India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain, and IoT platforms

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the telecom and features phone businesses in India in less than three years of existence, is now ready to aggressively foray into many more businesses with the help of global giants including Microsoft.

The subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house Reliance Industries today announced that it will commercially launch its optical fiber broadband business next month, an IoT platform on January 1, 2020, and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months.

The broadband service, called Jio Giga Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium sized businesses, as well as enterprises, Mukhesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries, said at a shareholders meeting Monday. The service, which will be available to consumers starting September 5, will offer free voice calls, high-speed internet and start at Rs 700 per month.

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to leverage the Redmond giant’s Azure, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft AI platforms to launch new cloud datacenters in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change… Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Office 365 to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in many Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added.

Ambani also said Jio is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers, and producers.

More to follow…


By Manish Singh

Anvyl, looking to help D2C brands manage their supply chain, raises $9.3M

Growing D2C brands face an interesting challenge. While they’ve eliminated much of the hassle of a physical storefront, they must still deal with all the complications involved in managing inventory and manufacturing and shipping a physical product to suppliers.

Anvyl, with a fresh $9.3 million in Series A funding, is looking to jump in and make a difference for those brands. The company, co-founded by chief executive Rodney Manzo, is today announcing the raise, led by Redpoint Ventures, with participation from existing investors First Round Capital and Company Ventures. Angel investors Kevin Ryan (MongoDB and DoubleClick), Ben Kaufman (Quirky and Camp) and Dan Rose (Facebook) also participated in the round.

Manzo hails from Apple, where with $300 million in spend to manage logistics and supply chain he was still operating in an Excel spreadsheet. He then went to Harry’s, where he shaved $10 million in cash burn in his first month. He says himself that sourcing, procurement and logistics are in his DNA.

Which brings us to Anvyl. Anvyl looks at every step in the logistics process, from manufacture to arrival at the supplier, and visualizes that migration in an easy-to-understand UI.

The difference between Anvyl and other supply chain logistics companies, such as Flexport, is that Anvyl goes all the way to the very beginning of the supply chain: the factories. The company partners with factories to set up cameras and sensors that let brands see their product actually being built.

“When I was at Apple, I traveled for two years at least once a month to China and Japan just to oversee production,” said Manzo. “To oversee production, you essentially have to be boots on the ground and eyes in the factory. None of our brands have traveled to a factory.”

On the other end of the supply chain, Anvyl lets brands manage suppliers, find new suppliers, submit RFQs, see cost breakdowns and accept quotes.

The company also looks at each step in between, including trucks, trains, boats and planes so that brands can see, in real time, their products go from being manufactured to delivery.

Anvyl charges brands a monthly fee using a typical SaaS model. On the other end, Anvyl takes a “tiny percentage” of goods being produced within the Anvyl marketplace. The company declined to share actual numbers around pricing.

This latest round brings Anvyl’s total funding to $11.8 million. The company plans to use the funding toward hiring in engineering and marketing, and grow its consumer goods customer base.


By Jordan Crook

A 23-year-old B2B company has shown how keen India is for tech IPOs

Away from the limelight of the press and the frenzy of fundraising, a tech startup in India has achieved a feat that few of its peers have managed: going public.

IndiaMART, the country’s largest online platform for selling products directly to businesses, raised nearly $70 million in a rare tech IPO for India this week.

The milestone for the 23-year-old firm is so uncommon for India’s otherwise burgeoning startup ecosystem that, beyond being over-subscribed 36 times, pent up demand for IndiaMART’s stock saw its share price pop 40% on its first day of trading on National Stock Exchange on Thursday — a momentum that it sustained on Friday.

The stock ended Friday at Rs 1326 ($19.3), compared to its issue price of Rs 973 ($14.2).

IndiaMART is the first business-to-business e-commerce firm to go public in India. Its IPO also marks the first listing for a firm following the May reelection of Narendra Modi as the nation’s Prime Minister and the months-long drought that led to it.

Accounting firm EY said it expects more companies from India to follow suit and file for IPO in the coming months.

“Now that national elections are over and favorable results secured, IPO activity is expected to gain momentum in H2 2019 (second half of the year). Companies that had filed their offer documents with the Indian stock markets regulator during H2 2018 and Q1 2019 may finally come to market in the months ahead,” it said in a statement (PDF).

IndiaMART’s origin

The fireworks of the IPO are just as impressive as IndiaMART’s journey.

The startup was founded in 1996 and for the first 13 years, it focused on exports to customers abroad, but it has since modernized its business following the wave of the internet.

“The thesis was, in 1996, there were no computers or internet in India. The information about India’s market to the West was very limited,” Dinesh Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of IndiaMART, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Until 2008, IndiaMART was fully bootstrapped and profitable with $10 million in revenue, Agarwal said. But things started to dramatically change in that year.

“The Indian rupee became very strong against the dollar, which dwindled the exports business. This is also when the stock market was collapsing in the West, which further hurt the exports demand,” he explained.

GettyImages 519406304

Dinesh Agarwal, founder and CEO of IndiaMart.com, poses for a profile shot on July 29, 2015 in Noida, India.

By this time, millions of people in India were on the internet and, with tens of millions of people owning a feature phone, the conditions of the market had begun to shift towards digital.

“This is when we decided to pursue a completely different path. We started to focus on the domestic market,” Agarwal said.

Over the last 10 years, IndiaMART has become the largest e-commerce platform for businesses with about 60% market share, according to research firm KPMG. It handles 97,000 product categories — ranging from machine parts, medical equipment and textile products to cranes — and has amassed 83 million buyers and 5.5 million suppliers from thousands of towns and cities of India.

According to the most recent data published by the Indian government, there are about 50 to 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India, but only around 10 million of them have any presence on the web. Some 97% of the top 50 companies listed on National Stock Exchange use IndiaMART’s services, Agarwal said.

