The savage genius of SoftBank funding competitors

Venture capitalists aren’t supposed to make their portfolio companies battle to the death. There’s a long-standing but unofficial rule that investors shouldn’t fund multiple competitors in the same space. Conflicts of interest could arise, information about one startup’s strategy could be improperly shared with the other, and the companies could become suspicious of advice provided by their investors. That leads to problems down the line for VCs, as founders may avoid them if they fear the firm might fund their rival down the line.

SoftBank shatters that norm with its juggernaut $100 billion Vision Fund plus its Innovation Fund. The investor hasn’t been shy about funding multiple sides of the same fight.

The problem is that SoftBank’s power distorts the market dynamics. Startups might take exploitative deals from the firm under the threat that they’ll be outspent whoever is willing to take the term sheet. That can hurt employees, especially ones joining later, who might have a reduced chance for a meaningful exit. SoftBank could advocate for mergers, acquisitions, or product differentiation that boost its odds of reaping a fortune at the expense of the startups’ potential.

Andreessen pours $22M into PlanetScale’s database-as-a-service

PlanetScale’s founders invented the technology called Vitess that scaled YouTube. Now they’re selling it to any enterprise that wants their data both secure and consistently accessible. And thanks to its ability to re-shard databases while they’re operating, it can solve businesses’ troubles with GDPR, which demands they store some data in the same locality as the user to whom it belongs.

The potential to be a computing backbone that both competes with and complements Amazon’s AWS has now attracted a mammoth $22 million Series A for PlanetScale. Led by Andreessen Horowitz and joined by the firm’s Cultural Leadership Fund, head of the US Digital Service Matt Cutts, plus existing investor SignalFire, the round is a tall step up from the startup’s $3 million seed it raised a year ago. Andreessen general partner Peter Levine will join the PlanetScale board, bringing his enterprise launch expertise.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jitendra Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

“What we’re discovering is that people we thought were at one point competitors, like AWS and hosted relational databases — we’re discovering they may be our partners instead since we’re seeing a reasonable demand for our services in front of AWS’ hosted databases,” says CEO Jitendra Vaidya. “We are growing quite well.” Competing database startups were raising big rounds, so PlanetScale connected with Andreessen in search of more firepower.

Vitess is a horizontal scaling sharding middleware engineered for MySQ that was built to run on “Borg” the predecessor to Kubernetes at Google. It lets businesses segment their database to boost memory efficiency without sacrificing reliable access speeds. PlanetScale sells Vitess in four ways: hosting on its database-as-a-service, licensing of the tech that can be run on-premises for clients or through another cloud provider, professional training for using Vitess and on-demand support for users of the open-source version of Vitess. PlanetScale now has 18 customers paying for licenses and services, and plans to release its own multi-cloud hosting to a general audience soon.

With data becoming so valuable and security concerns rising, many companies want cross-data center durability so one failure doesn’t break their app or delete information. But often the trade-off is unevenness in how long data takes to access. “If you take 100 queries, 99 might return results in 10 milliseconds, but one will take 10 seconds. That unpredictability is not something that apps can live with,” Vaidya tells me. PlanetScale’s Vitess gives enterprises the protection of redundancy but consistent speeds. It also allows businesses to continually update their replication logs so they’re only seconds behind what’s in production rather than doing periodic exports that can make it tough to track transactions and other data in real-time.

Now equipped with a ton of cash for a 20-person team, PlanetScale plans to double its staff by adding more sales, marketing and support. “We don’t have any concerns about the engineering side of things, but we need to figure out a go-to-market strategy for enterprises,” Vaidya explains. “As we’re both technical co-founders, about half of our funding is going towards hiring those functions [outside of engineering], and making that part of our organization work well and get results.”

But while a $22 million round from Andreessen Horowitz would be exciting for almost any startup, the funding for PlanetScale could assist the whole startup ecosystem. GDPR was designed to reign in tech giants. In reality, it applied compliance costs to all companies — yet the rich giants have more money to pay for those efforts. For a smaller startup, figuring out how to obey GDPR’s data localization mandate could be a huge engineering detour they can hardly afford. PlanetScale offers them not only databases but compliance-as-a-service too. It shards their data to where it has to be, and the startup can focus on their actual product.

