funding

Instagram founders join $30M raise for Loom work video messenger

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Kevin Systrom, loom, Microsoft Teams, mike krieger, Mobile, Recent Funding, Sequoia, slack, Social, Startups, TC, Video, video messaging | No Comments

Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.

That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.

Loom video messaging on mobile

“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.

Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.

A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”

Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.

Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.

But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.

Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.

To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45, though co-founder Shahed Khan is stepping back from company. For new leadership, it’s hired away former head of web growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.

Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all. We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.

Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas

Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”

The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.

One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”

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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Enterprise, Exit, funding, Fundings & Exits, M&A, Mobile, Personnel, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

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SmartNews raises $92M at a $1.2B valuation

Posted by | ACA Investments, Apps, funding, Fundings & Exits, Japan Post Capital Co., Media, Mobile, Recent Funding, smartnews, Startups | No Comments

Looks like there’s still money to be made in news aggregation — at least according to the investors backing the news app SmartNews.

The company is announcing the close of a $92 million round of funding at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The funding was led by Japan Post Capital Co. and ACA Investments, with participation from Globis Capital Partners Co., Dentsu and D.A. Consortium.

This includes the $28 million that SmartNews announced in August, and it brings the startup’s total funding to $182 million.

News aggregation apps seemed to everywhere a few years ago, and while they haven’t exactly disappeared, they didn’t turn into unicorns, with many of them acquired or shut down.

However, Vice President of U.S. Marketing Fabien-Pierre Nicolas told me that SmartNews has a few unique advantages. For one thing, it uses machine learning rather than human curation to “thoughtfully generate a news discovery experience” that’s personalized to each user.

SmartNews team

Secondly, he said that many news aggregators treat the publishers creating the content that they rely on “like a commodity,” whereas SmartNews treats them as “true partners.” For example, it’s working with select publishers like Business Insider, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed and Reuters on a program called SmartView First, where articles are presented in a custom format that gives publishers more revenue opportunities and better analytics.

Lastly, he said SmartNews has focused on only two key markets — Japan (where the company started) and the United States. And it sounds like one of the main goals with the new funding is to continue growing in the United States.

Nicolas also suggested that there are some broader trends that SmartNews is taking advantage of, like the fact that the shift to mobile news consumption is still underway, particularly for older readers.

And then there’s “the loss of trust in some news sources — political news, especially,” which makes SmartNews’ curated approach seem more valuable. (It also recently launched a News From All Sides feature to show coverage from different political perspectives.)

As for monetization, he said SmartNews remains focused on advertising.

Yes, there’s a growing interest in subscriptions and paywalls, which is also reflected in subscription news aggregators like Apple’s News+, but Nicolas said, “Eighty-five to ninety percent of Americans are not subscribing to news media. We believe those 85 to 90 percent have a right to have quality information as well.”

Update: Also worth noting is that SensorTower says SmartNews has been downloaded 45 million times since the beginning of 2014, with 11 million of those downloads in 2019.

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Gradeup raises $7M to expand its online exam preparation platform to smaller Indian cities and towns

Posted by | Apps, Asia, Education, funding, Gradeup, india, Media, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, Times Internet | No Comments

Gradeup, an edtech startup in India that operates an exam preparation platform for undergraduate and postgraduate-level courses, has raised $7 million from Times Internet as it looks to expand its business in the country.

Times Internet, a conglomerate in India, invested $7 million in Series A and $3 million in seed financing rounds of the four-year-old Noida-based startup, it said. Times Internet is the only external investor in Gradeup, they said.

Gradeup started as a community for students to discuss their upcoming exams, and help one another with solving questions, said Shobhit Bhatnagar, co-founder and CEO of Gradeup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

While those functionalities continue to be available on the platform, Gradeup has expanded in the last year to offer online courses from teachers to help students prepare for exams, he said. These courses, depending on their complexity and duration, cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 ($70) and Rs 35,000 ($500).

“These are live lectures that are designed to replicate the offline experience,” he said. The startup offers dozens of courses and runs multiple sessions in English and Hindi languages. As many as 200 students tune into a class simultaneously, he said.

Students can interact with the teacher through a chatroom. Each class also has a “student success rate” team assigned to it that follows up with each student to check if they had any difficulties in learning any concept and take their feedback. These extra efforts have helped Gradeup see more than 50% of its students finish their courses — an industry best, Bhatnagar said.

Each year in India, more than 30 million students appear for competitive exams. A significant number of these students enroll themselves to tuitions and other offline coaching centers.

“India has over 200 million students that spend over $90 billion on different educational services. These have primarily been served offline, where the challenge is maintaining high quality while expanding access,” said Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet.

In recent years, a number of ed tech startups have emerged in the country to cater to larger audiences and make access to courses cheaper. Byju’s, backed by Naspers and valued at more than $5.5 billion, offers a wide range of self-learning courses. Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that raised $42 million in late August, offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses.

