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Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky has joined Y Combinator as a partner

20:00 | 19 February

If you follow the startup industry, you likely know the story of smartwatch maker Pebble, including that famous Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that sought $100,000 but wound up raising more than $10 million instead.

You might also remember thinking that Pebble’s fate was sealed once Apple launched its own now-ubiquitous smartwatch in 2014. You were right if so. By late 2016, Pebble was forced to sell its software and intellectual property to another wearable giant, Fitbit, for less than $40 million — an amount that reportedly barely covered Pebble’s debt.

What you probably don’t know was that behind the scenes, Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky was frequently seeking advice from Y Combinator. Pebble had passed through the accelerator’s program in the winter of 2011 and like many alums, Migicovsky had formed strong bonds with both his fellow founders and with YC execs, including its president, Sam Altman. “Seven years later . . . I was still phoning Sam at 11 p.m. to get help in that deal” to Fitbit, says Migicovsky with a laugh.

Now, Migicovsky will be sharing lessons learned with future YC startups, having quietly joined YC last month as one of its now 18 full-time partners. His role: to work with incoming teams, including those whose companies have a hardware component.

We talked with Migicovsky late last week about his wild ride to date and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role. Our chat has been edited for length.

TC: Your relationship with YC dates back some time.

EM: I was in Waterloo, Ontario [studying engineering and starting up Pebble] and [YC founders] Paul [Graham] and Jessica [Livingston] wound up investing and I ended up moving the company the California. YC was really the first [outfit] to believe in us. We did the winter 2011 batch and did our Kickstarter a year later  — before it was even a thing — because we couldn’t raise money. It was hard days for hardware back then.

YC played an amazing role through the sale to Fitbit, and after I sold the company, I took some time off, but because I’d been part of YC, I began working last summer as part-time partner. It was a great chance to start mentoring companies and to spend one-on-one time with the founders, and  [YC CEO] Michael [Seibel] and Sam said I should jump on board.

TC: You’ve now joined full-time. What is your role exactly?

EM: I’m definitely covering the hardware desk. About 15 percent of companies going through YC have some connection to hardware, be it enterprise hardware, software with an enterprise component . . . So I’ll be a main point of contact for many of those companies.

TC: Have you done any investing in the past?

EM: I’ve done some but I didn’t have much time outside of Pebble, so the opportunity to take some of the anecdotes and experiences I’ve gathered and help apply them at other companies is really exciting to me.

TC: What are some of the lessons learned that you’re likely to share with these startups?

EM: In the early days of a startup, it’s pedal to the metal; you’re doing what it takes to get going. But after it starts taking off, it’s important to keep in mind a vision of where the company is going in the long run. At Pebble, we had a great first shot with Kickstarter. We were able to capture people’s attention and imagination. We had this “activation” energy. But it didn’t carry us into the next stage. I didn’t have that longer term vision in mind necessarily when times got hard. I wasn’t thinking about the company’s world-changing mission, and that’s something I talk about with startups.

TC: So you think you could have prevented Pebble’s eventual outcome, despite the technical and marketing muscle of a competitor like Apple. Where do you think Pebble went wrong more specifically?

EM: We sold a quarter billion dollars worth of watches. We were in a good position. What we lost was that seed. We were a hacker product from the get-go. We were building a watch that anyone could program for, but under pressure from competitors that came in, we didn’t find the one thing to stake our claim on. We vacillated between fitness and productivity in trying to find our groove and scale to a larger audience, and we couldn’t find it in time. Meanwhile, others like Fitbit had done this really well. Fitbit was like, “We’re a health and wellness product.”

TC: YC has changed a lot since 2011. Do you find the scale at all daunting?

EM: It has changed a ton. When I went through in 2011, there were 40 companies in the batch and people wondered how YC could be [managing so many startups]. Now, it’s more than 150 companies in each batch. What’s amazing to me are the processes and software that Michael and Sam have built out to help the companies and to help the partners. For example, we have evaluation process software that helps us to manage office hours and mentoring at scale. It’s pretty awesome.

TC: Is it too soon to say whether it’s more awesome than running your own company? Would you want to launch another startup?

