Oct
22
2020
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Facebook adds hosting, shopping features and pricing tiers to WhatsApp Business

Facebook has been making a big play to be a go-to partner for small and medium businesses that use the internet to interface with the wider world, and its messaging platform WhatsApp, with some 50 million businesses and 175 million people messaging them (and more than 2 billion users overall) has been a central part of that pitch.

Now, the company is making three big additions to WhatsApp to fill out that proposition.

It’s launching a way to shop for and pay for goods and services in WhatsApp chats; it’s going head to head with the hosting providers of the world with a new product called Facebook Hosting Services to host businesses’ online assets and activity; and — in line with its expanding product range — Facebook said it will finally start to charge companies using WhatsApp for Business.

Facebook announced the news in a short blog post light on details. We have reached out to the company for more information on pricing, availability of the services and whether Facebook will provide hosting itself or work with third parties, and we will update this post as we learn more.

Update: Facebook responded and we are putting the replies below, in-line where it makes sense.

Here is what we know for now:

In-chat Shopping: Companies are already using WhatsApp to present product information and initiate discussions for transactions. One of the more recent developments in that area was the addition of QR codes and the ability to share catalog links in chats, added in July. At the same time, Facebook has been expanding the ways that businesses can display what they are selling on Facebook and Instagram, most recently with the launch in August of Facebook Shop, following a similar product roll out on Instagram before that.

Today’s move sounds like a new way for businesses in turn to use WhatsApp both to link through to those Facebook-native catalogs, as well as other products, and then purchase items, while still staying in the chat.

At the same time, Facebook will be making it possible for merchants to add “buy” buttons in other places that will take shoppers to WhatsApp chats to complete the purchase. “We also want to make it easier for businesses to integrate these features into their existing commerce and customer solutions,” it notes. “This will help many small businesses who have been most impacted in this time.”

Although Facebook is not calling this WhatsApp Pay, it seems that this is the next step ahead for the company’s ambitions to bring payments into the chat flow of its messaging app. That has been a long and winding road for the company, which finally launched WhatsApp Payments, using Facebook Pay, in Brazil, in June of this year only to have it shut down by regulators for failing to meet their requirements. (The plan has been to expand it to India, Indonesia and Mexico next.)

Facebook Hosting Services: These will be available in the coming months, but no specific date to share right now. “We’re sharing our plans now while we work with our partners to make these services available,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

No! This is not about Facebook taking on AWS. Or… not yet at least? The idea here appears that it is specifically aimed at selling hosting services to the kind of SMBs who already use Facebook and WhatsApp messaging, who either already use hosting services for their online assets, whether that be their online stores or other things, or are finding themselves now needing to for the first time, now that business is all about being “online.”

“Today, all businesses using our API are using either an on-premise solution or leverage a solutions provider, both of which require costly servers to maintain,” Facebook said. “With this change, businesses will be able to choose to use Facebook’s own secure hosting infrastructure for free, which helps remove a costly item for every company that wants to use the WhatsApp Business API, including our business service providers, and will help them all save money.” It added that it will share more info about where data will be hosted closer to launch.

This is a very interesting move, since the SMB hosting market is pretty fragmented with a number of companies, including the likes of GoDaddy, Dream Host, HostGator, BlueHost and many others also offering these services. That fragmentation spells opportunity for a huge company like Facebook with a global profile, a burgeoning amount of connections through to other online services for these SMBs and a pretty extensive network of data centers around the world that it has built for itself and can now use to provide services to others — which is, indeed, a pretty strong parallel with how Amazon and AWS have done business.

Facebook already has an “app store” of sorts with partners it works with to provide marketing and related services to businesses using its platform. It looks like it plans to expand this, and will sell the hosting alongside all of that, with the kicker that hosting natively on Facebook will speed up how everything works.

“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium size businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive – wherever their employees are,” it notes.

Charging tiers: As you would expect, to encourage more adoption, Facebook has not been charging for WhatsApp Business up to now, but it has charged for some WhatsApp business messages — for example when businesses send a boarding pass or e-commerce receipt to a customer over Facebook’s rails. (These prices vary and a list of them is published here.) Now, with more services coming into the mix, and businesses tying their fates more strongly to how well they are performing on Facebook’s platforms, it’s no surprise to see Facebook converting that into a pay to play scenario.