They scaled YouTube — now they’ll shard everyone with PlanetScale

eFounders backs Yousign to build a European eSignature company

French startup Yousign is partnering with startup studio eFounders. While eFounders usually builds software-as-a-service startups from scratch, the company is trying something new with this partnership.

eFounders wants to create all the tools you need to make your work more efficient. The startup studio is behind many respectable SaaS successes, such as Front, Aircall or Spendesk. And electronic signatures are a must if you want to speed up your workflow.

Sure, there are a ton of well-established players in the space — DocuSign, SignNow, Adobe Sign, HelloSign, etc. But nobody has really cracked the European market in a similar way.

Yousign has been around for a while in France. When it comes to features, it has everything you’d expect. You can upload a document and set up automated emails and notifications so that everybody signs the document.

Signatures are legally binding and Yousign archive your documents. You can also create document templates and send contract proposals using an API.

The main challenge for Yousign is that Europe is still quite fragmented. The company will need to convince users in different countries that they need to switch to an eSignature solution. Starting today, Yousign is now available in France, Germany, the U.K. and Spain.

Yousign had only raised some money. eFounders is cleaning the cap table by buying out existing investors and replacing them.

“We can’t really communicate on the details of the investment, but what I can tell you is that we bought out existing funds for several millions of euros in order to replace them — founders still have the majority of shares,” eFounders co-founder and CEO Thibaud Elzière told me.

In a blog post, Elzière writes that eFounders has acquired around 50 percent of the company through a SPV (Single Purpose Vehicle) that it controls. The startup studio holds 25 percent directly, and investors in the eFounders eClub hold 25 percent.

Yousign now looks pretty much like any other eFounders company when they start. Of course, founders and eFounders might get diluted further down the road if Yousign ends up raising more money.

KaiOS raises $50M, hits 100M handsets powered by its feature phone OS

While Android and iOS have locked up the market for smartphone operating systems, a feature phone platform that has the distinction of being the world’s third biggest mobile OS is announcing a hefty round of funding to continue its expansion. KaiOS, which makes the OS that powers devices like Nokia’s feature phones and Jio’s devices out of India, has raised $50 million from Cathay Innovation (which led the round) and previous investors Google and TCL Holdings.

The funding takes the total raised by KaiOS — which has now shipped 100 million devices across 100 countries — to $72 million. It comes less than a year after Google invested $22 million in the the business — a strategic round that also marked KaiOS beginning the process of creating native integrations of different Google services like Maps and (more recently) Assistant into the platform.

KaiOS is not disclosing its valuation but Sebastien Codeville, its CEO, confirmed to be that it is “definitely up.” (Pitchbook put it at a very modest $43.75 million last year on the back of Google’s earlier round.)

We actually knew a little about this round back in February, at MWC in Barcelona, when KaiOS announced new handset partners and a raft of new features. A spokesperson for KaiOS told TechCrunch that the delay in closing the deal and making it public was due to a need to coordinate with different stakeholders.

As it turned out, KaiOS’s timing for this announcement turned out to be pretty interesting. The big news this week in mobile is what kind of an impact Huawei will face in the wake of a US regulation barring it from  doing business in the US. One development in that story has been just how serious Huawei is about building its own operating system to replace Google’s Android and its related services.

This is big news because while Huawei is currently the world’s second-biggest mobile phone maker, we haven’t seen any platform gain reasonable mobile phone traction against the hegemony of iOS and Android outside of China — including the failure of Firefox OS, which retreated from the market only to reemerge, phoenix-like, as KaiOS two years ago — in part because of the extensive ecosystems that have coalesced around these two.

But while all eyes are on smartphones, KaiOS’s funding and general growth represents an interesting alternative for markets, carriers and consumers that might be in the market for what KaiOS refers to as “smart feature phones.”

Today, the company counts companies like Reliance Jio, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Orange, MTN and Qualcomm among its partners, and it’s been building an interesting, two-pronged strategy for targeting people both in developed and developing markets.

As Sebastien Codeville, the CEO of KaiOS, describes it, in emerging markets (which are KaiOS’s primary target), its devices are being purchased by first-time phone users, or those that have had very basic, non-data mobile phones and are upgrading without the big step and expense of smartphones. “We are bringing people to internet usage with a device they are familiar with,” he said of the form factor. “Other key characteristics are a long battery life, a keyboard, and a more resistant touch panel.”

The developed market, he added, was an interesting opportunity because of the amount of professionals and others who want pared-down devices for weekend use to unplug from their daily grind.

