PayEm comes out of stealth with $27M and its answer to the expense report

Itamar Jobani was a software developer working for a medical company and “hated that time of the month” when he had to use the company’s chosen reimbursement tool.

“It was full of friction and as part of the company’s wellness team, I felt an urge to take care of the employee experience and find a better tool,” Jobani told TechCrunch. “I looked for something, but didn’t find it, so I tried to build it myself.”

What resulted was PayEm, an Israeli company he founded with Omer Rimoch in 2019 to be a spend and procurement platform for high-growth and multinational organizations. Today, it announced $27 million in funding that includes $7 million in seed funding, led by Pitango First and NFX, with participation by LocalGlobe and Fresh Fund, as well as $20 million in Series A funding led by Glilot+.

The company’s technology automates the reimbursement, procurement, accounts payable and credit card workflows to manage all of the requests and invoices, while also creating bills and sending payments to over 200 territories in 130 currencies.

It gives company finance teams a real-time look at what items employees are asking for funds to buy, and what is actually being spent. For example, teams can submit a request and go through an approval flow that can be customized with purchasing codes tied to a description of the transaction. At the same time, all transactions are continuously reconciled versus having to spend hours at the end of the month going through paperwork.

“Organizations are running in a more democratized way with teams buying things on behalf of the organization,” Jobani said. “We built a platform to cater to those needs, so it’s like a disbursement platform instead of a finance team always being in charge.”

The global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually and is expected to reach $200 trillion by 2028, according to payment industry newsletter Nilson Report. PayEm is among many B2B payments startups attracting venture capital — for example, last month, Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding at a $1 billion valuation. Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

Meanwhile, PayEm itself saw accelerated growth in the second quarter of 2021, including increasing its transaction volume by four times over the previous quarter and generating millions of dollars in revenue. It now boasts a list of hundreds of customers like Fiverr, JFrog and Next Insurance. It also launched new features like the ability to create corporate cards.

The company, which also has an office in New York, has 40 employees currently, and the new funds will enable the company to triple its headcount, focusing on hiring in the United States, and to bring additional features and payment capabilities to market.

“Each person can have a budget and a time frame for making the purchase, while accounting still feels in control,” Jobani added. “Everyone now has the full context and the right budget line item.”

#api, #artificial-intelligence, #b2b-payments, #enterprise, #financial-services, #funding, #glilot, #itamar-jobani, #nfx, #omer-rimoch, #payem, #payments, #pitango-first, #recent-funding, #saas, #startups, #tc

Sales experience platform Walnut raises $15M to improve product demonstrations

Walnut raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by Eight Roads Ventures, to continue developing its sales experience platform.

Founders Yoav Vilner and Danni Friedland started the company in July 2020. Vilner told TechCrunch that while at a previous company, he was building a category called technology marketing in Israel. He realized that company sales people often ran into problems when it was time to demonstrate their product — the product would break, or they would have to ask another department to open something or add a feature, none of which happened instantaneously, Vilner added.

He and Friedland’s answer to that problem is a no-code platform for teams to create customized product demonstrations quickly, be able to integrate them into their sales and marketing processes and then generate insights from the demos.

Walnut engagement example. Image Credits: Walnut

“We let the sales and marketing teams replicate the SaaS product in our cloud environment, which is disconnected from the back end,” Vilner explained. “They can create a storyline to fit their customer and the demonstration, and then following the demo, sales leaders can get insight on what was good or bad. It encourages the sharing of knowledge and what story worked best for which kind of company.”

The company’s latest round gives it $21 million raised to date, and follows a $6 million seed round that included NFX, A Capital, Liquid2 Ventures and Graph Ventures, Vilner said.

Walnut serves over 60 business-to-business clients, including Adobe, NetApp, Varonis and People AI. In addition to Tel Aviv, the company has offices in New York and London.

Vilner intends to use the new funding to grow the team across the U.S, Europe and Israel and continue developing its technology and platform, including tools to embed demos into a website for product-led growth. He also expects to double the team of 25 over the next year.

Eyal Rabinovich, an investor at Eight Roads Ventures, said his brother is a Walnut customer, and the company fits with one of the firm’s theses around broad vertically integrated brands in SaaS and deep technology.

Rabinovich was tracking the sales enablement space for a while and said many companies claim to provide something unique, but it is usually workflow and processes. In Walnut’s case, it is solving something at the core of sales.

“They make everything measurable, and the ‘holy grail’ is conversion, and even just 1% conversion could mean millions of dollars,” he added. “Every company we spoke to wanted to use this product. Customers were telling us they closed the sales cycle within two weeks.”

 

#a-capital, #artificial-intelligence, #danni-friedland, #eight-roads-ventures, #enterprise, #eyal-rabinovich, #funding, #graph-ventures, #liquid2-ventures, #nfx, #product-management, #product-marketing, #recent-funding, #saas, #sales, #startups, #tc, #walnut, #yoav-vilner

Commercial real estate lending startup Lev brings in $30M on a $130M valuation

Commercial real estate has been slow to embrace technology; though it has an addressable financing market of more than $40 billion, putting together a deal is still mostly manual, paper-heavy and complicated.

New York-based Lev is taking on this problem by automating workflows online and gathering hundreds of millions of data points into machine learning software to ensure financing accuracy. To do this, the commercial real estate financing transaction platform raised $30 million to give it a $130 million valuation just two years into its inception.

The latest financing comes four months after the company raised $10 million in seed funding led by NFX. Greenspring led the latest round, with participation from First American Title. Existing investors NFX, Canaan Partners, JLL Spark, Animo Ventures and Ludlow Ventures also joined in to give Lev total investments of more than $34 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Lev founder and CEO Yaakov Zar previously co-founded Boston-based Dispatch, which built tools for home services businesses. It was when he and his wife went through the homebuying process — and their mortgage fell through — that Zar decided to look at real estate financing.

He channeled his frustration into becoming a licensed mortgage loan originator. After relocating to New York, Zar was helping a friend at a nonprofit organization refinance their building and got a firsthand look at what he said was a fragmented commercial real estate mortgage industry.

Companies like Blend are addressing the problem of real estate lending, Zar told TechCrunch, but very few are focusing on commercial real estate, where lending is sensitive to interest rates and total amortization. In addition, property owners have a burden of refinancing every five to 10 years.

“Legacy businesses like JLL, which is an investor, Cushman Wakefield and CBRE work on lending, but they are much more ‘relationship focused’ than tech focused,” Zar said. “We think that it is a necessary part because the deals are so large and complex that you need a relationship for them, but transactions less than $1 billion are pretty straightforward. On experience and product, no one is close to us.”

Initially, Zar and his team wanted to build the “Rocket Mortgage of commercial real estate lending,” but found that to be difficult because real estate brokers are putting together their own pitch books for lenders. Instead, Lev is building a technology platform of more than 5,000 lenders with information on what projects they like to finance. It then analyzes a customer’s portfolio and connects them in minutes with the right lender, taking 1% of the loan amount for each transaction as payment. Lev is also working to be able to close deals online.

Zar wasn’t looking for funding when he was approached by investors, but said he was introduced to some people who liked the company’s growth and trajectory and decided to accept the funding offer.

He intends to use the new funding on product development, with the aim of giving a term sheet in seconds and closing a loan in seven days. Right now it can take a week or two to get the term sheet and 45 to 90 days to close a loan.

The company has about 40 employees currently in its New York headquarters, Miami R&D center, Los Angeles outpost and remotely. Continued investments will be made to expand the team.

Lev grew 10 times in volume in the past year, closing approximately $100 million of loans in 2020. Zar expects to close over $1 billion in 2021.

