user as possible.

In part 1 of this EC-1, I provided a general overview and a look at the origins of Cockroach Labs. In this installment, I’m going to cover the technical details of the technology with an eye to the non-technical reader. I’m going to describe the CockroachDB technology through three questions:

  1. What makes reading and writing data over a global geography so hard?
  2. How does CockroachDB address the problem?
  3. What does it all mean for those using CockroachDB?

What makes reading and writing data over a global geography so hard?

Spencer Kimball, CEO and co-founder of Cockroach Labs, describes the situation this way:

There’s lots of other stuff you need to consider when building global applications, particularly around data management. Take, for example, the question and answer website Quora. Let’s say you live in Australia. You have an account and you store the particulars of your Quora user identity on a database partition in Australia.

But when you post a question, you actually don’t want that data to just be posted in Australia. You want that data to be posted everywhere so that all the answers to all the questions are the same for everybody, anywhere. You don’t want to have a situation where you answer a question in Sydney and then you can see it in Hong Kong, but you can’t see it in the EU. When that’s the case, you end up getting different answers depending where you are. That’s a huge problem.

Reading and writing data over a global geography is challenging for pretty much the same reason that it’s faster to get a pizza delivered from across the street than from across the city. The essential constraints of time and space apply. Whether it’s digital data or a pepperoni pizza, the further away you are from the source, the longer stuff takes to get to you.

#cockroach-labs, #cockroachdb, #cockroachdb-ec-1, #data-management, #database, #databases, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #relational-database, #saas, #startups

“Developers, as you know, do not like to pay for things”

In the previous part of this EC-1, we looked at the technical details of CockroachDB and how it provides accurate data instantaneously anywhere on the planet. In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the product side of Cockroach, with a particular focus on developer relations.

As a business, Cockroach Labs has many things going for it. The company’s approach to distributed database technology is novel. And, as more companies operate on a global level, CockroachDB has the potential to gain some significant market share internationally. The company is seven years into a typical 10-year maturity model for databases, has raised $355 million, and holds a $2 billion market value. It’s considered a double unicorn. Few database companies can say this.

The company is now aggressively expanding into the database-as-a-service space, offering its own technology in a fully managed package, expanding the spectrum of clients who can take immediate advantage of its products.

But its growth depends upon securing the love of developers while also making its product easier to use for new customers. To that end, I’m going to analyze the company’s pivot to the cloud as well as its extensive outreach to developers as it works to set itself up for long-term, sustainable success.

Cockroach Labs looks to the cloud

These days, just about any company of consequence provides services via the internet, and a growing number of these services are powered by products and services from native cloud providers. Gartner forecasted in 2019 that cloud services are growing at an annual rate of 17.5%, and there’s no sign that the growth has abated at all.

Its founders’ history with Google back in the mid-2000s has meant that Cockroach Labs has always been aware of the impact of cloud services on the commercial web. Unsurprisingly, CockroachDB could run cloud native right from its first release, given that its architecture presupposes the cloud in its operation — as we saw in part 2 of this EC-1.

#cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #cockroach-labs, #cockroachdb, #cockroachdb-ec-1, #database-management, #databases, #distributed-computing, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #mysql, #oracle, #relational-database, #saas, #startups, #tc

Scaling CockroachDB in the red ocean of relational databases

Most database startups avoid building relational databases, since that market is dominated by a few goliaths. Oracle, MySQL and Microsoft SQL Server have embedded themselves into the technical fabric of large- and medium-size companies going back decades. These established companies have a lot of market share and a lot of money to quash the competition.

So rather than trying to compete in the relational database market, over the past decade, many database startups focused on alternative architectures such as document-centric databases (like MongoDB), key-value stores (like Redis) and graph databases (like Neo4J). But Cockroach Labs went against conventional wisdom with CockroachDB: It intentionally competed in the relational database market with its relational database product.

While it did face an uphill battle to penetrate the market, Cockroach Labs saw a surprising benefit: It didn’t have to invent a market. All it needed to do was grab a share of a market that also happened to be growing rapidly.

Cockroach Labs has a bright future, compelling technology, a lot of money in the bank and has an experienced, technically astute executive team.

In previous parts of this EC-1, I looked at the origins of CockroachDB, presented an in-depth technical description of its product as well as an analysis of the company’s developer relations and cloud service, CockroachCloud. In this final installment, we’ll look at the future of the company, the competitive landscape within the relational database market, its ability to retain talent as it looks toward a potential IPO or acquisition, and the risks it faces.

CockroachDB’s success is not guaranteed. It has to overcome significant hurdles to secure a profitable place for itself among a set of well-established database technologies that are owned by companies with very deep pockets.

It’s not impossible, though. We’ll first look at MongoDB as an example of how a company can break through the barriers for database startups competing with incumbents.

When life gives you Mongos, make MongoDB

Dev Ittycheria, MongoDB CEO, rings the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell. Image Credits: Nasdaq, Inc

MongoDB is a good example of the risks that come with trying to invent a new database market. The company started out as a purely document-centric database at a time when that approach was the exception rather than the rule.

Web developers like document-centric databases because they address a number of common use cases in their work. For example, a document-centric database works well for storing comments to a blog post or a customer’s entire order history and profile.

