Feb
06
2019
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Retail technology platform Relex raises $200M from TCV

Amazon’s formidable presence in the world of retail stems partly from the fact that it’s just not a commerce giant, it’s also a tech company — building solutions and platforms in-house that make its processes, from figuring out what to sell, to how much to have on hand and how best to distribute it, more efficient and smarter than those of its competition. Now, one of the startups that is building retail technology to help those that are not Amazon compete better with it, has raised a significant round of funding to meet that challenge.

Relex — a company out of Finland that focuses on retail planning solutions by helping both brick-and-mortar as well as e-commerce companies make better forecasts of how products will sell using AI and machine learning, and in turn giving those retailers guidance on how and what should be stocked for purchasing — is today announcing that it has raised $200 million from TCV. The VC giant — which has backed iconic companies like Facebook, Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify and Splunk — last week announced a new $3 billion fund, and this is the first investment out of it that is being made public.

Relex is not disclosing its valuation, but from what I understand it’s a minority stake, which would put it at between $400 million and $500 million. The company has been around for a few years but has largely been very capital-efficient, raising only between $20 million and $30 million before this from Summit Partners, with much of that sum still in the bank.

That lack of song and dance around VC funding also helped keep the company relatively under the radar, even while it has quietly grown to work with customers like supermarkets Albertsons in the U.S., Morrisons in the U.K. and a host of others. Business today is mostly in North America and Europe, with the U.S. growing the fastest, CEO Mikko Kärkkäinen — who co-founded the company with Johanna Småros and Michael Falck — said in an interview.

While the company has already been growing at a steady clip — Kärkkäinen said sales have been expanding by 50 percent each year for a while now — the plan now will be to accelerate that.

Relex competes with management systems from SAP, JDA and Oracle, but Kärkkäinen said that these are largely “legacy” solutions, in that they do not take advantage of advances in areas like machine learning and cloud computing — both of which form the core of what Relex uses — to crunch more data more intelligently.

“Most retailers are not tech companies, and Relex is a clear leader among a lot of legacy players,” said TCV general partner John Doran, who led the deal.

Significantly, that’s an approach that the elephant in the room pioneered and has used to great effect, becoming one of the biggest companies in the world.

“Amazon has driven quite a lot of change in the industry,” Kärkkäinen said (he’s very typically Finnish and understated). “But we like to see ourselves as an antidote to Amazon.”

Brick-and-mortar stores are an obvious target for a company like Relex, given that shelf space and real estate are costs that these kinds of retailers have to grapple with more than online sellers. But in fact Kärkkäinen said that e-commerce companies (given that’s also where Amazon primarily operates too) have been an equal target and customer base. “For these, we might be the only solution they have purchased that has not been developed in-house.”

The funding will be used in two ways. First, to give the company’s sales a boost, especially in the U.S., where business is growing the fastest at the moment. And second, to develop more services on its current platform.

For example, the focus up to now has been on-demand forecasting, Kärkkäinen said, and how that effects prices and supply, but it would like to expand its coverage also to labor optimisation alongside that; in other words, how best to staff a business according to forecasts and demands.

Of course, while Amazon is the big competition for all retailers, they potentially also exist as a partner. The company regularly productizes its own in-house services, and it will be interesting to see how and if that translates to Amazon emerging as a competitor to Relex down the line.

Jan
26
2019
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Has the fight over privacy changed at all in 2019?

Few issues divide the tech community quite like privacy. Much of Silicon Valley’s wealth has been built on data-driven advertising platforms, and yet, there remain constant concerns about the invasiveness of those platforms.

Such concerns have intensified in just the last few weeks as France’s privacy regulator placed a record fine on Google under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules which the company now plans to appeal. Yet with global platform usage and service sales continuing to tick up, we asked a panel of eight privacy experts: “Has anything fundamentally changed around privacy in tech in 2019? What is the state of privacy and has the outlook changed?” 

This week’s participants include:

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. Consider this a recurring venue for debate, where leading experts – with a diverse range of vantage points and opinions – provide us with thoughts on some of the biggest issues currently in tech, startups and venture. If you have any feedback, please reach out: Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.


Thoughts & Responses:


Albert Gidari

Albert Gidari is the Consulting Director of Privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. He was a partner for over 20 years at Perkins Coie LLP, achieving a top-ranking in privacy law by Chambers, before retiring to consult with CIS on its privacy program. He negotiated the first-ever “privacy by design” consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. A recognized expert on electronic surveillance law, he brought the first public lawsuit before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, seeking the right of providers to disclose the volume of national security demands received and the number of affected user accounts, ultimately resulting in greater public disclosure of such requests.

There is no doubt that the privacy environment changed in 2018 with the passage of California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and new privacy laws enacted around the globe.

“While privacy regulation seeks to make tech companies betters stewards of the data they collect and their practices more transparent, in the end, it is a deception to think that users will have more “privacy.””

For one thing, large tech companies have grown huge privacy compliance organizations to meet their new regulatory obligations. For another, the major platforms now are lobbying for passage of a federal privacy law in the U.S. This is not surprising after a year of privacy miscues, breaches and negative privacy news. But does all of this mean a fundamental change is in store for privacy? I think not.

The fundamental model sustaining the Internet is based upon the exchange of user data for free service. As long as advertising dollars drive the growth of the Internet, regulation simply will tinker around the edges, setting sideboards to dictate the terms of the exchange. The tech companies may be more accountable for how they handle data and to whom they disclose it, but the fact is that data will continue to be collected from all manner of people, places and things.

Indeed, if the past year has shown anything it is that two rules are fundamental: (1) everything that can be connected to the Internet will be connected; and (2) everything that can be collected, will be collected, analyzed, used and monetized. It is inexorable.

While privacy regulation seeks to make tech companies betters stewards of the data they collect and their practices more transparent, in the end, it is a deception to think that users will have more “privacy.” No one even knows what “more privacy” means. If it means that users will have more control over the data they share, that is laudable but not achievable in a world where people have no idea how many times or with whom they have shared their information already. Can you name all the places over your lifetime where you provided your SSN and other identifying information? And given that the largest data collector (and likely least secure) is government, what does control really mean?

All this is not to say that privacy regulation is futile. But it is to recognize that nothing proposed today will result in a fundamental shift in privacy policy or provide a panacea of consumer protection. Better privacy hygiene and more accountability on the part of tech companies is a good thing, but it doesn’t solve the privacy paradox that those same users who want more privacy broadly share their information with others who are less trustworthy on social media (ask Jeff Bezos), or that the government hoovers up data at rate that makes tech companies look like pikers (visit a smart city near you).

