Apr
19
2021
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The Klaviyo EC-1

E-commerce is booming as retailers race to transform their brick-and-mortar footprints into online storefronts. By some counts, the market grew an astonishing 42% in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and estimates show that online spending in the U.S. will surpass $1 trillion by 2022. It’s a bonanza, and everyone is figuring out this new terrain.

Consumers are likely familiar with the front-end brands for these storefronts — with companies like Amazon, Shopify, Square, and Stripe owning attention — but it’s the tooling behind the curtain that is increasingly determining the competitiveness of individual stores.

Klaviyo may not be a household name to consumers (at least, not yet), but in many ways, this startup has become the standard by which email marketers are judged today, triangulating against veterans Mailchimp and Constant Contact and riding the e-commerce wave to new heights.

Founded in 2012, this Boston-based company helps marketers personalize and automate their email messaging to customers. By now, most people are intimately familiar with these kinds of emails; if you’ve ever given your email address to an online store, the entreaties to come back to your abandoned cart or browse the latest sale are Klaviyo’s bread and butter.

It may seem obvious in retrospect that email would grow to become a premier platform for marketing, but this wasn’t the case even a few years ago when social ads and search engine marketing were the dominant paradigm. Today, owned marketing and customer experience management are white-hot trends, and Klaviyo has surged from a lifestyle business to a multi-billion dollar behemoth in just a few short years. Its story is at the heart of the internet economy today, and the future.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Chris Morrison. Morrison, who previously wrote our EC-1 on Roblox, has been a writer and independent game developer covering the video game industry and the marketing challenges that come with publishing. As an analyst and a potential user, he’s in a unique position to explain the Klaviyo story. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Klaviyo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Morrison has no financial ties to Klaviyo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Klaviyo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 9,700 words and a reading time of 43 minutes. Let’s take a look:

  • Part 1: Origin storyHow Klaviyo transformed from a lifestyle business into a $4.15B email titan” (2,600 words/10 minutes) — Explores the rise of Klaviyo from a database for e-commerce data into a modern email powerhouse as it successively learned from customers and bootstrapped in the absence of funding from accelerators and early VCs.
  • Part 2: Business and growthHow Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing” (3,000 words/12 minutes) — Analyzes Klaviyo’s recent growth and how marketers increasingly focus on owned marketing channels and customer experience management.
  • Part 3: Dynamics of e-commerce marketingMarketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional” (2,200 words/9 minutes) — To fully understand Klaviyo and this new world of martech, this article contextualizes how and why marketers are increasingly trying to personalize and build deeper emotional bonds with their customers outside of social media channels.
  • Part 4: Lessons on startup growthDrama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success” (1,900 words/8 minutes) — Founders shouldn’t have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. Klaviyo offers a number of tried-and-true tutorials to understand how to build a competitive startup and not get bogged down in finding product-market fit and scaling.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at danny@techcrunch.com.

Apr
19
2021
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How Klaviyo transformed from a lifestyle business into a $4.15B email titan

Startups are stories of feverish dreams and obsessive fears. Short of hearing it from the source, a glimpse into the inbox of a founder would be the best way to experience the travails they endure on the way to building a business. A customer finally makes a purchase, a VC invests or walks away, an employee signs their offer letter — all of the major and minor milestones of a startup are communicated via that now-ancient medium of email.

Current Klaviyo users may be surprised to hear that email was not a part of the initial product.

Email’s ubiquity is only part of the story, though. It’s also a symbol of freedom: The last social platform that remains relatively open and free from the clutches of a single monopoly owner. It’s a market rife with entrenched incumbents, but one that simultaneously continues to invite founders to find some new take on this venerable communications channel and make it better for everyone.

That was the mission that Andrew Bialecki and Ed Hallen undertook when they founded Klaviyo back in 2012. What they perhaps didn’t bank on was just how long of a route they were about to take — or how many rejections they might find in their own inboxes from accelerators and VCs who never thought a new generation of email service providers could make it.

