Dashdash, a platform to create web apps using only spreadsheet skills, nabs $8M led by Accel

Sometimes I think of spreadsheets as the dirty secret of the IT world today. We’ve seen a huge explosion in the number of productivity tools on the market tailored to help workers with different aspects of doing their job and organising their information, in part to keep them from simply dumping lots of information into Excel or whatever program they happen to use. And yet, spreadsheets are still one of the very, very most common pieces of software in use today: Excel alone now has around 1 billion users, and for those who are devotees, spreadsheets are not going to go away soon.

So it’s interesting that there are now startups — and larger companies like Microsoft — emerging that are tapping into that, creating new services that still appear like spreadsheets in the front end, while doing something completely in the back.

One of the latest is a startup called dashdash, a startup out of Berlin and Porto that is building a platform for people, who might to be programmers but know their way around a spreadsheet, to use those skills to build, modify and update web apps. The dashdash platform looks and acts like a spreadsheet up front, but in the back, each ‘macro’ links to a web app computing feature, or a design element, to build something that ultimately will look nothing like a spreadsheet, bypassing all the lines of code that traditionally go into building web apps.

The startup is still in stealth mode, with plans to launch formally later this year. Today, it’s announcing that it has received $8 million in seed funding to get there, with the round being led by Accel, with participation from Cherry Ventures, Atlantic Labs, and angel investors including Felix Jahn, founder of Home24.

Co-founded by serial entrepreneurs Humberto Ayres Pereira and Torben Schulz — who had also been co-founders of food delivery startup EatFirst — Ayres Pereira said that the idea came out of their own observations in work life and the bottleneck of getting things fixed or modified in a company’s apps (both internal and customer-facing).

“People have a lot of frustration with the IT department, and their generally access to it,” he said in an interview. “If you are part of an internet business, it’s very hard to get features prioritised in an app, no matter how small they are. Tech is like a big train on iron tracks, and it can be hard to steer it in a different direction.”

On the other hand, even among the less technical staff, there will be proficiency with certain software, including spreadsheets. “Programming and spreadsheets already store and transform data,” Ayers Pereira said. “There are already a lot of people trying to do more with incumbent spreadsheets, and [combining that with] non-IT people frustrated at having no solution for working on apps, we saw an opportunity to use this to build an elegant platform the empower people. We can’t teach people to program but we can provide them with the tools to do the exact same job.”

While in stealth mode, he said that early users have ranged from smaller businesses such as pharmacies, to “a multi-billion-dollar internet company.” (No names, of course, but it’s interesting to me that this problem even exists at large tech businesses.)

Dashdash is not the only company that is tapping this opportunity. The other week, and IoT startup called Hanhaa launched a service that would let those using Hanhaa IoT sensors in their networks to monitor and interact with them by way of an Excel spreadsheet — another tip of the hat to the realisation that those who might need to keep tabs on devices in the network might not be the people who are the engineers and technicians who have set them up.

That, in turn, is part of a bigger effort from Microsoft to catapult Excel from its reputation as a piece of clunky legacy software into something much more dynamic, playing on the company’s push into cloud services and Office 365.

In September of 2017, Microsoft gave a developer preview of new “streaming functions” for Excel on Office 365, which lets developers, IT professionals and end users the ability to bring streams of data from a variety of sources such as websites, stock tickers and hardware directly into a cell or cells in an Excel spreadsheet, by way of a custom function. “Because Excel is so widely used and familiar to so many people, the ability to do all kinds of amazing things with that data and without complex integration is now possible,” said Ben Summers, a senior product manager for the Office 365 ecosystem team, in a statement to TechCrunch.

That ability to remove the bottleneck from web app building, combined with the track record of the founders, are two of the reasons that Accel decided to invest before the product even launched.

