Nov
18
2020
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Abacus.AI raises another $22M and launches new AI modules

AI startup RealityEngines.AI changed its name to Abacus.AI in July. At the same time, it announced a $13 million Series A round. Today, only a few months later, it is not changing its name again, but it is announcing a $22 million Series B round, led by Coatue, with Decibel Ventures and Index Partners participating as well. With this, the company, which was co-founded by former AWS and Google exec Bindu Reddy, has now raised a total of $40.3 million.

Abacus co-founder Bindu Reddy, Arvind Sundararajan and Siddartha Naidu. Image Credits: Abacus.AI

In addition to the new funding, Abacus.AI is also launching a new product today, which it calls Abacus.AI Deconstructed. Originally, the idea behind RealityEngines/Abacus.AI was to provide its users with a platform that would simplify building AI models by using AI to automatically train and optimize them. That hasn’t changed, but as it turns out, a lot of (potential) customers had already invested into their own workflows for building and training deep learning models but were looking for help in putting them into production and managing them throughout their lifecycle.

“One of the big pain points [businesses] had was, ‘look, I have data scientists and I have my models that I’ve built in-house. My data scientists have built them on laptops, but I don’t know how to push them to production. I don’t know how to maintain and keep models in production.’ I think pretty much every startup now is thinking of that problem,” Reddy said.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

Since Abacus.AI had already built those tools anyway, the company decided to now also break its service down into three parts that users can adapt without relying on the full platform. That means you can now bring your model to the service and have the company host and monitor the model for you, for example. The service will manage the model in production and, for example, monitor for model drift.

Another area Abacus.AI has long focused on is model explainability and de-biasing, so it’s making that available as a module as well, as well as its real-time machine learning feature store that helps organizations create, store and share their machine learning features and deploy them into production.

As for the funding, Reddy tells me the company didn’t really have to raise a new round at this point. After the company announced its first round earlier this year, there was quite a lot of interest from others to also invest. “So we decided that we may as well raise the next round because we were seeing adoption, we felt we were ready product-wise. But we didn’t have a large enough sales team. And raising a little early made sense to build up the sales team,” she said.

Reddy also stressed that unlike some of the company’s competitors, Abacus.AI is trying to build a full-stack self-service solution that can essentially compete with the offerings of the big cloud vendors. That — and the engineering talent to build it — doesn’t come cheap.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

It’s no surprise then that Abacus.AI plans to use the new funding to increase its R&D team, but it will also increase its go-to-market team from two to ten in the coming months. While the company is betting on a self-service model — and is seeing good traction with small- and medium-sized companies — you still need a sales team to work with large enterprises.

Come January, the company also plans to launch support for more languages and more machine vision use cases.

“We are proud to be leading the Series B investment in Abacus.AI, because we think that Abacus.AI’s unique cloud service now makes state-of-the-art AI easily accessible for organizations of all sizes, including start-ups,” Yanda Erlich, a p artner at Coatue Ventures  told me. “Abacus.AI’s end-to-end autonomous AI service powered by their Neural Architecture Search invention helps organizations with no ML expertise easily deploy deep learning systems in production.”

 

Nov
13
2020
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Which emerging technologies are enterprise companies getting serious about in 2020?

Startups need to live in the future. They create roadmaps, build products and continually upgrade them with an eye on next year — or even a few years out.

Big companies, often the target customers for startups, live in a much more near-term world. They buy technologies that can solve problems they know about today, rather than those they may face a couple bends down the road. In other words, they’re driving a Dodge, and most tech entrepreneurs are driving a DeLorean equipped with a flux-capacitor.

That situation can lead to a huge waste of time for startups that want to sell to enterprise customers: a business development black hole. Startups are talking about technology shifts and customer demands that the executives inside the large company — even if they have “innovation,” “IT,” or “emerging technology” in their titles — just don’t see as an urgent priority yet, or can’t sell to their colleagues.

How do you avoid the aforementioned black hole? Some recent research that my company, Innovation Leader, conducted in collaboration with KPMG LLP, suggests a constructive approach.

Rather than asking large companies about which technologies they were experimenting with, we created four buckets, based on what you might call “commitment level.” (Our survey had 211 respondents, 62% of them in North America and 59% at companies with greater than $1 billion in annual revenue.) We asked survey respondents to assess a list of 16 technologies, from advanced analytics to quantum computing, and put each one into one of these four buckets. We conducted the survey at the tail end of Q3 2020.

Respondents in the first group were “not exploring or investing” — in other words, “we don’t care about this right now.” The top technology there was quantum computing.