#aws, #baidu, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-services, #cockroach-labs, #cockroachdb, #cockroachdb-ec-1, #data-management, #database, #database-management, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #google, #mongodb, #mysql, #new-york-city, #nosql, #oracle, #relational-database, #saas, #startups

The NS1 EC-1

There are excruciatingly high stakes for software today. Trillions of dollars of market cap, billions of consumers, hundreds of billions of revenue, and limitless hours of usage are dependent on software working in real time, all the time, without downtime.

As the sophistication of software delivery has increased, every layer of the tech stack has been rewritten — an accelerated evolution has led to a bevy of multibillion-dollar, up-and-coming unicorns and multiple massive public market debuts.

However, today we’re talking about one of the most integral pillars holding up the internet. The Domain Name System, otherwise known as DNS, is the key addressing system that connects browsers, users, devices and servers together. Type in “www.techcrunch.com” in your browser, and DNS finds the address linked to that name and tells routers and switches across the world which server to connect to and how to send data back to you.

Unlike physical postal addresses, innovation around DNS addressing has flourished in recent years. Traffic management, performance scaling, and cost shaping have turned DNS from a basic directory into a vital layer for guaranteeing the reliability of all software in use on the internet today while protecting the bottom line.

Few companies have parlayed internet infrastructure experience into a world-class engineering company quite like NS1. The New York City-based startup has raised more than $100 million as it builds a strategic node at the core of the modern web delivery tech stack. Customers are flocking: 760 at latest count (up from 600 a year ago), with year-over-year bookings growth well into the triple digits.

How did the company take a slumbering and dreary yet reliable aspect of the internet and turn it into a strategic moat and an enterprise win? And what lessons can we learn about the future of the enterprise infrastructure layer from one of its leading lights? That’s what we’re here to find out.

The lead writer of this EC-1 is Sean Michael Kerner. Kerner has been covering the IT and enterprise infrastructure market for more than a decade as a tech journalist (or, @TechJournalist as he is known on Twitter). Perhaps most importantly, he’s also partially fluent in Klingon, which has no bearing on this EC-1, but is one of those cool facts we wanted to include anyway. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

NS1 had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Kerner has no financial ties to NS1 or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The NS1 EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 10,300 words and a reading time of 41 minutes. Here’s what we’ll be (DNS) addressing:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#ec-1, #new-york-city, #ns1, #tc

1 napkin and 22 lines of code, or how NS1 rewrote the rules of internet infrastructure

It’s the most important primary layer in the modern tech stack for internet software, and its most intriguing evolution was written on a napkin in a New York City bar and translated to just shy of two dozen lines of Python code.

Such is the nature of tech innovation today, and such was the birth of NS1. Kris Beevers, along with Jonathan Sullivan and Alex Vayl, wanted to rebuild the core addressing system of the internet — the Domain Name System, or DNS — and transform it from a cost center into a critical tool for software reliability and cost savings. It was a smart idea back in 2012 and gained much steam a few years later when a fortuitous outage at a competitor left hundreds of websites stranded.

It’s the most important primary layer in the modern tech stack for internet software, and its most intriguing evolution was written on a napkin in a New York City bar and translated to just shy of two dozen lines of Python code.

NS1 may make the networks of the internet more reliable. But the story of the company is also built on the back of a durable social network of engineers who met at a little-known NYC startup named Voxel. That startup would go on to become, unintentionally, an incubator for several massive enterprise companies and exits.

Chance encounters, bold engineering and lucky breaks: It’s the quintessential startup tale, and it’s changing the face of software delivery.

“You learn a lot because you’re doing way more than you rightfully should.”

NS1’s story begins back at the turn of the millennium, when Beevers was an undergrad at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York and found himself employed at a small file-sharing startup called Aimster with some friends from RPI. Aimster was his first taste of life at an internet startup in the heady days of the dot-com boom and bust, and also where he met an enterprising young engineer by the name of Raj Dutt, who would become a key relationship over the next two decades.

#ec-1, #new-york-city, #ns1, #tc

WTF is NS1? It’s DNS, DDI, and maybe other TLAs

“We are not a DNS company, despite the name, and despite everything we’re talking about,” NS1 founder and CEO Kris Beevers says.

That might sound counter-intuitive, given that the company’s flagship product offering is literally called Managed DNS. The issue and the challenge NS1 actually solves today goes much deeper, and by positioning itself as being about more than DNS, the company helps to differentiate itself against what is, by any measure, a very commoditized technology.

Across its product portfolio, NS1 leverages data and injects software-defined intelligence, automation and real-time decisioning policy to steer and optimize traffic at the DNS layer.

NS1 looks at DNS differently from the competition: It doesn’t consider it as just a conduit to connect traffic; instead, DNS is treated as a routing system that can direct traffic very effectively.

Across its product portfolio, NS1 leverages data and injects software-defined intelligence, automation and real-time decisioning policy to steer and optimize traffic at the DNS layer, Beevers says. It does all this by a core technology known as the filter chain, and it is foundational to NS1’s current success.

In the first part of this EC-1, I spoke about how Beevers wrote 22 lines of code to sketch out that filter chain technology, bringing NS1 to life. I will now look at how the company has expanded beyond DNS into what’s known as DDI, a key technology stack for managing internal networks within companies. We’ll also talk about NS1’s open-source efforts, and why experimentation remains a bedrock principle of the company’s engineering culture.

