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Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

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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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Pyka and its autonomous, electric crop-spraying drone land $11M seed round

Posted by | aerospace, agriculture, AgTech, artificial intelligence, autonomous flight, drones, farming, Gadgets, hardware, Prime Movers Lab, Pyka, Recent Funding, robotics, Startups | No Comments

Modern agriculture involves fields of mind-boggling size, and spraying them efficiently is a serious operational challenge. Pyka is taking on the largely human-powered spray business with an autonomous winged craft and, crucially, regulatory approval.

Just as we’ve seen with DroneSeed, this type of flying is risky for pilots, who must fly very close to the ground and other obstacles, yet also highly susceptible to automation; That’s because it involves lots of repetitive flight patterns that must be executed perfectly, over and over.

Pyka’s approach is unlike that of many in the drone industry, which has tended to use multirotor craft for their maneuverability and easy take-off and landing. But those drones can’t carry the weight and volume of pesticides and other chemicals that (unfortunately) need to be deployed at large scales.

The craft Pyka has built is more traditional, resembling a traditional one-seater crop dusting plane but lacking the cockpit. It’s driven by a trio of propellers, and most of the interior is given over to payload (it can carry about 450 pounds) and batteries. Of course, there is also a sensing suite and onboard computer to handle the immediate demands of automated flight.

Pyka can take off or land on a 150-foot stretch of flat land, so you don’t have to worry about setting up a runway and wasting energy getting to the target area. Of course, it’ll eventually need to swap out batteries, which is part of the ground crew’s responsibilities. They’ll also be designing the overall course for the craft, though the actual flight path and moment-to-moment decisions are handled by the flight computer.

Example of a flight path accounting for obstacles without human input

All this means the plane, apparently called the Egret, can spray about a hundred acres per hour, about the same as a helicopter. But the autonomous craft provides improved precision (it flies lower) and safety (no human pulling difficult maneuvers every minute or two).

Perhaps more importantly, the feds don’t mind it. Pyka claims to be the only company in the world with a commercially approved large autonomous electric aircraft. Small ones like drones have been approved left and right, but the Egret is approaching the size of a traditional “small aircraft,” like a Piper Cub.

Of course, that’s just the craft — other regulatory hurdles hinder wide deployment, like communicating with air traffic management and other craft; certification of the craft in other ways; a more robust long-range sense and avoid system and so on. But Pyka’s Egret has already flown thousands of miles at test farms that pay for the privilege. (Pyka declined to comment on its business model, customers or revenues.)

The company’s founding team — Michael Norcia, Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore and Nathan White — comes from a variety of well-known companies working in adjacent spaces: Cora, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Google X, Waymo and Morgan Stanley (that’s the COO).

The $11 million seed round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with participation from Y Combinator, Greycroft, Data Collective and Bold Capital Partners.

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Coral raises $4.3M to build an at-home manicure machine

Posted by | Gadgets, Recent Funding, Startups, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

Coral is a company that wants to “simplify the personal care space through smart automation,” and they’ve raised $4.3 million to get it done. Their first goal? An at-home, fully automated machine for painting your nails. Stick a finger in, press down, wait a few seconds and you’ve got a fully painted and dried nail. More than once in our conversations, the team referred to the idea as a “Keurig coffee machine, but for nails.”

It’s still early days for the company. While they’ve got a functional machine (pictured above), they’re quite clear about it being a prototype.

As such, they’re still staying pretty hush hush about the details, declining to say much about how it actually works. They did tell me that it paints one finger at a time, taking about 10 minutes to go from bare nails to all fingers painted and dried. To speed up drying time while ensuring a durable paint job, it’ll require Coral’s proprietary nail polish — so don’t expect to be able to pop open a bottle of nail polish and pour it in. Coral’s polish will come in pods (so the Keurig comparison is particularly fitting), which the user will be able to buy individually or get via subscription. Under the hood is a camera and some proprietary computer vision algorithms, allowing the machine to paint the nail accurately without requiring manual nail cleanup from the user after the fact.

Also still under wraps — or, more accurately, not determined yet — is the price. While Coral co-founder Ramya Venkateswaran tells me that she expects it to be a “premium device,” they haven’t nailed down an exact price just yet.

While we’ve seen all sorts of nail painting machines over the years (including ones that can do all kinds of wild art, like this one we saw at CES earlier this year), Coral says its system is the only one that works without requiring the user to first prime their nails with a base coat or clear coat it after. All you need here is a bare fingernail.

Coral’s team is currently made up of eight people — mostly mechanical, chemical and software engineers. Both co-founders, meanwhile, have backgrounds in hardware; Venkateswaran previously worked as a product strategy manager at Dolby, where she helped launch the Dolby Conference Phone. Her co-founder, Bradley Leong, raised around $800,000 on Kickstarter to ship Brydge (one of the earliest takes on a laptop-style iPad keyboard) back in 2012 before becoming a partner at the seed-stage venture fund Tandem Capital. It was during some industrial hardware research there, he tells me, when he found “the innovation that this machine is based off of.”

Vankateswaran tells me the team has raised $4.3 million to date from CrossLink Capital, Root Ventures, Tandem Capital and Y Combinator . The company is part of Y Combinator’s ongoing Winter 2020 class, so I’d expect to hear more about them as this batch’s demo day approaches in March of next year.

So what’s next? They’ll be working on turning the prototype into a consumer-ready device, and plan to spend the next few months running a small beta program (which you can sign up for here.)

