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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 55

Where top VCs are investing in construction robotics

15:30 | 14 February

Venture capital has been flooding the various subverticals under the robotics umbrella in recent years, and the construction space is one of the largest beneficiaries.

Last November, we surveyed 13 of the top robotics-focused VCs to find out which areas of robotics are exciting them most going into 2020. One of the most common areas of attention respondents highlighted were startups focused on construction and manufacturing. In 2019 alone, the robotics space saw roughly 600 venture-backed fundraising rounds, while construction companies successfully raised roughly 200 venture rounds.

With our 2020 Robotics + AI sessions event on the horizon in early March, we’re diving back into the sector to learn about the attributes of construction attracting robotics VCs the most and which types of startups VCs are actually writing checks for in 2020. We asked 16 leading people who actively invest in construction robotics and work at firms spanning early to growth-stage to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in the sector:

 

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

True Ventures has been investing in industrial automation broadly for 4+ years and focusing on founders who bring technology to market that eliminates repetitive manual labor and multiplies human productivity by automating routine tasks.

 


0

Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 2 of 2)

01:34 | 6 February

In part two of a survey that asks top VCs about exciting opportunities in open source and dev tools, we dig into responses from 10 leading open-source-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stage across software-specific firms, corporate venture arms and prominent generalist firms.

In the conclusion to our survey, we’ll hear from:

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 


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NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

23:55 | 15 January

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor-positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including what floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And wifi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than 3 meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use-case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif-based company.

 


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Lily AI raises a $12.5M Series A led by Canaan to accelerate its e-commerce recommendation tech

19:00 | 9 January

Lily AI, a startup focused on using deep learning to help brands better convert customers through emotionally tailored recommendations, announced this morning that it has raised a $12.5 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Prior investors NEA, Unshackled and Fernbrook Capital also took part in the funding event.

Prior to its Series A, Lily had raised just a few million, according to Crunchbase data.

The round caught our eye for a few reasons. First, the investor leading the round — Maha Ibrahim — also led The RealReal’s Series C back in 2014. That company, which also sports a focus on the sartorial, went public in 2019. (Ibrahim has also dropped by TechCrunch from time to time, including here.) To see the investor lead an early round in a company operating in a related space was notable.

And the technology that co-founders Purva Gupta (formerly Eko India and UNICEF) Sowmiya Chocka Narayanan (formerly of Box) have built is neat.

TechCrunch first covered Lily back in 2017 when it raised $2 million from NEA. At the time it had an iOS application, along with a web app and API designed to help retailers “better understand a woman’s personal preferences around fashion” in their “own catalogs and digital storefronts.”

In a phone call with TechCrunch, Gupta said that she and Narayanan decided that “from a business model perspective” their technology was “better for an enterprise product.” The iOS app was eventually deprioritized (in “less than a year” after launch according to the CEO), with the company making a formal move to focus on enterprise offerings in early 2018.

So what does Lily AI do and what is it selling to large retailers? An e-commerce power-up.

How it works

Lily’s founding hypothesis came from Gupta’s time exploring fashion in New York, asking hundreds of women about what they had bought recently (more on the company’s founding story here). What came out of that exercise was the idea that every customer is “roaming around with [their own] emotional context,” how “they think about their body” and “how they react to different types of details and items.”

The CEO thought that if you could get that context into an online shop, it would probably help consumers find what they want, and help the store sell more at the same time. That’s the hypothesis behind Lily AI, according to Gupta, who wants to know the “individual emotional context” of “each customer” when they shop online.

It’s that idea that helped the company raise $12.5 million in its A, more capital by far than it had raised before in total.

The service works in three steps, starting with tech that can pull out myriad more attributes from items in a catalog; the more variables you have the more you can know about any particular product. Gupta told TechCrunch in an email that her company’s “approach captures significantly more detail on each product based on the traits customers look for when buying apparel,” including “style, fit, occasion” and the like.

Then, Lily uses “hashed customer data” that brands already collect, married to its item attribute data to “create a high-confidence prediction of each customer’s affinity to every attribute of every product in the catalog,” she continued. From there it’s a recommendation game.

The result of all this work is that “100 percent” of Lily’s customers have seen a “step gain in metrics,” not “just incremental” improvements, according to Gupta. (The company’s website claims a “10x ROI” on customer spend on its products.)

Lily charges for its service on a volume basis.