“We believe in dashdash’s mission to democratise app creation and are excited to back Humberto and Torben at such an early stage in their journey,” said Andrei Brasoveanu, the Accel partner who led the deal. “The team has the experience and vision to build a high-impact company that brings computing to the fingertips of a broad audience. Over the past decade we’ve seen a proliferation of web services and APIs, but regular business users still need to rely on central IT and colleagues with development skills to leverage these in their day-to-day processes. With dashdash anyone will be able to access these powerful web services directly with minimal effort, empowering them to automate their day to day tasks and work more effectively.”

With every tool that emerges that frees up accessibility to more people — be they employees or consumers — there are inevitably questions about how that power will be used. In the case of dashdash, my first thought is about those who I know who work in IT: they generally don’t want anyone able to modify or “fix” their code, lest it just creates more problems. And that’s before you start wondering about how all these democratised web apps will look, and if they might inadvertently will add to more overall UI and UX confusion.

Ayres Pereira said dash dash is mindful of the design question, and will introduce ways of helping to direct this, for example for companies to implement their own house styles. And similarly, a business can put in place other controls to help channel how webapps created through dashdash’s spreadsheet interface ultimately get applied.

 

Hustle rallies $30M for grassroots texting tool Republicans can’t use

Hustle 20X’d its annual revenue run rate in 15 months by denying clients that contradict its political views. It’s a curious, controversial, yet successful strategy for the startup whose app lets activists and marketers text thousands of potential supporters or customers one at a time. Compared to generic email blasts and robocalls, Hustle gets much higher conversion rates because people like connecting with a real human who can answer their follow-up questions.

The whole business is built around those relationships, so campaigns, non-profits, and enterprises have to believe in Hustle’s brand. That’s why CEO Roddy Lindsay tells me “We don’t sell to republican candidates or committees. What it’s allowed us to do is build trust with the Democratic party and progressive organizations. We don’t have to worry about celebrating our clients’ success and offending other clients.”

Hustle execs from left: COO Ysiad Ferreiras, CEO Roddy Lindsay, CTO Tyler Brock

Investors agree. Tempted by Hustle’s remarkable growth to well over a $10 million run rate and 85 million conversations started, Insight Partners has led a $30 million Series B for the startup that’s joined by Google’s GV and Salesforce Ventures.

The round comes just 10 months after Hustle’s $8M Series B when it was only doing $3 million in revenue. Lindsay says he was impressed with Insight’s experience with communication utilities like Cvent and non-profit tools like Ministry Brands. Its managing director Hillary Gosher who specializes in growing sales teams will join Hustle’s board, which is a great fit since Hustle is hiring like crazy.

Humanizing The Call To Action

Founded in late 2014, Hustle’s app lets organizers write MadLibs-style text message scripts and import contact lists. Their staffers or volunteers send out the messages one by one, with the blanks automatically filled in to personalize the calls to action. Recipients can respond directly with the sender ready with answers to assuage their fears until they’re ready to donate, buy, attend, or help. Meanwhile, organizers can track their conversions, optimize scripts, and reallocate assignments so they can reach huge audiences with an empathetic touch.

The Hustle admin script editor

The app claims to be 77X faster than making phone calls and 5.5X more engaging than email, which has won Hustle clients like LiveNation’s concert empire, NYU, and the Sierra Club. Clients pay $0.30 per contact uploaded into Hustle, with discounts for bigger operations. Now at $41 million in total funding, Hustle plans to push further beyond its core political and non-profit markets and deeper into driving alumni donations for universities, sales for enterprises, and attendance for event promoters.

Hustle will be doing that without one of its three co-founders, Perry Rosenstein, who left at the end of 2017. [Disclosure: I know Lindsay from college and once worked on a short-lived social meetup app with Rosenstein called Signal.] Lindsay says Rosenstein’s “real excellence was about early stage activities and problems”. Indeed, in my experience he was more attuned to underlying product-market fit than the chores of scaling a business. “It was Perry’s decision, it was a departure we celebrated, and he’s still involved as an informal adviser to me and the company” Lindsay concluded.