“Customers come back to us repeatedly, and there are a ton of referrals,” Zar said. “We want to be the platform on which capital market transactions are processed. You need an advantage to network and find great deals. I don’t want to mess with that, but when you find it, bring it to us, we will close it and provide the asset management with the best option to close online and manage the deal from a single platform.”

Meanwhile, Pete Flint, general partner at NFX, told TechCrunch that he got to know the Lev team over the last 18 months, checking in on the company during various stages of the global pandemic, and was impressed at how the company navigated it.

As co-founder of Trulia, he saw firsthand the problems in the real estate industry over search and discovery, but as that problem was being solved, the focus shifted to financing. NFX is also an investor in Tomo and Ribbon, which both focus on residential financing.

Wanting to see what opportunities were on the commercial real estate side, Flint heard Lev’s name come up more and more among brokers and industry insiders.

“As we got to know the Lev team, we recognized that they were the best team out there to solve this problem,” Flint said. “We are also among an amazing group of people complementing the round. The folks that are deep industry insiders will put a helpful lens on strategy and business development opportunities.”

 

#animo-ventures, #canaan-partners, #cbre, #enterprise, #finance, #first-american-title, #funding, #greenspring, #jll-spark, #lev, #ludlow-ventures, #nfx, #pete-flint, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital, #yaakov-zar

Former Zillow execs raise $70M seed round for Tomo, which wants to simplify the mortgage process

There are so many startups pledging to reinvent the mortgage process that it’s hard to keep up. But for anyone who has had to go through the process of applying for one, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The latest startup to raise venture money with the goal of making the process “smarter and faster” is one that was founded by a pair of executives that spent years at real estate giant Zillow. Tomo is very early stage — so early stage that it is only launching operations in conjunction with announcing it has just raised $70 million in seed funding. That’s a massive seed round by any standards (the third-largest in the U.S., according to Crunchbase), but especially for the real estate tech space (perhaps the largest ever).

Ribbit Capital led the financing, which also included participation from DST Global, NFX and Zigg Capital.

Former Zillow executives Greg Schwartz and Carey Armstrong founded Stamford, CT-based Tomo in the fall of 2020 to take on big banks when it comes to providing mortgages to consumers. CEO Schwartz first joined Zillow in 2007, where he says he “built the sales and revenue operations from the ground up.” Armstrong, who serves as Tomo’s chief revenue officer, previously led business strategy, product strategy and core operations for Zillow’s $1 billion buyer services business. 

Launching today in Seattle, Dallas and Houston, Tomo says it will do things like issue fully underwritten pre-approvals “within hours, not days” and guarantee on-time closing. This is particularly important in competitive markets with multiple buyers making offers on homes.

It plans to use data to get homebuyers to closing in as little as 21 days, which they say is less than half of the industry average of 47 days. And, on top of all that, it claims it will offer “the lowest rates in the industry” with “customer-obsessed service.”

The company claims that besides having founders that have years of experience at a company with a reach like Zillow’s, they also aim to be different from other competitors in the space in that they are strictly focused on the buyer. For example, it won’t do any refinancing for existing homeowners but focus strictly on helping buyers secure new mortgage loans.

“The big banks have never made more money, yet an experience with their mortgage business has never been worse,” Schwartz told TechCrunch. “And it’s because the incumbents have no reason to fundamentally change.”

While it’s early days yet, only time will tell if Tomo can live up to its lofty goals. No doubt it has plenty of competition. In the past week alone, we’ve reported on two other digital mortgage startups raising significant funding rounds, including Lower and Accept.

Tomo’s investors are clearly confident about its potential.

Ribbit Capital’s Nick Huber said his firm had been connected to Schwartz and Armstrong prior to their even starting Tomo.

“When we learned that the two of them were working together, we immediately knew that we had to be a part of the journey,” he said. “We gained the conviction to lead the seed round as the team shared more of their vision for the future of home buying, which is a broken experience that they deeply understand and have the insight and relationships to fix.”

NFX founder and general partner Pete Flint has known Schwartz and Armstrong under a different capacity. They were once rivals. Flint co-founded another online real estate giant, Trulia and was its CEO and chairman from its 2005 inception until it was acquired by Zillow for $2.5 billion in 2015.

“We were initially competitors and then deep collaborators after the Trulia/Zillow merger,” Flint said. Once the pair formed Tomo, Flint says NFX “had not seen a team that was so experienced and thoughtful about the entire real estate experience that was going after the mortgage and home buying opportunity.”

In fact, the investment represents NFX’s largest initial investment to date.

“They are rethinking the entire software stack and building a modern fintech company, free of legacy constraints,” he added.

#dallas, #dst-global, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #houston, #mortgage, #nfx, #nick-huber, #pete-flint, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #ribbit-capital, #seattle, #startups, #trulia, #united-states, #venture-capital, #zillow

Forum Brands raises $27M as crowded Amazon roll-up space continues to heat up

The number of startups acquiring e-commerce businesses, especially those operating on Amazon, to grow and scale is increasing as more people than ever are shopping online.

The latest such startup to raise capital is Forum Brands, which today announced it has raised $27 million in equity funding for its technology-driven e-commerce acquisition platform. 

Norwest Venture Partners led the round, which also included participation from existing backers NFX and Concrete Rose.

Brenton Howland, Ruben Amar and Alex Kopco founded New York-based Forum Brands last summer during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its self-proclaimed goal was to use data to innovate through acquisition.

“We’re buying what we think are A+ high-growth e-commerce businesses that sell predominantly on Amazon and are looking to build a portfolio of standalone businesses that are category leaders, on and off Amazon,” Howland said. “A source of inspiration for us is that we saw how consumer goods and services changed fundamentally for what we think is going to be for decades and decades to come, accelerating the shift toward digital.”

Forum Brands founding team. Image Credits: Forum Brands

Forum’s technology employs “advanced” algorithms and over 60 million data points to populate brand information into a central platform in real time, instantly scoring brands and generating accurate financial metrics.

The M&A team also uses data to contact brand owners “in just three clicks.” But Forum says it already knows which brands meet its acquisition criteria before ever making contact with brand owners.

“The decision to acquire comes within 48 hours and once terms are agreed upon, entrepreneurs get paid in 30 days or less for their brand, with additional income benefits through post-acquisition partnerships,” according to the company.

Its apps leverage analytics to push recommendations to drive growth and financial performance for brands. Then, its multichannel approaches aimed at positioning the brands for “long-term category leadership.”

“We are using a lot of data science and machine learning techniques to build technology that allows us to eventually operate efficiently a large portfolio of digital brands at scale,” Kopco said.

The company is undeterred by the increasingly crowded space based on the belief that the market opportunity is so huge, there’s plenty of room for multiple players.

“We are very much in the day zero consolidation of the e-commerce space, and the market is very, very large,” Amar told TechCrunch. “And based on our data, 98% or 99% of all sellers are still operating independently. So, this is not a winner-takes-all market. There will be multiple winners, and we’ve built a strategy to be one of these winners.” 

Norwest Venture Partners’ Stew Campbell believes that the number of sellers who reach a point where they have trouble scaling either due to the lack of resources or time is only going to grow. And Forum Brands intends to capitalize on that.

There’s a continued need for more liquidity options for the entrepreneurs behind many Amazon-first brands. Forum helps entrepreneurs recognize value, which can be significant too many,” he said. ”After acquisition, the Forum team drives operational efficiencies and scale to create better customer experiences for shoppers on Amazon.”

Campbell emphasizes that his firm was drawn to Forum Brands’ team, which the company also touts as a differentiator.