Managing external traffic: DNS and active traffic management

“Something that I will say very often to our team and to our customers in the market is, we’re not here to make DNS better; we’re not here to make DDI better, which is another realm that we play in now,” Beevers said. “We’re here to turn those technologies into leverage to solve much bigger problems that equate to connecting applications with an audience more effectively, at better scale, driving better performance and experiences with security and reliability.”

#ec-1, #new-york-city, #ns1, #tc

The fight for the future of DNS is white hot

Since its inception, one of the toughest challenges NS1 has faced is the simple fact that DNS is a mature market category with venerable and well-established incumbents. When Kris Beevers and his two co-founders started the company, quite literally every company and internet user already had some form of DNS technology in place. It’s a decades-old technology after all.

Beevers and everyone associated with the company is keen to point out time and again that NS1 isn’t a DNS vendor, but rather a suite of products offering application and traffic delivery, performance and reliability. NS1 in its early days had to constantly preach that message and educate its potential customers on how its offering provided something different than the incumbents with years of performance history.

Because DNS mostly “just works,” some organizations don’t put a serious amount of thought behind it, assuming that all of the services and capabilities out there are roughly equivalent.

In the first two parts of the EC-1, we looked at the origins of the company and its core product offerings in DNS and DDI. In this section, it’s time to look at the broader market and the competition facing NS1 and what that portends for the future of the company.

Everyone owns a product they don’t fully understand

Hosting providers typically offer basic DNS services that “just work” out of the box, creating a large challenge for any vendor in the managed DNS space. Eric Hanselman, principal research analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence, said that among some organizations, there is an expectation that DNS is just part of what happens on the internet.

“I think the largest misconception that I find about DNS in general, is the lack of understanding of how critical it is to the performance and the customer experience of just about everything that organizations do today that is technology related,” Hanselman said.

#ec-1, #new-york-city, #ns1, #tc

Outages, pandemics and the reengineering of traffic on the internet

Sales in enterprise infrastructure is all about meeting a customer’s requirements. But what happens if customers don’t even realize they need a startup’s product in the first place?

In the first three parts of this EC-1, we looked at the origins of NS1, how the company built its DNS and DDI services, and how it competes in a hypercompetitive market. This fourth and final part is where the “rubber meets the road” — the actual customers. Without customers, there is no money, there is no growth and there is no NS1.

NS1 kicked off with the idea that DNS could be used for more than it was previously. The company’s technology has continued to evolve since its initial inception and now uses DNS as a leverage point to help organizations like Pinterest, Roblox and hundreds of others improve application delivery.

As we saw, the challenge for NS1 is that most customers are relatively content with their existing DNS service. It’s a space that has many offerings from legacy as well as public cloud providers, and for most customers, there’s never an urgent force pushing them to upend the fundamentals of their network.

NS1 has had a couple of lucky breaks. The first, as we will see with Pinterest and Roblox, was a major outage of one of the company’s largest competitors, DynDNS, back in October 2016. That failure brought NS1 immediate attention from network architects, turning a relatively staid layer of infrastructure into a critical area for re-architecting.

Beyond that outage, NS1 has been able to educate its customers on why a more flexible base for DNS is important for performance. We interviewed Roblox extensively to understand how the children’s gaming platform has engineered its systems in light of its feverish growth amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finally, we will look at how NS1 continues to expand its product lineup, and what the future holds for the company. NS1 now serves more than 760 customers, including many of the world’s most trafficked applications, such as LinkedIn, Dropbox, JetBlue, Fox and The Guardian. It has become a major infrastructure leader, and an “unusual outcome” likely awaits.

One outage to topple them all

There are a lot of different reasons why any enterprise or organization would choose to buy services from NS1.

Every business and internet user on the planet already has access to DNS in one form or another. NS1 doesn’t sell merely DNS services, as the company repeated time and again in every interview and briefing, but instead sells network resilience and performance. Sure, DNS “just works” in many cases, but “good enough” isn’t good enough when microseconds count and users demand and expect to always be connected at the best possible speed.

#ec-1, #new-york-city, #ns1, #tc

Every startup needs an in-house senate

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

For this week’s deep dive, Natasha and Danny unpacked the Expensify EC-1, which includes a ton of surprises, building tips, and, as we discuss in the show, some life lessons as well. This is our largest EC-1 to date, and is the result of six months of prodigious work from the inimitable Anna Heim. Of course, we had to add our Equity spin on the feature and boiled down our favorite musings into a succinct episode.

Here’s what we got into:

  • Expensify’s silent period as a fun dynamic to deal with as reporters
  • There’s always an Uber angle, and Expensify is no different when you realize its early roots are tied to entrepreneur Travis Kalanick’s persuasion
  • How Expensify manages to stay slim, focus in a rural town in Michigan, and achieve profitability
  • Natasha asked if lack of structure negatively or positive impacts minorities and underrepresented folk, while Danny explained a nifty way that the company deals with promotions and raises.
  • Danny explained how re-writing the playbook might positively impact recruitment, and how joining Expensify doesn’t come with your classic SaaS pitch.
  • And we end with a meta conversation on how society views work, and why neither of us went to spend the next 50 years with predictability.

Once you’re done listening to the episode, make sure to check out Heim’s EC-1 below:

And that’s the show! Make sure to register for a seat at our FREE Equity live show next week, and follow us on Twitter @equitypod.  