Hustle is growing so fast, this recent photo is already missing a third of the team

Hustle has over 100 other employees in SF, NYC, and DC to pick up the torch, though. That’s up from just 12 employees at the start of 2017. And it’s perhaps one of the most diverse larger startups around. Lindsay says his company is 51 percent women, 48 percent people of color, and 21 percent LGBT. This inclusive culture attracts top diverse talent. “We see this as a key differentiator for us. It allows us to hire incredible people” Lindsay says. “It’s something we took seriously from day one and the results show.”

Partisan On Purpose

What started as a favored tool of the Bernie Sanders campaign has blossomed into a new method of communicating at scale. “We’re massively humanizing the way these organizations communicate” Lindsay said. “Humans really matter, no matter if what you care about is getting lots of people to come to events, vote, or renew a season ticket package. Having a relationship with another person can cut through the noise. That’s different than your interactions with bots or email marketing campaigns or things where it’s dehumanized.”

Lindsay felt the frustration of weak relationships when after leaving Facebook where he worked for six years as one of its first data scientists, he volunteered for Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us immigration reform organization. Its email got just a 1 percent conversion rate. He linked up with Obama’s former Nevada new media director Rosenstein and CTO Tyler Brock to fix that with Hustle.

Working with Bernie aligned with the team’s political sentiments, but they were quickly faced with whether they wanted to fuel both sides of the aisle — which would mean delivering fringe conservative campaign messages they couldn’t stomach. Hustle still has no formal policy about declining Republican money, and a spokesperson said they point potential clients to TechCrunch’s previous article mentioning the stance. Meanwhile, Hustle is growing its for-profit client base to make shunning the GOP feel like less of a loss. Having Salesforce as a strategic investor also creates a bridge to a potential exit option.

Focusing on the left is working for now. Over 25 state Democratic parties are clients. Hustle sent 2.5 million messages and reached over 700,000 voters — 1 in 5 total — during the Alabama special election, helping Democrat Doug Jones win the Senate seat.

“Let’s build this great business for the Democratic party. Let’s let someone else take the Republicans” Lindsay explains. A stealth startup called OpnSesame is doing just that, Lindsay mentions. But he says “we don’t actually see them as competitive. We see them as potential allies that advocate for the power of p2p texting in getting everyone included in our democracy.” Instead, Lindsay sees the potential for Hustle to lose its sense of purpose and drive as it rapidly hires as its biggest threat.

Long-term, Hustle hopes to propel the right side of history by sticking to the left. Lindsay concludes, “You can really just put on your business hat and see this is a good choice.”

Allegro.AI nabs $11M for a platform that helps businesses build computer vision-based services

Artificial intelligence and the application of it across nearly every aspect of our lives is shaping up to be one of the major step changes of our modern society. Today, a startup that wants to help other companies capitalise on AI’s advances is announcing funding and emerging from stealth mode.

Allegro.AI, which has built a deep learning platform that companies can use to build and train computer-vision-based technologies — from self-driving car systems through to security, medical and any other services that require a system to read and parse visual data — is today announcing that it has raised $11 million in funding, as it prepares for a full-scale launch of its commercial services later this year after running pilots and working with early users in a closed beta.

The round may not be huge by today’s startup standards, but the presence of strategic investors speaks to the interest that the startup has sparked and the gap in the market for what it is offering. It includes MizMaa Ventures — a Chinese fund that is focused on investing in Israeli startups, along with participation from Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH (RBVC), Samsung Catalyst Fund and Israeli fund Dynamic Loop Capital. Other investors (the $11 million actually covers more than one round) are not being disclosed.

Nir Bar-Lev, the CEO and cofounder (Moses Guttmann, another cofounder, is the company’s CTO), started Allegro.AI first as Seematics in 2016 after he left Google, where he had worked in various senior roles for over 10 years. It was partly that experience that led him to the idea that with the rise of AI, there would be an opportunity for companies that could build a platform to help other less AI-savvy companies build AI-based products.

“We’re addressing a gap in the industry,” he said in an interview. Although there are a number of services, for example Rekognition from Amazon’s AWS, which allow a developer to ping a database by way of an API to provide analytics and some identification of a video or image, these are relatively basic and couldn’t be used to build and “teach” full-scale navigation systems, for example.