Co-founder and COO Kopco worked in a variety of product roles for several years at Amazon and John Derkits, Forum’s VP of brand growth, is also ex-Amazon. Overall, three-fourths of its operating team are former Amazonians. Co-CEO and co-founder Howland was an investor for two years at Cove Hill Partners and is a former McKinsey consultant.

Campbell says his firm has seen many other models in this market, “but the Forum team blends long-term mindsets and focus on technology, while bringing operational and M&A expertise.”

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because TechCrunch also recently covered the raise of Acquco, which has a similar business model to that of Forum Brands and also involves former Amazon employees. In May, that startup raised $160 million in debt and equity to scale its business. Thrasio is another high-profile player in the space, and has raised $850 million in funding this year. Other startups that have recently attracted venture capital include Branded, which recently launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding, as well as Berlin Brands Group, SellerX, Heyday, Heroes and Perch. And, Valoreo, a Mexico City-based acquirer of e-commerce businesses, raised $50 million of equity and debt financing in a seed funding round announced in February.

Also, earlier this month, Moonshot Brands announced a $160 million debt and equity raise to “acquire high-performing Amazon third-party sellers and direct-to-consumer businesses on Shopify and WooCommerce with established brand equity.” That company says that since its founding in 2020, it has achieved a $30 million revenue run rate. Among its investors are Y Combinator, Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures and the founders of Hippo, Lambda School and Shift. 

#amazon, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #funding, #fundings-exits, #new-york, #nfx, #norwest-venture-partners, #recent-funding, #roll-up, #roll-ups, #startup, #startups, #venture-capital

SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the U.S.

As the Biden Administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

#america, #banking, #biden-administration, #california, #congress, #founder, #founders-fund, #funding, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #immigration, #labor, #nfx, #oklahoma, #pete-flint, #stanford, #startups, #tc, #trulia, #trump-administration, #u-s-department-of-labor, #united-states

AI Dungeon-maker Latitude raises $3.3M to build games with ‘infinite’ story possibilities

Latitude, a startup building games with stories are generated by artificial intelligence, is announcing that it has raised $3.3 million in seed funding.

The idea of an AI-generated story might make you think of hilariously nonsensical experiments like “Sunspring,” but Latitude’s first title, AI Dungeon, is an impressively open-ended (and coherent) text adventure game where you can choose from a wide variety of genres and characters.

And unlike a classic text adventure like Zork — where players quickly become familiar with “you can’t do that”-style messages when they type something the designers hadn’t planned for — AI Dungeon can respond to any command. For example, when my brave knight was charging into battle, I typed “get depressed” and he quickly sat on a rock with his head between his hands.

“How does the AI know what’s a good story?” said co-founder and CEO Nick Walton. “Because it’s read a lot of good stories and knows the patterns involved in that.”

AI Dungeon actually started out as one of Walton’s hackathon projects. And while the initial version didn’t win any prizes, he kept at it, assisted by improvements in OpenAI’s language generator, of which the most recent version is GPT-3.

AI Dungeon screenshot

AI Dungeon

“The very first version of AI Dungeon I built was coherent on a sentence level, but on a paragraph level it made no sense,” Walton said. “Once you get to GPT-2, it makes a lot more sense. Once you get to GPT-3, it’s a lot more coherent on a story level. And so I think to a degree, these issues with coherency, the story not making sense, get solved as the AI gets better.”

Latitude says AI Dungeon is attracting 1.5 million monthly active users. The startup plans to create more AI-powered games, and eventually to release a platform allowing other game designers to do the same.

Walton noted that without AI, video games are always constrained by imagination of its creators. Even when you get to games like The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall or No Man’s Sky, with randomly generated towns or planets, he argued that they’re really offering “the same spin on a similar concept.”

For example, he said that in Daggerfall, “When you go to all these towns, they’re all basically the same. That’s the problem with procedural generation: You’re not coming up with unique things.” AI, on the other hand, can come up with “something completely unique that’s so, so different every time.”

Latitude CEO Nick Walton

Latitude CEO Nick Walton

From a business perspective, he said that this could lower the cost of developing AAA games from more than $100 million to less than $100,000 — though Latitude has a ways to go before it reaches that level, since it hasn’t even released a game with graphics yet. Walton also said this could lead to new levels of immersion and interactivity.

“With this technology, you could have a world with tens of thousands of characters with their own hopes and wants and dreams,” he said. “You can have worlds that are dynamic, that are alive, rather than something like World of Warcraft, where you’ve got 10 million people who are doing the same quest.”

The startup’s funding was led by NFX, with participation from Album VC and Griffin Gaming Partners.

“Latitude is revolutionizing how games are made, creating a whole new genre of entertainment gaming fueled by AI,” said James Currier of NFX in a statement. “The best AI minds and engineers are gathering there to produce games that the world has never seen before. Latitude is already by far the leading AI games company.“

#funding, #fundings-exits, #gaming, #latitude, #nfx, #startups, #tc

Commuting platform startup Hip lands $12 million to help companies bring employees back to the office

Nearly a year ago, the spread of COVID-19 ended the daily commute for millions of Americans, an abrupt change that sent the ridesharing industry into a free fall.

Hip, which connected commuters with third-party bus and shuttle operators via an app, was just one of the many mobility-as-a-service startups that watched its clientele and revenue dwindle. Instead of cutting costs and waiting out the pandemic and the disruption it delivered, Hip expanded.

Hip added a business-to-business offering to its platform, a move aimed at companies and manufacturers preparing to bring back workers.

“Instead of holding back we actually doubled down and increased our platform,” CEO Amiad Solomon said in a recent interview, adding that the decision was prompted by discussions they had with large corporations that were struggling with how to safely bring employees back to the office.

The bet has paid off, Solomon said. The company, which employs 20 people at offices in New York City and Tel Aviv, has not only landed new customers, it has also raised $12 million. The funding round was led by NFX and Magenta Venture Partners, with participation by AltaIR Capital and former Uber, Booking.com and Google executives. The funding will be to hire more workers and expand its engineering, sales and operations.

Hip works with companies, in any location, to determine their needs. The company developed an internal tool that companies can use to upload thousands employees and their home addresses. That information is then used to help companies determine their needs and control costs.

On the most basic level, the Hip platform connects companies to the bus and shuttle providers. It offers route planning and has a contact-tracing tool to help companies track COVID-19 infections. Companies can also use the platform to set vehicle capacity controls and add customized features within the app, such as health and consent forms. Employees can use the app to book tickets, reserve seats and track their transportation in real time.

Employee shuttles are not new. The difference, Solomon said, is the flexibility that this platform provides.

“It’s not the same route, it’s not the same people and it’s not the same frequency,” Solomon said. We built out the entire infrastructure, both in terms of technology, but also in terms of our distribution. We now support over 200 cities with our partners in the U.S.”

Hip locked in its first corporation in late October and now has a handful of active customers. There are dozens more companies that are ready to use the platform once they decide to bring workers back, Solomon said.

“Now that we’re working on the corporate side, we see how much opportunity there is,” Solomon said. “I think that we’ll move more and more into this direction of providing modern software systems and the connection between that software and the transportation providers — to be that glue that connects corporations and their ground transportation needs to the world of our vetted partners and providers.”

#hip, #magenta-venture-partners, #mobility, #nfx, #recent-funding, #startups, #transportation

How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Click here if you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.


We’re shaking things up this weekend in the newsletter, focusing on a series of larger themes and news items instead of having a few discrete sections. Why? Because there was too much to fit into our usual format. If you were a fan of the original layout, we’ll be back to it next week.