Many years ago, I used to practice environmental law. I watched companies strive to comply with new laws intended to control pollution by creating compliance infrastructures and teams aimed at preventing, detecting and deterring violations. Today, I see the same thing at the large tech companies – hundreds of employees have been hired to do “privacy” compliance. The language is the same too: cradle to grave privacy documentation of data flows for a product or service; audits and assessments of privacy practices; data mapping; sustainable privacy practices. In short, privacy has become corporatized and industrialized.

True, we have cleaner air and cleaner water as a result of environmental law, but we also have made it lawful and built businesses around acceptable levels of pollution. Companies still lawfully dump arsenic in the water and belch volatile organic compounds in the air. And we still get environmental catastrophes. So don’t expect today’s “Clean Privacy Law” to eliminate data breaches or profiling or abuses.

The privacy world is complicated and few people truly understand the number and variety of companies involved in data collection and processing, and none of them are in Congress. The power to fundamentally change the privacy equation is in the hands of the people who use the technology (or choose not to) and in the hands of those who design it, and maybe that’s where it should be.


Gabriel Weinberg

Gabriel Weinberg is the Founder and CEO of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo.

Coming into 2019, interest in privacy solutions is truly mainstream. There are signs of this everywhere (media, politics, books, etc.) and also in DuckDuckGo’s growth, which has never been faster. With solid majorities now seeking out private alternatives and other ways to be tracked less online, we expect governments to continue to step up their regulatory scrutiny and for privacy companies like DuckDuckGo to continue to help more people take back their privacy.

“Consumers don’t necessarily feel they have anything to hide – but they just don’t want corporations to profit off their personal information, or be manipulated, or unfairly treated through misuse of that information.”

We’re also seeing companies take action beyond mere regulatory compliance, reflecting this new majority will of the people and its tangible effect on the market. Just this month we’ve seen Apple’s Tim Cook call for stronger privacy regulation and the New York Times report strong ad revenue in Europe after stopping the use of ad exchanges and behavioral targeting.

At its core, this groundswell is driven by the negative effects that stem from the surveillance business model. The percentage of people who have noticed ads following them around the Internet, or who have had their data exposed in a breach, or who have had a family member or friend experience some kind of credit card fraud or identity theft issue, reached a boiling point in 2018. On top of that, people learned of the extent to which the big platforms like Google and Facebook that collect the most data are used to propagate misinformation, discrimination, and polarization. Consumers don’t necessarily feel they have anything to hide – but they just don’t want corporations to profit off their personal information, or be manipulated, or unfairly treated through misuse of that information. Fortunately, there are alternatives to the surveillance business model and more companies are setting a new standard of trust online by showcasing alternative models.


Melika Carroll

Melika Carroll is Senior Vice President, Global Government Affairs at Internet Association, which represents over 45 of the world’s leading internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Airbnb and others.

We support a modern, national privacy law that provides people meaningful control over the data they provide to companies so they can make the most informed choices about how that data is used, seen, and shared.

“Any national privacy framework should provide the same protections for people’s data across industries, regardless of whether it is gathered offline or online.”

Internet companies believe all Americans should have the ability to access, correct, delete, and download the data they provide to companies.

Americans will benefit most from a federal approach to privacy – as opposed to a patchwork of state laws – that protects their privacy regardless of where they live. If someone in New York is video chatting with their grandmother in Florida, they should both benefit from the same privacy protections.

It’s also important to consider that all companies – both online and offline – use and collect data. Any national privacy framework should provide the same protections for people’s data across industries, regardless of whether it is gathered offline or online.

Two other important pieces of any federal privacy law include user expectations and the context in which data is shared with third parties. Expectations may vary based on a person’s relationship with a company, the service they expect to receive, and the sensitivity of the data they’re sharing. For example, you expect a car rental company to be able to track the location of the rented vehicle that doesn’t get returned. You don’t expect the car rental company to track your real-time location and sell that data to the highest bidder. Additionally, the same piece of data can have different sensitivities depending on the context in which it’s used or shared. For example, your name on a business card may not be as sensitive as your name on the sign in sheet at an addiction support group meeting.

This is a unique time in Washington as there is bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress as well as in the administration for a federal privacy law. Our industry is committed to working with policymakers and other stakeholders to find an American approach to privacy that protects individuals’ privacy and allows companies to innovate and develop products people love.


Johnny Ryan

Dr. Johnny Ryan FRHistS is Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave. His previous roles include Head of Ecosystem at PageFair, and Chief Innovation Officer of The Irish Times. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Tech companies will probably have to adapt to two privacy trends.

“As lawmakers and regulators in Europe and in the United States start to think of “purpose specification” as a tool for anti-trust enforcement, tech giants should beware.”

First, the GDPR is emerging as a de facto international standard.

In the coming years, the application of GDPR-like laws for commercial use of consumers’ personal data in the EU, Britain (post-EU), Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia, Argentina, and China will bring more than half of global GDP under a similar standard.

Whether this emerging standard helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws. Unless there is a federal GDPR-like law in the United States, there may be a degree of friction and the potential of isolation for United States companies.

However, there is an opportunity in this trend. The United States can assume the global lead by doing two things. First, enact a federal law that borrows from the GDPR, including a comprehensive definition of “personal data”, and robust “purpose specification”. Second, invest in world-leading regulation that pursues test cases, and defines practical standards. Cutting edge enforcement of common principles-based standards is de facto leadership.

Second, privacy and antitrust law are moving closer to each other, and might squeeze big tech companies very tightly indeed.

Big tech companies “cross-use” user data from one part of their business to prop up others. The result is that a company can leverage all the personal information accumulated from its users in one line of business, and for one purpose, to dominate other lines of business too.

This is likely to have anti-competitive effects. Rather than competing on the merits, the company can enjoy the unfair advantage of massive network effects even though it may be starting from scratch in a new line of business. This stifles competition and hurts innovation and consumer choice.

Antitrust authorities in other jurisdictions have addressed this. In 2015, the Belgian National Lottery was fined for re-using personal information acquired through its monopoly for a different, and incompatible, line of business.

As lawmakers and regulators in Europe and in the United States start to think of “purpose specification” as a tool for anti-trust enforcement, tech giants should beware.


John Miller

John Miller is the VP for Global Policy and Law at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a D.C. based advocate group for the high tech sector.  Miller leads ITI’s work on cybersecurity, privacy, surveillance, and other technology and digital policy issues.

