Dec
13
2019
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Grading the final tech IPOs of 2019

As the holiday slowdown looms, the final U.S.-listed technology IPOs have come in and begun to trade.

Three tech, tech-ish or venture-backed companies went public this week: Bill.com, Sprout Social and EHang. Let’s quickly review how each has performed thus far. These are, bear in mind, the last IPOs of the year that we care about, pending something incredible happening. 2020 will bring all sorts of fun, but, for this time ’round the sun, we’re done.

Pricing

Our three companies managed to each price differently. So, we have some variety to discuss. Here’s how each managed during their IPO run:

How do those results stack up against their final private valuations? Doing the best we can, here’s how they compare:

So EHang priced low and its IPO is hard to vet, as we’re guessing at its final private worth. We’ll give it a passing grade. Sprout Social priced mid-range, and managed a slight valuation bump. We can give that a B, or B+. Bill.com managed to price above its raised range, boosting its valuation sharply in the process. That’s worth an A.

Performance

Trading just wrapped, so how have our companies performed thus far in their nascent lives as public companies? Here’s the scorecard:

  • EHang’s Friday closing price: $12.90 (+3.2%)
  • Sprout Social’s Friday closing price: $16.60 (-2.35%)
  • Bill.com’s Friday closing price: $38.83 (+76.5%)

You can gist out the grades somewhat easily here, with one caveat. The Bill.com IPO’s massive early success has caused the usual complaints that the firm was underpriced by its bankers, and was thus robbed to some degree. This argument makes the assumption that the public market’s initial pricing of the company once it began trading is reasonable (maybe!) and that the company in question could have captured most or all of that value (maybe!).

Bill.com’s CEO’s reaction to the matter puts a new spin on it, but you should at least know that the week’s most successful IPO has attracted criticism for being too successful. So forget any chance of an A+.

Image via Getty Images / Somyot Techapuwapat / EyeEm

Dec
13
2019
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Chicago’s Sprout Social prices IPO mid-range at $17 per share, raising $150M

On the heels of Bill.com’s debut, Chicago-based social media software company Sprout Social priced its IPO last night at $17 per share, in the middle of its proposed $16 to $18 per-share range. Selling 8.8 million shares, Sprout raised just under $150 million in its debut.

Underwriters have the option to purchase an additional 1.3 million shares if they so choose.

The IPO is a good result for the company’s investors (Lightbank, New Enterprise Associates, Goldman Sachs and Future Fund), but also for Chicago, a growing startup scene that doesn’t often get its due in the public mind.

At $17 per share, not including the possible underwriter option, Sprout Social is worth about $814 million. That’s just a hair over its final private valuation set during its $40.5 million Series D in December of 2018. That particular investment valued Sprout at $800.5 million, according to Crunchbase data.

So what?

Sprout’s debut is interesting for a few reasons. First, the company raised just a little over $110 million while private, and will generate over $100 million in trailing GAAP revenue this year. In effect, Sprout Social used less than $110 million to build up over $100 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) — the firm reached the $100 million ARR mark between Q2 and Q3 of 2019. That’s a remarkably efficient result for the unicorn era.

And the company is interesting, as it gives us a look at how investors value slower-growth SaaS companies. As we’ve written, Sprout Social grew by a little over 30% in the first three quarters of 2019. That’s a healthy rate, but not as fast as, say, Bill.com . (Bill.com’s strong market response puts its own growth rate in context.)

Thinking very loosely, Sprout Social closed Q3 2019 with ARR of about $105 million. Worth $814 million now, we can surmise that Sprout priced at an ARR multiple of about 7.75x. That’s a useful benchmark for private companies that sell software: If you want a higher multiple when you go public, you’ll have to grow a little faster.

All the same, the IPO is a win for Chicago, and a win for the company’s investors. We’ll update this piece later with how the stock performs, once it begins to trade.