EM: I just started full time four weeks ago, but one of the things I’m loving, working at YC, is [interfacing] with hundreds of companies. I ran Pebble for nine years, and running a company is a very laser-focused operation. You need to be thinking every single minute about how you can help your employees and product. YC is a very different experience. I can dive deep into a particular company’s problem, provide a relevant story or connection, then jump back out and move on to the next company. It’s kind of like ADD for startups.

YC is announcing 11 other appointments today, including the appointment of two visiting partners. You can learn more here. 

Featured Image: Ramin Talaie/Corbis/Getty Images

 


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A peek inside Alphabet’s investing universe

21:10 | 17 February

Jason Rowley Contributor

Jason Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter for Crunchbase News.

More posts by this contributor:
  • Raise softly and deliver a big exit
  • Mobile delivers high exit multiples despite broader market slowdown

Chances are high you have heard of Google. You are likely a contributor to one of the 3.5 billion search queries the website processes daily. But unless you’re a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur or a slightly obsessive technology journalist, you may not know that Google — or, more properly, Alphabet, the corporate parent to the search and internet ad giant — is also in the business of investing in startups. And, like most of what Google does, Alphabet invests at scale.

Today we’re going to undertake, if you will forgive the pun, a search of Google’s venture investments, its portfolio’s performance and what the company’s investing activity may say about its plans going forward.

Alphabet was the most active corporate investor in 2017

Taken together, Alphabet is one of the most prolific corporate investors in startups. In 2017, Crunchbase data shows that Alphabet’s three main investing arms — GV (formerly known as Google Ventures), CapitalG and Gradient Ventures — and Google itself invested in 103 deals.

(Crunchbase News contacted Alphabet for this story but did not hear back in time for publication.)

Below, you’ll find a chart comparing Alphabet’s investment activity to other major corporate investors, based on publicly disclosed deals captured in Crunchbase data.

For years, Intel and its venture arm Intel Capital topped the ranks of most active corporate venture investors. But for 2017, Crunchbase data suggests that Alphabet’s primary venture funds unseat the chip manufacturer. With 72 deals struck, Tencent Holdings and its venture affiliates rank second and SoftBank, which has a $100 billion pool of capital to slosh around, comes in third with 64 deals announced in 2017.

The Alphabet investing universe

As we alluded to earlier, Alphabet has a somewhat unusual setup for a corporate investor. Data shows that Alphabet makes the overwhelming majority of its equity investments out of four primary entities:

  • GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, is Alphabet’s most prolific venture fund.
  • Growth equity fund CapitalG invests primarily in late-stage deals.
  • Gradient Ventures, Google’s newest fund, is focused on artificial intelligence deals.
  • Finally, Google itself, has made a number of direct corporate venture investments.

Alphabet and its funds upped their pace of investing too, as the chart below shows:

In 2017, Alphabet’s equity investment deal volume topped historical highs from 2014.

In addition to these equity investment operations, Google operates the Launchpad Accelerator, which grants $50,000 equity-free to startups in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. The company also issues grants and makes impact-oriented investments out of an entity called Google.org.

Taken together, here is what the Alphabet investment universe looks like:

The network visualization above shows the connections between Alphabet’s various investing groups and their respective portfolios.1 This graphic depicts 676 connections between six Google investing groups (labeled above in yellow), 570 portfolio organizations and 75 companies that acquired Alphabet-backed portfolio companies.

And, for the most part, there isn’t as much overlap as one may expect. CapitalG and GV only share two portfolio companies. GV invested in the seed round of Gusto, the payroll and HR software platform, and both GV and CapitalG invested in Gusto’s Series B round. GV and CapitalG also invested in Pindrop’s Series C round, although CapitalG led that round. Apart from those two companies, though, Crunchbase data doesn’t suggest any other portfolio overlap between GV and CapitalG.

