It was an active week in the technology world broadly, with big news from Facebook and Twitter and Apple. But past the headline-grabbing noise, there was a steady drumbeat of bullish news for unicorns, or private companies worth $1 billion or more.
A bullish week for unicorns
The Exchange spent a good chunk of the week looking into different stories from unicorns, or companies that will soon fit the bill, and it’s surprising to see how much positive financial news there was on tap even past what we got to write about.
Databricks, for example, disclosed a grip of financial data to TechCrunch ahead of regular publication, including the fact that it grew its annual run rate (not ARR) to $350 million by the end of Q3 2020, up from $200 million in Q2 2019. It’s essentially IPO ready, but is not hurrying to the public markets.
Sticking to our theme, Calm wants more money for a huge new valuation, perhaps as high as $2.2 billion which is not a surprise. That’s more good unicorn news. As was the report that “India’s Razorpay [became a] unicorn after its new $100 million funding round” that came out this week.
Razorpay is only one of a number of Indian startups that have become unicorns during COVID-19. (And here’s another digest out this week concerning a half-dozen startups that became unicorns “amidst the pandemic.”)
There was enough good unicorn news lately that we’ve lost track of it all. Things like Seismic raising $92 million, pushing its valuation up to $1.6 billion from a few weeks ago. How did that get lost in the mix?
All this matters because while the IPO market has captured much attention in the last quarter or so, the unicorn world has not sat still. Indeed, it feels that unicorn VC activity is the highest we’ve seen since 2019.
And, as we’ll see in just a moment, the grist for the unicorn mill is getting refilled as we speak. So, expect more of the same until something material breaks our current investing and exit pattern.
What do unicorns eat? Cash. And many, many VCs raised cash in the last seven days.
A partial list follows. It could be that investors are looking to lock in new funds before the election and whatever chaos may ensue. So, in no particular order, here’s who is newly flush:
- $450 million for OpenView, $800 million for Canaan, $840 million for True Ventures, $950 million for Lead Edge Capital
- Something called Benson Capital Partners has put together a $50 million fund. Gayle Benson, for whom the firm is named, owns several New Orleans sports teams, per Forbes.
- Plus Venture Capital, built by two former 500 Startups Mena investors according to fundsglobalMENA, has raised $60 million.
- First Round is looking for $220 million, former Google exec Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures is looking for a billion, while Khosla wants a bit more.
All that capital needs to go to work, which means lots more rounds for many, many startups. The Exchange also caught up with a somewhat new firm this week: Race Capital. Helmed by Alfred Chuang, formerly or BEA who is an angel investor now in charge of his own fund, the firm has $50 million to invest.
Sticking to private investments into startups for the moment, quite a lot happened this week that we need to know more about. Like API-powered Argyle raising $20 million from Bain Capital Ventures for what FinLedger calls “unlocking and democratizing access to employment records.” TechCrunch is currently tracking the progress of API-led startups.
On the fintech side of things, M1 Finance raised $45 million for its consumer fintech platform in a Series C, while another roboadvisor, Wealthsimple, raised $87 million, becoming a unicorn at the same time. And while we’re in the fintech bucket, Stripe dropped $200 million this week for Nigerian startup Paystack. We need to pay more attention to the African startup scene. On the smaller end of fintech, Alpaca raised $10 million more to help other companies become Robinhood.
A few other notes before we change tack. Kahoot raised $215 million due to a boom in remote education, another trend that is inescapable in 2020 as part of the larger edtech boom (our own Natasha Mascarenhas has more).
Turning from the private market to the public, we have to touch on SPACs for just a moment. The Exchange got on the phone this week with Toby Russell from Shift, which is now a public company, trading after it merged with a SPAC, namely Insurance Acquisition Corp. Early trading is only going so well, but the CEO outlined for us precisely why he pursued a SPAC, which was actually interesting:
- Shift could have gone public via an IPO, Russell said, but prioritized a SPAC-led debut because his firm wanted to optimize for a capital raise to keep the company growing.
- How so? The private investment in public equity (PIPE) that the SPAC option came with ensured that Shift would have hundreds of millions in cash.
- Shift also wanted to minimize what the CEO described as market risk. A SPAC deal could happen regardless of what the broader markets were up to. And as the company made the choice to debut via a SPAC in April, some caution, we reckon, may have made some sense.
So now Shift is public and newly capitalized. Let’s see what happens to its shares as it gets into the groove of reporting quarterly. (Obviously, if it flounders, it’s a bad mark for SPACs, but, conversely, successful trading could lead to a bit more momentum to SPAC-mageddon.)