Until Friday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

#ec-1, #equity, #expensify, #saas, #tc

The Nubank EC-1

Brazil is a country riven with economic contradictions. It has one of the largest and most profitable banking industries in Latin America, and is among the world’s most developed financial markets. Financial transactions that would take days to process in the United States through ACH happen instantaneously in Brazil. This sophistication, however, masks a backward state of affairs plagued by appalling customer service, exorbitant fees and lack of banking access for many.

The country’s financial system is volatile and often leaves its citizens with few or no alternatives. According to an HBS case study, “in December 2018 the interest rate in Brazil for corporate loans was 52.3%, for consumer loans it was 120.0% and for credit card indebtedness it was 272.42%.” Those rates are many multiples higher compared to figures in neighboring countries.

Brazil’s banking system is a massive market, and one ill-served by incumbents. If someone could thread the needle of product development, strategy and political horse trading required to build a bank in a country where it is nearly impossible for foreigners to own or invest in a bank, it would be one of the great startup and economic success stories of this century.

Nubank is on its way to realizing that objective. Its story is one of unmitigated success, even by the standards of our EC-1 series on high-flying companies and their hard-learned lessons. Just last week, this Brazilian credit card and banking fintech raised a $750 million round led by Berkshire Hathaway at a $30 billion valuation, becoming one of the most valuable startups in the world. It has 40 million users across Brazil, as well as Mexico and Colombia.

Yet, it’s a startup with a CEO and co-founder who isn’t Brazilian, didn’t speak the local language of Portuguese, hadn’t started a company before, and didn’t really know a lot about banking to begin with. This is a story of how raw execution, a “faster, faster” mentality and a fanaticism for making customer experience as enjoyable as a trip to Disney World can completely change the history of an industry — and country — forever.

Our lead writer for this EC-1 is Marcella McCarthy. McCarthy, who spent significant time in Brazil growing up and is trilingual in English, Spanish and Portuguese, has been covering the LatAm and Miami ecosystems for TechCrunch with an eye to the disruption underway in these interconnected regions. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were drawn by Nigel Sussman.

Nubank had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. McCarthy has no financial ties to Nubank or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Nubank EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,200 words and a reading time of 37 minutes. Here’s what’s in the bank:

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#banking, #brazil, #credit-card, #david-velez, #ec-brazil, #ec-fintech, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #ec-1, #finance, #latin-america, #nubank, #nubank-ec-1, #startups

How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

For most startups, the hardest early challenge is identifying a market and a product to serve it. That wasn’t the case for Nubank CEO David Velez, who understood the massive potential for success if he could break into Latin America’s most valuable economy with even a moderately modern banking offering.

Instead, the challenge was how to rebuild the concept of a bank in a country where banking is widely hated, all while the incumbents heavily entrenched with the state worked to block every move.

Nubank knew its market and geography, and through tenacious fundraising, inventive marketing and product development, and a series of contrarian hires, Velez and his team stripped bare the morass of Brazilian banking to build one of the world’s great fintech companies.

The challenge was how to rebuild the concept of a bank in a country where banking is widely hated, all while the incumbents heavily entrenched with the state worked to block every move.

In the first part of this EC-1, I’ll look at how Velez brought his skills and experience to bear on this market, how Nubank was founded in 2013, and how the team brought a Californian rather than Brazilian vibe to their first office on — no joke — California Street, in a neighborhood called Brooklin in the city of São Paulo.

The makings of an entrepreneur

The idea of being his own boss was ingrained in Velez from his earliest days in Colombia, where he grew up in an entrepreneurial family, with a father who owned a button factory. “I heard from my dad over and over again that you need to start your own company,” Velez said.

But years would pass and Velez still had no idea what he wanted to do. To “kill time,” and also to surround himself with entrepreneurial energy, Velez attended Stanford University — partially financed by the sale of some livestock — and then worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley before switching to venture capital at General Atlantic and Sequoia.

#banking, #brazil, #credit-card, #david-velez, #ec-brazil, #ec-fintech, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #ec-1, #finance, #fintech, #nubank, #nubank-ec-1, #online-bank, #online-banking, #startups, #tc

One woman’s drive to make a neobank as magical as Disney

As we mentioned in part 1 of this EC-1, David Velez had two key co-founding roles he needed to fill to get started building Nubank. For one, he needed a CTO to lead the engineering side of the business, as Velez didn’t have an engineering background.

Edward Wible, an American computer science graduate who spent most of his career in private equity, would take that responsibility. He didn’t bring years of coding experience, but he had qualities that Velez considered more important: A strong belief in the potential of the product and an equally intense commitment to working on it.

Given the occasionally hostile reaction of most incumbent banks to their customers in Brazil, Nubank’s starkly contrasting openness and transparency has garnered a huge following.

That left an even more important role to fill — one that was much harder to define. This other co-founder would need to blend knowledge of the Brazilian market and local savvy with expertise in banking, all while embodying a Silicon Valley ethos of focusing on customers. This person would also have to work in São Paulo for minimal wages out of a small office with just one bathroom, all in the belief that their equity (both stock and sweat) would one day be worth it.

Velez would eventually stumble upon Cristina Junqueira, who was qualified to do all this, and much, much more.

“Once someone said I was the glue of the operation, and that someone else was the brains. And I said, ‘No, I’m the glue and the brains, and I bet my brain is even better than his,”’ Junqueira said.

Junqueira didn’t just lead Nubank’s drive into the Brazilian market, she also upended age-old notions of what it means to be a 21st-century bank. Her inspiration was nothing short of Disney, and her mission was to create a bank as popular as the magical kingdom itself.