Google and GV also share some portfolio companies. Google led INVIDI Technologies’ Series D round, in which GV was a mere participant. Google also led the Series A round of popular consumer genetics company 23andMe. Google followed on in the Series B round, in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin was also an investor. GV didn’t invest in 23andMe until its Series C. GV continued its investment all the way through 23andMe’s Series E. Google and GV are also investors in Ripcord, an early-stage company building robots that scan and digitize paper documents.

Shared exits

If there isn’t much overlap between Alphabet’s assorted funds and their investing activity, where is it then? The answer, it seems, may be in the exit data.

A wide range of companies have acquired startups in which one or more of Alphabet’s capital deployment arms invested. Crunchbase data shows that 81 entities have acquired 100 companies in which Google invested. Of those, it seems like Alphabet is its own best customer, as the chart below shows:

All in, Alphabet has acquired seven companies in which it had previously invested. Google itself acquired six companies it previously invested in, and its X unit (formerly known as Google X) acquired Makani Power, a company that developed airborne wind turbines, in which Google had directly invested. Other frequent trading partners with Google are Cisco, which has acquired six Google-backed companies, and Yahoo (now, together with AOL, part of Verizon-controlled Oath) with five acquisitions.

As an aside, Google invested in both SolarCity and Tesla, two companies with ties to Elon Musk. In 2011, Google invested $280 million in SolarCity, a company founded by two cousins of Musk. Google and its co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin invested in Tesla’s Series C round alongside Musk, Tesla’s co-founder. Tesla went public in 2010 and completed its acquisition of SolarCity, a $2.6 billion all-stock deal, in 2016.

And as the network visualization above shows, Tesla isn’t the only Alphabet portfolio company to go public. Alphabet funds struck venture deals with 11 other companies that have since gone public, including Baidu, HubSpot, Cloudera, Spero Therapeutics, Lending Club and Zynga.

Deals spanning A to Z

If one had to describe Alphabet funds’ collective portfolio of venture deals in one word, it would be “eclectic.” Unlike many corporate venture portfolios, there doesn’t appear to be a unifying, cohesive theme to Alphabet’s outside investments. The AI-focus of Gradient Ventures aside, Alphabet is just as likely to invest in a homeowners insurance company like Lemonade or a customer support platform like UJET (which Crunchbase News covered recently) as it is to invest in non-dairy milk producer Ripple Foods or African tech recruiting platform Andela.

The diversity of Alphabet’s venture investments echoes the diverse collection of businesses, initiatives and long-shot bets under its corporate umbrella. And just like it’s difficult to predict what kind of new project Alphabet will launch next, it seems that no amount of searching and sifting can say what its venture arms will embrace next.

  1. The network visualization was created using Gephi, an open-source software package used for making network visualizations, and the ForceAtlas2 layout algorithm.
Featured Image: Li-Anne Dias

 


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Founders Co-op, a fixture on Seattle’s venture scene, is raising its fourth fund

02:00 | 16 February

Founders Co-op, a Seattle-based seed-stage venture firm, is looking to close its fourth and newest fund with $25 million, according to an SEC filing that shows the outfit has raised at least $10.7 million toward that end.

The firm — now a fixture on Seattle’s venture scene — was created 10 years ago and closed its last fund in 2015 with $20 million.

Its founders include Andy Sack, a serial entrepreneur whose other companies include Seattle-based Lighter Capital, a company that lends certain types of startups money; and Chris Devore, who’d previously cofounded a social search company called Judy’s Book and who also serves as a  managing director with TechStars Seattle.

One of Founders Co-op’s most recent (publicly disclosed) investments is LiveStories, a nearly five-year-old, Seattle-based company that works with governments, educational institutions and other public entities to structure and visualize civic data. It raised $10 million in Series A funding last year.

Another is Loftium, a Seattle-based company that  provides prospective home buyers with up to $50,000 for a down payment as long as they’re willing to list an extra bedroom on Airbnb for between one and three years and share most of that rental income with Loftium. The company raised raised $2.5 million in the fall, led by DFJ.

Founders Co-op also saw an exit last year, when Baidu acquired Kitt.ai, a three-year-old, Seattle-based natural language startup that had developed a framework to build and power chatbots and voice-based applications across multiple platforms and devices.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but Kitt.ai had raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from the firm, along with Amazon’s Alexa Fund.