Co-founders of Noida-based ed tech startup Gradeup

But still, only a fraction of students take online courses today. One of the roadblocks in their growth has been access to mobile data, which until recent years was fairly expensive in the country. But arrival of Reliance Jio has solved that issue, said Bhatnagar. The other is acceptance from students and, more importantly, their parents. Watching a course online on a smartphone or desktop is still a new concept for many parents in the country, he said. But this, too, is beginning to change.

“The first wave of online solutions were built around on-demand video content, either free or paid. Today, the next wave is online live courses like Gradeup, with teacher-student interactivity, personalisation and adaptive learning strategies, delivering high-quality solutions that scale, which is particularly valuable in semi-urban and rural markets,” said Times Internet’s Gajwani.

“These match or better the experience quality of offline education, while being more cost-effective. This trend will keep growing in India, where online live education will grow very quickly for test prep, reskilling and professional learning,” he added.

Gradeup has amassed more than 15 million registered students who have enrolled to live lectures. The startup plans to use the fresh capital to expand its academic team to 100 faculty members (from 50 currently) and 200 subject matters and reach more users in smaller cities and towns in India.

“Students even in smaller cities and towns are paying a hefty amount of fee and are unable to get access to high-quality teachers,” Bhatnagar said. “This is exactly the void we can fill.”

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In the Accelerator over the Sea

Posted by | artificial intelligence, biotech, conservation, funding, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, ocean solutions accelerator, robotics, science, Startups, sustainable ocean alliance, TC | No Comments

In our oceans the scale of disasters is measured in millions, billions, and trillions, while solutions amount to single digits: individuals or institutions working to impact a chosen issue with approaches often both brilliant and quixotic. Putting such individuals in close contact with both whales and billionaires is the strange alchemy being attempted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea.

I and a few other reporters were invited to observe said program, a five-day excursion in Alaska that put recent college graduates, aspiring entrepreneurs, legends of the sea, and soft-spoken financial titans on the same footing: spotting whales from Zodiacs in the morning, learning from one another in the afternoon, and drinking whiskey good and bad under the Northern lights in the pre-dawn dark.

The boat — no, not that big one, or that other big one… yes, that one.

In that time I got to know the dozen or so companies in the accelerator, the second batch from the SOA but the first to experience this oddly effective enterprise. And I also gathered from conversations among the group the many challenges facing conservation-focused startups.

(By way of disclosure, I should say that I was among four press offered a spot on the chartered boat; Those invited, from penniless students to deep-pocketed investors, could join provided they got themselves to Juneau for embarkation.)

The picture painted by just about everyone was one of impending doom from a multiplicity of interlinked trends, and as many different approaches to averting or mitigating that doom as people discussing it.

What’s the problem?

In Silicon Valley one grows so used to seeing enormous sums of money expended on things barely categorizable as irritations, let alone serious problems, that it is a bit bewildering to be presented with the opposite: existential problems being addressed on shoestring budgets by founders actually passionate about their domain.

Throughout the trip, the discussions had at almost every occasion, be it looking for bear prints in a tidal flat or visiting a local salmon hatchery, were about the imminent collapse of natural ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences thereof.

Overfishing, rising water temperatures, deforestation, pollution, strip mining, microplastics — everywhere we looked is a man-made threat that has been allowed to go too far. Not a single industry or species is unaffected.

It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and go home, which is in fact what some have advised. But the people on this boat are not them. They were selected for their dedication to conservation and ingenuity in pursuing solutions.

Of course, there’s no “solution” to the million of tons of plastic and oil in the oceans poisoning fish and creating enormous dead zones. There’s no “solution” to climate change. No one expects or promises a miracle cure for nature’s centuries of abuse at human hands.

But there are mitigations, choices we can make and technologies we can opt for where a small change can propagate meaningfully and, if not undo the damage we’ve done, reduce it going forward and make people aware of the difference they can make.

Small fish in a big, scary pond

The trip came right at the beginning of the accelerator, a choice that meant they were only getting started in the program and in fact had never met one another. It also meant in many cases their pitches and business models were less than polished. This is for the most part an early-stage program, and early in the program at that.

That said, the companies may be young but the ideas and technologies are sound. I expect to follow up with many as they perfect their hardware, raise money, and complete pilot projects, but I think it’s important to highlight each one of them, if only briefly. The accelerator’s demo day is actually today, and I wish I could attend to see how the companies and founders have evolved.

Some accelerators are so big and so general-purpose that it was refreshing to have a manageable number of companies all clustered around interlinked issues and united by a common concern. If young entrepreneurs trying to change the world isn’t TechCrunch business, I don’t know what is.

The problems may be multifarious, but I managed to group the startups under two general umbrellas: waste reduction and aquatic intelligence.

