13 Boston-focused VCs share the advice they’re giving portfolio companies

TechCrunch is focusing a bit more on the Boston-area startup and venture capital ecosystem lately, which has gone pretty well so far.

In fact, we had originally intended on releasing this regional investor survey as a single piece, but since so many VCs took part, we’re breaking it into two. The first part deals with the world we live in today, and the remainder will detail what Boston-area investors think about the future.

We broke our questions into two parts to better track investor sentiment. But, we were also curious what was going to come when things got back closer to normal. So, this first entry in our Boston investor survey covers our questions concerning what’s going on now. On Thursday we’ll have the second piece, looking at what’s ahead.

Here’s who took part:

What follows is a quick digest of what stood out from the collected answers, though there’s a lot more that we didn’t get to.

Boston VC in the COVID-19 era

Parsing through thousands of words and notes from our participating VCs, a few things stood out.

Boston startups aren’t having as bad a time — yet, at least — as area investors expected

Fewer companies than they anticipated are laying off staff for example. From our perspective, the number of Boston investors who noted that their portfolio companies were executing layoffs or furloughs (we asked for each to be precise) was very low; far more Boston-area startups are hiring than even freezing headcount. Layoffs appear somewhat rare, but as we all know cost cutting can take many forms for startups. Especially startups on the seed and early-stage side, which makes up the majority of these firm’s portfolio companies.

According to Glasswing’s Rudina Seseri, startup duress has come in “significantly under what [her firm was] expecting at the beginning of COVID-19.”

This may be due to a strong first quarter helping companies in the city and its surrounding area make it another few quarters. We might not know the full bill of COVID-19 and its related disruptions until next year.

More investors than we expected noted that their Boston portfolio companies aren’t raising this year

So what we’re gleaning from that fact is that any decline in Q2 and Q3 VC data is not because companies can’t raise, but because they don’t need to. Comments echoed a theme we wrote about in April: Boston broke records in Q1 in terms of dollars raised, but saw a dip in the number of checks cut.

Pillar VC’s Jamie Goldstein said that “about 15% of our companies are planning to raise capital this year,” which felt about average. Underscore VC’s Lily Lyman simply noted that, “Yes,” her Boston-area portfolio companies would hunt for new capital this year. Bill Geary of Flare Capital is on the other side of that coin, saying that “each of [his firm’s] Boston-based investments has successfully recently raised capital and will not be raising additional funds until 2021.”

It’s hard not to wonder if what happened to Boston unicorns Toast and EzCater was the exception and not the rule

 You see, Boston’s startup scene skews relatively early stage, so smaller companies don’t have high-profile cuts because, to be frank, there isn’t much staff to cut in the first place. It puts Boston in a unique setting to focus in on its early stage market, and investors all agreed that this is an important moment for the ecosystem.

The March-era stress tests are now months in the rearview mirror, and every startup has shaken up their spend and growth plans. Perhaps we have met the new normal, and it’s time to let the runway do the talking.

With that, let’s get into full questions and answers.

Rudina Seseri, Glasswing Ventures

What is the top-line advice you’re giving your portfolio companies right now?

This is a pivotal time, be efficient and drive execution. Cut costs where possible but at the same time don’t be afraid to spend for growth acceleration.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies are still hiring, not including those merely backfilling?

About 60%.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have frozen new hires?

About 20%.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have furloughed staff?

None.

What percentage of your Boston-based portfolio companies have cut staff?

One company that represents about 4% of the portfolio.

Are your Boston-based portfolio companies looking to raise new capital this year?

Most have raised recently, and consequently are not looking to raise at this time.

If not, are they often delaying due to COVID-19?

No, because of their recent raises, their fundraising considerations will take place in 2021.

Has duress amidst your Boston-based portfolio companies undershot, matched or overshot your expectations from March?

It has been significantly under what we were expecting at the beginning of COVID-19.

How has your investment appetite changed in terms of pace and location, if at all?

We have been very active and closed deals in this environment. Our expectation is that our investment appetite will remain the same going forward.

Are you making investments in Q2 into net-new founders and companies?