So they bootstrapped, kept things lean. They debated canceling dinners to pay the bills when customers churned. And along the way, they built a special startup that is today valued at a whopping $4.15 billion. Klaviyo is the story of how two scrappy, inexperienced entrepreneurs set out to build a lifestyle business — and ended up creating an email titan.

Racing to the starting line

Klaviyo’s origin story sounds a bit like the generic advice given by every book on entrepreneurship. Andrew Bialecki — he goes by AB — had a need that no existing company filled. So, he started a company to address that need.

It began with what he calls a side hustle: a website devoted to cataloging the dates and locations of running races. Bialecki had the technical chops to build it, but the data wasn’t already available online and he needed race organizers to provide it. That, in turn, meant he needed to let them know his site existed and constantly follow up to make sure they were using it.

“I realized I’m on the phone with people and it’s never going to scale. After a while, I was working on that while I was at another startup, and I said I have two options here. Either I can go all-in on road races, or all-in on the problem: ‘How do we help these businesses connect with the people using their software or products?’” recalls Bialecki.

By then, he already had a co-founder in mind. Bialecki had been a student together with Ed Hallen at MIT, but the pair actually met while working at Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), a Washington, D.C. tech consultancy.

“I’d read all those books on, hey, when you’re looking for someone to start a business with, you want someone with similar values who’s also complementary,” says Bialecki. “I’d known he was kind of interested in starting a company, and we had really complementary skillsets. I loved the engineering and design and product, and he was a big product guy too, but was used to working with customers and clients.”

An email company that didn’t (initially) do email

Current Klaviyo users may be surprised to hear that email was not part of the product that emerged. Instead, Bialecki and Hallen built a database to collect all the e-commerce data that was falling through the cracks.

“Once we really talked to a lot of e-commerce people, it was clear there were long-standing problems,” says Hallen.

Bialecki adds, “There are facts you know, like their name, their email address, their favorite color or something they told you about their birthday. But some of the harder stuff was, jeez, how many times has this person visited my website, bought something from me, what products did they buy and how is that trending over time? Were they a really frequent customer that dropped off the face of the Earth?”

As they spoke to customers, the founders realized that handling customers’ data and making it useful to them was going to be critical to Klaviyo’s success. It just so happened that gathering data matched well with their experiences working at APT.

“We had a ton of experience stitching together data sources,” says Hallen. “We took that expertise and put it as our foundation. What’s the most broken, largest market, and let’s really tie data to it, not as an afterthought.”

Klaviyo’s two co-founders Andrew Bialecki and Ed Hallen in July 2012. Image Credits: Klaviyo

What that required, in practical terms, was spending the initial months building a custom database to store the disparate data types that come up during e-commerce transactions — events, documents and object data models. Conor O’Mahony, who joined the company in 2018 as chief product officer and departed this month to become an advisor, says that the company’s early time investment in its database laid the foundations for its later success in scaling up.

Apr
19
2021
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How Klaviyo used data and no-code to transform owned marketing

Email is the communication medium that refuses to die.

“Eventually, every technology is trumped by something new and better. And I feel that email is ready to be trumped. But by what?” wrote the venture capitalist Fred Wilson in 2007. Three years later, he updated readers that other forms of messaging had outgrown email. “It looks like email’s reign as the king of communication is ending and social networking is now supreme,” he said. (To be fair to Wilson, his view was nuanced enough to continue investing in email tech.)

Despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

Investors weren’t alone — marketers have also spent years anticipating the next big thing.

“It was SMS, it was YouTube, it was Instagram. Before that it was Facebook, then it was Snapchat and TikTok. I kinda feel like individually all those things are fleeting. I think people found: You know what? Everyone still opens their emails every day,” says Darin Hager, a former sneaker entrepreneur who is now an email marketing manager at Adjust Media.

