Mexican online grocer Jüsto raises $65M in General Atlantic-led Series A

Jüsto, an online supermarket based in Mexico City, announced Tuesday it has raised $65 million in Series A round led by General Atlantic.

The amount is sizable for a Series A in general, but supersized for a LatAm startup. In fact, according to Pitchbook data cited by General Atlantic, the round represents the largest Series A raised in Latin America in the past decade.

Existing backers also participated in the round including Foundation Capital and Mountain Nazca.

Ricardo Weder, former president of Cabify (a large ride-sharing company operating in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal) founded Jüsto in 2019 with a mission to “disrupt the Latin American grocery industry.” It claims to be the first supermarket in Mexico with no physical store. Customers can buy their groceries directly from the website or via the app and Jüsto delivers the order to the customer’s location of choice.

The concept is clearly resonating with consumers as Jüsto saw impressive growth in 2020 with a 16-fold increase in revenue. 

Jüsto prides itself on working directly with fresh produce suppliers so that it can offer “the freshest” fruits, vegetables, meats and fish in the market. It also offers a variety of products such as pantry staples, personal hygiene and beauty, home and cleaning, drinks and pet-related items.

The startup only sells items from local suppliers, with whom it prides itself on developing fair trade agreements. (“Jüsto” means fair in Spanish) It also uses artificial intelligence to forecast demand and to try and reduce food waste at its micro-fulfillment centers. The company’s approach results in “competitive prices, lower transaction costs, and improved convenience to consumers by eliminating intermediaries in the supply chain,” according to the company.

Looking ahead, Jüsto plans to use its new capital on expanding across Mexico and Latin America as a whole, enhancing its last-mile logistics infrastructure and marketing initiatives.

Luis Cervantes, managing director and head of Mexico City for General Atlantic, believes Mexico is at an inflection point in its transition to a digital economy.

“We see Jüsto as leading the way in the high-growth online grocery space with its technology-centric, mission-driven approach,” he said in a written statement. “Under Ricardo’s leadership, we believe Jüsto is positioned for significant expansion as it disrupts and transforms the legacy grocery value chain.”

 Jüsto marks General Atlantic’s fifth investment in Mexico since 2014. Since then, General Atlantic has invested nearly USD $1 billion in what it describes as “high-growth” Mexican companies. 

The financing brings Jüsto’s total raised to over $100 million. Other investors include FEMSA Ventures, S7V, Elevar Equity, Bimbo Ventures, Quiet Capital, Sweet Capital, H2O Capital  and SV LatAm Capital, among others.

A look at how proptech startup Knotel went from a $1.6B valuation to filing for bankruptcy

This week, flexible workspace operator (and one-time unicorn) Knotel announced it had filed for bankruptcy and that its assets were being acquired by investor and commercial real estate brokerage Newmark for a reported $70 million.

Knotel designed, built and ran custom headquarters for companies. It then managed the spaces with “flexible” terms. In March 2020, it was reportedly valued at $1.6 billion.

At first glance, one might think that the WeWork rival, which had raised about $560 million since its 2016 inception, was another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But New York-based Knotel was reportedly in trouble – facing a number of lawsuits and evictions – before the pandemic had even hit, according to multiple reports, such as this one in The Real Deal.

Jonathan Pasternak, a partner in the bankruptcy, restructuring and creditor rights group at New York-based Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, believes the company’s Chapter 11 filing was inevitable despite it reaching unicorn status after raising $400 million in Series C funding in August 2019.

“In addition to being grossly overvalued on the market, the company overextended itself with long term leases and lavish build-outs, leaving the company in significant debt while failing to ever turn a profit,” Pasternak wrote via email. “The pandemic exacerbated their vacancy situation, resulting in more than 35% vacancies in their 2.4 million square-foot NYC portfolio. The company overextended and likely ran out of cash.”

Newmark’s purchase of Knotel’s assets is an effort to recoup some of its investment, according to Pasternak.

Anytime a company that has raised more than half a billion dollars basically implodes, it’s worth taking a look at the roller coaster ride it was on before it got to that point.


2016

Virgin Mobile co-founder Amol Sarva and former VC Edward Shenderovich founded Knotel, essentially reversing the WeWork model. There’s hype around the company in its early days.

2017

Knotel raised a Series A round of $25 million in February from investors such as Peak State Ventures, Invest AG, Bloomberg Beta and 500 startups. It marketed its offering as “headquarters as a service” — or a flexible office space that could be customized for each tenant while also growing or shrinking as needed. 