And there should be lots of that. According to Canaan’s Ibrahim, e-commerce “will continue to grow between 15-20% annually and will represent ~20% of all retail spending in 2020 […] off of an enormous absolute number base of ~$4T of e-commerce spend.” That means Lily has a pretty big market to grow into, which is just what venture investors love to see.

One final thing. During our call, I asked Gupta about privacy. After all, her company is pairing consumer preferences with other information for the benefit of a brand. In our discussion about how her startup protects customer privacy, she said something interesting that I asked her to expand on. Here’s how she described how her firm is built around understanding the feelings of others, or what’s better known as empathy:

We started Lily AI with the goal of helping customers look and feel their best. And I’m so proud that we use ‘Empathy’ as the guiding principle for everything: building products, hiring, retaining talent and establishing company culture.

Not a bad place to build from.

 


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

17:12 | 13 December

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

 


0

Leading robotics VCs talk about where they’re investing

20:50 | 26 November

The Valley’s affinity for robotics shows no signs of cooling. Technical enhancements through innovations like AI/ML, compute power and big data utilization continue to drive new performance milestones, efficiencies and use cases.

Despite the old saying, “hardware is hard,” investment in the robotics space continues to expand. Money is pouring in across robotics’ billion-dollar sub verticals, including industrial and labor automation, drone delivery, machine vision and a wide range of others.

According to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, 2018 saw new highs for the number of venture deals and total invested capital in the space, with roughly $5 billion in investment coming from nearly 400 deals. With robotics well on its way to again set new investment peaks in 2019, we asked 13 leading VCs who work at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in the sector:

Participants discuss the compelling business models for robotics startups (such as “Robots as a Service”), current valuations, growth tactics and key robotics KPIs, while also diving into key trends in industrial automation, human replacement, transportation, climate change, and the evolving regulatory environment.

Shahin Farshchi, Lux Capital

Which trends are you most excited in robotics from an investing perspective?

The opportunity to unlock human superpowers:

  • Increase productivity to enhance creativity leading to new products and businesses.
  • Automating dangerous tasks and eliminating undesirable, dangerous jobs in mining, manufacturing, and shipping/logistics.
  • Making the most deadly mode of transport: driving, 100% safe.

How much time are you spending on robotics right now? Is the market under-heated, overheated, or just right?

  • Three-quarters of the new opportunities I look at involve some sort of automation.
  • The market for robot startups attempting direct human labor replacement, floor-sweeping, and dumb-waiter robots, and robotic lawnmowers and vacuums is OVER heated (too many startups).
  • The market for robot startups that assist human workers, increase human productivity, and automate undesirable human tasks is UNDER heated (not enough startups).

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers.

I want to see more founders that are building robotics startups that:

  • Solve LATENT pain points in specific, well-understood industries (vs. building a cool robot that can do cool things).
  • Focus on increasing HUMAN productivity (vs. trying to replace humans).
  • Are solving for building interesting BUSINESSES (vs. emphasizing cool robots).

Kelly Chen, DCVC

Three years ago, the most compelling companies to us in the industrial space were in software. We now spend significantly more time in verticalized AI and hardware. Robotic companies we find most exciting today are addressing key driver areas of (1) high labor turnover and shortage and (2) new research around generalization on the software side. For many years, we have seen some pretty impressive science projects out of labs, but once you take these into the real world, they fail. In these changing environmental conditions, it’s crucial that robots work effectively in-the-wild at speeds and economics that make sense. This is an extremely difficult combination of problems, and we’re now finally seeing it happen. A few verticals we believe will experience a significant overhaul in the next 5 years include logistics, waste, micro-fulfillment, and construction.

With this shift in robotic capability, we’re also seeing a shift in customer sentiment. Companies who are used to buying outright machines are now more willing to explore RaaS (Robot as a Service) models for compelling robotic solutions – and that repeat revenue model has opened the door for some formerly enterprise software-only investors. On the other hand, companies exploring robotics in place of tasks with high labor shortages, such as trucking or agriculture, are more willing to explore per hour or per unit pick models.

Adoption won’t be overnight, but in the medium term, we are very enthusiastic about the ways robotics will transform industries. We do believe investing in this space requires the right technical know-how and network to evaluate and support companies, so momentum investors looking to dip their hand into a hot space may be disappointed.

Rob Coneybeer, Shasta Ventures

We’re entering the early stages of the golden age of robotics. Robotics is already a huge, multibillion-dollar market – but today that market is dominated by industrial robotics, such as welding and assembly robots found on automotive assembly lines around the world. These robots repeat basic tasks, over and over, and are usually separated by caged walls from humans for safety. However, this is rapidly changing. Advances in perception, driven by deep learning, machine vision and inexpensive, high-performance cameras allow robots to safely navigate the real world, escape the manufacturing cages, and closely interact with humans.

