Unpacking how Dell’s debt load and VMware stake could come together

Last week, we discussed the possibility that Dell could be exploring a sale of VMware as a way to deal with its hefty debt load, a weight that continues to linger since its $67 billion acquisition of EMC in 2016. VMware was the most valuable asset in the EMC family of companies, and it remains central to Dell’s hybrid cloud strategy today.

As CNBC pointed out last week, VMware is a far more valuable company than Dell itself, with a market cap of almost $62 billion. Dell, on the other hand, has a market cap of around $39 billion.

How is Dell, which owns 81% of VMware, worth less than the company it controls? We believe it’s related to that debt, and if we’re right, Dell could unlock lots of its own value by reducing its indebtedness. In that light, the sale, partial or otherwise, of VMware starts to look like a no-brainer from a financial perspective.

At the end of its most recent quarter, Dell had $8.4 billion in short-term debt and long-term debts totaling $48.4 billion. That’s a lot, but Dell has the ability to pay down a significant portion of that by leveraging the value locked inside its stake in VMware.

Yes, but …

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. As Holger Mueller from Constellation Research pointed out in our article last week, VMware is the one piece of the Dell family that is really continuing to innovate. Meanwhile, Dell and EMC are stuck in hardware hell at a time when companies are moving faster than ever expected to the cloud due to the pandemic.

Dell is essentially being handicapped by a core business that involves selling computers, storage and the like to in-house data centers. While it’s also looking to modernize that approach by trying to be the hybrid link between on-premise and the cloud, the economy is also working against it. The pandemic has made the difficult prospect of large enterprise selling even more challenging without large conferences, golf outings and business lunches to grease the skids of commerce.


By Ron Miller

Apple device management company Jamf files S-1 as it prepares to go public

Jamf, the Apple device management company, filed to go public today. Jamf might not be a household name, but the Minnesota company has been around since 2002 helping companies manage their Apple equipment.

In the early days, that was Apple computers. Later it expanded to also manage iPhones and iPads. The company launched at a time when most IT pros had few choices for managing Macs in a business setting.

Jamf changed that, and as Macs and other Apple devices grew in popularity inside organizations in the 2010s, the company’s offerings grew in demand. Notably, over the years Apple has helped Jamf and its rivals considerably, by building more sophisticated tooling at the operating system level to help manage Macs and other Apple devices inside organizations.

Jamf raised approximately $50 million of disclosed funding before being acquired by Vista Equity Partners in 2017 for $733.8 million, according to the S-1 filing. Today, the company kicks off the high-profile portion of its journey towards going public.

Apple device management takes center stage

In a case of interesting timing, Jamf is filing to go public less than a week after Apple bought mobile device management startup Fleetsmith. At the time, Apple indicated that it would continue to partner with Jamf as before, but with its own growing set of internal tooling, which could at some point begin to compete more rigorously with the market leader.

Other companies in the space managing Apple devices besides Jamf and Fleetsmith include Addigy and Kandji. Other more general offerings in the mobile device management (MDM) space include MobileIron and VMware Airwatch among others.

Vista is a private equity shop with a specific thesis around buying out SaaS and other enterprise companies, growing them, and then exiting them onto the public markets or getting them acquired by strategic buyers. Examples include Ping Identity, which the firm bought in 2016 before taking it public last year, and Marketo, which Vista bought in 2016 for $1.8 billion and sold to Adobe last year for $4.8 billion, turning a tidy profit.

Inside the machine

Now that we know where Jamf sits in the market, let’s talk about it from a purely financial perspective.

Jamf is a modern software company, meaning that it sells its digital services on a recurring basis. In the first quarter of 2020, for example, about 83% of its revenue came from subscription software. The rest was generated by services and software licenses.

Now that we know what type of company Jamf is, let’s explore its growth, profitability and cash generation. Once we understand those facets of its results, we’ll be able to understand what it might be worth and if its IPO appears to be on solid footing.

We’ll start with growth. In 2018 Jamf recorded $146.6 million in revenue, which grew to $204.0 million in 2019. That works out to an annual growth rate of 39.2%, a more than reasonable pace of growth for a company going public. It’s not super quick, mind, but it’s not slow either. More recently, the company grew 36.9% from $44.1 million in Q1 2019 to $60.4 million in revenue in Q1 2020. That’s a bit slower, but not too much slower.

Turning to profitability, we need to start with the company’s gross margins. Then we’ll talk about its net margins. And, finally, adjusted profits.

Gross margins help us understand how valuable a company’s revenue is. The higher the gross margins, the better. SaaS companies like Jamf tend to have gross margins of 70% or above. In Jamf’s own case, it posted gross margins of 75.1% in Q1 2020, and 72.5% in 2019. Jamf’s gross margins sit comfortably in the realm of SaaS results, and perhaps even more importantly are improving over time.

Getting behind the curtain

When all its expenses are accounted for, the picture is less rosy, and Jamf is unprofitable. The company’s net losses for 2018 and 2019 were similar, totalling $36.3 million and $32.6 million, respectively. Jamf’s net loss improved a little in Q1, falling from $9.0 million in 2019 to $8.3 million this year.