“What we’ve heard over the past couple years is how the conversational nature of business messaging is really valuable to people. So in the future we may look at ways to update how we charge businesses that better reflect how it’s used,” the company told us. Important to note that this will relate to how businesses send messages. “As always, it’s free for people to send a business a message,” Facebook added.

Frustratingly, there seems so far to be no detail on which services will be charged, nor how much, nor when, so this is more of a warning than a new requirement.

“We will charge business customers for some of the services we offer, which will help WhatsApp continue building a business of our own while we provide and expand free end-to-end encrypted text, video and voice calling for more than two billion people,” it notes.

For those who might find that annoying, on the plus side, for those who are concerned about an ever-encroaching data monster, it will, at the least, help WhatsApp and Facebook continue to stick to its age-old commitment to stay away from advertising as a business model.

Doubling-down on SMBs

The new services come at a time when Facebook is doubling down on providing services for businesses, spurred in no small part by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven physical retailers and others to close their actual doors, shifting their focus to using the internet and mobile services to connect with and sell to customers.

Citing that very trend, last month the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg announced the Facebook Business Suite, bringing together all of the tools it has been building for companies to better leverage Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp profiles both to advertise themselves as well as communicate with and sell to customers. And the fact that Sandberg was leading the announcement says something about how Facebook is prioritizing this: it’s striking while the iron is hot with companies using its platform, but it sees/hopes that business services can a key way to diversify its business model while also helping buffer it — since many businesses building Pages may also advertise.

Facebook has also been building more functionality across Facebook and Instagram specifically aimed at helping power users and businesses leverage the two in a more efficient way. Adding in more tools to WhatsApp is the natural progression of all of this.

To be sure, as we pointed out earlier this year, even while there is a lot of very informal use of WhatsApp by businesses all around the world, WhatsApp Business remains a fairly small product, most popular in India and Brazil. Facebook launching more tools for how to use it will potentially drive more business not just in those markets but help the company convert more businesses to using it in other places, too.

Smaller businesses have been on Facebook’s radar for a while now. Even before the pandemic hit, in many cases retailers or restaurants do not have websites of their own, opting for a Facebook Page or Instagram Profile as their URL and primary online interface with the world; and even when they do have standalone sites, they are more likely to update people and spread the word about what they are doing on social media than via their own URLs.

Facebook’s also made a video to help demonstrate how it sees these WhatsApp Business in action, which you can here:

Oct
07
2020
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DoorDash introduces a new corporate product, DoorDash for Work

Delivery service DoorDash is giving employers a way to feed their remote employees through a new suite of products called DoorDash for Work.

There are four main products, starting with DashPass for Work, where employers can fund employee memberships to DashPass, a program that eliminates delivery fees on orders from thousands of restaurants. In fact, DoorDash says it already worked with Mt. Sinai to offer free DashPass subscriptions to 42,000 healthcare employees, and that other DashPass for Work customers include Charles Schwab, Hulu and Stanford Research Park.

DoorDash for Work also includes the ability for employers to provide credits for meal orders — there are options for day and time restrictions, so employers can be sure they’re paying for food while someone is working. For teams that are working in-person, there’s the ability to combine individual meal orders into a larger group order. And the service also includes employee gift cards (Zoom, for example, is providing these on employee birthdays).

In a blog post, Broderick McClinton, the head of DoorDash for Work, noted that COVID-19 has had “a profound impact on our daily routines, including the way we eat.”

“Instead of meeting our favorite barista on the way into the office or socializing with our colleagues in the lunch room, we’re spending a lot more time in the kitchen and eating solo at home, missing out on those moments to engage with peers and support our favorite restaurants,” McClinton wrote. “In this new normal, companies are adapting and looking for ways to support their employees’ wellbeing and productivity through new work-from-home corporate wellness benefits, including food perks.”

While free food might seem relatively low on the list of priorities during the pandemic (at least for those of us who have been fortunate enough to keep our jobs), DoorDash says it conducted a survey of 1,000 working Americans last month and found that 90% of them said they miss at least one food-related benefit from the office.

So DoorDash for Work is designed to help employers continue offering benefits in this area, and also it opens up a new source of revenue for DoorDash.

 

Oct
06
2020
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Tone raises $4M to help e-commerce brands text with their customers

While many companies are using chatbots and other forms of automation to manage their communication with customers, Boston-based Tone is betting that humans will remain a key part of the equation.