But before that I want to mention one that doesn’t fit into either category and for other reasons deserves a shout out.

coral vita

Coral Vita grows corals at many times their normal rate and implants them in dying reefs.

Coral Vita is working on a special method of fast-tracking coral growth and simultaneously selecting for organisms resistant to bleaching and other threats. The founder, Gator Halpern, impressed the importance of the coral systems on us over the trip, as did filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, who directed the harrowing documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. (He gave a workshop on storytelling — important when you’re pitching a film or a startup.)

Gator is using a special method to grow corals at 50 times normal rates and hopefully resuscitate reefs around the world, which is awesome, but I wanted to put Coral Vita first because of a horribly apropos coincidence: Hurricane Dorian, the latest in a historically long unbroken line of storms, struck his home and lab in the Bahamas while we were at sea.

It was literally battering the islands while he was supposed to pitch investors, and he used his time instead to ask us to help the victims of the storm. That’s heart. And it serves as a reminder that these are not armchair solutions to invented problems.

If you can spare a buck, you can support Coral Vita and victims of Dorian in the Bahamas here.

Waste reduction

The other companies were addressing problems equally as destructive, if not quite so immediately so.

Humans produce a lot of waste, and a lot of that waste ends up in the ocean, either as whole plastic bags scooping up fish, microplastics poisoning them, or heavier trash cluttering the sea floor. These startups focused on reducing humanity’s deleterious effects on ocean ecosystems.

Cruz Foam is looking to replace one of my least favorite substances, Styrofoam, which I see broken up and mixed in with beach soil and sand all the time. The company has created a process that uses an incredibly abundant and strong material called chitin to create a lightweight, biodegradable packing foam. Chitin is what a lot of invertebrates use to form their shells and exoskeletons, and there’s tons of it out there — but the company has been careful to find ethical sourcing for the volume it need.

Cruz Foam’s chitin-based product, left, and Biocellection’s plastic reduction process.

Biocellection is coming from the other direction, having created a process to break down polyethylenes (i.e. plastics) into smaller molecules that are useful in existing chemical processes. It’s actually upcycling waste plastic rather than repurposing it as a lower grade product.

Loliware was in SOA’s first batch, and creates single-use straws out of kelp material — a timely endeavor, as evidenced by the $6M round A they just pulled in, and backlog of millions of units ordered. Their challenge now is not finding a market but supplying it.

Dispatch Goods and Muuse are taking complementary approaches to reducing single-use items for take-out. Dispatch follows a model in use elsewhere in the world where durable containers are used rather than disposable ones for delivery items, then picked up, washed, and reused. Kind of obvious when you think about it, which is it’s common in other places.

Muuse (formerly Revolv) takes a more tech-centric approach, partnering with coffee shops to issue reusable cups rather than disposable ones. You can keep the cup if you want, or drop it off at a smart collection point and get a refund; RFID tags keep track of the items. Founder Forrest Carroll talked about early successes with this model on semi-closed environments like airports and college campuses.

repurpose screen

Repurpose is aiming to create a way to go “plastic neutral” the way people try to go “carbon neutral.” Companies and individuals can sponsor individual landfills where their plastics go, subsidizing the direct removal and handling costs of a given quantity of trash.

Finless Foods hopes to indirectly reduce the huge amount of cost and waste created by fishing (“sustainable” really isn’t) by creating lab-grown tuna tissue that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s a work in progress, but they’ve got a ton of money so you can probably count on it.

Intelligence and automation

The technology used in the maritime and fishing industries tends toward the “sturdy legacy” type rather than “cutting edge.” That’s changing as costs drop and the benefits of things like autonomous vehicles and IoT become evident.

Ellipsis represents perhaps the most advanced, yet direct, application of the latest tech. The company uses camera-equipped drones using computer vision to inspect rivers and bodies of water for plastics, helping cleanup and response crews characterize and prioritize them. This kind of low-level data is largely missing from cleanup efforts, which gave rise to the name, which refers to both the peripatetic founder Ellie and the symbol indicating missing or omitted information

ellipsis gif

Ellipsis uses computer vision to find plastic waste in water systems.

For larger-scale inspection, autonomous boats like Saildrone are an increasingly valuable tool — but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their own limitations.

EcoDrone is a lower-cost, smaller, customizable autonomous sailboat that costs more like $2,500. Plenty of missions would prefer to deploy a fleet of smaller, cheaper boats than put all their hopes into one vessel.

seaproven

Sea Proven is going the other direction, with a much larger autonomous ship: 20 meters long with a full ton of payload space. That opens up entirely new mission profiles that use sophisticated, large-scale equipment and require long-term presence at sea. The company has two ships now embarking on a mission to track whales in the Mediterranean.