The company remains weighed down by debt, however, which cost it nearly $5 million in Q1 2020, and $21.4 million for all of 2019. According to the S-1, Jamf is sporting a debt-to-equity ratio of roughly 0.8, which may be a bit higher than your average public SaaS company, and is almost certainly a function of the company’s buyout by a private equity firm.

But the company’s adjusted profit metrics strip out debt costs, and under the heavily massaged adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) metric, Jamf’s history is only one of rising profitability. From $6.6 million in 2018 to $20.8 million in 2019, and from $4.3 million in Q1 2019 to $5.6 million in Q1 2020. with close to 10% adjusted operating profit margins through YE 2019.

It will be interesting to see how the company’s margins will be affected by COVID, with financials during the period still left blank in this initial version of the S-1. The Enterprise market in general has been reasonably resilient to the recent economic shock, and device management may actually perform above expectations given the growing push for remote work.

Completing the picture

Something notable about Jamf is that it has positive cash generation, even if in Q1 it tends to consume cash that is made up for in other quarters. In 2019, the firm posted $11.2 million in operational cash flow. That’s a good result, and better than 2018’s $9.4 million of operating cash generation. (The company’s investing cash flows have often run negative due to Jamf acquiring other companies, like ZuluDesk and Digita.)

With Jamf, we have a SaaS company that is growing reasonably well, has solid, improving margins, non-terrifying losses, growing adjusted profits, and what looks like a reasonable cash flow perspective. But Jamf is cash poor, with just $22.7 million in cash and equivalents as of the end of Q1 2020 — some months ago now. At that time, the firm also had debts of $201.6 million.

Given the company’s worth, that debt figure is not terrifying. But the company’s thin cash balance makes it a good IPO candidate; going public will raise a chunk of change for the company, giving it more operating latitude and also possibly a chance to lower its debt load. Indeed Jamf notes that it intends to use part of its IPO raise to “to repay outstanding borrowings under our term loan facility…” Paying back debt at IPO is common in private equity buyouts.

So what?

Jamf’s march to the public markets adds its name to a growing list of companies. The market is already preparing to ingest Lemonade and Accolade this week, and there are rumors of more SaaS companies in the wings, just waiting to go public.

There’s a reasonable chance that as COVID-19 continues to run roughshod over the United States, the public markets eventually lose some momentum. But that isn’t stopping companies like Jamf from rolling the dice and taking a chance going public.


By Ron Miller

Dell’s debt hangover from $67B EMC deal could put VMware stock in play

When Dell bought EMC in 2016 for $67 billion it was one of the biggest acquisitions in tech history, and it brought with it a boatload of debt. Since then Dell has been working on ways to mitigate that debt by selling off various pieces of the corporate empire and going public again, but one of its most valuable assets remains VMware, a company that came over as part of the huge EMC deal.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Dell is considering selling part of its stake in VMware. The news sent the stock of both companies soaring.

It’s important to understand that even though VMware is part of the Dell family, it runs as a separate company, with its own stock and operations, just as it did when it was part of EMC. Still, Dell owns 81% of that stock, so it could sell a substantial stake and still own a majority the company, or it could sell it all, or incorporate into the Dell family, or of course it could do nothing at all.

Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy thinks this might just be about floating a trial balloon. “Companies do things like this all the time to gauge value, together and apart, and my hunch is this is one of those pieces of research,” Moorhead told TechCrunch.

But as Holger Mueller, an analyst with Constellation Research, points out, it’s an idea that could make sense. “It’s plausible. VMware is more valuable than Dell, and their innovation track record is better than Dell’s over the last few years,” he said.

Mueller added that Dell has been juggling its debts since the EMC acquisition, and it will struggle to innovate its way out of that situation. What’s more, Dell has to wait on any decision until September 2021 when it can move some or all of VMware tax-free, five years after the EMC acquisition closed.

“While Dell can juggle finances, it cannot master innovation. The company’s cloud strategy is only working on a shrinking market and that ain’t easy to execute and grow on. So yeah, next year makes sense after the five year tax free thing kicks in,” he said.

In between the spreadsheets

VMware is worth $63.9 billion today, while Dell is valued at a far more modest $38.9 billion, according to Yahoo Finance data. But beyond the fact that the companies’ market caps differ, they are also quite different in terms of their ability to generate profit.

Looking at their most recent quarters each ending May 1, 2020, Dell turned $21.9 billion in revenue into just $143 million in net income after all expenses were counted. In contrast, VMware generated just $2.73 billion in revenue, but managed to turn that top line into $386 million worth of net income.

So, VMware is far more profitable than Dell from a far smaller revenue base. Even more, VMware grew more last year (from $2.45 billion to $2.73 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter) than Dell, which shrank from $21.91 billion in Q1 F2020 revenue to $21.90 billion in its own most recent three-month period.

VMware also has growing subscription software (SaaS) revenues. Investors love that top line varietal in 2020, having pushed the valuation of SaaS companies to new heights. VMware grew its SaaS revenues from $411 million in the year-ago period to $572 million in its most recent quarter. That’s not rocketship growth mind you, but the business category was VMware’s fastest growing segment in percentage and gross dollar terms.

So VMware is worth more than Dell, and there are some understandable reasons for the situation. Why wouldn’t Dell sell some VMware to lower its debts if the market is willing to price the virtualization company so strongly? Heck, with less debt perhaps Dell’s own market value would rise.