“The traditional models of bots and humans is, ‘Hello, I’m a bot, now you get to battle with me to finally get to a human,’ ” said Tone CEO Tivan Amour. “Our version of that is, ‘I’m a human using AI to get you the answers you need more quickly.’ ”

Amour and his co-founders Vlad Pick and Kyle Weidman previously created a bicycle startup called Fortified Bicycle, and he said they “figured out that the best way to close our customers on these $750 to $1,000 orders was to actually engage them in text message conversations.”

After all, when it comes to “high consideration” purchases like bicycles, people usually want to discuss their questions and concerns with another human being. Over time, the Fortified team built what Amour said was a “semi-automated system” to help its sales team stay on top of these conversations.

“We started bragging to our friends about it, ‘You’ve gotta do this, it’s the future of mobile commerce,’ ” he recalled. “And they’d say, ‘Okay, that’s cool, but we don’t have any of the systems of doing that, we don’t have the salespeople.’ ”

Tone’s founders

So after selling Fortified Bicycle, Amour and Pick created Tone to help any e-commerce business manage similar text message conversations. Tone employs its own team of human agents to actually do the texting, assisted by software that helps them find the information they need.

It integrates with e-commerce systems like Shopify and Magento, and it’s already working with more than 1,000 brands like ThirdLove, Peak Design and Usual Wines — which are seeing as much as a 26% increase in revenue and a 15% increase in order size.

Amour also noted that specific Tone agents are assigned to specific brands, which means that customers will be talking to the same person whenever they have a question for that business. In some cases, customers have been talking to the same agent for months or years. (Update: Tone clarified that this isn’t a person, but a single persona that’s probably an amalgamation of multiple agents.)

“Particularly in a post-COVID world, it’s pretty clear that online shopping has become the dominant form of shopping, but I think nobody has thought about how you replace that human experience that you get in traditional retail,” he said.

Tone is announcing today that it has raised $4 million in seed funding led by Bling Capital, with participation from Day One Ventures, One Way Ventures, TIA Ventures and executives from Google, Facebook, Dropbox and Uber.

With the new funding, Amour said Tone will be able to build out the “relationship automation” aspect of the product. He also suggested that the platform could eventually expand beyond text messaging, but it sounds like that’s not a big priority.

“In theory, we’re a conversational sales platform more than we are an SMS company,” he said. “However there are a bunch of trends right now [such as the growth of mobile commerce] that make SMS the most obvious place for this sort of innovation.”

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
30
2020
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VTEX raises $225M at a $1.7B valuation for e-commerce solutions aimed at retailers and brands

Retailers and consumer brands are focused more than ever in their histories on using e-commerce channels to connect with customers: the global health pandemic has disrupted much of their traditional business in places like physical stores, event venues and restaurants, and vending machines, and accelerated the hunt for newer ways to sell goods and services. Today, a startup that’s been helping them build those bridges, specifically to expand into newer markets, is announcing a huge round of funding, underscoring the demand.

VTEX, which builds e-commerce solutions and strategies for retailers like Walmart and huge consumer names like AB InBev, Motorola, Stanley Black & Decker, Sony, Walmart, Whirlpool, Coca-Cola and Nestlé, has raised $225 million in new funding, valuing the company at $1.7 billion post-money.

The funding is being co-led by two investors, Tiger Global and Lone Pine Capital, with Constellation, Endeavour Catalyst and SoftBank also participating. It’s a mix of investors, with two leads, that offers a “signal” of what might come next for the startup, said Amit Shah, the company’s chief strategy officer and general manager for North America.

“We’ve seen them invest in big rounds right before companies go public,” he said. “Now, that’s not necessarily happening here right now, but it’s a signal.” The company has been profitable and plans to continue to be, Shah said (making it one example of a SoftBank investment that hasn’t gone sour). Revenues this year are up 114% with $8 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) processed over platforms it’s built.

Given that VTEX last raised money less than a year ago — a $140 million round led by SoftBank’s Latin American Innovation Fund — the valuation jump for the startup is huge. Shah confirmed to us that it represents a 4x increase on its previous valuation (which would have been $425 million).

The interest back in November from SoftBank’s Latin American fund stemmed from VTEX’s beginnings.

The company got its start building e-commerce storefronts and strategies for businesses that were hoping to break into Brazil — the B of the world’s biggest emerging “BRIC” markets — and the rest of Latin America. It made its name building Walmart in the region, and has continued to help run and develop that operation even after Walmart divested the asset, and it’s working with Walmart now in other regions outside the US, too, he added.

