funding

Fintech startups raised $34B in 2019

Posted by | Asia, bright health, cb insights, Finance, funding, lemonade, MassChallenge, Mobile, money, Online lending, payments, Paytm, Startups | No Comments

Financial services startups raised less money in 2019 than they did in 2018 as VC firms looked to back late stage firms and focused on developing markets, a new report has revealed.

According to research firm CB Insights’ annual report published this week, fintech startups across the world raised $33.9 billion* in total last year across 1,912 deals*, down from $40.8 billion they picked up by participating in 2,049 deals the year before.

It’s a comprehensive report, which we recommend you read in full here (your email is required to access it), but below are some of the key takeaways.

  • Early stage startups struggled to attract money: Per the report, financing for startups looking to close Seed or Series A dropped to a five-year low in 2019. On the flip side, money pouring into Series B or beyond startups was at record five-year high.

    Early-stage deals dropped to a 12-quarter low as deal share globally shifts to mid- and late-stages (CB Insights)

  • Emerging and frontier markets were at the centre stage of the most of the action: South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia all topped their annual highs last year.
  • Asia outpaced Europe in the second half of last year on both number of deals and bulk of capital raised. In Q3, European startups raised $1.6 billion through 95 deals, compared to $1.8 billion amassed by Asian startups across 157 deals. In Q4, a similar story was at play: European startups participated in 100 rounds to raise $1.2 billion, compared to $2.14 billion* raised by Asian startups across 125 deals*.
  • Emergence of 24 new fintech unicorns in 2019: 8 fintech startups including Next Insurance, Bight Health, Flywire, High Radius, Ripple, and Figure attained the unicorn status in Q4 2019, and 16 others made it to the list throughout the rest of the last year.

    The fintech market globally today has 67 unicorns as of earlier this month (CB Insights)

  • Insurtech sector, or startups such as Lemonade, Hippo, Next, Wefox, Bright Health that are offering insurance services, got a major boost last year. They raised 6.2 billion last year, up from $3.2 billion in 2018.
  • Startups building solutions such as invoicing and taxing services and payroll and payments solutions for small and medium businesses also received the nod of VCs. In the U.S. alone, where more than 140 startups are operating in the space, raised $4 billion. In many more markets, such startups are beginning to emerge. In India, for instance Open and NiYo are building neo-banks for small businesses and they both raised money last year.
  • Nearly 50% of all funding to fintech startups was concentrated in 83-mega rounds (those of size $100 million or above.): According to the research firm, 2019 was a record year for such rounds across the globe, except in Europe.

    2019 saw 83 mega-rounds totaling $17.2B, a record year in every market except Europe

  • Funding of Germany-based startups reached an annual high: 65 deals in 2019 resulted in $1.79 billion raise, compared to 56 deals and raise of $757 million in 2018, and 66 deals and $622 million raise in 2017.
  • Financial startups in Southeast Asia (SEA) raised $993 million across 124 rounds in 2019 in what was their best year.

*CB Insights report includes a $666 million financing round of Paytm . It was incorrectly reported by some news outlets and the $666 million raise was part of the $1 billion round the Indian startup had revealed weeks prior. We have adjusted the data accordingly.

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Secret’s founder returns with anti-loneliness app Ikaria

Posted by | Apps, Chrys Bader-Wechseler, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, mental well-being, Mobile, Recent Funding, secret, Social, Startups, TC, Time Well Spent | No Comments

“I don’t feel good about that. That sucks,” Chrys Bader-Wechseler reflects when asked about the bullying that went down on the anonymous app Secret he co-founded in 2013. After $35 million raised, 15 million users and a spectacular flame out two years later, the startup was dead. “Since I left Secret I feel alive and aligned with my values and my purpose again.” 

