Der Kapitalgeber BMW i Ventures, der seinen Hauptsitz im Silicon Valley (Mountain View) hat, unterstützt seit 2011 junge und aufstrebende Startups. Im Portfolio des Geldgebers befinden sich Unternehmen wie Lime, RideCell, Parkopedia, Tekion, Solid Power und AutoBrains. Im VC-Interview mit deutsche-startups.de spricht Sohaila Ouffata, Geschäftsführerin Europa bei BMW i Ventures, über Verantwortung, Finanzkennzahlen und positive Ausreißer.
Reden wir über Geld. Was genau reizt Dich daran, Geld in Unternehmen zu investieren? Ein Investor trägt eine große Verantwortung, um das Ihm/Ihr anvertraute Kapital sinnvoll zu investieren. Hierbei geht es heutzutage sowohl um Vermehrung des Kapitals als auch um Leistung eines sinnvollen Beitrags für Gesellschaft und/oder Umwelt, genau diese Kombination finde ich reizvoll.
Wie wird man eigentlich Venture-Capital-Geber – wie bist Du Venture-Capital-Geber geworden? Es gibt ganz unterschiedliche Wege in die Branche. Viele kommen über den klassischen Weg und starten ihre Karriere über eine Consulting-, Investment-Banking- oder Analysten Rolle in der Branche oder sie entscheiden sich Investor:In zu werden nach einer / oder mehrerer erfolgreicher Unternehmensgründungen. Persönlich hatte ich nie geplant zu einem VC zu gehen. Wie viele Dinge im Leben, war dies eine natürliche Entwicklung aus verschiedenen Rollen, die ich über einige Jahre innehatte. Dabei habe ich immer an der Schnittstelle zwischen großen Unternehmen und Start-ups gearbeitet. Ich hatte ein großes Netzwerk in der Start-up Branche und das Verständnis dafür wie die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Corporates und Start-ups erfolgreich realisiert werden kann. An der Rolle bei BMW i Ventures hat mich vor sieben Jahren besonders der enorme Veränderungsdruck in der Branche gereizt. Es gibt seither eine Vielzahl neuer Geschäftsmodelle, welche die Art, wie wir uns in Städten fortbewegen, bis hin zu wie unsere Städte aussehen, verändert haben. Bei dieser Veränderung wollte ich dabei sein.
In der VC-Welt wird oftmals mit Millionenbeträgen hantiert, wird Dir da nicht manchmal mulmig zumute – bei diesen Summen? An die Summen gewöhnt man sich sehr schnell – das ist Teil des Jobs. Die Verantwortung für das eingesetzte Kapital ist immer präsent. Ein guter VC muss sich immer fragen: Würde ich auch mein eigenes Vermögen in diese Firma investieren?
Was sollte jede-Gründerin, jeder Gründer über Euch – als VC – wissen – wie etwa grenzt Ihr Euch von anderen Investoren ab? Wir investieren bereits seit zehn Jahren und sind ein erfahrenes Investment-Team. Kürzlich haben wir unseren zweiten Fund in Höhe von 300 Millionen US-Dollar gestartet, der einen besonders starken Fokus auf nachhaltige Technologien legt. Das sind z. B. Start-ups wie: Natural Fiber Welding, Prometheus, Turntide, Boston Metal oder Pure Cycle. Die Investmententscheidungen treffen wir ausschließlich in unserem Investment-Team, dadurch sind wir sehr schnell. In Abhängigkeit von der Stage investieren wir normalerweise um die 10 Millionen US-Dollar wenn wir leaden und drei bis fünf Millionen US-Dollar wenn wir in einem Syndikat followen. Für jedes Investment bilden wir entsprechende Rücklagen, um in späteren Runden Follow-On Investments tätigen zu können. Da wir als Fund auch klare finanzielle Ziele verfolgen, gehen wir gerne in den Lead bei unseren Investments. Anders als manch andere Corporate Venture Funds, haben wir keine exotischen Investment Bedingungen, sondern operieren wie ein klassischer Finanz-VC.
Welche Unterstützung bietet Ihr – neben Geld? Wir haben eine Plattform Practice, welche die Portfolio-Firmen dabei unterstützt, Partnerschaften aufzubauen. Im Fokus stehen hier besonders Partnerschaften mit der BMW Group sowie den relevanten Automotive Zulieferern. Darüber hinaus unterstützen wir bei dem Zugang zu Industrie-Expertise. Hierzu nutzen wir vor allem das große Expertennetzwerk der BMW Group. Wann immer möglich binden wir zudem unsere Portfolio-Firmen in die Zusammenarbeit mit der BMW Group in große externe Events (z. B. Consumer Electronics Show oder die IAA.) ein. Der positive Ausstrahlungseffekt der Marke BMW ist für viele Firmen ein wertvolles Gut.
Wie organisiert Ihr den Austausch mit Euren Portfolio-Firmen, welche Tools nutzt Ihr? Mit den Firmen stehen wir direkt im Kontakt und nutzen beispielsweise. ein Tool um die Finanzkennzahlen zu sammeln. Intern haben wir ein sehr ausgefeiltes Business Development Tool in dem jede Interaktion mit dem Start-up und spezifische Business Development Möglichkeiten im Rahmen eines individuellen Entwicklungsplans für jede Firma getrackt wird. Hierdurch hat jeder im Team jederzeit den vollen Zugriff auf den Business Development Status der Portfolio-Firmen.
Was ist wichtiger: Das Team oder die Idee? Eine gute Idee kann ohne ein gutes Team nicht zu einer wertvollen Firma mit attraktiven Geschäftsmodell ausgebaut werden. Eine Idee, die am Markt nicht funktioniert, wird jedoch durch ein gutes Team verändert und damit ist aus meiner Sicht die Qualität des Teams und dessen Exekution entscheidend. Die meisten Teams pivoten an einem gewissen Zeitpunkt und passen ihr Geschäftsmodell an.
Wie sieht das ideale Gründerteam aus bzw. gibt es überhaupt das ideale Gründerteam? Das ist immer abhängig von der Geschäftsidee. Das Management-Team sollte immer die Kompetenzen mitbringen, die benötigt werden, um die spezifische Firma aufzubauen. Das können Industrie-Expertise sein, technisches Know-how oder relevante vorherige Gründungserfahrung. Besonders wertvoll finde ich es, wenn das Team divers aufgestellt ist – sowohl in Bezug auf Herkunft, Geschlecht, Erfahrungen und als auch in weiteren Dimensionen. Diese Teams performen am besten.
Wie entscheidet Ihr, ob Ihr in ein Startup investiert: Bauchgefühl, Daten, Beides oder was ganz anderes? Definitiv datenbasiert. Im Rahmen der Due Diligence bewerten wir die Reife der Technologie, das Geschäftsmodells, die Umsetzungsstärke des Teams, die Marktgröße, die Position im Wettbewerbsumfeld, die möglichen Exit-Paths und damit treffen wir eine Entscheidung auf Basis einer datenbasierten Einschätzung über den prognostizierten zukünftigen Wert der Firma. Kommen wir zu der Einschätzung, dass es sich um eine attraktive Investmentmöglichkeit handelt, investieren wir. Wir sind allerdings sehr selektiv. Deutlich weniger als 1 % der Firmen, die wir anschauen, nehmen wir in unser Portfolio auf.
Nicht jedes Startup läuft rund, nicht jedes wird ein Erfolg. Was macht Ihr, wenn eine Eurer Beteiligungen in Schieflage gerät? Wenn eine Firma vor Herausforderungen steht, setzten wir uns im Rahmen unserer Investoren-Verantwortung ein, um die Firma zu unterstützen. Das kann je nach Situation und Grund der Herausforderungen sehr unterschiedlich sein. Letztendlich ist das Board immer auch in der gestaltenden Rolle eines Advisors – in besonders schwierigen Situationen müssen Boardmitglieder auch hands-on unterstützen und Krisenmanagement betreiben. Ich glaube, dass sich die Qualität einer Investorin oder eines Investors besonders in solchen schwierigen Zeiten zeigt.