Many had left feature phones for dead with the growth in popularity of devices like the iPhone, app stores and of course apps themselves. But research from Counterpoint found that feature phones still accounted for almost 25 percent of all handset shipments in Q3 of last year, working out to a $28 billion dollar market opportunity in the years ahead. Today there are some 1.5 billion feature phone users, an interesting number to consider as smartphone sales continue to feel the crunch. 

Kard is a challenger bank for teens

Meet French startup Kard, a challenger bank that works a lot like N26 or Revolut. But Kard is all about convincing teens that their first bank account is going to be a Kard account — a bit like Step in the U.S.

When I talked with Kard co-founder and CEO Scott Gordon, he kept saying that Kard was a product for the generation Z. While I’m not a fan of that buzzword, it still looks like a well-designed app with some personality.

“Gen Z is a generation that has been forgotten by traditional banks,” Gordon said. “70 percent of their transactions are digital transactions,” he added later. Many teenagers borrow their parents’ card for those expenses.

Kard wants to empower teens with their own bank account, their own IBAN and their own Mastercard debit card. Instead of controlling every expense, parents can just top up the Kard account and let their child spend it however they want — you can top up with a bank transfer or using another card — just like in Revolut. Opening an account is free.

Like other electronic wallet apps, opening a Kard account is much simpler than opening a traditional bank account in France. You can sign up in a few minutes from your phone and confirm your identity later by sending a photo of your ID, etc.

After that, you get an account that you control from a mobile app. You can block and unblock the card, see transactions, send and receive money in real time with other Kard users. It ticks all the right boxes that you’ve come to expect if you have a bank account from a challenger bank.

In a couple of months, you’ll also be able to create money pots, round up your transactions to save some money, donate money to nonprofits, etc.

Kard is also borrowing a few ideas from Venmo. Users will be able to share expenses with their group of friends in the Kard app. Many teens already share a photo of their brand new sneakers on Snapchat for instance. Kard wants you to use their own app for this kind of content.

The startup raised $3.4 million (€3 million) back in January from Kima Ventures, Jean-Pascal Beaufret, Jambu Palaniappan, Francis Nappez, Julien Lemoine, Jason Dorsey and David Amsellem.

While the service is not live yet, you can sign up to the waiting list on the company’s website. Kard’s positioning is interesting. The startup doesn’t need to convince people to open yet another bank account — the company is tapping an endless funnel of new users by focusing on teens.

Like all startups focused on teens, it faces a dilemma. It has to retain its users as their needs become more complex and attract new teens as the product becomes more complex.

Ikea invests in Livspace, a one-stop platform for interior design based in India

Fresh from raising $70 million last year via big names including Goldman Sachs and TPG Growth, Livspace, an India-based startup that offers a one-stop-shop for interior design, has lured yet another marquee investor: Ikea.

The startup said today it has taken an undisclosed investment from Ingka Investments, the VC arm of Ikea parent Ingka Group, which operates 90 percent of Ikea’s retail footprint. Livspace CEO and co-founder Anuj Srivastava declined to provide a figure for the deal, but he told TechCrunch that the stake involved is a minor one while there is no plan to bolt a larger round on to this investment. Deal Street Asia first reported news of the deal.

“There is strong strategic and commercial potential,” Srivastava, a former Googler who started Livspace in 2015, said of the new investor. “This is an opportunity to create the best possible omnichannel experience for consumers.”

India is a tough place for international retail companies but Ikea has made progress in recent times.

The company opened its first India-based store in Hyderabad last year and, having gained FDI approval to operate retails store, it is planning a substantial expansion with at least 25 new stores in the offing.

Livspace, for those unaware of it, runs a service that is aimed at taking the hassle out of interior design. The company’s platform connects homeowners with designers and the supply chain to go through ideas, chose a plan and implement it. That includes, among other things, 3D virtual renders of a renovation, offline meetings at a Livspace design center and, in some cases, customized furnishings. By bringing all parties together, Livspace claims to offer cost savings to consumers as well as higher rates and more efficient use of time for designers.

That model resonates with Ikea (Ingka), according to Srivastava, who said the company sides began talking following the announcement of Livspace’s Series C round last September.

“We’ve felt the natural synergy always existed,” he said. “This is an extremely strong endorsement of our vision.”

Synergies, indeed, although somewhat frustratingly neither party is saying how they will work together going forward. The obvious suggestion would be that Ikea products become available through Livspace, but Srivastava said the specifics are still to be agreed.

Further down the line, though, he admitted that Ikea’s involvement could fuel an international expansion beyond India. Going overseas is something that the company is openly talked up in the past and, with Ikea’s global footprint of 367 stores across 30 markets, the investment from Ingka could give Livspace a running start in new markets.