“An ecosystem doesn’t exist for anything deep-learning based.” Every company that wants to build something would have to invest 80-90 percent of their total R&D resources on infrastructure, before getting to the many other apsects of building a product, he said, which might also include the hardware and applications themselves. “We’re providing this so that the companies don’t need to build it.”

Instead, the research scientists that will buy in the Allegro.AI platform — it’s not intended for non-technical users (not now at least) — can concentrate on overseeing projects and considering strategic applications and other aspects of the projects. He says that currently, its direct target customers are tech companies and others that rely heavily on tech, “but are not the Googles and Amazons of the world.”

Indeed, companies like Google, AWS, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have all made major inroads into AI, and in one way or another each has a strong interest in enterprise services and may already be hosting a lot of data in their clouds. But Bar-Lev believes that companies ultimately will be wary to work with them on large-scale AI projects:

“A lot of the data that’s already on their cloud is data from before the AI revolution, before companies realized that the asset today is data,” he said. “If it’s there, it’s there and a lot of it is transactional and relational data.

“But what’s not there is all the signal-based data, all of the data coming from computer vision. That is not on these clouds. We haven’t spoken to a single automotive who is sharing that with these cloud providers. They are not even sharing it with their OEMs. I’ve worked at Google, and I know how companies are afraid of them. These companies are terrified of tech companies like Amazon and so on eating them up, so if they can now stop and control their assets they will do that.”

Customers have the option of working with Allegro either as a cloud or on-premise product, or a combination of the two, and this brings up the third reason that Allegro believes it has a strong opportunity. The quantity of data that is collected for image-based neural networks is massive, and in some regards it’s not practical to rely on cloud systems to process that. Allegro’s emphasis is on building computing at the edge to work with the data more efficiently, which is one of the reasons investors were also interested.

“AI and machine learning will transform the way we interact with all the devices in our lives, by enabling them to process what they’re seeing in real time,” said David Goldschmidt, VP and MD at Samsung Catalyst Fund, in a statement. “By advancing deep learning at the edge, Allegro.AI will help companies in a diverse range of fields—from robotics to mobility—develop devices that are more intelligent, robust, and responsive to their environment. We’re particularly excited about this investment because, like Samsung, Allegro.AI is committed not just to developing this foundational technology, but also to building the open, collaborative ecosystem that is necessary to bring it to consumers in a meaningful way.”

Allegro.AI is not the first company with hopes of providing AI and deep learning as a service to the enterprise world: Element.AI out of Canada is another startup that is being built on the premise that most companies know they will need to consider how to use AI in their businesses, but lack the in-house expertise or budget (or both) to do that. Until the wider field matures and AI know-how becomes something anyone can buy off-the-shelf, it’s going to present an interesting opportunity for the likes of Allegro and others to step in.

 

 

 

Andreessen Horowitz is planning to launch a dedicated crypto fund

The SEC may be firing off subpoenas to crypto investment funds and ICO projects left, right and center — apparently over 80 — but that isn’t stopping Andreessen Horowitz, the influential Silicon Valley firm known as A16z, from starting its own crypto-based fund.

The rumor has been going around for a while — not a huge surprise since the firm has invested in the likes of Coinbase, Earn.com and CryptoKitties and co-founder Marc Andreessen (pic above) is a big crypto advocate — but it now appears there is genuine substance to it. Recode spotted a couple of A16z job vacancies that seem to confirm that the wheels are in motion.

One for a ‘Finance and Operations Manager, Crypto Assets‘ and another for a ‘Legal Counsel, Crypto Assets‘ explicitly detail that the firm is planning “a separately managed fund focusing on crypto assets.” The legal role itself includes “compliance with appropriate SEC regulations,” and in particular “managing the firm’s/fund compliance with all SEC/other regulations,” while the operations manager is tasked with the challenging job of valuing crypto assets among other responsibilities.