But there was one bright side to Secret letting you post without a name or consequences. People opened up, got vulnerable and felt less alone when comments revealed they weren’t the only person dealing with a certain struggle. What Bader learned from watching Secret’s users “do this in the dark” was the realization that “actually, we need to learn to do this in the light, to have that same kind of dialogue, but do it openly with each other.”

So began the journey to Bader’s new startup Ikaria that’s exclusively revealing itself to the world today on TechCrunch. It’s a different kind of chat app, named after the Greek island where a close-knit community helps extend people’s lifespans. The six-person Santa Monica team is funded by a $1.5 million seed round led by Initialized Capital and Fuel Capital. People can sign up for early beta access here.

During a long interview about the startup, Bader and his co-founder Sean Dadashi were cagey about exactly how Ikaria works, as it’s still in development. Amidst all the philosophical context about the app’s intention, I was able to pull out a few details about what the product will actually look like.

“Basically, since 2004, technology has created this monumental shift in the human social experience. We’re more connected than ever technically but all the studies show we’re lonelier than ever,” Bader explains. “It’s like eating McDonald’s to get healthy. It’s not the right source of nutrition for our social well-being because true connection requires a level of vulnerability, presence, self-disclosure and reciprocity that you don’t really get on these platforms.”

Ikaria isn’t another feed. It’s a safe space where you can chat with close friends and family, or people going through similar life challenges. Members of these group chats will optionally go through guided experiences that help them reflect on and discuss what’s going on in their hearts and minds. This could become a whole new media format where outside creators or mental health professionals could produce and contribute their own guided experiences.

“Part of the reason we’re announcing this is that . . . it’s a call to action to involve all these practitioners and people who are doing these types of things and giving them a platform to allow them to facilitate these kind of group bonding experiences through a platform where they can extend their practices into the digital world,” Bader tells me. What Calm and Headspace did for making meditation more mainstream and accessible, Ikaria wants to do for mental health through online togetherness.

Ikaria already has a sizable closed beta going, which the startup plans to continue until it finds product fit, and it hopes to know its official release timeline by the end of the year. “We’re not going to launch this until we know 40% of people would be disappointed if they couldn’t use it.”

Rather than monetizing by exploiting people’s attention, Ikaria plans to develop a “customer relationship” with users, which could mean subscription access or in-app payments for buying content. Perhaps one user could act as the sponsor and purchase an experience for their whole group chat. Until then, it’s got its seed funding from Initialized, Fuel Capital, F7 Ventures, Ryan Hoover’s Weekend Fund, Backend Capital, Day One Ventures, Shrug, Todd Goldberg and Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra.

“The hope is that eventually this would be an app you use instead of iMessage, to increase your sense of presence,” Bader explains, revealing its grand ambitions. Why would we need to replace our core chat apps? Well for one thing, they don’t understand who really matters to you. If an app understood who your mom is, it could give her messages special prevalence or remind you to contact her.

Bader met Dadashi through an offline men’s group for discussing life, love and everything in the wake of Secret’s collapse and a rough romantic breakup. After just a few weeks of these meetups, they say they felt closer to each other than to most of their friends. Only later did Bader, a designer by trade, discover that Dadashi was a coder who’d been CTO of electronics company MHD Enterprises before starting a travel and lifestyle startup for mental wellness, called Somatic Studios. They tried working together on an app for sharing quotes from your friends but scrapped it.

Together, the pair went on to research the rapid rise of other vulnerability-focused meetup organizations like the one where they met, including EvrymanManKind ProjectQuiltAuthentic RelatingCircling, and T-Groups. Though they knew that to have a chance at impact at scale, they’d need to build a mobile app familiar enough to get people over the hurdle of starting a mindfulness practice. They laid out a few principles to build by: a focus on relationships instead of Likes and followers, conscious design that won’t exploit people’s attention or weaknesses, no ads, and keeping all data private and in control of the user.