I think the biggest opportunities in robotics are those which attack enormous markets where it’s difficult to hire and retain labor. One great example is long-haul trucking. Highway driving represents one of the easiest problems for autonomous vehicles, since the lanes tend to be well-marked, the roads have gentle curves, and all traffic runs in the same direction. In the United States alone, long haul trucking is a multi-hundred billion dollar market every year. The customer set is remarkably scalable with standard trailer sizes and requirements for shipping freight. Yet at the same time, trucking companies have trouble hiring and retaining drivers. It’s the perfect recipe for robotic opportunity.

I’m intrigued by agricultural robots. I’ve seen dozens of companies attacking every part of the farming equation – from field clearing and preparation, to seeding, to weeding, applying fertilizer, and eventually harvesting. I think there’s a lot of value to be “harvested” here by robots, especially since seasonal field labor is becoming harder to find and increasingly expensive. One enormous challenge in this market, however, is that growing seasons mean that the robotic machinery has a lot of downtime and the cost of equipment isn’t as easily amortized in other markets with higher utilization. The other big challenge is that fields are very, very tough on hardware and electronics due to environmental conditions like rain, dust and mud.

There are a ton of important problems to be solved in robotics. The biggest open challenges in my mind are locomotion and grasping. Specifically, I think that for in-building applications, robots need to be able to do all the thing which humans can do – specifically opening and closing doors, climbing stairs, and picking items off of shelves and putting them down gently. Plenty of startups have tackled subsets of these problems, but to date no one has built a generalized solution. To be fair, to get to parity with humans on generalized locomotion and grasping, it’s probably going to take another several decades.

Overall, I feel like the funding environment for robotics is about right, with a handful of overfunded areas (like autonomous passenger vehicles). I think that the most overlooked near-term opportunity in robotics is teleoperation. Specifically, pairing fully automated robotic operations with occasional human remote operation of individual robots. Starship Technologies is a perfect example of this. Starship is actively deploying local delivery robots around the world today. Their first major deployment is at George Mason University in Virginia. They have nearly 50 active robots delivering food around the campus. They’re autonomous most of the time, but when they encounter a problem or obstacle they can’t solve, a human operator in a teleoperation center manually controls the robot remotely. At the same time. Starship tracks and prioritizes these problems for engineers to solve, and slowly incrementally reduces the number of problems the robots can’t solve on their own. I think people view robotics as a “zero or one” solution when in fact there’s a world where humans and robots work together for a long time.

 


0

LA-based gaming studio Scopely raises $200 million at a $1.4 billion valuation

17:24 | 29 October

The Los Angeles-based mobile game development studio Scopely has become America’s newest unicorn thanks to a $200 million financing which values the company at a whopping $1.4 billion.

Scopely said it would use the capital to continue its strategy of developing and acquiring new games as it looks to continue its run of six consecutive mobile games that will gross $100 million or more in lifetime revenue.

The new investment follows Scopely’s milestone of achieving more than $1 billion in lifetime revenue. Games in the company’s portfolio include: Looney Tunes World of Mayhem and Star Trek Fleet Command, created with the recently acquired DIGIT Game Studios.

Indeed, part of the reason for the financing is to accelerate the pace of its acquisitions and investments into new game development studios, according to chief executive, Walter Driver .

“The barrier to entry from independent studios is to find product-market fit,” says Driver. “Increasingly, it’s helpful for them to have publishing capabilities that are more global in nature and more scaled.”

The unicorn gaming company has amassed increasingly larger rounds over the past three years on a nearly annual basis. The company raised a $55 million round of financing in 2016, $60 million in 2017 and $100 million in 2018.

For investors, what makes the company compelling (beyond its string of successful games) is the technology platform that undergirds its popular mobile gaming titles. “What the company allows you to do is look at engagement and alter a game midstream to tailor the experience,” says Ravi Viswanathan, the founder and managing partner of NewView Capital .

NewView, a growth stage venture capital firm spun out of the multibillion dollar investment firm NEA, led the most recent $200 million round for Scopely.

Scopely is the firm’s first major investment in a gaming company and was part of a portfolio of investments that NewView took over when it spun off from NEA.

For Scopely, the latest capital infusion is just more money in the bank to invest in or acquire budding game studios and give them access to the technology stack that has made Scopely so compelling, according to Driver.