That, like the details of the alliance, is something that will come later, however.

“The India business is keeping us really, really busy at this time,” said Srivastava on that possibility.

“We’re engaged in exploratory activities but there’s no immediate plan or timeline,” he added as a tease. A new market launch isn’t likely until something like 12-18 months down the line, the Livspace CEO said.

As for whether this deal might be a precursor to an eventual acquisition, such are the synergies, Srivastava said that possibility isn’t being entertained.

“There is no such intention as of now,” he explained. “We continue to have strong interest from financial investors and continue to operate with the intention to stay independent, there’s now even more belief in our platform approach.”

“There is distinctly an investment outlay involved [with] no long term indication of an M&A opportunity,” he added.

The deal is Ikea’s first in India, but it is not the retail giant’s dalliance in startups by any means.

The company previously acquired TaskRabbit in 2017 and it bought a 49 percent stake in U.S-based kitchen service company Traemand with a view to a full acquisition last December. Its investment deals have included taking part in a $31 million Series B for France-based Aledia LED and participation in a $12.4 million round for online food retailer Matsmart. The company has also run social entrepreneurship programs.

Big revenues, huge valuations and major losses: charting the era of the unicorn IPO

We can make charts galore about the tech IPO market. Yet none of them diminish the profound sense that we are in uncharted territory.

Never before have so many companies with such high revenues gone public at such lofty valuations, all while sustaining such massive losses. If you’re a “growth matters most” investor, these are exciting times in IPO-land. If you’re the old-fashioned value type who prefers profits, it may be best to sit out this cycle.

Believers in putting market dominance before profits got their biggest IPO opportunity perhaps ever last week, with Uber’s much-awaited dud of a market debut. With a market cap hovering around $64 billion, Uber is far below the $120 billion it was initially rumored to target. Nonetheless, one could convincingly argue it’s still a rich valuation for a company that just posted a Q1 loss of around $1 billion on $3 billion in revenue.

So how do Uber’s revenues, losses and valuation stack up amidst the recent crop of unicorn IPOs? To put things in context, we assembled a list of 15 tech unicorns that went public over the past three quarters. We compared their valuations, along with revenues and losses for 2018 (in most cases the most recently available data), in the chart below:

 

Put these companies altogether in a pot, and they’d make one enormous, money-losing super-unicorn, with more than $25 billion in annual revenue coupled to more than $6 billion in losses. It’ll be interesting to revisit this list in a few quarters to see if that pattern changes, and profits become more commonplace.

History

It’s easy to draw comparisons to the decades-old dot-com bubble, but this time things are different. During the dot-com bubble, I remember penning this lead sentence:

“If the era of the Internet IPO had a theme song, it might be this: There’s no business like no business.”

That notion made sense for bubble-era companies, which commonly went public a few years after inception, before amassing meaningful revenues.

That tune won’t work this time around. If the era of the unicorn IPO had a theme song, it wouldn’t be nearly as catchy. Maybe something like: “There’s no business like lots of business and lots of losses too.”

I won’t be buying tickets to that musical. But when it comes to buying IPO shares, the unicorn proposition is a bit more appealing than the 2000 cycle. After all, it’s reasonably plausible for a company with dominant market share to tweak its margins over time. It’s a lot harder to grow revenues from nothing to hundreds of millions or billions, particularly if investors grow averse to funding continued losses.

Of course, the dot-com bubble and the unicorn IPO era do share a common theme: Investors are betting on an optimistic vision of future potential. If expectations don’t pan out, expect share prices to follow suit.

Starbucks’ Chinese nemesis surges 20% in public debut

Shares of Luckin Coffee jumped 20% in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq stock market.

After opening at $17.00, shares of the Chinese Starbucks competitor climbed as high as $25.96, or more than 50%, before settling back down to $20.38 at the market’s close. The company has a market cap north of $5 billion after its first day of trading.

The brick-and-mortar coffee chain has achieved major success in China by offering speedy delivery services to Chinese consumers. The company has nearly 2,400 stores compared to Starbucks’ 3,500, but it has plans to more than double that number by the end of the year as it seeks to become the country’s coffee king.

Luckin’s success doesn’t immediately seem to be thwarting the stock market success of Starbucks, which has had a glowing 2019. The company hit another all-time high Friday, closing out the day at $78.91, up more than 35% from a year ago, giving the Seattle company a market cap of nearly $96 billion.