It’s all about that debt

Almost four years after the deal closed, Dell is still struggling to figure out how to handle all the debt, and in a weak economy, that’s an even bigger challenge now. At some point, it would make sense for Dell to cash in some of its valuable chips, and its most valuable one is clearly VMware.

Nothing is imminent because of the five year tax break business, but could something happen? September 2021 is a long time away, and a lot could change between now and then, but on its face, VMware offers a good avenue to erase a bunch of that outstanding debt very quickly and get Dell on much firmer financial ground. Time will tell if that’s what happens.


By Ron Miller

Quolum announces $2.75M seed investment to track SaaS spending

As companies struggle to find ways to control costs in today’s economy, understanding what you are spending on SaaS tools is paramount. That’s precisely what early stage startup Quolum is attempting to do, and today it announced a $2.75 million seed round.

Surge Ventures and Nexus Venture Partners led the round with help from a dozen unnamed angel investors.

Company founder Indus Khatian says that he launched the company last summer pre-COVID, when he recognized that companies were spending tons of money on SaaS subscriptions and he wanted to build a product to give greater visibility into that spending.

This tool is aimed at finance, who might not know about the utility of a specific SaaS tool like PagerDuty, but who looks at the bills every month. The idea is to give them data about usage as well as cost to make sure they aren’t paying for something they aren’t using.

“Our goal is to give finance a better set of tools, not just to put a dollar amount on [the subscription costs], but also the utilization, as in who’s using it, how much are they using it and is it effective? Do I need to know more about it? Those are the questions that we are helping finance answer,” Khatian explained.

Eventually, he says he also wants to give that data directly to lines of business, but for starters he is focusing on finance. The product works by connecting to the billing or expense software to give insight into the costs of the services. It takes that data and combines it with usage data in a dashboard to give a single view of the SaaS spending in one place.

While Khatian acknowledges there are other similar tools in the marketplace such as Blissfully, Intello and others, he believes the problem is big enough for multiple vendors to do well. “Our differentiator is being end-to-end. We are not just looking at the dollars, or stopping at how many times you’ve logged in, but we’re going deep into consumption. So for every dollar that you’ve spent, how many units of that software you have consumed,” he said.

He says that he raised the money last fall and admits that it probably would have been tougher today, and he would have likely raised on a lower valuation.

Today the company consists of a 6 person development team in Bangalore in India and Khatian in the U.S. After the company generates some revenue he will be hiring a few people to help with marketing, sales and engineering.

When it comes to building a diverse company, he points out that he himself is an immigrant founder, and he sees the ability to work from anywhere, an idea amplified by COVID-19, helping result in a more diverse workforce. As he builds his company, and adds employees,  he can hire people across the world, regardless of location.


By Ron Miller

How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run


By Walter Thompson

Enterprise companies find MLOps critical for reliability and performance

Enterprise startups UIPath and Scale have drawn huge attention in recent years from companies looking to automate workflows, from RPA (robotic process automation) to data labeling.

What’s been overlooked in the wake of such workflow-specific tools has been the base class of products that enterprises are using to build the core of their machine learning (ML) workflows, and the shift in focus toward automating the deployment and governance aspects of the ML workflow.

That’s where MLOps comes in, and its popularity has been fueled by the rise of core ML workflow platforms such as Boston-based DataRobot. The company has raised more than $430 million and reached a $1 billion valuation this past fall serving this very need for enterprise customers. DataRobot’s vision has been simple: enabling a range of users within enterprises, from business and IT users to data scientists, to gather data and build, test and deploy ML models quickly.

Founded in 2012, the company has quietly amassed a customer base that boasts more than a third of the Fortune 50, with triple-digit yearly growth since 2015. DataRobot’s top four industries include finance, retail, healthcare and insurance; its customers have deployed over 1.7 billion models through DataRobot’s platform. The company is not alone, with competitors like H20.ai, which raised a $72.5 million Series D led by Goldman Sachs last August, offering a similar platform.

Why the excitement? As artificial intelligence pushed into the enterprise, the first step was to go from data to a working ML model, which started with data scientists doing this manually, but today is increasingly automated and has become known as “auto ML.” An auto-ML platform like DataRobot’s can let an enterprise user quickly auto-select features based on their data and auto-generate a number of models to see which ones work best.

As auto ML became more popular, improving the deployment phase of the ML workflow has become critical for reliability and performance — and so enters MLOps. It’s quite similar to the way that DevOps has improved the deployment of source code for applications. Companies such as DataRobot and H20.ai, along with other startups and the major cloud providers, are intensifying their efforts on providing MLOps solutions for customers.

We sat down with DataRobot’s team to understand how their platform has been helping enterprises build auto-ML workflows, what MLOps is all about and what’s been driving customers to adopt MLOps practices now.

The rise of MLOps


By Walter Thompson

Stripe adds card issuing, localized card networks and expanded approvals tool

At a time when more transactions than ever are happening online, payments behemoth Stripe is announcing three new features to continue expanding its reach.

The company today announced that it will now offer card issuing services directly to businesses to let them in turn make credit cards for customers tailored to specific purposes. Alongside that, it’s going to expand the number of accepted local, large card networks to cut down some of the steps it takes to make transactions in international markets. And finally, it’s launching a “revenue optimization” feature that essentially will use Stripe’s AI algorithms to reassess and approve more flagged transactions that might have otherwise been rejected in the past.