Email has an estimated four billion users today and continues to grow steadily even as mature social networks plateau. Estimates of the number of nonspam messages sent each day range from 25 billion to over 300 billion.

Unsurprisingly for a marketing channel with so much volume, there’s voluminous competition to send and program those emails. Yet, despite the competition, Klaviyo didn’t just break into the market — it has also achieved an unusual level of excitement and loyalty among marketers despite its youthful history.

“If you’re not using Klaviyo and you’re in e-commerce, then it’s not very professional. If you see ‘Sent by Constant Contact or Mailchimp’ at the bottom of an email by a brand, it makes it look like they’re not really there yet,” Hager said.

How did Klaviyo become the standard solution among email marketers?

In Klaviyo’s origin story, we delved into part of the answer: The company began life as an e-commerce analytics service. Once it matured to compete as an email service provider, Klaviyo benefited from the edge given by its deeper, more comprehensive focus on data.

However, that leaves several questions unanswered. Why is email so important to e-commerce? What are the substantive differences between Klaviyo’s feature set and those of its competitors? And why did several large, well-funded incumbents fail to capitalize on building an advantage in data first?

In this section, we’ll answer those questions — as well as laying out the significance of COVID-19 on the e-commerce market, and how newsletters and AI figure into the company’s future.

A positive Outlook on email’s longevity

Email is one of the oldest tech verticals: Constant Contact, one of the most venerable email service providers (ESPs), was founded in 1995, went public in 2007 and was taken private in 2015 for $1 billion. By the time Klaviyo started in 2012, the space was well served by numerous incumbents.

Apr
19
2021
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Marketing in 2021 is emotional and not just transactional

Brands are emotions made physical. The clothes we wear, the media we consume, the devices we use — all signal not only to others what we value and see in ourselves, they also are a way to construct our very identities. Experimenting to deepen that bond has been at the core of the marketing profession for a century; its origins rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis.

There had always been one critical limitation, though: Marketers had to appeal to the masses. Radio, television and print media allowed brands to deliver only one message to everyone, no matter if their product conferred luxury or smart cost-consciousness.

On the internet, the masses have been shattered into ever smaller shards, shifting that marketing calculus toward targeted audiences and social network interest groups. Today, niche brands, large corporations and every business in between are reaching ever-narrower audiences.

Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors.

Yet, advertising and social networks are competitive marketplaces. Over time, prices to reach niche audiences rise, and strategies that once worked become unviable. In 2021, these perpetual challenges are joined by two new factors: a fresh influx of new e-commerce brands and changing privacy policies on third-party platforms.

Klaviyo benefits from these secular trends. While the cost or difficulty of acquiring new customers may increase, as we looked at in the second part of this EC-1, the cost of emailing an existing one remains much the same. Marketers who become expert at personalization, especially for existing customers through owned marketing platforms like email, will hold an edge over their competitors. It’s no longer about marketing to narrow slices of audiences — it’s about building an emotional bond with an audience of one.

To a booming economy, now ad inflation

While 2020 was a banner year for e-commerce in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the early months of 2021 have brought about a new problem: Customer acquisition costs are rising, sometimes to a worrying degree. For instance, one company interviewed by TechCrunch that did not wish to be named said it has seen its return on investment for Facebook ads fall by nearly half in the first months of 2021. Such inflation has also been predicted by firms like ECI Media Management.

There are two possible reasons for this increase. First, an unprecedented number of companies are moving online, spurred by COVID-19 and worldwide lockdowns.

Apr
19
2021
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Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Many of the stories in our EC-1 series tell tales of startups in the wilderness hacking out green field opportunities. Klaviyo is a different breed of company: One that went into an established market and challenged powerful incumbents, ultimately finding success with a new, more data-oriented generation of email marketers.

As such, the lessons that it offers are, perhaps, more subtle; its insights bordering on common sense.

