Jan
15
2021
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Extra Crunch roundup: Antitrust jitters, SPAC odyssey, white-hot IPOs, more

Some time ago, I gave up on the idea of finding a thread that connects each story in the weekly Extra Crunch roundup; there are no unified theories of technology news.

The stories that left the deepest impression were related to two news pegs that dominated the week — Visa and Plaid calling off their $5.3 billion acquisition agreement, and sizzling-hot IPOs for Affirm and Poshmark.

Watching Plaid and Visa sing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” in harmony after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block their deal wasn’t shocking. But I was surprised to find myself editing an interview Alex Wilhelm conducted with Plaid CEO Zach Perret the next day in which the executive said growing the company on its own is “once again” the correct strategy.


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In an analysis for Extra Crunch, Managing Editor Danny Crichton suggested that federal regulators’ new interest in antitrust enforcement will affect valuations going forward. For example, Procter & Gamble and women’s beauty D2C brand Billie also called off their planned merger last week after the Federal Trade Commission raised objections in December.

Given the FTC’s moves last year to prevent Billie and Harry’s from being acquired, “it seems clear that U.S. antitrust authorities want broad competition for consumers in household goods,” Danny concluded, and I suspect that applies to Plaid as well.

In December, C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb burst into the public markets to much acclaim. This week, used clothing marketplace Poshmark saw a 140% pop in its first day of trading and consumer-financing company Affirm “priced its IPO above its raised range at $49 per share,” reported Alex.

In a post titled “A theory about the current IPO market”, he identified eight key ingredients for brewing a debut with a big first-day pop, which includes “exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates” and “keep companies private longer.” Truly, words to live by!

Come back next week for more coverage of the public markets in The Exchange, an interview with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg where he shares his plans for taking the company public, a comprehensive post that will unpack the regulatory hurdles facing D2C consumer brands, and much more.

If you live in the U.S., enjoy your MLK Day holiday weekend, and wherever you are: Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

 

Rapid growth in 2020 reveals OKR software market’s untapped potential

After spending much of the week covering 2021’s frothy IPO market, Alex Wilhelm devoted this morning’s column to studying the OKR-focused software sector.

Measuring objectives and key results are core to every enterprise, perhaps more so these days since knowledge workers began working remotely in greater numbers last year.

A sign of the times: This week, enterprise orchestration SaaS platform Gtmhub announced that it raised a $30 million Series B.

To get a sense of how large the TAM is for OKR, Alex reached out to several companies and asked them to share new and historical growth metrics:

  • Gthmhub
  • Perdoo
  • WorkBoard
  • Ally.io
  • Koan
  • WeekDone

“Some OKR-focused startups didn’t get back to us, and some leaders wanted to share the best stuff off the record, which we grant at times for candor amongst startup executives,” he wrote.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

For our latest investor survey, Matt Burns interviewed five VCs who actively fund consumer electronics startups:

  • Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital
  • Dayna Grayson, co-founder and general partner, Construct Capital
  • Cyril Ebersweiler, general partner, SOSV
  • Bilal Zuberi, partner, Lux Capital
  • Rob Coneybeer, managing director, Shasta Ventures

“Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder,” says Matt, noting that the pandemic fueled wide interest in fitness startups like Mirror, Peloton and Tonal.

Bonus: Many VCs listed the founders, investors and companies that are taking the lead in consumer hardware innovation.

A theory about the current IPO market

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored curve chart on white background.

Image Credits: Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko

If you’re looking for insight into “why everything feels so damn silly this year” in the public markets, a post Alex wrote Thursday afternoon might offer some perspective.

As someone who pays close attention to late-stage venture markets, he’s identified eight factors that are pushing debuts for unicorns like Affirm and Poshmark into the stratosphere.

TL;DR? “Lots of demand, little supply, boom goes the price.”

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups

Clothing resale marketplace Poshmark closed up more than 140% on its first trading day yesterday.

In Thursday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex noted that Poshmark boosted its valuation by selling 6.6 million shares at its IPO price, scooping up $277.2 million in the process.

Poshmark’s surge in trading is good news for its employees and stockholders, but it reflects poorly on “the venture-focused money people who we suppose know what they are talking about when it comes to equity in private companies,” he says.

Will startup valuations change given rising antitrust concerns?

GettyImages 926051128

Image Credits: monsitj/Getty Images

This week, Visa announced it would drop its planned acquisition of Plaid after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to block it last fall.

Last week, Procter & Gamble called off its purchase of Billie, a women’s beauty products startup — in December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued to block that deal, too.