There are other startups hoping to address the sad state of mental health from different angles. Talkspace offers a mobile connection to licensed therapists, though it can be pricey at $65 to $99 per week. 7 Cups and TalkLife makes peer-to-peer counseling from volunteers free, though these aren’t professionals. There are also plenty of journaling products, gratitude practice apps and wellness podcasts out there. But Ikaria’s approach, combining mental health content with group chats of people you trust, feels unique.

Having known Bader since the Secret days, it’s obvious that working with Dadashi has made him happier and more centered. Ikaria is an app he can wake up feeling good about each day. “You know, I don’t like to speak ill of David [Byttow, Secret’s CEO who sources say was verbally abusive to employees], but that relationship was very, very toxic and taxing for me. And this time around with Sean, as I’m sure you can tell, is the polar opposite.”

If Ikaria can help people develop the open and honest relationships with friends or peers like building it has done for Bader and Dadashi, it could be a beacon amidst a sea of time unwell spent.

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This Week in Apps: Apple’s record quarter, dating apps under investigation, Byte launches to problems

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, Byte, dating apps, funding, Google, iOS, Mobile, this week in apps, tiktok | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, Apple released earnings and gave us hints about the power of its wearables market. Congress as begun investigating top dating apps. Google’s App Maker announced a shutdown is coming. The iPad turned 10 and people discussed where it’s going wrong.

We also take a look at Byte, the so-called Vine reboot. I’m not impressed. Not only did Byte launch with a comment spam problem, including pornbots, it’s also heavily filled with adult and sometimes dark humor. This includes videos featuring dick jokes, sex toys, drugs and jokes about child abuse, despite a 12+ age rating and many users who appear to be children.

Headlines

Apple reports blockbuster earnings, details the growth of wearables

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Verkada raises $80M at $1.6B to be every building’s security OS

Posted by | Access Control, Apps, artificial intelligence, Aydin Senkut, Cloud, Felicis Ventures, funding, Fundings & Exits, hardware, Meritech Capital partners, Mobile, Next47, Security, security cameras, sequoia capital, Startups, TC, Verkada | No Comments

Fifty iPads were stolen from Verkada co-founder Hans Robertson’s old company. Only when they checked the security system did they realize the video cameras hadn’t been working for months. He was pissed. “The market lagged behind the progress seen in the consumer space, where someone could buy high-end cameras with cloud-based software to protect their home,” Verkada’s CEO and co-founder Filip Kaliszan tells me of his own attempt to buy enterprise-grade security hardware.

Usually, startups ascend on the backs of fresh technologies and developer platforms. But Kaliszan and Robertson realized that commercial security was so backward that just implementing the established principles of machine vision and the cloud could create a huge company. The plan was to keep data secure yet accessible and train its cameras to take clearer photos when AI detects suspicious situations instead of just grainy video.

At first, few could see the vision through the slow upgrade cycles and basement security rooms common with most potential clients. “The seed and the A were extremely difficult rounds to raise compared to the later rounds because people didn’t believe we could execute what were are proposing,” Kaliszan glumly recalls.

But today Verkada receives a huge vote of confidence. It just raised an $80 million Series C at a stunning $1.6 billion post-money valuation thanks to lead investor Felicis Ventures writing Verkada its biggest check to date. The cash brings Verkada to $139 million in funding to sell dome cameras, fisheye lenses, footage viewing stations and the software to monitor it all from anywhere.

Why sink in so much cash at a valuation triple that of Verkada’s $540 million price tag after its April 2019 Series B? Because Verkada wants to bring two-factor authentication to doors with its new access control system that it’s announcing is now in beta testing ahead of a Spring launch. Instead of just allowing a stealable key fob or badge to open your office entryway, it could ask you to look into a Verkada camera too so it can match your face to your permissions.

“Our mission is to be the essential physical security software layer for every building, and the foundation of a larger enterprise IoT infrastructure,” Kaliszan tells me. By uniting security cameras and door locks in one system, it could keep banks, schools, hospitals, government buildings and businesses safe while offering new insights on how their spaces are used.