Dec
12
2019
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DataRobot is acquiring Paxata to add data prep to machine learning platform

DataRobot, a company best known for creating automated machine learning models known as AutoML, announced today that it intends to acquire Paxata, a data prep platform startup. The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

Paxata raised a total of $90 million before today’s acquisition, according to the company.

Up until now, DataRobot has concentrated mostly on the machine learning and data science aspect of the workflow — building and testing the model, then putting it into production. The data prep was left to other vendors like Paxata, but DataRobot, which raised $206 million in September, saw an opportunity to fill in a gap in their platform with Paxata.

“We’ve identified, because we’ve been focused on machine learning for so long, a number of key data prep capabilities that are required for machine learning to be successful. And so we see an opportunity to really build out a unique and compelling data prep for machine learning offering that’s powered by the Paxata product, but takes the knowledge and understanding and the integration with the machine learning platform from DataRobot,” Phil Gurbacki, SVP of product development and customer experience at DataRobot, told TechCrunch.

Prakash Nanduri, CEO and co-founder at Paxata, says the two companies were a great fit and it made a lot of sense to come together. “DataRobot has got a significant number of customers, and every one of their customers have a data and information management problem. For us, the deal allows us to rapidly increase the number of customers that are able to go from data to value. By coming together, the value to the customer is increased at an exponential level,” he explained.

DataRobot is based in Boston, while Paxata is in Redwood City, Calif. The plan moving forward is to make Paxata a west coast office, and all of the company’s almost 100 employees will become part of DataRobot when the deal closes.

While the two companies are working together to integrate Paxata more fully into the DataRobot platform, the companies also plan to let Paxata continue to exist as a standalone product.

DataRobot has raised more than $431 million, according to PitchBook data. It raised $206 million of that in its last round. At the time, the company indicated it would be looking for acquisition opportunities when it made sense.

This match-up seems particularly good, given how well the two companies’ capabilities complement one another, and how much customer overlap they have. The deal is expected to close before the end of the year.

Dec
11
2019
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Acquia nabs CDP startup AgilOne, which raised $41M

Acquia announced it has acquired customer data platform (CDP) startup AgilOne today. The companies did not disclose the purchase price.

CDPs are all the rage among customer experience vendors, as they provide a way to pull data from a variety of channels to build a more complete picture of the customer. The goal here is to deliver meaningful content to the customer based on what you know about them. Having a platform like this to draw upon makes it more likely that you will hit the target more accurately.

Acquia co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert says he has been watching this space for the last year, and wanted to add this piece to the Acquia tool chest. “Adding a CDP like AgilOne to our existing platform will help our customers unify their data across various tools in their technology stack to drive better, more personal customer experiences,” he said.

In particular, he says he liked AgilOne because it used an intelligence layer while building the customer record. “What sets AgilOne apart from other CDPs are its machine learning capabilities, which intelligently segment customers and predict customer behaviors (such as when a customer is likely to purchase something). This allows for the creation and optimization of next-best action models to optimize offers and messages to customers on a 1:1 basis.”

Like most startup founders, AgilOne CEO Omer Artun sees this as an opportunity to grow his company, probably faster than he could have on his own. “Since AgilOne’s inception, our vision has been to give marketers the direct power to understand who their customers are and engage with them in a genuine way in order to boost profitability and create the omnichannel experiences that customers crave. Through this acquisition, Acquia will enable us to continue to deliver, and build upon, this vision,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at the Real Story Group, has been watching the marketing automation space for some time, as well as the burgeoning CDP market. He sees this move as good for Acquia, but wonders how it will fit with other pieces in the Acquia stack. “This in theory allows them to support the unification of customer data across their suite,” Byrne told TechCrunch.

But he cautions that the company could struggle incorporating AgilOne into its platform. “The Marketing Automation platform they purchased targets mostly B2B. AgilOne is dialed in on B2C use cases and a fairly narrow set of vertical segments. It will take a lot of work to make it into a CDP that could adequately serve Acquia’s diverse customer base,” he said.