Some of the responsibilities A16z has for its legal counsel job role

A number of traditional VC funds have invested in crypto companies and, in a few cases, joined initial coin offerings (ICOs), but there hasn’t been a stampede. The more prolific crypto investors have been dedicated funds like Pantera Capital, Polychain Capital and Sparkchain Capital. Those firms hold crypto assets — most of which is in Ethereum — in order to invest and divest in company tokens and cryptocurrencies as part of ICOs or just generally as retail investors do.

Despite the potential for big gains and the ability to liquidate an investment at any time, crypto is in a legal grey area and that has put many U.S. investors off, even if some have dabbled on the side through personal investments. If it goes ahead, A16z’s fund might blaze a trail for others to follow.

Disclosure: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

RealSelf, a community for cosmetic treatments, raises $40 million

RealSelf, an online community where people can ask questions, share their experiences and connect with doctors providing cosmetic treatments, has raised $40 million in new funding – its first round of financing since the $2 million raised in 2008, two years after its founding. The round was led by Elephant, a VC firm co-founded by Warby Parker co-founder Andy Hunt.

Hunt will also join RealSelf’s board of directors with the close of this round.

RealSelf offers one of the largest online communities for those who want to learn more about cosmetic procedures, including plastic surgery and other non-surgical treatments, like Botox injections. It’s the sort of thing people don’t necessarily want to talk about openly on social networks, but RealSelf has found a way to get people to socialize around the topic. Its users – anonymously – post reviews, have discussions, ask questions, and even detail their progress in post-op photos series.

Reading through someone’s experiences not only gives people better insight into what a procedure is like, it also provides an emotional support system for those who are recovering.

The idea for the company came from Expedia alum Tom Seery, following a discussion he had with his wife about how hard it was to get the true story about which cosmetic treatments are actually worth the cost and show results. RealSelf’s goal is to bring more transparency to a market where customers before had been sold on promises and hype, often by doctors who would gloss over the downsides – like months spent in painful recovery – or the potential bad outcomes from riskier procedures.

Since its launch, RealSelf has grown to include over 2 million anonymous patient reviews, ratings and photos regarding hundreds of different aesthetic procedures.

And demand for this sort of information continues to grow, along with the overall market.

Last year, for example, there were over 17.5 million surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments performed in the U.S., up from 13.1 million procedures in 2010, the company notes. Much of that growth comes from minimally invasive, non-surgical treatments, which outpaced surgeries nearly eight to one.

With more people looking for information about these procedures online, RealSelf has seen its visitor counts climb. Last year, nearly 94 million people visited the site from over 100 countries – a metric that’s up more than 270 percent since 2013. 40 percent of those visitors were from outside the U.S.

In addition to helping users network and review their own treatments, RealSelf also allows doctors to answer users’ questions, create profiles, share their own before-and-after’s, and offer consultations to those who contact them.

The company makes money by offering these doctors a way to target their potential customers, and has been profitable for years as a result.

Every month, RealSelf facilitates around 500,000 connections between consumers and doctors, the company says.

The funding will allow RealSelf to add fuel to its fire, says its founder.

“Our investors bring incredible experience and insight in building household name brands and businesses for the long-term. I am thrilled to have Elephant and our other new investors join our roster and welcome Andy to our board,” said Seery, in an announcement about the round. “We’ve bootstrapped RealSelf into a market leading position that helps millions learn about cosmetic treatments and connect with doctors. Now is our time to step on the gas. We are doubling down to grow awareness, drive innovation and extend our global reach to help anyone considering cosmetic treatments make more confident decisions,” he added.

The company, which already has over 200 employees, plans to hire “significantly” this year, and double its office space in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood in June. It has also just brought on its first CMO, Tanja Omeze, previously the head of marketing for the Amazon Video Store, and who had led marketing at Weight Watchers, Verizon Wireless and Scholastic.

“Tom and the team at RealSelf have done an amazing job building a trusted marketplace where consumers and medical experts come together to share information and connect,” said RealSelf’s new board member, Hunt. “Historically, we have invested in companies that provide consumers with transparency in complex markets. RealSelf has built the leading platform allowing consumers to find detailed information, share stories and make better, safer decisions about extremely personal aesthetics choices,” he said.