But as the saying goes, common sense to an uncommon degree becomes wisdom. Here are four pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Klaviyo’s story:

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.

Lesson 1: Drama and quirk aren’t necessary for startup success

Silicon Valley has become a showcase for oddity. Ironically, we all enjoy “Silicon Valley” (the show) or “The Social Network.” Unironically, we toss around phrases like “the hustle” and “sweat equity.” Hot companies often stand out with stories of intense struggle and failure, a larger-than-life founder or a chaotic (and often toxic) management structure.

Drama and sizzle help companies stand out, undoubtedly. But are they necessary for success? Klaviyo’s story suggests otherwise.

Mar
10
2021
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Aqua Security raises $135M at a $1B valuation for its cloud native security platform

Aqua Security, a Boston- and Tel Aviv-based security startup that focuses squarely on securing cloud-native services, today announced that it has raised a $135 million Series E funding round at a $1 billion valuation. The round was led by ION Crossover Partners. Existing investors M12 Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Insight Partners, TLV Partners, Greenspring Associates and Acrew Capital also participated. In total, Aqua Security has now raised $265 million since it was founded in 2015.

The company was one of the earliest to focus on securing container deployments. And while many of its competitors were acquired over the years, Aqua remains independent and is now likely on a path to an IPO. When it launched, the industry focus was still very much on Docker and Docker containers. To the detriment of Docker, that quickly shifted to Kubernetes, which is now the de facto standard. But enterprises are also now looking at serverless and other new technologies on top of this new stack.

“Enterprises that five years ago were experimenting with different types of technologies are now facing a completely different technology stack, a completely different ecosystem and a completely new set of security requirements,” Aqua CEO Dror Davidoff told me. And with these new security requirements came a plethora of startups, all focusing on specific parts of the stack.

Image Credits: Aqua Security

What set Aqua apart, Dror argues, is that it managed to 1) become the best solution for container security and 2) realized that to succeed in the long run, it had to become a platform that would secure the entire cloud-native environment. About two years ago, the company made this switch from a product to a platform, as Davidoff describes it.

“There was a spree of acquisitions by CheckPoint and Palo Alto [Networks] and Trend [Micro],” Davidoff said. “They all started to acquire pieces and tried to build a more complete offering. The big advantage for Aqua was that we had everything natively built on one platform. […] Five years later, everyone is talking about cloud-native security. No one says ‘container security’ or ‘serverless security’ anymore. And Aqua is practically the broadest cloud-native security [platform].”

One interesting aspect of Aqua’s strategy is that it continues to bet on open source, too. Trivy, its open-source vulnerability scanner, is the default scanner for GitLab’s Harbor Registry and the CNCF’s Artifact Hub, for example.

“We are probably the best security open-source player there is because not only do we secure from vulnerable open source, we are also very active in the open-source community,” Davidoff said (with maybe a bit of hyperbole). “We provide tools to the community that are open source. To keep evolving, we have a whole open-source team. It’s part of the philosophy here that we want to be part of the community and it really helps us to understand it better and provide the right tools.”

In 2020, Aqua, which mostly focuses on mid-size and larger companies, doubled the number of paying customers and it now has more than half a dozen customers with an ARR of over $1 million each.

Davidoff tells me the company wasn’t actively looking for new funding. Its last funding round came together only a year ago, after all. But the team decided that it wanted to be able to double down on its current strategy and raise sooner than originally planned. ION had been interested in working with Aqua for a while, Davidoff told me, and while the company received other offers, the team decided to go ahead with ION as the lead investor (with all of Aqua’s existing investors also participating in this round).

“We want to grow from a product perspective, we want to grow from a go-to-market [perspective] and expand our geographical coverage — and we also want to be a little more acquisitive. That’s another direction we’re looking at because now we have the platform that allows us to do that. […] I feel we can take the company to great heights. That’s the plan. The market opportunity allows us to dream big.”

