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As the venture market tightens, a debt lender sees big opportunities

02:08 | 25 January

David Spreng spent more than 20 years in venture capital before dipping his toe into the world of revenue-based financing and realizing there was a growing appetite for alternatives to venture capital. Indeed, since forming debt-lending company Runway Growth Capital in mid-2015, Spreng has been busy writing checks to a variety of mostly later-stage companies on behalf of his institutional investors. (One of these, Oak Tree Capital Management in LA, is a publicly-traded credit firm.)

He expects he’ll be even busier in 2020. The reason — if you haven’t noticed already — is a general slowing down in what has been a very long boom cycle. “We’re in the late innings of a very long game,” said Spreng today, calling from Davos, where he has been attending meetings this week. “I don’t think the cycle is going to end this second. But where we went from a growth-at-all-costs mentality, boards are now saying, ‘let’s find a balance between top line growth and capital efficiency — let’s figure out a path to profitability.’ ”

Why is that good for Spreng and his colleagues? Because when a cycle ends, venture capitalists get stingier with their portfolio companies, writing fewer checks to support startups that aren’t hitting it out of the park, and often taking a bigger bite under more onerous terms when they do reinvest to counter the added risk they’re taking.

 


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Google backtracks on search results design

02:00 | 25 January

Earlier today, Google href="https://twitter.com/searchliaison/status/1220768238490939394?s=21"> announced that it would be redesigning the redesign of its search results as a response to withering criticism from politicians, consumers, and the press over the way in which search results display were made to look like ads.

Google makes money when users of its search service click on ads. It doesn’t make money when people click on an unpaid search result. Making ads look like search results makes Google more money.

It’s also a pretty evil (or at least unethical) business decision by a company whose mantra was “Don’t be evil”(although they gave that up in 2018).

Users began noticing the changes to search results last week and at least one user flagged the changes earlier this week.

Google responded with a bit of doublespeak from its corporate account about how the redesign was intended to achieve the opposite effect of what it was actually doing.

“Last year, our search results on mobile gained a new look. That’s now rolling out to desktop results this week, presenting site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded ‘Ad’ label for ads,” the company wrote.

Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner took a break from impeachment hearings to talk to the Washington Post about just how bad the new search redesign was.

“We’ve seen multiple instances over the last few years where Google has made paid advertisements ever more indistinguishable from organic search results,” Warner told the Post. “This is yet another example of a platform exploiting its bottleneck power for commercial gain, to the detriment of both consumers and also small businesses.”

Google’s changes to its search results happened despite the fact that the company is already being investigated by every state in the country for antitrust violations.

For Google, the rationale is simple. The company’s advertising revenues aren’t growing the way they used to, and the company is looking at a slowdown in its core business. To try and juice the numbers, dark patterns present an attractive way forward.

Indeed, Google’s using the same tricks that it once battled to become the premier search service in the U.S. When the company first launched its search service, ads were clearly demarcated and separated from actual search results returned by Google’s algorithm. Over time, the separation between what was an ad and what wasn’t became increasingly blurred.

“Search results were near-instant and they were just a page of links and summaries – perfection with nothing to add or take away,” user experience expert Harry Brignull (and founder of the watchdog website darkpatterns.org) said of the original Google search results in an interview with TechCrunch.

“The back-propagation algorithm they introduced had never been used to index the web before, and it instantly left the competition in the dust. It was proof that engineers could disrupt the rules of the web without needing any suit-wearing executives. Strip out all the crap. Do one thing and do it well.”

“As Google’s ambitions changed, the tinted box started to fade. It’s completely gone now,” Brignull added.

The company acknowledged that its latest experiment might have gone too far in its latest statement and noted that it will “experiment further” on how it displays results.

 


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The Pentagon pushes back on Huawei ban in bid for ‘balance’

01:10 | 25 January

Huawei may have just found itself an ally in the most unexpected of places. According to a new report out of The Wall Street Journal, both the Defense and Treasury Departments are pushing back on a Commerce Department-led ban on sales from the embattled Chinese hardware giant.

That move, in turn, has reportedly led Commerce Department officials to withdraw a proposal set to make it even more difficult for U.S.-based companies to work with Huawei.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper struck a fittingly pragmatic tone while speaking with the paper, noting, “We have to be conscious of sustaining those [technology] companies’ supply chains and those innovators. That’s the balance we have to strike.”

Huawei, already under fire for allegations of flouting sanctions with other countries, has become a centerpiece of a simmering trade war between the Trump White House and China. The smartphone maker has been barred from selling 5G networking equipment due to concerns over its close ties to the Chinese government.