Yes, as a matter-of-fact we just closed a yet-to-be announced investment this month.

Are there particular sectors of startups in Boston that you expect to do well, aside from SaaS businesses that are benefiting from secular trends? Are there any sectors you have become newly bearish on?

Yes, those that are in our core focus areas — solutions that bring down the cost of cloud and data, platforms and tools leveraging AI, those that facilitate cost reduction, and intelligent solutions in cybersecurity that protect the enterprise.

How does the uncertainty of schools reopening impact the startup ecosystem?

This will further drive and institutionalize distributed teams and remote working as a go-forward mode of operating.


By Natasha Mascarenhas

UpKeep raises $36 million Series B to help facilities and maintenance teams go mobile

UpKeep, a mobile-first platform for maintenance and operations collaboration, has today announced the close of a $36 million Series B financing round. The round was led by Insight Partners, with participation from existing investors Emergence Capital, Battery Ventures, Y Combinator, Mucker Capital and Fundersclub.

UpKeep was founded by Ryan Chan. Chan worked at Trisep Corporation, a chemical manufacturing company, before founding UpKeep and saw first-hand how plant maintenance was handled. Despite the fact that the plant had purchased software for facilities maintenance and operations, most of the data was written down on pen and paper before being input into the system because that software was desktop only.

The idea for UpKeep was born.

UpKeep meets maintenance workers where they are, which could be just about anywhere.

With any maintenance job, from changing a lightbulb in an office building to repairing a complicated piece of machinery on the floor of a manufacturing plant, there are usually three parties involved: the requester, the facilities manager, and the technician.

Before UpKeep, the requester would either send an email to the facilities manager or perhaps use some other software to let them know of the problem. The facilities manager would prioritize the various requests of the day and send out technicians to resolve them.

Technicians have to log plenty of information when they’re out on the job, but this usually involved writing this info down on paper and then returning to a desk to input the data into the system.

With UpKeep, the requester can use the app itself to notify the facilities manager of problems, or send an email that flows directly into the UpKeep system. Facilities managers use UpKeep to prioritize and assign issues to their team of technicians, who then receive the work orders right on UpKeep.

Instead of logging information on paper, these technicians can take pictures of the problem and note the parts they need or other details of the job right in the app. No duplication of effort.

UpKeep operates on a freemium model, allowing technicians to manage their own work for free. Collaborative use of the product across an organization costs on a per user on both an annual or monthly basis. The company offers various tiers, from a Starter Plan ($35/month/user) to an Enterprise Plan ($180/month/user).

Higher tier plans offer more in-depth reporting and analysis around the work that gets done. Chan explained that these reports are not necessarily about tracking people, though.

“Yes, we track technicians and it’s a tool to manage work done by people,” said Chan. “But a manufacturing facility really cares much more about the equipment. They can use UpKeep to manage things like how many hours of downtime a piece of equipment has, etc. It’s more targeted toward the actual asset and the equipment versus the person completing their work.”

Chan said that around 80 percent of the company’s 400,000 users are on the free version of the app. Some brands on the app include Unilever, Siemens, DHL, McDonald’s, and Jet.com. Chan said UpKeep saw a 206 percent increase in revenue in 2019.

Important to the company’s future, UpKeep is working with OSHA and a group called SQF (Safe Quality Food) to offer templates around best practices during the pandemic. Now, maintenance workers and facilities staffs have a whole new checklist around sanitation and safety that many businesses are just getting up to speed on. UpKeep is working to make these new practices easier to adopt by providing those checklists directly to facilities managers.

This latest funding round brings UpKeep’s total funding to $48.8 million.


By Jordan Crook

Bridgecrew announces $14M Series A to automate cloud security

In today’s grim economic climate, companies are looking for ways to automate wherever they can. Bridgecrew, an early-stage startup that makes automated cloud security tooling aimed at engineers, announced a $14 million Series A today.

Battery Ventures led the round with participation from NFX, the company’s $4 million seed investor. Sorensen Ventures, DNX Ventures, Tectonic Ventures, and Homeward Ventures also participated. A number of individual investors also helped out. The company has raised a total of $18 million.