 

Dec
01
2020
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AWS updates its edge computing solutions with new hardware and Local Zones

AWS today closed out its first re:Invent keynote with a focus on edge computing. The company launched two smaller appliances for its Outpost service, which originally brought AWS as a managed service and appliance right into its customers’ existing data centers in the form of a large rack. Now, the company is launching these smaller versions so that its users can also deploy them in their stores or office locations. These appliances are fully managed by AWS and offer 64 cores of compute, 128GB of memory and 4TB of local NVMe storage.

In addition, the company expanded its set of Local Zones, which are basically small extensions of existing AWS regions that are more expensive to use but offer low-latency access in metro areas. This service launched in Los Angeles in 2019 and starting today, it’s also available in preview in Boston, Houston and Miami. Soon, it’ll expand to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. Google, it’s worth noting, is doing something similar with its Mobile Edge Cloud.

The general idea here — and that’s not dissimilar from what Google, Microsoft and others are now doing — is to bring AWS to the edge and to do so in a variety of form factors.

As AWS CEO Andy Jassy rightly noted, AWS always believed that the vast majority of companies, “in the fullness of time” (Jassy’s favorite phrase from this keynote), would move to the cloud. Because of this, AWS focused on cloud services over hybrid capabilities early on. He argues that AWS watched others try and fail in building their hybrid offerings, in large parts because what customers really wanted was to use the same control plane on all edge nodes and in the cloud. None of the existing solutions from other vendors, Jassy argues, got any traction (though AWSs competitors would surely deny this) because of this.

The first result of that was VMware Cloud on AWS, which allowed customers to use the same VMware software and tools on AWS they were already familiar with. But at the end of the day, that was really about moving on-premises services to the cloud.

With Outpost, AWS launched a fully managed edge solution that can run AWS infrastructure in its customers’ data centers. It’s been an interesting journey for AWS, but the fact that the company closed out its keynote with this focus on hybrid — no matter how it wants to define it — shows that it now understands that there is clearly a need for this kind of service. The AWS way is to extend AWS into the edge — and I think most of its competitors will agree with that. Microsoft tried this early on with Azure Stack and really didn’t get a lot of traction, as far as I’m aware, but it has since retooled its efforts around Azure Arc. Google, meanwhile, is betting big on Anthos.

Oct
05
2020
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GrubMarket raises $60M as food delivery stays center stage

Companies that have leveraged technology to make the procurement and delivery of food more accessible to more people have been seeing a big surge of business this year, as millions of consumers are encouraged (or outright mandated, due to COVID-19) to socially distance or want to avoid the crowds of physical shopping and eating excursions.

Today, one of the companies that is supplying produce and other items both to consumers and other services that are in turn selling food and groceries to them, is announcing a new round of funding as it gears up to take its next step, an IPO.

GrubMarket, which provides a B2C platform for consumers to order produce and other food and home items for delivery, and a B2B service where it supplies grocery stores, meal-kit companies and other food tech startups with products that they resell, is today announcing that it has raised $60 million in a Series D round of funding.

Sources close to the company confirmed to TechCrunch that GrubMarket — which is profitable, and originally hadn’t planned to raise more than $20 million — has now doubled its valuation compared to its last round — sources tell us it is now between $400 million and $500 million.

The funding is coming from funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Reimagined Ventures, Trinity Capital Investment, Celtic House Venture Partners, Marubeni Ventures, Sixty Degree Capital and Mojo Partners, alongside previous investors GGV Capital, WI Harper Group, Digital Garage, CentreGold Capital, Scrum Ventures and other unnamed participants. Past investors also included Y Combinator, where GrubMarket was part of the Winter 2015 cohort. For some context, GrubMarket last raised money in April 2019 — $28 million at a $228 million valuation, a source says.