Und woran merkt Ihr, dass Ihr bei einem Startup die endgültige Reißleine ziehen müsst? Als Investor verfolgen wir die Finanzlage unserer Portfolio-Unternehmen sehr genau. Das Investment ist immer langfristig angelegt und daher steht im Fokus, wie sich eine Firma langfristig entwickelt. Herausforderungen müssen auf diesem Weg gemanagt werden. Das macht letztendlich eine vertrauensvolle Partnerschaft mit einem verantwortungsvollen Investor aus.
Wie wichtig und bindend ist ein Businessplan?
Der Businessplan gibt die Zielrichtung und Ambition an. Die meisten Business-Pläne sind jedoch zum Zeitpunkt der Investmentrunden sehr optimistisch. Daher erstellt jeder VC sein/ihr eigenes Finanzmodell, um die Firma zu bewerten. Es gibt allerdings auch positive Ausreißer – also Firmen, die ihre eigenen Prognosen übertreffen. Ich kenne keinen Investor:in, der/die sich darüber jemals beschwert hat.
Wie spricht man als Gründer:in am besten einen Investor an?
Am sinnvollsten sind “warme” Intros – also Verbindungen über jemanden, der/die den Investor:in kennt.
Was sollten Gründer:innen vor Investoren niemals sagen oder machen? Persönlich finde ich sehr überhebliche Gründer:innen schwierig. Zum Aufbau einer Firma gehört viel Arbeit und Hingabe. Ein absolutes No Go sind auch falsche Angaben zur Firma, der Investmentrunde oder andere Punkte, die letztendlich an der Ehrlichkeit der Gründer:innen zweifeln lassen.
Gibst Du uns zum Abschluss noch einen Einblick in Dein bzw. Euer Anti-Portfolio – bei welchen, jetzt erfolgreichen, Firmen bist Du, seid Ihr leider nicht eingestiegen? Das ist immer eine schwere Frage – letztendlich würde ich mir aus heutiger Hinsicht natürlich wünschen, dass wir bei Celonis investiert hätten. Es gibt immer verpasste Gelegenheiten und dafür aber auch sehr viele erfolgreiche Investments. Unser Track-Record kann sich in jedem Fall sehen lassen.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.
(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.
However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-comeincreasedregulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.
The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.
U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection
The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images
Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.
Image Credits: Apple
Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails,which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.
A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.
Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.
Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.
Image Credits: Facebook
Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
Twitter also tapped crypto developer Jay Graber to head the company’s “bluesky” project, which aims to create a decentralized social media protocol on which a number of networks, including Twitter, will eventually operate. The project will operate independently from Twitter, but is funded by Twitter and run by Twitter employees. Elsewhere, Twitter rolled out a new option that would allow users to report misinformation.
The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles.
Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.
WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.
Streaming & Entertainment
Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well,reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.
Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.
Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut,reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War.
Image Credits: Sensor Tower
Health & Fitness
Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.
China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.
Security & Privacy
A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.
Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.
Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.
Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.
Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.
Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.
Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.
U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.
Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.
Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2. Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.
Image Credits: Polycam
3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.
Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.
When your app redesign goes wrong…
Image Credits: Twitter.com
Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said.
Austin has made headlines over the past year for a number of reasons: It’s home to Oracle’s new headquarters. Tesla is building a massive gigafactory in the Texas capital. People, mostly tech workers, are leaving the Bay Area in droves to settle in the city, driving up home prices in the process.
‘I don’t believe everyone should move to Austin. I don’t think it’s right for everyone, but I do think it’s right for us.’
The latest VC to call Austin home is Geoff Lewis, founder and managing partner of Bedrock Capital, a 4-year-old early-stage venture capital firm with $1 billion in assets under management. Lewis started his investing career at Founders Fund, where he was a partner for several years. He either serves or has served on the board of companies such as Lyft, Nubank, Vercel and Workrise.
Lewis also led early investments in Wish, Upstart, Tilray, Canva, Rippling, ClearCo, Flock Safety and a number of other unicorns. He’s largely credited with popularizing the phrase “narrative violation” to describe promising companies that are overlooked or underestimated because they are incongruent with popular narratives.
In making the move to Austin, the investor said he had grown disillusioned with Silicon Valley and the region’s continued lack of focus on solving what he described as real-world problems.
In a Medium post, Lewis said he was first introduced to Austin after backing Workrise (formerly called RigUp), a marketplace for skilled trade workers. In fact, he was the company’s first seed investor eight years ago and has gone on to invest in the company eight subsequent times. Today, Workrise is valued at nearly $3 billion.
Lewis said he was drawn to the company not just because it was “going to be huge” but also because it was “much more concerned with real people and real places than today’s Silicon Valley behemoths.”
“Put simply, it is a more humane technology company,” Lewis writes. “And it’s my search for this more humane genre of technological innovation that brought me to Texas. I’ve lived on the coasts and built my career as a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur and investor, but I’ve never felt of the coasts or as an insider in Silicon Valley — I didn’t go to Stanford nor grow up rich.”
TechCrunch talked with Lewis to get more details around his decision to move his firm to Austin, learn more of his views on why Silicon Valley is too much of “a bubble” (spoiler alert: they may not be popular with many of you!) and how he plans to invest in more of Texas’ nexus of startups.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I understand that you grew up in Canada. How did you first get involved in the tech industry to begin with?
I started off as an entrepreneur myself, building a SaaS company in the travel space [Topguest]. I founded that business in New York City, and in 2009 ended up moving my team to San Francisco. I spent most of my career from 2009 to 2021 bouncing between New York and SF. We ended up selling that company in 2011 and it was a reasonably OK outcome. I joined Founders Fund in 2012, where I just fell in love with investing. I ended up really having a special trajectory there and 2012 was a great time to be a young VC in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. I ended up specializing in marketplaces, both consumer and enterprise, backing companies like Lyft and Canva early. I also did the firm’s first fintech investment in Latin America, backing Nubank, and now that company has a $30 billion valuation.
I grew up with pretty modest means and by 2017, I figured I had done well enough as a VC and I should strike out on trying to get back to what I wanted to do, which was more entrepreneurial. So we founded Bedrock in late 2017. We’re on Fund III now and it’s been consistent with the investment philosophy I pursued — trying to find what we call narrative violations, or these counternarrative companies that are being overlooked or underestimated. We were very early investors in Cameo, which is now obviously a pretty well-known business, for example.
You initially chose to base Bedrock in New York. Why?
When I was at Founders Fund I had a home in both cities (SF and NYC), so I was the kid who grew up in Calgary, Canada and wanted to live on the coasts and be in the center of the action. But we decided to actually headquarter Bedrock in New York in 2017 because we had an inclination that Silicon Valley was becoming a little bit overly self-referential and wanted to be a bit outside of the noise. New York is less of a one-horse town, so we decided to base the firm there, but really invested in, and continue to invest, everywhere across the country and quite honestly around the world. We invested in WordPress in the early days and more recently in Argyle and Lambda School.
Lower, an Ohio-based home finance platform, announced today it has raised $100 million in a Series A funding round led by Accel.
This round is notable for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a large Series A even by today’s standards. The financing also marks the previously bootstrapped Lower’s first external round of funding in its seven-year history. Lower is also something that is kind of rare these days in the startup world: profitable. Silicon Valley-based Accel has a history of backing profitable, bootstrapped companies, having also led large Series A rounds for the likes of 1Password, Atlassian, Qualtrics, Webflow, Tenable and Galileo (which went on to be acquired by SoFi).