Featured Image: Zuraimi/Getty Images

 


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betaworks Studios is a membership club for builders

16:56 | 15 February

betaworks, the 10-year-old startup studio out of NYC, is today introducing a brand new business in the form of betaworks Studios.

Think of betaworks Studios as a membership club for builders, offering entrepreneurs, artists, enginneers/developers, and creatives the space to work on their projects and get to know one another.

Builders is the word that betaworks uses to describe its core demographic for Studios. The premise for betaworks Studios is to give developers and creative-focused individuals a chance to be a part of the betaworks community, with all that that entails.

“I was having a lot of conversations where I was getting aasked ‘Could we do a betaworks in our city?'” said CEO and founder John Borthwick. “I always thought ‘that doesn’t make a lot of sense’ because what we do at betaworks is fairly bespoke and heavy lift. But after a number of conversations I realized that maybe I’m answering a different question than they are asking.”

betaworks is responsible for some of the most well-recognized names on the internet, from Digg to Giphy to Dots to bit.ly. The company has three branches: Build, Fund and Camp. The Build branch works on projects internally and brings in EIRs to run those projects. Fund, obviously, is about financing outside companies. And Camp is all about accelerating a small number of companies in a certain vertical. (Thus far, betaworks has run a BotCamp, VisionCamp, and VoiceCamp.)

This framework has allowed entrepreneurs and developers to share knowledge organically on a day to day basis, not to mention the fact that betaworks holds plenty of events and speaker programming to keep the community informed on the latest in tech.

But that community has always been somewhat closed off to just a small number of people.

betaworks Studios, which will be located in betaworks former office in NYC’s Meatpacking district, will be run by betaworks Studios COO and President Daphne Kwon. Builders will apply to be accepted to the club, which will cost $2400/year or $225/month.

This is not your WeWork-style coworking space with set desks, but more like The Wing, letting members stop in and do some work, take a meeting, or attend a discussion with experts.

“Studios is meant to connect the community,” said Kwon. “People have become more isolated. With the gig economy on the rise, where and when people work is becoming fragmented. […] Studios is one of the only places we know where you should level up during the membership, learning the things you need to learn about frontier technologies, which is something that people in the betaworks community right now already get to enjoy.”

Alongside programming, betaworks Studios will also have a live concierge on hand in the space to help connect users with the folks they want to meet based on the areas of knowledge they’d like to explore. Software will also be introduced to help facilitate these connections.

Plus, betaworks’ Camps will be set up downstairs from the Studios building, giving developers and creatives quick access to folks who are building a company based on emerging tech.

betaworks plans to bring this model to other locations, though hasn’t yet disclosed which market will be home to the second betaworks Studios implementation.

 


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Activant Capital closed $129 million growth stage fund

03:36 | 15 February

Greenwich, Connecticut-based Activant Capital has closed a $129 million late-stage venture fund.

The firm was founded in 2013 by Steve Sarracino and has seen six liquidity events so far, a sizeable chunk of the 18 companies it’s invested in. One of those was Hybris, an e-commerce software business which sold to SAP for $1.4 billion. They also invested in Upland Software, which went public.

And Sarracino, who invests alongside partner Peter McCoy, is expecting many more “exits” over the next fifteen years, the life cycle for its funds. This compares to the standard fund length of ten years and allows Activant to be “very very long-term focused,” said Sarracino.

They also plan to invest after companies go public. Activant “can buy into the IPO and continue to support the business,” he said.

Some of the categories they are most enthusiastic about right now include warehouse management, logistics, voice and agriculture. Activant also invests a lot in commerce, Internet of Things and data. Sarracino hopes that the team can differentiate itself by having an expertise in niche industries and by taking a “consultative approach.”

He touted Activant’s investments in NewStore, a mobile retail platform.  They’ve also been investing in Turvo, a logistics platform. RetailNext is an e-commerce analytics portfolio company that he’s also enthusiastic about.