Bridgecrew CEO and co-founder Idan Tendle says that it is becoming easier to provision cloud resources, but that security tends to be more challenging. “We founded Bridgecrew because we saw that there was a huge bottleneck in security engineering, in DevSecOps, and how engineers were running cloud infrastructure security,” Tendle told TechCrunch.

They found that a lot issues involved misconfigurations, and while there were security solutions out there to help, they were expensive, and they weren’t geared towards the engineers who were typically being charged with fixing the security issues, he said.

The company decided to solve that problem by coming up with a solution geared specifically for the way engineers think and operate. “We do that by codifying the problem, by codifying what the engineers are doing. We took all the tasks that they needed to do to protect around remediation of their cloud environment and we built a playbook,” he explained.

The playbooks are bits of infrastructure as code that can resolve many common problems quickly. When they encounter a new problem, they build a playbook and then that becomes part of the product. He says that 90% of the issues are fairly generic like following AWS best practices or ensuring SOC-2 compliance, but the engineers are free to tweak the code if they need to.

Tendle says he is hiring and sees his product helping companies looking to reduce costs through automation. “We are planning to grow fast. The need is huge and the COVID-19 implications mean that more and more companies will be moving to cloud and trying to reduce costs, and we help them do that by reducing the barriers and bottlenecks for cloud security.”

The company was founded 14 months ago and has 100 playbooks available. It’s keeping the crew lean for now with 16 employees, but it has plans to double that by the end of the year.


By Ron Miller

Thundra announces $4M Series A to secure and troubleshoot serverless workloads

Thundra, an early stage serverless tooling startup, announced a $4 million Series A today led by Battery Ventures. The company spun out from OpsGenie after it was sold to Atlassian for $295 million in 2018.

York IE, Scale X Ventures and Opsgenie founder Berkay Mollamustafaoglu also participated in the round. Battery’s Neeraj Agarwal is joining the company’s board under the terms of the agreement.

The startup also announced that it had recently hired Ken Cheney as CEO with technical founder Serkan Ozal becoming CTO.

Originally, Thundra helped run the serverless platform at OpsGenie. As a commercial company, it helps monitor, debug and secure serverless workloads on AWS Lambda. These three tasks could easily be separate tools, but Cheney says it makes sense to include them all because they are all related in some way.

“We bring all that together and provide an end-to-end view of what’s happening inside the application, and this is what really makes Thundra unique. We can actually provide a high-level distributed view of that constantly-changing application that shows all of the components of that application, and how they are interrelated and how they’re performing. It can also troubleshoot down to the local service, as well as go down into the runtime code to see where the problems are occurring and let you know very quickly,” Cheney explained.

He says that this enables developers to get this very detailed view of their serverless application that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, helping them concentrate less on the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure, the reason they went serverless in the first place, and more on writing code.

Serverless trace map in Thundra. Screenshot: Thundra

Thundra is able to do all of this in a serverless world, where there isn’t a fixed server and resources are ephemeral, making it difficult to identity and fix problems. It does this by installing an agent at the Lambda (AWS’ serverless offering) level on AWS, or at runtime on the container at the library level,” he said.

Battery’s Neeraj Agarwal says having invested in OpsGenie, he knew the engineering team and was confident in the team’s ability to take it from internal tool to more broadly applicable product.

“I think it has to do with the quality of the engineering team that built OpsGenie. These guys are very microservices oriented, very product oriented, so they’re very quick at iterating and developing products. Even though this was an internal tool I think of it as very much productized, and their ability to now sell it to the broader market is very exciting,” he said.

The company offers a free version, then tiered pricing based on usage, storage and data retention. The current product is a cloud service, but it plans to add an on prem version in the near future.


By Ron Miller

Top VCs, founders share how to build a successful SaaS company

Last week at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, we hosted a panel on the Extra Crunch stage on “How to build a billion-dollar SaaS company.” A better title probably would have been “How to build a successful SaaS company.”