Data has long been the lifeblood of innovation. And protecting that data remains a priority for individuals, companies and governments alike. However, as times change and innovation progresses at a rapid rate, it’s clear the laws protecting consumers’ data and privacy must evolve as well.

“Data has long been the lifeblood of innovation. And protecting that data remains a priority for individuals, companies and governments alike.”

As the global regulatory landscape shifts, there is now widespread agreement among business, government, and consumers that we must modernize our privacy laws, and create an approach to protecting consumer privacy that works in today’s data-driven reality, while still delivering the innovations consumers and businesses demand.

More and more, lawmakers and stakeholders acknowledge that an effective privacy regime provides meaningful privacy protections for consumers regardless of where they live. Approaches, like the framework ITI released last fall, must offer an interoperable solution that can serve as a model for governments worldwide, providing an alternative to a patchwork of laws that could create confusion and uncertainty over what protections individuals have.

Companies are also increasingly aware of the critical role they play in protecting privacy. Looking ahead, the tech industry will continue to develop mechanisms to hold us accountable, including recommendations that any privacy law mandate companies identify, monitor, and document uses of known personal data, while ensuring the existence of meaningful enforcement mechanisms.


Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a global nonprofit committed to the advancement of digital human rights and civil liberties, including privacy, freedom of expression, and human agency. O’Connor has served in a number of presidentially appointed positions, including as the first statutorily mandated chief privacy officer in U.S. federal government when she served at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. O’Connor has held senior corporate leadership positions on privacy, data, and customer trust at Amazon, General Electric, and DoubleClick. She has practiced at several global law firms including Sidley Austin and Venable. She is an advocate for the use of data and internet-enabled technologies to improve equity and amplify marginalized voices.

For too long, Americans’ digital privacy has varied widely, depending on the technologies and services we use, the companies that provide those services, and our capacity to navigate confusing notices and settings.

“Americans deserve comprehensive protections for personal information – protections that can’t be signed, or check-boxed, away.”

We are burdened with trying to make informed choices that align with our personal privacy preferences on hundreds of devices and thousands of apps, and reading and parsing as many different policies and settings. No individual has the time nor capacity to manage their privacy in this way, nor is it a good use of time in our increasingly busy lives. These notices and choices and checkboxes have become privacy theater, but not privacy reality.

In 2019, the legal landscape for data privacy is changing, and so is the public perception of how companies handle data. As more information comes to light about the effects of companies’ data practices and myriad stewardship missteps, Americans are surprised and shocked about what they’re learning. They’re increasingly paying attention, and questioning why they are still overburdened and unprotected. And with intensifying scrutiny by the media, as well as state and local lawmakers, companies are recognizing the need for a clear and nationally consistent set of rules.

Personal privacy is the cornerstone of the digital future people want. Americans deserve comprehensive protections for personal information – protections that can’t be signed, or check-boxed, away. The Center for Democracy & Technology wants to help craft those legal principles to solidify Americans’ digital privacy rights for the first time.


Chris Baker

Chris Baker is Senior Vice President and General Manager of EMEA at Box.

Last year saw data privacy hit the headlines as businesses and consumers alike were forced to navigate the implementation of GDPR. But it’s far from over.

“…customers will have trust in a business when they are given more control over how their data is used and processed”

2019 will be the year that the rest of the world catches up to the legislative example set by Europe, as similar data regulations come to the forefront. Organizations must ensure they are compliant with regional data privacy regulations, and more GDPR-like policies will start to have an impact. This can present a headache when it comes to data management, especially if you’re operating internationally. However, customers will have trust in a business when they are given more control over how their data is used and processed, and customers can rest assured knowing that no matter where they are in the world, businesses must meet the highest bar possible when it comes to data security.

Starting with the U.S., 2019 will see larger corporations opt-in to GDPR to support global business practices. At the same time, local data regulators will lift large sections of the EU legislative framework and implement these rules in their own countries. 2018 was the year of GDPR in Europe, and 2019 be the year of GDPR globally.


Christopher Wolf

Christopher Wolf is the Founder and Chair of the Future of Privacy Forum think tank, and is senior counsel at Hogan Lovells focusing on internet law, privacy and data protection policy.

With the EU GDPR in effect since last May (setting a standard other nations are emulating),

“Regardless of the outcome of the debate over a new federal privacy law, the issue of the privacy and protection of personal data is unlikely to recede.”

with the adoption of a highly-regulatory and broadly-applicable state privacy law in California last Summer (and similar laws adopted or proposed in other states), and with intense focus on the data collection and sharing practices of large tech companies, the time may have come where Congress will adopt a comprehensive federal privacy law. Complicating the adoption of a federal law will be the issue of preemption of state laws and what to do with the highly-developed sectoral laws like HIPPA and Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Also to be determined is the expansion of FTC regulatory powers. Regardless of the outcome of the debate over a new federal privacy law, the issue of the privacy and protection of personal data is unlikely to recede.

Jan
17
2019
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On-demand workspace platform Breather taps new CEO

Breather’s new CEO Bryan Murphy / Breather Press Kit

Breather, the platform that provides on-demand private workspace, announced today that it has appointed Bryan Murphy as its new CEO.

Before joining Breather, Murphy was the founder and president of direct-to-consumer mattress startup, Tomorrow Sleep. Prior to Tomorrow Sleep, Murphy held posts as an advisor to investment firms and as an executive at eBay after the company acquired his previous company, WHI Solutions — an e-commerce platform for aftermarket auto parts — where Murphy was the co-founder and CEO.

Breather believes Murphy’s extensive background scaling e-commerce and SaaS platforms, as well as his experience working with incumbents across a number of traditional industries, can help it execute through its next stage of global growth.

Murphy is filling the vacancy left by co-founder and former CEO Julien Smith, who stepped down as chief executive this past September, just three months after the company completed its $45 million Series C round, which was led by Menlo Ventures and saw participation from RRE Ventures, Temasek Holdings, Ascendas-Singbridge and Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec.

In a past statement on his transition, Smith said: “As I reflect on my strengths and consider what it will take for the company to reach its full potential, I realize bringing on an executive with experience scaling a company through the next level of growth is the best thing for the business.”

Smith, who remains with the company as chairman of the board, believes Murphy more than fits the bill. “Bryan’s record of scaling brands in competitive markets makes him an ideal leader to support this momentum, and I’m excited to see where he takes us next,” Smith said.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Murphy explained that Breather’s next growth phase will ultimately come down to its ability to continue the global expansion of its network of locations and partner landlords while striking the optimal balance between rental economics and employee utility, productivity and performance. With new spaces and ramped marketing efforts, Murphy and the company expect 2019 to be a big year for Breather — “I think this year, you’re going to start hearing a lot about Breather and it really being in a leadership role for the industry.”