A bank. As popular as Disney. Sounds like a fairy tale, frankly.

Raised to be a doer

Unlike her co-founders Velez and Wible, Junqueira grew up in Nubank’s home market of Brazil. The eldest of four sisters, she remembers her parents — both dentists — always assiduously working to maintain their practice.

Their work ethic trickled down, but so did responsibility. As the oldest at home, she was forced to grow up quickly and take on responsibilities from an early age. “I remember being 11 years old and doing grocery shopping for the month,” she said. “I did everything very young.”

#brazil, #credit-card, #cristina-junquiera, #david-velez, #ec-brazil, #ec-fintech, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #ec-1, #finance, #fintech, #nubank, #nubank-ec-1, #online-banking, #startups, #tc

How Nubank’s CX strategy made it one of the most loved digital banks

As we saw in parts 1 and 2 of this EC-1, by mid-2013, Nubank CEO David Velez had most of what he needed to get started. He’d brought on two co-founders, assembled ambitious engineering and operations teams, raised $2 million in seed funding from Sequoia and Kaszek, rented a tiny office in São Paulo, and was armed with a mission to deliver the kind of banking services that customers in a market as large and lucrative as Brazil’s should expect.

Despite being named Nubank, however, the startup couldn’t actually be a bank: Brazil’s laws made it illegal at the time for a foreigner-run company to operate a bank. That restriction required the team to develop an inventive product strategy to find a foothold in the market while they waited for a license directly from the country’s president.

Nubank was so adamant about differentiating itself from other banks that it chose Barney purple for its brand color and first credit card.

Nubank therefore pursued a credit card as its first offering, but it had to race against a clock counting quickly down to zero. At the time, Brazil didn’t have ownership restrictions on this product segment like it did with banking, but new rules were coming into force in just a few months in May 2014 that would block a company like Nubank from launching.

The company needed to execute rapidly over the next eight months if it wanted to be grandfathered into the existing regulations. The speed of operations was frantic to say the least, and the company would go on to work even faster, ultimately propelling itself into the stratosphere of fintech startups.

Full faith in credit

It’s easy to assume that the name Nubank refers to “new bank,” but that’s not really what the founders were going for. The word “nu” in Portuguese means “naked,” and Velez and his team wanted the name to reflect their vision: To build a 21st-Century bank without any of the shackles imposed by the traditional banks in Brazil.

The team wanted to offer services to as many people as possible, as there is a huge wealth gap in Brazil, where the minimum wage is around $200 a month.

Launching with just a credit card was both a strategic and practical business decision. Credit cards were widely used in the country, and everyone understood how they worked. Additionally, you could only use credit cards to shop online in Brazil, because debit cards weren’t accepted.

#brazil, #credit-card, #david-velez, #ec-brazil, #ec-fintech, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #ec-1, #finance, #fintech, #nubank, #nubank-ec-1, #online-banking, #startups, #tc

Which Nubank will own the financial revolution?

Nubank’s first office, on California Street in the Brooklin neighborhood of São Paulo, makes for a great beginning to the company’s story. It wasn’t a Silicon Valley garage, but this tiny, one-bathroom rented house, where 30 people worked insane hours to push out the company’s debut credit card, lends just as well to an image of entrepreneurial spirit and drive.

As Nubank continues to make international waves, more and more VC investors are taking a look at the Brazilian ecosystem and could potentially fund other upstarts in the years to come.

But as Nubank’s story continued, the team eventually had to move out of that early office, and the next several offices, too. Eventually Nubank had to relocate to an eight-story building in São Paulo, which houses a large part of the company’s now 3,000-person team.

The startup reached decacorn status in far less than a decade, and it is growing faster than ever. When I interviewed CEO David Velez back in January to discuss Nubank’s $400 million Series G, he said, “We’ve gone from 12 million customers in 2019 to 34 million solely based on word of mouth.” By September last year, the company was onboarding 41,000 new customers per day.

In the five months since our interview, Nubank has managed to rope in a whopping 6 million customers to reach 40 million. It’s now valued at $30 billion.

Nubank’s present day headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil. Image Credits: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP / Getty Images

Getting there hasn’t been easy. The company’s three co-founders, Velez, Edward Wible and Cristina Junqueira, had to make key strategic decisions about how to scale themselves to retain the company’s lead in the neobanking market. That lead is getting tougher to sustain every day. Nubank’s proliferating offerings and broader geographical remit has painted a massive target on its back, and a wide number of competitors have cropped up to run on the paths it pioneered.

Like most Disney films, a fairy-tale ending seems in order, but it’ll take a few more rotations of the film wheel to get to the ending.

Early mistakes and ingredients for success

For the co-founding trio, it became increasingly clear that Nubank’s growing scale demanded critical strategic decisions on how to bring order to the company.

By 2018, the company had thousands of employees, millions of customers, and they still didn’t have a head of HR. Growth until then had been somewhat unstructured. According to Junqueira, waiting so long to hire a head of HR was one of their early mistakes, because it stunted their ability to grow. “[Good] people continue to be our biggest bottleneck,” she says.