The founders’ pedigrees don’t hurt its efforts to sell that future to investors like Next47, Sequoia Capital and Meritech Capital, which joined the round. Robertson co-founded IT startup Meraki and sold it to Cisco for $1.2 billion. Kaliszan and his other co-founders Benjamin Bercovitz and James Ren started CourseRank for education software while at Stanford before selling it to Chegg.

Making a better product than what’s out there isn’t rocket science, though. Many building security systems only let footage be accessed from a control room in the building… which doesn’t help much if everyone’s trying to escape due to emergency or if a manager elsewhere simply wants to take a look. Verkada’s cloud lets the right employees keep watch from mobile, and data is also stored locally on the cameras so they keep recording even if the internet cuts out. “Our competitors stream unencrypted video and it’s on you to protect it. We’re responsible for handling that data,” Kaliszan says.

Verkada’s machine vision software can make sense of all the footage its cameras collect. “We can immediately show them all the video containing a particular person of interest rather than manually searching through hours of footage,” Kaliszan insists. “Our platform can use AI/machine learning to recognize patterns and behaviors that are out of the norm in real time.”

For example, a hostage negotiator was able to use Verkada’s system to assess whether a SWAT team needed to invade a building. Verkada can group all spottings of an individual together for review, or scan all the footage for people wearing a certain color or with other search filters.

Indeed, 2,500 clients, including 25 Fortune 500 companies, are already using Verkada. In the last year it has tripled revenue, partnered with 1,100 resellers, launched nine new camera models, added people and vehicle analytics, opened its first London office and is on track to grow from 300 to 800 employees by the end of 2020.

“We call this reinvention,” says Felicis Ventures founder and managing director Aydin Senkut. “One thing people underestimate is how big this market is. Honeywell is valued at $110 billion-plus. There’s a Chinese company that’s over $50 billion. The opportunity to be the operating system for all buildings in the world? Sounds like that market couldn’t be better.” Senkut knows Verkada works because he had it installed in all his homes and offices.

Most enterprise software companies don’t have to worry about the complexities of hardware supply chains. There’s always a risk that its sales process stumbles, leaving it stuck with too many cameras. “We’re still burning money. We’re not there yet or we wouldn’t be raising venture. Because we’re going after a mature market, you can’t come at it with a model that doesn’t make sense. Investors come at it from a hard-nosed approach,” Robertson admits.

“People have a tendency to write off Verkada as a boring camera company. They don’t realize how access control as the second product is going to supercharge the company’s potential,” Senkut declares.

One bullet Verkada dodged is the one firmly lodged in Amazon’s chest. Ring security cameras have received stern criticism over Amazon’s cooperation with law enforcement that some see as a violation of privacy and expansion of a police state. “We don’t have any arrangements with law enforcement like Ring,” Kaliszan tells me. “We view ourselves as providing great physical security tools to the people that run schools, hospitals and businesses. The data that those organizations gather is their own.”

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Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

Posted by | Apps, eaze, eCommerce, funding, Government, Logistics, marijuana, meadow, Mobile, payments, Recent Funding, Startups, TC, Transportation, weed delivery | No Comments

The first cannabis startup to raise big money in Silicon Valley is in danger of burning out. TechCrunch has learned that pot delivery middleman Eaze has seen unannounced layoffs, and its depleted cash reserves threaten its ability to make payroll or settle its AWS bill. Eaze was forced to raise a bridge round to keep the lights on as it prepares to attempt a major pivot to “touching the plant” by selling its own marijuana brands through its own depots.

TechCrunch spoke with nine sources with knowledge of Eaze’s struggles to piece together this report. If Eaze fails, it could highlight serious growing pains amid the “green rush” of startups into the marijuana business.