We spoke to Whitney Bouck, COO at HelloSign; Jyoti Bansal, CEO and founder at Harness, and Neeraj Agrawal, a partner at Battery Ventures to get their view on how to move through the various stages to build that successful SaaS company.

While there is no magic formula, we covered a lot of ground, including finding a product-market fit, generating early revenue, the importance of building a team, what to do when growth slows and finally, how to resolve the tension between growth and profitability.

Finding product-market fit

Neeraj Agrawal: When we’re talking to the market, what we’re really looking for is a repeatable pattern of use cases. So when we’re talking to prospects — the words they use, the pain point they use — are very similar from call to call to call? Once we see that pattern, we know we have product-market fit, and then we can replicate that.

Jyoti Bansal: Revenue is one measure of product-market fit. Are customers adopting it and getting value out of it and renewing? Until you start getting a first set of renewals and a first set of expansions and happy successful customers, you don’t really have product-market fit. So that’s the only way you can know if the product is really working or not.

Whitney Bouck: It isn’t just about revenue — the measures of success at all phases have to somewhat morph. You’ve got to be looking at usage, at adoption, value renewals, expansion, and of course, the corollary, churn, to give you good health indicators about how you’re doing with product-market fit.

Generating early revenue

Jyoti Bansal: As founders we’ve realized, getting from idea to early revenue is one of the hardest things to do. The first million in revenue is all about street fighting. Founders have to go out there and win business and do whatever it takes to get to revenue.

As your revenue grows, what you focus on as a company changes. Zero to $1 million, your goal is to find the product-market fit, do whatever it takes to get early customers. One million to $10 million, you start scaling it. Ten million to $75 million is all about sales, execution, and [at] $75 million plus, the story changes to how do you go into new markets and things like that.

Whitney Bouck: You really do have to get that poll from the market to be able to really start the momentum and growth. The freemium model is one of the ways that we start to engage people — getting visibility into the product, getting exposure to the product, really getting people thinking about, and frankly, spreading the word about how this product can provide value.

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Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch

 


By Ron Miller

T2D3 Software Update: Embracing the Founder to CEO (F2C) Journey

It’s been four years since TechCrunch published my blog post The SaaS Adventure, which introduced the concept of a “T2D3” roadmap to help SaaS companies scale — and, as an aside, explored how well my mom understood my job as an “adventure capitalist.” The piece detailed seven distinct stages that enterprise cloud startups must navigate to achieve $100 million in annualized revenue. Specifically, the post encouraged companies to “triple, triple, double, double, double” their revenue as they hit certain milestones.

I was blown away by the response to the piece and gratified that so many founders and investors found the T2D3 framework helpful. Looking back now, I think a lot of the advice has stood the test of time. But plenty has also changed in the broader tech and software markets since 2015, and I wanted to update this advice for founders of hyper-growth companies in light of the market shifts that have occurred.

Perhaps the most notable change in the last four years is that the number of playbooks for companies to follow as they sell software has expanded. Today, more companies are embracing product-led growth and a less-formal, bottoms-up model — employees are swiping credit cards to buy a product, and not necessarily interacting with a human salesperson.

Many of the most high-profile, recent software IPOs structure their go-to-market operations this way. T2D3’s stages, by contrast, focus quite a bit on scaling a company’s internal sales function to grow. Indeed, both a product-led and a sales-led approach are viable in today’s growing B2B-tech market.

What’s more, the revenue needed for a software company to go public has increased dramatically in the last four years. This means that software founders need to focus not only on building a scalable product and finding scalable go-to-market channels, but also building a scalable org chart. These days, what is scarce for software founders isn’t money from investors; it’s great human talent.

So in addition to T2D3, my firm and I are now focusing on another founder journey: F2C, or the transition from founder/CEO to CEO/founder. This journey can take many paths, but ideally it starts with the traditional hustle to find early product/market fit.


By Arman Tabatabai

Hear how to build a billion-dollar SaaS company at TechCrunch Disrupt

There was a time when brick-and-mortar mom and pops framed their first $1 on the wall, but in the SaaS startup the equivalent milestone is $1 billion revenue run-rate.