Nets and traps are notoriously dumb, producing a huge amount of “bycatch,” animals caught up in them that aren’t what the fishing vessel was aiming (or licensed) to collect. Smart Catch equips these huge nets with a camera that tracks and characterizes the fish that enter, allowing the owner to watch and monitor them remotely and respond if necessary.

smartcatch

Meanwhile “dumb” traps can still be smarter in other ways. Stationary traps in stormy seas are often lost, dragged along the sea bed to an unknown location, there to sit attracting hapless crab and fish until they fall apart centuries from now. Blue Ocean Gear makes GPS-equipped buoys that can be tracked easily, reducing the risk of losing expensive fishing kit and line, and preventing “ghost fishing.”

Connectivity at sea can be problematic, with satellite often the only real option. Sure, Starlink and others are on their way, but why wait? A system of interconnected floating hubs from ONet could serve as hotspots for ships carrying valuable and voluminous data that would otherwise need to be processed at sea or uploaded at great cost.

screen dashboard cable 1

And integrating all that data with other datasets like those provided by universities, ports, municipalities, NGOs… good luck getting it all in one place. But that’s the goal of SINAY, which is assembling a huge ocean-centric meta-database where users can cross-reference without having to sort or process it locally. Clouds come from oceans, right? So why shouldn’t the ocean be in the cloud?

Accelerator at Sea

The idea of commencing this accelerator program with a trip to southeast Alaska is a fanciful one, no doubt. But an influx of support for the accelerator’s parent organization, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, made it possible. The SOA raised millions from the mysterious Pine and not-so-mysterious Benioffs, but it also made a deep impression on the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, Sven Lindblad, who offered not just to host the event but to attend and speak at it.

He joined several other experts and interesting people in doing so: Former head of Google X Tom Chi, Value Act’s Jeff Ubben, Gigi Brisson and her Ocean Elders, including Captain (ret.) Don Walsh, the first man to reach the bottom of the Challenger Depths in the Marianas Trench. He’s hilarious, by the way.

I met SOA founder Daniela Fernandez at a TechCrunch event a few years ago when all this was just one of many twinkles in her twinkly eyes, and it’s been rewarding to watch her grow a community around these issues, which have passionate supporters around the globe if you’re willing to look for them and validate their purpose. It’s not a surprise to me at all that she has collected such an impressive group.

The boat, departing from Juneau, made a number of stops at local places of interest, where we would meet locals in the fishing industry, whale researchers, and others, or hear about the local economy ecology from one of the boat’s designated naturalists. In between these expeditions we did team-building exercises, honed pitches, and heard talks from the people mentioned above on hiring practices, investment trends, history.

These people weren’t just plucked from from the void — they are all part of the extended community that the SOA and Fernandez have built over the last few years. The organization was built with the idea of putting young, motivated people together with older, more experienced ones, and that’s just what was happening.

gator jeff workshop

In a way it was what you might expect out of an accelerator program: Connecting startups with industry veterans and investors (of which there were several present) and getting them the advice and exposure they need. There was a pitch competition — the “Otter Sanctuary” (you had to be there).

But there was something very different about doing it this way — on a boat, I mean. In Alaska. With bears, whales, and the northern lights present at every turn.

“For the first time ever, we brought together a community of ocean entrepreneurs from all around the world and allowed them to become fully immersed in the environment that they have been working so hard to protect,” said Craig Dudenhoffer, who runs the accelerator program. “It was amazing to see the entrepreneurs establishing lifelong relationships with each other and with members of the SOA community. It might seem counter-intuitive for a technology entrepreneur, but sometimes you have to disconnect from technology in order to reconnect with your mission.”

In a normal startup accelerator, and in fact for the remainder of this one, aspiring entrepreneurs are living on their own somewhere, coming into a shared office space, attending office hours, meeting VCs in their offices or at demo days. That’s just fine, and indeed what many a startup needs — a peer group, a focal point in space and time, goals and advice.

On the boat, however, these things were present, but secondary to the experience of, say, standing next to someone under the aurora. I’m aware of how that sounds — “it was an experience, man!” — but there’s something fundamentally different about it.

In an office in the Bay Area, there is an established power structure and hierarchy. Schedules are adjusted around meetings, priorities are split, time and attention are devoted in formal 15-minute increments. On the boat there was no hierarchy, or rather the artificial one to which we would cleave in the city was flattened by the scale of what we were learning and experiencing.

You’d be in a zodiac or pressed against the railing with your binoculars, talking about whales and the threat of microplastics with whoever’s next to you in a normal fashion, only to find out they’re a billionaire who you’d never be able to meet directly with at all, let alone on equal terms.

Sitting at breakfast one day the guy next to me started talking about hydrogen-powered trucking — I figured I’d indulge this harmless idealist. In fact it was Jeff Ubben and Value Act was investing millions in an ecosystem they fully expect to take over the west coast. This sort of encounter was happening constantly as people engaged naturally, acting outside the established hierarchies and power structures.

