Quibi is dead, reports say

Plagued with growth issues, Quibi, a short-form mobile-native video platform, is shutting down, according to multiple reports. The startup, co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, had raised nearly $2 billion in its lifetime as a private company. Quibi did not respond to requests for comment from TechCrunch.

The company’s prolific fundraising efforts spanned prominent institutions in private equity, venture capital and Hollywood, all betting on Katzenberg’s ability to deliver another hit. The startup’s backers included Alibaba, Madrone Capital Partners, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan as well as Disney, Sony Pictures, Viacom, WarnerMedia and MGM, among others.

Their pitch was highly produced bite-sized content, packed with Hollywood star power, and designed to be “mobile-first” entertainment. For the YouTube’s and Snap’s of the world producing mainstream content on a shoestring budget, Quibi wanted to be an HBO for smartphones. Investors and pundits questioned the firm’s ability to monetize this vision, and it became clear soon after launch that the company had miscalculated.

Rumors that Quibi was shutting down began early this week. The Information wrote that Katzenberg has told people within the industry that the company might need to shut down, after unsuccessfully pitching itself as an acquisition to Apple, Facebook, and Warner Media.

In its first few months, Quibi was downloaded 3.5 million times and had 1.5 million active users. While those figures aren’t too shabby, the company had to adjust its original projections, which put the service on a trajectory to reach 7 million users and $250 million in subscriber revenue in its first year. Admitting that the launch hadn’t gone as planned, Katzenberg blamed the coronavirus for the streaming app’s challenges.

The company expanded in Australia in August with a free ad-supported tier for users. It is unclear if the tweak in the business model brought Quibi success, or if the problems for the app had to do with the business model in the first place.

Netflix earnings from earlier this week suggest that the pandemic entertainment boom is slowing. The consumer video service disappointed on new paying customer numbers, and shares were down sharply yesterday after it released its earnings report. Those numbers also potentially showcase just how crowded the market for subscription video content has gotten in the past 12 months, with players like Apple, Disney, HBO and NBC each launching new services and collectively spending billions to acquire rights to past television hits.

 

Founders don’t need to be full-time to start raising venture capital

“More than 50% of our founders still are in their current jobs,” said John Vrionis, co-founder of seed-stage fund Unusual Ventures.

The fund, which closed a $400 million investment vehicle in November 2019, has noticed that more and more startup employees are thinking about entrepreneurship as the pandemic has shown how much room there is for new innovation. To gain a competitive advantage, Unusual is investing small checks into founders before they’re full-time.

Unusual, which cuts an average of eight checks per year into seed-stage companies, isn’t doling out millions to every employee who decides to leave Stripe. The firm is conservative with its spending and takes a more focused approach, often embedding a member from the firm into a portfolio company. It’s not meant to scale to dozens of portfolio companies a year, but instead requires a methodical approach.

One with a healthy pipeline of companies to choose from.

In an Extra Crunch Live chat, Vrionis and Sarah Leary, co-founder of Nextdoor and the firm’s newest partner, said lightweight investing matters in the early days of a company.

“There were a lot of teams that needed capital to start the journey, but frankly, it would have been over burdensome if they took on $2 or $3 million,” Leary said. “[New founders] want to be in a place where they have enough money to get going but not too much money that they get locked into a ladder in terms of expectations that they’re not ready to take advantage of.” The checks that Unusual cuts in pre-seed often range between $100,000 to half a million dollars.

Leary chalks up the boom to the disruption in consumer behavior, which opens up the opportunity for new companies to win.

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election?

Before the 2016 election, Vice Ventures founder and general partner Catharine Dockery was bullish about the future of recreational cannabis in the United States.

“We saw quite a bit more optimism around national legalization, with the feeling that a wave of states legalizing recreational use would be the final push needed” to see drug reform, she said. It was good news for Dockery, who was planning to launch a firm investing in categories like cannabis, CBD, psychedelics and sextech.

She announced a $25 million fund in June 2019, but the national policy landscape had shifted considerably.

“The vitriol and division around the election really haven’t left room for substantive discussions. I think this will eventually change, but don’t have high hopes for much policy debate until the election is complete, if at all,” she said. “In a time of uncertainty, we’re taking a small step back.”

Along with many VC firms, Vice Ventures has raised the bar regarding which startups it will fund, but several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making decisions in the closing days of the presidential campaign. After a booming summer, some said momentum is increasing, while others told us that expectations have never been higher for startups.