“Our technology platform is about optimizing free digital experiences for the largest amount of players possible,” Driver says. “We’re primarily focused on finding the most passionate and talented game developers that want to specialize in making the kind of game design and might have the kind of specialized expertise that we admire.”

In the eight years since Scopely first launched the gaming industry has been transformed by the opportunities that exist in the mobile market — and both Scopely and companies like Jam City have capitalized on the new platform.

“We see the future of gaming as free live services that give users choice and agency of how they want to play,” says Driver. “Being able to refine those live services over time and react to the data that you’re seeing and optimize those products,” has been at the core of Scopely’s technology stack.

The company is already raking in more than $400 million in annualized revenue and it was that growth that convinced NewView and investors like the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board to commit capital as part of this latest round.

Scopely has already made a few select minority investments in gaming studios and with the new cash, Driver hopes to roll up more independent game developers.

 

 


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All Raise expands to new geos, launches ‘VC Cohorts’

14:00 | 16 October

Dozens of impeccably dressed women outfitted in jumpsuits and Rothy’s gathered at the Greylock offices last week for a “structured networking” session hosted by All Raise, an 18-month-old nonprofit organization that seeks to amplify the voices of and support women in tech.

The organization, active in the Bay Area and New York City, is announcing new chapters in Los Angeles and Boston this week, as well as a new director of engagement, Domonique Fines, formerly of Y Combinator, and a new chief of staff, Jack Dorsey’s former chief of staff at Square, Alicia Burt.

All Raise chief executive officer Pam Kostka, who joined the business earlier this year, says demand for an All Raise presence in local geographies continues to increase: “Women are hungry for the support and guidance we provide,” Kostka tells TechCrunch. “I think the movement is just gathering momentum.

With a focus on female venture capitalists and founders, All Raise hosts an annual conference, several in-person and virtual fundraising workshops and networking sessions and, recently, the group began creating curated peer groups for investors. Called VC Cohorts, All Raise is for the first time speaking publicly about how these 12-person subgroups will give their members career guidance and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to share deals.

“The idea was how do we hack the old boys’ network? said Elisa Schreiber, Greylock’s vice president of marketing and a member of All Raise’s advisory committee. “We have to force this familiarity, connectivity among women in venture so that people are helping each other.”

Currently, All Raise manages 14 active cohorts made up of 175 women. The idea is to put women with check-writing abilities, typically partners and general partners, together in groups with newer VCs, typically with an associate or principal title, paired together. These groups are expected to meet every six to eight weeks to talk shop.

“It’s basically like having 12 coffee chats in one evening,” Impact Capital managing partner Heidi Patel, who helps oversee the VC Cohorts program, tells TechCrunch. “It’s highly concentrated. It’s highly efficient and everyone walks out of there feeling like they’ve got a new tool in their tool kit.”

All Raise members

The new program has already proven an effective avenue for deal sourcing. During the first VC Cohorts meeting, NEA partner Vanessa Larco found an investor to lead the Series B of one of her existing portfolio companies, an Atlanta identity and credential verification startup called Evident. That Series B lead was Aspect Ventures partner (now a founding partner at aCrew Capital) Lauren Kolodny. The two All Raise members now sit on the company’s board of directors.

“Our cohort meetings always end with talking about portfolio companies that are currently raising,” Larco said in a statement. “I didn’t expect to share a deal with someone in my cohort, but she was an ideal investor for one of my portfolio companies.”

Male VCs have always had cross-firm relationships that facilitate deal-making. Women, who are much less represented — occupying only 11% of investment partner roles, according to Crunchbase News — have historically had fewer resources available to develop these critical relationships.

Moving forward, All Raise will continue building and launching new products tailored for women in tech, add additional folks to the small but growing All Raise team and determine how they can better reach women outside of VC hubs.

“Just because you’re sitting in Oklahoma doesn’t mean you don’t have the most amazing idea that can disrupt an entire category,” Kostka said.

 


0

Opendoor appoints CFO, CPO

16:00 | 14 October

Opendoor has named Gautam Gupta its chief financial officer and chief business offer, critical roles as the business continues to alter the way in which homes are bought and sold. Uber’s former head of finance, Gupta joined the $3.8 billion home-selling platform as its chief operating officer in 2017.

The company, which has raised more than $4 billion in debt and equity funding to date, is announcing several new hires this morning. Venrock’s Tom Willerer has joined as the company’s first-ever chief product officer. Willerer has previously led product at Coursera and Netflix. He joined the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Venrock in 2017 and has since struck deals with edtech startups including Make School and Flockjay .