Part of that was the gravity of the issues the startups were facing, and which we were reminded of repeatedly by the impending hurricane, the hatchery warning of salmon apocalypse, the visibly collapsing ecosystems, and perhaps most poignantly by the changes seen personally by Don and Sven, who were been on the seas professionally long before I was even born.

“It’s like salmon eggs”

On the last night of the trip, I shared a glass of wine with Sven to talk about why he was supporting this endeavor, which was undoubtedly expensive and certainly unusual.

“From a business perspective, I depend on the ocean — but there’s a personal connection as well. I’m constantly looking for ways to protect what we depend on,” he began. “We have a fund that generates a couple million dollars a year, and we find different people that we believe in — that have an idea, a passion, intelligence. You meet someone like Daniela, you want to go to bat for them.”

Kristin Hettermann ALASKA SOA 39

“When you’re 21 or whatever, you have all these idealistic thoughts about making a difference in the world. They need support in a variety of ways — advice, finance, mentorship, all these things are part of the puzzle,” he said. “What SOA has done is recognize people that have a good idea. Left to their own devices most of them would probably fail. But we can provide some support, and it’s like with salmon eggs – maybe instead of one in a million surviving, maybe two, or five survive, you know?”

“Tech is a valuable tool, but it has to serve to support an idea. It isn’t the idea. Eliminating plastics and bycatch, making data more useful, putting sonar sensors on robotic boats, all very interesting. We need solutions, actions, ideas, as fast as we can, to accelerate the change in behavior as fast as we can.”

His earnest replies soon became emotional, however, as his core concern for the ocean and planet in general took over.

“We’re fucked,” he said simply. “We are literally destroying the next generation’s future. I’ve been with colleagues and we’ve wept over glasses of wine over what we’re doing.”

“I have two personalities,” he explained. “And most of my friends, associates, scientists have these dual personalities, too. One is when they look in the mirror and talk to themselves — that tends to be more pessimistic. But the other is the external personality, where being pessimistic is not helpful.”

“Something like this really activates that optimism,” he said. “At the end of the day young people have to grab their future, because we sure haven’t done a great job of it. They have to get out there, they have to vote, they have to take control. Because if the system really starts to collapse… I don’t think anyone even begins to understand the magnitude of it. It’s unfathomable.”

The Accelerator at Sea program was a fascinating experience and I’m glad to have taken part. I feel sure it was valuable for the startups as well, and not just because of the $25,000 they were each spontaneously awarded from the investors on board, who in closing remarks emphasized how important it is that startups like these and the people behind them are supported by gatekeepers like venture firms and press.

The combination of good times in nature, stimulating experts and talks, and a group of highly motivated young entrepreneurs was a powerful mixture, and unfortunately one that is difficult to describe even in 3,000 words. But I’m glad it exists and I look forward to following the progress of these companies and the people behind them. You can keep up with the SOA at its website.

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With $15M round and 100K tablets sold, reMarkable CEO wants to make tech ‘more human’

Posted by | funding, Gadgets, hardware, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

The reMarkable tablet is a strange device in this era of ultra-smart gadgets: A black and white screen meant for reading, writing, and sketching — and nothing more. Yet the company has sold 100,000 of the devices and now has attracted $15 million in series A funding from Spark Capital.

It’s an unusual trajectory for a hardware startup exploring a nearly unoccupied market, but CEO Magnus Wanberg is confident that’s because this category of device is destined to grow in response to increasingly invasive tech. Sometimes an anti-technology trend is the tech opportunity of a lifetime.

I reviewed the reMarkable last year and compared it with its only real competition, the Sony Digital Paper Tablet. It was launched not on Kickstarter or Indiegogo but with its own independent crowdfunding campaign — and considering we’ve seen devices like this attempt such a thing and either let down or rip off their backers, that alone was a significant risk.

The device has been a runaway success, though, selling over 100,000 units — and attracting investment in the process. When I talked with Wanberg and co-founder Gerst about their new A round, the conversation was so interesting that I decided to publish it in full (or at least slightly edited).

How did they get here? What would they have done differently? Is the threat of the “smart” world really a thing? Why fight tech with more tech?

Devin: So you guys raised some money, that’s great! But it’s been a while since we talked. I think it’s important to hear about the progress of unique companies that are doing interesting things. So first can you tell me a little about what the company’s been busy with?

Magnus: Well, we’ve created this wonderful product, the reMarkable paper tablet. We’ve been very focused on that effort, based on a love for paper and a love for technology, to see if we can find some ways to join these two together to help people think better. That’s sort of the the whole ethos of the company.

So for the last six years, we’ve just been grinding away… you know, we’re a small player up against the big guys on this. So we’ve been sort of fighting guerrilla warfare trying to trying to establish ourselves.

And we were successful, fortunately, when we did our pre-order campaign, because as we found out, we weren’t the only ones who who love this notion of thinking better with the paper tablet, seeing paper as a powerful tool for thinking and for creating.