Together the three features underscore how Stripe is continuing to scale up with more services around its core payment processing APIs, a significant step in the wake of last week announcing its biggest fundraise to date: $600 million at a $36 billion valuation.

The rollouts of the new products are specifically coming at a time when Stripe has seen a big boost in usage among some (but not all) of its customers, said John Collison, Stripe’s co-founder and president, in an interview. Instacart, which is providing grocery delivery at a time when many are living under stay-at-home orders, has seen transactions up by 300% in recent weeks. Another newer customer, Zoom, is also seeing business boom. Amazon, Stripe’s behemoth customer that Collison would not discuss in any specific terms except to confirm it’s a close partner, is also seeing extremely heavy usage.

But other Stripe users — for example, many of its sea of small business users — are seeing huge pressures, while still others, faced with no physical business, are just starting to approach e-commerce in earnest for the first time. Stripe’s idea is that the launches today can help it address all of these scenarios.

“What we’re seeing in the COVID-19 world is that the impact is not minor,” said Collison. “Online has always been steadily taking a share from offline, but now many [projected] years of that migration are happening in the space of a few weeks.”

Stripe is among those companies that have been very mum about when they might go public — a state of affairs that only become more set in recent times, given how the IPO market has all but dried up in the midst of a health pandemic and economic slump. That has meant very little transparency about how Stripe is run, whether it’s profitable and how much revenues it makes.

But Stripe did note last week that it had some $2 billion in cash and cash reserves, which at least speaks to a level of financial stability. And another hint of efficiency might be gleaned from today’s product news.

While these three new services don’t necessarily sound like they are connected to each other, what they have underpinning them is that they are all building on top of tech and services that Stripe has previously rolled out. This speaks to how, even as the company now handles some 250 million API requests daily, it’s keeping some lean practices in place in terms of how it invests and maximises engineering and business development resources.

The card issuing service, for example, is built on a card service that Stripe launched last year. Originally aimed at businesses to provide their employees with credit cards — for example to better manage their own work-related expenses, or to make transactions on behalf of the business — now businesses can use the card issuing platform to build out aspects of its customer-facing services.

For example, Stripe noted that the first customer, Zipcar, will now be placing credit cards in each of its vehicles, which drivers can use to fuel up the vehicles (that is, the cards can only be used to buy gas). Another example Collison gave for how these could be implemented would be in a food delivery service, for example for a Postmates delivery person to use the card to pay for the meal that a customer has already paid Postmates to pick up and deliver to them.

Collison noted that while other startups like Marqeta have built big businesses around innovative card issuing services, “this is the first time it’s being issued on a self-serving basis,” meaning companies that want to use these cards can now set this up more quickly as a “programmatic card” experience, akin to self-serve, programmatic ads online.

It seems also to be good news for investors. “Stripe Issuing is a big step forward,” said Alex Rampell, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a statement. “Not just for the millions of businesses running on Stripe, but for credit cards as a fundamental technology. Businesses can now use an API to create and issue cards exactly when and where they need them, and they can do it in a few clicks, not a few months. As investors, we’re excited by all the potential new companies and business models that will emerge as a result.”

Meanwhile, the revenue “optimization” engine that Stripe is rolling out is built on the same machine learning algorithms that it originally built for Radar, its fraud prevention tool that originally launched in 2016 and was extended to larger enterprises in 2018. This makes a lot of sense, since oftentimes the reason transactions get rejected is because of the suspicion of fraud. Why it’s taken four years to extend that to improve how transactions are approved or rejected is not entirely clear, but Stripe estimates that it could enable a further $2.5 billion in transactions annually.

One reason why the revenue optimization may have taken some time to roll out was because while Stripe offers a very seamless, simple API for users, it’s doing a lot of complex work behind the scenes knitting together a lot of very fragmented payment flows between card issuers, banks, businesses, customers and more in order to make transactions possible.

The third product announcement speaks to how Stripe is simplifying a bit more of that. Now, it’s able to provide direct links into six big card networks — Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB and China Union Pay, which effectively covers the major card networks in North and Latin America, Southeast Asia and Europe. Previously, Stripe would have had to work with third parties to integrate acceptance of all of these networks in different regions, which would have cut into Stripe’s own margins and also given it less flexibility in terms of how it could handle the transaction data.

Launching the revenue optimization by being able to apply machine learning to the transaction data is one example of where and how it might be able to apply more innovative processes from now on.

While Stripe is mainly focused today on how to serve its wider customer base and to just help business continue to keep running, Collison noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable impact on Stripe beyond just boosts in business for some of its customers.

The whole company has been working remotely for weeks, including its development team, making for challenging times in building and rolling out services.

And Stripe, along with others, is also in the early stages of piloting how it will play a role in issuing small business loans as part of the CARES Act, he said.

In addition to that, he noted that there has been an emergence of more medical and telehealth services using Stripe for payments.

Before now, many of those use cases had been blocked by the banks, he said, for reasons of the industries themselves being strictly regulated in terms of what kind of data could get passed across networks and the sensitive nature of the businesses themselves. He said that a lot of that has started to get unblocked in the current climate, and “the growth of telemedicine has been off the charts.”