Breather’s workspace at 900 Broadway in New York City is one of 500+ network locations accessible to users.

On Breather’s platform, users are currently able to access a network of more than 500 private workspaces across 10 major cities around the world, which can be booked as meeting space or short-term private office space.

Meeting spaces can be reserved for as little as two hours, while office space can be booked on a month-to-month basis, providing businesses with financial flexibility, private and more spacious alternatives to co-working options, and the ability to easily change offices as they grow. For landlords, Breather allows property owners to generate value from underutilized space by providing a turnkey digital booking system, as well as expertise in the short-term rental space.

Murphy explained to TechCrunch that part of what excited him most about his new role was his belief in Breather’s significant product-market fit and the immense addressable market that he sees for flexible workspaces longer-term. With limited penetration to date, Murphy feels the commercial office space industry is in just the third inning of significant transformation. 

Murphy believes that long-term growth for Breather and other flexible space providers will be driven by a heightened focus on employee flexibility and wellness, a growing number of currently underserved companies whose needs fall between co-working and traditional direct leasing, and the need for landlords to support a wider variety of office space options as workforce demographics and behaviors shift. 

Murphy believes that the ease, flexibility and unlocked value Breather provides puts the platform in a great position to win market share.

“Breather has built a remarkable commercial real estate e-commerce and services platform that offers one-click access to over 500 workspaces around the world,” said Murphy in a press release. “To our customers, having access to workspace that is turnkey, affordable, beautiful, productive and that can flex up and down based on needs is a total game changer.”

To date, Breather has served more than 500,000 customers and has raised more than $120 million in investment.

Jan
14
2019
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Salesforce Commerce Cloud updates keep us shopping with AI-fueled APIs

As people increasingly use their mobile phones and other devices to shop, it has become imperative for vendors to improve the shopping experience, making it as simple as possible, given the small footprint. One way to do that is using artificial intelligence. Today, Salesforce announced some AI-enhanced APIs designed to keep us engaged as shoppers.

For starters, the company wants to keep you shopping. That means providing an intelligent recommendation engine. If you searched for a particular jacket, you might like these similar styles, or this scarf and gloves. That’s fairly basic as shopping experiences go, but Salesforce didn’t stop there. It’s letting developers embed this ability to recommend products in any app, whether that’s maps, social or mobile.

That means shopping recommendations could pop up anywhere developers think it makes sense, like on your maps app. Whether consumers see this as a positive thing, Salesforce says when you add intelligence to the shopping experience, it increases sales anywhere from 7-16 percent, so however you feel about it, it seems to be working.

The company also wants to make it simple to shop. Instead of entering a multi-faceted search, as has been the traditional way of shopping in the past — footwear, men’s, sneakers, red — you can take a picture of a sneaker (or anything you like) and the visual search algorithm should recognize it and make recommendations based on that picture. It reduces data entry for users, which is typically a pain on the mobile device, even if it has been simplified by checkboxes.

Salesforce has also made inventory availability as a service, allowing shoppers to know exactly where the item they want is available in the world. If they want to pick up in-store that day, it shows where the store is on a map and could even embed that into your ridesharing app to indicate exactly where you want to go. The idea is to create this seamless experience between consumer desire and purchase.

Finally, Salesforce has added some goodies to make developers happy, too, including the ability to browse the Salesforce API library and find the ones that make the most sense for what they are creating. This includes code snippets to get started. It may not seem like a big deal, but as companies the size of Salesforce increase their API capabilities (especially with the MuleSoft acquisition), it’s harder to know what’s available. The company has also created a sandboxing capability to let developers experiment and build capabilities with these APIs in a safe way.

The basis of Commerce Cloud is Demandware, the company Salesforce acquired two years ago for $2.8 billion. Salesforce’s intelligence platform is called Einstein. In spite of its attempt to personify the technology, it’s really about bringing artificial intelligence across the Salesforce platform of products, as it has with today’s API announcements.

Jan
07
2019
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HQ2 fight continues as New York City and Seattle officials hold anti-Amazon summit

The heated debate around Amazon’s recently announced Long Island City “HQ2” is showing no signs of cooling down.

On Monday morning, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) hosted a briefing in which labor officials, economic development analysts, Amazon employees and elected New York State and City representatives further underlined concerns around the HQ2 process, the awarded incentives, and the potential impacts Amazon’s presence would have on city workers and residents.

While many of the arguments posed at the Summit weren’t necessarily new, the wide variety of stakeholders that showed up to express concern looked to contextualize the far-reaching risks associated with the deal.

The day began with representatives from New York union groups recounting Amazon’s shaky history with employee working conditions and questioning how the city’s working standards will be impacted if the 50,000 promised jobs do actually show up.

Two current employees working in an existing Amazon New York City warehouse in Staten Island provided poignant examples of improper factory conditions and promised employee benefits that never came to fruition. According to the workers, Amazon has yet to follow through on shuttle services and ride-sharing services that were promised to ease worker commutes, forcing the workers to resort to overcrowded and unreliable public transportation. One of the workers detailed that with his now four-hour commute to get to and from work, coupled with his meaningfully long shifts, he’s been unable to see his daughter for weeks.

Various economic development groups and elected officials including, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, and New York State Senator Mike Gianaris supported the labor arguments with spirited teardowns of the economic terms of the deal.

Like many critics of the HQ2 process, the speakers’ expressed their beliefs that Amazon knew where it wanted to bring its second quarters throughout the entirety of its auction process, given the talent pool and resources in the chosen locations, and that the entire undertaking was meant to squeeze out the best economic terms possible. And according to City Council Speaker Johnson, New York City “got played”.

Comptroller Stringer argued that Amazon is taking advantage of New York’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP) and Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP), which Stringer described as outdated and in need of reform, to receive the majority of the $2 billion-plus in promised economic incentives that made it the fourth largest corporate incentive deal in US history.

The speakers continued to argue that the unprecedented level of incentives will be nearly impossible to recoup and that New York will also face economic damages from lower sales tax revenue as improved Amazon service in the city cannibalizes local brick & mortar retail.

Fears over how Amazon’s presence will impact the future of New York were given more credibility with the presence of Seattle City Council members Lisa Herbold & Teresa Mosqueda, who had flown to New York from Seattle to discuss lessons learned from having Amazon’s Headquarters in the city and to warn the city about the negative externalities that have come with it.