A few more things and we’re done. Unicorn exits had a good week. First, Datto’s IPO continues to move forward. It set an initial price this week, which could value it above $4 billion. Also this week, Roblox announced that it has filed to go public, albeit privately. It’s worth billions as well. And finally, DoubleVerify is looking to go public for as much as $5 billion early next year.
Not all liquidity comes via the public markets, as we saw this week’s Twilio purchase of Segment, a deal that The Exchange dug into to find out if it was well-priced or not.
Various and Sundry
We’re running long naturally, so here are just a few quick things to add to your weekend mental tea-and-coffee reading!
Enterprise investor Jason Green on SPAC hopefuls versus startups bound for traditional IPOs
Jason Green has a pretty solid reputation as venture capitalists go. The enterprise-focused firm he co-founded 17 years ago, Emergence Capital, has backed Saleforce, Box and Zoom, among many other companies, and even while every firm is now investing in software-as-a-service startups, his remains a go-to for many top founders selling business products and services.
To learn more about the trends impacting Green’s slice of the investing universe, we talked with him late last week about everything from SPACs to valuations to how the firm differentiates itself from the many rivals with which it’s now competing. Below are some outtakes edited lightly for length.
TC: What do you make of the assessment that SPACs are for companies that aren’t generating enough revenue to go public the traditional route?
JG: Well, yeah, it’ll be really interesting. This has been quite a year for SPACs, right? I can’t remember the number, but it’s been something like $50 billion of capital raised this year in SPACs, and all of those have to put that money to work within the next 12 to 18 months or they give it back. So there’s this incredible pent-up demand to find opportunities for those SPACs to convert into companies. And the companies that are at the top of the charts, the ones that are the high-growth and profitable companies, will probably do a traditional IPO, I would imagine.
[SPAC candidates are] going to be companies that are growing fast enough to be attractive as a potential public company but not top of the charts. I think [sponsors are] going to target companies that are probably either growing slightly slower than the top-quartile public companies but slightly profitable, or companies that are growing faster but still burning a lot of cash and might actually scare all the traditional IPO investors.
TC: Are you having conversations with CEOs about whether or not they should pursue this avenue?
JG: We just started having those conversations now. There are several companies in the portfolio that will probably be public companies in the next year or two, so it’s definitely an alternative to consider. I would say there’s nothing impending I see in the portfolio. With most entrepreneurs, there’s a little bit of this dream of going public the traditional way, where SPACs tend to be a little bit less exciting from that perspective. So for a company that maybe is thinking about another private round before going public, it’s like a private-plus round. I would say it’s a tweener, so the companies that are considering it are probably ones that are not quite ready to go public yet.
TC: A lot of the SPAC fundraising has seemed like a reaction to uncertainty around when the public window might close. With the election behind us, do you think there’s less uncertainty?
JG: I don’t think risk and uncertainty has decreased since the election. There’s still uncertainty right now politically. The pandemic has reemerged in a significant way, even though we have some really good announcements recently regarding vaccines or potential vaccines. So there’s just a lot of potential directions things could head in.
It’s an environment generally where the public markets tend to gravitate more toward higher-quality opportunities, so fewer companies but higher quality, and that’s where SPACs could play a role. In the first half of next year, I could easily see SPACs being the more likely go-to-market for a public company, then the latter half of next year, once the vaccines have kicked in and people feel like we’re returning to somewhat normal, I could see the traditional IPO coming back.
TC: When we sat down in person about a year ago, you said Emergence looks at maybe 1,000 deals a year, does deep due diligence on 25 and funds just a handful or so of these startups every year. How has that changed in 2020?
JG: I would say that over the last five years, we’ve made almost a total transition. Now we’re very much a data-driven, thesis-driven outbound firm, where we’re reaching out to entrepreneurs soon after they’ve started their companies or gotten seed financing. The last three investments that we made were all relationships that [date back] a year to 18 months before we started engaging in the actual financing process with them. I think that’s what’s required to build a relationship and the conviction, because financings are happening so fast.
I think we’re going to actually do more investments this year than we maybe have ever done in the history of the firm, which is amazing to me [considering] COVID. I think we’ve really honed our ability to build this pipeline and have conviction, and then in this market environment, Zoom is actually helping expand the landscape that we’re willing to invest in. We’re probably seeing 50% to 100% more companies and trying to whittle them down over time and really focus on the 20 to 25 that we want to dig deep on as a team.
TC: For founders trying to understand your thinking, what’s interesting to you right now?