Eaze, the startup backed by some $166 million in funding that once positioned itself as the “Uber of pot” — a marketplace selling pot and other cannabis products from dispensaries and delivering it to customers — has recently closed a $15 million bridge round, according to multiple sources. The funding was meant to keep the lights on as Eaze struggles to raise its next round of funding amid problems with making decent margins on its current business model, lawsuits, payment processing issues and internal disorganization.

 

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company is low on cash. Sources tell us that the company, which laid off some 30 people last summer, is preparing another round of cuts in the meantime. The spokesperson refused to discuss personnel issues, but noted that there have been layoffs at many late-stage startups as investors want to see companies cut costs and become more efficient.

From what we understand, Eaze is currently trying to raise a $35 million Series D round, according to its pitch deck. The $15 million bridge round came from unnamed current investors. (Previous backers of the company include 500 Startups, DCM Ventures, Slow Ventures, Great Oaks, FJ Labs, the Winklevoss brothers and a number of others.) Originally, Eaze had tried to raise a $50 million Series D, but the investor that was looking at the deal, Athos Capital, is said to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

Eaze is going into the fundraising with an enterprise value of $388 million, according to company documents reviewed by TechCrunch. It’s not clear what valuation it’s aiming for in the next round.

An Eaze spokesperson declined to discuss fundraising efforts, but told TechCrunch, “The company is going through a very important transition right now, moving to becoming a plant-touching company through acquisitions of former retail partners that will hopefully allow us to more efficiently run the business and continue to provide good service to customers.”

Desperate to grow margins

The news comes as Eaze is hoping to pull off a “verticalization” pivot, moving beyond online storefront and delivery of third-party products (rolled joints, flower, vaping products and edibles) and into sourcing, branding and dispensing the product directly. Instead of just moving other company’s marijuana brands between third-party dispensaries and customers, it wants to sell its own in-house brands through its own delivery depots to earn a higher margin. With a number of other cannabis companies struggling, the hope is that it will be able to acquire at low prices brands in areas like marijuana flower, pre-rolled joints, vaporizer cartridges or edibles.

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to announce the pivot in the coming days, telling TechCrunch that it’s “a pretty significant change from provider of services to operating in that fashion but also operating a depot directly ourselves.”

The startup is already making moves in this direction, and is in the process of acquiring some of the assets of a bankrupt cannabis business out of Canada called Dionymed — which had initially been a partner of Eaze’s, then became a competitor, and then sued it over payment disputes, before finally selling part of its business. These assets are said to include Oakland dispensary Hometown Heart, which it acquired in an all-share transaction (“Eaze effectively bought the lawsuit,” is how one source described the sale). This will become Eaze’s first owned delivery depot.

In a recent presentation deck that Eaze has been using when pitching to investors — which has been obtained by TechCrunch — the company describes itself as the largest direct-to-consumer cannabis retailer in California. It has completed more than 5 million deliveries, served 600,000 customers and tallied up an average transaction value of $85. 

To date, Eaze has only expanded to one other state beyond California (Oregon). Its aim is to add five more states this year, and another three in 2021. But the company appears to have expected more states to legalize recreational marijuana sooner, which would have provided geographic expansion. Eaze seems to have overextended itself too early in hopes of capturing market share as soon as it became available.

An employee at the company tells us that on a good day Eaze can bring in between $800,000 and $1 million in net revenue, which sounds great, except that this is total merchandise value, before any cuts to suppliers and others are made. Eaze makes only a fraction of that amount, one reason why it’s now looking to verticatlize into more of a primary role in the ecosystem. And that’s before considering all of the costs associated with running the business. 

Eaze is suffering from a problem rampant in the marijuana industry: a lack of working capital. Because banks often won’t issue working capital loans to weed-related business, deliverers like Eaze can experience delays in paying back vendors. Another source says late payments have pushed some brands to stop selling through Eaze.

Another drain on its finances has been its marketing efforts. A source said out-of-home ads (billboards and the like) allegedly were a significant expense at one point. It has to compete with other pot-purchasing options like visiting retail stores in person, using dispensaries’ in-house delivery services or buying via startups like Meadow that act as aggregated online points of sale for multiple dispensaries.