Herbold and Mosqueda focused less on an outright rejection of the deal but instead emphasized that New York was in a position to negotiate for better terms focused on equality and corporate social responsibility, which could help the city avoid the socioeconomic turnover that has plagued Seattle and could create a new standard for public-private partnerships.

While the New York City Council noted it was looking into legal avenues, the opposition seemed to have limited leverage to push back or meaningfully negotiate the deal. According to state officials, the most clear path to fight the deal would be through votes by the state legislature and through the state Public Authorities Control Board who has to unanimously approve the subsidy package.

With the significant turnout seen at Monday’s summit, which included several high-ranking state and city officials, it seems clear that we’re still in the early innings of what’s likely to be a long battle ahead to close the HQ2 deal.

Amazon did not return requests for immediate comment.

Dec
17
2018
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The Mom Project, a job site for moms returning to work, nabs $8M from Initialized and more

If you are a mother who has taken a break from full-time employment to raise kids, you may have also experienced the challenge that is jumping back into the working world after your break.

You may find you need more time flexibility; you have been out of the job market for years and so your confidence is knocked; your skills are no longer as relevant as they were before; or you just want to rethink your career; plus many employers — whether they say it or not — seem less interested in you because of all of the above, and no level of burnishing your resume on LinkedIn will help. It can be tough (and I say that from first-hand experience).

Now, Chicago-based startup The Mom Project, a platform specifically built to help female knowledge workers find jobs after pausing to raise kids, has raised a little egg of its own to take on this challenge. It’s picked up a Series A of $8 million that it plans to use to bring its job marketplace to more cities — it’s currently in Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco — and to expand the kinds of services it offers to make the challenge of juggling work and parenthood easier.

The funding is being led by Grotech Ventures and Initialized Capital, with another new investor, Aspect Ventures, and previous backers Atlanta Seed Company, Engage Ventures, OCA Ventures, BBG Ventures, IrishAngels and Wintrust Financial also participating.

This brings the total raised by The Mom Project to $11 million, and with 75,000 registered moms and 1,000 companies, including Procter & Gamble, BP, Miller Coors and AT&T, the startup claims it’s now the largest platform of its kind in the U.S.

From selling diapers to changing diapers

Allison Robinson, the founder and CEO of The Mom Project, said she came up with the idea for the startup in 2016, when she was on maternity leave from a strategy role at Pampers.

“I started realising a lot about moms before I became one,” she says about her last role before striking out as an entrepreneur. “But what I hadn’t understood until I was on maternity leave myself was that your priorities can change after having a child.” (She’s pictured up above with her son.)

Citing a study she’d seen in the Harvard Business Review that estimated 43 percent of skilled women exit the workforce after having children, Robinson realised there was a gap in the market for those among them who had timed out from returning to their previous roles, but still wanted to make the leap back into working at some point.

And she has a point: Not only do people who decide they want to return to work face all of the usual issues of newly needing more time flexibility, wondering whether their skills are still current enough, general confidence and so on, but the average recruitment process, and job sites overall, do not really have ways to account for any of that very well.

And the gap exists on the employer side of the marketplace, too. Businesses — both large corporates very much in the public eye as well as smaller businesses that are not — are rethinking how they hire and keep good people in the overall competition for talent. (Just this week, the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics said that the number of unfilled positions in the information and communication technology sector rose by 24.3 percent compared to last year in the country, a shortage that’s reflected in other markets.)

Having a diverse workforce — including more women and women from different walks of life — is key not only to helping counteract that, but to contribute to better overall work culture. That’s a fact that many employers have realised independently or have simply been thrown into the spotlight unwittingly and now are trying to repair.

And yet, there haven’t been many opportunities for them to pursue more diverse hiring practices.

LinkedIn recently made a tiny move into exploring diversity in hiring by at least allowing recruiters to search their job candidate results by gender, but this is a far cry from actually addressing the specific predicaments that particular segments of the working population have, and how to help them connect better with employers who might be keen to bring more of them on through recruitment.

In fact, the idea of providing improved job search for knowledge workers in specific cases is actually a very interesting one that shows there is definitely still room for innovation in the world of recruitment: Handshake earlier this year raised $40 million for its own take on this, which is providing a better LinkedIn-style platform to connect minority university graduates with interesting job opportunities at companies keen to make their workforces more diverse.

“Companies have started to realize the value in building a diverse workforce, but we still have a long way to go in achieving equal representation and opportunities,” said Julia Taxin, a partner at Grotech and new Mom Project board member. “Allison and her team have built an incredible marketplace of diverse talent for companies and I look forward to working with The Mom Project to execute on their vision of helping to close the gender gap in the workplace.”

The Mom Project, Robinson said, is tackling the challenges at both ends of the spectrum.

On the employer side, she said there is a lot of educating going on, talking to HR people and getting them to understand the opportunity they could unlock by hiring more parents — which tend to be almost entirely all-women, but sometimes men, too.

“We want to provide more data to these companies,” she said, pointing out that it’s not just a matter of providing a job opportunity, but also giving parents options in areas like childcare, or flexible working schedules. “We want to show them ‘here is where you are doing well, and here is where you are not. Fixes don’t cost a lot of money, but a lot of companies are just not aware.”

“We’ve got 75,000 women on our platform, and currently around 1,000 companies posting jobs,” she said. “The goal is to have 75,000-plus jobs. We want to make sure that all the moms signing up on the platform are getting work.”

“The Mom Project is determined to create a future where women aren’t forced to choose between their families and their careers,” said Alda Leu Dennis, partner at Initialized Capital and new Mom Project board member, in a statement. “There is a huge pool of experienced talent, parents and non-parents, that is sometimes overlooked because companies haven’t created the kind of diverse, flexible workplace culture that attracts and retains them. Initialized wants to be part of making this cultural shift happen.”

On the parent side, not only is it also about making the platform known to people who are considering a return to work, but it’s also about some fundamental, but very important basics, such as giving would-be jobseekers the flexibility to go to interviews. Robinson said that one campaign it’s about to launch, in partnership with Urban Sitter, is to provide free childcare credits to Mom Project jobseekers so that they can get to their interview.

“Sometimes you have to go to an interview with 24 hours’ notice, and lining up a sitter can be stressful,” she said. “We want to alleviate that.”

Parents also know that this isn’t just an issue for the interview: Many towns and regions have what Robinson called “childcare deserts,” where there is a scarcity of affordable options to replace the parent on a more daily basis.

Contract work is king (and queen)

For now, Robinson said that the majority of jobs on the platform are focused on fixed-term employment — that is, not permanent, full-time work.