Mike Xu, the founder and CEO, said that the plan remains for the company to go public (he’s talked about it before), but given that it’s not having trouble raising from private markets and is currently growing at 100% over last year, and the IPO market is less certain at the moment, he declined to put an exact timeline on when this might actually happen, although he was clear that this is where his focus is in the near future.

“The only success criteria of my startup career is whether GrubMarket can eventually make $100 billion of annual sales,” he said to me over both email and in a phone conversation. “To achieve this goal, I am willing to stay heads-down and hardworking every day until it is done, and it does not matter whether it will take me 15 years or 50 years.”

I don’t doubt that he means it. I’ll note that we had this call in the middle of the night his time in California, even after I asked multiple times if there wasn’t a more reasonable hour in the daytime for him to talk. (He insisted that he got his best work done at 4:30 a.m., a result of how a lot of the grocery business works.) Xu on the one hand is very gentle with a calm demeanor, but don’t let his quiet manner fool you. He also is focused and relentless in his work ethic.

When people talk today about buying food, alongside traditional grocery stores and other physical food markets, they increasingly talk about grocery delivery companies, restaurant delivery platforms, meal kit services and more that make or provide food to people by way of apps. GrubMarket has built itself as a profitable but quiet giant that underpins the fuel that helps companies in all of these categories by becoming one of the critical companies building bridges between food producers and those that interact with customers.

Its opportunity comes in the form of disruption and a gap in the market. Food production is not unlike shipping and other older, non-tech industries, with a lot of transactions couched in legacy processes: GrubMarket has built software that connects the different segments of the food supply chain in a faster and more efficient way, and then provides the logistics to help it run.

To be sure, it’s an area that would have evolved regardless of the world health situation, but the rise and growth of the coronavirus has definitely “helped” GrubMarket not just by creating more demand for delivered food, but by providing a way for those in the food supply chain to interact with less contact and more tech-fueled efficiency.

Sales of WholesaleWare, as the platform is called, Xu said, have seen more than 800% growth over the last year, now managing “several hundreds of millions of dollars of food wholesale activities” annually.

Underpinning its tech is the sheer size of the operation: economies of scale in action. The company is active in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Texas, Michigan, Boston and New York (and many places in between) and says that it currently operates some 21 warehouses nationwide. Xu describes GrubMarket as a “major food provider” in the Bay Area and the rest of California, with (as one example) more than 5 million pounds of frozen meat in its east San Francisco Bay warehouse.

Its customers include more than 500 grocery stores, 8,000 restaurants and 2,000 corporate offices, with familiar names like Whole Foods, Kroger, Albertson, Safeway, Sprouts Farmers Market, Raley’s Market, 99 Ranch Market, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Fresh Direct, Imperfect Foods, Misfit Market, Sun Basket and GoodEggs all on the list, with GrubMarket supplying them items that they resell directly, or use in creating their own products (like meal kits).

While much of GrubMarket’s growth has been — like a lot of its produce — organic, its profitability has helped it also grow inorganically. It has made some 15 acquisitions in the last two years, including Boston Organics and EJ Food Distributor this year.

It’s not to say that GrubMarket has not had growing pains. The company, Xu said, was like many others in the food delivery business — “overwhelmed” at the start of the pandemic in March and April of this year. “We had to limit our daily delivery volume in some regions, and put new customers on waiting lists.” Even so, the B2C business grew between 300% and 500% depending on the market. Xu said things calmed down by May and even as some B2B customers never came back after cities were locked down, as a category, B2B has largely recovered, he said.

Interestingly, the startup itself has taken a very proactive approach in order to limit its own workers’ and customers’ exposure to COVID-19, doing as much testing as it could — tests have been, as we all know, in very short supply — as well as a lot of social distancing and cleaning operations.

“There have been no mandates about masks, but we supplied them extensively,” he said.

So far it seems to have worked. Xu said the company has only found “a couple of employees” that were positive this year. In one case in April, a case was found not through a test (which it didn’t have, this happened in Michigan) but through a routine check and finding an employee showing symptoms, and its response was swift: the facilities were locked down for two weeks and sanitized, despite this happening in one of the busiest months in the history of the company (and the food supply sector overall).