By Ingrid Lunden

SMB loans platform Kabbage to furlough a ‘significant’ number of staff, close office in Bangalore

Another tech unicorn is feeling the pinch of doing business during the coronavirus pandemic. Today, Kabbage, the Softbank-backed lending startup that uses machine learning to provide speedy and more accurate evaluations of loan applications for small and medium businesses, is furloughing a “significant number” of its US team of 500 employees, according to a memo sent to staff and seen by TechCrunch, in the wake of drastically changed business conditions for the company. It is also completely closing down its office in Bangalore, India, and executive staff is taking a “considerable” pay cut.

The announcement is effective immediately and was made to staff earlier today by way of a video conference call, as the whole company is currently remote working in the current conditions.

Kabbage is not disclosing the full number of staff that are being affected by the news (if you know, you can contact us anonymously). It’s also not putting a timeframe on how long the furlough will last, but it’s going to continue providing benefits to affected employees. The intention is to bring them back on when things shift again.

“We realize this is a shock to everyone. No business in the world could have prepared for what has transpired these past few weeks and everyone has been impacted,” co-founder and CEO Rob Frohwein wrote in the memo. “The economic fallout of this virus has rattled the small business community to which Kabbage is directly linked. It’s painful to say goodbye to our friends and colleagues in Bangalore and to furlough a number of U.S. team members. While the duration of the furlough remains uncertain, please bear in mind that the full intention of furloughing is temporary. We simply have no clear idea of how long quarantining or its reverberations in the economy will last.”

Kabbage’s predicament underscores the complicated and stressful calculus that tech companies built around providing services to SMBs, or fintech (or both, as in the case of Kabbage) are currently facing.

SMBs are struggling right now in the US: many operate on very short terms when it comes to finances and closing their businesses (or seeing a drastic reduction in custom) means they will not have the cash to last 10 days without revenue, “and we’re already well past that window,” Frohwein noted in his memo.

In Kabbage’s case, that means not only are SMBs not able to be evaluated and approved for normal loans at the moment, but SMBs that already have loans out are likely facing delinquencies.

The decision to furlough is hard but in relative terms it’s actually good news: it was made at the eleventh hour after a period when Kabbage was considering layoffs instead.

The company has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in equity and debt, and it was in a healthy state before the coronavirus outbreak. The memo notes that the “board and our top investors are aware of the challenges we are facing and have committed to helping us through this period,” although it doesn’t specify what that means in terms of financial support for the business, and whether that support would have been there for the business as-is.

The shift to furlough from layoffs came in the wake of announcement yesterday by Steven Mnuchin, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who clarified that “any FDIC bank, any credit union, any fintech lender will be authorized” to make loans to small businesses as a part of the US government’s CARE Act, the giant stimulus package that included nearly $350 billion in loan guarantees for small businesses.

While that provides much-needed relief for these businesses, the implementation of it — the Small Business Administration has already received nearly 1 million claims for disaster-relief loans since the crisis started — has been and is going to be a challenge.

That effectively opens up an opportunity for Kabbage and companies like it to revive and reorient some of its business. Kabbage said it is in “deep discussions” with the Treasury Department, the White House, and the Small Business Administration to help expedite applications for aid.

While loans still make up the majority of Kabbage’s business, the company has been making a move to diversify its services, and in recent times it has made acquisitions and launched new services around market intelligence insights and payments services. While there has certainly been a jump in e-commerce, overall the tightening economy will have a chilling effect on the wider market, and it will be worth seeing what happens with other companies that focus on loans, as well as adjacent financial services.


By Ingrid Lunden

Activist investor Starboard Value taking three Box board seats as involvement deepens

When activist investors Starboard Value took a 7.5% stake in Box last September, there was reasonable speculation that it would begin to try and push an agenda, as activist investors tend to do. While the firm has been quiet to this point, today Box announced that Starboard was adding three members to the 9 member Box board.

At the same time, two long-time Box investors and allies, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners and Josh Stein from DFJ, will be retiring from the board and not seeking re-election at the annual stockholder’s meeting in June.

O’Driscoll involvement with the company dates back a decade, and Stein has been with the company for 14 years and has been a big supporter from almost the beginning of the company.

For starters, Jack Lazar, whose credentials including being chief financial officer at GoPro and Atheros Communications, is joining the board immediately. A second new board member from a list to be agreed upon by Box and Starboard will also be joining immediately.

Finally, a third member will be selected by the newly constituted board in June, giving Starboard three friendly votes and the ability to push the Box agenda in a significant way.

At the time it announced it was taking a stake in Box, Starboard telegraphed that it could be doing something like this. Here’s what it had to say in its filing at the time:

“Depending on various factors including, without limitation, the Issuer’s financial position and investment strategy, the price levels of the Shares, conditions in the securities markets and general economic and industry conditions, the Reporting Persons may in the future take such actions with respect to their investment in the Issuer as they deem appropriate including, without limitation, engaging in communications with management and the Board of Directors of the Issuer, engaging in discussions with stockholders of the Issuer or other third parties about the Issuer and the [Starboard’s] investment, including potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, making recommendations or proposals to the Issuer concerning changes to the capitalization, ownership structure, board structure (including board composition), potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, or suggestions for improving the Issuer’s financial and/or operational performance, purchasing additional Shares, selling some or all of their Shares, engaging in short selling of or any hedging or similar transaction with respect to the Shares…”

Box CEO Aaron Levie appeared at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise, the week this news about Starboard broke, and he was careful in how he discussed a possible relationship with the firm. “Well, I think in their statement actually they really just identified that they think there’s upside in the stock. It’s still very early in the conversations and process, but again we’re super collaborative in these types of situations. We want to work with all of our investors, and I think that’ll be the same here,” Levie told us at the time.