That’s not to say that the transition to the current day was a straightforward process for the company. IndiaMART tried to capitalize on its early mover advantage with a stream of new services which ultimately didn’t reap the desired rewards.

In 2002, it launched a travel portal for businesses. A year later, it launched a business verification service. It also unveiled a payments platform called ABCPayments. None of these services worked and the firm quickly moved on.

Part of IndiaMART’s success story is its firm leadership and how cautiously it has raised and spent its money, Rajesh Sawhney, a serial angel investor who sits on IndiaMART’s board, told TechCrunch in an interview.

IndiaMART, which employs about 4,000 people, is operationally profitable as of the financial year that ended in March this year. It clocked some $82 million in revenue in the year. It has raised about $32 million to date from Intel Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Quona Capital. (Notably, Agarwal said that he rejected offers from VCs for a very long time.)

The firm makes most of its revenue from subscriptions it sells to sellers. A subscription gives a seller a range of benefits including getting featured on storefronts.

Where the industry stands

There are only a handful of internet companies in India that have gone public in the last decade. Online travel service MakeMyTrip went public in 2010. Software firm Intellect Design Arena and e-commerce store Koovs listed in 2014, then travel portal Yatra and e-commerce firm Infibeam followed two years later.

India has consistently attracted billions of dollars in funding in recent years and produced many unicorns. Those include Flipkart, which was acquired by Walmart last year for $16 billion, Paytm, which has raised more than $2 billion to date, Swiggy, which has bagged $1.5 billion to date, Zomato, which has raised $750 million, and relatively new entrant Byju’s — but few of them are nearing profitability and most likely do not see an IPO in their immediate future.

In that context, IndiaMART may set a benchmark for others to follow.

“The fact that we have a homegrown digital commerce business, serving both the urban and smaller cities, and having struggled and been around for so long building a very difficult business and finally going public in the local exchange is a phenomenal story,” Ganesh Rengaswamy, a partner at Quona Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview. “It keeps the story of India tech, to the Western world, going.”

Generally, it is agreed that there are too few IPOs in India and the industry can benefit from momentum and encouragement of high profile and successful public listings.

“There is a firm consensus that in India, markets will prefer only the IPOs of companies that are profitable. And investors in India might not value those companies. Both of these issues are being addressed by IndiaMART,” said Sawhney.

“We need 30 to 40 more IPOs. This will also mean that the stock market here has matured and understands the tech stocks and how it is different from other consumer stocks they usually handle. More tech companies going public would also pave the way for many to explore stock exchanges outside of India.

“Indian market is ready for more tech stocks. We just need to get more companies to go out there,” Sawhney added, although he did predict that it will take a few years before the vast majority of leading startups are ready for the public market.

GettyImages 505226744

The Indian government, for its part, this week announced a number of incentives to uplift the “entrepreneurial spirit” in the nation.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would ease foreign direct investment rules for certain sectors — including e-commerce, food delivery, grocery — and improve the digital payments ecosystem. Sitharaman, who is the first woman to hold this position in India, said the government would also launch a TV program to help startups connect with venture capitalists.

The path ahead for IndiaMART

IndiaMART has managed to build a sticky business that compels more than 55% of its customers to come back to the platform and make another transaction within 90 days, Agarwal — its CEO — said. With some 3,500 of its 4,000 employees classified as sales executives, the company is aggressive in its pursuit of new customers. Moving forward, that will remain one of its biggest focuses, according to Agarwal.

“Most of our time still goes into educating MSMEs on how to use the internet. That was a challenge 20 years ago and it remains a challenge today,” he told TechCrunch.

In recent years, IndiaMART has begun to expand its suite of offerings to its business customers in a bid to increase the value they get from its platform and thus increase their reliance on its service.

IndiaMART has built a customer relationship management (CRM) tool so that customers need not rely on spreadsheets or other third-party services.

“We will continue to explore more SaaS offerings and look into solving problems in accounting, invoice management and other areas,” said Agarwal.

The firm also recently started to offer payment facilitation between buyers and sellers through a PayPal -like escrow system.

“This will bridge the trust gap between the entities and improve an MSME’s ability to accept all kinds of payment options including the new age offerings.”

There’s an elephant in the room, however.

A bigger challenge that looms for IndiaMART is the growing interest of Amazon and Walmart in the business-to-business space. Several startups including Udaan — which has raised north of $280 million from DST Global and Lightspeed Venture Partners — have risen up in recent years and are increasingly expanding their operations. Agarwal did not seem much worried, however, telling TechCrunch that he believes that his prime competition is more focused on B2C and serving niche audiences. Besides he has $100 million in the bank himself.

Indeed, as Quona Capital’s Rengaswamy astutely noted, competition is not new for IndiaMART — the company has survived and thrived more than two decades of it.

“Alibaba came and gave up,” he noted.

An important — and unanswered question — that follows the successful IPO is how IndiaMART’s stock will fare over the coming months. A glance to the U.S. — where hyped companies like Uber, Lyft and others have seen prices taper off — shows clearly that early demand and sustained stock performance are not one and the same.

Nobody knows at this point, and the added complexity at play is that the concept of a tech IPO is so uncommon in India that there is no definitive answer to it… yet. But IndiaMART’s biggest achievement may be that it sets the pathway that many others will follow.


By Manish Singh

Kabbage secures $200M to fuel its AI-based loans platform for small businesses

Kabbage, the AI-based small business loans platform backed by Softbank and others, is adding more firepower to its lending machine: the Atlanta-based startup has secured an additional $200 million in the form of a revolving credit facility from an unnamed subsidiary of a large life insurance company, managed and administered by 20 Gates Management, and Atalaya Capital Management.