This is due to a number of reasons. For example, parents coming back to working after a break may be more inclined to ease in with shorter roles and less long-term commitment. And employers are still testing out how this demographic of workers will work out, so to speak. Equally, though, we have seen a huge swing in more general employment trends, where businesses are hiring fixed-term workers rather than full-time employees to account for seasonality and to give themselves more flexibility (not to mention less liability on the benefits front).

While Robinson said that the aim is definitely to bring more full-time job opportunities to the platform over time, this has nonetheless presented an interesting business opportunity to The Mom Project. The startup acts like Airbnb, Amazon and a number of other marketplaces, where it not only connects job-seekers and employers, but also then handles all the transactions around the job. When the job is fixed-term, the Mom Project essentially becomes like the job agency paying the employee, and that is how it makes a cut. And it also becomes the provider of benefits and more.

In other words, while there is an immediate opportunity for The Mom Project to compete against (or at least win some business from) the likes of LinkedIn to target the specific opportunity of providing jobs for women returning to work, there is a potentially and equally big one in becoming a one-stop employment shop to handle customers’ other needs as employers or workers, providing a range of other services, from payroll through to childcare listings and more.

Dec
11
2018
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TechSee nabs $16M for its customer support solution built on computer vision and AR

Chatbots and other AI-based tools have firmly found footing in the world of customer service, used either to augment or completely replace the role of a human responding to questions and complaints, or (sometimes, annoyingly, at the same time as the previous two functions) sell more products to users.

Today, an Israeli startup called TechSee is announcing $16 million in funding to help build out its own twist on that innovation: an AI-based video service, which uses computer vision, augmented reality and a customer’s own smartphone camera to provide tech support to customers, either alongside assistance from live agents, or as part of a standalone customer service “bot.”

Led by Scale Venture Partners — the storied investor that has been behind some of the bigger enterprise plays of the last several years (including Box, Chef, Cloudhealth, DataStax, Demandbase, DocuSign, ExactTarget, HubSpot, JFrog and fellow Israeli AI assistance startup WalkMe), the Series B also includes participation from Planven Investments, OurCrowd, Comdata Group and Salesforce Ventures. (Salesforce was actually announced as a backer in October.)

The funding will be used both to expand the company’s current business as well as move into new product areas like sales.

Eitan Cohen, the CEO and co-founder, said that the company today provides tools to some 15,000 customer service agents and counts companies like Samsung and Vodafone among its customers across verticals like financial services, tech, telecoms and insurance.

The potential opportunity is big: Cohen estimates there are about 2 million customer service agents in the U.S., and about 14 million globally.

TechSee is not disclosing its valuation. It has raised around $23 million to date.

While TechSee provides support for software and apps, its sweet spot up to now has been providing video-based assistance to customers calling with questions about the long tail of hardware out in the world, used for example in a broadband home Wi-Fi service.

In fact, Cohen said he came up with the idea for the service when his parents phoned him up to help them get their cable service back up, and he found himself challenged to do it without being able to see the set-top box to talk them through what to do.

So he thought about all the how-to videos that are on platforms like YouTube and decided there was an opportunity to harness that in a more organised way for the companies providing an increasing array of kit that may never get the vlogger treatment.

“We are trying to bring that YouTube experience for all hardware,” he said in an interview.

The thinking is that this will become a bigger opportunity over time as more services get digitised, the cost of components continues to come down and everything becomes “hardware.”

“Tech may become more of a commodity, but customer service does not,” he added. “Solutions like ours allow companies to provide low-cost technology without having to hire more people to solve issues [that might arise with it.]”

The product today is sold along two main trajectories: assisting customer reps; and providing unmanned video assistance to replace some of the easier and more common questions that get asked.

In cases where live video support is provided, the customer opts in for the service, similar to how she or he might for a support service that “takes over” the device in question to diagnose and try to fix an issue. Here, the camera for the service becomes a customer’s own phone.

Over time, that live assistance is used in two ways that are directly linked to TechSee’s artificial intelligence play. First, it helps to build up TechSee’s larger back catalogue of videos, where all identifying characteristics are removed with the focus solely on the device or problem in question. Second, the experience in the video is also used to build TechSee’s algorithms for future interactions. Cohen said there are now “millions” of media files — images and videos — in the company’s catalogue.

The effectiveness of its system so far has been pretty impressive. TechSee’s customers — the companies running the customer support — say they have on average seen a 40 percent increase in customer satisfaction (NPS scores), a 17 percent decrease in technician dispatches and between 20 and 30 percent increase in first-call resolutions, depending on the industry.

TechSee is not the only company that has built a video-based customer engagement platform: others include Stryng, CallVU and Vee24. And you could imagine companies like Amazon — which is already dabbling in providing advice to customers based on what its Echo Look can see — might be interested in providing such services to users across the millions of products that it sells, as well as provide that as a service to third parties.

According to Cohen, what TechSee has going for it compared to those startups, and also the potential entry of companies like Microsoft or Amazon into the mix, is a head start on raw data and a vision of how it will be used by the startup’s AI to build the business.

“We believe that anyone who wants to build this would have a challenge making it from scratch,” he said. “This is where we have strong content, millions of images, down to specific model numbers, where we can provide assistance and instructions on the spot.”

Salesforce’s interest in the company, he said, is a natural progression of where that data and customer relationship can take a business beyond responsive support into areas like quick warranty verification (for all those times people have neglected to do a product registration), snapping fender benders for insurance claims and of course upselling to other products and services.

“Salesforce sees the synergies between the sales cloud and the service cloud,” Cohen said.

“TechSee recognized the great potential for combining computer vision AI with augmented reality in customer engagement,” said Andy Vitus, partner at Scale Venture Partners, who joins the board with this round. “Electronic devices become more complex with every generation, making their adoption a perennial challenge. TechSee is solving a massive problem for brands with a technology solution that simplifies the customer experience via visual and interactive guidance.”

Nov
13
2018
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Sojern raises another $120M led by TCV to expand its travel marketing platform

Travel continues to be one of the biggest verticals online, projected to be worth over $1 trillion by 2022, and today a startup that helps travel-related businesses connect the dots between their products and would-be customers is raising a large round of funding to capitalise on that.

Sojern, a company that works with businesses in the travel industry — hotels, airlines, tourist agencies, booking portals and others — to build and run campaigns to find and market their services to people as they are planning travel, is today announcing that it has raised another $120 million in funding at a valuation of over $300 million.