2018

In April, Knotel announced the close of a $70 million Series B financing led by Newmark Knight Frank and The Sapir Organization. In August, the company told me that it was operating over 1 million square feet across 60 locations in New York, London, San Francisco and Berlin, and that it was on track to reach 2.5 million square feet and $100 million in revenue by year’s end. Revenue growth had increased by 300 percent year over year, according to the company. Customers and users and clients ranged from VC-backed startups Stash and HotelTonight to enterprise customers such as The Body Shop. 

“What they’re doing is different,” said Barry Gosin, CEO of Newmark Knight Frank, in a press release, at the time of the round. “It’s a new category the industry hasn’t seen and is rapidly adopting. We’ve watched their ascent from a distance and are now thrilled to join them on the journey. It marks a shift in how owners and tenants are coming together.”

2019

In August, Knotel announced the completion of a $400 million financing, led by Wafra, an investment arm of the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kuwait. With the round, the company had achieved unicorn status and was being touted as a formidable WeWork competitor. At the time, Knotel said it operated more than 4 million square feet across more than 200 locations in New York, San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Paris, Berlin, Toronto, Boston, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. 

In a statement at the time, CEO Sarva said: “Knotel is building the future of the workplace, and we are excited to welcome a group of investors who believe passionately in our product, vision and ability to execute. Wafra will help us continue our rapid global expansion and solidify our position as the leader in a fast-growing, trillion-dollar flexible office market.”

2020

In late March, Forbes reported that Knotel had laid off 30% of its workforce and furloughed another 20%, due to the impact of the coronavirus. At the time, it was valued at about $1.6 billion. 

The company had started the year with about 500 employees. By the third week of March, it had a headcount of 400. With the cuts, about 200 employees remained with the other 200 having either lost their jobs or on unpaid leave, according to Forbes. 

“Business as usual is over,” Amol Sarva, Knotel’s CEO and co-founder, said in a statement to Forbes. “Knotel has decided to take sharp action to prepare for the worst case — a long health and economic crisis.”

In the second quarter, Knotel’s revenue slipped by about 20% to about $59 million compared to the first quarter, reported Forbes. Multiple landlords had filed lawsuits against the company.

By July, Forbes had reported that Knotel was attempting to raise as much as $100 million, according to various sources “familiar with the matter.”

2021

Knotel filed for bankruptcy, agrees to sell assets to investor Newmark for a reported $70 million after being valued at $1.6 billion less than one year prior.

“Newmark’s commitment offers a path forward amidst this challenging climate,” CEO Sarva said in a statement. “We are optimistic that, through a successful restructuring, we can refocus on our mission of providing state-of-the-art, tailored flex space in key U.S. and international markets.”

To facilitate the transaction under Section 363 of the United States Bankruptcy Code, an affiliate of Newmark agreed to provide Knotel with about $20 million in cash as DIP financing to support Knotel through the bankruptcy process.

Just as the startup and VC world watched as WeWork lost a significant amount of value over the past two years, we’re paying attention to the demise of Knotel and wondering what this means for the flexible workspace sector. As much of the world continues to work from home and office buildings remain mostly vacant as this pandemic rages, our guess is that things will only get worse before they get better.

Twitter expands Google Cloud partnership to ‘learn more from data, move faster’

Twitter is upping its data analytics game in the form of an expanded, multiyear partnership with Google Cloud.

The social media giant first began working with Google in 2018 to move Hadoop clusters to the Google Cloud platform as a part of its Partly Cloudy strategy.

With the expanded agreement, Twitter will move its offline analytics, data processing and machine learning workloads to Google’s Data Cloud

I talked with Sudhir Hasbe, Google Cloud’s director of product management and data analytics, to better understand just what this means. He said the move will give Twitter the ability to analyze data faster as part of its goal to provide a better user experience.

You see, behind every tweet, like and retweet, there is a series of data points that helps Twitter understand things like just how people are using the service, and what type of content they might want to see.

Twitter’s data platform ingests trillions of events, processes hundreds of petabytes of data and runs tens of thousands of jobs on over a dozen clusters daily. 

By expanding its partnership with Google, Twitter is essentially adopting the company’s Data Cloud, including BigQuery, Dataflow, BigTable and machine learning (ML) tools to make more sense of, and improve, how Twitter features are used.

Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal said in a written statement that the company’s initial partnership was successful and led to enhanced productivity on the part of its engineering teams.  

“Building on this relationship and Google’s technologies will allow us to learn more from our data, move faster and serve more relevant content to the people who use our service every day,” he said. 