In fact, Galileo founder Clay Wilkes introduced the VC firm to Dan Snyder, Lower’s founder and CEO. The two companies have a few things in common besides being profitable: they were both bootstrapped for years before taking institutional capital and both have headquarters outside of Silicon Valley.
“We were immediately intrigued because Ohio-based Lower echoes both of these themes,” said Accel partner John Locke, who led the firm’s investment in Lower and is taking a seat on the company’s board as part of the investment. “Like Galileo, Lower will be one of the most successful bootstrapped fintech companies globally. The combination of a company built in a nontraditional region across the globe and a bootstrapped company reminds us of [other] companies we have partnered with for a large Series A.”
There were other unnamed participants in the round, but Accel provided the “majority” of the investment, according to Lower.
Snyder co-founded Lower in 2014 with the goal of making the homebuying process simpler for consumers. The company launched with Homeside, its retail brand that Snyder describes as “a tech-leveraged retail mortgage bank” that works with realtors and builders, among others. In 2018, the company launched the website for Lower, its direct-to-consumer digital lending brand with the mission of making its platform a one-stop shop where consumers can go online to save for a home, obtain or refinance a mortgage and get insurance through its marketplace. This year, it launched the Lower mobile app with a savings account.
Sitting (L to R): Co-founders Dan Snyder, Grayson Hanes Standing (L to R): Co-founders Mike Baynes, Chris Miller Not pictured: Robert Tyson; Image credit: Lower
Over the years, Lower has funded billions of dollars in loans and notched an impressive $300 million in revenue in 2020 after doubling revenue every year, according to Snyder.
“Our history is maybe a little atypical of fintech companies today,” he told TechCrunch. “We’ve had a view going back to the start of the company that we wanted to run it profitably. That’s been one of our pillars, so that’s what we’ve done. Also, we all grew up in the mortgage industry, so we saw firsthand the size of the market, but also how broken it was, so we wanted to change it.”
In launching the direct-to-consumer digital lending brand, the company was working to make the homebuying process more “digital, transparent and easier for consumers to access,” Snyder said.
At the same time, the company didn’t want to lose the human touch.
“We tried to design the app flow in a way where you can get as far along as you can in the application but if you want, at any point in time, to talk or chat with someone, we’re available,” Snyder added.
Image Credits: Lower
Lower’s typical customer is the millennial and now Gen Z who’s aspiring to own their first home, according to Snyder.
“They might be thinking, ‘OK, I might be living in an apartment now, but in the next few years I’m going to meet someone and/or have a child and I want to unlock the investment that is a home,’ ” he told TechCrunch. “And we’ll help them on that journey.”
Lower’s recently launched new app offers a deposit account it’s dubbed “HomeFund.” The interest-bearing FDIC-insured deposit account offers a 0.75% Annual Percentage Yield and is designed to help consumers save for a home with a “dollar-for-dollar match in rewards” up to the first $1,000 saved, Snyder said.
Lower works with more than 35 major insurance carriers nationally, including Nationwide, Liberty Mutual and Allstate. It has more than 1,600 employees, about half of which are based in Lower’s home state. That’s up from about 650 employees in June of 2020.
Looking ahead, the company plans to add more services and has an “aggressive roadmap” for adding new features to its platform. Today, for example, Lower sells primarily to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And while it services the majority of its loans, like many large lenders, it uses a subservicer. That will change, however, in early 2022, when Lower intends to launch its own native servicing platform.
And while the company intends to continue to run profitably, Snyder said he and his co-founders “think the time is now to gain share.”
“We want to become a global brand, raise money and gain market share,” he added. “We’re going to continue to double down on product and build out our capabilities. We are the best-kept secret in fintech and plan to change that with smart branding, advertising and sponsorships.”
And last but not least, Lower is eyeing the public markets as part of its longer-term roadmap.
“Ultimately, we know we can build a great public company,” Snyder told TechCrunch. “We’re of the scale to be a public company right now, but we’re going to keep our heads down and we’re going to keep building for the next few years and then I think we can be in a spot to be a strong public business.”
Accel’s Locke points out that in the U.S., mortgage and home finance are among the largest financial service markets, and they have primarily been handled by large banks.
“For most consumers, getting a mortgage through these banks continues to be an overly complex, slow-moving process,” Locke told TechCrunch. “We believe by providing consumers a great mobile experience, Lower will gain share from incumbent banks, in the same way that companies like Monzo have in banking or Venmo in payments or Trade Republic and Robinhood in stock trading.”
Few things have captured Silicon Valley-based investors’ attention in recent years quite like the quest to back the successor[s] to Google Docs. The estimable and entrenched productivity suite has been unbundled and repackaged into products that a number of multi-billion dollar tech startups have been built around.
All the while, entrepreneurs are continuing to poke holes in their predecessors’ lore, creating something faster, sleeker or more intuitive. For plenty of the current generation productivity startups, the journey to replace Google Docs and Microsoft Office got a historic shot in the arm this past year as a global pandemic gave remote work software companies a jot of attention.
“Covid has made everybody realize that the way that we were working had to change,” Almanac CEO Adam Nathan told TechCrunch. “The core tools we used for productivity, Microsoft Word and Google Docs were for when we did a completely different type of work.”
Almanac is trying to revamp the document editor in a package that’s quicker than products like Notion and far more intuitive than legacy software suites, Nathan says. Last year, the startup raised a $9 million seed round led by Floodgate and has been quietly building out its network of users in early access beta.
The document editor found its way into a diverse number of offices outside tech startups — from a Domino’s branch to a veterinary office — through its open source template library Core, a hub for user-submitted guides on everything from how to run a one-on-one meeting to how to structure salaries for your customer service team. There are 5,000 documents on Core which are accessible to any logged-in user, something that has been a sizable customer channel for the startup as more companies and offices across the country have begun to question some entrenched ways of doing things.
“There are way more people working in docs outside of Silicon Valley than in it,” Nathan says.
As a document editor, Almanac’s core offering is the ability to keep files organized in the way that companies actually organize themselves.
One of its hallmark features is the ability to track document changes in a way that makes Google Docs look completely unintelligible. User can easily make their own copies of documents, merge them with the original and quickly approve changes. Users can also get approval from their manager or another user in their network and ask for feedback along the way.
For tasks that require a bit more thought, people can use Almanac to add tasks to another users to-do list inside the documents themselves, a feature that they might have needed a project management tool like Asana to handle in the past. Updates for items a user has been assigned or has assigned to others live inside their own inbox where notifications flow automatically as documents evolve. The team believes that functionality like this inside Almanac will help teams cut down on unnecessary Slacking and let the documents speak for themselves.
This week we shipped a feature that makes writing in Almanac even faster: snippets.
The company is quickly iterating itself into new workflows — they recently launched a feature specifically around building and updating handbooks, and they also just shipped a feature called Snippets which allows users to save oft-used blocks of texts so they can quickly build up new documents.
In a crowded productivity software space, Almanac’s sell relies on users fully committing to the offering, that’s been a central struggle in the post-Microsoft Office era where users have often seen their productivity toolsets swell with tools claiming to cut down on confusion. This often isn’t the fault of the tools themselves, but with how organizations adopt new software. Almanac hopes that by focusing on common workflows inside documents, its users can resist the urge to open another app and instead realize the gains that come from centralizing feedback in one platform.
Here in the U.S. the concept of using driver’s data to decide the cost of auto insurance premiums is not a new one.
But in markets like Brazil, the idea is still considered relatively novel. A new startup called Justos claims it will be the first Brazilian insurer to use drivers’ data to reward those who drive safely by offering “fairer” prices.