Last year, meanwhile, the government barred Huawei from utilizing software and components from U.S.-based companies, including Google. Huawei is also expected to be a key talking point in upcoming White House discussions, as officials weigh actions against the repercussions they’ll ultimately have for U.S. partners.

The Commerce Department has yet to offer any official announcement related to the report.

 


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Kraftful raises $1M to help smart home companies make better apps

00:10 | 25 January

 

If a thousand companies make their own smart light bulb, do a thousand companies also have to design a light switch app to control them?

Kraftful, a company out of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class, doesn’t think so. Kraftful builds the myriad components that an IoT/Smart Home company might need, puzzle piecing them together into apps for each company without requiring them to reinvent the light switch (or the pad lock button, or the smart thermostat dial) for the nth time.

Because no company wants an app that looks identical to a competitor’s, much of what Kraftful does is built to be tailored to each company’s branding — all the surface level stuff, like iconography, fonts, colors, etc. are all customizable. Under the hood, though, everything is built to be reusable.

This focus on finding the parts that can be built once makes sense, especially given the team’s background. CEO Yana Welinder and CTO Nicky Leach were previously Head of Product and a Senior Engineer, respectively, at IFTTT — the web service made up of a zillion reusable, interlinking “recipe” applets that let you hook just about anything (Gmail, Instagram, your cat’s litterbox, whatever) into anything else to let one trigger actions on the other.

Kraftful founders Nicky Leach and Yana Welinder

So why now? More smart devices are coming onto the market every day, many of them from legacy appliance companies who don’t have much (or any) history in building smartphone apps. Good apps are the exception — the Philips Hue app is one of the better ones out there, and even it’s a little wonky sometimes. Many of them are… real bad.

Bad apps get bad App Store reviews, and bad reviews dent sales. And even for those who dive in and buy it without checking the reviews first, bad apps means returned devices. According to this iQor survey from 2018, 22% of smart home customers give up and return the products before getting them to work.

“We kind of looked around and realized that 80% of all smart home apps have zero, one, or two stars on the app store,” Welinder tells me.

Knowing what’s working and what’s not with buyers is a strength of Kraftful’s approach; behind the scenes, they can run all sorts of analytics on how users are actually interacting with components in the apps they’re powering and adjust all of them accordingly. If they make a tweak to the setup process in one app, do more users actually get all the way through it? Great. Now roll that out everywhere.

“If you look at some of the leading smart lock apps, they all have very… very similar interfaces. They’ve basically gotten to a standardized user experience, but they’ve all be developed individually.” says Welinder. “So all of these companies are spending the resources designing and developing these apps, but they’re not getting the benefit of being standardized across the board and being able to leverage data from all of these apps to be able to improve them all at once”

Kraftful builds the app for both iOS and Android, tailors it to the brand’s needs, offers cloud functionality like push notifications and activity history, provides analytics for insights on how users are actually using an app, and keeps everything working as OS updates roll out and as device display sizes grow ever larger.

Of course, the entire concept of a dedicated app for a smart home device has some pretty fierce competition — between Apple’s Homekit and Google Home, the platform makers themselves seem pretty set on gobbling up much of the functionality. But most buyers still expect their shiny devices to have their own apps — something branded and purpose-built, something for the manual to point them to. Power users, meanwhile, will always want to do things beyond what the all-encompassing solutions like Homekit/Home are built for.

Folks at Google seem to agree with Kraftful’s approach, here — the team counts the Google Assistant Investments Program as one of the investors in the $1M they’ve raised. Other investors include YC, F7 Ventures, Cleo Capital, Julia Collins (co-founder of Zume Pizza and Planet Forward), Lukas Biewald (co-founder of CrowdFlower), Nicolas Pinto (co-founder of Perceptio), and a number of other angel investors.

Welinder tells me they’re already working with multiple companies to start powering their apps; NDAs prevent her from saying who, at this point, but she notes that they’re “some of the largest brands that provide smart lights, plugs/switches, thermostats, and other smart home products.”

 


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A founder’s guide to recession planning for startups

22:37 | 24 January

Schwark Satyavolu Contributor
Schwark Satyavolu is a general partner at Trinity Ventures where he makes early-stage investments in fintech, security and AI. A serial entrepreneur, he co-founded Yodlee (YDLE) and Truaxis, both of which were acquired. Previously, he held senior executive positions at LifeLock and Mastercard. He is an inventor on 15 patents.

We are living through one of the nation’s longest periods of economic growth. Unfortunately, the good times can’t last forever. A recession is likely on the horizon, even if we can’t pinpoint exactly when. Founders can’t afford to wait until the midst of a downturn to figure out their game plans; that would be like initiating swim lessons only after getting dumped in the open ocean.