Today we’re talking Coinbase’s growth, how Juked.gg tapped the equity crowdfunding market, a noodle or two on the a16z media game, Talkspace’s SPAC, VC and founder predictions for 2021, and where’s the right place to found a company.

Sound good? Let’s get into it!

Coinbase’s deposits scale ahead of IPO

Thanks to Kazim Rizvi of Drop, parent company to Cardify which provides data on consumer spending, we have a look into how quickly deposits have scaled at American cryptocurrency platform Coinbase. As Coinbase has filed to go public, and we’re eagerly anticipating its eventual S-1 filing, we were stoked to get a directional look at how quickly consumer interest was growing for the assets it helps folks buy.

They are scaling rapidly. Using the first week of January 2019 as a baseline, by the last week of December 2020 deposits and withdrawals from Coinbase had grown by more than 12x apiece. That’s staggering growth, and while the data is somewhat volatile — and we’d treat it as directional instead of exact — on a week-to-week basis, it underscores how well companies like Coinbase may be performing as Bitcoin booms once again, bringing in more trading interest and consumer demand.

Via Cardify, Cardify data.

The Cardify data also indicates a multiplying of new customer acquisition at Coinbase over the same time period, and deposits scaling alongside the price of Bitcoin. As Bitcoin has topped the $30,000 mark recently, sharply higher than in recent quarters, the price gains may have helped Coinbase not only a solid Q4 2020, but perhaps put it on a path for a bonkers Q1 2021 as well.

If we were 10/10 excited about the Coinbase S-1 before this dataset, we’re now a heckin’ 12/10.

Equity crowdfunding seven-figures for esports content

Esports is super cool and if you don’t agree, you are incorrect. But it doesn’t matter if you or I are right or not on the question, as the market has largely decided that competitive gaming is worth time, attention and investors’ money.

The proliferation of esports leagues and games and the like has led to a decidedly fragmented universe, however, lacking a central hub akin to what ESPN provides the world of traditional sports.

But not to worry, Juked.gg just raised capital to build a content hub for esports. This means that old folks like myself can still find out when tournaments are happening, and enjoy a dabble of League of Legends or Starcraft 2 pro play when we can, sans hunting around the internet for dates and times.

Juked.gg went through 500 Startups (more on its class here), catching our eye at the time as a neat nexus for esports-related content. Now flush with a little over $1 million that it raised on the Republic platform, it has big plans.

The Exchange spoke with Juked.gg’s co-founder and CEO Ben Goldhaber about his company’s performance to date. Per Goldhaber, Juked has scaled from 500 users when it launched in late 2019, to 50,000 in December of 2020. Ahead, Juked may invest more in journalism, more into social features, and more into user-generated content. We’ll have more on Juked as it gets its vision built, now powered by over a million dollars from 2,524 investors, each betting that the startup is building the right product to help unify a growing, if distributed, entertainment category.

The a16z media push

To preserve our collective sanity, I’m not going to bang on at length here, but building out content at a VC firm is not new. Hell, how long ago did the First Round Review launch? What a16z appears to have in mind is different in scale, not substance. We chatted about it on Equity this week, in case you need more on the matter.

Talkspace’s maybe-not-stupid SPAC

While it is enjoyable to mock SPACs, featuring as many do companies that are nascent to say the least, not all SPAC-led debuts are as silly as the rest. This is the case with the impending Talkspace deal, the deck for which you can read here.

What matters is this set of charts:

Look at that! Historical revenue growth! Improving gross margins! Rising gross profit!

You may argue that the company is not really worth an enterprise value of $1.4 billion that it will sport after its combination with Hudson Executive Investment Corp., but, hey, at least it’s a real business.

How VCs and founders see 2021 differently

Seed VC NFX dropped a VC and founder survey the other day that I’ve been meaning to share with you. You can read the whole thing here, if you’d like.

I have two pull-outs for you this morning:

  1. VCs are more bullish on the economy than founders, with around 30% of founders expecting consumer spending to stay flat or decline, positions that only around 17% of VCs agreed with.
  2. And when it comes to leaving the Bay Area — yes, that chestnut again — 35% of founders have itchy feet, while just 20% of investors are similarly inclined. I think this is because the latter have houses in the Bay Area while most founders do not. But it should temper the view that all the money and talent are leaving. They aren’t.

There’s no place like no place

Initialized Capital put together some data on where founders think it is best to found a company. In 2020, nearly 42% of surveyed founders said the Bay Area. By 2021 that number had slipped to a little over 28%, with a plurality of 42% indicating that a distributed company is the best way to go.

I hear about this a lot from early-stage founders. They are often building what I call micro-multinationals, small companies that have a few employees in one country, and then a handful in others. Making that setup work is going to be a hotspot for HR software I reckon.

Regardless, the requirement of founding companies in the Bay Area is kaput. The advantages of founding there will linger much longer.

Coming up!

Coming up on The Exchange next week: The first entries of our new $50 million ARR series, featuring interviews with Assembly, SimpleNexus, Picsart, OwnBackup and others. And we have some $100 million ARR interviews in the can, as well.

Finally, to keep the The Powers That Be happy, The Exchange covered some neat stuff this week, including American VC results, fintech and unicorn venture capital, European and Asian venture capital results, how the IPO market is even more bonkers than you thought, and notes on what Qualtrics may be worth when it goes public.

Hugs, and let’s all get a nap in,

Alex

#coinbase, #esports, #fundings-exits, #juked-gg, #nfx, #startups, #the-exchange, #the-techcrunch-exchange

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.

After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.

While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.

“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”

All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.

Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?

Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.

Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.

There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?

Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.

Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.

Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

#alice-lloyd-george, #apps, #bessemer-venture-partners, #daniel-li, #ethan-kurzweil, #gaming, #gigi-levy-weiss, #hope-cochran, #investor-survey, #madrona-venture-group, #mobile, #mobile-gaming, #nfx, #rogue-vc, #sakib-dadi, #tc, #vc-survey

VCs discuss gaming’s biggest infrastructure investment opportunities in 2021

We last polled our network of investors on the topic of gaming infrastructure startups back in May just as it was becoming clear what pandemic opportunities were in store for gaming startups.

Accel’s Amit Kumar told us at the time that “social and interactivity layers spanning across these games” were poised to be the big winners, highlighting his firm’s investments in startups like Discord and Mayhem. In December, Discord announced it was raising at a valuation of $7 billion and this month Pokémon Go creator Niantic announced it was buying Mayhem.

Following my story this week digging into investor sentiment around evolved opportunities in social gaming, I dug into gaming tools and rising platforms and pinged a handful of VCs to hear their thoughts on that market.

The broader market moves of the past several months have defied expectations with startups in the gaming world picking up substantial steam as well. This week, Roblox announced it had raised at a $29.5 billion valuation — up from $4 billion in February of last year. Game makers across the board, including Roblox, have been acquiring gaming infrastructure startups as of late.

I talked to investors about what they wanted to see more of in the space.

“We’d love to see more innovation around gaming infrastructure, which has the potential to democratize game development and allow clever indies to compete with Riot and Epic,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch.

They highlighted numerous areas for new opportunity including specialized engines, next-gen content creation platforms, and tools to port desktop experiences to mobile. The VCs we chatted with were also intrigued by latent opportunities presented by major platforms’ adopting of cloud gaming tech. The overall trend was one promoting accessibility, a desire to provide more casual experiences for platforms that may have typically catered to “hardcore” audiences.