Acquia was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion in September, and it tends to encourage its companies to be more acquisitive than they might have been on their own. “Vista has been supportive of our M&A strategy and believes strongly in AgilOne as a part of Acquia’s vision to redefine the customer experience stack,” Buytaert said.

AgilOne raised over $41 million, according to PitchBook data. Investors included Tenaya Capital, Sequoia Capital and Mayfield Fund. It had a post valuation of just over $115 million and was pegged as likely acquisition target by Pitchbook.

AgilOne customers will be happy to hear that Acquia plans to continue to sell it as a stand-alone product in addition to making it part of the Acquia Open Marketing Cloud.

Dec
11
2019
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Accel and Index back Tines, as the cybersecurity startup adds another $11M to its Series A

It was just a couple of months ago that Tines, the cybersecurity automation startup, raised $4.1 million in Series A funding led by Blossom Capital. The Dublin-based company is now disclosing an $11 million extension to the round.

This additional Series A funding is led by venture capital firm Accel, with participation from Index Ventures and previous backer Blossom Capital. The extra cash will be used to continue developing its cybersecurity automation platform and for further expansion into the U.S. and Europe.

Founded in February 2018 by ex-eBay, PayPal and DocuSign security engineer Eoin Hinchy, and subsequently joined by former eBay and DocuSign colleague Thomas Kinsella, Tines automates many of the repetitive manual tasks faced by security analysts so they can focus on other high-priority work. The pair had bootstrapped the company as recently as October.

“It was while I was at DocuSign that I felt there was a need for a platform like Tines,” explained Hinchy at the time of the initial Series A. “We had a team of really talented engineers in charge of incident response and forensics but they weren’t developers. I found they were doing the same tasks over and over again so I began looking for a platform to automate these repetitive tasks and didn’t find anything. Certainly nothing that did what we needed it to, so I came up with the idea to plug this gap in the market.”

To remedy this, Tines lets companies automate parts of their manual security processes with the help of six software “agents,” with each acting as a multipurpose building block. The idea is that, regardless of the process being automated, it only requires combinations of these six agent types configured in different ways to replicate a particular workflow.

In addition, the platform doesn’t rely on pre-built integrations to interact with external systems. Instead, Tines is able to plug in to any system that has an API. “This means integration with commercial, off-the-shelf products, or existing in-house tools is quick and simple, with most security teams automating stories (workflows) within the first 24 hours,” says the startup. Its software is also starting to find utility beyond cybersecurity processes, with several Tines customers using it in IT, DevOps and HR.

“We heard that Eoin, a senior member of the security team at DocuSign (another Accel portfolio company), had recently left to start Tines, so we got in touch,” Accel’s Seth Pierrepont tells TechCrunch. “They were in the final stages of closing their Series A. However, we were so convinced by the founders, their product approach and the market timing, that we asked them to extend the round.”

Pierrepont also points out that a unique aspect of the Dublin ecosystem is that many of the world’s largest tech companies have their European headquarters in the country (often attracted by relatively low corporation tax), “so it’s an incredibly rich talent pool despite being a relatively small city.”

Asked whether Accel views Tines as a cybersecurity automation company or a more general automation play that puts automation in the hands of non-technical employees for a multitude of possible use cases, Pierrepont says, given Hinchy and Kinsella’s backgrounds, the cybersecurity automation sector should be the primary focus for the company in the short term. However, longer term it is likely that Tines will be adopted across other functions as well.

“From our investment in Demisto (which was acquired by Palo Alto Networks earlier this year), we know the security automation or SOAR category (as Gartner defines it) very well,” he says. “Demisto pioneered the category and was definitively the market leader when it was acquired. However, we think the category is just getting started and that there is still a ton of whitespace for Tines to go after.”

Meanwhile, in less than a year, Tines says it has on-boarded 10 enterprise customers across a variety of industries, including Box, Auth0 and McKesson, with companies automating on average 100,000 actions per day.

Dec
10
2019
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Soci raises $12M to help big brands manage local marketing

According to CEO Afif Khoury, we’re in the middle of “the third wave of social” — a shift back to local interactions. And Khoury’s startup Soci (pronounced soh-shee) has raised $12 million in Series C funding to help companies navigate that shift.