The money comes on the heels of a $700 million securitization Kabbage secured just three months ago and it is notable not just for its size but its terms: it’s a four-year facility, a length of time that underscores a level of confidence in the company’s performance.

Kabbage, which loans up to $250,000 in a single deal to small and medium businesses, has built a platform that harnesses the long tail of big data from across the web. It uses not just indicators from a company’s own public activities, but it also sources comparative information from across a wider group of similar companies, with “2 million live data connections” currently helping to feed its algorithm.

Together, these help Kabbage determine whether to provide the loans, and at what rates. Notably, the whole process takes mere minutes, making Kabbage disruptive to the traditional route of applying for loans from banks, which can come at higher rates, often take longer to close and may never get approved.

The company was last valued at $1.2 billion in its most recent equity round from the Vision Fund in 2017, with about $500 million raised in equity to date from it and other investors including BlueRun Ventures, Mohr Davidow Ventures. Rob Frohwein, the co-founder and CEO, confirmed to me via email that there are “no plans on the equity side right now.” We’ve asked about IPO plans and will update if we learn anything more on that front.

More importantly, alongside its equity story is the company’s business story: Kabbage has to date loaned out $7 billion in capital — amassed through securitizations and other facilities alongside that — to 185,000 businesses, and the company has seen an acceleration of business activity over the last two years. Nearly $700 million was loaned out in Q2 of this year, passing the record in Q1 of $600 million. This puts Kabbage on track to loan out between $2.4 billion and $3 billion this year.

“This transaction further diversifies Kabbage’s committed sources of funding and prepares us to meet the escalating demand for capital access among small businesses,” said Kabbage Head of Capital Markets, Deepesh Jain, in a statement. “2019 has proven to be a tide-shifting year as customers accessed more than $670 million from Kabbage in Q2 2019, well surpassing our previously set record last quarter.”

While a lot of Kabbage’s business has come out of its direct consumer relationships, it’s also been expanding by way of more third-party relationships. It has white-label partnerships with banks to power their own loans offerings for SMBs, and earlier this year it was also tapped by e-commerce giant Alibaba to provide loans to its small business customers of up to $150,000 to help finance purchases, part of the latter company’s redoubled efforts to build out its business in the US by way of its quiet acquisition of OpenSky.


By Ingrid Lunden

Tundra, the zero-fee wholesale marketplace, picks up $12 million

Tundra, a new zero-commission wholesale marketplace, has today announced the close of $12 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Redpoint’s Annie Kadavy, with participation from investors such as Initialized Capital, Peterson Ventures, FJ Labs, Switch Ventures, and Background Capital.

Tundra was founded by married couple Arnold and Katie Engel, who previously ran a global supply chain company called Vox Supply Chain. In that world, they quickly realized just how much inefficiency is built into the wholesale market, from disorganized trade shows to transaction fees from the incumbents to a business that’s largely done on phone with pen and paper.

That’s where Tundra comes in.

Tundra allows suppliers to list their product on the platform, which is built to look and feel like a B2C marketplace. Buyers can come on the platform and shop for products, complete with ratings and reviews, supplier performance metrics, and free shipping with easy tracking.

“The wholesale market is set up to benefit big businesses, with other platforms and distributors charging anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent commission,” said Engel. “That can be particularly pronounced for small businesses.”

Plus, it can be perilous for small players to depend on big platforms like Amazon. Just a few weeks ago, there were rumors that Amazon would focus its attention on big brands like P&G and purge smaller suppliers from the platforms. Amazon denied the rumors, saying it evaluates suppliers on an individual basis.

For Tundra, the hope is to eliminate both the time-consuming and tedious process of negotiating deals at trade shows as well as the cost of simply buying and selling wholesale products online. And, importantly, Tundra has a zero-fee model, which means that buyers and suppliers can operate on the platform without spending a penny, if they so choose.

Of course, the company has to generate revenue in some way, which is why Tundra offers premium options at checkout, such as faster shipping, order insurance, and additional custom clearance and logistics services for international orders.

Having spent a year serving as Head of Strategic Operations growing Uber Freight, Redpoint Managing Director Annie Kadavy saw first-hand just how gargantuan the whole sale market is. During a phone interview, she reminded me that almost every item within view at any given moment was shipped on a truck and purchased at a whole sale price before it was purchased by a consumer in a store.

“Tundra’s greatest challenge ahead id execution because the market opportunity here is very obvious,” said Kadavy. “It’s a huge business that is currently transacted by fax, phone call, and pen and paper, so the opportunity is very clear.”

There is clearly movement in the space. Just last month, Shopify acquired Handshake to handle B2B ecommerce directly for customers. That followed its acquisition of Oberlo, a dropshipping platform, in 2017, signaling that existing platforms realize the opportunity of wholesale ecommerce, as well.

And a recent report stated that B2B ecommerce passed the $1 trillion mark for the first time in 2018.

The opportunity is there, as is the competition, but Tundra comes to the table armed with fresh capital.


By Jordan Crook

Comscore raises $20M with an option to bump it to $50M, in a bid to rebuild its digital measurement business

Comscore’s name is usually in the news because of its widely-cited research and stats around media traffic and other analysis charting digital consumer behavior. More recently, it’s been coming up for another reason: ongoing corporate upheaval and its tumbling stock price. Today comes the latest development in that story: the company announced that it has raised $20 million, with the option of increasing the sum to $50 million, from a firm called CVI Investments.

“This transaction strengthens our balance sheet and positions us to pursue our refocused growth strategy while providing the flexibility to better apply resources to meet our business objectives, and ultimately drive long-term value for our stockholders,” Dale Fuller, Interim Chief Executive Officer of Comscore, said in a statement.

As explained in the 8-K, the money is coming in the form of a share purchase that is expected to close around June 26.