That’s notable leadership at a time when it feels like a lot of leaders have failed us, which only helps to bolster the company’s strong growth.

“Having a proven track record of sustained hypergrowth and net income profitability, GrubMarket stands out as an extraordinarily rare Silicon Valley startup in the food technology and ecommerce segment,” said Jay Chen, managing partner of Celtic House Venture Partner. “Scaling over 15x in 4 years, GrubMarket’s creativity and capital efficiency is unmatched by anyone else in this space. Mike’s team has done an incredible job growing the company thoughtfully and sustainably. We are proud to be a partner in the company’s rapid nationwide expansion and excited by the strong momentum of WholesaleWare, their SaaS suite, which is the best we have seen in space.”
Updated with more detail on the valuation.

Sep
18
2020
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SaaS Ventures takes the investment road less traveled

Most venture capital firms are based in hubs like Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston. These firms nurture those ecosystems and they’ve done well, but SaaS Ventures decided to go a different route: it went to cities like Chicago, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Lincoln, Nebraska.

The firm looks for enterprise-focused entrepreneurs who are trying to solve a different set of problems than you might find in these other centers of capital, issues that require digital solutions but might fall outside a typical computer science graduate’s experience.

Saas Ventures looks at four main investment areas: trucking and logistics, manufacturing, e-commerce enablement for industries that have not typically gone online and cybersecurity, the latter being the most mainstream of the areas SaaS Ventures covers.

The company’s first fund, which launched in 2017, was worth $20 million, but SaaS Ventures launched a second fund of equal amount earlier this month. It tends to stick to small-dollar-amount investments, while partnering with larger firms when it contributes funds to a deal.

We talked to Collin Gutman, founder and managing partner at SaaS Ventures, to learn about his investment philosophy, and why he decided to take the road less traveled for his investment thesis.

A different investment approach

Gutman’s journey to find enterprise startups in out of the way places began in 2012 when he worked at an early enterprise startup accelerator called Acceleprise. “We were really the first ones who said enterprise tech companies are wired differently, and need a different set of early-stage resources,” Gutman told TechCrunch.

Through that experience, he decided to launch SaaS Ventures in 2017, with several key ideas underpinning the firm’s investment thesis: after his experience at Acceleprise, he decided to concentrate on the enterprise from a slightly different angle than most early-stage VC establishments.

Collin Gutman from SaaS Ventures

Collin Gutman, founder and managing partner at SaaS Ventures (Image Credits: SaaS Ventures)

The second part of his thesis was to concentrate on secondary markets, which meant looking beyond the popular startup ecosystem centers and investing in areas that didn’t typically get much attention. To date, SaaS Ventures has made investments in 23 states and Toronto, seeking startups that others might have overlooked.

“We have really phenomenal coverage in terms of not just geography, but in terms of what’s happening with the underlying businesses, as well as their customers,” Gutman said. He believes that broad second-tier market data gives his firm an upper hand when selecting startups to invest in. More on that later.

Jun
18
2020
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13 Boston-focused VCs share the advice they’re giving portfolio companies

TechCrunch is focusing a bit more on the Boston-area startup and venture capital ecosystem lately, which has gone pretty well so far.

In fact, we had originally intended on releasing this regional investor survey as a single piece, but since so many VCs took part, we’re breaking it into two. The first part deals with the world we live in today, and the remainder will detail what Boston-area investors think about the future.

We broke our questions into two parts to better track investor sentiment. But, we were also curious what was going to come when things got back closer to normal. So, this first entry in our Boston investor survey covers our questions concerning what’s going on now. On Thursday we’ll have the second piece, looking at what’s ahead.

Here’s who took part:

What follows is a quick digest of what stood out from the collected answers, though there’s a lot more that we didn’t get to.