“If anything, the pace is increasing,” said Alexa Von Tobel of Inspired Capital. Traditionally, she said founders scale back on fundraising efforts close to the winter holidays because investors’ vacation mentality is kicking in. This year, “I think we’ll continue to see founders taking advantage of the ample flow of capital right now and shore up resources so they can enter 2021 on strong footing,” she said.

While that may be good news for founders, Von Tobel said Inspired Capital is not giving too much weight to the election internally.

“We think of ourselves as patient capital, focused on looking for the best companies no matter the timing,” she said. “While we know the election will create noise and have an impact on businesses long-term, it does not have a place in our process right now.”

Inspired Capital invests more broadly in the early-stage environment, which plays a part in its ability to invest through crises and turbulence. It seems that firms that have more niche investment theses have been more likely to change their pace ahead of the election.

Ready, Set, Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class

In 2018, Leslie Feinzaig, the founder of Female Founders Alliance, launched a free, equity-free accelerator for women called Ready, Set, Raise. The goal was to provide under-networked female founders the coaching and connections needed to raise money.

This year, as funding for female founders drops to 2017 levels, Feinzaig realized why accelerators, hers included, might not work for women as well as they work for men: demo day. A common culminating event in most accelerators, demo day is an event where founders pitch to a room to investors, angels, and journalists with the hope of raising a round and landing some coverage.

“The truth is, you don’t raise a round based on a 5-minute, highly scripted, polished and practiced on-stage pitch,” Feinzaig continued. “You raise it by being able to pitch your startup to any person, at any time, in any context, and get them excited enough to want to participate in your journey.”

So, Feinzaig says the “aha moment” led to Ready, Set, Raise changing its programming, which will run 8-weeks, to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

The coronavirus has impacted the way that accelerators work, Y Combinator and Techstars moved to live, virtual programming, which has the opportunity to be more accessible to parents or people who cannot relocate to Palo Alto for three months out of the year. That said, Y Combinator’s latest batch had a drop in diversity, with only 16% of the companies having a founder who identified as female. In the previous batch, nearly 21% of companies had a founder who identified as female.

The drop in access makes Feinzaig’s work even more difficult, and important. This year, as applications rolled in for Ready, Set, Raise, Feinzaig noticed that more mature companies were applying than usual. The detail led to the founder surveying female founders and discovering that women who had the ambition to start a company before the pandemic, are less likely to do so now. Still, she’s optimistic, saying that they saw the “highest caliber of applicants” to her accelerator than ever before.

Today, Ready Set Raise announced its third cohort, including a startup that digitizes retailers which sell outdoor equipment, a marketplace for ethical and legal data exchange, and a digital platform that connects Black women to culturally-aware providers.

Here’s a look at Ready, Set, Raise’s third cohort of startups:

Brightly: Founded by Laura Wittig and Liza Moiseeva, Brightly is a startup that combines commerce, content, and community with the goal of scaling conscious consumerism. It is based in Seattle, WA.

Womp.ai: Founded by Gabriela Trueba, Womp wants to help anyone explore, create, and share 3D. It is based in Brooklyn, NY

FixFake: Founded by Kathryn Harrison and Jason Law, FixFake offers decision support tools to reduce fraud in e-commerce. It is based in Bozeman, MT

tbd health: Founded by Stephanie Estey, Daphne Chen, and Sherwin Lu, tbd health is an at-home, STI screening platform made for women. It is based in New York, NY.

Gearo: Founded by Justine Barone, Gearo digitizes outdoor retailer operations and brings in adventure-seekers as customers. It is based in Denver, CO

Mary Louise Cosmetics: Founded by Akilah Releford, Mary Louise Cosmetics sells natural skincare and personal care products. It is based in Los Angeles, CA

datacy: Founded by CEO Paroma Indilo and Kaleb Wilson, Datacy is a marketplace focused on enabling ethical and legal data exchange. It is based in San Jose, CA.

Health In Her HUE: Founded by Ashlee Wisdom and Eddwina Bright, the company is a digital platform connecting Black women to culturally competent providers. It is based in New York, NY.

The class will begin October 19th. Members will receive coaching from a variety of partners including Cooley LLP, Carta, Grasshopper Bank, Madrona Venture Group, UPS and Zendesk for Startups.

Three views on the future of media startups

The Equity crew this week chewed through a trio of media stories, each dealing with private companies and their successes. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Axios was growing rapidly and near profitability. The paper also broke news that Morning Brew might exit to Business Insider for a hefty $75 million potential payout. Meanwhile, we covered the news that The Juggernaut raised $2 million for its paywalled publication focused on South Asian news.