Bucket #2 was the second-lowest commitment level: “learning and exploring.” At this stage, a startup gets to educate its prospective corporate customer about an emerging technology — but nabbing a purchase commitment is still quite a few exits down the highway. It can be constructive to begin building relationships when a company is at this stage, but your sales staff shouldn’t start calculating their commissions just yet.

Here are the top five things that fell into the “learning and exploring” cohort, in ranked order:

  1. Blockchain.
  2. Augmented reality/mixed reality.
  3. Virtual reality.
  4. AI/machine learning.
  5. Wearable devices.

Technologies in the third group, “investing or piloting,” may represent the sweet spot for startups. At this stage, the corporate customer has already discovered some internal problem or use case that the technology might address. They may have shaken loose some early funding. They may have departments internally, or test sites externally, where they know they can conduct pilots. Often, they’re assessing what established tech vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco can provide — and they may find their solutions wanting.

Here’s what our survey respondents put into the “investing or piloting” bucket, in ranked order:

  1. Advanced analytics.
  2. AI/machine learning.
  3. Collaboration tools and software.
  4. Cloud infrastructure and services.
  5. Internet of things/new sensors.

By the time a technology is placed into the fourth category, which we dubbed “in-market or accelerating investment,” it may be too late for a startup to find a foothold. There’s already a clear understanding of at least some of the use cases or problems that need solving, and return-on-investment metrics have been established. But some providers have already been chosen, based on successful pilots and you may need to dislodge someone that the enterprise is already working with. It can happen, but the headwinds are strong.

Here’s what the survey respondents placed into the “in-market or accelerating investment” bucket, in ranked order:

Nov
11
2020
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Greylock’s Asheem Chandna on ‘shifting left’ in cybersecurity and the future of enterprise startups

Last week was a busy week, what with an election in Myanmar and all (well, and the United States, I guess). So perhaps you were glued to your TV or smartphone, and missed out on our conversation with Asheem Chandna, a long-time partner at Greylock who has invested in enterprise and cybersecurity startups for nearly two decades now, backing such notable companies as Palo Alto Networks, AppDynamics and Sumo Logic. We have more Extra Crunch Live shows coming up.

Enterprise software is changing faster this year than it has in a decade. Coronavirus, remote work, collaboration and new cybersecurity threats have combined to force companies to rethink their IT strategies, and that means more opportunities — and challenges — for enterprise founders than ever before. In some cases, we are seeing an acceleration of existing trends, and in others, we are seeing all new trends come to the forefront.

All that is to say that there was so much on the docket to talk about last week. Chandna and I discussed what’s happening in early-stage enterprise startups, whether vertical SaaS is the future of enterprise investing, data and no-code platforms, and then this rise of “shift left” security.

The following interview has been edited and condensed from our original Extra Crunch Live conversation.

What’s happening today in the early-stage startup world?

Chandna has been a long-time backer of startups at their earliest stages, with some of his investments being literally birthed in Greylock’s offices. So I was curious how he saw the landscape today given all that prior experience.

TechCrunch: What sort of companies are exciting for you today? Are there particular markets you’re particularly attuned to?

Asheem Chandna: One is digital transformation. Every company is trying to figure out how to become more digital, and this has been accelerated by COVID-19. Second is information technology today and its journey to the cloud. I would say we might be about 10% or 15% of the way there. Some of the trends are clear, but the journey is actually still relatively early, and so there’s just a ton of opportunity ahead.

The third one is leveraging data for better predictability along with analytics. Every CEO is looking to make better decisions. And you know, most leaders make decisions based on gut instinct and a combination of data. If the data can tell a story, if the data can help you better predict, there’s a lot of potential here.

I view these as three macro trends, and then if one was to add to that, I would say cybersecurity has never been more important than it is today. I’ve been around cyber for over two decades, and just the prominence and importance and priority has never been more important than today. So that’s kind of another key area.

I want to dive into your first category, digital transformation. This is a phrase that I feel like I’ve heard for a decade now, with “Data is the new oil” and all these sorts of buzzwords and marketing phrases. Where are we in that process? Are we at the beginning? Are we at the end? What’s next from a startup perspective?

Due to COVID-19 and because of the way people are working today, digital’s become the primary medium. I would still say we’re early, and you can literally look sector by sector to see how much more work there is to do here.

Take enterprise sales itself, which is early in what I consider digitalization. It’s even more important today than it was a year ago. I’m using video to basically communicate, and then the next piece would basically be trialing of software. Can I allow even complex software to be self trials and can I measure the customer journey through that trial? Then there’s the contracting of the software, and we go to the sale process, can all that be done digitally?

So even when you take something as very mundane as enterprise sales, it’s being transformed. Winning teams, winning software entrepreneurs, they understand this well, and they’d be wise to examine every step of this process, and instrument it and digitize it.