When recession inevitably strikes, it will be many founders’ — and even many VCs’ — first experiences navigating a downturn. Every startup executive needs a recession playbook. The time to start building it is now.

While recessions make running any business tough, they don’t necessitate doom. I co-founded two separate startups just before downturns struck, yet I successfully navigated one through the 2000 dot-com bust and the second through the 2008 financial crisis. Both companies not only survived but thrived. One went public and the second was acquired by Mastercard.

I hope my lessons learned prove helpful to building your own recession game plan.

 


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Daily Crunch: Goldman Sachs calls for diverse boards

22:14 | 24 January

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Goldman Sachs says it won’t take startups public without at least one ‘diverse’ director; it should go further

CEO David Solomon told CNBC that beginning this year, Goldman will no longer take companies public if they don’t have at least one “diverse” member on its board of directors.

Some will, perhaps rightly, see the announcement as little more than marketing. After all, it’s already widely viewed as unacceptable for a company to go public without at least one female board member and preferably far more diversity than that.

2. London’s Met Police switches on live facial recognition, flying in face of human rights concerns

The deployment comes after a multi-year period of trials by the Met and police in South Wales. The Met says its use of the controversial technology will be targeted to “specific locations … where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders.”

3. Sonos clarifies how unsupported devices will be treated

If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is still going to drop support for those devices. But at least the company is backing away from its initial decision that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices would stop receiving updates, as well.

4. Meet the B2B videoconferencing startup that’s gone crazy for online dating

Eyeson’s website touts “no downloads, no lag, no hassle” video calls. But when TechCrunch came across founder Andreas Kröpfl last December, pitching hard in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin, he was most keen to talk about something else entirely: video dating.

5. Layoffs hit Q&A startup Quora

Quora, the 10-year-old question-and-answer company based in Mountain View, is laying off staff in its Bay Area and New York offices. CEO Adam D’Angelo did not disclose the scale of the layoffs.

6. As SaaS stocks set new records, Atlassian’s earnings show there’s still room to grow

Atlassian reported earnings after-hours yesterday and the market quickly pushed its shares up by more than 10%. Alex Wilhelm explores why. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. Wikipedia now has more than 6 million articles in English

The feat, which comes roughly 19 years after the website was founded, is a testament of “what humans can do together,” said Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that operates the online encyclopedia.

 


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Los Angeles-based CREXi raises $29 million for its online real estate marketplace

22:01 | 24 January

Los Angeles is one of the most desirable locations for commercial real estate in the United States, so it’s little wonder that there’s something of a boom in investments in technology companies servicing the market coming from the region.

It’s one of the reasons that CREXi, the commercial real estate marketplace, was able to establish a strong presence for its digital marketplace and toolkit for buyers, sellers, and investors.

Since the company raised its last institutional round in 2018, it has added over 300,000 properties for sale or lease across the U.S. and increased its user base to 6 million customers, according to a statement.

It has now raised $29 million in new financing from new investors including Mitsubishi Estate Company (“MEC”), Industry Ventures, and Prudence Holdings . Previous investors Lerer Hippeau Ventures and Jackson Square Ventures also participated in the financing.

CREXi makes money in three ways. There’s a subscription service for brokers looking to sell or lease property; an auction service where CREXi will earn a fee upon the close of a transaction; and a data and analytics service that allows users to get a view into the latest trends in commercial real estate based on the vast collection of properties on offer through the company’s services.

The company touts its service as the only technology offering that can take a property from marketing to the close of a sale or lease without having to leave the platform.

According to chief executive, Mike DiGiorgio, the company is also recession proof thanks to its auction services. “As more distressed properties hit the market the best way to sell them is through an online auction,” DiGiorgio says.

So far, the company has seen $700 billion of transactions flow through the platform and roughly 40% of those deals were exclusive to the company.

“The CRE industry is evolving, and market players, especially younger, digitally native generations are seeking out platforms that provide free and open access to information,” said Gavin Myers, General Partner at Prudence Holdings, in a statement. “CREXi directly addresses this market need, providing fair access to a range of CRE information. As CREXi continues to build out its stable of services, features, and functionality, we’re thrilled to partner with them and support the company’s continued momentum.”

CREXi joins the ranks of startups based in Los Angeles that have raised money to reshape the real estate industry. Estimates from Built in LA count roughly 127 companies, which have raised in excess of $2.4 billion, active in the real estate industry in Los Angeles. These companies range from providers of short-term commercial office space, like Knotel, or co-working companies like WeWork, to companies focused on servicing the real estate industry like Luxury Presence, which raised a $5 million round earlier in the year.