The conversation, as a result, was a fairly indulgent and nerdy affair. It’s always fun to celebrate other journalists finding success in different ways, and this week felt like a moment for the media news landscape. Because the topic is so near to our hearts, for better or worse, we’re fitting our broader thoughts into this post about the future of media.

Our own Natasha Mascarenhas writes about how inequity in media and who gets to succeed, Danny Crichton has some pretty strong feelings about digital advertising and Alex Wilhelm writes about how the varied methods of recent media success are themselves heartening.

So this weekend let’s pause for a minute to ruminate on the upstart media world, a place where too often private capital and media economics have had a falling out.

Natasha Mascarenhas

This week, it was announced that advertising might not be a bad idea after all. Axios is reportedly expected to become profitable this year, and Morning Brew, a free newsletter about business insights, could get acquired for between $50 million to $75 million by Business Insider. Both of these media companies make money off of newsletters. And if you end the story there, it’s clear that news isn’t simply a fundamental aspect of our democracy — it makes money, too.

But, the story shouldn’t end there.

Startup founders set up hacker homes to recreate Silicon Valley synergy

In Y Combinator’s early days, founders would move to Palo Alto, split a two-bedroom with five others to save money and trade notes around the clock with their new, like-minded roommates.

Now, as remote work continues and the pandemic persists, scores of entrepreneurs are working from home around the world. Y Combinator isn’t requiring its recent cohorts to relocate and collaboration is a screen-to-screen affair.

Now that they can work from literally anywhere, many entrepreneurs are forming homes with other founders. Hacker homes, the newest iteration of remote work adaption, feels like a nostalgic attempt to recreate some of the synergies COVID-19 wiped out. Generally speaking, it’s a nod to the digital nomad lifestyle, but in some cases, hacker homes feel closer to Hype House, a TikTok mansion laden with sponsored indulgence and wealth.

For Greg Isenberg, a growth advisor to TikTok and former head of strategy at WeWork, entrepreneur homes are a signal of what the foreseeable future of building could look like.

“The type of vibe you used to get from Y Combinator just doesn’t exist anymore,” Isenberg said, as these houses could recreate some of the scrappiness and like-mindedness that defined the incubator’s early days.

While some see founder communes as vehicles for creating a more level playing field, critics say the model perpetuates Silicon Valley cultural constructs that favor white men.

In other words, sometimes there’s a cost to after-work happy hours making a comeback.

Product Hunt, and then TikTok

Michael Houck, a former product manager at Airbnb and Uber, rented a home in Tulum, Mexico in May 2020. He put $21,000 of non-refundable money on his credit card and invited friends and people he met on the internet before hopping on a plane. Anyone who came had to be okay with a few rules: you must pay rent, launch projects and you have to be okay with building your company in public.

In all, 18 entrepreneurs, including Houck, formed The Launch House. Residents include former startup fellowship participants from On Deck, product managers and solo entrepreneurs. On the plane ride over, house founder Brett Goldstein launched its first tool.

Habitants of the Launch House use the pool for recreation and brainstorm sessions, called “pool-storms.” Image Credits: The Launch House

“How do you actually launch a consumer product? You need wide reach, influence, community and media properties all together,” Goldstein said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the next Y Combinator, but the next YC would look something like that.”

In just a few weeks, The Launch House has produced nine products, including a discovery platform for the best OnlyFans accounts, an anonymous Twitter bot that sends positive comments and tools that enhance newsletter and email reading experiences.

Launch House members described a strong focus on inclusion when populating future homes and just opened up the application process for Launch House 2. One way the house is trying to give access to other people is by open-sourcing information and projects that residents build together.

The website has a Launch Library where builders can submit their email addresses to access resources on how to build anything from a podcast to a clothing brand to a community.

“There’s this sort of veil of mystique that surrounds a lot of entrepreneurs and founders,” Goldstein said. “The curtain has been lifted, and now you can get a social media perspective, and inside look at what it takes to start and launch a company.”

Now, more than 1,500 people are on the Launch House waitlist. Multiple investors have approached the group to sponsor internal and external events and some companies have even asked for the right to do product placements.

The concept has surely brought in an audience, and copycats: an unaffiliated group called The Rocketship House posted a trailer on Twitter in October:

When reached via e-mail, organizers of Rocketship House declined to answer specific questions about the launch, or as they put it, “blast off.” The group confirmed that it is funded by a few unnamed large investors based in Beverly Hills, and includes a mix of marketers and influencers that invest in social media. It is currently accepting applications, drawing itself as similar to a TikTok mansion.