Featured Image: Activant Capital

 


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Want to be a founder? Go get a job, says venture capitalist Joe Kraus of GV

00:33 | 15 February

Yesterday, at Startup Grind, an event series that’s aimed at new founders and people contemplating becoming entrepreneurs, we sat down with Joe Kraus, a partner for the last eight years with Google’s early-stage investing arm, GV. Kraus, who’d earlier cofounded two companies — Excite and Jotspot — shared a range of founder-friendly advice, including what GV and Kraus in particular look for in founding teams (prior success helps), along with some of the missteps that Kraus sees founders make. The biggest, he said, founder “wanting to do everything at once.”

Kraus also said there are three very specific steps that founders should do and in sequential order if they expect to raise seed, then Series A and Series B funding, beginning with “find a product that serves a need in a market that matters.” By “matters,” Krause really means “big.”

It may sound like a no-brainer, but Kraus suggested the GV sees plenty of founders who think they can win by dominating smaller markets. The problem, in his view: a mistake in a smaller market often means certain death, “whereas with a big market, you can make a mistake and the market carries you along.”

As a second step, Kraus advised focusing a lot less on “top-line growth” and instead on positive unit economics. (Despite the “obsession” with many founders to sell more to more people, often by throwing more product features into the mix,  he proposed that VCs right now are far more interested in startups that make more money off the sale of their products.)

Third and last, Kraus stressed the importance of  squeezing returns out of customer acquisition spend, be it through smart search engine optimization or content marketing or some other channel. Luckier startups that don’t figure out a winning strategy  can “get caught in the tailwind of a market that’s growing and they grow with the market.” But you can guess what happens to the rest, he suggested.

More contrarian, perhaps, was Kraus’s advice to those who’ve heard the old adage that founders learn from their mistakes. While Silicon Valley is known for embracing failure as a means to an end, Krause pretty much called bullshit on the idea. The “story we tell ourselves,” that “you’ve learned more from your failures than your successes” is “dumb,” said Krause, explaining that while failure might build “character,” founds can’t learn much from failure other than what specific path not to take again.

For people looking to start a company, Kraus had this advice instead: Get a job at a successful company.

It might sound boring and corporate and like the opposite tack that a founder might want to take, but Kraus told the audience that you can learn a lot by making 10 minor decisions a day — and observing the decisions of coworkers —  if “combinatorially” they are part of a path that “yields success.”

Working for a company that knows what it’s doing “gives you a pattern that you can follow in the future,” he said. “It’s far better path to learning [how to be successful] than shooting off your own, trying something out, and it not working.”

 


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Meet Lumi, the Los Angeles startup that just raised $9 million for a packaging business

23:50 | 14 February

It’s not every chief executive who wakes up in the morning to a view of their office door across the parking lot from the airstream trailer they call home, but Jesse Genet isn’t every CEO.

Genet is the co-founder and chief executive of Lumi, a Los Angeles-based startup that supplies the packaging for some of the top e-commerce companies that have launched with direct-to-consumer businesses. If you, gentle reader, have ever received a box from FabFitFun, BarkBox, MeUndies, or Parachute Home, then you’ve touched some of Genet’s products.

Alongside co-founder and longtime partner Stephan Ango, Genet has built a business with Lumi that’s already been profitable, and has just raised $9 million in venture funding to boost its growth.

Genet has built a business on improving the efficiency and aesthetics of some of venture capital’s best known retail businesses and living close to the office in an airstream just fits with that philosophy. As does her office position, up front in an open desk by the company’s front door.

At @lumi HQ my desk is located in a place that makes it easy to mistake me as receptionist. As soon as you walk into a company be prepared for your character to be on full display folks… 🙃

— Jesse Genet (@jessegenet) February 9, 2018

The pickup truck driving Detroit born entrepreneur first began thinking about the packaging business wth her partner, Ango, while they were working on their first business together — selling a sunlight-activated fabric dye called Inkodye.

“A lot of what we learned was related to making custom packaging,” says Genet. “Stefan and i spent four and a half years launching a product that needed it’s own packaging… We learned a lot of the pain points that our customers experience [now]. We were living them for four and a half years running that first company.”