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Unagi is the iPhone of scooters you actually buy

Posted by | Billie Eilish, Boosted Boards, David Hyman, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, menlo ventures, micromobility, Ninebot, Recent Funding, Scooters, Startups, TC, Transportation, unagi | No Comments

Can you never find a scooter to rent when you need one? Here’s a radical idea. Buy one. While Bird, Lime, Skip, Scoot, Uber, Lyft and more compete for on-demand micromobility, a new startup invented a vehicle worthy of ownership. The Unagi looks downright futuristic with its classy paint jobs, foldable body, LED screen and built-in lights. The ride feels sturdy, strong and responsive while being light enough at 24 lbs to lug up subway stairs or the flights to your home.

That’s why Unagi has become a hit with musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Halsey, Steve Aoki and teen pop megastar Billie Eilish, who use the scooter to rip around the empty venues as they soundcheck before concerts. Paparazzi shots of those moments have spurred demand for the $990 dual-motor and $840 single-motor Unagis, with co-founder David Hyman telling me the startup can’t make them fast enough, but it’s ramping up production.

Unagi Scooter

To fuel the fervor for the scooter before it’s inevitably copied by cheap knock-offs, Unagi has raised a $3.15 million seed round led by Menlo Ventures . Building on its $750,000 in Kickstarter, angel and founder-contributed funding, the cash will go to building out a distribution network and developing its next-gen scooter with a smoother ride but no more pounds.

“We felt Unagi’s focus on light weight and substantial powering in a beautifully designed package was the right approach for ownership,” Menlo partner Shawn Carolan tells me. “This is what premium brands do — continue to reinvent the way we think about the world. This category of vehicle — personal, portable and electric — has enormous potential and we are still in the first inning of the game.”

The magic of the Unagi Model One is how it balances speed, battery, weight, price and style so it works for most anything and everyone. That combination won it CNET‘s best all-around scooter award versus the hardcore but extremely heavy Boosted Rev, cheap but weak Swagtron, long-lasting but boring Ninebot and speedy but scary Mercane.

The Unagi’s biggest flaw is the smoothness of the ride due to its harder airless wheels and narrow handlebars that can make gravelly roads precarious. The high-pitched beeeeeep of its horn is also so annoying that people are more likely to cover their ears than get out of your way, but Hyman promises his 12-person team will fix that.

Unagi Handlebars

Where Unagi truly excels is in its looks. The lithe curves of its polished carbon fiber frame are accented with candy paint jobs in matte black, white, grey and blue. It ditches the bike handlebar vibe for something closer to Space Shuttle controls. And while many people scoff at scooter riders, I saw those smirks turn into curious awe as I flew by.

Unagi Scooter Weight 1Hyman got the idea for a premium scooter you own after a rental turned into a melty mess. He’d taken an on-demand scooter to the grocer on a hot day, picked up some ice cream, and emerged to find his ride snatched by another user. He hustled to another nearby but someone else got there first. He walked home dripping sugar everywhere wondering, “Why am I messing around with rentals, I just want to own one?”

He bought a generic scooter off Alibaba, and despite being janky straight out of the box, “it made me feel like I was a super hero with this magic carpet.” But he wanted something better.

Previously the CEO of audio fingerprinting giant Gracenote, and then Beats Music before it sold to Apple, Hyman is known for his obsession with hi-fi speaker systems. So after touring Chinese scooter factories and still being unsatisfied, he partnered with a group of inventors called QMY who’d prototyped a slick vehicle they called the Swan. Hyman funded it to production, brought the team in house, and now they’re selling Unagis as fast as they can.

Now the startup wants to double-down on selling to more petite riders who could never carry the 46-lb Boosted Rev out of a train station. But the clock is ticking before copycats with similar silhouettes but inferior insides spring up. Meanwhile, Unagi must keep safety top-of-mind to avoid any disastrous crashes hurting customers and its brand. There are plenty of better-funded mobility giants that could barge into the space if Unagi can’t build a lead. It also has to prove why the reliability of ownership is worth the price of renting a scooter hundreds of times.

Unagi Scooter Blue 5

Scooters are part of a powerful wave of new technologies that actually sell us back our time. When a 20-minute walk becomes a four-minute scoot, you gain something priceless. Urban landscapes unfold beneath their wheels as you explore new neighborhoods or parts of parks. I was once a diehard electric skateboarder until a crash on a Boosted Board shattered my ankle. Unagi is the first scooter that delivers that same gliding feeling of weightlessness and freedom but in a form-factor safe enough for most people to experience.

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Knowable launches its ‘not a podcast’ $100 audio classes

Posted by | Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, Connie Chan, eCommerce, Education, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, Recent Funding, Snackable Media, Startups, TC | No Comments

Books on tape were the lifeblood of self-help. But e-learning startups like Khan Academy and Coursera demanded our eyes, not just our ears. Then came podcasts that make knowledge accessible, yet rarely focus on you retaining and applying what they teach.