JG: We tend to focus on three major themes at any one time as a firm, and one we’ve termed ‘coaching networks.’ This is this intersection between AI and machine learning and human interaction. Companies like [the sales engagement platform] SalesLoft or [the knowledge management system] Guru or Drishti [which sells video analytics for manual factory assembly lines] fall into this category.
The second [theme] is going deep into more specific industry verticals. Veeva was the best example of this early on with with healthcare and life sciences, but we now have one called p44 in the transportation space that’s doing incredibly well. Doximity is in the healthcare space and going deep like a LinkedIn for physicians, with some remote health capabilities. And then [lending company] Blend, which is in the financial services area. These companies are taking cloud software and just going deep into the most important problems of their industries.
The third theme [centers around] remote work. Zoom, which has obviously has been [among our] best investments is almost a platform, just like Salesforce became a platform after many years. We just funded a company called ClassEDU, which is a Zoom-specific offering for the education market. Snowflake is becoming a platform. So another opportunity is is not just trying to come up with another collaboration tool, but really going deep into a specific use case or vertical.
TC: What’s a company you’ve missed in recent years and were any lessons learned?
JG: We have our hall of shame. [Laughs.] I do think it’s dangerous to assume that things would have turned out the same if if we had been investors in the company. I believe the kinds of investors you put around the table make a difference in terms of the outcome of your company, so I try to not beat myself up too much on the missed opportunities because maybe they found a better fit or a better investor for them to be successful.
But Rob Bernshteyn of Coupa is one where I knew Rob from SuccessFactors [where he was a product marketing VP], and I just always respected and liked him. And we were always chasing it on valuation. And I think I think we probably turned it down at an $80 million or $100 million valuation [and it’s valued at] $20 billion today. That can keep you up at night.
Sometimes, in the moment, there are some risks and concerns about the business and there are other people who are willing to be more aggressive and so you lose out on some of those opportunities. The beautiful thing about our business is that it’s not a zero-sum game.
Remote-controlled delivery carts are now working for the local Los Angeles grocer
Robots are no longer the high-tech tools reserved for university labs, e-commerce giants and buzzy Silicon Valley startups. The local grocer now has access too.
Tortoise, the one-year-old Silicon Valley startup known for its remote repositioning electric scooters, has taken its tech and adapted it to delivery carts. The company recently partnered with online grocery platform Self Point to provide neighborhood stores and specialty brand shops with electric carts that — with help from remote teleoperators — deliver goods to local consumers.
The companies have launched the product offering in Los Angeles with three customers. Each customer, which includes Kosher Express, has two to three carts that can be used to make deliveries up to a three-mile radius from the store. Unlike the network models used by some autonomous sidewalk delivery companies, grocery stores lease the delivery carts and are responsible for storage, charging and packing it up with goods that their customers have ordered.
The initial Self Point/Tortoise launch is small. But it has the makings of expanding far beyond Los Angeles. More importantly for Tortoise, it’s a validation of the company’s larger vision to make remote repositioning a horizontal business with numerous applications.
Tortoise started by equipping electric scooters with cameras, electronics and firmware that allow teleoperators in distant locales to drive the micromobility devices to a rider or deliver it back to its proper parking spot. Now, it has taken that same hardware and software and used it to build its own delivery cart.
Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko has said the company’s remote repositioning kit can be used for security and cleaning bots as well as electric wheelchairs and other accessibility devices. He’s even fielded inquiries from farmers interested in using remote repositioning scooters to monitor crops.
“From a practical point of view we’re not trying to not be everywhere overnight, but there’s really no technological constraint for us,” Shevelenko said in a recent interview.
The emergence of COVID-19 and its effects on consumer behavior prompted Tortoise to home in on delivery carts as its second act.
“We kind of quickly realized that we’re living in a once-in-a-generation change in consumer behavior where now everything is online and people are expecting it to be delivered same day,” Shevelenko said. Tortoise was able to go from the first renderings in May to a delivery cart launch by the fourth quarter because of its ability to repurpose its hardware, software and workforce.
The company still remains bullish on its initial application in micromobility. Earlier this year, Tortoise, GoX and and tech incubator Curiosity Labs launched a six-month pilot in Peachtree Corners, Georgia that allows riders to use an app to hail a scooter. The scooters are outfitted with Tortoise’s tech. Once riders hail the scooter, a Tortoise employee hundreds of miles away remote controls the scooter to the user. After riders complete trips, the scooters drive themselves back to a safe parking spot. From there, GoX employees charge and sanitize the scooters and then mark them with a sticker that indicates they have been properly cleaned.