Opendoor has also hired Julie Todaro as its president of homes and services, another newly created role. Todaro, who spent over a decade at Amazon, most recently as its vice president of consumer electronics, will oversee market operations, customer experience and home services.

Finally, Carrie Wheeler, a partner at TPG for 20 years, and Jason Kilar, the founding CEO of Hulu, have joined Opendoor’s board of directors.

Founded in 2013, San Francisco-based Opendoor is backed by General Atlantic, Hawk Equity, SoftBank, Access Technology Ventures, Lennar Corporation, Fifth Wall Ventures, SV Angel, Norwest Venture Partners, NEA, GGV Capital, Khosla Ventures, GV and more.

 


0

Bodega, once dubbed ‘America’s most hated startup,’ has quietly raised millions

00:10 | 26 September

2What’s in a name?

More than two years ago, Fast Company published a story with the headline “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The focus of the story was a nascent startup by the name of Bodega .

The company had raised $2.5 million in funding from First Round Capital’s Josh Kopelman, Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and Homebrew’s Hunter Walk. To announce their funding and vision to create the unmanned store of the future, Bodega briefed a number of journalists on its big idea. Given the simplicity of its product — a tech-enabled vending machine, in essence — the team was blindsided by the uproarious response that followed. September 13, 2017 was supposed to be the most exciting day in the startup’s history, at least until that point; instead, it was a nightmarish lesson in poor branding and messaging.

Why do tech wizards keep thinking of new and more horrible ways to avoid dealing with people? -CityLab, September 13, 2017

The press storm and public lambasting catapulted Bodega into the limelight — for all the wrong reasons. Overnight, the company went from just another early-stage commerce business to the symbol of everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley. Many wondered if it would fall victim to criticism and crumble like Juicero, a well-financed startup that sold a $400 juicer — that is, until a Bloomberg story proved its juice packets could be squeezed by hand, no machine necessary. Or would it take the public condemnation in stride, hearing out the critics and amending its brand as necessary?

Two years after its ill-fated launch, the latter seems to be true. Today, the three-year-old Oakland-based company — now known as Stockwell — is said to be growing quickly thanks to more than $45 million in venture capital funding from a number of deep-pocketed investors, the company has confirmed to TechCrunch.

Bodega

Bodega’s original branding included a cat logo. Cats are often features of small neighborhood stores, known as bodegas.

Public outcry

Bodega is either the worst named startup of the year, or the most devious,” wrote The Verge in the fall of 2017. “Tech firm markets glorified vending machines where users can buy groceries,” said The Guardian. The Washington Post dubbed the company “America’s most hated start-up.” CityLab, which writes about issues impacting cities, bluntly reported “Bodega, a Startup for Disrupting Bodegas, Is Terrible,” followed by 30 reasons why the startup sucks: “Maybe a Bodega can stock Soylent to appeal to people who also think that eating delicious food is a grim burden,” CityLab wrote. “Why do tech wizards keep thinking of new and more horrible ways to avoid dealing with people? How come they hate being human?”

It’s safe to say Bodega endured one of the most catastrophic company launches in the history of tech startups. But the press cycle surrounding Bodega was more than an attack on the startup alone. It represented a greater frustration with Silicon Valley culture and its reputation for funding “disruptive” products devoid of impact. Time and time again, VCs had proven their willingness to inject millions into standard concepts lacking originality. A juicer had raised more than $100 million, after all, scooters were beginning to attract private capital and Soylent, which sells a meal replacement drink fit for techies, was hot off the heels of a $50 million round.

A mini-fridge equipped with computer vision technology boasting a culturally insensitive name wasn’t going to change the world. Questioning why it had the support of VCs was only fair.

An innocent misunderstanding?

Behind the upsetting name was a business developing hundreds of five-foot-wide pantry boxes to be housed in luxury apartment lobbies, offices, college campuses, gyms and more. Similar to Amazon Go, the “smart stores” recognize what customers remove from the cases using computer vision and automatically charge the credit card associated with the account.

When you’re not in the room, the name of your company is what gets passed between people. -James Currier, NFX .

Bodega was founded by a pair of Google veterans, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. It had all the ingredients for a successful startup stew. Founders with years of experience in big tech: McDonald spent more than a decade at Google; Rajan had just finished up the search engine’s competitive associate product manager program. Both attended top universities: University of California -Berkeley and Columbia University, respectively. Still, neither of the two men nor their investors seemed to have predicted the controversy afoot.