Now the company has no choice but to work more collaboratively with Starboard as it takes a much more meaningful role on the company board. What impact this will have in the long run is hard to say, but surely significant changes are likely on the way.


By Ron Miller

Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which at this stage of funding puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called VaultOS, a platform that contains a range of banking services — they include current/checking accounts; savings accounts; loans; credit cards and mortgages — that Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

It’s not the only company providing a platform for banking services that are in turn

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scaleup with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Alpaca nabs $6M for stocks API so anyone can build a Robinhood

Stock trading app Robinhood is valued at $7.6 billion, but it only operates in the US. Freshly-funded fintech startup Alpaca does the dirty work so developers worldwide can launch their own competitors to that investing unicorn. Like the Stripe of stocks, Alpaca’s API handles the banking, security, and regulatory complexity, allowing other startups to quickly build brokerage apps on top for free. It’s already crossed $1 billion in transaction within a year of launch.

The potential to power the backend of a new generation of fintech apps has attracted a $6 million Series A round for Alpaca led by Spark Capital . Instead of charging developers, Alpaca earns its money through payment for order flow, interest on cash deposits, and margin lending much like Robinhood.

“I want to make sure that people even outside the US have access” to a way of building wealth that’s historically only “available to rich people” Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa tells me.

Alpaca co-founder and CEO Yoshi Yokokawa

Hailing from Japan, Yokokawa followed his friends into the investment banking industry where he worked at Lehman Brothers until its collapse. After his grandmother got sick, he moved into day-trading for three years and realized “all the broker dealer business tools were pretty bad”. But when he heard of Robinhood in 2013 and saw it actually catering to users’ needs, he thought “I need to be involved in this new transformation” of fintech.

Yokokawa ended up first building a business selling deep learning AI to banks and trading firms in the foreign exchange market. Watching clients struggle to quickly integrate new technology revealed the lack of available developer tools. By 2017, he was pivoting the business and applying for FINRA approval. Alpaca launched in late 2018, letting developers paste in code to let their users buy and sell securities.

Now international developers and small hedge funds are building atop the Alpaca API so they don’t have to reinvent the underlying infrastructure themselves right away. Alpaca works with clearing broker NTC, and then marks up margin trading while earning interest and payment for order flow. It also offers products like AlpacaForecast with short-term predictions of stock prices, AlpacaRadar for detecting price swings, and its MarketStore financial database server.

AlpacaForecast

The $6 million from Spark Capital, Social Leverage, Portag3, Fathom Capital, and Zillionize adds to $5.8 million in previous funding from investors including Y Combinator. The startup plans to spend the cash on hiring up to handle partnerships with bigger businesses, supporting its developer community, and ensuring compliance.

One major question is whether fintech businesses that start to grow atop Alpaca and drive its revenues will try to declare independence and later invest in their own technology stack. There’s the additional risk of a security breach that might scare away clients.

Alpaca’s top competitor Interactive Brokers offers trading APIs but other services as well that distract it from fostering a robust developer community, Yokokawa tells me. Alpaca focuses on providing great documentation, open source contribution, and SDKs in different languages that make it more developer-friendly. It will also have to watch out for other fintech services startups like DriveWealth and well-funded Galileo.

There’s a big opportunity to capitalize on the race to integrate stock trading into other finance apps to drive stickiness since it’s a consistent voluntary behavior rather than a chore or something only done a few times a year. Lender Sofi and point-of-sale system Square both recently became broker dealers as well, and Yokokawa predicts more and more apps will push into the space.

Why would we need so many stock trading apps? “Every single person is involved with money so the market is huge. Instead of one-player takes all, there will be different players that can all do well” Yokokawa tells me. “Like banks and investment banks co-exist, it will never be that Bank Of America takes 80% of the pie. I think differentiation will be on customer acquisition, and operations management efficiency.”

The co-founder’s biggest concern is keeping up with all the new opportunities in financial services, from cash management and cryptocurrency that Robinhood already deals in, to security token offerings, and fractional investing. Yokokawa says “I need to make sure I’m on top of everything and that we’re executing with the right timing so we don’t lose.”

The CEO hopes that Alpaca will one day power broader access to the US stock market back in Japan, noting that if a modern nation still lags behind in fintech, the rest of world surely fares even worse. “I want to connect this asset class to as many people as possible on the earth.”


By Josh Constine

Clari snags $60M Series D on valuation of around $500M

Clari uses AI to help companies find key information like the customers most likely to convert, the state of orders in the sales process or the next big sources of revenue. As its revenue management system continues to flourish, the company announced a $60 million Series D investment today.

Sapphire Ventures led the round with help from new-comer Madrona Venture Group and existing investors Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital Ventures and Tenaya Capital. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $135 million, according to the company.