 

 

 

TravelPerk grabs $21M to make booking business trips suck less

TravelPerk, a Barcelona-based SaaS startup that’s built an end-to-end business travel platform, has closed a $21 million Series B round, led by Berlin-based Target Global and London’s Felix Capital. Earlier investors Spark Capital and Sunstone also participated in the round, alongside new investor Amplo.

When we last spoke to the startup back in June 2016 — as it was announcing a $7M Series A — it had just 20 customers. It’s now boasting more than 1,000, name-checking “high growth” companies such as Typeform, TransferWise, Outfittery, GetYourGuide, GoCardless, Hotjar, and CityJet among its clients, and touting revenue growth of 1,200% year-on-year.

Co-founder and CEO Avi Meir tells us the startup is “on pace” to generate $100M in GMV this year.

Meir’s founding idea, back in 2015, was to create a rewards program based around dynamic budgeting for business trips. But after conversations with potential customers about their pain-points, the team quickly pivoted to target a broader bundle of business travel booking problems.

The mission now can be summarized as trying to make the entire business travel journey suck less — from booking flights and hotels; to admin tools for managing policies; analytics; customer support; all conducted within what’s billed as a “consumer-like experience” to keep end-users happy. Essentially it’s offering end-to-end travel management for its target business users.

“Travel and finance managers were frustrated by how they currently manage travel and looked for an all in one tool that JUST WORKS without having to compare rates with Skyscanner, be redirected to different websites, write 20 emails back and forth with a travel agent to coordinate a simple trip for someone, and suffer bad user experience,” says Meir.

“We understood that in order to fix business travel there is no way around but diving into it head on and create the world’s best OTA (online travel agency), combined with the best in class admin tools  needed in order to manage the travel program and a consumer grade, smart user experience that travelers will love. So we became a full blown platform competing head on with the big TMCs (travel management companies) and the legacy corporate tools (Amex GBT, Concur, Egencia…) .”

He claims TravelPerk’s one-stop business trip shop now has the world’s largest bookable inventory (“all the travel agent inventory but also booking.com, Expedia, Skyscanner, Airbnb… practically any flight/hotel on the internet — only we have that”).

Target users at this stage are SMEs (up to 1,500 employees), with tech and consulting currently its strongest verticals, though Meir says it “really runs the gamut”. While the current focus is Europe, with its leading markets being the UK, Germany and Spain.

TravelPerk’s business model is freemium — and its pitch is it can save customers more than a fifth in annual business travel costs vs legacy corporate tools/travel agents thanks to the lack of commissions, free customer support etc.

But it also offers a premium tier with additional flexibility and perks — such as corporate hotel rates and a travel agent service for group bookings — for those customers who do want to pay to upgrade the experience.

On the competition front the main rivals are “old corporate travel agencies and TMC”, according to Meir, along with larger players such as Egencia (by Expedia) and Concur (SAP company).

“There are a few startups doing what we are doing in the U.S. like TripActions, NexTravel, as well as some smaller ones that are popping up but are in an earlier stage,” he notes.

“Since our first round… TravelPerk has been experiencing some incredible growth compared to any tech benchmark I know,” he adds. “We’ve found a stronger product market fit than we imagined and grew much faster than planned. It seems like everyone is unhappy with the way they are currently booking and managing business travel. Which makes this a $1.25 trillion market, ready for disruption.”

The Series B will be put towards scaling “fast”, with Meir arguing that TravelPerk has landed upon a “rare opportunity” to drive the market.

“Organic growth has been extremely fast and we have an immediate opportunity to scale the business fast, doing what we are doing right now at a bigger scale,” he says.

Commenting in a statement, Antoine Nussenbaum, partner at Felix Capital, also spies a major opportunity. “The corporate travel industry is one of the largest global markets yet to be disrupted online. At Felix Capital we have a high conviction about a new era of consumerization of enterprise software,” he says.