Boston VC in the COVID-19 era

Parsing through thousands of words and notes from our participating VCs, a few things stood out.

Boston startups aren’t having as bad a time — yet, at least — as area investors expected

Fewer companies than they anticipated are laying off staff for example. From our perspective, the number of Boston investors who noted that their portfolio companies were executing layoffs or furloughs (we asked for each to be precise) was very low; far more Boston-area startups are hiring than even freezing headcount. Layoffs appear somewhat rare, but as we all know cost cutting can take many forms for startups. Especially startups on the seed and early-stage side, which makes up the majority of these firm’s portfolio companies.

According to Glasswing’s Rudina Seseri, startup duress has come in “significantly under what [her firm was] expecting at the beginning of COVID-19.”

This may be due to a strong first quarter helping companies in the city and its surrounding area make it another few quarters. We might not know the full bill of COVID-19 and its related disruptions until next year.

More investors than we expected noted that their Boston portfolio companies aren’t raising this year

So what we’re gleaning from that fact is that any decline in Q2 and Q3 VC data is not because companies can’t raise, but because they don’t need to. Comments echoed a theme we wrote about in April: Boston broke records in Q1 in terms of dollars raised, but saw a dip in the number of checks cut.

Pillar VC’s Jamie Goldstein said that “about 15% of our companies are planning to raise capital this year,” which felt about average. Underscore VC’s Lily Lyman simply noted that, “Yes,” her Boston-area portfolio companies would hunt for new capital this year. Bill Geary of Flare Capital is on the other side of that coin, saying that “each of [his firm’s] Boston-based investments has successfully recently raised capital and will not be raising additional funds until 2021.”

It’s hard not to wonder if what happened to Boston unicorns Toast and EzCater was the exception and not the rule

 You see, Boston’s startup scene skews relatively early stage, so smaller companies don’t have high-profile cuts because, to be frank, there isn’t much staff to cut in the first place. It puts Boston in a unique setting to focus in on its early stage market, and investors all agreed that this is an important moment for the ecosystem.

The March-era stress tests are now months in the rearview mirror, and every startup has shaken up their spend and growth plans. Perhaps we have met the new normal, and it’s time to let the runway do the talking.

With that, let’s get into full questions and answers.

Rudina Seseri, Glasswing Ventures

What is the top-line advice you’re giving your portfolio companies right now?

This is a pivotal time, be efficient and drive execution. Cut costs where possible but at the same time don’t be afraid to spend for growth acceleration.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies are still hiring, not including those merely backfilling?

About 60%.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have frozen new hires?

About 20%.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have furloughed staff?

None.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have cut staff?

One company that represents about 4% of the portfolio.

Are your Boston-based portfolio companies looking to raise new capital this year?

Most have raised recently, and consequently are not looking to raise at this time.

If not, are they often delaying due to COVID-19?

No, because of their recent raises, their fundraising considerations will take place in 2021.

Has duress amidst your Boston-based portfolio companies undershot, matched or overshot your expectations from March?

It has been significantly under what we were expecting at the beginning of COVID-19.

How has your investment appetite changed in terms of pace and location, if at all?

We have been very active and closed deals in this environment. Our expectation is that our investment appetite will remain the same going forward.

Are you making investments in Q2 into net-new founders and companies?

Yes, as a matter-of-fact we just closed a yet-to-be announced investment this month.

Are there particular sectors of startups in Boston that you expect to do well, aside from SaaS businesses that are benefiting from secular trends? Are there any sectors you have become newly bearish on?

Yes, those that are in our core focus areas — solutions that bring down the cost of cloud and data, platforms and tools leveraging AI, those that facilitate cost reduction, and intelligent solutions in cybersecurity that protect the enterprise.

How does the uncertainty of schools reopening impact the startup ecosystem?

This will further drive and institutionalize distributed teams and remote working as a go-forward mode of operating.

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