Once upon a time, the U.S. government took an arm’s-length approach to enforcing antitrust laws, but the tide has turned, says Managing Editor Danny Crichton.

Going forward, “antitrust won’t kill acquisitions in general, but it could prevent the buyers with the highest reserve prices from entering the fray.”

Dear Sophie: What’s the new minimum salary required for H-1B visa applicants?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I’m a grad student currently working on F-1 STEM OPT. The company I work for has indicated it will sponsor me for an H-1B visa this year.

I hear the random H-1B lottery will be replaced with a new system that selects H-1B candidates based on their salaries.

How will this new process work?

— Positive in Palo Alto

Venture capitalists react to Visa-Plaid deal meltdown

A homemade chocolate cookie with a bite and crumbs on a white background

Image Credits: Ana Maria Serrano/Getty Images

After news broke that Visa’s $5.3 billion purchase of API startup Plaid fell apart, Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller interviewed several investors to get their reactions:

  • Anshu Sharma, co-founder and CEO, SkyflowAPI
  • Amy Cheetham, principal, Costanoa Ventures
  • Sheel Mohnot, co-founder, Better Tomorrow Ventures
  • Lucas Timberlake, partner, Fintech Ventures
  • Nico Berardi, founder and general partner, ANIMO Ventures
  • Allen Miller, VC, Oak HC/FT
  • Sri Muppidi, VC, Sierra Ventures
  • Christian Lassonde, VC, Impression Ventures

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

Zach Perret, chief executive officer and co-founder of Plaid Technologies Inc., speaks during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The summit brings together the leading minds in the tech industry for two-days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm interviewed Plaid CEO Zach Perret after the Visa acquisition was called off to learn more about his mindset and the company’s short-term plans.

Perret, who noted that the last few years have been a “roller coaster,” said the Visa deal was the right decision at the time, but going it alone is “once again” Plaid’s best way forward.

2021: A SPAC odyssey

In Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm took a closer look at blank-check offerings for digital asset marketplace Bakkt and personal finance platform SoFi.

To create a detailed analysis of the investor presentations for both offerings, he tried to answer two questions:

  1. Are special purpose acquisition companies a path to public markets for “potentially promising companies that lacked obvious, near-term growth stories?”
  2. Given the number of unicorns and the limited number of companies that can IPO at any given time, “maybe SPACS would help close the liquidity gap?”

Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

Spotlit Multi Colored Coil Toy in the Dark.

Image Credits: MirageC/Getty Images

Growth-stage startups in search of funding have a new option: “flexible VC” investors.

An amalgam of revenue-based investment and traditional VC, investors who fall into this category let entrepreneurs “access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.”

In a comprehensive explainer, fund managers David Teten and Jamie Finney present different investment structures so founders can get a clear sense of how flexible VC compares to other venture capital models. In a follow-up post, they share a list of a dozen active investors who offer funding via these nontraditional routes.

These 5 VCs have high hopes for cannabis in 2021

Marijuana leaf on a yellow background.

Image Credits: Anton Petrus (opens in a new window)/Getty Images

For some consumers, “cannabis has always been essential,” writes Matt Burns, but once local governments allowed dispensaries to remain open during the pandemic, it signaled a shift in the regulatory environment and investors took notice.

Matt asked five VCs about where they think the industry is heading in 2021 and what advice they’re offering their portfolio companies:

Dec
09
2020
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HealNow raises $1.3 million to bring online payments to pharmacies

As the health tech landscape rapidly evolves, another startup is making its presence known. HealNow has closed a $1.3 million round of funding from SoftBank Opportunity Fund and Alabama Futures Fund.

The company was founded by Halston Prox and Joshua Smith. Prox has worked in healthcare for more than a decade with major organizations such as Providence Health, Mount Sinai and Baylor Scott & White, mostly focused on digitizing health records and designing and implementing software for doctors, nurses, etc. Smith, CTO at the company, has been a developer since 2012.

The duo founded HealNow to become the central nervous system for order and delivery of prescriptions, according to Prox. Your average payments processing system isn’t necessarily applicable to pharmacies large and small because of the complexities of health insurance and the regulatory landscape.

Not only is it costly to facilitate online payments for pharmacies, but they also have their own pharmacy management systems and workflows that can be easily disrupted by moving to a new payments system.

HealNow has built a system that’s specifically tailored to pharmacies of any shape or size, from grocery stores to mom and pop pharmacies and everything in between. It’s a white label solution, meaning that any pharmacy can put their brand language on the product.