Comscore did not give more specifics about how it plans to use the funding, but it comes at a tricky time, with the stock today at one point dipping to a 52-week low at $7.39/share. Earlier this year, it lost both its CEO and its president, and then this month its COO departed after less than a month with the company. Counting its current interim CEO, it has been through five CEOs in the last five years. In May, the loss-making company also announced that it would be reducing headcount by 10%, or 180 people, as part of a restructuring and effort to move into profitability.

Comscore competes with the likes of Nielsen in measuring media consumption and patterns of digital consumers, but that is not its only challenge.

The company, and others like it, have traditionally been a key component in the world of advertising, as they provide an inportant, third-party assessment of audience data, necessary for helping to plan media spend and campaigns. But the rise of adtech and marketing tech, and a new array of places where ad inventory is placed beyond websites, has created a new level of more granular measurements and customer demands, so part of the challenge for Comscore has been to build new products to meet those new scenarios.

Its most recent series of executive departures and workforce reductions have not been the first faced by the company: it has also been the subject of an SEC investigation into its accounting practices, having admitted in 2018 that it overstated revenues by some $127 million resulting from a long-term WPP partnership. Prior to that, longtime CEO Gian Fulgoni left the company over the same problem.

Last year, it was reported that Comscore had engaged Goldman Sachs to reach out to parties potentially interested in acquiring it, including strategic acquirers operating in a similar space and buyout firms. The talks were never confirmed and nothing ever materialised at the time.

The company’s market cap is now at around $460 million, having seen its share price decline drastically since 2015.

 


By Ingrid Lunden

Amazon Restaurants in US is shutting down

Following November’s closure of Amazon’s restaurant delivery business in London, the company is now shutting down operations in the U.S. The service, which was launched back in fall 2015, was designed to give Prime members another perk — a way to order meals, not just products and groceries — through the e-commerce giant.

But the service has faced much competition, including from local rivals like Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and Deliveroo (which Amazon invested in) in London, among others. In some cases, they would even discount their services in order to win market share. Amazon, meanwhile, has largely failed to establish itself as a significant player in restaurant delivery in both market share and consumer mindshare. It’s not the first name people think of when they’re looking to order food for lunch or dinner, and the logistics of delivering hot meals in a timely fashion introduces a different set of concerns that go beyond Amazon’s core focus areas.

Related to the closure, Amazon will also shutter workplace lunch delivery service Daily Dish, according to GeekWire, which broke the news.

Amazon made the decision to exit restaurant deliveries to focus more on its growing grocery delivery business, we understand.

TechCrunch (among others, we’re guessing) was tipped off to the closure through a source at Amazon familiar with the business’s closing. Amazon confirmed the closure of Amazon Restaurants in the U.S., which ceases to operate June 24. It also hinted that layoffs were involved, as some people were finding new roles at Amazon while others were being assisted in finding new jobs outside the company.

“As of June 24th, we will be discontinuing the Amazon Restaurants business in the U.S.,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “A small fraction of Amazon employees are affected by this decision, and many of those affected have already found new roles at Amazon. Employees will be offered personalized support to find a new role within, or outside of, the company,” they added.

Amazon’s decision to exit restaurant meal delivery has had a positive impact on rivals’ stocks this morning, with a jump by Grubhub, which was up more than 5% on the news.


By Sarah Perez

Over 100 Goodwill stores are bringing their inventory to OfferUp

Goodwill and mobile marketplace app OfferUp have announced a new partnership focused on bringing Goodwill’s secondhand inventory to the millions of OfferUp shoppers, for both local pickup and delivery. The deal sees more than 100 Goodwill stores listing their inventory in OfferUp in New York, New Jersey, San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties, South Florida, Greater Detroit, San Antonio and Central and Southern Indiana.

The move brings Goodwill’s pre-owned inventory to a modern mobile e-commerce platform, allowing staff to track sales and view the real-time flow of products, payments and data in one interface.

However, it’s not the first time Goodwill has gone online. The organization today runs its own e-commerce site, ShopGoodwill.com, and many of its local stores have a presence on eBay.

Via OfferUp, mobile users will now be able to browse their Goodwill’s local inventory in the app alongside other sellers’ content. New items will be uploaded regularly, and listed under the regional Goodwill handles so customers know they’re buying from Goodwill as opposed to an individual seller. These handles will feature a “Verified Business” badge, as well, and the profiles will include helpful information like the store hours, address and an “about us” section.

The partnership is powered by OfferUp’s new API, currently in beta testing, and Upright Labs’ Lister software, which handles the inventory uploads to OfferUp.

Goodwill will be responsible for managing its listings, including the product images, shipping, order management, financial reporting and auditing. It’s largely using OfferUp as another sales channel, instead of relying largely on foot traffic to its brick-and-mortar locations.

Like any other OfferUp user, Goodwill doesn’t have a financial relationship with the mobile marketplace.

If a customer buys a Goodwill item, they can go to their local store and pay with cash with no fee. However, if they choose to have the item shipped, OfferUp charges a 9.9% fee to cover shipping and handling across the 48 contiguous U.S. states. This is the same fee any other seller would pay on OfferUp.

The individual Goodwill stores can choose whether or not to offer shipping, the company also says. Some may opt to ship smaller items, like tech, games or jewelry, but only allow for local pickup if it’s a larger item, like furniture.

The two organizations had already been testing the system ahead of today’s formal announcement about availability. Though early, several Goodwill locations are reporting positive outcomes.

“We started to list furniture and other items from our stores on OfferUp in January, and the early results have been great. The majority of the items we post on OfferUp sell within 72 hours, and some have sold in as quickly as 10 minutes after being listed on the app,” said Jay Lytle, vice president and chief information officer, Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana. “The exposure of our high-quality donations to so many new customers, coupled with the feedback and engagement we’ve experienced on OfferUp, has been tremendous for us,” he added.