Today, a new startup called Knowable is launching to provide gaze-free audio education at $100 per eight-hour course on topics like how to launch a startup or how to sleep better. The idea is that by layering chapter summaries and eventually interactive activities atop premium, long-form, ad-free lessons, it can become the trusted name in learning anywhere. With always-in Bluetooth earbuds and smart speakers becoming ubiquitous, we can imbibe content in smaller chunks in new environments. Knowable wants to fill that time with self-improvement.

The big question is whether Knowable can differentiate its content from free alternatives and build a moat against copycats through savvy voice-responsive learning exercises so you don’t forget everything.

To evolve beyond the podcast, Knowable has raised a $3.75 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s partner Connie Chan, and joined by Upfront, First Round and Initialized. “The market is ready for a company like Knowable. Their timing is right and their team possesses the rare combination of product expertise and creative media experience necessary to win. That’s why I’m not just hosting Knowable’s first course, Launch a Startup, we’re also one of the earliest investors in the company,” says Initialized’s Alexis Ohanian.

Knowable Courses

There’s certainly a market opportunity, as 32% of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, up from 26% in 2018, with 74% of those citing the desire to learn. Half of Americans have listened to an audio book. The e-learning market is $190 billion today, but projected to grow to $300 billion as bloated and expensive higher education succumbs to cheaper and more focused options.

But to score consistent revenue, Knowable must build up its library and execute on plans to offer a subscription service with access to updates on prior lessons. A major challenge will be bundling classes on the right topics that don’t exhaust users so they keep listening and paying.

Building a school from sound

“My first-generation immigrant parents came here without college degrees. Great teachers let me move up the socioeconomic ladder pretty quickly,” says Knowable co-founder Warren Shaeffer. “The genesis of the idea came from our shared interest in education and the value of great teachers.”

Knowable ChaptersShaeffer and his co-founder Alex Benzer have already been through the struggles of startup life together. After meeting at MuckerLab in LA and splitting from their respective co-founders, in 2007 they created SocialEngine, a community website builder that sold to Room 214. Next they built up a video platform for independent creators called Vidme that raised $9 million but never became sustainable before selling to Giphy in 2018.

The pair had glimpsed how great content could rope in an audience, but felt like the true potential of the podcast hadn’t been explored. Why did they have to be produced on the cheap, distributed on generic platforms and supported by ads? Knowable emerged as a way to create luxury audio, delivered through a purpose-built app and paid for with direct sales or subscriptions. Instead of recording unscripted discussions as episodes, they mapped out course curriculum and filled them with structured advice from experts.

I’m a few hours into the Ohanian-hosted Launch a Startup. It’s certainly a lot more efficient than trying to learn the basics just through storytelling from podcasts like Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale or NPR’s How I Built This. One chapter breaks down the top ways startups die and the traits you’ll need to persevere. From optimism and resilience operating in unstructured environments to a refusal to make excuses why you can’t succeed, Ohanian cooly recaps the learnings at the end of the chapter. Open the app and you’ll get a written summary plus suggested blog posts and books for diving deeper. An accompanying 95-page PDF workbook collects all the key learnings for rapid review later.

The topic is huge, though, and Knowable is at its best when it’s distilling knowledge into neatly packaged lists and frameworks. The course’s weakest moments are when it feels most like a podcast, with somewhat meandering conversations with random founders discussing how they dealt with problems. Meanwhile, it currently lacks some basic tools like in-app notetaking and sharing, or as wide a range of playback speeds and rewind options as you’ll get on Audible. “We don’t think of ourselves as a podcast company,” Shaeffer says, but that’s still who he’s competing against.

pic.twitter.com/ZAC4oI5N1p

— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) May 28, 2019

What’s also missing is any true interactivity. The downside of audio learning is that if you’re not paying full attention, it’s easy to zone out. Knowable needs to develop voice and touch-controlled exercises to help users apply and retain the lessons. There are plans to launch learning communities where students can confer about the classes, akin to Y Combinator’s “Bookface” forum.

However, Shaeffer says that “we’re on a mission to make education more accessible and quizzes might be an impediment to that,” which leaves questions about what the learning activities will look like, even though they’re crucial to users coughing up $100 per class. It’s easy to imagine Spotify/Anchor, Gimlet Media or other major podcast players developing their own interactive features and classes if Knowable doesn’t get there first.

Snackable audio education

The startup’s bid for virality is the ability to give a friend a code to take the class with you. Knowable is also hoping big-name experts and quality driven by a team cobbled together from NPR, The Washington Post, William Morris Endeavor, Masterclass and Vice will set it apart. They’ve got a lot of work ahead to grow beyond the six courses currently available on topics like climate change activism and real estate, especially because there’s a 100% money-back guarantee if classes fall short.