“We’re embedded in their current workflows and pharmacies don’t have to do anything manual, even if they’re using a pharmacy management system,” said Prox.

When a user looks to get a prescription from their pharmacy, they are sent a link that allows them to securely answer any questions that may be necessary for the pickup, enter insurance info, make a payment and schedule a curbside pickup or a delivery. The tech also integrates with third-party delivery services for pharmacies that offer deliveries.

This technology has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving smaller pharmacies the chance to compete with bigger chains who have digital solutions already set up that allow for curbside pick up. This is especially true now that Amazon has gotten into the space with the launch of Amazon Pharmacy.

HealNow is a SaaS company, charging a monthly subscription fee for use of the platform, as well as a service fee for prescriptions purchased on the platform. However, that service fee is a flat rate that never changes based on the cost of the prescription.

The space is crowded and growing more crowded, with competitors like NimbleRX and Capsule offering their own spin on simplifying and digitizing the pharmacy. One big difference for HealNow, says Prox, is that the startup has no intention of ever being a pharmacy, but rather serving pharmacies in a way that doesn’t disrupt their current workflow or system.

“We’re not a pharmacy, and we want to enable all these pharmacies to be online,” said Prox. “To do that we have to do that in an unbiased way by focusing on being a complete tech company.”

The funding is going primarily toward building out the sales and marketing arms of the company to continue fueling growth. HealNow has a foothold in the West, Southwest and Middle America, and is opening an office in Birmingham to sprint across the East Coast. Prox says the company is processing thousands of orders a day and tens of thousands of orders each month.

HealNow launched in 2018 after graduating from the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator .

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
01
2020
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12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris-based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.

Apr
23
2020
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Stripe adds card issuing, localized card networks and expanded approvals tool

At a time when more transactions than ever are happening online, payments behemoth Stripe is announcing three new features to continue expanding its reach.

The company today announced that it will now offer card issuing services directly to businesses to let them in turn make credit cards for customers tailored to specific purposes. Alongside that, it’s going to expand the number of accepted local, large card networks to cut down some of the steps it takes to make transactions in international markets. And finally, it’s launching a “revenue optimization” feature that essentially will use Stripe’s AI algorithms to reassess and approve more flagged transactions that might have otherwise been rejected in the past.

Together the three features underscore how Stripe is continuing to scale up with more services around its core payment processing APIs, a significant step in the wake of last week announcing its biggest fundraise to date: $600 million at a $36 billion valuation.

The rollouts of the new products are specifically coming at a time when Stripe has seen a big boost in usage among some (but not all) of its customers, said John Collison, Stripe’s co-founder and president, in an interview. Instacart, which is providing grocery delivery at a time when many are living under stay-at-home orders, has seen transactions up by 300% in recent weeks. Another newer customer, Zoom, is also seeing business boom. Amazon, Stripe’s behemoth customer that Collison would not discuss in any specific terms except to confirm it’s a close partner, is also seeing extremely heavy usage.

But other Stripe users — for example, many of its sea of small business users — are seeing huge pressures, while still others, faced with no physical business, are just starting to approach e-commerce in earnest for the first time. Stripe’s idea is that the launches today can help it address all of these scenarios.

“What we’re seeing in the COVID-19 world is that the impact is not minor,” said Collison. “Online has always been steadily taking a share from offline, but now many [projected] years of that migration are happening in the space of a few weeks.”

Stripe is among those companies that have been very mum about when they might go public — a state of affairs that only become more set in recent times, given how the IPO market has all but dried up in the midst of a health pandemic and economic slump. That has meant very little transparency about how Stripe is run, whether it’s profitable and how much revenues it makes.

But Stripe did note last week that it had some $2 billion in cash and cash reserves, which at least speaks to a level of financial stability. And another hint of efficiency might be gleaned from today’s product news.

While these three new services don’t necessarily sound like they are connected to each other, what they have underpinning them is that they are all building on top of tech and services that Stripe has previously rolled out. This speaks to how, even as the company now handles some 250 million API requests daily, it’s keeping some lean practices in place in terms of how it invests and maximises engineering and business development resources.

The card issuing service, for example, is built on a card service that Stripe launched last year. Originally aimed at businesses to provide their employees with credit cards — for example to better manage their own work-related expenses, or to make transactions on behalf of the business — now businesses can use the card issuing platform to build out aspects of its customer-facing services.