And now Justos has raised about $2.8 million in a seed round led by Kaszek, one of the largest and most active VC firms in Latin America. Big Bets also participated in the round along with the CEOs of seven unicorns including Assaf Wand, CEO and co-founder of Hippo Insurance; David Velez, founder and CEO of Nubank; Carlos Garcia, founder and CEO Kavak; Sergio Furio, founder and CEO of Creditas; Patrick Sigris, founder of iFood and Fritz Lanman, CEO of ClassPass. Senior executives from Robinhood, Stripe, Wise, Carta and Capital One also put money in the round.
Serial entrepreneurs Dhaval Chadha, Jorge Soto Moreno and AntonioMolins co-founded Justos, having most recently worked at various Silicon Valley-based companies including ClassPass, Netflix and Airbnb.
“While we have been friends for awhile, it was a coincidence that all three of us were thinking about building something newin Latin America,” Chadha said. “We spent two months studyingpossible paths, talking to people and investors in the United States, Brazil and Mexico, untilwe came up with the idea of creating an insurance company that can modernize the sector,starting with auto insurance.”
Ultimately, the trio decided that the auto insurance market would be an ideal sector considering that in Brazil, an estimated more than 70% of cars are not insured.
The process to get insurance in the country, by any accounts, is a slow one. It takes up to 72 hours to receive initial coverage and two weeks to receive the final insurance policy. Insurers also take their time in resolving claims related to car damages and loss due to accidents, the entrepreneurs say. They also charge that pricing is often not fair or transparent.
Justos aims to improve the whole auto insurance process in Brazil by measuring the way people drive to help price theirinsurance policies. Similar to Root here in the U.S., Justos intends to collect users’ data through their mobile phones so that it can “more accurately and assertively price different types of risk.” This way, the startup claims it can offer plans that are up to 30% cheaper than traditional plans, and grant discounts each month, according to the driving patterns of the previous month of each customer.
“We measure how safely people drive using the sensors on their cell phones,” Chadha said. “This allows us to offer cheaper insurance to users who drive well, thereby reducing biases that are inherent in the pricing models used by traditional insurance companies.”
Justos also plans to use artificial intelligence and computerized vision to analyze and process claims more quickly and machine learning for image analysis and to create bots that help accelerate claims processing.
“We are building a design driven, mobile first and customer experience that aims to revolutionize insurance in Brazil, similar to what Nubank did with banking,” Chadha told TechCrunch. “We will be eliminating any hidden fees, a lot of the small text and insurance specific jargon that is very confusing for customers.”
Justos will offer its product directly to its customers as well as through distributionchannels like banks and brokers.
“By going direct to consumer, we are able to acquire users cheaper than our competitors and give back the savings to our users in the form of cheaper prices,” Chadha said.
Customers will be able to buy insurance through Justos’ app, website, or even WhatsApp. For now, the company is only adding potential customers to a waitlist but plans to begin selling policies later this year..
During the pandemic, the auto insurance sector in Brazil declined by 1%, according to Chadha, who believes that indicates “there is latent demand rearing to go once things open up again.”
Justos has a social good component as well. Justos intends to cap its profits and give any leftover revenue back to nonprofit organizations.
The company also has an ambitious goal: to help make insurance become universally accessible around the world and the roads safer in general.
“People will face everyday risks with a greater sense of safety and adventure. Road accidents will reduce drastically as a result of incentives for safer driving, and the streets will be safer,” Chadha said. “People, rather than profits, will become the focus of the insurance industry.”
Justos plans to use its new capital to set up operations, such as forming partnerships with reinsurers and an insurance company for fronting, since it is starting as an MGA (managing general agent).
It’s also working on building out its products such as apps, its back end and internal operations tools as well as designing all its processes for underwriting, claims and finance. Justos’ data science team is also building out its own pricing model.
The startup will be focused on Brazil, with plans to eventually expand within Latin America, then Iberia and Asia.
Kaszek’s Andy Young said his firm was impressed by the team’s previous experience and passion for what they’re building.
“It’s a huge space, ripe for innovation and this is the type of team that can take it to the next level,” Young told TechCrunch. “The team has taken an approach to building an insurance platform that blends being consumer centric and data driven to produce something that is not only cheaper and rewards safety but as the brand implies in Portuguese, is fairer.”
Fintech and proptech are two sectors that are seeing exploding growth in Latin America, as financial services and real estate are two categories in particular dire need of innovation in a region.
Brazil’s QuintoAndar, which has developed a real estate marketplace focused on rentals and sales, has seen impressive growth in recent years. And today, the São Paulo-based proptech has announced it has closed on $300 million in a Series E round of funding that values it at an impressive $4 billion.
The round is notable for a few reasons. For one, the valuation – high by any standards but especially for a LatAm company – represents an increase of four times from when QuintoAndar raised a $250 million Series D in September 2019.
It’s also noteworthy who is backing the company. Silicon Valley-based Ribbit Capital led its Series E financing, which also included participation from SoftBank’s LatAm-focused Innovation Fund, LTS, Maverik, Alta Park, an undisclosed US-based asset manager fund with over $2 trillion in AUM, Kaszek Ventures, Dragoneer and Accel partner Kevin Efrusy.
Having backed the likes of Coinbase, Robinhood and CreditKarma, Ribbit Capital has historically focused on early-stage investments in the fintech space. Its bet on QuintoAndar represents clear faith in what the company is building, as well as its confidence in the startup’s plans to branch out from its current model into a one-stop real estate shop that also offers mortgage, title, insurance and escrow services.
The latest round brings QuintoAndar’s total raised since its 2013 inception to $635 million.
Ribbit Capital Partner Nick Huber said Quintoandar has over the years built “a unique and trusted brand in Brazil” for those looking for a place to call home.
“Whether you are looking to buy or to rent, QuintoAndar can support customers through the entire transaction process: from browsing verified inventory to signing the final contracts,” Huber told TechCrunch. “The ability to serve customers’ needs through each phase of life and to do so from start to finish is a unique capability, both in Brazil and around the world.”
QuintoAndar describes itself as an “end-to-end solution for long-term rentals” that, among other things, connects potential tenants to landlords and vice versa. Last year, it expanded also into connecting a home buyers to sellers.
Image Credits: QuintoAndar
TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Gabriel Braga and he shared details around the growth that has attracted such a bevy of high-profile investors.
Like most other businesses around the world, QuintoAndar braced itself for the worst when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year – especially considering one core piece of its business is to guarantee rents to the landlords on its platform.
“In the beginning, we were afraid of the implications of the crisis but we were able to honor our commitments,” Braga said. “In retrospect, the pandemic was a big test for our business model and it has validated the strength and defensibility of our binsess on the credit side and reinforced our value proposition to tenants and landlords. So after the initial scary moments, we actually felt even more confident in the business that we are building.”
QuintoAndar describes itself as “a distant market leader” with more than 100,000 rentals under management and about 10,000 new rentals per month. Its rental platform is live in 40 cities across Brazil, while its homebuying marketplace is live in 4. Part of its plans with the new capital is to expand into new markets within Brazil, as well as in Latin America as a whole.
The startup claims that, in less than a year, QuintoAndar managed to aggregate the largest inventory among digital transactional platforms. It now offers more than 60,000 properties for sale across Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belho Horizonte and Porto Alegre. To give greater context around the company’s growth of that side of its platform: in its first year of operation, QuintoAndar closed more than 1,000 transactions. It has now surpassed the mark of 8,000 transactions in annualized terms, growing between 50% and 100% quarter over quarter.
As for the rentals side of its business, Braga said QuintoAndar has more than 100,000 rentals under management and is closing about 10,000 new rentals per month. The company is not profitable as it’s focused on growth, although it is unit economics are particularly favorable in certain markets such as Sao Paulo, which is financing some of its growth in other cities, according to Braga.