Soci works with customers like Ace Hardware and Sport Clips to help them manage the online presence of hundreds or thousands of stores. It allows marketers to post content and share assets across all those pages, respond to reviews and comments, manage ad campaigns and provide guidance around how to stay on-brand.

It sounds like most of these interactions are happening on Facebook. Khoury told me that Soci integrates with “40 different APIs where businesses are having conversations with their customers,” but he added, “Facebook was and continues to be the most prominent conversation center.”

Khoury and CTO Alo Sarv founded Soci back in 2012. Khoury said they spent the first two years building the product, and have subsequently raised around $30 million in total funding.

“What we weren’t building was a point solution,” he said. “What we were building was a massive platform … It took us 18 months to two years to really build it in the way we thought was going to be meaningful for the marketplace.”

Soci has also incorporated artificial intelligence to power chatbots that Khoury said “take that engagement happening on social and move it downstream to a call or a sale or something relevant to the local business.”

The new round was led by Vertical Venture Partners, with participation from Grayhawk Capital and Ankona Capital. Khoury said the money will allow Soci to continue developing its AI technology and to build out its sales and marketing team.

“Ours is a very consultative sale,” he said. “It’s a complicated world that you’re living in, and we really want to partner and have a local presence with our customers.”

Nov
26
2019
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Instagram founders join $30M raise for Loom work video messenger

Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.

That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.

Loom video messaging on mobile

“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.

Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.

A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”


Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.

Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.

But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.

Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.

To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45, though co-founder Shahed Khan is stepping back from company. For new leadership, it’s hired away former head of web growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.


Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all. We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.

Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas

Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”

The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.

One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”

Nov
21
2019
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Linear takes $4.2M led by Sequoia to build a better bug tracker and more

Software will eat the world, as the saying goes, but in doing so, some developers are likely to get a little indigestion. That is to say, building products requires working with disparate and distributed teams, and while developers may have an ever-growing array of algorithms, APIs and technology at their disposal to do this, ironically the platforms to track it all haven’t evolved with the times. Now three developers have taken their own experience of that disconnect to create a new kind of platform, Linear, which they believe addresses the needs of software developers better by being faster and more intuitive. It’s bug tracking you actually want to use.

Today, Linear is announcing a seed round of $4.2 million led by Sequoia, with participation also from Index Ventures and a number of investors, startup founders and others that will also advise Linear as it grows. They include Dylan Field (Founder and CEO, Figma), Emily Choi (COO, Coinbase), Charlie Cheever (Co-Founder of Expo & Quora), Gustaf Alströmer (Partner, Y Combinator), Tikhon Berstram (Co-Founder, Parse), Larry Gadea (CEO, Envoy), Jude Gomila (CEO, Golden), James Smith (CEO, Bugsnag), Fred Stevens-Smith (CEO, Rainforest), Bobby Goodlatte, Marc McGabe, Julia DeWahl and others.

Cofounders Karri Saarinen, Tuomas Artman, and Jori Lallo — all Finnish but now based in the Bay Area — know something first-hand about software development and the trials and tribulations of working with disparate and distributed teams. Saarinen was previously the principal designer of Airbnb, as well as the first designer of Coinbase; Artman had been staff engineer and architect at Uber; and Lallo also had been at Coinbase as a senior engineer building its API and front end.

“When we worked at many startups and growth companies we felt that the tools weren’t matching the way we’re thinking or operating,” Saarinen said in an email interview. “It also seemed that no-one had took a fresh look at this as a design problem. We believe there is a much better, modern workflow waiting to be discovered. We believe creators should focus on the work they create, not tracking or reporting what they are doing. Managers should spend their time prioritizing and giving direction, not bugging their teams for updates. Running the process shouldn’t sap your team’s energy and come in the way of creating.”