Starbucks and Luckin Coffee may seem like mortal enemies, but their rivalry is more complicated than one might immediately think. Check out our Extra Crunch deep dive from earlier this week on the Xiamen-based company’s financials.

The misunderstandings of 18-month-old Luckin’s $500M IPO

Tutor House, the UK-based tutoring platform, scores £2M from Fuel Ventures

Tutor House, a U.K.-based startup that operates a marketplace to let parents find an online or in-person tutor for their children, has raises £2 million in funding.

Backing the round, the first for the young company, is Fuel Ventures, the London-based VC and startup builder set up by Mark Pearson of MyVoucherCodes fame. Fuel Ventures recently closed its third fund of £20 million to continue investing in early-stage B2B and B2C marketplaces, platforms and SaaS.

Founded by Ex-teacher Alex Dyer in 2012 — and self-funded until now — Tutor House connects parents and families with tutors either in-person or online. The site enables families to search for tutors across an array of subjects and academic levels, and now claims to be the U.K.’s leading tutoring agency offering private home or remote tuition for all Primary, GCSE, A-Level and University subjects.

“The large number of teachers leaving their profession in addition to ever increasing class sizes mean that the market for private tutoring has expanded significantly,” former psychology teacher and now Tutor House CEO Dyer tells me. “In order to improve the quality of each student’s academic experience, our tutors provide personalised learning plans that will help to boost grades and give learners the best chance of success”.

In addition, Dyer says that Tutor House is the only tutoring platform that interviews all tutors and ensures that they have a full DBS check before going live on the platform. “In an unregulated industry this is very important,” he adds. “We are dedicated to providing each and every student with the best level of service possible”.

Typical Tutor House customers fall into four groups. The first is hands-on parents who want the best for their child regardless of price. The second is parents who see education as important but may have to ask relatives for help with costs. The third is students who can’t access education in a mainstream school due to anxiety or other SEN related issues. “These students often need to retake A-level or GCSE exams due to poor teaching/no teacher,” says Dyer. The final group is university students and adult learners who are investing in their future by taking learning into their own hands.

A classic marketplace play, Tutor House charges tutors a 20 percent commission fee for every booking. However, if a tutor books more than twenty hours a month, the commission is reduced. “We also offer A-Level and Pre-U retake courses, in addition to residential courses and homeschooling,” explains Dyer.

Meanwhile, Tutor House says it will use the investment from Fuel Ventures to expand into other countries, and to create a bespoke school in London for students who need intensive tutoring for exam retakes.

MultiVu raises $7M seed round for its next-gen 3D sensor

MultiVu, a Tel Aviv-based startup that is developing a new 3D imaging solution that only relies on a single sensor and some deep learning smarts, today announced that it has raised a $7 million seed round. The round was led by crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, Cardumen Capital and Hong Kong’s Junson Capital.

Tel Aviv University’s TAU Technology Innovation Momentum Fund supported some of the earlier development of MultiVu’s core technology, which came out of Prof. David Mendlovic’s lab at the university. Mendlovic previously co-founded smartphone camera startup Corephotonics, which was recently acquired by Samsung.

The promise of MultiVu’s sensor is that it can offer 3D imaging with a single-lens camera instead of the usual two-sensor setup. This single sensor can extract depth and color data in a single shot.

This makes for a more compact setup and, by extension, a more affordable solution as it requires fewer components. All of this is powered by the company’s patented light field technology.

Currently, the team is focusing on using the sensor for face authentication in phones and other small devices. That’s obviously a growing market, but there are also plenty of other applications for small 3D sensors, ranging from other security use cases to sensors for self-driving cars.

“The technology, which passed the proof-of-concept stage, will bring 3D Face Authentication and affordable 3D imaging to the mobile, automotive, industrial and medical markets,” MultiVu CEO Doron Nevo said. “We are excited to be given the opportunity to commercialize this technology.”

Right now, though, the team is mostly focusing on bringing its sensor to market. The company will use the new funding for that, as well as new marketing and business development activities.

“We are pleased to invest in the future of 3D sensor technologies and believe that MultiVu will penetrate markets, which until now could not take advantage of costly 3D imaging solutions,” said OurCrowd Senior Investment Partner Eli Nir. “We are proud to be investing in a third company founded by Prof. David Mendlovic (who just recently sold CorePhotonics to Samsung), managed by CEO Doron Nevo – a serial entrepreneur with proven successes and a superb team they have gathered around them.”