While Target Global general partner Shmuel Chafets describes TravelPerk as “very well positioned to be a market leader in the business travel space with a product that makes business travel as seamless and easy as personal travel”.

“We’re excited to support such an experienced and dedicated team that has a strong track record in the travel space,” he adds in a supporting statement. “TravelPerk is our first investment in Barcelona. We believe in a pan-European startup ecosystem and we look forward to seeing more opportunities in this emerging startup hub.”

Flush with fresh funding, the team’s next task is even more recruitment. “We’ll grow our teams all around with emphasis on engineering, operations and customer support. We’re also planning to expand, opening local offices in 4-5 new countries within the upcoming year and a half,” says Meir.

He notes the company has grown from 20 to 100 employees over the past 12 months already but adds that it will continue “hiring aggressively”.

DFS Lab is helping the developing world bootstrap itself with fintech

Entrepreneurs have it rough in Africa, India, Pakistan — places where VC cash doesn’t fall from the sky and necessary infrastructure like reliable banking and broadband can be hard to come by. But companies grow and thrive nevertheless in these rugged environments, and DFS Lab is an incubator focused on connecting them with the resources they need to go global.

The company was founded, and funded, on the back of a $4.8 million grant from the Gates Foundation, which of course is deeply concerned with tech-based solutions for well-being all over the world. Its name, Digital Financial Services Lab, indicates its area of focus: fintech. And anyone can tell you that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most interesting places in the world for that.

This week DFS Lab is announcing a handful of new investments — modest ones on the scale companies are used to in Silicon Valley, but the money is only a small part of the equation. Investment comes at the end of a longer process, the most valuable of which may be the week-long sprint DFS Lab does on the ground, helping solidify ideas into products, or niche products into products at scale.

The relative lack of VCs and angel investors puts early-stage companies at risk and can discourage the most motivated entrepreneur, so the program is aimed at getting them over the hump and connected to a network of peers.

The latest round puts a total of $200,000 into four startups, each touching on a different aspect of a region or vertical’s financial needs. All, however, are largely driven by the massive growth of mobile money in Africa over the last decade and the more recent, ongoing transition to modern smartphones and the app/data landscape familiar to the U.S. and Europe.

  • Nala aims to move p2p payments away from the antiquated but widely used USSD system (more on this later) to a Venmo-like app interface that integrates multiple native mobile currencies like M-Pesa into a single tool.
  • Cherehani connects female entrepreneurs with financial resources; the idea is to provide both much-needed credit and financial literacy at as early an age as possible. (They have a chatbot too, naturally.)
  • Nobuntu is a platform through which South Africans can open and contribute to pension plans via mobile money, simply and with low overhead costs.

The fourth company is choosing to remain in stealth mode for now, but you see the general theme here.

For one reason or another there are major gaps in everyday services that many of us take for granted — the ability to prove one’s identity, for example, is critical but commonly absent. I talked with Paul Damalie, founder of a DFS-funded company called Inclusive that helps address that particular shortcoming.

Basic ID verification can be difficult when you remove many of the things we take for granted. So when, for example, someone wanted to get a loan, a savings account, or some other basic financial service, “Originally you’d have to literally walk into the bank to do it,” Damalie said. Needless to say that isn’t always convenient, and banks as well as users want better options.

“We’ve been collecting existing databases and building a layer of rich access around it,” he continued. “Now we can use facial recognition to check those details. Once you have the ID, you need to check it with the government records” — which Inclusive also does. A range of other data creates a confidence score in the person’s identity, helping avoid identity fraud.

Another opportunity arises not from these gaps but from the unique ways in which the African ecosystem has evolved. USSD, which I mentioned before, is probably unknown to many of our readers — it certainly was to me. But it’s become a standard tool used regularly by millions for important tasks in Africa; if you want to work in that market, you have to deal with USSD one way or another.

The problem is that, as you might guess from Nala trying to deprecate it, USSD is a technology dating back to the ’90s, a text-based interface that’s rudimentary but, much like SMS, universally accepted and intelligible. The importance of cross-platform compatibility in mobile markets as fragmented as these can’t be overstated.