In fact, it was about a year three years into the Inkodye business that the two launched Lumi — and from the beginning Genet and Ango knew that it would be their main project going forward.

Lumi co-founders Stpehan Ango and Jesse Genet

Genet and Ango both believe that when companies these days launch products, they should focus on what makes them unique — be that swimwear, underwear, candy or curating boxes of makeups and soaps or dog toys — they shouldn’t have to worry about the logistics of packaging.

Like many industries Genet and Ango are moving packaging toward a services model, transforming it from something that either retailers had to own to manage the experience or they left it in the hands of shipping companies who didn’t optimize for a good customer experience.

As Ango wrote in his blog post announcing the company’s funding:

“The magic behind Lumi is networked manufacturing, i.e. bringing factories online. Instead of managing communications with individual suppliers for each item, the Lumi Dashboard centralizes this process. Each item is abstracted into specifications and the best factory for each job is picked based on criteria for cost, quality and lead time. Our extensive network of factories allows us to locate manufacturing within 50 miles of almost any distribution center in the United States. If fulfillment moves to a different part of the country, production can be quickly re-located near the new distribution center.

Lumi’s service provides a dashboard to manage custom printed boxes, tape, packing slips– anything that a retail business might need to ship its goods to its customers.

The company, which is always on the lips of Los Angeles investors as one of the strongest in the city’s current crop of startups, was able to attract top tier investors to back its growth.

Its new $9 million financing was led by Spark Capital, alongside the premiere retail-focused investment firm, Forerunner Ventures (which has racked up billion dollar exits in both Dollar Shave Club and Jet.com along with a host of e-commerce companies like Birchbox, Bonobos, Glossier, Hotel Tonight, Warby Parker, and Outdoor Voices). Previous investors Homebrew Ventures also participated. Homebrew, Lowercase Ventures, and Ludlow Ventures provided seed funding for the company.

“Lumi helps e-commerce companies produce custom packaging by bringing simplicity to something that is very complex: what machine in what factory in what part of the world would be best to make this box, the wrapping, marketing inserts, etc.?,” wrote Spark Capital general partner Kevin Thau in a blog post explaining his firm’s investment.

Some of the new money will be used to set up a prototyping lab in Los Angeles as well as investing further in software development at the 30-person strong company.

For a company that started out as a toolkit for creators to customize anything, the journey deep into the heart of how to make and outsource packaging for online retailers has been a long — if not strange — trip.

“We were talking about how companies brand themselves and source things to brand themselves,” says Genet. “We landed on packaging not because ‘Whoah, you know where a huge market is’ but because our customers were dealing with this struggle.”

So far the company has launched 18,000 projects and shipped 25 million units of packaging items.

“We have much bigger customers who are ordering tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands units of things,” Ango tells me.

And for a company that spends its time making packaging, Lumi’s founders are also thinking pretty deeply on how to make packaging more sustainable.

Lumi focuses on what Genet calls “sustainability by default.” The company geolocates its production to be as close as possible to a e-commerce company’s distribution center.

Simply by doing that, the company makes the process many hundreds of times more sustainable. “When they onboard with Lumi and we’re making their boxes thirty miles away… you’ve reduced thousands and thousands of transit miles,” Genet says, which dramatically reduces emissions and fuel consumption.

Ultimately, Lumi  wants to make managing packaging at an e-commerce company easier and more sustainable…. services most online retailers are is hoping they can deliver.

 


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Norwest Venture Partners raises $1.5 billion fund

15:30 | 14 February

Norwest Venture Partners has closed a $1.5 billion fund, bringing the total under management to $7.5 billion.

The firm will be using the money to invest primarily in the consumer, enterprise and healthcare categories. And they are looking for opportunities at all stages, from seed stage to growth.

Norwest said it has had a record past two years, achieving liquidity events for 30 of its portfolio companies. ShotSpotter and iRhythm Technologies went public in this timeframe. Jet, Kendra Scott and Apigee are amongst its recent acquisitions.

Norwest is “feeling good about the opportunities that we’re seeing,” said Jeff Crowe, managing partner. They made 25 Series A and 20 Series B investments last year alone.