Salesforce is the SaaS revenue king reporting $4 billion in revenue for its most recent quarterly report, and there are many other relatively new SaaS companies, such as WorkDay, ServiceNow and Atlassian, that have broken the $1 billion barrier.

This year at TechCrunch Disrupt (tickets here!), we welcome three people to the Extra Crunch stage who know first hand what it takes to join the billion dollar club.

Neeraj Agrawal, a partner at Battery Ventures and seasoned enterprise investor, presented his growth thesis in a widely read article for TechCrunch where he outlined the key milestones for a SaaS company to reach a billion dollars.

Whitney Bouck is COO at HelloSign, a startup that was sold to Dropbox in 2018 for $230 million. Bouck was also an executive at Box, guiding their enterprise business from 2011-2015. Prior to that she was at Documentum, which exited in 2003 to EMC for $1.7 billion.

Jyoti Bansal is currently co-founder & CEO of Harness. Previously, he was founder & CEO of AppDynamics, which Cisco acquired in 2017 for $3.7 billion. Bansal is also an investor as co-founder of venture capital firm Unusual Ventures.

The goal of this panel is to help you understand the tools and strategies that go into ramping to a billion in revenue and beyond. It requires a rare combination of good idea, product-market fit, culture and commitment. It also requires figuring out how to evolve the core idea and recover from inevitable mistakes — all while selling investors on your vision.

We’re amped for this conversation, and we can’t wait to see you there! Buy tickets to Disrupt SF here at an early-bird rate!

Did you know Extra Crunch annual members get 20% off all TechCrunch event tickets? Head over here to get your annual pass, and then email [email protected] to get your 20% discount. Please note that it can take up to 24 hours to issue the discount code.



By Ron Miller

Sumo Logic announces $110M Series G investment on valuation over $1B

Sumo Logic, a cloud data analytics and log analysis company, announced a $110 million Series G investment today. The company indicated that its valuation was “north of a billion dollars,” but wouldn’t give an exact figure.

Today’s round was led by Battery Ventures with participation from new investors Tiger Global Management and Franklin Templeton. Other unnamed existing investors also participated according to the company. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $340 million.

When we spoke to Sumo Logic CEO Ramin Sayer at the time of its $75 million Series F in 2017, he indicated the company was on its way to becoming a public company. While that hasn’t happened yet, he says it is still the goal for the company, and investors wanted in on that before it happened.

“We don’t need to capital. We had plenty of capital already, but when you bring on crossover investors and others in this this stage of a company, they have minimum check sizes and they have a lot of appetite to help you as you get ready to address a lot of the challenges and opportunities as you become a public company,” he said.

He says the company will be investing the money in continuing to develop the platform, whether that’s through acquisitions, which of course the money would help with, or through the company’s own engineering efforts.

The IPO idea remains a goal, but Sayer was not willing or able to commit to when that might happen. The company clearly has plenty of runway now to last for quite some time.

“We could go out now if we wanted to, but we made a decision that that’s not what we’re going to do, and we’re going to continue to double down and invest, and therefore bring some more capital in to give us more optionality for strategic tuck-ins and product IP expansion, international expansion — and then look to the public markets [after] we do that,” he said.

Dharmesh Thakker, general partner at investor, Battery Ventures says his firm likes Sumo Logic’s approach and sees a big opportunity ahead with this investment. “We have been tracking the Sumo Logic team for some time, and admire the company’s early understanding of the massive cloud-native opportunity and the rise of new, modern application architectures,” he said in a statement.

The company crossed the $100 million revenue mark last year and has 2000 customers including Airbnb, Anheuser-Busch and Samsung. It competes with companies like Splunk, Scaylr and Loggly.


By Ron Miller

Gong.io nabs $40M investment to enhance CRM with voice recognition

With traditional CRM tools, sales people add basic details about the companies to the database, then a few notes about their interactions. AI has helped automate some of that, but Gong.io wants to take it even further using voice recognition to capture every word of every interaction. Today, it got a $40M Series B investment.