#brazil, #credit-card, #ec-brazil, #ec-fintech, #ec-latin-america-and-caribbean, #ec-1, #finance, #fintech, #nubank, #nubank-ec-1, #online-banking, #startups, #tc

How bottom-up sales helped Expensify blaze the path for SaaS

You’d expect an expense management company to have a large sales department and advertise through all kinds of channels to maximize customer acquisition. But like we’ve seen over and over through the course of this EC-1, Expensify just doesn’t do what you think it should.

Keeping in mind this company’s propensity to just stick to its guts, it’s not much of a surprise that it got to more than $100M in annual recurring revenue and millions of users with a staff of 130, some contractors, and an almost non-existent sales team.

If you’re wondering how its possible to grow to such a level without an established sales team, the short answer is: Word of mouth. To an extent, Expensify can do this due to the space it’s in, as expense reporting is such a thankless, almost mind numbingly boring task that anyone who found a good solution is bound to recommend it to their colleagues and friends.

But it’s more interesting how Expensify grows bottom-up within SMBs, its core customer base. By providing an easy and meaningful experience via the product itself, the company has come to a point where it only takes one or two users who love the service to turn their company into customers.

This approach flips the traditional sales model on its head and is now known as product-led growth, but Expensify did it long before it was an accepted business model. Though that was harder than it sounds, it also put the company in a uniquely privileged position, which it is fully intent on leveraging.

Starting the flywheel

There are many ways to get such a business model started, but as usual, Expensify threw caution and all advice out the window and banked on turning its users into evangelizers for its product.

#bottom-up-sales, #corporate-expense-management, #david-barrett, #ec-1, #expense-management, #expense-reporting, #expense-reports, #expensify, #expensify-ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #finance, #payments, #red-swoosh, #saas, #startups

How Expensify hacked its way to a robust, scalable tech stack

Take a close look at any ambitious startup and you’ll find pugnacity nestled in its core. Stubbornness and a bullheaded belief in the worth of what a company wants to bring to fruition is often the biggest driver of its success, and the people at such companies also tend to share this quality.

So it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the people at Expensify are a stubborn lot — to the company’s ultimate benefit. This group of P2P pirates/hackers that set out to build an expense management app stuck to their gut, made their own rules. They asked questions few thought of, like: Why have lots of employees when you can find a way to get work done and reach impressive profitability with a few? Why work from an office in San Francisco when the internet lets you work from anywhere, even a sailboat in the Caribbean?

It makes sense in a way: If you’re a pirate, to hell with the rules, right? And even more so when nobody can explain the rules in the first place.

With that in mind, one could assume Expensify decided to ask itself: Why not build our own totally custom tech stack? Indeed, Expensify has made several tech decisions that were met with disbelief — from having an open-source frontend and cross-platform mobile development to hiring contractors to train its AI and recruiting open-source contributors — but its belief in its own choices has paid off over the years, and the company is ready to IPO any day now.

How much of a tech advantage Expensify enjoys owing to such choices is an open question, but one thing is clear: These choices are key to understanding Expensify and its roadmap. Let’s take a look.

Built on Bedrock

I think another question Expensify also decided to ask in its early days was something like: Why not have our database on top of a technology that’s built for small-scale application software?

It may sound incredible, but Expensify actually runs on a custom database built on top of SQLite. This is surprising, because despite being one of the most widely deployed database engines, SQLite is known for running on small, embedded systems like smartphones and web browsers, not powering enterprise-scale databases.

It may sound incredible, but Expensify actually runs on a custom database built on top of SQLite.

This custom database is called Bedrock, and its architecture is as unique as they come. Expensify explains it as an “RDBMS optimized for self-healing replication across relatively slow, relatively unreliable WAN (internet) connections, enabling extremely high availability/high performance multi-datacenter deployments without any single point of failure.” RDBMS means relational database management system, describing SQLite and other row-based databases where entries are interconnected with each other.

But why would Expensify build this instead of going for any number of widely available enterprise database solutions?

To answer that question, we need to go back to the early days of the company, which was originally a side project for its founder and CEO, David Barrett. His initial idea was to develop a prepaid card for the homeless, but this required putting a server on the Visa network, which brought several strict requirements and challenges. “I would say one of the most difficult [parts] was that I needed the ability to automatically replicate and failover,” Barrett told TechCrunch when we interviewed him a couple of months ago.

This was no easy feat in 2007, but Barrett was up for the challenge. “I just hit a moment where the technology available off the shelf just wasn’t that good. And I happened to be a peer-to-peer software developer who had tons of spare time and really wanted to build this thing to put on the Visa backend,” he said. The P2P aspect was important, as Barrett had the skills to make it work. His first hires for Expensify, P2P engineers he had worked with at Red Swoosh and Akamai, were also unusually suited for the job.

#artificial-intelligence, #bedrock, #cloud, #corporate-expense-management, #david-barrett, #ec-1, #enterprise, #expense-management, #expense-reporting, #expense-reports, #expensify, #expensify-ec-1, #finance, #react-native, #relational-database, #saas

How Expensify shed Silicon Valley arrogance to realize its global ambitions

Expensify may be the most ambitious software company ever to mostly abandon the Bay Area as the center of its operations.

Expensify may be the most ambitious software company ever to mostly abandon the Bay Area as the center of its operations.

The startup’s history is tied to places representative of San Francisco: The founding team worked out of Peet’s Coffee on Mission Street for a few months, then crashed at a penthouse lounge near the 4th and King Caltrain station, followed by a tiny office and then a slightly bigger one in the Flatiron building near Market Street.