So bridging the gap between USSD and a “traditional” (as we might call it) payment app is a unique opportunity, and one a company called Hover (also in the DFS Lab portfolio) is addressing. Its tech acts as a sort of translation layer between USSD and smartphone app interfaces, allowing for modern app design but also deep back-compatibility. It’s an opportunity specific to this time and this area of the world, but nevertheless one that may end up touching millions.

And from the narrowness of its vision that DFS Lab derives its effectiveness.

“They’re one of the most specialized accelerators in the world,” said Damalie. “It goes beyond just funding — it involves having the right kind of network: access to partners, data, sources across the continent. They had context-relevant fellows, people who had very specific challenges.”

“The grant was useful and let us build a proof of concept, and of course the Gates Foundation gives us credibility. But they were taking bets on us as individuals.”

Although DFS Lab has heretofore been funded by the Gates infusion, that well will run dry soon. Jake Kendall, DFS Lab’s executive director, indicated that the plan is to move towards a more traditional investor fund. They already focus on profitability and the potential for growth to the continental stage or beyond; this isn’t a charity but tactical investment in such a way that social good is a necessary byproduct.

“The best way to have a global impact is to be self-sustaining,” he said.

A wealth of sources for startup fundraising – A primer for founders

The financial side of technology entrepreneurship means that almost from inception, an entrepreneur has to think about and plan his or her sources of financing. Wether you like it or not, startups...

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Microsoft surges 8% after Morgan Stanley says it will reach $1 trillion market cap

The Dow surged 669 points on Monday after trade tensions eased.

Tech stocks like Amazon and Apple saw gains, but the biggest winner of all was Microsoft .

The Seattle tech giant, which is a Dow 30 company, benefitted not only from the solid stock market day, but also because a Morgan Stanley analyst had kind things to say about it.

Keith Weiss wrote in a note to clients that he’s raising his 12-month price target to $130, an almost 50% increase from the $90 shares traded at last week. This would give the company a market cap of $1 trillion. He spoke about it further on CNBC.

He’s particularly bullish on Microsoft’s cloud business. He believes that it will continue to do well, despite competition from Amazon and Google.

The race to $1 trillion has been talked about for several years. Apple is currently in the lead with a market cap of $877 billion. Amazon is at $753 billion. And After Monday’s strong day of trading, Microsoft is nearing it at $722 billion.

In general, stocks have done very well in recent years, with the Dow up nearly 10,000 points from where it was five years ago.

CryptoKitties raises $12M from Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures

CryptoKitties, the virtual collectible kitten game that turned into a viral sensation has raised $12M in funding and will be spun out from Axiom Zen, the Vancouver and San Francisco-based design studio that originally built the game.

The round is being led by Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures, both of which have quickly developed a reputation for backing fast-growing cryptocurrency startups like Coinbase. A bunch of notable angels also participated, including Naval Ravikant (CEO and founder of AngelList), Mark Pincus (founder of Zynga) and Fred Ehrsam (founder of Coinbase) among others.

So what are CryptoKitties? They’re essentially digital collectibles built on top of the Ethereum blockchain. Each one is unique and has certain attributes that make them rare and desirable, almost like a digital beanie baby. And users are spending tons of real money on them, with some of the rarest kitties fetching over $100,000 when the game first launched.

While the startup is being pretty mum on what the future looks like and what they’re planning on using this funding for, it’s almost certain that the long term goal is to expand beyond CryptoKitties and use the same Ethereum ERC-721 collectible standard to create other game experiences, especially ones that can be played by regular people who are unfamiliar with cryptocurrency.

To this note, Fred Wilson of USV quickly outlined the firm’s thesis behind investing in CryptoKitties, saying “we think digital collectibles is one of many amazing things that blockchains enable that literally could not be done before this technology emerged. We also think digital collectibles and all of the games they enable will be one of the first, if not the first, big consumer use cases for blockchain technologies.” 

If you want to find out more about how CryptoKitties works check out our original story here.