Now, the 2,000-person company is looking to begin its global expansion with plans to enter the Mexican market later this year. With that, Braga said QuintoAndar is looking to hire “top-tier” talent from all over.
“We want to invest a lot in our product and tech core,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring in more senior people from abroad, on a global basis.”
CEO Braga and CTO André Penha came up with the idea for QuintoAndar after receiving their MBAs at Stanford University. As many startups do, the company was founded out of Braga’s personal “nightmare” of an experience – in this case, of trying to rent an apartment in Sao Paulo.
The search process, he recalls, was difficult as there was not enough information available online and renters were forced to provide a guarantor, or co-signer, from the same city or pay rent insurance, which Braga described as “very expensive.”
“Overall, I felt it was a very inefficient and fragmented process with no transparency or tech,” Braga told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “There was all this friction and high cost involved, just real tangible problems to solve.”
The concept for QuintoAndar (which can be translated literally to “Fifth Floor” in Portuguese) was born.
“Little by little, we created a platform that consolidated supply and inventory in a uniform way,” Braga said.
The company took the search phase online for the first time, according to Braga. It also eliminated the need for tenants to provide a guarantor, thereby saving them money. On the other side, QuintoAndar also works to help protect the landlord with the guarantee that they will get their rent “on time every month,” Braga said.
It’s been interesting watching the company evolve and grow over time, just as it’s been fascinating seeing the region’s startup scene mature and shine in recent years.
Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.
The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform which its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty party software like Zoom, Webex etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)
Interactio’s interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)
It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting — and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform — or else it will provide training to a customer’s interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.
At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting “strong relations with interpretation agencies” — claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.
It offers its customers interpretation in any language — and in an unlimited number of languages per event. And last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.
Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multi-lingual online meetings — as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.
“When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us,” a spokeswoman told us.
“This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms — by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable.”
“Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we compliment it by offering professional interpretation solutions,” she added.
A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out — and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it’s had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)
While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it’s seen during the remote work boom.
Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI — with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have “the best working conditions from their chosen place of work”).
It will also be spending to expand its client base — and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. (“Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g. European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation,” it told us.)
The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.
While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology — which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.
Nonetheless, such efforts aren’t well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale — where having a centralized delivery service that’s also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues which may arise looks essential.
And while machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.
“AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality,” says Interactio when we ask about this. “Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.
“We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine.”
And now, the early-stage VC firm is announcing its largest fund closures to date: Kaszek Ventures V, a $475 million early-stage fund, believed to be the largest vehicle of its kind ever raised in the region, and Kaszek Ventures Opportunity II, a $525 million for later-stage investments.
Over the years, Kaszek has backed 91 companies, which the firm says collectively have raised over $10 billion in capital.
MercadoLibre co-founder Hernán Kazah and the company’s ex-CFO, Nicolas Szekasy, founded Kaszek a decade ago after leaving LatAm’s answer to Amazon. Fun fact: the firm’s name comes from a combination of their two last names: Ka-Szek. Rounding out the team are Nicolas Berman, former VP at MercadoLibre, Santiago Fossatti, Andy Young and Mariana Donangelo.
Kaszek founded its first fund in 2011, raising $95 million, an impressive sum at that time. Funds II and III closed in 2014 and 2017, raising $135 million and $200 million, respectively. By 2019, Kaszek had closed on its fourth fund, raising $375 million and its first Opportunity Fund, reserving $225 million for later-stage investing in existing portfolio companies.
It’s notable that in its fifth fund, Kaszek is reserving more of its new capital to fund later-stage investments – a testament to its faith in its current portfolio. Both funds, according to Kaszek, were “several times oversubscribed” with demand coming globally from university endowments, global foundations, technology funds and several tech entrepreneurs.
Silicon Valley-based Sequoia Capital has been an LP since day one via Sequoia Heritage, its community investment office. Also, Connecticut-based Wesleyan University is an LP with Chief Investment Officer Anne Martin describing the founding team as “internet pioneers.”
In recent years, there has been an explosion of global investor interest in Latin American startups. The region’s startup scene is seeing a surge of fundraises, with new unicorns emerging with increasing regularity. And Kaszek has been at the heart of it all.
“We have been at the epicenter of the technology ecosystem in Latin America since 1999, first with MercadoLibre and now with Kaszek, and have witnessed firsthand the extraordinary evolution that the sector has experienced since its infancy,” said managing partner and co-founder Kazah. “When MercadoLibre started, the internet penetration was less than 3% and it was mostly dial-up connections. Today, more than two decades later, technology secular trends are stronger than ever before as we are experiencing an acceleration towards digitalization.”
Kaszek has not yet backed any companies out of its newest investment vehicles, but plans to put money in 20 to 30 companies out of its early-stage fund, with check sizes ranging from $500,000 to $25 million, according to Kazah. Its Opportunity Fund investments will be more concentrated with the firm likely backing 10 to 15 companies with check sizes ranging from $10 million to $35 million. The firm is industry agnostic, with Kazah saying it considers “any industry where technology is playing a transformational role.”
General partner and co-founder Szekasy says that In the firm’s first funds, Kaszek mostly backed first-time entrepreneurs. But in its last early-stage fund, it began backing more teams led by repeat entrepreneurs or by founders spawned out of some of the region’s more successful startups. As many VC firms do, Kaszek describes its investment strategy as providing more than capital, but also becoming partners with the founders of its portfolio companies. For example, Creditas founder and CEO Sergio Furio describes the firm as “the co-founder I did not have.”
While the firm declined to comment on performance, a source with firsthand knowledge of its metrics over the years tells TechCrunch that it’s quite impressive with MOICS ranging from 19.2 for Fund I, 10.5 for Fund II, 4.9 for Fund III and 2.6 for Fund IV.
The firm’s active portfolio currently consists of 71 companies. Kaszek was one of the earliest investors in Brazilian neobank Nubank, just one of 9 unicorns it has helped build over the years. Other unicorns it’s backed include MadeiraMadeira, PedidosYa, proptech startup QuintoAndar, Gympass, Loggi, Creditas, Kavak and Bitso.
The firm’s investments have largely concentrated in Brazil and Mexico (the two startup hotspots of the region) and Colombia but the firm has also backed startups based in other countries in the region such as DigitalHouse (which was formed in Argentina), NotCo (originally founded in Chile) and Kushki (launched first in Ecuador). It has people on the ground in its home base of Brazil as well as Mexico, the United States, Argentina and Uruguay.
“We have always believed that the strong secular technology trends that we were seeing 20 years ago, evident in the US and a little later in China, were going to happen in Latin America,” Kazah told TechCrunch. “…Everything we predicted back then was going to happen, happened. Maybe it happened later, but it was also much larger and more comprehensive than what we had initially imagined. That is typically what happens with innovations, they take off later than you think, but fly much higher than you ever imagined.”
Gustavo Parés is CEO of NDS Cognitive Labs, a leader in cognitive computing and AI business solutions. A professor at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), he’s partnered with Microsoft, IBM and Google to deliver digital transformation and cognitive technology services.
The global tech sector is booming, and as technologies like cloud and AI accelerate their growth, the demand for tech talent outpaces supply globally. Specifically, the U.S. tech sector has seen unprecedented growth in recent years, with four tech firms reaching a $1 trillion market cap by the beginning of 2020 — all of which have seen double-digit growth since achieving a 13-digit valuation pre-pandemic.
One of the major factors in the growth and adoption of tech in the U.S. is the increasing focus on software as a service and broader digital transformations across industry sectors, which have accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, there is an insatiable appetite for quality tech talent in the U.S., with projections showing an 11% increase by 2029 from 2019 numbers, which amounts to over half a million new jobs.