Thirteen years later, Expensify still has an office a few blocks away on Kearny Street, but it’s no longer a San Francisco company or even a Silicon Valley firm. The company is truly global with employees across the world — and it did that before COVID-19 made remote working cool.

“Things got so much better when we stopped viewing ourselves as a Silicon Valley company. We basically said, no, we’re just a global company,” CEO David Barrett told TechCrunch. That globalism led to it opening a major office in — of all places —a small town in rural Michigan. That Ironwood expansion would eventually lead to a cultural makeover that would see the company broadly abandon its focus on the Bay Area, expanding from a headquarters in Portland to offices around the globe.

It makes sense that a company founded by internet pirates would let its workforce live anywhere they please and however they want to. Yet, how does it manage to make it all work well enough to reach $100 million in annual revenue with just a tad more than 100 employees?

As I described in Part 2 of this EC-1, that staffing efficiency is partly due to its culture and who it hires. It’s also because it has attracted top talent from across the world by giving them benefits like the option to work remotely all year as well as paying SF-level salaries even to those not based in the tech hub. It’s also got annual fully paid month-long “workcations” for every employee, their partner and kids.

Yet the real story is how a company can become untethered from its original geography, willing to adapt to new places and new cultures, and ultimately, give up the past while building the future.

#david-barrett, #ec-1, #enterprise, #expense-management, #expensify, #michigan, #portland, #san-francisco, #tc

How Expensify got to $100M in revenue by hiring “stem cells” and not “cogs in a wheel”

The influence of a founder on their company’s culture cannot be overstated. Everything from their views on the product and business to how they think about people affects how their company’s employees will behave, and since behavior in turn informs culture, the consequences of a founder’s early decisions can be far-reaching.

So it’s not very surprising that Expensify has its own take on almost everything it does when you consider what its founder and CEO David Barrett learned early in his life: “Basically everyone is wrong about basically everything.” As we saw in part 1 of this EC-1, this led him to the revelation that it’s easier to figure things out for yourself than finding advice that applies to you. Eventually, these insights — and the adventurous P2P hacker attitude he nurtured alongside his colleagues and Travis Kalanick at Red Swoosh — would inform how he would go about shaping Expensify.

Expensify’s culture can’t be separated from its hiring and growth processes — by joining the company, employees self-select into a group that isn’t likely to get hung up about trade-offs.

It’s striking how Expensify has managed to maintain this character 13 years later, even on the threshold of an IPO. How did this happen? During a series of interviews in February and early March, we found the answer is tied to the level of thought and effort this expense management business puts into its culture.

You see, the people at Expensify are prepared to invent their own playbook, develop it and, if needed, rewrite it completely. Its HR policies and strategy are tailored to find people who would have fun building an expense management product. It has a unique growth and recognition scheme to offset the drawbacks of a flat organizational structure. It’s even got a “Senate” that vets all major decisions. No kidding.

All this, and more, has ultimately helped Expensify reach more than 10 million users and achieve $100 million in annual revenue with just 130 employees. Let’s take a closer look at how Expensify makes it happen.

“We want the fewest people necessary to get the job done”

It’s clear Expensify’s unusually high employee-to-revenue ratio is intentional: “We want the fewest people necessary to get the job done,” Barrett says. But how do you actually achieve it? How do you hire and keep people who can deliver such results? Barrett had to learn how the hard way.

Expensify’s first team was based in San Francisco and comprised Barrett’s old Red Swoosh and Akamai colleagues, who joined a few months after Akamai fired him. A small team was enough to get started, but it was much more difficult to hire additional people. Barrett is eager to clarify the Valley is not really the best place to recruit talent: “Sure, Silicon Valley has a ton of really awesome people, but all of them have jobs!,” he says.

#apps, #corporate-expense-management, #david-barrett, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #expense-management, #expense-reporting, #expense-reports, #expensify, #expensify-ec-1, #extra-crunch-ec-1, #p2p, #red-swoosh, #saas, #travel-expenses, #travis-kalanick

The Expensify EC-1

Let’s make it clear from the outset that this story is about an expense management SaaS business called Expensify. As you’d expect, yes, this is about the expense management market and how Expensify has grown, its technology and all of that. Normally, that would make us change the channel. But this is also a story about pirates; peer-to-peer hackers who asked, “Why not work from Thailand and dozens of countries across the globe?” and actually did it using P2P hacker culture as a model for consensus-driven decision-making — all with pre-Uber Travis Kalanick in a guest-starring role.

Most interestingly, this is a story about just not giving a damn about what anyone goddamn thinks, an approach to life and business that led to more than $100 million in annual revenue, and an IPO incoming on what looks to be a very quick timetable. Prodigious revenues, 10 million users and only 130 employees running the whole shebang — that’s a hell of an achievement in only 13 years.

If you’re going a bit “WTF,” well, we’d concur. Expensify is as contradictory as they come in the enterprise world. It’s managed to take what might well be the most boring part of the corporate business stack and turn it into something special. It doesn’t borrow its culture from other startups, it built its own tech stack from the ground up, and even hires in a completely radical way. Oh, and no one really has job titles either, because why the hell bother with hierarchy anyway? They’re pirates after all.