Indeed, Eaze claims that its pivot into verticalization will bring it $204 million in revenues on gross transactions of $300 million. It notes in the presentation that it makes $9.04 on an average sale of $85, which will go up to $18.31 if it successfully brings in “private label” products and has more depot control.

Selling weed isn’t eazy

The poor margins are only one of the problems with Eaze’s current business model, which the company admits in its presentation have led to an inconsistent customer experience and poor customer affinity with its brand — especially in the face of competition from a number of other delivery businesses.  

Playing on the on-demand, delivery-of-everything theme, it connected with two customer bases. First, existing cannabis consumers already using some form of delivery service for their supply; and a newer, more mainstream audience with disposable income that had become more interested in cannabis-related products but might feel less comfortable walking into a dispensary, or buying from a black market dealer.

It is not the only startup that has been chasing that audience. Other competitors in the wider market for cannabis discovery, distribution and sales include Weedmaps, Puffy, Blackbird, Chill (a brand from Dionymed that it founded after ending its earlier relationship with Eaze), and Meadow, with the wider industry estimated to be worth some $11.9 billion in 2018 and projected to grow to $63 billion by 2025.

Eaze was founded on the premise that the gradual decriminalization of pot — first making it legal to buy for medicinal use, and gradually for recreational use — would spread across the U.S. and make the consumption of cannabis-related products much more ubiquitous, presenting a big opportunity for Eaze and other startups like it. 

It found a willing audience among consumers, but also tech workers in the Bay Area, a tight market for recruitment. 

“I was excited for the opportunity to join the cannabis industry,” one source said. “It has for the most part gotten a bad rap, and I saw Eaze’s mission as a noble thing, and the team seemed like good people.”

Eaze CEO Ro Choy

That impression was not to last. The company, this employee was told when joining, had plenty of funding with more on the way. The newer funding never materialized, and as Eaze sought to figure out the best way forward, the company cycled through different ideas and leadership: former Yammer executive Keith McCarty, who co-founded the company with Roie Edery (both are now founders at another cannabis startup, Wayv), left, and the CEO role was given to another ex-Yammer executive, Jim Patterson, who was then replaced by Ro Choy, who is the current CEO. 

“I personally lost trust in the ability to execute on some of the vision once I got there,” the ex-employee said. “I thought that on one hand a picture was painted that wasn’t the truth. As we got closer and as I’d been there longer and we had issues with funding, the story around why we were having issues kept changing.” Several sources familiar with its business performance and culture referred to Eaze as a “shitshow.”

No ‘Push for Kush’

The quick shifts in strategy were a recurring pattern that started well before the company got into tight financial straits. 

One employee recalled an acquisition Eaze made several years ago of a startup called Push for Pizza. Founded by five young friends in Brooklyn, Push for Pizza had gone viral over a simple concept: you set up your favorite pizza order in the app, and when you want it, you pushed a single button to order it. (Does that sound silly? Don’t forget, this was also the era of Yo, which was either a low point for innovation, or a high point for cynicism when it came to average consumer intelligence… maybe both.)

Eaze’s idea, the employee said, was to take the basics of Push for Pizza and turn it into a weed app, Push for Kush. In it, customers could craft their favorite mix and, at the touch of a button, order it, lowering the procurement barrier even more.

The company was very excited about the deal and the prospect of the new app. They planned a big campaign to spread the word, and held an internal event to excite staff about the new app and business line. 

“They had even made a movie of some kind that they showed us, featuring a caricature of Jim” — the CEO at a the time — “hanging out of the sunroof of a limo.” (We found the opening segment of this video online, and the Twitter and Instagram accounts that had been created for Push for Kush, but no more than that.)