Given that the U.S. produces only about 65,000 computer science graduates, there is a vast deficit in the tech talent market, which materialized as over 900,000 unfilled IT and related positions in 2019 alone. The problem is so vast that more than 80% of U.S. employers stated that recruiting for tech talent is a top business challenge, according to a survey by top HR consulting firm Robert Half.
Demand increasing for Mexican tech talent
Mexico’s tech talent can help to fill the gaps left in a hypercompetitive U.S. market for tech workers. Unlike the U.S., 20% of Mexican college graduates have relevant engineering degrees, amounting to over 110,000 per year, far surpassing the U.S. in technical talent. Investors and tech firms have noticed and are increasing operations in Mexico.
20% of Mexican college graduates have relevant engineering degrees, amounting to over 110,000 per year, far surpassing the U.S. in technical talent.
Some have referred to the cities of Monterrey and Guadalajara as the “Silicon Valley of Latin America,” and while their tech sectors are also seeing tremendous growth, the pace falls short of Mexico’s talent production, leading to a surplus of highly trained and capable individuals in the tech sector. The cost of higher education in Mexico is far less than in the U.S., so we’re likely to see that talent surplus grow in the coming years.
Under current conditions, the U.S. has an incredible opportunity to capitalize on the surplus of tech talent in Mexico. Because tech jobs are more scarce than in the U.S., the cost of talent in Mexico is considerably less than in the U.S. or in Canada. In general, talent in Mexico can be two to three times cheaper than in the U.S. while still delivering outstanding quality and specialized experience.
What’s more, the U.S./Mexico relationship is seeing a refresh after several tumultuous years. With Mexico ranked No. 1 among U.S. trade partners, the political and economic mechanisms for investments and partnerships are in place. Technology leaders such as Cisco and Intel have already set up shop in Mexico, demonstrating confidence in the country’s ability to support tech and economic growth.
The benefits of proximity
Mexico provides a number of benefits that make drawing from its talent surplus easier and more efficient. For one, Mexico’s time zones align with those in the U.S., enabling real-time collaboration at times that work best for both parties. Compare this to the time difference in India, which is over 12 hours ahead of California’s Silicon Valley.
Beyond the time difference, there are also many cultural similarities that make working with Mexico the clear choice for IT outsourcing. For example, the U.S. is home to more than 41 million native Spanish speakers, and plus over 12 million bilingual Spanish speakers, making the U.S. the second-largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico. While difficult to quantify, the number of consumer and cultural exports from Mexico to the U.S. also helps to build familiarity and solidarity between the two countries, which can only improve an already healthy relationship.
New geopolitical considerations favor U.S.-Mexico ties
The steady progression of America’s tech sector is now seen as a strategic priority at the federal level. Meanwhile, public and private sector decision-makers are more interested than ever in conducting business under favorable trade treaty terms with friendly governments amid a new climate of geopolitical uncertainty.
As the U.S. tech sector continues its explosive growth, technology companies in the U.S. will need to seek alternative means to supplement its in-demand tech workforce. Rather than turning to countries undergoing increased regulatory scrutiny, or distant talent bases requiring significant business travel, business leaders are looking to geographically close, diplomatically friendly nations. U.S. companies are finding Mexico’s status as a key business partner and strategic ally to be a massive value driver.
By 2030, the middle-class population in Mexico is expected to reach 95 million, placing it in the top 10 countries with the highest share of global middle-class consumption. As the middle class rises, so will companies to meet their consumer needs, and, as such, Mexico’s own tech sector will grow and require significantly more tech talent, reducing or potentially eliminating Mexico’s talent surplus.
This is evidenced by the uptick in Mexico-based technology companies, such as Mexican used-car startup Kavak, which recently hit a $4 billion valuation. Amid an exciting backdrop of skyrocketing tech valuations and potential, the U.S. tech sector should look to Mexico as a key growth market and technology partner. The time is now for the U.S. to tap into the surplus of quality tech talent in Mexico.
Kara Penn is the mother of four daughters and owner of Mission Spark, a management and strategy consulting company.
And now, thanks to Hustle Fund, she is also an angel investor.
Hustle Fund is coming out of stealth today with Angel Squad, a new initiative aimed at making angel investing more accessible to more people. To more people like Colorado-based Penn.
“We believe that in order to increase diversity in the startup ecosystem, one thing that we must do is increase diversity — whether it be in regard to gender, race or geography — amongst angel investors,” said Hustle Fund co-founder and general partner Elizabeth Yin.
Via Angel Squad, Hustle Fund specifically aims to build an inclusive investor community, make minimum check sizes low and accessible (think as little as $1,000), provide “angel education” and give investors a way to invest alongside Hustle Fund.
“There’s been this misnomer, or at least I had this incorrect assumption that in order to become an angel investor, you have to be super rich and write $25,000 checks,” Yin told TechCrunch. “But the reality is actually in Silicon Valley, there are all these people running around investing $1,000 checks…and that’s something that’s a lot more accessible than then most people might think. And, part of the value of having this group is then we can accumulate a bunch of smaller checks to then write one larger check for a company.”
So far, Penn has invested in five startups across a range of sectors including real estate, food, apparel and finance.
She describes herself as “a complete novice” in angel investing, and so far, she’s loving the experience.
“I love Hustle Fund’s perspective that great hustlers can look like anyone and come from anywhere,” Penn told TechCrunch. “I’ve enjoyed being in a supportive community with differing levels of expertise, but where every question is welcomed.”
The experience is also broadening her exposure to technology and AI, the collection and use of data and the creation of new marketplaces in ways she never would have been exposed to before.
“As someone whose own company focuses exclusively on strategy in social impact organizations, I am also looking for how founders identify and bring to market creative solutions to complex problems, as well as exposure to a network of innovative people looking to solve hard issues in smart ways,” Penn said. “This exposure is helping me begin to think about applications of these approaches to difficult social problems.”
For some context, Hustle Fund is a venture firm founded by Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn, two former 500 Startups partners, with the goal of investing in pre-seed software startups. The firm has traditionally operated by investing $25,000 in a company, usually with a minimum-viable product, and then works with the team to help them grow. It does around 50 investments per year, according to its website.
“One of the things most important to us is this bigger mission of wanting to change the way the startup ecosystem is,” Yin said. “I noticed both as an entrepreneur and while running an accelerator, if you have a certain resume, went to certain schools, or were a certain race or gender, you have advantages in starting a company and getting funding. For many people, if you don’t tick those boxes, it can be very challenging. That’s why we’re investing in a lot of founders from all walks of life.”
Hustle Fund Venture Partner Brian Nichols had started a syndicate of Lyft alumni on AngelList. After doing a few deals, he opened up the syndicate to people outside of AngelList.
“I found there was a wide range of people looking to diversify into private markets, from all over the world with all types of backgrounds,” he said. “Hustle Fund and I had similar taste in companies I was investing in and I built a relationship with them in co-investments.”
Today, he’s helping run the fund’s Angel Squad initiative. So far, it has had two cohorts with over 150 investors total and true to the fund’s mission, those investors have been more diverse than typical angel syndicates: 46% of the members are female, 9% are underrepresented minorities and 32% are people who work outside of tech with professional roles such as lawyers, doctors and artists. Just one-third are based in Silicon Valley.
Every week, Angel Squad hosts an event which ranges from networking to a peek behind the curtain at opportunities at Hustle Fund is considering investing in to talking through why or why not to take a meeting with a founder.
“Imagine starting from zero, and if you could skip a bunch of steps and have Elizabeth (Yin) tell you how to do this before you lose a bunch of money in the process of evaluating a startup,” Nichols told TechCrunch. “Angel Squad is exactly what I wish had existed three or four years ago when I became interested in investing.”