“Potential shoppers were unaware of the great inventory that our local stores have for sale,” said Goodwill South Florida CEO David Landsberg, in a related statement. “OfferUp allows us to showcase large, pickup only inventory and increase foot traffic to stores. This also translates into new donors, and helps us fulfill our mission of training and employing people with disabilities and other barriers to work here in South Florida.”

OfferUp says it forged the deals with the individual stores in the supported regions, not at a national level, because Goodwill stores operate independently and because employee bandwidth and resources vary by store.

“Every store is looking to increase foot traffic, along with sales, and the leaders we’ve worked with manage multiple stores in heavily trafficked markets,” an OfferUp spokesperson explains. “With the OfferUp API and Upright Lab’s Listing Tool, employees can take a picture using a mobile device and instantly upload to OfferUp, so it’s improved the flow of receiving and selling their items,” they added.


By Sarah Perez

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Growth Pilots

Growth Pilots is one of the more exclusive performance marketing agencies in San Francisco, but they know how to help high-growth startups excel at paid marketing. CEO and founder Soso Sazesh credits his personal experiences as an entrepreneur along with his team’s deep understanding of high-growth company needs and challenges as to what sets Growth Pilots apart. Whether you’re a founder of a seed or Series D stage startup, learn more about Growth Pilots’ approach to growth and partnerships.

Advice to early-stage founders

“I think a lot of times, especially at the early stage, founders don’t have a lot of time so they’re willing to find the path of least resistance to get their paid acquisition channels up and running. If things are not properly set up and managed, this can lead to a false negative in terms of writing off a channel’s effectiveness or scalability. It’s worth talking to an expert, even if it’s just for advice, to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.”

On Growth Pilots’ operations

[pullquote align=”right” author=”Guillaume McIntyre, SF, Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart”]“They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.”[/pullquote]
“Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy on doing the highest quality work. Each of our team members works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Growth Pilots Founder and CEO Soso Sazesh

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into growth.

Soso Sazesh: I grew up in northern Minnesota where there is no tech industry whatsoever and then after high school, I came out to Silicon Valley and got exposed to the epicenter of the technology industry. I became very interested in startups and hustled to find startup internships so I could get experience and learn how they operated.

After a couple of startup internships, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and that gave me even more exposure to the startup ecosystem with all of the startup events and resources that UC Berkeley had to offer. I worked on a couple of startup projects while I was at UC Berkeley, and I taught myself scrappy product management and how to get software built using contract developers.

[tc_premium_cutoff]

As I was graduating, I had just launched my second startup project and it was growing organically but very slowly, and I realized I didn’t know how to acquire users. So I joined an SEM agency and that’s where I learned and fell in love with digital marketing. I helped companies successfully acquire users at scale using Google AdWords and finally solved for the missing skills I needed. After a couple of years, I ventured off to try my hand at starting a company again, this time with more experience and a co-founder.

We went through the AngelPad accelerator and raised a small round of capital – what would be called a pre-seed round nowadays. It was an eye-opening experience. I gained a lot of appreciation for what it meant to be a startup operator hustling to build a product people wanted and trying to acquire customers.

Startups are a roller coaster and we had a lot of ups and downs. We ultimately we’re not able to raise our next round of funding due to lack of traction and decided to shut the company down. As we were winding down, people in my network started coming to me looking for help with their digital marketing channels.

I started consulting for a few startups and identified an interesting opportunity, which was that very few startups knew how to do paid acquisition well and very few agencies were well-suited to work with startups. There was a huge gap in the market.

Some of these founders would come to me after trying to get paid acquisition to work on their own, but they didn’t have the time or expertise to do it properly. Some of them would hire an agency and not see results, because most agencies don’t understand the needs and grow-or-die nature of fast-moving startups. These agencies wouldn’t allocate the time and resources needed to really understand these startups and work closely with them to make their paid channels work.

So that’s exactly what I did and I was able to achieve results for them. I combined my previous expertise as a digital marketer with my recent startup operator experience and this allowed me to successfully help the startups I was consulting for. Due to the network effects in the startup community, I soon had more companies who wanted to work with me than I could take on alone and that’s what led me to start Growth Pilots.

Yvonne Leow: Awesome. How does Growth Pilots differentiate itself from other agencies?

Soso Sazesh: Growth Pilots is “the” performance marketing agency for high-growth companies. We’ve worked with over 120 venture-backed companies over the past five and a half years, and we have really tailored our service offering around the unique needs and challenges of high-growth companies as they move from stage to stage. We’ve had this internal framework that breaks down paid acquisition needs based on company stage.

The first is what we call the early stage. At the early stage, companies are looking to establish and validate their paid marketing channels. These companies are typically seed stage or Series A startups looking to find channels that allow them to hit their metrics to achieve their goals for their next round of funding. These companies require a lot of time and attention, which is a bit paradoxical because their budgets are not very large.

The second stage is what we call the scaling stage. This is when companies are trying to achieve escape velocity and growth matters above everything else. This typically happens at the Series A through Series C stage. Their business model is working and ideally within sight of positive unit economics if not already there, but the main focus is acquiring customers at the fastest rate possible and less so on efficiency or profitability. This stage requires all hands on deck and non-stop testing and optimization to squeeze out as much velocity as possible from each channel. The stakes are very high at this stage and category-leading companies often emerge here.

Finally is the late stage. These companies are typically Series C or Series D and beyond and preparing for an exit or IPO. Growth often becomes slightly less important at this stage and the focus shifts to efficiency and improved unit economics. Optimization becomes even more critical at this stage and measurement and attribution get a lot more sophisticated to fully measure the impact of the paid channels.

The needs of companies are vastly different at each of these stages. Our focus is on helping companies achieve their goals within each stage and helping them move to the next stage.