“Similar to Sway House [a residence for TikTok personalities], we will be making fun and dramatic dope bro content, centered around launching startups. We all live exciting lives, and there’s plenty of drama, so we’re excited to showcase that,” the e-mail from Rocketship House read.

Not all entrepreneur homes are following suit in terms of strategy, for more reasons than one.

Startup founders set up hacker homes to recreate Silicon Valley synergy

In Y Combinator’s early days, founders would move to Palo Alto, split a two-bedroom with five others to save money and trade notes around the clock with their new, like-minded roommates.

Now, as remote work continues and the pandemic persists, scores of entrepreneurs are working from home around the world. Y Combinator isn’t requiring its recent cohorts to relocate and collaboration is a screen-to-screen affair.

Now that they can work from literally anywhere, many entrepreneurs are forming homes with other founders. Hacker homes, the newest iteration of remote work adaption, feels like a nostalgic attempt to recreate some of the synergies COVID-19 wiped out. Generally speaking, it’s a nod to the digital nomad lifestyle, but in some cases, hacker homes feel closer to Hype House, a TikTok mansion laden with sponsored indulgence and wealth.

For Greg Isenberg, a growth advisor to TikTok and former head of strategy at WeWork, entrepreneur homes are a signal of what the foreseeable future of building could look like.

“The type of vibe you used to get from Y Combinator just doesn’t exist anymore,” Isenberg said, as these houses could recreate some of the scrappiness and like-mindedness that defined the incubator’s early days.

While some see founder communes as vehicles for creating a more level playing field, critics say the model perpetuates Silicon Valley cultural constructs that favor white men.

In other words, sometimes there’s a cost to after-work happy hours making a comeback.

Product Hunt, and then TikTok

Michael Houck, a former product manager at Airbnb and Uber, rented a home in Tulum, Mexico in May 2020. He put $21,000 of non-refundable money on his credit card and invited friends and people he met on the internet before hopping on a plane. Anyone who came had to be okay with a few rules: you must pay rent, launch projects and you have to be okay with building your company in public.

In all, 18 entrepreneurs, including Houck, formed The Launch House. Residents include former startup fellowship participants from On Deck, product managers and solo entrepreneurs. On the plane ride over, house founder Brett Goldstein launched its first tool.

Habitants of the Launch House use the pool for recreation and brainstorm sessions, called “pool-storms.” Image Credits: The Launch House

“How do you actually launch a consumer product? You need wide reach, influence, community and media properties all together,” Goldstein said. “I wouldn’t say we’re the next Y Combinator, but the next YC would look something like that.”

In just a few weeks, The Launch House has produced nine products, including a discovery platform for the best OnlyFans accounts, an anonymous Twitter bot that sends positive comments and tools that enhance newsletter and email reading experiences.

Launch House members described a strong focus on inclusion when populating future homes and just opened up the application process for Launch House 2. One way the house is trying to give access to other people is by open-sourcing information and projects that residents build together.

The website has a Launch Library where builders can submit their email addresses to access resources on how to build anything from a podcast to a clothing brand to a community.

“There’s this sort of veil of mystique that surrounds a lot of entrepreneurs and founders,” Goldstein said. “The curtain has been lifted, and now you can get a social media perspective, and inside look at what it takes to start and launch a company.”

Now, more than 1,500 people are on the Launch House waitlist. Multiple investors have approached the group to sponsor internal and external events and some companies have even asked for the right to do product placements.

The concept has surely brought in an audience, and copycats: an unaffiliated group called The Rocketship House posted a trailer on Twitter in October:

When reached via e-mail, organizers of Rocketship House declined to answer specific questions about the launch, or as they put it, “blast off.” The group confirmed that it is funded by a few unnamed large investors based in Beverly Hills, and includes a mix of marketers and influencers that invest in social media. It is currently accepting applications, drawing itself as similar to a TikTok mansion.

“Similar to Sway House [a residence for TikTok personalities], we will be making fun and dramatic dope bro content, centered around launching startups. We all live exciting lives, and there’s plenty of drama, so we’re excited to showcase that,” the e-mail from Rocketship House read.

Not all entrepreneur homes are following suit in terms of strategy, for more reasons than one.

Discuss the unbundling of early-stage VC with Unusual Ventures’ Sarah Leary & John Vrionis

This year has been everything but business as usual for the venture and tech community. And we still have a presidential election ahead of us.