But since then, while the Latin American arm of the business has continued to thrive, the company has capitalized both on the funding it had picked up, and the current global climate for e-commerce solutions, to expand its business into more markets, specifically North America, EMEA and most recently Asia.

“We are today even more impressed by the quality and energy of the VTEX team than we were when we invested in the previous round,” said Marcello Silva at Constellation. “The best is yet to come. VTEX’s team is stronger than ever, VTEX’s product is stronger than ever, and we are still in the early stages of ecommerce penetration. We could not miss the opportunity to increase our exposure.”

Revenues were growing at a rate of 50% a year before the pandemic ahead of it’s more recent growth this year of 114%, Shah said. “Of course, we would prefer Covid-19 not to be here, but it has had a good effect on our business. The arc of e-commerce has grown has impacted revenues and created that additional level of investor interest.”

VTEX’s success has hinged not just on catering to companies that have up to now not prioritized their online channels, but in doing so in a way that is more unified.

Consumer packaged goods have been in a multi-faceted bind because of the fragmented way in which they have grown. A drinks brand will not only manufacture on a local level (and sometimes, as in the case of, say, Coca-Cola, use different ingredient formulations), but they will often have products that are only sold in select markets, and because the audiences are different, they’ve devise marketing and distribution strategies on a local level, too.

On top of all that, products like these have long relied on channels like retailers, restaurants, vending machines and more to get their products into the hands of consumers.

These days, of course, all of that has been disrupted: all the traditional channels they would have used to sell things are now either closed or seeing greatly reduced custom. And as for marketing: the rise of social networks has led to a globalization in messaging, where something can go viral all over the world and marketing therefore knows no regional boundaries.

So, all of this means that brands have to rethink everything around how they sell their products, and that’s where a company like VTEX steps in, building strategies and solutions that can be used in multiple regions. Among typical deals, it’s been working with AB InBev to develop a global commerce platform covering 50 countries (replacing multiple products from other vendors, typically competitors to VTEX include SAP, Shopify and Magento, and giving brands and others a viable route to market that doesn’t cut in the likes of Amazon).

“CPG companies are seeking to standardize and make their businesses and lives a little easier,” Shah said. Typical work that it does includes building marketplaces for retailers, or new e-commerce interfaces so that brands can better supply online and offline retailers, or sell directly to customers — for example, with new ways of ordering products to get delivered by others. Shah said that some 200 marketplaces have now been built by VTEX for its customers.

(Shah himself, it’s worth pointing out, has a pedigree in startups and in e-commerce. He founded an e-commerce analytics company called Jirafe, which was acquired by SAP, where he then became the chief revenue officer of SAP Hybris.)

“We are excited to grow quickly in new and existing markets, and offer even more brands a platform that embraces the future of commerce, which is about being collaborative, leveraging marketplaces, and delivering customer experiences that are second-to-none,” said Mariano Gomide de Faria, VTEX co-founder and co-CEO, in a statement. “This injection of funding will undoubtedly support us in achieving our mission to accelerate digital commerce transformation around the world.”

Sep
29
2020
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PayCargo raises $35M from Insight for its cloud-based platform targeting the freight industry

Shipping has long been one of the more antiquated, and least technological, segments in the world of commerce, with its physical aspects — rooted in massive cargo tankers, giant fleets of aircraft and trucks, and trains of linked-up containers — underscoring some of the more obvious analogue attributes of the business.

That has also made it a ripe opportunity for startups, and today, one called PayCargo, which has built a suite of cloud-based payment and financing services for the cargo industry, is announcing $35 million in funding to expand its business in the wake of COVID-19.

The investment is coming from a single, high-profile investor, Insight Partners, which back in April announced a monster $9.5 billon fund that it planned to use not just to support portfolio companies through the global health pandemic, but to seek out new opportunities emerging in the wake of it.

PayCargo appears to be one of the latter. Eduardo Del Riego, the CEO (PayCargo was co-founded by COO Juan Carlos Dieppa and chairman Sergio Lemme), said that while the cargo industry has faced a lot of turmoil with the pandemic — production in some places ground to a halt, social distancing rules created new challenges for how shippers could work and move physical goods — it also highlighted how solutions like PayCargo’s were essential in getting things working properly again.