Then just one week later, the whole plan was scrapped, and the founders of Push for Pizza fired. “It was just brushed under the carpet,” the former employee said. “No one could get anything out of management about what had happened.”

Something had happened, though: The company had been taking payments by card when it made the acquisition, but the process was never stable and by then it had recently gone back to the cash-only model. Push for Kush by cash was less appealing. “They didn’t think it would work,” the person said, adding that this was the normal course of business at the startup. “Big initiatives would just die in favor of pushing out whatever new thing was on the product team’s radar.” 

Eaze’s spokesperson confirmed that “we did acquire Push for Pizza . . but ultimately didn’t choose to pursue [launching Push for Kush].”

Payments were a recurring issue for the startup. Eaze started out taking payments only in cash — but as the business grew, that became increasingly problematic. The company found itself kicked off the credit card networks and was stuck with a less traceable, more open to error (and theft) cash-only model at a time when one employee estimated it was bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million per day in sales. 

Eventually, it moved to cards, but not smoothly: Visa specifically did not want Eaze on its platform. Eaze found a workaround, employees say, but it was never above board, which became the subject of the lawsuit between Eaze and Dionymed. Currently the company appears to only take payments via debit cards, ACH transfer and cash, not credit card.

Another incident sheds light on how the company viewed and handled security issues. 

Can Eaze rise from the ashes?

At one point, employees allegedly discovered that Eaze was essentially storing all of its customer data — including users’ signatures and other personal information — in an Azure bucket that was not secured, meaning that if anyone was nosing around, it could be easily discovered and exploited.

The vulnerability was brought to the company’s attention. It was something that was up to product to fix, but the job was pushed down the list. It ultimately took seven months to patch this up. “I just kept seeing things with all these huge holes in them, just not ready for prime time,” one ex-employee said of the state of products. “No one was listening to engineers, and no one seemed to be looking for viable products.” Eaze’s spokesperson confirms a vulnerability was discovered but claims it was promptly resolved.

Today, the issue is a more pressing financial one: The company is running out of money. Employees have been told the company may not make its next payroll, and AWS will shut down its servers in two days if it doesn’t pay up. 

Eaze’s spokesperson tried to remain optimistic while admitting the dire situation the company faces. “Eaze is going to continue doing everything we can to support customers and the overall legal cannabis industry. We’re excited about the future and acknowledge the challenges that the entire community is facing.”

As medicinal and recreational marijuana access became legal in some states in the latter 2010s, entrepreneurs and investors flocked to the market. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the end of a major prohibition — a once in a lifetime event. But high government taxes, enduring black markets, intense competition and a lack of financial infrastructure willing to deal with any legal haziness have caused major setbacks.

While the pot business might sound chill, operations like Eaze depend on coordinating high-stress logistics with thin margins and little room for error. Plenty of food delivery startups, from Sprig to Munchery, went under after running into similar struggles, and at least banks and payment processors would work with them. With the odds stacked against it, Eaze has a tough road ahead.

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Atom Finance’s free Bloomberg Terminal rival raises $12M

Posted by | Apps, Atom Finance, bloomberg terminal, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, General Catalyst, Mobile, Recent Funding, Robinhood, Sentieo, Startups, stock market, stock trading, TC, Yahoo-Finance | No Comments

If you want to win on Wall Street, Yahoo Finance is insufficient but Bloomberg Terminal costs a whopping $24,000 per year. That’s why Atom Finance built a free tool designed to democratize access to professional investor research. If Robinhood made it cost $0 to trade stocks, Atom Finance makes it cost $0 to know which to buy.

Today Atom launches its mobile app with access to its financial modeling, portfolio tracking, news analysis, benchmarking and discussion tools. It’s the consumerization of finance, similar to what we’ve seen in enterprise SaaS. “Investment research tools are too important to the financial well-being of consumers to lack the same cycles of product innovation and accessibility that we have experienced in other verticals,” CEO Eric Shoykhet tells me.