Sojern started out life in 2007 putting ads on boarding passes, but today its reach covers a much wider terrain in the search for relevant and interested “eyeballs”. Typical media it targets marketing to today includes native advertising; display, mobile and video ads; and social media. But in an interview, CEO Mark Rabe said that the plan for the funding will be to expand to more “emerging” platforms, like connected TV (where it’s already active).

“Our plan is to continue expanding solutions for existing clients as well as accelerate into developing markets like local tourism and attractions,” he said. “Overall we want to keep proving our performance as a late-stage, high-growth company with expanding profit margins and cash flow.”

The round, a Series D, is being led by TCV (Technology Crossover Ventures), a key and potentially very strategic investor since TCV has a long history of backing large travel and marketing startups, including Airbnb, Expedia, HomeAway, TripAdvisor, SiteMinder, ExactTarget, Act-On and Ariba, some of which already work with Sojern, and some who well might work with it in the future.

Other investors are not being disclosed, but Sojern has previously had backing from Norwest Venture Partners, Trident, Treeptop and other VCs; and also has a list of strategic partners, with some holding equity stakes in the business, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways.

(As we’ve pointed out before, the relationship it has with some of these stems back to the founding of the company, and part of what airlines, for example, receive is a cut on the advertising revenues that appear on their boarding passes.)

Prior to this latest round, Sojern had raised some $42.5 million. Rabe said that the company is not disclosing its valuation with this round, but as a guide, he noted that the company has been profitable for the last 13 quarters and it crossed a $100 million run rate in 2017. Also of note: Sojern’s last valuation was $158 million after raising a round in 2013, according to PitchBook, so — at a very conservative estimate — its valuation post-money is around $280 million. (But my guess is that it is higher considering Sojern’s growth and profitability, and a source has confirmed that it is definitely above $300 million.)

“We’re going after a total addressable market that we believe is at least $100 billion,” he said, citing a combination of the dollars travel brands are spending in digital and programmatic advertising worth roughly $20 billion and what they’re paying to online intermediaries in the distribution markets worth $80 billion. “So far we’ve driven over $13 billion in bookings for our clients, and we aren’t slowing down anytime soon,” he added.

The company competes not just with other companies big in advertising like Google (which itself has made a very big play to do more specifically in the travel search vertical) but also other companies working in the big data-fuelled analytics space as it interests with the world of travel marketing, such as Adara.

Rabe believes Sojern is unique in the space. “We don’t see anyone out there delivering direct bookings in travel at this scale, and doing it successfully across the industry from the biggest enterprise brands all the way down to independent properties and local tourism providers,” he said.

“When we think about the competitive set, we’re looking at companies with proven business models demonstrating that they can deliver strong results at scale and retain clients over the long term. And what’s become clear is that today’s independent adtech and martech companies have to differentiate to provide value. Because Sojern has been focused on travel from the very beginning, we understand the challenges and complexities of the industry and offer more specialized solutions than a generalist player ever could.”

The predicament that it is addressing remains a messy one: from every segment of the market — from luxury down to budget travellers — we as consumers are spoiled for choice these days when it comes to thinking not just of where and how we might want to travel, but also how to find the best deals and options that match what we want to do. On the side of suppliers, they are all scrambling to connect with their would-be customers before someone else does.

Sojern says that its wider database and reach covers some 350 million travellers, making it one of the more accurate platforms to identifying and connecting with those users.

Interestingly, this could potentially one day get applied to more than just travel, but maybe not for Sojern.

“I get asked this question a lot,” Rabe said when I asked him about expanding to other areas. “But what people don’t often realize is that the travel and tourism industry is actually the largest industry in the world. Conservatively we believe our immediate total addressable market is $100 billion, and on top of that the overall industry is growing with digital continuing to pull share from offline transaction channels like phone and traditional travel agencies.”

That focus is also what attracted TCV, it seems.

“We have been watching Sojern’s rapid rise in the travel technology space for several years, and we were impressed with Sojern’s leadership position in the space and its unique, scalable model for influencing travelers worldwide,” said Woody Marshall of TCV in a statement.

“Sojern’s ability to both conceptualize a better marketing experience for travel organizations and their steady execution over the past decade, as well as their innovative business strategy, strong executive team, and inspiring company culture made them a natural fit for us.” Marshall is joining the board with this round.

Just as the market for travel services continues to boom, so do those startups that are best placed to meet that demand, collectively hundreds of millions of dollars in the last five years. Among the range of travel startups focusing specifically on helping connect intent to travel with ideas of where you can spend your money, other notable rounds have included TripActions raising $154 million earlier this month, CultureTrip raising $80 million earlier this year, and Airbnb raising $1 billion last year.

Updated with updated revenue figures and customer / investor names

Nov
02
2018
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Dynamic Yield, which builds Amazon-like personalisation for the rest of us, raises $38M

Amazon, one of the world’s largest companies, has transformed the face of commerce in part because it has managed at once to be “The Everything Store” but still with a route into its sea of products that, for most users, surfaces what they might most want to see (and importantly buy or consume). That kind of personalisation has become a goal not just for e-commerce companies, but for any organization running a digital business: users are constantly distracted, and when their attention is caught, they do not want to spend time figuring out what they most want.

Not every business is Amazon, though, so we are seeing a crop of startups emerging that are working on ways to help the rest of the digital world be just as optimised and personalised as Amazon. Now one of them, an Israeli startup called Dynamic Yield, has raised more money as it continues to expand its business, both to more platforms and to more geographies.

The startup’s Series D has now closed off at $38 million, with the inclusion of a $5 million strategic investment from Naver, Korea’s “Google” (it’s the country’s top search portal) that is also behind messaging apps Line and Snow. The plan is for Naver to help bring Dynamic Yield to Korea and Japan, by incorporating its tech into its own services and those of others that work with Naver.

(Personalisation and aggregators are strong magnets for users in Asia and thus big magnets for funding: ByteDance, which provides news aggregation among other services, was recently valued at $75 billion.)

Naver is not the only search engine that has caught sight of Dynamic Yield over the years. Previous investors include Baidu (“the Google of China”), and we’ve heard that when the startup was younger — it was founded in 2011 — Google had tried to acquire it (Dynamic Yield rejected the offer, and it’s been approached for acquisitions numerous times since then).

Other strategic investors include The New York Times and Deutsche Telekom, alongside other backers like Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer Venture Partners, Marker Capital and more.

Dynamic Yield has raised $85 million to date and is now valued at “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but less than $500 million, a source at the company said, after seeing a strong expansion of its services. 