“Bodega doesn’t want to disrupt the bodega,” Hunter Walk, a Bodega investor and co-founder of the seed fund Homebrew, wrote in a 2017 blog post. “Some instances of today’s press coverage suggested that element, a sound bite which, exacerbated by Bodega’s naming, pissed people off as another example of tech startups being at best tone-deaf, and at worst, predatory … It didn’t occur to me that some people would see the word and associate its use in this context with whitewashing or cultural appropriation.”

The company, too, quickly authored a blog post outlining their thought process behind the name: “Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration,” McDonald wrote.

After penning blog posts, the founders continued working on the company under the provocative and upsetting name. Meanwhile, investors seemed unfazed by the negative press, evidenced by the company’s ability to continue raising venture capital funding. After all, many of the best businesses endure the wrath of bloggers, competing founders and the general public. As for VCs, high-risk bets are just part of the ball game.

DCM Ventures, a Chinese venture capital fund with offices in Beijing, Tokyo and Silicon Valley, was the first to agree to invest in Bodega following the PR disaster. The firm, an investor in Lime, Hims and SoFi, led a $7.5 million Series A financing in the business in early 2018, sources tell TechCrunch. DCM vice president David Cheng, named to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 in Venture Capital, is actively involved with the company, according to his bio.

Finally, after pocketing nearly $10 million in total funding, Bodega announced a name change: “Did you buy something today from a Bodega?” Bodega’s McDonald wrote. “You may have noticed that we’ve changed our name to Stockwell . Our new name is one of the changes we’re making as we expand our offerings and open more stores around the country.”

Stockwell Founders

Stockwell, fka Bodega, founders Paul McDonald (left) and Ashwath Rajan (Courtesy of Stockwell).

A new era

With a new logo and a toned-down, somewhat bland identity, Stockwell had a fresh start and, soon, more attention from top VCs. In late 2018, the company raised a $35 million round of funding co-led by Uber and Slack-backer GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, and NEA, an investor known for bets in Coursera, MasterClass and OpenDoor, Stockwell has confirmed. NEA’s Amit Mukherjee and GV’s John Lyman joined Stockwell’s board as part of the deal, which is said to have valued the business at north of $100 million. Stockwell, however, declined to confirm the figure.

Stockwell's funding history

Instead of announcing the news via TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Forbes or another tech publication, as is the norm for fast-growing consumer-facing startups, Stockwell remained mum on financing events and scaling plans, assumedly burned by the press and the public’s scorn a year prior.

Rather than subject itself to continued scrutiny as it attempted to rewrite its narrative, Stockwell was heads down, iterating, expanding and quietly raising millions. Bad press can break a startup, and given the sheer number of negative reports on Stockwell so early on, the company had already defied the odds. Keeping a low profile was undoubtedly the best strategy moving forward, and it seems to have paid off.

“It was a difficult time and transition and we learned a lot from it,” a spokesperson for Stockwell said in an email to TechCrunch. “As a company, we put our heads down and focused on building our business. We kept a low profile and concentrated on our core product, the mission, and the people who work for us. We’re excited for the progress we’ve made but won’t forget the path that got us here.”

Today the company counts 1,000 “stores” in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. Stockwell has used its latest infusion of funding to explore shared ownership models, i.e. the opportunity for anyone to run their own Stockwell store. The company tells TechCrunch they are also working on building out their “unique curation model,” which allows customers to help determine what items are stocked in their local “store,” as well as their support for emerging brands, whose products they can stock in their next-generation vending machines.

Stockwell

Stockwell’s five-foot wide next-generation vending machine.

So what’s in a name?

Human beings make snap judgments, evaluate products quickly and can develop distaste for brands in a matter of seconds. A company’s moniker is their first opportunity to impress customers.

“When you’re not in the room, the name of your company is what gets passed between people,” writes NFX co-founder James Currier. “It speaks for you when you’re not there … It sets expectations of your company in the blink of an eye. And first impressions are hard to change. Both positive and negative.”

Most cases of poor startup naming are easily fixed. Most founders aren’t forced to bear the brunt of the internet’s fury. The case of Bodega is much more extreme and, as such, serves as the ultimate lesson for founders searching for the best way to tell their story. At the end of the day, avoiding a complete and total train-wreck is easy if you include a diverse group of people in the naming process and remember there’s a lot in a name — if that weren’t the case, Bodega would still be Bodega.

 


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