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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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Bunch, the Discord for mobile games, raises $3.85M from Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games

Posted by | Apps, Bunch, Gaming, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

Growing up, Selcuk Atli spent a good deal of his free time playing video games with his friends. And when I say with his friends, I mean actually with them. They’re called LAN parties, where everyone brings over their consoles and the group gets to play together virtually and in real life, all at the same time.

Atli, a grown man now, still loves games, but misses the memories made during LAN parties.

That’s how Bunch was born.

Bunch is a lot like Discord, but for mobile games. Users who download the game can connect with friends and join an audio or video chat with them. From there, users can choose a game to load and the whole party is instantly taken not just to the game, but into a multiplayer game session with their friends.

Today, Bunch has announced the close of a strategic investment round of $3.85 million from top game makers, including Supercell, Tencent, Riot Games, Miniclip and Colopl Next. Bunch’s previous investors include London Venture Partners, Founders Fund, Betaworks, Shrug Capital, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures and 500 Startups.

Bunch has a handful of first-party games on its platform to ensure that new users have a starting-off point. However, one of the biggest challenges of scaling is creating relationships with third-party game makers to eventually integrate that deep linking technology into the Bunch app.

With this new money, Bunch finds itself under the arm of a handful of some of the biggest mobile game publishers in the world. This new funding also brings Bunch’s total financing since launch to $8.5 million.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a company try to bring the nostalgia of ’90s gaming into the 21st century. Discord has made quite a name for itself in the gaming world with a platform that allows gamers to communicate before, during and after a game.

However, Discord is more targeted at PC gamers, and is meant to give users the chance to meet and communicate with other gamers, rather than just hopping on a call with existing friends.

TeaTime Live, founded by QuizUp founder Thor Fridriksson, is another competitor focused squarely on mobile. However, TeaTime Live is going hard into Snapchat-like filters and avatars for video chat. And, like Discord, TTL wants users to meet other gamers, not connect with their IRL friends.

Bunch is primarily focused on connecting gamers with their actual friends. Once you’ve both loaded into a game, Bunch keeps running in the background to power voice chat. By focusing on real friends, Atli believes the impact of Bunch can be much greater for both users and the games themselves.

In fact, Atli says that user retention on a specific game grows 1.3 times with every new friend added on the platform. Indeed, between Day 7 and Day 30, Bunch Cohorts’ retention rates are 2x the retention of normal players, according to the Bunch CEO.

For now, Bunch is focused entirely on user acquisition and scaling to more games, but could see an opportunity to generate revenue through a subscription or in-app purchase model around premium Bunch features.

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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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With $6.5M in funding, Aircam offers a fast, easy way to share photos at events

Posted by | Aircam, Apps, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, photo sharing, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, upfront ventures | No Comments

Aircam is a new startup that allows anyone to get instant access to pictures taken by professional photographers at weddings, parties and other events.

The company was founded by brothers Evan and Ryan Rifkin, who previously co-founded Burstly, the company behind mobile app-testing service TestFlight (which was acquired by Apple).

In addition to officially launching Aircam today, they’re also announcing that the company has raised $6.5 million in seed funding led by Upfront Ventures, with participation from Comcast Ventures.

“The process of finding a great photographer still sucks and the tools photographers use to share photos are antiquated for an industry worth over $10 billion,” said Upfront Ventures Managing Partner Mark Suster in a statement. “Aircam provides real-time, location-aware and enhanced photos that today’s consumers expect with booking simplicity that will change the current playing field.”

The Rifkin brothers are pitching Aircam as “a real-time photo-sharing platform for professional and consumer photos.” To try out the technology, I visited the Aircam website and hit a button to see nearby photos. Then, as the Rifkins took photos with a DSLR camera, those photos appeared on the site nearly instantaneously. I, in turn, could send the photos to a printer in their office, or share photos from my phone.

Manufacturers already offer software to transfer photos wirelessly from their cameras to your computer. But with Aircam, the photos became accessible to everyone at an event, without requiring anyone except the photographer to install an app.

Aircam

Ryan explained that the company is taking advantage of cameras’ Wi-Fi connections (it currently works with Canon, Nikon and Sony devices) to send the photos to an app on the photographer’s phone, which then uploads the photos to the cloud.

He also said the team initially believed that Aircam would become the repository for photos taken by everyone attending an event. But in early testing, they saw that “the opposite is happening — people are putting their phones away.”

In other words, once attendees realize that they have access to professional-quality photos, they can spend less time worrying about taking their own pictures with their phones and instead focus on being present at the event.

This should also make life easier for photographers, particularly since Aircam includes automated photo editing — the photos are color corrected (with nice touches like teeth whitening) without requiring any extra work from the photographer.

“If you ask photographers what’s their least favorite part of photography — one, it’s finding new business, and two, it’s the edits,” Ryan said. “Some people limit the number of events they’ll accept because of the editing work … With automatic edits, they shoot and they’re done.”

Evan Rifkin

Evan Rifkin

As for finding new business, Evan said that the company tested this out by allowing photographers to offer Aircam as an additional option for their customers. (The company charges the photographers $50 per event.)

But once customers had seen Aircam in action, they wanted to order it again, so Aircam is also launching its own marketplace (currently focused on Southern California) where you can book professional photographers for $99 per hour, with the Aircam service included as part of the package.

Or, if you want to try it out without hiring a pro photographer, you’ll be able to upload photos from your iPhone for free.

The Rifkins told me they haven’t had any issues around privacy or content moderation so far, but they also noted that customers who are concerned about these issues can limit their guests’ upload capabilities. They also can create a custom URL for their event rather than making it discoverable to anyone nearby.

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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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