While partnership with Self Point is Tortoise’s next big project, Shevelenko was quick to note that the company is only focused on one slice of the on-demand delivery pie.
“Low speeds and hot foods don’t work too well,” he said. Startups such as Kiwibot and Starship have smaller robots that focus on that market, Shevelenko added. Tortoise’s delivery carts were designed specifically to hold large amounts of groceries, alcohol and other goods.
“We saw kind of a big opening in grocery,” he said, adding that relying on remote operators and its kit is a low-cost combination that can be used today while automated technology continues to develop. “We’re doing for last-mile delivery what globalized call centers did for customer support.”
Insurtech’s big year gets bigger as Metromile looks to go public
In the wake of insurtech unicorn Root’s IPO, it felt safe to say that the big transactions for the insurance technology startup space were done for the year.
After all, 2020 had been a big one for the broad category, with insurtech marketplaces raising lots, rental insurance startup Lemonade going public, Root itself debuting even more recently on the back of its automotive insurance business, a big round to help Hippo keep building its homeowners company and more.
So let’s talk about why Metromile might be plying the public markets, and why Hippo may have have decided to pick up more cash. Hint: The reasons are related.
A market hungry for growth
The Lemonade IPO was a key moment for neoinsurance startups, a key part of the broader insurtech space. When the rental insurance provider went public, it helped set the tone for public exit valuations for companies of its type: fast-growing insurance companies with slick consumer brands, improving economics, a tech twist and stiff losses.
For the Roots and Metromiles and Hippos, it was an important moment.
So, when Lemonade raised its IPO range, and then traded sharply higher after its debut, it boded well for its private comps. Not that rental insurance and auto insurance or homeowners insurance are the same thing. They very most decidedly are not, but Lemonade’s IPO demonstrated that private investors were correct to bet generally on the collection of startups, because when they reached IPO-scale, they had something that public investors wanted.
Slack’s stock climbs on possible Salesforce acquisition
Slack shares are up just under 25% at the moment, according to Yahoo Finance data. Slack is worth $36.95 per share as of the time of writing, valuing it at around $20.8 billion. The well-known former unicorn has been worth as little as $15.10 per share inside the last year and worth as much as $40.07.
Inversely, shares of Salesforce are trading lower on the news, falling around 3.5% as of the time of writing. Investors in the San Francisco-based SaaS pioneer were either unimpressed at the combination idea, or perhaps worried about the price that would be required to bring the 2019 IPO into their fold.
Why Salesforce, a massive software company with a strong position in the CRM market, and aspirations of becoming an even larger platform player, would want to buy Slack is not immediately clear though there are possible benefits. This includes the possibility of cross-selling the two companies products’ into each others customer bases, possibly unlocking growth for both parties. Slack has wide marketshare inside of fast-growing startups, for example, while Salesforce’s products roost inside a host of megacorps.
TechCrunch reached out to Salesforce, Slack and Slack’s CEO for comment on the deal’s possibility. We’ll update this post with whatever we get.
While Salesforce bought Quip for $750 million in 2016, which gave it a kind of document sharing and collaboration, Salesforce Chatter has been the only social tool in the company’s arsenal. Buying Slack would give the CRM giant solid enterprise chat footing and likely a lot of synergy among customers and tooling.
But Slack has always been more than a mere chat client. It enables companies to embed workflows, and this would fit well in the Salesforce family of products, which spans sales, service, marketing and more. It would allow companies to work both inside and outside the Salesforce ecosystem, building smooth and integrated workflows. While it can theoretically do that now, if the two were combined, you can be sure the integrations would be much tighter.
What’s more, Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research says it would give Salesforce a sticky revenue source, something they are constantly searching for to keep their revenue engine rumbling along. “Slack could be a good candidate to strengthen its platform, but more importantly account for more usage and ‘stickiness’ of Salesforce products — as collaboration not only matters for CRM, but also for the vendor’s growing work.com platform,” Mueller said. He added that it would be a way to stick it to former-friend-turned-foe Microsoft.
That’s because Slack has come under withering fire from Microsoft in recent quarters, as the Redmond-based software giant poured resources into its competing Teams service. Teams challenges Slack’s chat tooling and Zoom’s video features and has seen huge customer growth in recent quarters.
Finding Slack a corporate home amongst the larger tech players could ensure that Microsoft doesn’t grind it under the bulk of its enterprise software sales leviathan. And Salesforce, a sometimes Microsoft ally, would not mind adding the faster-growing Slack to its own expanding software income.
The question at this juncture comes down to price. Slack investors won’t want to sell for less than a good premium on the pre-pop per-share price, which now feels rather dated.
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