It was also apparent from conversations that Roblox is significantly shaping investor attitudes toward the potential growth opportunities and pitfalls in the entire gaming industry, with VCs who didn’t get in on Roblox eager to dissect its success and bet on an adjacent player or one that could follow a similar recipe for success.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Sakib Dadi, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, NFX

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

Cloud game-streaming networks are exciting but don’t seem like a sure bet quite yet, how do you feel about them?

DL: I think the real story behind cloud gaming is “play anywhere” and the cross-platform nature of it. Gaming is just different than Netflix, it’s not like you want to have an endless library of content. When I’m playing a game, I want to play Overwatch all the time and I don’t need to have access to 1,000 other games. I think the approach that the cloud companies have taken has been more around the thinking of, what do we have and what can we build for gamers with it? More so than what do gamers want and what can we give them? It’s definitely trended toward that direction with things like giving away two free games per month, but really I think the thing that will be exciting in the longer term for cloud gaming is to play your game anywhere and play with your friends anywhere.

If users embrace desktop-class cloud gaming on mobile and there’s a broader cross-platform unification, does that spell trouble for today’s mobile gaming industry?

DL: The audiences between a Candy Crush and a Warzone are probably a little different, though I like to play both. So maybe it gets into eating some people’s lunch but I don’t think it’s anything where the number one problem for a Candy Crush is people hopping over to play desktop Call of Duty.

Are there any clear infrastructure gaps where you’d like to see new startups rise up and fill the void?

DL: Honestly just tools for building games, like next-gen Roblox Studio, next-gen Unity and Unreal type stuff — I’ve seen a couple interesting companies there. I think we’ve seen a few smaller companies focused on making sure that a network is safe for children, but I feel like a lot of the infrastructure stuff is really driven by what type of new content is coming out. So as the social games became really popular, securing that and making sure that the chats were safe became really important.

HC: I would love to see something built for helping games that were created for the triple-A environment to port over better to mobile environments. Every time I work with a gaming company on that, they seem to have to rebuild the game so it’d be really interesting to see something like that really helps them adopt to the mobile form.

#asia, #bessemer-venture-partners, #ethan-kurzweil, #gaming, #gigi-levy-weiss, #hope-cochran, #investor-survey, #madrona-venture-group, #madrona-ventures, #nfx, #sakib-dadi, #tc, #vc-survey

Morgan Beller, co-creator of the Libra digital currency, just joined the venture firm NFX

Morgan Beller, who is a co-creator of the proposed Libra digital currency, along with Facebook vice presidents David Marcus and Kevin Weil, has left the company to become a general partner with the venture firm NFX .

In a call yesterday, she said she first became acquainted with the San Francisco-based outfit five years ago when on a “tech trek” to Israel, she met its local partner, Gigi Levy-Weiss, and formed a friendship with him.

At the time, she was a young partner at Andreessen Horowitz, working on its deal team after graduating from Cornell as a statistics major.

A role working on corporate development and strategy at Medium would follow, then it was on to Facebook in 2017, where Beller began in corporate development and — intrigued by cryptocurrency tech — where she quickly began evangelizing to her bosses the importance of better understanding it.

As she half-jokingly explains it, “Crypto is a mental virus for which there is no cure. I was at a16z when they got infected with the crypto virus.” She eventually caught it herself, and by the time she joined Facebook, she says she “realized no one was thinking about that space full time, so I took it upon myself to [help the company] figure out its point of view.”

Indeed, a CNBC story about Beller last year reports that at one point, she was the sole person on a Facebook blockchain initiative —  meeting with those in the know, attending relevant events, and otherwise researching the technology. Bill Barhydt, the CEO of the digital wallet startup Abra, told the outlet of Beller:  “I give her a lot of credit for taking what seems like a very methodical, long-term approach to figuring this out.”

All that said, Beller notes that as a full-time investor with NFX, she will not be focused exclusively or even mainly on crypto. Her focus instead will be finding and helping to cultivate seed-stage startups that aim to grow so-called network effects businesses.

It’s the broad theme of NFX, a now 25-person outfit cofounded five years ago by serial entrepreneurs who have all seen their companies acquired, including Levy-Weiss (who cofounded the online travel site Lastminute.com, and the social casino game publisher Playtika); Pete Flint (cofounder of the home buyers’ site Trulia); and James Currier (of the social network Tickle).

Certainly, she will keep busy at the firm, she suggests. As part of getting to know the partners and their thinking better, she introduced them to one company that they have since funded.

The pace has generally picked up, Flint tells us, saying that during the second quarter of this year and the third, NFX has twice broken its own investing records both because of “incredible founders who are reacting to this opportunity” and growing awareness about NFX, which last year closed its second fund with $275 million.

Last month, for example, NFX led a seed round for Warmly, a nine-month-old, San Francisco-based startup whose product tracks individuals in a customer’s CRM system, then sends out a notification when one of his or her contacts changes jobs. It also led a round recently for Jupiter, a year-old, San Francisco-based grocery delivery startup.

Naturally, Beller’s new partners are full of praise for her. Flint says the firm began looking for a fourth partner two years ago and that it has “spoken with dozens of exceptional people” since then, but it “always came back to Morgan.”

As for why the 27-year-old is ready to leap back into VC, Beller says that her work across Facebook and Medium and a16z “made me realize my favorite parts of projects is that zero-to-one phase and that with investing, it’s zero-to-one all day” with a team she wanted to be part of.

Further, she adds, while at Facebook, she was helping scout out deals for the venture firm Spark Capital, so she’s already well-acquainted with the types of founders to which she gravitates. “They’re are all weird in the right ways, and they’re all maniacally obsessed with winning.”

As for how she launches her career as a general partner in a pandemic, she notes that she loves walking and that she’ll happy cover 20 miles a day if given the opportunity.

“If anyone wants to safely walk with me,” she suggests that she’d love it.  Says Beller, “I’m not worried about San Francisco longer term. I don’t think there’s a replacement for in-person meetings.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #cryptocurrencies, #facbook, #fundings-exits, #libra, #medium, #nfx, #novi, #recent-funding, #spark-capital, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

Six things venture capitalists are looking for in your pitch

Founders pitch venture capitalists at every available chance, which is why most of them quickly develop the skills required to identify whether someone is offering them an opportunity or wasting their time.

At TechCrunch Early Stage, I chatted with NFX Managing Partner James Currier about how founders can find the right investors and what they need to show to win an investment. Currier has been on both sides of the deal table and founded several startups before devoting himself to early-stage investing, where he has backed companies like Lyft, Houzz and Houseparty .

“One of the ways that investors are similar is that whenever they look at all the companies coming to them, most of them get into a quick ‘no’ situation, some of them get into the ‘maybe’ and very few get into the quick ‘yes,’ ” Currier says.

He shared six reasons investors might give a founder the rare and highly coveted “quick yes,” an effort to lock down a deal that’s either perfect for them or too enticing to pass up. Realizing what exactly investors are seeking can help founders understand how to pitch at the first meeting and what they should leave for follow-ups. For those who couldn’t virtually attend TechCrunch Early Stage, check out the link below.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

1. Traction

“So the first thing that they’re looking for is traction. Look, even if they don’t like you, if they don’t like the market, but you’re making a ton of money, what are they going to say? Like if it’s growing really quickly and you’re profitable, you’ve got high margins and everyone wants to work for you, and there’s this buzz around you. What are they going to say? They’re gonna have to invest because you’ve got traction.”

#corporate-finance, #economy, #entrepreneurship, #extra-crunch, #funding, #fundraising, #houseparty, #houzz, #iphone, #james-currier, #lyft, #nfx, #private-equity, #startup-pitch, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

La Haus is bringing US tech services to Latin America’s real estate market

The alchemy for a successful startup can be hard to parse. Sometimes, it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s where you go to school. And sometimes it’s what you do. In the case of La Haus, a startup that wants to bring U.S. tech-enabled real estate services to the Latin American real estate market, it’s all three.