Silicon Valley, Yin acknowledges, can be intimidating but the reality is that no one is an expert in everything.
“We’re trying to cultivate an environment where people are very kind — we have a no asshole rule, and that is a safe space where people can learn and feel like they can ask questions, and not have to know everything about angel investing. The reality is most people don’t. And we want to bring new people into this system.”
Besides not being an a-hole, other criteria in becoming a Squad Member include being able to add value and being an accredited investor.
“With rounds as competitive as they are today, we are looking for people who want to be actively supportive of the portfolio companies we’re investing in,” Nichols said. “Every person who wants to join the program is interviewed by someone from our team, who asks questions such as ‘What can you help a founder with?’ We are not looking for passive capital. That’s not super helpful at this point in the ecosystem.
The topic of compensation has historically been a delicate one that has left many people — especially startup employees — wondering just what drives what can feel like random decisions around pay and equity.
Last June, software engineers (and housemates) Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand set about trying to solve the problem for companies by developing a data-driven platform that aims to help companies structure their compensation plans and transparently communicate them to candidates.
Now today, the startup behind that platform, Figure, announced it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding led by CRV. Bling Capital, Better Tomorrow Ventures and Garage Capital also participated in the financing, along with angel investors such as AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant, Jason Calacanis, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and other executives based in Silicon Valley.
The startup has amassed a client list that includes other startups such as fintechs Brex and NerdWallet and AI-powered fitness company Tempo.
Put simply, Hobby and Tisserand’s mission is to improve workflows and transparency around pay, particularly equity. The pair had both worked at startups themselves (Uber and Instacart, respectively) and ended up leaving money on the table when they left those companies because no one had properly explained to them what their equity, which changed at every valuation, meant.
Figure co-founders and co-CEOs Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand. Image Credits: Figure
So, one of their goals was to create a solution that would provide a user-friendly explanation of what a person’s equity stake really means, from tax implications to whether or not they have to buy the stock and/or hold onto it.
“I’ve gone through the job search process many times before and there’s all these complex legal documents to understand why you’re getting 10,000 stock options, but obviously we knew the vast majority of people have no idea how that works,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We saw an opportunity there to help companies actually convey the value to their candidates while also making them aware of the potential risks of owning something that’s so illiquid.”
Image Credits: Figure
Another goal of Figure’s is to help create a more fair and balanced process about decisions around pay and equity so that there’s less inequality out there. Pointedly, it aims to remove some of the biases that exist around those decisions by systematizing the process.
“We saw a void in this kind of context around equity…and knew that there had to be a better way for companies to structure, manage and explain their compensation plans,” Hobby said.
To Hobby and Tisserand, Figure is designed to help stop instances of implicit bias.
“Compensation should be based on the work that you’re doing, and not gender or ethnic background,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We’re trying to give that context and remove biases. So, we’re trying to help at two different stages –– to surface inequities that already exist and make sure there are no anomalies, and then to help stop them before they can exist.”
Figure also aims to give companies the tools to educate candidates and employees on their total compensation — including equity, salary, benefits and bonuses — in a “straightforward and user-friendly” way. For example, it can create custom offer letters that interactively detail a candidate’s compensation.
“Our goal is for Figure to become an operating system for compensation, where a company can encode their compensation philosophy into our system, and we help them determine their job architecture, compensation bands and offer numbers while monitoring their compensation health to provide adjustment suggestions when needed,” Hobby said.
Post-hire, Figure’s compensation management system “helps keep everything running smoothly.”
Anna Khan, general partner of enterprise software at CRV, is joining Figure’s board as part of the funding. The decision to back the startup was in part personal, she said.
“I’d been investing in software for eight years and was alarmed that no one was building anything around pay equity when it comes to how we’re paid, why we’re paid what we’re paid and on how to build equity long term,” Khan told TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, discussions around compensation and equity still happen behind closed doors and this extends into workflow around compensation — equally broken — with manual leveling, old data and large pay inequities.”
The company plans to use its new capital to expand its product offerings and scale its organization.
Nathan Beckord is CEO of Foundersuite.com, a software platform for raising capital and managing investors that has helped entrepreneurs raise over $2 billion since 2016. He is also the host of Foundersuite’s How I Raised It podcast.
Domm Holland, co-founder and CEO of e-commerce startup Fast, appears to be living a founder’s dream.
His big idea came from a small moment in his real life. Holland watched as his wife’s grandmother tried to order groceries, but she had forgotten her password and wasn’t able to complete the transaction.
“I just remember thinking it was preposterous,” Holland said. “It defied belief that some arbitrary string of text was a blocker to commerce.”
So he built a prototype of a passwordless authentication system where users would fill out their information once and would never need to do so again. Within 24 hours, tens of thousands of people had used it.
Nothing beats building human networks. That’s the way that you’re going to get this done in terms of fundraising.
Shoppers weren’t the only ones on board with this idea. In less than two years, Holland has raised $124 million in three rounds of fundraising, bringing on partners like Index Ventures and Stripe.
Although the success of Fast’s one-click checkout product has been speedy, it hasn’t been effortless.
For one thing, Holland is Australian, which means he started out as a Silicon Valley outsider. When he arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 2019, he had exactly one Bay Area contact in his phone. He built his network from the ground up, a strategic process he credits to one thing: hard work.
On an episode of the “How I Raised It” podcast, Holland talks about how he built his network, why it’s important — not just for fundraising but for building the entire business — and how to avoid the mistakes he sees new founders make.
Reach out with relevance
Holland’s primary strategy in building networks sounds like an obvious one — reach out to relevant people.
“When I first got to the States, I wanted to build networks,” Holland said, “but I didn’t really know anyone here in the Bay Area. So I spent a lot of time reaching out to relevant people — people working in payments, people working in technology, people working in identity authentication — just really relevant people in the space working in Big Tech who were building large-scale networks.”
One of the people Holland connected with was Allison Barr Allen, then the head of global product operations at Uber. Barr Allen managed her own angel investment fund, but Holland wasn’t actually looking for money when he reached out to her. He was much more interested in her perspective as the leader of an enormous financial services operation.
Merama, a five-month old e-commerce startup focused on Latin America, announced today that it has raised $60 million in seed and Series A funding and $100 million in debt.
The money was raised “at well over a $200 million valuation,” according to co-founder and CEO Sujay Tyle.
“We are receiving significant inbound for a Series B already,” he said.
LatAm firms Valor Capital and Monashees Capital and U.K.-based Balderton Capital co-led the “massively oversubscribed” funding round, which also included participation from Silicon Valley-based TriplePoint Capital and the CEOs of four unicorns in Latin America, including Uala, Loggi, Rappi and Madeira Madeira.
Tyle, Felipe Delgado, Olivier Scialom, Renato Andrade and Guilherme Nosralla started Merama in December 2020 with a vision to be the “largest and best-selling set of brands in Latin America.” The company has dual headquarters in Mexico City and São Paulo.
Merama partners with e-commerce product sellers in Latin America by purchasing a stake in the businesses and working with their teams to help them “exponentially” grow and boost their technology while providing them with nondilutive working capital. CEO Tyle describes the company’s model as “wildly different” from that of Thras.io, Perch and other similar companies such as Valoreo because it does not aggregate dozens of brands.
“We will work with very few brands over time, and only the best, and work with our entire team to scale and expand these few businesses,” Tyle told TechCrunch. “We’re more similar to The Hut Group in the EU.”
Merama expects to sell $100 million across the region this year, more than two times the year before. It is currently focused on Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Already, the company operates “very profitably,” according to Tyle. So the cash raised will go primarily toward partnering with more brands, investing in building its technology platform “to aid in the automation of several facets” of its partners’ brands and in working capital for product innovation and inventory purchases.