The round was led by Battery Ventures with existing investors Norwest Venture Partners, Shlomo Kramer, Wing Venture Capital, NextWorld Capital and Cisco Investments also participating. Battery general partner Dharmesh Thakker will join the startup’s Board under the terms of the deal. Today’s investment brings the total raised so far to $68 million, according to the company.

$40 million is a hefty Series B, but investors see a tool that has the potential to have a material impact on sales, or at least give management a deeper understanding of why a deal succeeded or failed using artificial intelligence, specifically natural language processing.

Company co-founder and CEO Amit Bendov says the solution starts by monitoring all customer-facing conversation and giving feedback in a fully automated fashion. “Our solution uses AI to extract important bits out of the conversation to provide insights to customer-facing people about how they can get better at what they do, while providing insights to management about how staff is performing,” he explained. It takes it one step further by offering strategic input like how your competitors are trending or how are customers responding to your products.

Screenshot: Gong.io

Bendov says he started the company because he has had this experience at previous startups where he wants to know more about why he lost a sale, but there was no insight from looking at the data in the CRM database. “CRM could tell you what customers you have, how many sales you’re making, who is achieving quota or not, but never give me the information to rationalize and improve operations,” he said.

The company currently has 350 customers, a number that has more than tripled since the end of 2017 when it had 100. He says it’s not only that it’s adding new customers, existing ones are expanding, and he says that there is almost zero churn.

Today, Gong has 120 employees with headquarters in San Francisco and a 55-person R&D team in Israel. Bendov expects the number of employees to double over the next year with the new influx of money to keep up with the customer growth.


By Ron Miller

Workato raises $25M for its integration platform

Workato, a startup that offers an integration and automation platform for businesses that competes with the likes of MuleSoft, SnapLogic and Microsoft’s Logic Apps, today announced that it has raised a $25 million Series B funding round from Battery Ventures, Storm Ventures, ServiceNow and Workday Ventures. Combined with its previous rounds, the company has now received investments from some of the largest SaaS players, including Salesforce, which participated in an earlier round.

At its core, Workato’s service isn’t that different from other integration services (you can think of them as IFTTT for the enterprise), in that it helps you to connect disparate systems and services, set up triggers to kick off certain actions (if somebody signs a contract on DocuSign, send a message to Slack and create an invoice). Like its competitors, it connects to virtually any SaaS tool that a company would use, no matter whether that’s Marketo and Salesforce, or Slack and Twitter. And like some of its competitors, all of this can be done with a drag-and-drop interface.

What’s different, Workato founder and CEO Vijay Tella tells me, is that the service was built for business users, not IT admins. “Other enterprise integration platforms require people who are technical to build and manage them,” he said. “With the explosion in SaaS with lines of business buying them — the IT team gets backlogged with the various integration needs. Further, they are not able to handle all the workflow automation needs that businesses require to streamline and innovate on the operations.”

Battery Ventures’ general partner Neeraj Agrawal also echoed this. “As we’ve all seen, the number of SaaS applications run by companies is growing at a very rapid clip,” he said. “This has created a huge need to engage team members with less technical skill-sets in integrating all these applications. These types of users are closer to the actual business workflows that are ripe for automation, and we found Workato’s ability to empower everyday business users super compelling.”

Tella also stressed that Workato makes extensive use of AI/ML to make building integrations and automations easier. The company calls this Recipe Q. “Leveraging the tens of billions of events processed, hundreds of millions of metadata elements inspected and hundreds of thousands of automations that people have built on our platform — we leverage ML to guide users to build the most effective integration/automation by recommending next steps as they build these automations,” he explained. “It recommends the next set of actions to take, fields to map, auto-validates mappings, etc. The great thing with this is that as people build more automations — it learns from them and continues to make the automation smarter.”

The AI/ML system also handles errors and offers features like sentiment analysis to analyze emails and detect their intent, with the ability to route them depending on the results of that analysis.

As part of today’s announcement, the company is also launching a new AI-enabled feature: Automation Editions for sales, marketing and HR (with editions for finance and support coming in the future). The idea here is to give those departments a kit with pre-built workflows that helps them to get started with the service without having to bring in IT.


By Frederic Lardinois