Some of Norwest’s existing portfolio companies include Modsy, Honeybook, Udemy, Madison Reed and Minted.

While the firm is based in Silicon Valley, for the later stage they are particularly looking for “businesses that have been bootstrapped, that are already profitable,” said Crowe, which are “rarely” in this region. These companies are typically in the software, business services and consumer categories.

They are, however, doubling down on office space in the Bay Area. Norwest is announcing a new larger office in the South Park area of San Francisco.

They are also promoting two members of the team.

Jon Kossow and Lisa Wu

Jon Kossow has been promoted to managing partner. He’s been at the firm since 2009 and runs the firm’s growth equity practice.

Lisa Wu has been elevated to partner. She’s been at NVP since 2012 and was instrumental in sourcing the Jet deal.

Norwest’s main limited partner is Wells Fargo. NVP began under the umbrella of Norwest Corporation, which was bought by Wells Fargo in 1998.

Featured Image: Norwest Venture Partners

 


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This former Uber (and Lyft) exec just raised $15 million for his controversial e-scooter startup: Bird

13:00 | 13 February

Travis VanderZanden. If you’ve been following the fast-changing transportation industry, it’s a name that may sound familiar. Until September 2016, VanderZanden was VP of growth at Uber and before that, COO of its fierce rival Lyft, which had acquired his on-demand car wash company, Cherry, in 2013.

It was a dramatic few years for VanderZanden, once he joined the ride-hailing race. Not only were his employers experiencing growing pains, but Lyft sued him for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement when he joined Uber, with the two sides later settling for undisclosed terms. Little wonder that after leaving Uber, VanderZanden wanted to take some time off to decompress with his wife and two daughters.

The thing is, VanderZanden, whose mother drove a public bus for 30 years, couldn’t stop thinking about transportation, he says. Within six months, he was testing out different short-range electric vehicles; by last summer, he’d quietly launched his newest company, Bird.

Now, the dockless electric scooter company is the talk of Santa Monica, Ca., where it’s based. That’s largely because Bird has already plunked roughly 1,000 “Birds” on the streets of the city over the last six months — and people are riding them: 50,000 people so far have taken 250,000 rides.

But Bird — which just moved into Westwood and is easing its way into San Diego — also has local officials in all three places somewhat flummoxed — and not entirely delighted. A Washington Post piece published earlier this week characterized Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer as highly irked that VanderZanden reached out to him — via a LinkedIn message — after putting Bird’s scooters on the streets.

The message reportedly offered to introduce Winterer to Bird’s “exciting new mobility strategy for Santa Monica.”  Winterer says he responded: “If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss.”

Legal issues and other complications, as it turns out. For example, according to that same post story, local police officers issued 97 citations involving Bird scooters in the first six weeks of this year; the city’s fire department has responded to eight related accidents, some including minors and adults; and according to a senior marketing and communications manager for downtown Santa Monica, there have been been numerous complaints of the scooters being left in front of doorways, in the middle of driveways and on wheelchair ramps.

Despite outward appearances, VanderZanden insists he hasn’t stolen from the playbook of his last employer, which under the leadership of longtime CEO Travis Kalanick taught employees to ask forgiveness — not permission.

He paints a rosier picture of that exchange with Winterer, for example, telling TechCrunch that the “first week we put Birds out in the wild [in early September], I emailed the mayor directly about how excited we were and the impact we thought we could have.”

Bird employees have since met with Santa Monica’s director of transportation and mobility and had “a series of really productive conversations,” says VanderZanden, noting that with “any new innovation, you have to work with the city to figure out how you best fit into the regulatory model.”

In Bird’s case, he says there isn’t an existing permit scheme currently, though the city plainly disagrees. It filed a criminal complaint last month, citing Bird’s failure to obtain the same kind of permit it asks food vendors to secure; the two sides meet in court later this month.

Naturally, VanderZanden thinks the focus instead should be on the benefits of Bird’s scooters, which can be used by anyone over the age of 18 who has a valid driver’s license, who agrees to wear a helmet,  and who will stay off the sidewalk (not that Bird can enforce the last two).