Yvonne Leow: Cool. If I’m a founder and I’d like to work with Growth Pilots, what can I expect are our next steps?

Soso Sazesh: The first step is understanding the business and assessing if there’s a mutual fit. We’re very selective about the companies we take on because over the course of the five and a half years we’ve been able to establish which business models and verticals are conducive to paid marketing success.

For instance, marketplaces, e-commerce, B2B SaaS, mobile apps, and other business models where there is a transactional component is typically a good candidate for paid acquisition. We want to know what the goals are and we want to be able to confidently say that we believe we can achieve the goals at hand. If we can’t say that, we won’t take the company on.

Step two is determining what stage of our framework the company falls into and what the opportunity looks like. If it’s an early stage company, it’s more about assessing the product, the market, and how reachable their target customers are online.

For scaling-stage and late-stage companies that are already up and running, we’ll dive into their current accounts and assess what the opportunity looks like and put together a strategy proposal based on our findings and outlook.

Yvonne Leow: What’s the typical length for each project or partnership?

Soso Sazesh: We’re not project-based so when a company comes to work with us we effectively become an extension of their marketing team. There’s no set duration. We’ve worked with some companies for five years and some companies we’ve worked with for 12 months.

If we work with a company less than 12 months, something is wrong and we probably shouldn’t have taken that company on as a client but you don’t always know how things will play out. Overall our goal is to work with companies in a long-term capacity as an integrated partner.  Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy into doing the highest quality work.

Each of our team members only works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible while balancing and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.

Yvonne Leow: Are you at the point in your experience that you can apply certain growth strategies and guarantee success?

Soso Sazesh: Guarantee is a tough word, but having worked with more than 120 startups we are definitely at the point where we have enough data points where we can look at a given business and assess the viability of whether they’ll likely see success on paid channels. Success being a combination of scale and efficiency.

Yvonne Leow: Can you talk a little bit about how you and your team assess that?

Soso Sazesh: The first things we look at are business model, product quality, and whether or not product market fit exists or is likely to be achieved. Even a great business model in a large market combined with a poor product or lack of product market fit is unlikely to succeed with paid acquisition. In the absence of having a live product, or if a company is too early to assess product-market fit, we look at other data points that we have found to be good indicators of viability. Some of these include competitor success with paid marketing, the founders’ backgrounds, amount of capital raised, and who their investors are.

Yvonne Leow: What were some of your greatest lessons learned when you started Growth Pilots?

Soso Sazesh: In the early days of Growth Pilots, there was so much activity and growth that we ignored important things like team infrastructure and people operations. We saw the effects of this in the form of team morale taking a hit and people not seeing a future with us. We eventually took notice and course corrected by investing heavily in people operations and employee development. In an ideal world, we would have done this much earlier.

Another interesting reflection is how critical the work we do is. I think this is what a lot of agencies get wrong. You need the commitment to work with startups. You can’t be one foot in and one foot out when a company may live or die by the work you are doing. A lot of the companies that we work with explicitly outline what goals they need to hit in order to raise their next round of funding and it becomes very clear what part we play in that.

Yvonne Leow: What advice would you give to early-stage founders who are deciding whether or not to work with an agency?

Soso Sazesh: When you work with an agency it’s really important to have clear goals and expectations established up front. A lot of times early-stage companies hire agencies, and agencies will gladly take their money, but the agency isn’t really investing the time that’s needed to get results. So asking “What does it look like to work with your agency? Who’s going to be working on my account? How much attention can I expect to receive?” Those types of questions are really important to clarify and especially at the early stage.

Yvonne Leow: What’s a common mistake you see founders make when it comes to growth?

Soso Sazesh: The most common mistake I see is not doing the upfront work and investment required to get optimal results with paid acquisition. A lot of times you see the founder mentality of move fast and figure things out later kicks in, but this can be dangerous when it comes to paid marketing when you’re directly paying for traffic and customers. This leads to companies not seeing the performance and scalability that they actually could and it contributes to the negative perception of channels like Google Ads and Facebook Ads. VCs, for example, love to bash paid marketing channels as being too expensive or too saturated. There is certainly some truth to the channels getting more crowded but at the same time, you would be surprised how poorly setup and managed some of the accounts are that we look at, including companies that have raised tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yvonne Leow: Thanks for sharing. Last question: what is your payment structure?

Soso Sazesh: We charge based on a tiered percentage of ad spend managed with a monthly minimum retainer fee of $10,000 at the lowest level. Our minimum fee is frankly much higher than a lot of other agencies and that’s by design. This goes back to what I was saying before about early-stage companies requiring a disproportionate amount of work relative to their budgets in order to be successful with paid acquisition. We apply a lot more focus and resources than other agencies and this allows us to achieve success where other agencies can’t. The tradeoff is that we need to charge more to deliver this higher quality of service.


Founder Recommendations:

“They helped me raise $5M+ and ran one of the most successful pre-order campaigns in 2017.” – Roderick De Rode, Venice, CA, Founder & CEO, Spinn, Inc.

“They have helped us dramatically accelerate our growth and act as an extension of our internal team.” – Digital Advertising Manager in Corte Madera

“They helped us establish a low customer acquisition cost before we were even able to ship product and help us convert site visitors to customers when we had influxes of traffic from press we received.” – Stephen Kuhl, NYC, Co-founder & CEO, Burrow

“Largely instrumental in the way we optimize and measure success of our mobile app install campaigns.” – User Acquisition & Growth Strategist in Denver

“Growth Pilots is a great partner. I on-boarded them to build out, optimize and scale all paid search and social campaigns for Instacart. In a few months, paid search and social became some of our best performing channels. They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.” – Guillaume McIntyre, SF,  Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart


By Yvonne Leow

The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore, and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists, and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

But The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle control of venues away from Ticketmaster while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handle sales and checkins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from EventBrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress, and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner and Mark’s sister Arielle Zuckerberg, and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures, and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawer Ken Hertz who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another EventBrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to EventBrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch, and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners, and street teamers get a referral code.

Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.

Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company which then redistributes them at face value with a new QR code to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.

Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can ceate multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics like rock vs dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real-time, and relay instant stats about checkins at the door. Integration of email managers like MailChimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets, and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the US. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the US, ticketing is often handled by a single company except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process, it’s a sales heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”


By Josh Constine

Mailchimp expands from email to full marketing platform, says it will make $700M in 2019

Mailchimp, a bootstrapped startup out of Atlanta, Georgia, is known best as a popular tool for organizations to manage their customer-facing email activities — a profitable business that its CEO told TechCrunch has now grown to around 11 million customers and is on track for $700 million in revenue in 2019.

To help hit that number, Mailchimp is taking the wraps off a significant update aimed at catapulting it into the next level of business services. Beginning later this week, Mailchimp will start to offer a full marketing platform aimed at smaller organizations.

Going beyond email, the new platform will feature technology to record and track customer leads, the ability to purchase domains and build sites, ad retargeting on Facebook and Instagram, social media management and business intelligence that leverages a new move in the artificial intelligence to provide recommendations to users on how and when to market to whom.

When the service goes live on Wednesday, Mailchimp also plans a pretty significant shift of its pricing into four tiers of free, $9.99/month, $14.99/month or $299/month (up from the current pricing of free, $10/month, $199/month) — with those fees scaling depending on usage and features.

(Existing paid customers maintain current pricing structure and features for the time being and can move to the new packages at any time, the company said. New customers will sign up to the new pricing starting May 15.)

The expansion is part of a longer-term strategic play to widen Mailchimp’s scope by building more services for the typically-underserved but collectively large small business segment. Even as multinationals like Amazon and other large companies continue to feel like they are eating up the mom-and-pop independent business model, SMBs continue to make up 48 percent of the GDP in the US.

And within that, marketing is one of those areas that small businesses might not have invested in much traditionally but are increasingly turning to as so much transactional activity has moved to digital platforms — be it smartphones, computers, or just the tech that powers the TV you watch or music you listen to.

In March, we reported that Mailchimp quietly acquired a small Shopify competitor called LemonStand to start to build more e-commerce tools for its users. And the new marketing platform is the next step in that strategy.

“We still see a big need for small businesses to have something like this,” Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview. Enterprises have a range of options when it comes to marketing tools, he added, “but small businesses don’t.” The mantra for many building tech for the SMB sector has traditionally been “dumbed down and cheap,” in his words. “We agreed that cheap was good, but not dumbed down. We want to empower them.”

The new services launch also comes at a time when an increasing number of companies are closing in on the small business opportunity, with e-commerce companies like Square, Shopify and PayPal also widening their portfolio of products. (These days, Square is a Mailchimp partner, Shopify is not.)

Marketing is something that Mailchimp had already been dabbling with over the last two years — indeed, customer-facing email services is essentially a form of marketing, too. Other launches have included a Postcards service, offering companies very simple landing pages online (about 10 percent of Mailchimp’s customers do not have their own web sites, Chestnut said), and a tool for companies to create Google, Facebook and Instagram ads.

Mailchimp itself has a big marketing presence already: it says that daily, more than 1.25 million e-commerce orders are generated through Mailchimp campaigns; over 450 million e-commerce orders were made through Mailchimp campaigns in 2018; and its customers have sold over $250 million in goods through multivariate + A/B campaigns run through Mailchimp.

There are clearly a lot of others vying to be the go-to platform for small businesses to do their business — “Google, Facebook, a lot of the big players see the magic and are moving to the space more and more,” Chestnut said — but Mailchimp’s unique selling point — or so it hopes — is that it’s the platform that has no vested interests in other business areas, and will therefore be as focused as the small businesses themselves are. That includes, for example, no upcharging regardless of the platform where you choose to run a campaign.

“We are Switzerland,” Chestnut said.


By Ingrid Lunden

India’s Locus raises $22 million to expand its logistics management business

Locus, an Indian startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, has raised $22 million in Series B funding to expand its operations in international markets.

The financing round for the four-year-old startup was led by Falcon Edge Capital and Tiger Global Management . Existing investors Exfinity Venture Partners and Blume Ventures also participated in the round. The startup has raised $29 million to date, Nishith Rastogi, co-founder and CEO of Locus, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Locus works with companies that operate in FMCG, logistics, and e-commerce spaces. Some of its clients include Tata Group companies, Myntra, BigBasket, Lenskart, and Bluedart. It helps these clients automate their logistics workload — tasks such as planning, organizing, transporting and tracking of inventories, and finding the best path to reach a destination — that have traditionally required intensive human labor.

“Say a Lenskart representative is visiting a house or an office to offer an eye checkup, and suddenly two more people there are interested in getting their eyes checked. The representative could attend these two new potential clients, or wrap things up with the first client and take care of his or her next appointment,” said Rastogi.

Locus looks at a client’s past data, identifies patterns, and automates these kind of decisions on a large scale. In an example shared earlier with TechCrunch, Rastogi talked about how Locus had built a scanner for ecommerce companies for measuring products.

Rastogi said he will use the fresh capital to develop products and expand Locus in Southeast Asian and North American markets. The startup says half of its 110 people workforce is outside of India. Half of the IP it has built and the revenue it generates comes from its team outside of India.

He said the startup has spent the recent quarters studying these international markets, and has secured some anchor clients to expand the business. Locus is operationally profitable already and any additional capital goes into expanding its business, he added.

The logistics market in India has long been riddled with challenges. A growing number of startups, including BlackBuck — which raised $150 million last week — have emerged in recent years to tackle these problems.