The company was founded by Jerónimo Uribe and Rodrigo Sánchez Ríos, both graduates of Stanford University who previously founded and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development firm that had built over $350 million worth of retail and residential projects in the country.

Uribe, the son of the controversial Colombian President Daniel Uribe (who has been accused of financing paramilitary forces during Colombia’s long-running civil war and wire-tapping journalists and negotiators during the peace talks to end the conflict) and Sánchez Ríos, a former private equity professional at the multi-billion-dollar firm Lindsay Goldberg, were exposed to the perils and promise of real estate development with their former firm.

Now the two entrepreneurs are using their know-how, connections and a new technology stack to streamline the home-buying process.

It’s that ambition that caught the attention of Pete Flint, the founder of Trulia and now an investor at the venture capital firm NFX. Flint, an early investor in La Haus, saw the potential in La Haus to help the Latin American real estate market leapfrog the services available in the U.S. Spencer Rascoff, the co-founder of Zillow, also invested in the company.

“Latin America is very early on in its infancy of having really professional agents and really professional brokerages,” said Flint.

La Haus guides home buyers through every stage of the process, with its own agents and salespeople selling properties sourced from the company’s developer connections.

“The average home in the U.S. sells in six weeks or less,” said La Haus chief financial officer Sánchez Ríos in an interview. “That timing in Latin America is 14 months. That’s the dramatic difference. There is no infrastructure in Latin America as a whole.”

La Haus began by reaching out to the founders’ old colleagues in the real estate development industry and started listing new developments on its service. Now the company has a mix of existing and new properties for sale on its site and an expanded geographic footprint in both Colombia and Mexico.

“We have a portal… that acts as a lead-generating machine,” said Sánchez Ríos. “We aggregate listings, we vet them. We focus on new developers.”

The company has about 500 developers using the service to list properties in Colombia and another 200 in Mexico. So far, the company has facilitated more than 2,000 transactions through its platform in three years.

“Real estate now is turning fully digital and also in this market professionalizing,” said Flint. “The publicly traded online real estate companies are approaching all-time highs. People are just prizing the space that they spend their time in… the technologies from VR and digital walkthroughs to digital closes become not just a nice to have but a necessity. “

Capitalizing on the open field in the market, La Haus recently closed on $10 million in financing led by Kaszek Ventures, one of the leading funds in Latin America. That funding will be used to accelerate the company’s geographic expansion in response to increasing demand for digital solutions in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

“Because of Covid-19, consumers’ willingness to conduct real estate transactions online has gone through the roof,” said Sánchez Ríos, in a statement. “Fortunately we were in the position to enable that, and we expect to see a permanent shift online in how people conduct all, or at least most, of the home-buying process. This funding gives us ample runway to build the end-to-end real estate experience for the post-Covid Latin America.”

Joining NFX, Rascoff, and Kaszek Ventures are a slew of investors, including Acrew Capital, IMO Ventures and Beresford Ventures. Entrepreneurs like Nubank founder David Velez; Brian Requarth, the founder of Vivareal (now GrupoZap); and Hadi Partovi, CEO and founder of Code.org, also participated in the financing.

“We backed La Haus because we saw many of the same ingredients that resulted in a fantastic outcome for many of our successful companies: A world-class team with complementary skills; a huge addressable market; and an almost religious zeal by the founders to solve a big problem with technology,” said Hernan Kazah, co-founder and managing partner of Kaszek Ventures. 

#acrew-capital, #colombia, #david-velez, #hadi-partovi, #kaszek-ventures, #la-haus, #latin-america, #mexico, #nfx, #nubank, #online-real-estate, #pete-flint, #real-estate, #recent-funding, #spencer-rascoff, #stanford-university, #startups, #tc, #trulia, #united-states, #vivareal, #zillow

Bearish VCs, bullish founders and changing investing trends

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, concern was high, public markets were suffering and it wasn’t hard to find wags on Twitter declaring that the world had changed and startup valuations were now off 40% — if you could put a round together.

But last night, we reported that more startups than expected were raising new capital at a higher valuations than prior rounds, an event often called an “up round.”


The Exchange is a daily look at startups and the private markets for Extra Crunch subscribers; use code EXCHANGE to get full access and take 25% off your subscription.


The data looked remarkably steady. As Connie Loizos wrote, “so-called up-rounds only declined modestly, from 72% [of Silicon Valley financings] in March to 70% in April.” Hardly doom and gloom.

The notion that the funding environment is not as bad as it was anticipated has been borne out in other data, including what appears to be a falling pace of startup layoffs. Perhaps the world is not falling for private, growth-oriented companies that we tend to call startups?

The Exchange is a daily look at startups and the private markets for Extra Crunch subscribers; use code EXCHANGE to get full access and take 25% off your subscription.More data helps fill in the picture. Surveys from NFX, a San Francisco-based seed fund, and DocSend, a platform that some founders use to distribute pitch decks, detail how sentiment has changed amongst founders and investors alike. There’s some good news in the collected sentiments, albeit with a few warning signs as well.

What seems clear from the reports is that the purported startup apocalypse hasn’t come, provided that they weren’t serving, or working in a sector of the economy that zeroed-out due to COVID-19.

Let’s dig into the numbers to better ground our understanding of how entrepreneurs and venture capitalists really view —and disagree on — today’s private markets.

Concerns and realities

TechCrunch covered the first NFX COVID-19 survey back in April, writing at the time that founders seemed a little more optimistic than venture capitalists when it came to the economy’s rebound and their short-term fortunes.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #docsend, #extra-crunch, #fundings-exits, #market-analysis, #nfx, #seed-stage-startups, #startups, #tc, #the-exchange, #venture-capital

As Americans look to escape, this peer-to-peer RV rental startup is happy to accommodate them

The world feels as fragile as ever, and those with any options at all are looking to get away this summer.

For many, planes and hotel rooms won’t be an option they consider owing to continued concerns about the coronavirus (not to mention the expense, which 40 million fewer Americans can likely afford). That leaves perhaps renting a local Airbnb this summer or, for a growing number of people, looking for the first time to rent an RV or camper van, including as a way to visit far-flung family members who might otherwise be unreachable.

Last week, we talked with Jeff Cavins, a serial operator and the cofounder and CEO of a company that’s poised to benefit from the latter trend: Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental company that was founded in 2015, bootstrapped by its founders for a couple of years, and has more recently attracted $88 million in venture funding, $13 million of it an extension to a $50 million Series B round that it quietly closed early this year.

We wanted to know what trends the company — which collects fees from both the vehicle owners and the renters on its platform — is seeing, including how its customers are changing and where they’re looking to park themselves this summer. Below are some excerpts from our chat, edited lightly for length.

TC: How has your model changed because of the coronavirus?

JC: We had typically seen an average rental on our platform would run about six days. That’s now over nine days. With COVID, as  with many other companies, we saw a lot of de-bookings in the platform, but then they all roared back and then some. We’ve seen a 2,645% increase in bookings from the low point of COVID, which was late March, to right now.

TC: What percentage of those booking trips are first-time customers?

JC: In the month of May, 88% of our bookings were by first-time renters, which is a record for us. And more than half of them have come back and already booked their second trip. So some booked in May; they went away for the Memorial Day weekend [and] came right back. And they booked another one for, in this case, like the Fourth of July or [trips in] June. As you know, a lot of people are at home with their kids, so everybody in America has this big, long extended summer break. And with the kids, they’re finding this is the safer option for travel.