The 42-person team is made up of e-commerce leaders from companies such as Amazon, Mercado Libre and Facebook, among others. Tyle knows a thing or two about growing and building new startups, having co-founded Frontier Car Group, which sold to OLX/Naspers for about $700 million in 2019. He is also currently a venture partner at Balderton.
It’s a fact that Latin American e-commerce has boomed, particularly during the pandemic. Mexico was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in 2020 worldwide, yet is still in its infancy, Tyle said. Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.
“Merchants are seeing hypergrowth but still struggle with fundamental problems, which creates a ceiling in their potential,” Tyle told TechCrunch. “For example, they are unable to expand internationally, get reliable and cost-effective working capital and build technology tools to support their own online presence. This is where Merama comes in. We seek to give our partners an unfair advantage. When we decide to work with a team, it is because we believe they will be the de facto category leader and can become a $1 billion business on their own.”
Merama collaborates with e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Mercado Libre, and several executives from both companies have invested in the startup, as well.
Daniel Waterhouse, partner at Balderton Capital, says his firm sees “huge potential” in Merama.
“In our two decades scaling businesses in Europe, we have seen firsthand what defines eCommerce category leaders,” he said in a written statement. “What they have already achieved is breathtaking, and it is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Valor Capital founding partner Scott Sobel believes that creating superior products that connect with consumers is the first key challenge D2C companies face.
“That is why we like Merama’s approach to partnering with these established brands and provide them unparalleled support to scale their operations in an efficient way,” he added.
Investors in the $5 million round include: At One Ventures, which has also backed Finless Foods and Wild Earth; Metaplanet Holdings; the European investment firm k16 ventures; FoundersX Ventures, who are also investors in SpaceX; Prithi Ventures, which backed Mission Barns, Turtle Tree Labs; and angel investors including Jonghoon Lim, the CEO of Hanmi Pharmaceuticals; Kris Corzine; Ethan Perlstein, the CEO of Perlara, the first biotech PBC; and a well-known university endowment.
“We were immediately struck by Orbillion’s focus on high-end, flavorful, hard-to-find meats like lamb, elk, wagyu beef, and bison, their strong science, business, and engineering backgrounds, and the fact that they are so focused on flavor that they literally have a Master Butcher on their advisory board,” said Ali Rohde, GP at Outset Capital, an early-stage venture fund run by Rohde along with repeat entrepreneurs Kanjun Qiu and Josh Albrecht. “Lab-grown meat is the future, and Orbillion Bio is already paving the way.”
The company said it would use the cash to bring its first product, a Wagyu beef offering, to pilot production.
Josh Mendelsohn is the founder and managing partner of Hangar, a public sector investment firm focused on building and scaling innovative startups.
Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.
Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.
As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.
But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.
That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.
One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.
Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar
Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.
Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.
From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.
My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.
Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.
A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.
NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.
One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.
There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to people everywhere shopping more online and Latin America is no exception.
São Paulo-based Nuvemshop has developed an e-commerce platform that aims to allow SMBs and merchants to connect more directly with their consumers. With more people in Latin America getting used to making purchases digitally, the company has experienced a major surge in business over the past year.
Demand for Nuvemshop’s offering was already heating up prior to the pandemic. But over the past 12 months, that demand has skyrocketed as more merchants have been seeking greater control over their brands.
Rather than selling their goods on existing marketplaces (such as Mercado Libre, the Brazilian equivalent of Amazon), many merchants and entrepreneurs are opting to start and grow their own online businesses, according to Nuvemshop co-founder and CEO Santiago Sosa.
“Most merchants have entered the internet by selling on marketplaces but we are hearing from newer generations of merchants and SMBs that they don’t want to be intermediated anymore,” he said. “They want to connect more directly with consumers and convey their own brand, image and voice.”
The proof is in the numbers.
Nuvemshop has seen the number of merchants on its platform surge to nearly 80,000 across Brazil, Argentina and Mexico compared to 20,000 at the start of 2020. These businesses range from direct-to-consumer (DTC) upstarts to larger brands such as PlayMobil, Billabong and Luigi Bosca. Virtually every KPI tripled in the company in 2020 as the world saw a massive transition to online, and Nuvemshop’s platform was home to 14 million transactions last year, according to Sosa.
“With us, businesses can find a more comprehensive ecosystem around payments, logistics, shipping and catalogue/inventory management,” he said.
Nuvemshop’s rapid growth caught the attention of Silicon Valley-based Accel. Having just raised $30 million in a Series C round in October and achieving profitability in 2020, the Nuvemshop team was not looking for more capital.
But Ethan Choi, a partner at Accel, said his firm saw in Nuvemshop the potential to be the market leader, or the “de facto” e-commerce platform, in Latin America.
“Accel has been investing in e-commerce for a very long time. It’s a very important area for us,” Choi said. “We saw what they were building and all their potential. So we pre-emptively asked them to let us invest.”
Today, Nuvemshop is announcing that it has closed on a $90 million Series D funding led by Accel. ThornTree Capital and returning backers Kaszek, Qualcomm Ventures and others also put money in the round, which brings Nuvemshop’s total funding raised since its 2011 inception to nearly $130 million. The company declined to reveal at what valuation this latest round was raised but it is notable that its Series D is triple the size of its Series C, raised just over six months prior. Sosa said only that there was a “substantial increase” in valuation since its Series C.
Nuvemshop is banking on the fact that the density of SMBs in Latin America is higher in most Latin American countries compared to the U.S. On top of that, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.
“In Brazil, it grew 40% last year but is still underpenetrated, representing less than 10% of retail sales. In Latin America as a whole, penetration is somewhere between 5 and 10%,” Sosa said.
Nuvemshop co-founder and CEO Santiago Sosa; Image courtesy of Nuvemshop
Last year, the company transitioned from a closed product to a platform that is open to everyone from third parties, developers, agencies and other SaaS vendors. Through Nuvemshop’s APIs, all those third parties can connect their apps into Nuvemshop’s platform.
“Our platform becomes much more powerful, vendors are generating more revenue and merchants have more options,” Sosa told TechCrunch. “So everyone wins.” Currently, Nuvemshop has about 150 applications publishing on its ecosystem, which he projects will more than triple over the next 12 to 18 months.
As for comparisons to Shopify, Sosa said the company doesn’t necessarily make them but believes they are “fair.”
To Choi, there are many similarities.
“We saw Amazon get to really big scale in the U.S.. Merchants also found tools to build their own presence. This birthed Shopify, which today is worth $160 billion. Both companies saw their market caps quadruple during the pandemic,” he said. “Now we’re seeing the same dynamics in LatAm…Our bet here is that this company and business has all the same dynamics and the same really powerful tailwinds.”
For Accel partner Andrew Braccia, Nuvemshop has a clear first mover advantage.
“Over the past decade, direct-to-consumer has become one of the most important drivers of entrepreneurship globally,” he said. “Latin America is no exception to this trend, and we believe that Nuvemshop has the level of sophistication and ability to understand all that change and fuel the continued transformation of commerce from offline to online.”
Looking ahead, Sosa expects Nuvemshop will use its new capital to significantly invest in: continuing to open its APIs; payments processing and financial services; “everything related to logistics and logistics management” and attracting smaller merchants. It also plans to expand into other markets such as Colombia, Chile and Peru over the next 18-24 months. Nuvemshop currently operates in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.
“While the countries share the same secular trends and product experience, they have very different market dynamics,” Sosa said. “This requires an on the ground local knowledge to make it all work. Separate markets require distinct knowledge. That makes this a more complicated opportunity, but one that enables a long-term competitive advantage.”