The new funding also illustrates Tiger Global Management’s new strategy for the Indian market. The VC fund, which has invested in B2C businesses Flipkart and Ola in India, has made a number of investments in B2B startups in recent months. Last month, it invested $90 million in agri-tech supply chain startup Ninjacart, and weeks later, it gave cloud-based solutions provider Zenoti $50 million.


By Manish Singh

Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


By Arman Tabatabai

The Exit: an AI startup’s McPivot

Five years ago, Dynamic Yield was courting an investment from The New York Times as it looked to shift how publishers paywalled their content. Last month, Chicago-based fast food king McDonald’s bought the Israeli company for $300 million, a source told TechCrunch, with the purpose of rethinking how people order drive-thru chicken nuggets.

The pivot from courting the grey lady to the golden arches isn’t as drastic as it sounds. In a lot of ways, it’s the result of the company learning to say “no” to certain customers. At least, that’s what Bessemer’s Adam Fisher tells us.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. 

Fisher

Fisher was Dynamic Yield founder Liad Agmon’s first call when he started looking for funds from institutional investors. Bessemer bankrolled the bulk of a $1.7 million funding round which valued the startup at $5 million pre-money back in 2013. The firm ended up putting about $15 million into Dynamic Yield, which raised ~$85 million in total from backers including Marker Capital, Union Tech Ventures, Baidu and The New York Times.

Fisher and I chatted at length about the company’s challenging rise and how Israel’s tech scene is still being underestimated. Fisher has 11 years at Bessemer under his belt and 14 exits including Wix, Intucell, Ravello and Leaba.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Saying “No”

Lucas Matney: So, right off the bat, how exactly did this tool initially built for publishers end up becoming something that McDonalds wanted?

Adam Fisher: I mean, the story of Dynamic Yield is unique. Liad, the founder and CEO, he was an entrepreneur in residence in our Herzliya office back in 2011. I’d identified him earlier from his previous company, and I just said, ‘Well, that’s the kind of guy I’d love to work with.’ I didn’t like his previous company, but there was something about his charisma, his technology background, his youth, which I just felt like “Wow, he’s going to do something interesting.” And so when he sold his previous company, coincidentally to another Chicago based company called Sears, I invited him and I think he found it very flattering, so he joined us as an EIR.


By Lucas Matney

Before breaking up with Shopify, Mailchimp quietly acqui-hired LemonStand, a Shopify competitor

Here’s an interesting twist on the story from last week about the break-up between Shopify and Mailchimp, after the two said they were at odds over how customer data was shared between the two companies. It turns out that before it parted ways with Shopify, Mailchimp had quietly made an acquisition of LemonStand, one of the e-commerce platform’s smaller competitors, to bring more integrated e-commerce features into its platform.

After news broke of the rift between Mailchimp and Shopify, rumors started to circulate among people in the world of e-commerce about Mailchimp buying Vancouver-based LemonStand, which had announced on March 5 that it was shutting down its service in 90 days, on June 5, without much of an explanation why.

We were tipped off on those rumors, so we contacted Ross Paul, LemonStand’s VP of growth and an investor in the startup, who suggested we contact Mailchimp. (Paul now lists Mailchimp as his employer on his LinkedIn profile.) Mailchimp confirmed the deal, describing it as an acqui-hire, with the team now woking on light e-commerce functionality.

“Mailchimp acqui-hired the team behind LemonStand at the end of February,” Mailchimp said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. It did not provide any financial terms for the deal.

Mailchimp — which is privately held and based in Atlanta — said it made the acquisition to provide more features to its customers, specifically those in e-commerce.

“Mailchimp helps small businesses grow, and our e-commerce customers have been asking us to add more functionality to our platform to help them market more effectively,” the company said in a statement. “The LemonStand team is helping us build out our e-commerce light functionality.”

But Mailchimp is clear to say that its acqui-hire was not related to ending its relationship with Shopify.

“Our decision to discontinue our partnership with Shopify last week is unrelated to LemonStand,” Mailchimp said. “Shopify knew we were working on e-commerce features long before we hired the LemonStand team. In fact, we launched Shoppable Landing Pages last fall in partnership with Square, and Shopify chose not to partner with us on the launch.”

But even if the LemonStand deal is not related to its rift with Shopify, the acquisition of one and the breakup with the other both point to the same thing: the growing role of Mailchimp’s e-commerce business.

The company — which provides email marketing and other marketing services to business — has been slowly building a revenue stream in e-commerce by integrating a number of features into its platform to let its customers, for example, sell items as part of the marketing process. These are less about building full check-out experiences or commerce backends, but for offering, say, one-off sale items as part of a particular promotion or campaign.

Last year, when Mailchimp launched those new shoppable landing pages with Square, it said that 50 percent of its revenues were now coming from e-commerce, with its customers selling more than $22 billion worth of products in the first half of 2018. Mailchimp made some $600 million in revenue in 2018, which — if its 50 percent e-commerce figure remained consistent — meant that it made $300 million last year just from e-commerce-related services.

The Square partnership is instructive in light of this acquisition. While Mailchimp is indeed building some native e-commerce features for its platform, it will continue to work with third parties (if not Shopify, the biggest of them all) to provide other functionality.

“We believe small businesses are best served when they can choose which technology they use to run their businesses, which is why we integrate with more than 150 different apps and platforms including e-commerce platforms,” Mailchimp said in its statement to TechCrunch.

“We’re not trying to become an e-commerce platform or compete directly with companies like Shopify,” it added, “and we think that adding e-commerce features in Mailchimp will help our e-commerce partners. Companies will be able to start their businesses with Mailchimp and have a seamless experience, and eventually use Mailchimp along with one of our e-commerce partners.”


By Ingrid Lunden