Linear cofounders (from left): KarriSaarinen, Jori Lallo, and Tuomas Artma

All of that translates to, first and foremost, speed and a platform whose main purpose is to help you work faster. “While some say speed is not really a feature, we believe it’s the core foundation for tools you use daily,” Saarinen noted.

A ?K command calls up a menu of shortcuts to edit an issue’s status, assign a task, and more so that everything can be handled with keyboard shortcuts. Pages load quickly and synchronise in real time (and search updates alongside that). Users can work offline if they need to. And of course there is also a dark mode for night owls.

The platform is still very much in its early stages. It currently has three integrations based on some of the most common tools used by developers — GitHub (where you can link Pull Requests and close Linear issues on merge), Figma designs (where you can get image previews and embeds of Figma designs), and Slack (you can create issues from Slack and then get notifications on updates). There are plans to add more over time.

We started solving the problem from the end-user perspective, the contributor, like an engineer or a designer and starting to address things that are important for them, can help them and their teams,” Saarinen said. “We aim to also bring clarity for the teams by making the concepts simple, clear but powerful. For example, instead of talking about epics, we have Projects that help track larger feature work or tracks of work.”

Indeed, speed is not the only aim with Linear. Saarinen also said another area they hope to address is general work practices, with a take that seems to echo a turn away from time spent on manual management and more focus on automating that process.

“Right now at many companies you have to manually move things around, schedule sprints, and all kinds of other minor things,” he said. “We think that next generation tools should have built in automated workflows that help teams and companies operate much more effectively. Teams shouldn’t spend a third or more of their time a week just for running the process.”

The last objective Linear is hoping to tackle is one that we’re often sorely lacking in the wider world, too: context.

“Companies are setting their high-level goals, roadmaps and teams work on projects,” he said. “Often leadership doesn’t have good visibility into what is actually happening and how projects are tracking. Teams and contributors don’t always have the context or understanding of why they are working on the things, since you cannot follow the chain from your task to the company goal. We think that there are ways to build Linear to be a real-time picture of what is happening in the company when it comes to building products, and give the necessary context to everyone.”

Linear is a late entrant in a world filled with collaboration apps, and specifically workflow and collaboration apps targeting the developer community. These include not just Slack and GitHub, but Atlassian’s Trello and Jira, as well as Asana, Basecamp and many more.

Saarinen would not be drawn out on which of these (or others) that it sees as direct competition, noting that none are addressing developer issues of speed, ease of use and context as well as Linear is.

“There are many tools in the market and many companies are talking about making ‘work better,’” he said. “And while there are many issue tracking and project management tools, they are not supporting the workflow of the individual and team. A lot of the value these tools sell is around tracking work that happens, not actually helping people to be more effective. Since our focus is on the individual contributor and intelligent integration with their workflow, we can support them better and as a side effect makes the information in the system more up to date.”

Stephanie Zhan, the partner at Sequoia whose speciality is seed and Series A investments and who has led this round, said that Linear first came on her radar when it first launched its private beta (it’s still in private beta and has been running a waitlist to bring on new users. In that time it’s picked up hundreds of companies, including Pitch, Render, Albert, Curology, Spoke, Compound and YC startups including Middesk, Catch and Visly). The company had also been flagged by one of Sequoia’s Scouts, who invested earlier this year

Sequoia Logo Natalie Miyake

Although Linear is based out of San Francisco, it’s interesting that the three founders’ roots are in Finland (with Saarinen in Helsinki this week to speak at the Slush event), and brings up an emerging trend of Silicon Valley VCs looking at founders from further afield than just their own back yard.

“The interesting thing about Linear is that as they’re building a software company around the future of work, they’re also building a remote and distributed team themselves,” Zahn said. The company currently has only four employees.

In that vein, we (and others, it seems) had heard that Sequoia — which today invests in several Europe-based startups, including Tessian, Graphcore, Klarna, Tourlane, Evervault  and CEGX — has been considering establishing a more permanent presence in this part of the world, specifically in London.