For the moment, Knowable feels a bit late with its homework. It has the potential and demand to reinvent audio learning but currently sounds too similar to what’s already everywhere. I was hoping for a Bandersnatch for education that made a broadcast experience feel more like a game.

But the opportunity will only continue to grow as we spend more of our lives in earshot of AirPods and Echoes. With a broad enough library and clever editing, one day you might tell Knowable “teach me something about venture capital in eight minutes” as you walk to the coffee shop. That’s going to have a much better impact on your life than just scrolling through another feed.

 

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Meme editor Kapwing grows 10X, raises $11M

Posted by | Adobe, Apps, creativity, CRV, Enterprise, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, harry stebbings, Jane VC, Kapwing, Memes, Mobile, Recent Funding, shasta ventures, Sinai Ventures, Social, Startups, TC, vector capital, Video Editing, video editor, Village Global | No Comments

Kapwing is a laymen’s Adobe Creative Suite built for what people actually do on the internet: make memes and remix media. Need to resize a video? Add text or subtitles to a video? Trim or crop or loop or frame or rotate or soundtrack or… then you need Kapwing. The free web and mobile tool is built for everyone, not just designers. No software download or tutorials to slog through. Just efficient creativity.

Kapwing Video Editor

In a year since coming out of stealth with 100,000 users, Kapwing has grown 10X, to more than 1 million. Now it going pro, building out its $20/month collaboration tools for social media managers and scrappy teams. But it won’t forget its roots with teens, so it has dropped its pay-$6-to-remove-watermarks tier while keeping its core features free.

Eager to capitalize on the meme and mobile content business, CRV has just led an $11 million Series A round for Kapwing. It’s joined by follow-on cash from Village Global, Sinai and Shasta Ventures, plus new investors Jane VC, Harry Stebbings, Vector and the Xoogler Syndicate. CRV partners “the venture twins” Justine and Olivia Moore actually met Kapwing co-founder and CEO Julia Enthoven while they all worked at The Stanford Daily newspaper in 2012.

Need to edit a meme or video? Kapwing has all the resizing, GIF, & subtitle tools you need https://t.co/FXDjShlUTq pic.twitter.com/1fEHxGoboz

— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) September 24, 2019

“As a team, we love memes. We talk about internet fads almost every day at lunch and pay close attention to digital media trends,” says Enthoven, who started the company with fellow Googler Eric Lu. “One of our cultural tenets is to respect the importance of design, art and culture in the world, and another one is to not take ourselves too seriously.” But it is taking on serious clients.

As Kapwing’s toolset has grown, it has seen paying customers coming from Amazon, Sony, Netflix and Spotify. Now only 13% of what’s made with it are traditional text-plus-media memes. “Kapwing will always be designed for creators first: the students, artists, influencers, entrepreneurs, etc. who define and spread culture,” says Enthoven. “But we make money from the creative professionals, marketers, media teams and office workers who need to create content for work.”

Kapwing Tools

That’s why in addition to plenty of templates for employing the latest trending memes, Kapwing now helps Pro subscribers with permanent hosting, saving throughout the creation process and re-editing after export. Eventually it plans to sell enterprise licenses to let whole companies use Kapwing.

Kapwing Tools 1

Copycats are trying to chip away at its business, but Kapwing will use its new funding to keep up a breakneck pace of development. Pronounced “Ka-Pwing,” like a bullet ricochet, it’s trying to stay ahead of Imgflip, ILoveIMG, Imgur’s on-site tool and more robust apps like Canva.

If you’ve ever been stuck with a landscape video that won’t fit in an Instagram Story, a bunch of clips you want to stitch together or the need to subtitle something for accessibility, you’ll know the frustration of lacking a purpose-built tool. And if you’re on mobile, there are even fewer options. Unlike some software suites you have to install on a desktop, Kapwing works right from a browser.

Trending Memes Kapwing

” ‘Memes’ is such a broad category of media nowadays. It could refer to a compilation like the political singalong videos, animations like Shooting Star memes or a change in music like the AOC Dancing memes,” Enthoven explains. “Although they used to be edgy, memes have become more mainstream . . . Memes popularized new types of multimedia formats and made raw, authentic footage more acceptable on social media.”

As communication continues to shift from text to visual media, design can’t only be the domain of designers. Kapwing empowers anyone to storytell and entertain, whether out of whimsy or professional necessity. If big-name creative software from Adobe or Apple don’t simplify and offer easy paths through common use cases, they’ll see themselves usurped by the tools of the people.

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Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

Posted by | Afore Capital, anamitra banerji, Android, charles hudson, foundation capital, funding, hustle fund, money, Petal, pre-seed, precursor ventures, Seed money, Startups, Twitter, Unshackled Ventures, Venture Capital | No Comments

As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate. While some funds are happy to invest that early, Afore seeks slightly more mature companies.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

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