TC: Are their expectations different? Are they looking for certain things that maybe more seasoned RV campers wouldn’t think to ask?

JC: The big trend that we’re seeing in the RV industry, and this is not unique to America, is the new consumers don’t want those big land barges. What they want are camper vans, because the average user on our platform is under the age of 40, which was a big surprise to this industry because it’s always leaned a little bit towards the Boomer or the retiree demographic. And they like camping off the grid. They like to operate with vehicles that feel comfortable to them, that have a smaller footprint, that are easier on the environment. And so things that have become popular are solar power, potable water that can be transportable, hookups for mountain bikes, sporting gear . . . They also to be able to head to unique locations where they can build those Instagram mobile moment. So we’re starting to see that trend, and it has become a global phenomenon.

TC: When we last talked, in January of last year, Outdoorsy had around 35,000 vehicles available to rent on the platform. How many are on the platform now?

JC: We have 48,000 peer-to-peer listings; when we add our international users and we have a lot of these mega fleets that are connected to our site via an API like Indies Campers or Jucy, that puts our our supply at 68,000 units.

TC: And how are you making sure that these vehicles are free of germs and don’t transmit diseases?

JC: Cleanliness is a big factor for any form of accommodation. In our case, we’ve been producing for our listing community CDC guidelines on cleaning standards. We’ve asked our owners to place additional time between rentals so they can let the vehicles take time to manually disinfect. One of the our investors at our company is a molecular biologist [whose] doctoral thesis at Harvard won the Nobel Prize for chemistry and he’s been helping us communicate with our owner community on things like these new ultraviolet radiation lamps that are common. You’ll see them installed in ambulances . . . if you let them set for a while, they will help completely decontaminate the environment.

We’re also encouraging renters to bring cleaning supplies with them if they you know A lot of people will feel much more safe if they’re able to control their environment. And we’ve started a contactless key exchange, [meaning] the owner will deliver the vehicle to a campsite, put up the awning, the camping chairs, and so on. And then the renter will come later.

TC: You mentioned changing user behaviors. Out of curiosity, are you you seeing renters who aren’t heading to Yosemite or Yellowstone but instead to an RV down the street so they can, say, work apart from young children?

JC: One of the things that we’ve seen is, I may live in San Diego, for example, and grandma lives in Kansas City, and there’s no way for the kids to go see her. So camper van and RV travel has become that way for families to see those loved ones they haven’t been able to see during quarantine and maintain family connectivity.

TC: You mentioned de-bookings earlier this year. Did you have to lay off staff?

JC: We had about 160 employees prior to COVID. And we did do some right sizing. Most of the impact in our organization was in our international markets — we had a  team in Italy, Germany, France, UK, Australia, New Zealand [that were cut].  In terms of our domestic employees, rather than cuts, we sat down with the team and said, ‘If everybody is willing to take a salary adjustment, we will reward you with more equity in the business. This could be a period of time where we save those jobs around us.’

I work with no income; I don’t have a salary.  And there are a few other executives who elected to do [forgo theirs]. So it was a way to align our employees with our investors by compensating them more in equity.

TC: As business picks up again, are you thinking about another round of funding?

JC: There is no plan to [raise more right now]. We were profitable in the month of May. We’ll be profitable again in the month of June. Unless there’s a second wave of COVID and lockdowns, our booking activity is now foretelling a profitable July, August and September, so we’ll possibly produce a year-on-year fiscal profitable year.

The ones we typically get inbound activity from are the late-stage growth investors. We’ll all sit down with the board and we’ll talk about it and decide: do we want to do something with that or just want to just keep, you know, chopping wood as fast as we can on our own?

#altos-ventures, #aviva-ventures, #covid-19, #greenspring-associates, #nfx, #outdoorsy, #rv, #tc

LeverEdge wants to get you and your friends a volume discount on student loans

Student loans are both a trillion-dollar debt category and also one of the most popular mini-verticals out there in fintech startup investing right now. There are dozens if not hundreds of companies in the space, and they all mostly do one of two things: either they help students think through their student loan options before choosing one (acting as a financial advisor to avoid mistakes) or they help students after they finish school figure out how to optimize their repayments or acquire loan forgiveness.

And so when I heard the pitch for LeverEdge, I was intrigued, because it really doesn’t fit either bucket.

Rather than approaching each user individually and trying to optimize their own financial decision independently, LeverEdge proposes helping students band together as a group and negotiate reduced student loan rates by essentially acting as a collective bargaining unit with banks.

For founders Chris Abkarians and Nikhil Agarwal, the idea came as they were entering Harvard Business School.

The two connected with some other HBS students through online new admit groups on Facebook and came up with the idea of trying to work together to lower their interest rates. The annual cost of attendance at HBS is $111,102 right now (annually!), so multiplied by two for the two-year MBA and you are looking at potentially massive cost savings if you can lower your interest rate.

There was just one problem: banks loved the idea, but no one knew how to actually negotiate interest rates at individual branches. As Agarwal explained, “So after work we would try to leave at a reasonable time to get to the bank branch before it closes and then pitch the branch manager on this. They were super excited, but then they’d be like, well, I don’t know what to do with this, I can’t change interest rates for you.”

So Abkarians started sending cold emails to bank CEOs with the same proposition, and also got a positive response, but was told that he would need much more volume to make a negotiated deal worthwhile for banks. At the time, the two only had 50 to 70 people working together, but they spread the option around more heavily with their classmates and students at other business schools and eventually got to 700 students with $26 million in loan volume over the next 10 days.

With that scale, the two were able to negotiate a competitive rate with a bank that saved each student an average of $15,000 in fees over the full life of their loans according to their calculations.

They did all this entirely virtually too. Abkarians and Agarwal eventually met for the first time in person at Harvard in the fall, still with a whirl of excitement over what had transpired over the summer. They started asking for feedback from their users about the process, and Agarwal said:

The number one negative feedback we got was you closed the deal on July 26, [but] I couldn’t use it because my tuition due date was before that day. And then every other piece of feedback — even for this haphazardly run group — was incredibly amazing. And that really convinced us [… that] we owe it to our members and really the future generation of classes to make this a thing.

LeverEdge is taking that one-off experience and systemizing it for more students in more contexts. The startup, which was officially founded in May 2018, targets the private student loan market outside of federal programs typical for most undergrads. That loan market typically has higher (and sometimes dramatically higher) interest rates than traditional federal student loans, and lenders also has the flexibility to negotiate interest rates unlike with federal loans.

Today, LeverEdge has more than 15,000 students on its platform and has financed $100 million in student loans according to the startup. It also raised a $2.5 million seed round led by NFX along with Global Founders Capital and founders from fintech companies Earnest and SoFi.

The company spends most of the year aggregating students for the next school year, and then “we spend around two months in this auction process between different lenders,” Abkarians said. The company currently has nine employees, and “our staff is focused on partnership building,” he said.

The new version of a startup team photo. LeverEdge Team, photo via LeverEdge

As for business model, LeverEdge takes a pre-set referral fee from lenders upfront for each tranche of loans that they negotiate between students and the lender. That fee is “non-negotiable” according to Agarwal, and all lenders participating in the auction agree to pay it if they have the winning bid. The company varies the fee based on the loans that are grouped together (Agarwal said that, for example, refinance loans have a lower referral fee than other student loans). He believes this approach ensures that LeverEdge always has the right incentives to get the best prices for students.

Importantly, no student is obligated to take the final loan as negotiated by LeverEdge. But, if the company is doing its job, then the offered loan should be competitive with any alternative loan on the market. “We still encourage people to compare it against other things and if they find anything that is better than what we’ve found to please just let us know. No one has yet,“ said Abkarians.