For example, Stripe noted that the first customer, Zipcar, will now be placing credit cards in each of its vehicles, which drivers can use to fuel up the vehicles (that is, the cards can only be used to buy gas). Another example Collison gave for how these could be implemented would be in a food delivery service, for example for a Postmates delivery person to use the card to pay for the meal that a customer has already paid Postmates to pick up and deliver to them.

Collison noted that while other startups like Marqeta have built big businesses around innovative card issuing services, “this is the first time it’s being issued on a self-serving basis,” meaning companies that want to use these cards can now set this up more quickly as a “programmatic card” experience, akin to self-serve, programmatic ads online.

It seems also to be good news for investors. “Stripe Issuing is a big step forward,” said Alex Rampell, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “Not just for the millions of businesses running on Stripe, but for credit cards as a fundamental technology. Businesses can now use an API to create and issue cards exactly when and where they need them, and they can do it in a few clicks, not a few months. As investors, we’re excited by all the potential new companies and business models that will emerge as a result.”

Meanwhile, the revenue “optimization” engine that Stripe is rolling out is built on the same machine learning algorithms that it originally built for Radar, its fraud prevention tool that originally launched in 2016 and was extended to larger enterprises in 2018. This makes a lot of sense, since oftentimes the reason transactions get rejected is because of the suspicion of fraud. Why it’s taken four years to extend that to improve how transactions are approved or rejected is not entirely clear, but Stripe estimates that it could enable a further $2.5 billion in transactions annually.

One reason why the revenue optimization may have taken some time to roll out was because while Stripe offers a very seamless, simple API for users, it’s doing a lot of complex work behind the scenes knitting together a lot of very fragmented payment flows between card issuers, banks, businesses, customers and more in order to make transactions possible.

The third product announcement speaks to how Stripe is simplifying a bit more of that. Now, it’s able to provide direct links into six big card networks — Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB and China Union Pay, which effectively covers the major card networks in North and Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe. Previously, Stripe would have had to work with third parties to integrate acceptance of all of these networks in different regions, which would have cut into Stripe’s own margins and also given it less flexibility in terms of how it could handle the transaction data.

Launching the revenue optimization by being able to apply machine learning to the transaction data is one example of where and how it might be able to apply more innovative processes from now on.

While Stripe is mainly focused today on how to serve its wider customer base and to just help business continue to keep running, Collison noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable impact on Stripe beyond just boosts in business for some of its customers.

The whole company has been working remotely for weeks, including its development team, making for challenging times in building and rolling out services.

And Stripe, along with others, is also in the early stages of piloting how it will play a role in issuing small business loans as part of the CARES Act, he said.

In addition to that, he noted that there has been an emergence of more medical and telehealth services using Stripe for payments.

Before now, many of those use cases had been blocked by the banks, he said, for reasons of the industries themselves being strictly regulated in terms of what kind of data could get passed across networks and the sensitive nature of the businesses themselves. He said that a lot of that has started to get unblocked in the current climate, and “the growth of telemedicine has been off the charts.”

Mar
26
2020
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Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant and startups and small-to-medium sized businesses are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expense besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SaaS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dot-com crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, investors can get less cautious and customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest, if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors also could offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation started. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal.

Feb
17
2020
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Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50-person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it,” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote, “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air.

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter, which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support,” asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1,000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

[Update 2pm Pacific: Gusto’s PR representative Paul Loeffler claims that “This is common business practice in maintaining a brand”, says that for Gusto “A core, but not exclusive focus, are small businesses”, and admits that “as Gusto itself has grown to become a large-scale company, we have different needs than many of our customers and transitioned to Workday.”

Finally, he declares that “We’re excited to see more companies create new solutions that make it easier for businesses to take care of and support their teams” despite theatening to sue one that was. If Gusto itself grew out of Gusto, an ad asking if its customers are too seems wholly accurate.]

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.

Dec
12
2019
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Why Bill.com didn’t pursue a direct listing

Bill.com went public today after pricing its shares higher than it initially expected. The B2B payments company sold nearly 10 million shares at $22 apiece, raising around $216 million in its IPO. Public investors felt that the company’s price was a deal, sending the value of its equity to $35.51 per share as of the time of writing.

That’s a gain of over 61%.

On the heels of its successful pricing run and raucous first day’s trading, TechCrunch caught up with Bill.com CEO René Lacerte to dig into his company’s debut. We wanted to know how pricing went, and whether the company (which possibly could have valued itself more richly during its IPO pricing, given its first-day pop) had considered a direct listing.