The valuation, which CEO and co-founder Andy Byrne pegged at around a half a billion, appears to be hefty raise from what the company was likely valued at in 2018 after its $35 million Series C. As TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden wrote at the time:

“For some context, Clari, according to Pitchbook, had a relatively modest post-money valuation of $83.5 million in its last round in 2014, so my guess is that it’s now comfortably into hundred-million territory, once you add in this latest $35 million,” Lunden wrote.

Byrne says the company wasn’t even really looking for a new round, but when investors came knocking, he couldn’t refuse. “On the fundraise side, what’s really interesting is how this whole thing went down. We weren’t out looking, but we had a massive amount of interest from a lot of firms. We decided to engage, and we got it done in less than three weeks, which the board was kind of blown away by,” Byrne told TechCrunch.

What’s motivating these companies to invest is that Clari is helping to define this revenue operations category, and has attracted companies like Okta, Zoom and Qualtrics as customers. What they are providing is this AI-fueled way to see where the best sales opportunities are to drive revenue, and that’s what every company is looking for. At the same time, Byrne says that he’s moving companies away from a spreadsheet-driven record keeping system, and enabling them to see the all of the data in one place.

“Clari is allowing a rep to really understand where they should spend time, automating a lot of things for them to close deals faster, while giving managers new insights they’ve never had before to allow them to drive more revenue. And then we’re getting them out of ‘Excel hell.’ They’re no longer in these spreadsheets. They’re in Clari, and have more predictability in their forecasting,” he said.

Clari was founded in 2012 and is headquartered in Sunnyvale, CA. It has over 300 customers and just passed the 200 employee mark, a number that should increase as the company uses this money to begin to accelerate growth and expand the product’s capabilities.


By Ron Miller

A startup factory? $1.2B-exit team launches $65M super{set}

Think Jack Dorsey’s jobs are tough? Well, Tom Chavez is running six startups. He thinks building businesses can be boiled down to science, so today he’s unveiling his laboratory for founding, funding and operating companies. He and his team have already proven they can do it themselves after selling their startups Rapt to Microsoft and Krux to Salesforce for a combined $1.2 billion. Now they’ve raised a $65 million fund for “super{set}”, an enterprise startup studio with a half-dozen companies currently in motion.

The idea is that {super}set either conceptualizes a company or brings in founders whose dream they can make a reality. The studio provides early funding and expertise while the startup works from their shared space in San Francisco, plus future ones in New York and Boston. The secret sauce is the “super{set} Code,” an execution playbook plus technological tools and building blocks that guide the strategy and eliminate redundant work. “Our belief is that we can make the companies 10x faster and increase capital efficiency by 5X,” says Chavez of his partnership with {super}set co-founders Vivek Vaidya, who acts as CTO, and Jae Lim who manages the fund.

Superset Team

The {super}set team (from left): Tom Chavez, Jae Lim, Jen Elena and Vivek Vaidya

Perhaps the question isn’t whether the portfolio startups can scale, but if the humans behind them can without breaking. It’s stressful running a single company, let alone six. Even with the order of operations nailed down, each encounters unique challenges and no plan is one-size-fits-all. But after delivering 17.5X returns to their past investors, Chavez et al. have proven their power to repeatedly recognize what enterprises need and build admittedly boring but bountiful products in customer data management, and advertising yield.

The studio’s playbooks cover business plan formation, pitch strategies, go to market, revenue, machine learning, management principles, HR processes, sales methods, pipeline measurement, product sequencing, finance, legal and more. There’s also shared engineering code it provides, so each startup doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. “I don’t think you can systemize it but I do think you can accelerate and de-risk the path,” Chavez explains.

Superset Code 1

{super}set Code

Today, the first {super}set company is coming out of stealth. Eskalera helps enterprises retain top talent by tracking diversity and inclusion stats of employees to engage them with career growth and community programs. Chavez is the CEO, but plans to install a new one shortly so he can focus more time on founding more startups. There are 55 employees across the first six companies, with two already generating revenue and most ready to emerge in the next nine months.

The funding for Eskalera and other {super}set companies comes with unique terms. Because Chavez and the team aren’t just board members you hear from once a quarter but “shoulder to shoulder with the entrepreneurs” as he repeats several times in our interview, the startups pay more equity for the cash.

The hope is having seasoned leadership aboard is worth it. “We’re product people first and foremost,” Chavez tells me. “What are you going to build? Who’s going to buy it? Why? What’s the technical moat? We’re not people doing jazz hands.” The {super}set team has plenty of skin in the game, though, given Chavez himself put in a big chunk of the $65 million, and the fund sticks to a standard management fee.

Eskalera

Eskalera

To supercharge the companies, {super}set brings in expert staffers in artificial intelligence, data science and more, who then align with the most relevant companies in the portfolio. They get equity grants to incentivize them to work hard on the startups’ behalf. “The worry I have about these larger funds is that they have an incentive disconnect where they work for the fees” Chavez says. His fund hopes to win through follow-on funding of its winners.

Tom Chavez Superset

{super}set co-founder Tom Chavez

If portfolio companies hit hard times, Chavez says {super}set will stick with them. “My first company had multiple layoffs and a major pivot. We had an enterperenur that walked away. They lost conviction, but we brought that company to an $180 million exit after people said there was no effing way and that felt really good,” Chavez says of staying the course. “The good entrepreneurs have that demonic energy.” But if everyone involved agrees a project isn’t working, they’ll shutter it. “It comes back to opportunity cost of people’s time.”