In its first press interview, Atom Finance today revealed to TechCrunch that it has raised a $10.6 million Series A led by General Catalyst to build on its quiet $1.9 million seed round. The cash will help the startup eventually monetize by launching premium tiers with even more hardcore research tools.

Atom Finance already has 100,000 users and $400 million in assets it’s helping steer since soft-launching in June. “Atom fundamentally changes the game for how financial news media and reporting is consumed. I could not live without it,” says The Twenty Minute VC podcast founder and Atom investor Harry Stebbings.

Individual investors are already at a disadvantage compared to big firms equipped with artificial intelligence, the priciest research and legions of traders glued to the markets. Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that investing is critical to long-term financial mobility, especially in an age of rampant student debt and automation threatening employment.

“Our mission is two-fold,” Shoykhet says. “To modernize investment research tools through an intuitive platform that’s easily accessible across all devices, while democratizing access to institutional-quality investing tools that were once only available to Wall Street professionals.”

Leveling the trading floor

Shoykhet saw the gap between amateur and expert research platforms firsthand as an investor at Blackstone and Governors Lane. Yet even the supposedly best-in-class software was lacking the usability we’ve come to expect from consumer mobile apps. Atom Finance claims that “for example, Bloomberg hasn’t made a significant change to its central product offering since 1982.”

The Atom Finance team

So a year ago, Shoykhet founded Atom Finance in Brooklyn to fill the void. Its web, iOS and Android apps offer five products that combine to guide users’ investing decisions without drowning them in complexity:

  • Sandbox – Instant financial modeling with pre-populated consensus projections that automatically update and are recalculated over time
  • Portfolio – Track your linked investment accounts to monitor overarching stats, real-time profit and loss statements and diversification
  • X-Ray – A financial research search engine for compiling news, SEC filings, transcripts and analysis
  • Compare – Benchmarking tables for comparing companies and sectors
  • Collaborate – Discussion boards and group chat for sharing insights with fellow investors

“Our Sandbox feature allows users to create simple financial models directly within our platform, without having to export data to a spreadsheet,” Shoykhet says. “This saves our users time and prevents them from having to manually refresh the inputs to their model when there is new information.”

Shoykhet positions Atom Finance in the middle of the market, saying, “Existing solutions are either too rudimentary for rigorous analysis (Yahoo Finance, Google Finance) or too expensive for individual investors (Bloomberg, CapIQ, Factset).”

With both its free and forthcoming paid tiers, Atom hopes to undercut Sentieo, a more AI-focused financial research platform that charges $500 to $1,000 per month and raised $19 million a year ago. Cheaper tools like BamSEC and WallMine are often limited to just pulling in earnings transcripts and filings. Robinhood has its own in-app research tools, which could make it a looming competitor or a potential acquirer for Atom Finance.

Shoykhet admits his startup will face stiff competition from well-entrenched tools like Bloomberg. “Incumbent solutions have significant brand equity with our target market, and especially with professional investors. We will have to continue iterating and deliver an unmatched user experience to gain the trust/loyalty of these users,” he says. Additionally, Atom Finance’s access to users’ sensitive data means flawless privacy, security, and accuracy will be essential.

The $12.5 million from General Catalyst, Greenoaks, Global Founders Capital, Untitled Investments, Day One Ventures and a slew of angels gives Atom runway to rev up its freemium model. Robinhood has found great success converting unpaid users to its subscription tier where they can borrow money to trade. By similarly starting out free, Atom’s eight-person team hailing from SoFi, Silver Lake, Blackstone and Citi could build a giant funnel to feed its premium tiers.

Fintech can feel dry and ruthlessly capitalistic at times. But Shoykhet insists he’s in it to equip a new generation with methods of wealth creation. “I think we’ve gone long enough without seeing real innovation in this space. We can’t be complacent with something so important. It’s crucial that we democratize access to these tools and educate consumers . . . to improve their investment well-being.”

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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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