Lacerte detailed what resonated with investors while pricing Bill.com’s shares, and also did a good job outlining his perspective on what matters for companies that are going public. As a spoiler, he wasn’t super focused on the company’s first-day return.

For more on the Bill.com IPO’s nuts and bolts, head here. Let’s get into the interview.

René Lacerte

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Questions have been condensed.

TechCrunch: How did your IPO pricing feel, and what did you learn from the process?

Lacerte: I think the whole experience has been an incredible learning experience from a capitalism perspective; that’s probably a broader conversation. But you know, it really came down to how our story resonated with investors, and so there’s three components that we kind of really talked to folks about.

Sep
24
2019
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Fundbox raises $176 million Series C to build ‘Visa’ for B2B payments

Credit cards have become all but ubiquitous for consumer transactions, and it isn’t hard to see why. By intermediating payments, networks like Visa allow buyers and sellers to exchange money for goods and services without knowing the financial risk profile of the counter-party. Rather than applying for credit at every merchant you shop at, you apply once at your issuing institution, and then can transact with every merchant on the network. It’s the simple formula: reducing friction means more sales, and therefore more profits.

Yet for all the innovation in the consumer side of the economy, there has been an astonishingly limited amount of innovation in the B2B world. Payments between businesses are still conducted through invoices, with net payment terms that can exceed 90 days and with little knowledge of the financial risk of the counter-parties. There is no FICO score for business as there is with consumers, nor is there a system that can intermediate those transactions and reduce their friction.

That’s where Fundbox comes in. The SF-headquartered startup wants to ultimately transform B2B payments by creating a Visa-like payments network that allows businesses to transact with each other without having to know counter-party risk while also getting everyone paid faster.

It’s a vision that has pulled in the attention of even more venture capital. The company, which was founded in 2013, announced today that it has raised $176 million in a series C equity financing led by a consortium of funders, including Allianz X, Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, HarbourVest and a litany of others. Existing backers Khosla, General Catalyst, and Spark Capital Growth also participated. With this new round of capital, the company’s total equity funding reaches upwards of $300 million.

In addition to the equity capital, the company also announced that it has raised a $150 million credit facility to underwrite its product.

Fundbox CEO Eyal Shinar said that a priority in this fundraise was to select backers who not only could invest in equity, but also had large balance sheets who could expand the company’s underwriting capability as it scales.

Today, Fundbox’s core product is a revolving line of credit for small businesses. Cash flow is a huge concern for many companies, since they often have to wait for a payment from an invoice to arrive before investing in their next projects or hiring more employees. A revolving line of credit allows companies to flexibly draw down and pay back a loan, while only paying fees on what a company uses.

To apply for the loan, companies connect Fundbox to their financial data store (for example, QuickBooks), and Fundbox slurps in the data and offers a credit decision in as fast as minutes. Companies can then tap their line of credit almost immediately and use it as working capital. As invoices are paid, companies can then pay off their line of credit and stop paying fees.

From that product base, Shinar ultimately sees Fundbox as a GDP-scale startup, given the value it could potentially unlock for companies and the economy at large. “There are more than $3 trillion locked in those invoices,” he explained to me, “$3.4 trillion flows through consumer credit cards, but $23 trillion are in invoices … and even if you focus on [just] small and medium business, it’s $9 trillion.”

As the company collects data from all the players in the market, it wants to build upon those data network effects to ultimately operate the payment rails for B2B transactions. So instead of offering a line of credit to the seller, it could facilitate both sides of the transaction and get rid of the root complexity in the first place.

It’s a bold vision, and certainly one that has attracted a variety of players. In the startup world, Kabbage (whose co-founder and president Kathryn Petralia I will be interviewing at TechCrunch Disrupt SF next week) has built a business around line of credit lending and has similarly raised large amounts of venture capital.

Larger companies like Square, PayPay, and Intuit (which owns the popular accounting software QuickBooks) have introduced various lending products to B2B customers. And in terms of payments, Stripe through its new credit card and Brex offer the means for companies to empower their employees to make purchases on behalf of the company.

Shinar said that a huge priority for Fundbox has been to make underwriting more efficient. He said that a large percentage of the current employee base at the company is data scientists, and the company has built upon the wave of digitalization that has taken place among small and medium businesses. “Every company has at least one set of APIs … and it is accessible, and it is granular,” Shinar said. By just tapping into those existing data feeds, Fundbox is able to avoid the human underwriting common with much of business lending today.