Google Cloud’s Hasbe believes that organizations like Twitter need a highly scalable analytics platform so they can derive value from all their data collecting. By expanding its partnership with Google, Twitter is able to add significantly more use cases out of its cloud platform.

“Our platform is serverless and we can help organizations, like Twitter, automatically scale up and down,” Hasbe told TechCrunch.

“Twitter can bring massive amounts of data, analyze and get insights without the burden of having to worry about infrastructure or capacity management or how many machines or servers they might need,” he added. “None of that is their problem.” 

The shift will also make it easier for Twitter’s data scientists and other similar personnel to build machine learning models and do predictive analytics, according to Hasbe.

Other organizations that have recently turned to Google Cloud to help navigate the pandemic include Bed, Bath and Beyond, Wayfair, Etsy and The Home Depot.

On February 2, TC’s Frederic Lardinois reported that while Google Cloud is seeing accelerated revenue growth, its losses are also increasing. This week, Google disclosed operating income/loss for its Google Cloud business unit in its quarterly earnings. Google Cloud lost $5.6 billion in Google’s fiscal year 2020, which ended December 31. That’s on $13 billion of revenue.

TrustLayer raises $6M seed to become the ‘Carta for insurance’

TrustLayer, which provides insurance brokers with risk management services via a SaaS platform, has raised $6.6 million in a seed round.

Abstract Ventures led the financing, which also included participation from Propel Venture Partners, NFP Ventures, BoxGroup and Precursor Ventures. Interestingly, the startup also got some industry validation in the way of investors. Twenty of the top 100 insurance agencies in the U.S. (as well as some of their C-suite execs) put money in the round. Those agencies include Holmes Murphy, Heffernan and M3, among others.

BrokerTech Ventures (BTV), a group consisting of 13 tech-focused insurance agencies in the U.S. and 11 “top-tier” insurance companies, also invested in TrustLayer. The funding actually marked BTV’s first investment in a cohort member of its inaugural accelerator program. 

TrustLayer co-founder and CEO John Fohr said the company was founded on the premise that verification of insurance and business credentials is a major pain point for millions of businesses. The process takes time and is not always trustworthy, which can lead to money lost in the long run.

To help solve the problem, San Francisco-based TrustLayer has used robotic process automation (RPA) to build out what it describes as an automated and secure way for companies to verify insurance. It sells its software-as-a-service either through insurance brokers or directly to the companies themselves.

TrustLayer says that companies that use its platform can automate the verification of insurance, licenses, and compliance documents of business partners such as vendors, subcontractors, suppliers, borrowers, tenants, ride-sharing and franchisees. (By verification of insurance, we mean confirming that a company is actually insured and not just pretending to be.)

Recent traction includes companies working in the construction, property management, sports and hospitality industries. Insurance fraud is a real and expensive concern for companies working in those spaces, according to Fohr, who noted that the seed round was “heavily oversubscribed.”

TrustLayer’s long-term goal is to work with dozens of the largest brokers and carriers in the U.S. to build out a digital, real-time proof of insurance solution for businesses of all sizes, across all industries. 

“The best analogy to describe what we do is calling us the Carta for insurance,” Fohr told TechCrunch. “We’re automating a process that is hugely painful and manual to help our carrier and broker partners provide better services to their customers and help companies reduce risk and make sure their business partners  have the right coverage.”

David Mort, partner at Propel Venture Partners, said that nearly every business relationship requires one or both parties to prove they have the insurance required for engagement. 

TrustLayer comes in by “attacking a messy, data-rich, and unstructured problem within the insurance industry that is a major friction source for commerce.”

Mort appreciates that TrustLayer is tackling the problem not by becoming the insurance broker, but by working with the incumbents as a software solution.

Propel is no stranger to investing in fintech, having backed the likes of Coinbase, DocuSign, Guideline and Hippo. Mort acknowledges that much of the innovation in fintech has historically focused on the banking industry while the insurance industry has been slower to innovate.

“The most interesting opportunities we see are around modernizing legacy infrastructure, reducing friction, and improving the customer experience,” he told TechCrunch. “More generally, insurtech companies are well-positioned for this market environment, where recurring revenue (or policies in this case) is valued, and more people are at home shopping for digital financial services. The need for insurance is only increasing.”

Meanwhile, Ellen Willadsen, chief innovation officer at Holmes Murphy and executive sponsor of BrokerTech Ventures, noted that TrustLayer’s expanded digital proof of coverage software “is seeing high adoption” among member agencies.

TrustLayer will use its new capital to (naturally) some hiring of sales, marketing and engineering staff. It also plans to team up with The Institutes RiskStream Collaborative (considered to be one of the largest blockchain insurance consortiums in the U.S.) and insurance carriers to build out its digital proof of insurance offering.