For starters, they are cheap to use, he notes. In addition to a driver’s license, new customers need only plug a credit card number into the app. After that, it’s $1 per ride, plus 15 cents per minute, and riders can go as far as the scooter’s electric charge will take them at a top speed of 15 miles per hour. VanderZanden says some have made it to LAX. Others have ridden from Santa Monica into downtown L.A.

VanderZanden says that Bird is willing to share some of the data it’s collecting with cities. “We really want to work with cities and go in early with figure out how Bird best fits in. We realize we’re just one part of the transportation puzzle.”

VanderZanden, who says Bird ships riders free helmets when they request one from the app, also says it does its best to educate riders, including on where to park Birds (near bike racks, ideally), where to ride them (bike lanes), and via stickers that it plasters on the floorboards of the scooters that list safety regulations.

He stresses, too, that Bird employees begin collecting the scooters at 8 p.m. every night, clearing all of them off the street and only returning them to the fronts of coffee shops and other local businesses — at their own request, he says — by 6 a.m. the next day.

As for what happens if someone when injured, we gather that Bird pays if one of its scooters breaks on someone but not if a rider is being reckless. VanderZanden declines to get into specifics, offering instead that, “Every mode of transportation is dangerous . . . but you can’t protect against people not obeying traffic laws.”

At any rate, investors don’t mind at all that Bird is still figuring things out. It just closed on $15 million in Series A funding, including from Tusk Ventures, Valor, Lead Edge Capital, and Goldcrest Capital.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the round was led by Craft Ventures, the new venture fund cofounded by serial entrepreneur David Sacks. Before Cherry (and Lyft and Uber), VanderZanden was VP of revenue at the enterprise software company Yammer, where Sacks was cofounder and CEO. In fact, when VanderZanden left to start Cherry, Sacks wrote him a check for $500,000 — the biggest check Sacks had written to a single company as an angel investor at that point.

Indeed, if the company starts looking for another round of funding very soon, it will be even less surprising. While VanderZanden calls Bird “first to do dockless electric scooters,” competition is springing up around it — fast.

Last week, Spin, a dockless bike-sharing company that brought its wares to South San Francisco last August, announced that it’s working to launch stationless electric-scooter sharing. Two days later, LimeBike, a Spin competitor, similarly revealed plans to build its own dockless electric scooters. Bird’s own scooters are made via an exclusive manufacturing agreement with an unnamed company.

It’s the kind of battle that VanderZanden has seen before and seems prepared to fight — though he takes a far softer tone publicly than the famously combative Kalanick.

“People are taking notice of how quickly Bird is growing and they want to pivot in and clone us,” says VanderZanden. Yes, that could eventually create clutter for cities, he acknowledges. Still, it’s better than all the greenhouse gases being generated by cars and trucks.

“Preventing car ownership is the goal of all these companies,” he says. ” I think if all of us are successful, that’s fine.”

 


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Homebrew closed $90 million fund

02:22 | 13 February

Homebrew is announcing the close of its third fund. This time they’ve raised $90 million, an increase from $50 million in 2015 and $35 million for its debut fund in 2013.

Led by Hunter Walk and Satya Patel, the seed stage venture firm has spent the past five years investing in U.S.-based startups at the onset. Several of its portfolio companies have gone on to raise significant funding, including Managed by Q, Shyp, and The Skimm. They’ve also had exits, including Bond Street, which was acquired by Goldman Sachs and Clementine, which was bought by Dropbox.

“Homebrew III’s strategy is to concentrate capital, time and reputation behind 6-8 new investments per year and to work closely with those teams to help them build the companies they envision,” said the firm’s blog post.

The group looks for “teams with clear visions for the future and both the attitude and aptitude needed to get there.” These are “founders who are disrupting their industries with love and empathy rather than contempt.”

Before Homebrew, Patel was VP of product at Twitter. He was also a partner at Battery Ventures and previously worked at Google.

Walk led consumer product management at YouTube and also held prior roles at Google.

Other members of the team include Beth Scheer, head of talent and Charo Gioia, director of operations.

 


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