So, why not listen to the aptly-named experts over at Unusual Ventures? Partners Sarah Leary (co-founder of Nextdoor) and John Vrionis, formerly of Lightspeed Ventures Partners, will join us on Tuesday, October 20 on the Extra Crunch Live virtual stage.

Thanks to all of you who have joined us for our series of live discussions that has included tech leaders like Sydney Sykes, Alexia von Tobel, Mark Cuban and many others (all recordings are still accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers to watch and learn from).

If you’re new, welcome! You’ll have a chance to participate in the live discussion if you have an Extra Crunch subscription.

Unusual Ventures’ investments span the consumer and enterprise space, including companies like Robinhood, AppDynamics, Mulesoft and Winnie.

For this chat, I plan to spend some time talking to Leary and Vrionis about how early-stage venture capital has changed with the rise of rolling funds, community funds and syndicates. Unusual Ventures claims “there’s an enormous opportunity to raise the bar on what seed-stage investors provide for early-stage founders,” so we’ll get into that opportunity as well.

And if we have time, we’ll discuss remote work, building in public and the U.S. presidential election.

So, what are you waiting for? Add the deets to your calendar (below the jump!) and join me next Tuesday.

Details

With thousands of subscribers, The Juggernaut raises $2 million for a South Asian-focused news outlet

As paid newsletters grow in popularity, Snigdha Sur, the founder of South Asian-focused media company The Juggernaut, has no qualms about avoiding the approach entirely. In October 2017, Sur started The Juggernaut as a free newsletter, called InkMango. As she searched for news on the South Asian diaspora, she found that articles lacked original reporting, aggregation was becoming repetitive and mainstream news organizations weren’t answering big questions.

Then InkMango crossed 700 free readers, and Sur saw an opportunity for a full-bodied media company, not just a newsletter.

One year and a Y Combinator graduation later, The Juggernaut has worked with more than 100 contributors (both journalists and illustrators) to provide analysis on South Asian news. Recent headlines on The Juggernaut include: The Evolution of Padma Lakshmi; How Ancestry Test Results Became Browner; and How the Death of a Bollywood Actor Became a Political Proxy War. The network approach, instead of a single newesletter approach,aggreff is working so far: Sur says that The Juggernaut has garnered “thousands of subscribers.” During COVID-19, The Juggernaut’s net subscribers have grown 20% to 30% month over month, she said.

On the heels of this growth, The Juggernaut announced today that it has raised a $2 million seed round led by Precursor Ventures to hire editors and a full-time growth engineer, and expand new editorial projects. Other investors in the round include Unpopular Ventures, Backstage Capital, New Media Ventures and Old Town Media. Angels include former Andreessen Horowitz general partner Balaji Srinivasan; co-founder of Kabam, Holly Liu; and co-founder of sports-focused publication The Athletic, Adam Hansmann.

Currently, The Juggernaut charges $3.99 a month for an annual subscription, $9.99 a month for a monthly subscription and $249.99 for a lifetime subscription to the news outlet. It also offers a seven-day free trial (with a conversation rate to paid at over 80%) and has a free newsletter, which Sur says will remain free to bring in top-of-the-funnel customers.

The Juggernaut is part of a growing number of media companies trying to directly monetize off of subscriptions instead of advertisements, such as The Information, The Athletic, and even our very own Extra Crunch. If successful, the hope is that paid subscriptions will prove more sustainable and lucrative than advertising, which still dominates in media.

But Sur is purposely pacing herself when it comes to expenses in the early days. The team currently has only three full-time staff, including Sur, culture editor Imaan Sheikh and one full-time writer, Michaela Stone Cross.

Snigdha Sur, the founder of The Juggernaut.

“Sometimes at media companies people over-hire and over-promise, and then don’t deliver on the profitability or return,” she said. For this reason, The Juggernaut largely works with “freelancers who would probably never join any specific publication,” Sur said. While The Juggernaut hopes to have full-time staff writers eventually, the contributor approach helps temper spending.

Beyond pace, The Juggernaut is looking to build up its subscriber base by writing stories that require deep, creative thinking. The publication intentionally does not cover commoditized breaking news, which could have the potential to bring in more inbound traffic, or anything that doesn’t have a South Asian connection.

Sur is living the stories that she is working to tell. Born in Chhattisgarh, India, she grew up in the Bronx and Queens in New York City, and spent time living and working in Mumbai, India. Since founding The Juggernaut, her goal for the publication has been to be a place for not just South Asians, but for “anyone who has a form of curiosity and appreciation” for South Asian culture.