Per a recent TechCrunch data analysis and some external data work on the insurtech venture capital market, it appears that private insurtech investment is matching the attention public investors are also giving the sector.

Valon closes on $50M a16z-led Series A to grow mobile-first mortgage servicing platform

If you’ve ever applied for a mortgage, you know it’s one of the most painful processes out there. Keeping up with payments and dealing with customer service over the course of the loan is no picnic either.

So it’s no surprise that big bucks are being poured into the space with the goal of making the process easier, more digital and more transparent.

To that end, Valon, a tech-enabled mortgage servicer, announced this morning it has raised $50 million in a Series A round of funding — which is large for its stage even by today’s standards.

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) led the round for the New York-based company formerly known as Peach Street. Returning backers Jefferies Financial Group, New Residential Investment Corporation – an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC – and 166 2nd LLC also participated in the financing.

Valon previously raised $3.2 million from seed investors such as serial entrepreneur Kevin Ryan’s Alley Corp, Soros, Kairos, and Zigg Capital. 

Andrew Wang, Eric Chiang and Jon Hsu founded Valon in June 2019 with the mission of breaking up what it sees as “a monopoly in the market,” with “the largest mortgage servicing software company” (software giant Black Knight) controlling more than half of all U.S. residential loans.

“We’re on the cusp of a mortgage foreclosure crisis comparable to 2008, and the majority of homeowners struggling to make their loan payments are unaware of their options,” Valon CEO Wang said. “This stranglehold has driven servicing costs up nearly 250% in the past decade, and the fees are passed on directly to the borrower.”

Concurrent with the raise, Valon recently got the green light from Fannie Mae to service its government sponsored home loans. (For the unacquainted, servicing loans means doing things like collecting payments on behalf of a lender). The approval will only continue to fuel Valon’s rapid growth, according to Wang.

“We went from no contracts committed to $10 billion in mortgages committed to be serviced in one year,” he told TechCrunch. 

Valon operates in 49 states, and expects to add New York this year. 

As a former investor in mortgage servicing space, Wang was frustrated by “the lack of service” provided by other servicers. So he teamed up with Chiang and Hsu, who had prior product and engineering experience at Google and Twilio, to launch Valon.

The company’s cloud-native platform aims to deliver what it describes as a borrower-oriented experience. Lenders also can request access to real-time API data feeds to view performance of their borrowers and reconcile transaction data. 

Unlike mortgage originators, which lend money to the borrower, a mortgage servicer interfaces with the borrower for the duration of their loan – and that can be anywhere from 15 to 30 years. 

“This includes things like collecting payments on behalf of the lender and providing assistance and guidance to the borrower in moments of stress,” Wang said. “Traditional mortgage servicers use antiquated technology and provide poor service to borrowers. Valon looks to change that dynamic by providing transparency and full self-service capabilities to homeowners.

The company also claims that its technology has the potential to reduce mortgage servicing costs by up to 50% by vertically integrating the entire process. Its platform is built on Google Cloud with security as a “first-principle” with features such as default encryption and intrusion detection, the company said.

Millions of Americans stopped paying their mortgages in 2020 due to the economic strain of the coronavirus pandemic. This led to requests for forbearance (postponement of payments) and foreclosure moratoriums.

“The pandemic highlighted the stress in the market and greatly accelerated the need for a new age mortgage servicer,” Wang said. “Homeowners faced a great deal of financial stress and had difficulty getting the right option and assistance from existing servicers due to their antiquated technology and inability to process requests… In 2021 we will see forbearance and foreclosure leniency come to an end and this need will be even more acute.”

Angela Strange, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz who joined Valon’s board in mid-2020, says Valon has built a mobile-first mortgage servicer from the ground up.

“Homeowners are faced with clumsy websites, call centers, and often misinformation,” she said in a written statement. “In Valon, they have a trusted software driven advisor who can provide clear, transparent, regulatory compliant information in good times and bad – without needing to pick up the phone.”

The Fannie Mae approval only serves as further validation of the platform the team has created, she added.

Valon plans to use its new capital to triple headcount to about 100 by year’s end as well as to acquire more mortgage servicing rights (MSR) contracts to service.

Divvy Homes secures $110M Series C to help renters become homeowners

Despite all the headaches that come with it, homeownership is still the American dream for many.