Vertical versus horizontal plays in enterprise

Sep
23
2020
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Selling a startup can come with an emotional cost

Every founder dreams of building a substantial company. For those who make it through the myriad challenges, it typically results in an exit. If it’s through an acquisition, that can mean cashing in your equity, paying back investors and rewarding long-time employees, but it also usually results in a loss of power and a substantially reduced role.

Some founders hang around for a while before leaving after an agreed-upon time period, while others depart right away because there is simply no role left for them. However it plays out, being acquired can be an emotional shock: The company you spent years building is no longer under your control,

We spoke to a couple of startup founders who went through this experience to learn what the acquisition process was like, and how it feels to give up something after pouring your heart and soul into building it.

Knowing when it’s time to sell

There has to be some impetus to think about selling: Perhaps you’ve reached a point where growth stalls, or where you need to raise a substantial amount of cash to take you to the next level.

For Tracy Young, co-founder and former CEO at PlanGrid, the forcing event was reaching a point where she needed to raise funds to continue.

After growing a company that helped digitize building plans into a $100 million business, Young ended up selling it to Autodesk for $875 million in 2018. It was a substantial exit, but Young said it was more of a practical matter because the path to further growth was going to be an arduous one.

“When we got the offer from Autodesk, literally we would have had to execute flawlessly and the world had to stay good for the next three years for us to have the same outcome,” she said at a panel on exiting at TechCrunch Disrupt last week.

“As CEO, [my] job is to choose the best path forward for all stakeholders of the company — for our investors, for our team members, for our customers — and that was the path we chose.”

For Rami Essaid, who founded bot mitigation platform Distil Networks in 2011, slowing growth encouraged him to consider an exit. The company had reached around $25 million run rate, but a lack of momentum meant that shifting to a broader product portfolio would have been too heavy a lift.

Sep
22
2020
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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

Sep
18
2020
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SaaS Ventures takes the investment road less traveled

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

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

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

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

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

A different investment approach

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

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

Collin Gutman from SaaS Ventures

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

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

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

Aug
21
2020
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Box CEO Aaron Levie says thrifty founders have more control

Once upon a time, Box’s Aaron Levie was just a guy with an idea for a company: 15 years ago as a USC student, he conceived of a way to simply store and share files online.

It may be hard to recall, but back then, the world was awash with thumb drives and moving files manually, but Levie saw an opportunity to change that.

Today, his company helps enterprise customers collaborate and manage content in the cloud, but when Levie appeared on an episode of Extra Crunch Live at the end of May, my colleague Jon Shieber and I asked him if he had any advice for startups. While he was careful to point out that there is no “one size fits all” advice, he did make one thing clear:

“I would highly recommend to any company of any size that you have as much control of your destiny as possible. So put yourself in a position where you spend as little amount of dollars as you can from a burn standpoint and get as close to revenue being equal to your expenses as you can possibly get to,” he advised.

Don’t let current conditions scare you

Levie also advised founders not to be frightened off by current conditions, whether that’s the pandemic or the recession. Instead, he said if you have an idea, seize the moment and build it, regardless of the economy or the state of the world. If, like Levie, you are in it for the long haul, this too will pass, and if your idea is good enough, it will survive and even thrive as you move through your startup growth cycle.

Aug
20
2020
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Figma CEO Dylan Field discusses fundraising, hiring and marketing in stealth mode

You’d be hard pressed to hang out with a designer and not hear the name Figma .

The company behind the largely browser-based design tool has made a huge splash in the past few years, building a massive war chest with more than $130 million from investors like A16Z, Sequoia, Greylock, Kleiner Perkins and Index.

The company was founded in 2012 and spent several years in stealth, raising both its seed and Series A without having any public product or user metrics.

At Early Stage, we spoke with co-founder and CEO Dylan Field about the process of hiring and fundraising while in stealth and how life at the company changed following its launch in 2016. Field, who was 20 when he founded the company, also touched on the lessons he’s learned from his team about leadership. Chief among them: the importance of empowering the people you hire.

You can check out the full conversation in the video embedded below, as well as a lightly edited transcript.

Raising a Series A a year behind schedule while still in stealth

I actually had approached John Lilly from Greylock in our seed round. For those who don’t know, John Lilly was the CEO of Mozilla and an amazing guy. He’s on a lot of really cool boards and has a bunch of interesting experience for Figma, with very deep roots in design. I had approached him for the seed round, and he basically said to us, “You know, I don’t think you guys know what you’re doing, but I’m very intrigued, so let’s keep in touch.” This is the famous line that you hear from every investor ever. It’s like “Yeah, let’s keep in touch, let me know if I can be helpful.” Sometimes, they actually mean it. In John’s case, he actually would follow up every few months or I would follow up with him. We’d grab coffee, and he helped me develop the strategy to a point that got us to what we are today. And that was a collaboration. I could really learn a lot from him on that one.