Sources familiar with the firm, however, tell us that while it has been sounding out VCs at other firms, saying a London office is on the horizon might be premature, as there are as yet no plans to set up shop here. However, with more companies and European founders entering its portfolio, and as more conversations with VCs turn into decisions to make the leap to help Sequoia source more startups, we could see this strategy turning around quickly.

Nov
19
2019
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SocialRank sells biz to Trufan, pivots to a mobile LinkedIn

What do you do when your startup idea doesn’t prove big enough? Run it as a scrawny but profitable lifestyle business? Or sell it to a competitor and take another swing at the fences? Social audience analytics startup SocialRank chose the latter and is going for glory.

Today, SocialRank announced it’s sold its business, brand, assets, and customers to influencer marketing campaign composer and distributor Trufan which will run it as a standalone product. But SocialRank’s team isn’t joining up. Instead, the full six-person staff is sticking together to work on a mobile-first professional social network called Upstream aiming to nip at LinkedIn.

SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub

Started in 2014 amidst a flurry of marketing analytics tools, SocialRank had raised $2.1 million from Rainfall Ventures and others before hitting profitability in 2017. But as the business plateaued, the team saw potential to use data science about people’s identity to get them better jobs.

“A few months ago we decided to start building a new product (what has become Upstream). And when we came to the conclusion to go all-in on Upstream, we knew we couldn’t run two businesses at the same time” SocialRank co-founder and CEO Alex Taub tells me. “We decided then to run a bit of a process. We ended up with a few offers but ultimately felt like Trufan was the best one to continue the business into the future.”

The move lets SocialRank avoid stranding its existing customers like the NFL, Netflix, and Samsung that rely on its audience segmentation software. Instead, they’ll continue to be supported by Trufan where Taub and fellow co-founder Michael Schonfeld will become advisors.

“While we built a sustainable business, we essentially knew that if we wanted to go real big, we would need to go to the drawing board” Taub explains.

SocialRank

Two-year-old Trufan has raised $1.8 million Canadian from Round13 Capital, local Toronto startup Clearbanc’s founders, and several NBA players. Trufan helps brands like Western Union and Kay Jewellers design marketing initiatives that engage their customer communities through social media. It’s raising an extra $400,000 USD in venture debt from Round13 to finance the acquisition, which should make Trufan cash-flow positive by the end of the year.

Why isn’t the SocialRank team going along for the ride? Taub said LinkedIn was leaving too much opportunity on the table. While it’s good for putting resumes online and searching for people, “All the social stuff are sort of bolt-ons that came after Facebook and Twitter arrived. People forget but LinkedIn is the oldest active social network out there”, Taub tells me, meaning it’s a bit outdated.

Trufan’s team

Rather than attack head-on, the newly forged Upstream plans to pick the Microsoft-owned professional network apart with better approaches to certain features. “I love the idea of ‘the unbundling of LinkedIn’, ala what’s been happening with Craigslist for the past few years” says Taub. “The first foundational piece we are building is a social professional network around giving and getting help. We’ll also be focused on the unbundling of the groups aspect of LinkedIn.”

Taub concludes that entrepreneurs can shackle themselves to impossible goals if they take too much venture capital for the wrong business. As we’ve seen with SoftBank, investors demand huge returns that can require pursuing risky and unsustainable expansion strategies.

“We realized that SocialRank had potential to be a few hundred million dollar in revenue business but venture growth wasn’t exactly the model for it” Taub says. “You need the potential of billions in revenue and a steep growth curve.” A professional network for the smartphone age has that kind of addressable market. And the team might feel better getting out of bed each day knowing they’re unlocking career paths for people instead of just getting them to click ads.

Nov
15
2019
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Three of Apple and Google’s former star chip designers launch NUVIA with $53M in series A funding

Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.

What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).

Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital (DTC), Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.

Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.

What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.

Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder

There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.

Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.

Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”

Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.

The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.

Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”

The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company isn’t building on top of ARM or other existing chip architectures.

Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in

Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.

Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.

Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.

I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.

He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.

He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”

Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.

DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.

That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:

They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.

It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.

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