If expense management is about avoiding corporate plunder, then letting the pirates and hackers run the ship is probably the best approach. And now, Expensify is plundering the corporate spend world one travel ticket and business meal at a time just as the world is rebuilding in the wake of COVID-19.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Anna Heim. Heim is a tech journalist and former startup founder who has written for different tech publications since 2011. She recently joined Extra Crunch as a daily reporter, where she will be sharing insights on startups, particularly in SaaS. The lead editor of this package was Ram Iyer, the series editor was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and original illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman with art direction from Bryce Durbin.

Expensify had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Heim has no financial ties to Expensify or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Expensify EC-1 will be a serialized sequence of five articles published over the course of the coming weeks. We interviewed the company in February and March, well before the company announced a confidential filing of its S-1 to the SEC. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant” (2,400 words/10 minutes) — Explores the colorful history of the Expensify founders’ days with Travis Kalanick’s venture before Uber, a P2P content distribution startup called Red Swoosh, and how that experience would eventually influence what would one day become an expense management giant.
  • Parts 2-5: Upcoming shortly.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#concur, #david-barrett, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #expense-management, #expensify, #expensify-ec-1, #p2p, #saas

How a band of P2P hackers planted the seeds of a unique expense management giant

Individuality often has no place in the enterprise software space. In a market where a single contract can easily run into the millions, homogeneity is the herald of reliability and serves to reassure buyers of the worth of their potential purchase.

So it’s natural to think a company in the expense report management business would keep it simple and play it by the book. But one look at Expensify is enough to tell you that this is a company that never even looked for the book.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

Right from its famous “workcations,” to its management structure and its decision-making policies, Expensify has it in its DNA to eschew so-called best practices for its own ideas — a philosophy rooted in its founder and early team’s P2P hacker background and do-it-yourself attitude. As a result, Expensify is atypical of startups in many ways, inside and out.

Founder and CEO David Barrett made it clear his company was different in our first call itself: “We hire in a super different way. We have a very unusual internal management structure. Our business model itself is very unusual. We don’t have any salespeople, for example. We’re an incredibly small company. We focus on the employees over the bosses. Our technology stack is completely different. Our approach toward product design is very different.”

That description would make some people call Expensify weird even by startup standards, but this essential difference has set it apart in a space dominated by giants such as SAP Concur and Coupa. And that’s ultimately been to its benefit: Expensify reached $100 million in annual recurring revenue in 2020, with hefty 25% EBITDA margins to boot. There were also rumors of the company planning to go public during our interviews for this EC-1, but they stopped speaking to us in March, and now we know why: Expensify confidentially filed to go public on May 3.

Expensify’s origin story is one of a scrappy group of developers who turned travel into a catalyst for ideas and stuck together through highs and lows, ending up building one of the most unexpectedly original companies in enterprise software today.

When David met Travis …

To truly understand Expensify, you first need to take a close look at a unique, short-lived, P2P file-sharing company called Red Swoosh, which was Travis Kalanick’s startup before he founded Uber. Framed by Kalanick as his “revenge business” after his previous P2P startup Scour was sued into oblivion for copyright infringement, Red Swoosh would be the precursor for Expensify’s future culture and ethos. In fact, many of Expensify’s initial team actually met at Red Swoosh, which was eventually acquired by Akamai Technologies in 2007 for $18.7 million.

Barrett, a self-proclaimed alpha geek and lifelong software engineer, was actually Red Swoosh’s last engineering manager, hired after the failure of his first project, iGlance.com, a P2P push-to-talk program that couldn’t compete against Skype. “While I was licking my wounds from that experience, I was approached by Travis Kalanick who was running a startup called Red Swoosh,” he recalled in an interview.

#akamai, #david-barrett, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-1, #enterprise, #expense-management, #expensify, #expensify-ec-1, #saas, #startups, #travis-kalanick

The Duolingo EC-1

Education may well be the most important activity we conduct as a society — and it may also be the hardest space to build a startup in. Selling to school districts and universities is notoriously difficult, but enticing consumers is even harder. Learning takes focus, patience, tenacity and resources, and most consumers would prefer to watch some lip-sync videos on TikTok than stare at math equations (not to mention that such entertainment is free). Engagement and education feel aggressively at odds, which limits the way that startups can scale and succeed.

Yet, the revulsion VCs have traditionally had for the space has slowly dissipated over the past 10 years. Consumer and enterprise startups in edtech are increasingly attracting funding, and there is a growing crop of edtech-focused investors who are betting big on the future here. What’s changed isn’t the market or its potential, but rather the perception that ambitious and sustainable companies can truly be built in education.

One of the companies that has led the charge in transforming those perceptions is Pittsburgh-based Duolingo. It’s a language-learning app that has caught fire. From humble origins a decade ago as a translation platform for news agencies, it’s now used by 500 million people across the world to learn Spanish, English, French and more, all while generating bookings of $190 million in 2020. It’s a smashing success, but a success that was hard earned after a years-long effort of product and revenue experimentation to find its current niche.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Natasha Mascarenhas. Mascarenhas has been covering edtech from the very first day she joined TechCrunch as a venture capital and startups writer, and she has built up a reputation as a fearless chronicler of this increasingly vital ecosystem. The lead editor of this package was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Duolingo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Mascarenhas has no financial ties to Duolingo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Duolingo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 12,200 words and a reading time of 48 minutes. Here’s what’s in store:

And finally, note that Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn is coming to Disrupt, so make sure to grab your tickets because the conversation will continue there.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

#duolingo, #ec-edtech, #ec-1, #edtech, #education, #pittsburgh, #startups, #tc