One initiative the company has undertaken is a tool dubbed “X-Ray” to better describe how the company’s machine learning models are really underwriting its loan products. Shinar noted that payments is a highly-regulated space, and that the company has to be able to explain its decisions and how they are unbiased to any regulator that might start asking questions.

The company today has 240 employees spread across SF, Tel Aviv, and a recently launched office in Dallas. Shinar says that he wants to use the new funds to “go on the offensive” and “double and triple down on what is working.”

Sep
10
2019
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Payments giant Stripe debuts a credit card in its latest step into the financing fray

Last week, when the popular payments startup Stripe made some waves with its first move into money lending through the launch of Stripe Capital, we reported that the company was also soon going to be launching a credit card. Now, that news is official. Today, the company is doubling down on financing with the launch of corporate cards for business customers.

Announced officially today to coincide with the company’s developer event Stripe Sessions, the Stripe Corporate Card — as the product is officially called — is a Visa that will be open to businesses that are incorporated in the U.S., although they can operate elsewhere.

Notably, users are expected to pay their balance in full each month, so for now there is no interest rate, or fee, to use the card, with Stripe making its money by way of the interchange fee that comes with every transaction using the card.

“We’re not freezing cards based on late or no payments,” Cristina Cordova, the business lead overseeing the launch, said in an interview. “A pretty common reason for non-payment is that a person switched bank accounts and forgot to update the information. But we think we’ll have fewer problems because we have banking information for accepting revenue, by way of our payments business.”

The move is another major step ahead for Stripe as it continues to diversify its business and bring on more financial products to become a one-stop shop for e-commerce and other companies for all the transactions they might need to make in the course of their lives. It is a little ironic that it’s taken years for credit cards to get added into the mix, considering Stripe’s earliest homepages and marketing efforts were built around the design of a credit card (a reference to taking payments online, not issuing credit, of course).

In any case, the list of products now offered by Stripe is long — longer, you might say, than it takes to incorporate a Stripe service into a developer workflow. In addition to its API-based flagship payments product — which is available as a direct service or, via Stripe Connect, for third parties via marketplaces and other platforms — it offers billing and invoicing, in-person payment services (via Terminal), business analytics, fraud prevention on transactions (Radar), company incorporation (Atlas) and a range of content around business strategy.

Some of these Stripe products are free to use, and some come at a price: The main point for offering them together is to build more engagement and loyalty from customers to keep them from migrating to other services. In that regard, credit cards are a cornerstone of how businesses operate, to handle day-to-day expenses in a more accountable way, and this is an area that is already well-served by others, including startups like Brex but also a plethora of challenger and traditional banks. So as much as anything else, this is a clear move to help stave off competition.

At the same time, it underscores how Stripe is leveraging the huge amount of data that it has amassed about its users and payments on the platform: It’s not just about enabling single services, but about using the byproducts of those services — data — to put fuel into new products.

Today, to underscore its global ambitions in that regard, Stripe is adding some expansions to several of its existing products. For example, it will now allow businesses to make payouts in local currencies in 45 countries (an important detail, for example, for marketplaces and network-based companies like ridesharing businesses).

The credit card product will follow a model similar to that of Stripe Capital. As with the lending product, there is a single bank issuing the credit and the card. Amber Feng, head of financial infrastructure for Stripe, confirmed to me that it is actually the same bank that’s providing the cash behind Stripe Capital. Stripe is still declining to name the bank itself, but hints that we may hear more about it soon, which leads me to wonder what news might be coming next.

(Funding perhaps would make sense? The company has raised a whopping $785 million to date and has a valuation of $22.5 billion at the moment. Given that Stripe has made indications that a public listing is not on the cards soon, that might imply, with the launch of these new financing products, that more capital might be raised soon.)

Also similar to Stripe Capital, the underwriting of the card is based on Stripe data. That is to say, business users are verified and approved based on turnover (revenues) as measured by the Stripe payments platform itself; and in cases where applicants are “pre-revenue,” they can be evaluated based on other data sources. For example, if they have used Stripe Atlas to incorporate their businesses, the paperwork supplied for that is used by Stripe to vet the customer’s suitability for a credit card.  

Notably, the cards will be delivered in the spirit of instant gratification: If you are applying and get approved, you can within minutes download a virtual card to your Apple Wallet as you await the physical card to arrive in the post.

Stripe is big on data in its own business, and it’s bringing some of that into this product with spending controls that can be set by person and by category; real-time expense reporting by way of texts; rewards of 2% back on spending in the business’s most-used categories; and integration with financial software like QuickBooks and Expensify.

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