Divvy Homes – a startup that is out to help more people realize that dream by buying a house and renting it back to them while they build equity – has just closed on $110 million in Series C funding. Tiger Global Management led the round, which also saw participation from a slew of other investors including GGV Capital, Moore Specialty Credit, JAWS Ventures, and existing backers such as a16z. The latest financing brings Divvy’s total debt and equity raised since its 2017 inception to over $500 million with about one-third of that raised in equity and two-thirds in debt.

The startup last raised $43 million in Series B funding from the likes of Affirm CEO Max Levchin and homebuilder Lennar (via its venture arm), among others. In fact, Divvy – which was co-founded by Adena Hefets, Nick Clark and Alex Klarfeld.  – was incubated in Levchin’s startup studio HVF.

Mortgage rates dropped to historic laws in 2020, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of making it easier to buy a home, many banks actually tightened underwriting requirements for approvals, said Divvy CEO Hefets. So while lenders were busier than ever, much of that volume was driven by people who already owned homes refinancing with the lower rates.

Like most companies, Divvy was initially unsure as to how the pandemic would impact its business. But as the year went on – and the whole world spent more time at home than ever, the company only saw increased demand.

“We actually paused home buying for March and April and just kind of stood still waiting to see what would happen to the world,” Hefets said. “And when it felt like the world became stable again, we said, ‘Okay, let’s get back out there.’ ”

Divvy Homes CEO and co-founder Adena Hefets

Ultimately, over the course of 2020, Divvy expanded operations from 8 to 16 total markets and financed five times as many homes as it had in pre-pandemic times. It also worked with its existing customers by offering flexibility and rent relief in  the way of waived late fees and flexible payment scheduling, for example.

“Mortgages were harder to get yet we were seeing this mad rush of people who wanted to move out of multifamily and downtown areas,” Hefets recalls. “So while traditional financing dried up, we saw a really good tailwind for our business.”

Divvy declined to disclose the valuation at which this round was raised but Hefets said it was “very highly oversubscribed.”

Rent to own

So how does Divvy work?

Divvy claims to be different from other real estate tech companies in that it aims to digitize “the archaic, data-heavy processes buyers encounter along the way.” It works with renters who want to become homeowners by buying the home they want and renting it back to them for three years “while [they build] the savings needed to own it themselves.”

Rather than buy homes and look for renters, the company does the opposite. Customers pick out a home and Divvy purchases it on their behalf with the renter contributing an initial 1-2 percent of the home value. They move in at closing, and pay one monthly amount. Part of that money is a “market-rate” rent and about 25 percent goes toward building up their savings in the house so they can put a down payment (estimated at 10 percent value of the home) on to purchase from Divvy later. The renters can choose to cash out their equity or purchase the home before the three years are up, if they choose. They also have the option to re-up their contract if needed, to take a bit longer to save up for a larger down payment.

Divvy  started buying homes in the first half of 2018 and so far, the company is seeing nearly half of those renters buying back the homes.

“Even the most experienced players in the space, maybe have low single-digit buyback rates so it’s definitely quite a bit higher than what the rest of the industry is seeing,” Hefets told TechCrunch.

When it first started out, the prices of the homes it bought averaged around $140,000 to $150,000. Now the average home prices are more like just over $200,000, she said.

While Divvy’s mission involves wanting to make homeownership more accessible, Hefets points out that it’s a lucrative business model as well.

“The number of people who fall outside of the traditional mortgage box is growing,” she added, with more people struggling to be able to purchase a home.

Investor POV

Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Alex Rampell led the first investment in Divvy. He recognizes that from the consumer perspective, it’s difficult to be able to save for a down payment “when you’re throwing away money on rent every month.”

“A huge number of people want to become homeowners but just can’t,” he said.

Rampel also appreciates that its model is not as speculative as the typical investor approach of first buying a home and then renting it out.

“So they’re not spending the first nine months after purchasing a home looking for a tenant,” he said. “They’re not speculating on an empty house and worrying what happens if they buy a home and can’t rent it out.”

For Tiger Global Partner Scott Shleifer, what Divvy has accomplished is “phenomenal.”

“Over the next ten years we believe they could help over one hundred thousand families become financially responsible homeowners,” he said in a written statement.

Looking ahead, Divvy plans to use its fresh capital in part to expand to more markets with the lofty goal of serving more than 70 million Americans in over 20 markets by year’s end beyond cities such as Atlanta, Denver, Dallas and Tampa. The 80-person company also plans to take its offering a step further by launching ancillary product offerings to take buyers throughout the home buying journey. It already helps customers through title & escrow, inspections, negotiating and repairs. But ultimately, Divvy wants to “create a complete end-to-end experience” from providing realtors to serving as a lender, according to Hefets.

“That’s our bigger vision,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”