“With COVID, there was tremendous uncertainty about the impact of the global supply chain,” he said in an interview, “and like many other industries, the pandemic accelerated the need and demand for a paperless and contactless solution, which in turn accelerated PayCargo’s business.”

And while many of us brace ourselves for more fallout about how the world economy is contracting, PayCargo is profitable and has been from its start, the company said, and it has been growing — which in itself could be a positive signal about how production is indeed picking up again.

PayCargo provides a platform that offers tools for payers to send payments, vendors to receive them, APIs to integrate the tools into an existing IT, and financing services for those who do not want to pay for the shipments up front. All of these, for the majority of those working in this area, still are fixed in paperwork and can take weeks to resolve, making it a prime area to tackle with electronic services.

These days, PayCargo is processing some $4 billion in payments annually from some 12,000 shippers and carriers and a network of 4,000 vendors — customers span land, sea and air and include Kuehne + Nagel, DHL, DB Schenker, BDP, Seko Logistics, UPS, YUSEN Logistics and vendors like Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, Ocean Network Express, Alliance Ground, Swissport and Air France — with transaction volume up 80% over last year. By way of its APIs, PayCargo also works with a number of partners to serve customers, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Cargo Network Services (CNS), CHAMP Cargosystems, IBS, Accelya, Unisys and Kale Logistics.

We have written before about the very fragmented and analogue freight industry, which still bases a lot of transactions around faxes, actual paperwork physically exchanged between parties and people transferring not just goods but documents hand to hand. The same goes for the payments infrastructure that underpins it all.

That has spawned a number of other startups looking to tackle the market with tech. Emerge has been building a digital marketplace specifically for the trucking industry, while Cargo.com is targeting air freight; Europe’s Zencargo, FreightHub and Sennder are focusing on bringing cloud-based infrastructure into freight-forwarding (and Sennder is positioning itself as a consolidator in this market, recently acquiring Uber’s European business in this area); and Flexport has positioned itself as one to watch in its own take on shipping SaaS.

PayCargo itself also has a number of competitors, which might include those building bigger suites of services, of which payments is just one. In addition to all of the ones we’ve covered, there is GlobalTranz, CloudTrade and others. (Del Riego refused to name any competitors directly. “PayCargo is the premier and most robust solution in the marketplace,” he said flatly.)

Overall, CrunchBase estimates that some $5.5 billion has been invested in shipping-related tech companies looking to bring more updated processes to what is, at the end of the day, ultimately a very physical business.

But with the industry significantly bigger than that — one estimate forecasts that the shipping logistics market in the U.S. alone will be worth $1.3 trillion by 2023 — you can see how building and addressing that would be a lucrative opportunity.

“As the cargo industry rapidly shifts to electronic payments, PayCargo has established itself as the market leading platform for doing business by successfully automating the payments process and ensuring efficiency for both payers and vendors,” said Ryan Hinkle, managing director at Insight Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to work with PayCargo to continue to scale its global payments network and through our Insight Onsite team of ScaleUp and operational experts, help bring additional resources to its impressive list of customers.” Hinkle is joining the board with this round.

Sep
28
2020
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Adobe beefs up developer tools to make it easer to build apps on Experience Cloud

Adobe has had a developer program for years called Adobe.io, but today at the Adobe Developers Live virtual conference, the company announced some new tools with a fresh emphasis on helping developers build custom apps on the Adobe Experience Cloud.

Jason Woosley, VP of developer experience and commerce at Adobe, says that the pandemic has forced companies to build enhanced digital experiences much more quickly than they might have, and the new tools being announced today are at least partly related to helping speed up the development of better online experiences.

“Our focus is very specifically on making the experience-generation business something that’s very attractive to developers and very accessible to developers so we’re announcing a number of tools,” Woosley told TechCrunch.

The idea is to build a more complete framework over time to make it easier to build applications and connect to data sources that take advantage of the Experience Cloud tooling. For starters, Project Firefly is designed to help developers build applications more quickly by providing a higher level of automation than was previously available.

“Project Firefly creates an extensibility framework that reduces the boilerplate that a developer would need to get started working with the Experience Cloud, and extends that into the customizations that we know every implementation eventually needs to differentiate the storefront experience, the website experience or whatever customer touch point as these things become increasingly digital,” he said.

In order to make those new experiences open to all, the company is also announcing React Spectrum, an open source set of libraries and tools designed to help members of the Adobe developer community build more accessible applications and websites.