The big question now is what will happen this coming school year given COVID-19. On one hand, students may avoid campuses knowing that schools are moving heavily toward virtual classes due to social distancing policies. On the other hand, economic recessions and greater concerns around costs may lead more students to seek out cheaper student financing options: exactly the customers that LeverEdge wants to find.

Overall, it’s an interesting play on the student loan space and one of the more interesting fintech startups I have seen in some time.

#debt, #finance, #funding, #fundings-exits, #global-founders-capital, #nfx, #startups, #student-loans

7 VCs discuss how COVID-19 is changing the media startup landscape

The world has changed dramatically since May 2019 when we last surveyed venture capitalists about the trends they were seeing in media, entertainment and gaming.

Since then, COVID-19 and the resulting physical distancing measures have created plenty of demand for companies helping to inform and entertain us as we’re stuck at home. At the same time, there’s a dramatic reduction in ad spending, making it harder to monetize that consumer attention.

So we checked in a variety of top VCs about the new landscape, where they’re investing and what kind of advice they’re giving their portfolio companies.

Not all of them invest directly in what (paraphrasing Betaworks’ Matt Hartman) we might call media media — the companies whose business models revolve around content creation and advertising — but each of these investors are backing startups looking to change the way we stay connected and entertained.

Here’s who we surveyed:

  • Kevin Zhang (Partner, Upfront Ventures)
  • Pär-Jörgen (PJ) Pärson (General Partner, Northzone)
  • Vasu Kulkarn (Partner, Courtside Ventures)
  • MG Siegler (General Partner, GV)
  • Jana Messerschmidt (Partner, Lightspeed Venture Partners)
  • Matthew Hartman (Partner, Betaworks Ventures)
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss (Managing Partner, NFX)

The consensus? You can’t count on the ad business to recover in the next few months, but there are still opportunities for startups exploring new formats and new business models. And there’s still plenty of excitement about gaming and esports.

You can read their full responses, lightly edited, below.

Kevin Zhang, Upfront Ventures

What (if any) media trends are still exciting you from an investing perspective?

Live and interactive formats, especially shorter form, continue to be very exciting, made even more evident in this time of shelter-in-place. What has worked in China and broader Asia has not yet translated into explosive success in the West. As interesting as celebrity live broadcasts are from their homes, the lack of real interaction and participation features hampers long-term engagement and doesn’t make up for the lack of production quality.

Modern content production technology is needed to push both production and live ops cost down while enabling more interactive and engaging formats. Game engines are one example, there’s of course the Travis Scott concert that just happened in Fortnite built on the Unreal engine, but that 15-minute, pre-rendered show took months to create, we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

One of our investments in this space is Tellie for live-action formats, another is The Wave for rendered, live formats, and we continue to look for great combinations of tech and media talent innovating on new formats.

Speaking of gaming, multiplayer games continue to grow and grow exponentially, there is a lot to unpack in popular titles from new favorite Animal Crossing to classics like World of Warcraft to indie hits like For the King. They all have social cooperation as a core part of the game loop and design. I’d love to see more teams working on cooperative play and just overall a broader diversity in multiplayer experiences beyond purely competitive ones.

#betaworks-ventures, #coronavirus, #courtside-ventures, #covid-19, #events, #extra-crunch, #funding, #gv, #investor-surveys, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #market-analysis, #matthew-hartman, #media, #mg-siegler, #nfx, #northzone, #par-jorgen-parson, #startups, #upfront-ventures, #venture-capital

This venture firm is offering fast funding in a time of uncertainty

The early-stage venture firm NFX is launching a seed-funding initiative today that invites founders to apply for seed funding of $1 million to $2 million in exchange for 15% of their company.

Why is this interesting? It’s not because of the size stake that NFX is taking, though 15% is notable for remaining fair in a market where founders are suddenly facing serious headwinds.

The special catch is that NFX says founders who apply will receive a commitment in nine days or less.

It’s a touch gimmicky. It’s also a smart stance for a firm to take so publicly, during what’s surely a trying period for founders who aren’t already connected to venture firms.

As we’re written before, the public markets have tanked, making it harder for the money behind venture capitalists to get excited about seeing more money funneled right now into highly illiquid startups.

As many VCs have noted in recent weeks, it’s also a challenge for them to adjust to a world without the face-to-face meetings on which they are so reliant. Neil Sequeira of Defy Capital, for example, recently told us his firm has been actively investing since early March, but he readily admitted that, “In every case when we’ve been able to move really quickly, we’ve actually known the founders for the most part for a decade.”

Ellie Wheeler, an investor with Greycroft, echoed the sentiment during a panel discussion last week, asking, “How do you mimic what you pick up from spending time together casually and formally [with a founder seeking capital]? I don’t think people have figured that out.”

Even with some taking to Twitter to advertise that they are, indeed, open for business, others say they’ve been a little busy in recent weeks, trying to find soft landings for, or extend the runway of, existing portfolio companies. (The startup industry has also been grappling with how to extract funding from the government’s $349 billion paycheck protection program.)

Enter NFX with a new initiative that firm swears it was going to roll out anyway but that’s timed especially well for this very moment in time.

Here’s how it works. Last year, NFX — founded by James Currier, Pete Flint and Gigi Levy-Weiss, operators who’ve been involved, respectively, in the founding of the social network Tickle, the home buyers’ site Trulia, and the online travel site Lastminute.com — closed its second fund with $275 million.

It planned to use that capital to fund between 15 and 20 companies per year. Now, NFX — which is based both in the Bay Area and in Israel, where Levy-Weiss lives — is carving out $20 million from that pool for this new enterprise, which will almost double its investing pace.

“We’re really leaning into this environment,” said Flint yesterday on a Zoom call that Currier also joined.

How it will invest that $20 million isn’t so unique to NFX, which is accustomed to working with and meeting founders remotely because of its own distributed team.

As Currier explains it, “A lot of this is just carving out enough time to talk on Zoom with the founder about who they are, and how they think.” The firm also calls others who can talk about the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and it talks with more of the startup’s team online, which Currier believes can be a richer and more informative experience than merely meeting with a founder who has flown in from L.A. or New York by himself or herself to pitch investors.

In fact, VCs may soon discover that there are advantages to seeing a founder in their home, adds Flint.

“Remote work from home has the consequence of getting to understand the full person — not just how they [present] at the office but how they spend their time and what their kids are doing,” he says.

“You avoid this manufactured pitch process and you can have more authentic conversations about what they want to do with the next 10 years of their life. If a kids barges in, that’s just fine. It reduces the fundraising theater we [as an industry have] built up over the years.”

Unsurprisingly, some sophisticated software should also help the firm, which in the past has indexed heavily on internal platforms that help its portfolio companies.

They need only upload a deck (here), answer 12 questions, and record a one-minute video of themselves and their team. The idea is to quickly and clearly extract information that’s often hard to pull out of a pitch meeting.

After that, NFX promises feedback within three business days and a final investment decision within nine days.

Whether or not it leads to the Next Big Thing can only be answered in time. In the meantime, NFX may well see a lot of interesting ideas.

If they see some terrible business plans, too, presumably that’s also okay, given the goodwill the move is likely to generate.

“Other investors are pausing or saying they’re pausing,” says Flint. “But we’re increasing the rate at which we’re investing and putting structure around [our investments] and making it easier for founders to get money quickly.

“We think it’s a great time to start or scale a company, and we want to be that partner right now.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #james-currier, #nfx, #pete-flint, #tc, #venture-capital