Chavez has respect for studios taking different approaches, like Atomic in consumer startups, Science in e-commerce and Pioneer Square Labs, which maintains a larger fund staff. “What excites me is moving entrepreneurship a step forward. Why couldn’t we franchise this in other cities?” He hopes {super}set can attract top talent that “just want to work on cool shit” rather than getting sucked into a single company.

Can {super}set keep all the plates spinning and really lower their risk? “If we’re wrong there will be a giant orange plume streak across the sky. The early returns are promising but we have to prove it,” Chavez says. But after accruing plenty of wealth for himself, he says the thrill that keeps him in the startup game is seeing life-changing outcomes for his teams. “I have spreadsheets showing the wealth generated by employees of companies I’ve built and nothing makes me happier than seeing them pay for tuitions, property, or retiring.”


By Josh Constine

Fundbox raises $176 million Series C to build ‘Visa’ for B2B payments

Credit cards have become all but ubiquitous for consumer transactions, and it isn’t hard to see why. By intermediating payments, networks like Visa allow buyers and sellers to exchange money for goods and services without knowing the financial risk profile of the counter-party. Rather than applying for credit at every merchant you shop at, you apply once at your issuing institution, and then can transact with every merchant on the network. It’s the simple formula: reducing friction means more sales, and therefore more profits.

Yet for all the innovation in the consumer side of the economy, there has been an astonishingly limited amount of innovation in the B2B world. Payments between businesses are still conducted through invoices, with net payment terms that can exceed 90 days and with little knowledge of the financial risk of the counter-parties. There is no FICO score for business as there is with consumers, nor is there a system that can intermediate those transactions and reduce their friction.

That’s where Fundbox comes in. The SF-headquartered startup wants to ultimately transform B2B payments by creating a Visa-like payments network that allows businesses to transact with each other without having to know counter-party risk while also getting everyone paid faster.

It’s a vision that has pulled in the attention of even more venture capital. The company, which was founded in 2013, announced today that it has raised $176 million in a series C equity financing led by a consortium of funders, including Allianz X, Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, HarbourVest and a litany of others. Existing backers Khosla, General Catalyst, and Spark Capital Growth also participated. With this new round of capital, the company’s total equity funding reaches upwards of $300 million.

In addition to the equity capital, the company also announced that it has raised a $150 million credit facility to underwrite its product.

Fundbox CEO Eyal Shinar said that a priority in this fundraise was to select backers who not only could invest in equity, but also had large balance sheets who could expand the company’s underwriting capability as it scales.

Today, Fundbox’s core product is a revolving line of credit for small businesses. Cash flow is a huge concern for many companies, since they often have to wait for a payment from an invoice to arrive before investing in their next projects or hiring more employees. A revolving line of credit allows companies to flexibly draw down and pay back a loan, while only paying fees on what a company uses.

To apply for the loan, companies connect Fundbox to their financial data store (for example, QuickBooks), and Fundbox slurps in the data and offers a credit decision in as fast as minutes. Companies can then tap their line of credit almost immediately and use it as working capital. As invoices are paid, companies can then pay off their line of credit and stop paying fees.

From that product base, Shinar ultimately sees Fundbox as a GDP-scale startup, given the value it could potentially unlock for companies and the economy at large. “There are more than $3 trillion locked in those invoices,” he explained to me, “$3.4 trillion flows through consumer credit cards, but $23 trillion are in invoices … and even if you focus on [just] small and medium business, it’s $9 trillion.”

As the company collects data from all the players in the market, it wants to build upon those data network effects to ultimately operate the payment rails for B2B transactions. So instead of offering a line of credit to the seller, it could facilitate both sides of the transaction and get rid of the root complexity in the first place.

It’s a bold vision, and certainly one that has attracted a variety of players. In the startup world, Kabbage (whose co-founder and president Kathryn Petralia I will be interviewing at TechCrunch Disrupt SF next week) has built a business around line of credit lending and has similarly raised large amounts of venture capital.

Larger companies like Square, PayPay, and Intuit (which owns the popular accounting software QuickBooks) have introduced various lending products to B2B customers. And in terms of payments, Stripe through its new credit card and Brex offer the means for companies to empower their employees to make purchases on behalf of the company.

Shinar said that a huge priority for Fundbox has been to make underwriting more efficient. He said that a large percentage of the current employee base at the company is data scientists, and the company has built upon the wave of digitalization that has taken place among small and medium businesses. “Every company has at least one set of APIs … and it is accessible, and it is granular,” Shinar said. By just tapping into those existing data feeds, Fundbox is able to avoid the human underwriting common with much of business lending today.

One initiative the company has undertaken is a tool dubbed “X-Ray” to better describe how the company’s machine learning models are really underwriting its loan products. Shinar noted that payments is a highly-regulated space, and that the company has to be able to explain its decisions and how they are unbiased to any regulator that might start asking questions.

The company today has 240 employees spread across SF, Tel Aviv, and a recently launched office in Dallas. Shinar says that he wants to use the new funds to “go on the offensive” and “double and triple down on what is working.”


By Danny Crichton

IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Aug 12

Brad Katsuyama. Image via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?


By Gregg Schoenberg