 


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German football league Bundesliga teams with AWS to improve fan experience

21:21 | 24 January

Germany’s top soccer (football) league, Bundesliga, announced today it is partnering with AWS to use artificial intelligence to enhance the fan experience during games.

Andreas Heyden, executive vice president for digital sports at the Deutsche Fußball Liga, the entity that runs The Bundesliga, says that this could take many forms, depending on whether the fan is watching a broadcast of the game or interacting online.

“We try to use technology in a way to excite a fan more, to engage a fan more, to really take the fan experience to the next level, to show relevant stats at the relevant time through broadcasting, in apps and on the web to personalize the customer experience,” Heyden said.

This could involve delivering personalized content. “In times like this when attention spans are shrinking, when a user when a user opens up the app the first message should be the most relevant message in that context in that time for the specific user,” he said.

It can also help provide advanced statistics to fans in real time, even going so far as to predict the probability of a goal being scored at any particular moment in a game that would have an impact on your team. Heyden thinks of it as telling a story with numbers, rather than reporting what happened after the fact.

“We want to, with the help of technology, tell stories that could not have been told without the technology. There’s no chance that a reporter could come up with a number of what the probability of a shot [scoring in a given moment]. AWS can,” he said.

Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon, says this about using machine learning and other technologies on the AWS platform to add to the experience of watching the game, which should help attract younger fans, regardless of the sport. “All of these kind of augmented customer fan experiences are crucial in engaging a whole new generation of fans,” Vogels told TechCrunch.

He adds that this kind of experience simply wasn’t possible until recently because the technology didn’t exist. “These things were impossible five or 10 years ago, mostly because now with all the machine learning software, as well as how the [pace of technology] has accelerated at such a [rate] at AWS, we’re now able to do these things in real time for sports fans.”

Bundesliga is not just any football league. It is the second biggest in the world in terms of revenue and boasts the highest stadium attendance of all football teams worldwide. Today’s announcement is an extension of an ongoing relationship between DFL and AWS, which started in 2015 when Heyden helped move the league’s operations to the cloud on AWS.

Heyden says that it’s not a coincidence he ended up using AWS instead of another cloud company. He has known Vogels (who also happens to be a huge soccer fan) for many years, and has been using AWS for more than a decade, even well before he joined the DFL. Today’s announcement is an extension of that long-term relationship.

 


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Most tech companies aren’t WeWork

20:59 | 24 January

Shin Kim Contributor
Shin Kim is working on a new SaaS startup and is also chief of staff to entrepreneur Elad Gil . Previously, Shin was at Oak Hill Capital and J.P. Morgan and earned a Master’s in EECS (data science) from UC Berkeley.

With the recent emphasis on Uber and WeWork, much media attention has been focused on high-burn, “software-enabled” startups. However, most of the IPOs of the last few years in tech have been in higher capital efficiency software-as-a-service startups (SaaS).

In the last 30 months (2017 2H onwards), a total of 21 U.S.-based, VC-backed SaaS companies have gone public, including Zoom, Slack, Datadog and others1. I analyzed all 21 companies to understand their fundraising and revenue-generating trajectories. A deep dive into the individual companies’ trajectories can be found in this Extra Crunch article.

Here are the summary takeaways from this data set:

1. At IPO, total capital raised2 was slightly ahead of annual run-rate revenue (ARR)3 for the median company

Here is a scatterplot of the ARR and cumulative capital raised at the time each company went public. Most companies are clustered close to the diagonal line that represents ARR and capital raised matching each other. Total capital raised is often neck-and-neck or slightly higher than ARR.

For example, Zscaler raised $148 million to get to $146 million of ARR at IPO and Sprout Social raised $112 million to get to $106 million of ARR.

It is useful to introduce a metric instead of looking at gross dollars, given the high variance in revenue of the companies in the data set — Sprout Social had $106 million and Dropbox had $1,222 million in ARR, a 10x+ difference. Total capital raised as a multiple of ARR normalizes this variance. Below is a histogram of the distribution of this metric.

The distribution is concentrated around 1.00x-1.25x, with the median company raising 1.23x of ARR by the time of its IPO.

There are outliers on both ends. Domo is a profligate outlier that had raised $690 million to get to $128 million of ARR, or 5.4x of ARR — no other company comes remotely close. Zoom and Datadog are efficient outliers. Zoom raised $161 million to get to $423 million of ARR and Datadog raised $148 million to get to $333 million of ARR, both representing only 0.4x of ARR.