“We try not to translate words we don’t have to do, we’re not trying to dumb this down, we’re not trying to write for the white teen,” she said. “We’re trying to write for the smart, curious person. And we’re going to assume you know stuff.”

With $2.7M in fresh funding, Sora hopes to bring virtual high school to the mainstream

Long before the coronavirus, Sora, a startup run by a team of Atlanta entrepreneurs, was toying with the idea of live, virtual high school. The program would focus on student autonomy and organize its curriculum around projects that learners wanted to work on, such as finding ways to reduce the impact of climate change on the world. Students and teachers would use Zoom and Slack to communicate with each other, with standups everyday to pulse-check progress.

The pandemic has both undermined and underscored Sora’s focus. On one end, the millions of students that flocked home have shown how hard it is to effectively and accessibly teach in virtual settings. On the other end, the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. Parents and students are desperate for better options.

Sora co-founder Garrett Smiley thinks he can convince parents to approach virtual high school with optimism, their kids and their checkbooks. It all starts with green algae farms.

Smiley said students turn to Sora so they can “start running instead of walking” in their education. He added how the first students in the program spent time building algae farms in their backyards, working with SpaceX engineers and taking college-level math classes upon entrance.

Smiley, who co-founded the company with Indra Sofian and Wesley Samples, says that Sora sells best to students who feel stifled or “held back” from traditional educational institutions. Sora’s product, thus, feels more apt for educationally gifted students than students who might need extra help or support.

At Sora’s heart, it is a private school replacement with a project-based curriculum. How it works beyond that is a little bit more confusing to comprehend. Firstly, students upon enrollment embark on two-week learning expeditions, exploring the answers to broad questions like “how do we recreate an alien species.” As time progresses, students are prompted to create their own projects with check-in calls twice a day. Below is an example of a standup:

Beyond the self-directed study, Sora offers a series of Socratic seminars and workshops.

There’s no such thing as science class, but there are workshops such as “the Physics of Sharks.” Here’s an example schedule of a Sora student:

Image Credits: Sora

The organization is unconventional. Smiley is insistent on the fact that students complete core subjects and standards needed for high school transcript and graduation, including math, science, English and history. Students are also required to take the SAT or ACT, with practice resources provided by the school.

Sora also has an in-person, optional element. Cohorts will be designed by geography. Students are encouraged to meet up with each other outside of school, form sports teams and attend a Sora-sponsored meet-up.

Outside of learning, Sora created a network of more than 50 career mentors and has a suite of services, such as SAT prep and counselors to aid with the college admissions process.

Smiley says that Sora hasn’t yet graduated a class, so they do not have data on most common exit paths, but he added that the company does not promote college as the only option for students.

Sora is working on partnering with the “next generation of college and university replacements,” he says, such as boot camps or internships.

The goal of Sora is to create a community of self-directed and motivated learners.

“We don’t believe schools are in the business of content creation anymore, just typing in Google search engine search specifically you’ll probably find world-class resources to learn a subject,” Smiley said. “So for us, as to be a super successful school, we knew our role was creating this super high-quality community.”

The company had seven students in its inaugural class last year. Now, more than 39 students participate in Sora School, with three-full time faculty. Monthly tuition ranges from $300 to $800 per student.

Tuition is charged in relation to parent income by using a sliding scale, which Smiley says is part of their strategy in making sure Sora is an inclusive and diverse school.

The diversity breakdown of Sora is 67% white, 15% Hispanic, 13% African American and 5% Asian/Middle Eastern. The gender split male to female is 54% and 44%, respectively, with 2% of students identifying as non-binary.

From a mental diversity perspective, Sora lacks key resources needed to support students with special needs. Virtual high school as a product isn’t built for adoption en masse, but instead works best for students who can afford to partake in self-directed and independent learning. Similar to pandemic pods, it could exacerbate the widening inequalities between wealthy and low-income students.

Smiley says that they “definitely thought about” accessibility and are working on it. Still, he says that Sora is created for “students who perhaps don’t need the extreme structure of an in-person school,” which he estimates to be 95% of the world’s learners.

As Sora scales, a key aspect of its success will be if it is able to balance its hands-on, hands-off approach. The startup announced this week that it has raised a $2.7 million round, led by Union Square Ventures, to bring on more faculty, software engineers for back-end support and managers to work on curriculum development. Other participating investors in the round include Village Global, ReThink Education, Firebolt Ventures, Peak State Ventures, Contrary Capital and angel investor Taylor Greene.