Dynamic Yield says it works with more than 220 global brands, and its tech reaches 600 million unique users each month, across 10 billion page views and 600 billion “events” on those pages. It claims its AI-based personalisation technology can lift revenues (or other engagement metrics) by 10-15 percent. 

“It makes us an effective tool for surviving in a market where customer acquisition cost keeps getting more expensive,” co-founder and CEO Liad Agmon said in an interview.

Dynamic Yield doesn’t talk about many of its customers on the record — most don’t like to reveal to rivals who they work with, Agmon said.

But they include a number of big brands across e-commerce, travel, finance, media and other segments that use its tech not just to show more targeted products to prospective shoppers, but to help power advertising, recommend content and position the same information to different people in different ways depending on who is viewing it (for example with different headlines).

There are a lot of personalisation and A/B analytics companies in the market today — others include Adobe, Marketo (which is becoming a part of Adobe), Optimizely and many more. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if Amazon is not working on ways of productising its own personalisation tech in a way that is not intrinsically linked to its own marketplace (because some will never want to sell there, and because personalisation can be used for so much more than just e-commerce).

Dynamic Yield, however, claims that it has an edge over these because of how it works.

Agmon says that the tech sits on top of whichever CMS or other backend server that a site is using and is activated by way of a small amount of code. It uses machine learning to both “read” what is in a site, and matches that up against specific visitors and its own trove of experience.

Agmon added that when a business already has information about that visitor, that is the primary data that is used; otherwise it also incorporates other data sources like Acxiom and others — much the way that other marketing tech does — to form a stronger picture of your tastes.

It then runs this data through its own machine learning algorithms both to recommend content and to help a marketing manager figure out better customer segmentation overall. There is an “autopilot” version of the product where everything is automated based on Dynamic Yield’s algorithms; or options to use the data sources to set up specific marketing campaigns; or (as is common) a combination of the two.

Going forward, Agmon said the plan is to work across an increasing number of interfaces where customers are going today to discover and buy goods and services. Indeed, we’ve described how some of the newest e-commerce startups have eschewed any website or app of their own and work exclusively in third-party messaging apps to acquire customers and sell goods.

But it’s not just these new digital platforms that are becoming targets for personalisation startups like Dynamic Yield.

Agmon said that his company is also working with a major retailer that is using its tech at its in-person payment points. When — for example — a customer comes to order a latte, instead of generic upselling to the latest seasonal flavour, the person taking the order will now know if the customer ever orders a sweet injection, or if she/he is more of a savoury snack sort of person. The cashier will then know what to recommend to eat with that drink that is more likely to be purchased.

The mom-and-pop shop with its reputation for knowing the regulars and what they like might have found its dystopian (but useful) heir.

Nov
01
2018
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Retail-as-a-service provider Leap raises $3M and launches first store

The past decade in retail has been the golden age of direct-to-consumer (D2C) and digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) that use the internet to communicate with customers, execute transactions, handle distribution and offer better economics.

But as small independent startups have scaled into unicorn territory and as countless brands have saturated digital channels, customer acquisition has gotten harder and costlier. Companies are now trying to meet customers with different purchase habits by developing physical stores. 

However, building an effective brick-and-mortar presence can be expensive and risky for DNVBs, requiring resources outside their core competencies. Chicago-based startup Leap is hoping to make it easier for digital brands to grow physical retail footprints without the typical risks of store development by taking care of the entire process for them.

Leap offers a full-service platform covering the complete life cycle of a brand’s brick-and-mortar launch.  In addition to owning the lease and the financial commitments that come with it, Leap covers everything from staffing, experiential design, tech integration and even day-to-day operations. 

(Photo by Alexander Scheuber/Getty Images)

Less than a year since its founding, Leap announced today the launch of its first store and the close of a $3 million seed round, led by Costanoa Ventures, with participation from Equal Ventures and Brand Foundry Ventures.

The debut store will act as the first Chicago location for Koio, the high-end D2C sneaker brand backed by headline-grabbing names like the Winklevoss twins, director Simon Kinberg and actor Miles Teller. 

Instead of paying a monthly lease fee, along with all the other variable costs associated with operating a physical store, companies like Koio pay Leap on a percent of sales basis, effectively minimizing risk and incentivizing performance. 

On top of minimizing development expense for brands, Leap believes its customer insights and intelligent logistics platform can help improve shopper engagement, increase customer traffic and drive brand lift. If the startup’s thesis proves true, brands can improve both sides of their brick-and-mortar unit economics by reducing customer acquisition costs and amplifying customer value.

At its core, Leap simplifies a DNVB’s physical retail operations into a single line item on its P&L, allowing the company to focus on brand building and supply chain rather than retail strategy, while also allowing them to scale faster. 

With the latest fundraise, the company hopes to build out its team and continue new location expansion.  Longer-term, Leap’s co-founders hope to build a vast network of sites that can help provide intelligence around new store development and shopper preference.

“We want to be the platform to help brands go to market in the offline space”, said co-founder Amish Tolia.  “We want to help brands build direct-to-consumer relationships in local neighborhoods across the country and enable them to focus on what they’re best at. Enable them to focus on product innovation, supply chain management, great marketing and brand building.”

A glimpse into the future retail

While Leap’s value proposition is straightforward, its business model points to a bigger trend in the world of retail.  

By opting to sell its software and brick-and-mortar services rather than creating its own brands, Leap effectively acts as a “retail-as-a-service” platform. The as-a-service strategy is already quietly growing in popularity in the retail space, with companies like b8ta, the Internet of Things gadget retailer, launching its hardware-oriented “Built by b8ta” platform earlier this year.

Though likely heavy in upfront capital costs, retail-as-a-service businesses don’t have the same constant concern around supply chain, manufacturing, consumer acquisition and marketing spend. And in certain pricing models based on a monthly fee or percent of square footage basis, platforms can see more stable revenues relative to pure retail startups.

From a brand perspective, DNVBs have been looking for ways to extend growth runways while minimizing the cost and uncertainty that deterred them from physical stores in the first place. The as-a-service model can make brick-and-mortar retail a much more scalable engine, possibly even cooling rising concern around bubbling consumer valuations.

As more of the young digitally born D2C giants resort to as-a-service companies to find marginal customers, we may see the rise of a new set of startups fighting to establish themselves as the platform on which brands operate.

If the last decade was defined by retail online, it’s possible that the next decade will be defined by retail-as-a-service.

And if you find yourself in Chicago, feel free to check out the Leap-enabled Koio Store at 924 W Armitage in Lincoln Park.

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