When we started off the idea was: Let’s have this global community around design, and you’ll be able to use the tool to post to the community and someday we’ll think about how people can pay us. Talking with John got me to the point where I realized we need to start with a business tool. We’ll build the community later. Now, we’re starting to work toward that.

At some point, John told me, “Hey, if you ever think about raising again, let me know.” A few weeks later, I told him maybe we would raise because I just wanted to work with him. We talked to a few other investors. I think it’s pretty important that there’s always a competitive dynamic in the round. But really, it was just him that we were really considering for that round. He really did us a solid. He really believed in us. At the time, it wasn’t like there were metrics to look at. He had conviction in the space, a conviction in the attack, and he had conviction in me and Evan, which I feel very, very honored by. He’s a dear mentor to this day, and he’s on our board. And it’s been a really deep relationship.

How to recruit while in stealth mode

Jun
11
2020
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Gauging growth in the most challenging environment in decades

Traditionally, measuring business success requires a greater understanding of your company’s go-to-market lifecycle, how customers engage with your product and the macro-dynamics of your market. But in the most challenging environment in decades, those metrics are out the window.

Enterprise application and SaaS companies are changing their approach to measuring performance and preparing to grow when the economy begins to recover. While there are no blanket rules or guidance that applies to every business, company leaders need to focus on a few critical metrics to understand their performance and maximize their opportunities. This includes understanding their burn rate, the overall real market opportunity, how much cash they have on hand and their access to capital. Analyzing the health of the company through these lenses will help leaders make the right decisions on how to move forward.

Play the game with the hand you were dealt. Earlier this year, our company closed a $40 million Series C round of funding, which left us in a strong cash position as we entered the market slowdown in March. Nonetheless, as the impact of COVID-19 became apparent, one of our board members suggested that we quickly develop a business plan that assumed we were running out of money. This would enable us to get on top of the tough decisions we might need to make on our resource allocation and the size of our staff.

While I understood the logic of his exercise, it is important that companies develop and execute against plans that reflect their actual situation. The reality is, we did raise the money, so we revised our plan to balance ultra-conservative forecasting (and as a trained accountant, this is no stretch for me!) with new ideas for how to best utilize our resources based on the market situation.

Burn rate matters, but not at the expense of your culture and your talent. For most companies, talent is both their most important resource and their largest expense. Therefore, it’s usually the first area that goes under the knife in order to reduce the monthly spend and optimize efficiency. Fortunately, heading into the pandemic, we had not yet ramped up hiring to support our rapid growth, so were spared from having to make enormously difficult decisions. We knew, however, that we would not hit our 2020 forecast, which required us to make new projections and reevaluate how we were deploying our talent.

May
27
2020
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Kentik raises $23.5M for its network intelligence platform

Kentik, the company once known as CloudHelix, today announced that it has raised a $23.5 million growth funding round led by Vistara Capital Partners, with existing investors August Capital, Third Point Ventures, DCVC and Tahoma Ventures also participating. With this round, Kentik has now raised a total of $61.7 million.

The company’s platform allows enterprises to monitor their networks, no matter whether that’s over the internet, inside their own data centers or in public clouds.

“The world has become even more internet-centric, and we are seeing growth in traffic levels, product engagement and revenue across both our enterprise and service provider customers,” said Avi Freedman, the co-founder and CEO of Kentik when I asked him why he was raising a round now. “We’ve seen an increased pace of adoption of the kind of hybrid and internet-centric architectures that Kentik is built for and thought it was a great time to increase investment, especially in product, as well as go-to-market and partner expansion to support market demand.”

Freedman says the company has been growing 100% compounded year-over-year since it launched in 2015 and now has customers in 25 countries. These include leading enterprises, SaaS companies, content providers, gaming companies, content providers and cloud and communication service providers, he tells me. Current customers include the likes of IBM, Zoom, Dropbox, eBay, Cisco and GoDaddy.

The company says it will use the new funding to invest in its product and for go-to-market investments.

One notable fact about this new round is that it is a combination of equity and growth debt. Why growth debt? “Growth debt is an attractive option for startups with the right scale and strong unit economics, especially with the changes to capital markets in response to current economic conditions,” said Freedman. “Another element that makes long-term debt attractive is that unlike equity financing, long-term debt limits dilution for everyone, but especially benefits our employees who hold common stock.” That, it’s worth noting, is also something that lead investor Vistara Capital has made one of the core tenets of its investment philosophy. “Since Kentik is now at a scale where we have enough data on the business fundamentals to be able to make growth investments using debt while still being able to repay it over time, it made sense to us and our investors,” noted Freedman.

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