“It comes with all of the accessibility features that often get forgotten when you’re in a race to market, so it’s nice to make sure that you will be very inclusive with your design, making sure that you’re bringing on all aspects of your audiences,” Woosley said.

Finally, a big part of interacting with Experience Cloud is taking advantage of all of the data that’s available to help build those more customized interactions with customers that having that data enables. To that end, the company is announcing some new web and mobile software development kits (SDKs) designed to help make it simpler to link to Experience Cloud data sources as you build your applications.

Project Firefly is available in developer preview starting today. Several React Spectrum components and some data connection SDKs are also available today. The company intends to keep adding to these various pieces in the coming months.

Sep
24
2020
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Airship acquires SMS commerce company ReplyBuy

Airship is announcing that it has acquired mobile commerce startup ReplyBuy.

The startup (which was a finalist at TechCrunch’s 1st and Future competition in 2016) works with customers like entertainment venues and professional and college sports teams to send messages and sell tickets to fans via SMS. It raised $4 million in funding from Sand Hill Angels, Kosinski Ventures, SEAG Ventures, Enspire Capital, MRTNZ Ventures and others, according to Crunchbase.

Airship, meanwhile, has been expanding its platform beyond push notifications to cover customer communication across SMS, email, mobile wallets and more. But CEO Brett Caine said this is the first time the company is moving into commerce.

While sports and concerts tickets might not be a booming market right now, Caine suggested that the company is actually seeing increased purchasing activity “in and around the Airship platform” as businesses try to drive more in-app purchases. He also suggested that both the COVID-19 pandemic and increased restrictions on mobile data collection and ad targeting are going to “accelerate direct-to-consumer motion by large brands.”

Airship isn’t disclosing the deal price, but Caine said the seven-person ReplyBuy team will be joining the company, with CEO Brandon O’Halloran becoming Airship’s general manager of commerce and CTO Anthony Saia leading the commerce engineering team.

“Nobody directly connects more brands to mobile consumers than Airship,” O’Halloran said in a statement. “Joining Airship offers ReplyBuy the opportunity to serve the global market with a more comprehensive solution across more industries, and provide more valuable mobile customer experiences.”

Caine added, “These are really key roles, demonstrating the importance, in our view, of extending commerce to the customer engagement experience.”

He also said that Airship will continue to support ReplyBuy as a standalone product, while also integrating and extending its capabilities to other areas of the Airship platform.

“This one-to-one commerce at scale is a key part of the ReplyBuy solution,” he said. “We’re going to bring it into all the digital channels that Airship powers [to create] a seamless, fast, easy experience around commerce.”

Sep
22
2020
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Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

Aug
24
2020
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Meet the anti-antitrust startup club

When Congress called in tech CEOs to testify a few weeks ago, it felt like a defining moment. Hundreds of startups have become unicorns, with the largest worth more than $1 trillion (or perhaps $2 trillion). Indeed, modern tech companies have become so entrenched, Facebook is the only one of the Big Five American tech shops worth less than 13 figures.

The titanic valuations of many companies are predicated on current performance, cash on hand and lofty expectations for future growth. The pandemic has done little to stem Big Tech’s forward march and many startups have seen growth rates accelerate as other sectors rushed to support a suddenly remote workforce.

But inside tech’s current moment in the sun is a concern that Congress worked to highlight: Are these firms behaving anti-competitively?

By now you’ve heard the arguments concerning why Big Tech may be too big, but there’s a neat second story that we, the Equity crew, have been chatting about: Some startups are racing into the big kill zone.

They have to be a bit foolhardy to take on Google Gmail and Search, Amazon’s e-commerce platform or Apple’s App Store. Yet, there are startups targeting all of these categories and more, some flush with VC funding from investors who are eager to take a swing at tech’s biggest players

If the little companies manage to carve material market share for themselves, arguments that Big Tech was just too big to kill — let alone fail — will dissolve. But today, their incumbency is a reality and these startups are merely bold.

Still, when we look at the work being done, there are enough companies staring down the most valuable companies in American history (on an unadjusted basis) that we had to shout them out. Say hello to the “anti-antitrust club.”

Hey and Superhuman are coming after Gmail

Gmail has been the undisputed leader in consumer email for years (if not enterprise email, where Microsoft has massive inroads due to Exchange and Outlook). Startups have contested that market, including Mailbox, which sold to Dropbox for about $100 million back in 2013, but whenever a new feature came along that might entice users, Gmail managed to suck it up into its app.

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