2. Cash burn is a more accurate measure of capital efficiency and may diverge significantly from capital raised (depending on the company)

How much capital a company raised tells only half of the story of capital efficiency, because many companies are sitting on a significant cash balance. For example, PagerDuty raised a total of $174 million but had $128 million of cash left when it went public. As another example, Slack raised a total of $1,390 million prior to going public but had $841 million of unspent cash.

Why do some SaaS companies end up seemingly over-raising capital beyond their immediate cash needs despite the dilution to existing shareholders?

One reason might be that companies are being opportunistic, raising capital far ahead of actual needs when market conditions are favorable.

Another reason may be that VCs that want to meet ownership targets are pushing for larger rounds. For example, a company valued at $400 million pre-money may only need $50 million of cash but could end up taking $100 million from a VC that wants to achieve 20% post-money ownership.

These confounding factors make cash burn — calculated by subtracting the cash balance from total capital raised4 — a more accurate measure of capital efficiency than total capital raised. Here is a distribution of total cash burn as a multiple of ARR.

Remarkably, Zoom achieved negative cash burn, meaning Zoom went public with more cash on its balance sheet than all of the capital it raised.

The median company’s cash burn at IPO was 0.77x of ARR, quite a bit less than the total capital raised of 1.23x of ARR.

3. The healthiest SaaS companies (as measured by the Rule of 40) are often the most capital-efficient

The Rule of 40 is a popular heuristic to gauge the business health of a SaaS company. It asserts that a healthy SaaS company’s revenue growth rate and profit margins should sum to 40%+. The below chart shows how the 21 companies score on the Rule of 405.

Among the 21 companies, eight companies exceed the 40% threshold: Zoom (123%), Crowdstrike (119%), Datadog (76%), Bill.com (56%), Elastic (55%), Slack (52%), Qualtrics (44%) and SendGrid (41%).

Interestingly, the same outliers in terms of capital efficiency as measured by cash burn, on both extremes, are the same outliers in the Rule of 40. Zoom and Datadog, which have the highest capital efficiency, score the highest and third highest on the Rule of 40. And inversely, Domo and MongoDB, which have the lowest capital efficiency, also score lowest on the Rule of 40.

This is not surprising, because the Rule and capital efficiency are really two sides of the same coin. If a company can sustain high growth without sacrificing profit margins too much (i.e. score high on the Rule of 40), it will over time naturally end up burning less cash compared to peers.

Conclusion

To apply all of this to your favorite SaaS business, here are some questions to consider. What is the total capital raised in multiples of ARR? What is the total cash burn in multiples of ARR? Where does it stack compared to the 21 companies above? Is it closer to Zoom or Domo? How does it score on the Rule of 40? Does it help explain the company’s capital efficiency or lack thereof?

Thanks to Elad Gil and Denton Xu for reviewing drafts of this article.

Endnotes

1Only includes U.S.-based, VC-backed SaaS companies. Includes Quatrics, even though it did not go public, as it was acquired right before its scheduled IPO.

2Includes institutional investments prior to the IPO. Does not include founders’ personal capital investment.

3Note that this is not annual recurring revenue, which is not a reporting requirement for public companies. Annual run-rate revenue is calculated by annualizing quarterly revenue (multiplying by four). The two metrics will track closely for SaaS businesses, given that SaaS revenue is predominantly recurring software subscriptions.

4This is a simplified definition as it will capture non-operational uses of cash such as share repurchase from founders.

5Revenue growth is calculated as the growth rate of the revenue during the last 12 months (LTM) over the revenue during the 12 months prior to that. Profit margins are non-GAAP operating margins, calculated as operating income plus stock-based compensation expense divided by revenue over the last 12 months (LTM).

 


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What’s the right pace for raising capital?

20:58 | 24 January

Shin Kim Contributor
Shin Kim is working on a new SaaS startup and is also chief of staff to entrepreneur Elad Gil . Previously, Shin was at Oak Hill Capital and J.P. Morgan and earned a Master’s in EECS (data science) from UC Berkeley.

A common question in the minds of many SaaS founders is the pace of raising capital. How much is too much too early? What amount of capital raise is typical for comparable peers? How capital-efficient are the best-in-class companies?

In the last 30 months (2017 2H onwards), a total of 21 SaaS U.S.-based, VC-backed companies have gone public, including Zoom, Slack, Datadog and others1. To answer the above questions, I analyzed all 21 companies to understand their fundraising and revenue-generating trajectories.

The charts below show each company’s annual run-rate revenue (ARR)2 and cumulative equity funding3 over time. Read endnotes for details on data source4 and methodology5. The backup for the full analysis can be accessed here.

I divided the companies into four patterns:

 


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