BrandProject expands beyond the studio model with a new $43M fund

BrandProject —a firm that’s backed successful direct-to-consumer commerce startups like Freshly (acquired by Nestlé), Persona (also acquired by Nestlé) and Chef’s Plate (acquired by Hello Fresh) — is announcing that it has raised $43 million for what it says is its first traditional venture fund.

Founded Andrew Black, who previously co-founded Virgin Mobile Canada and served as president of LEGO Americas, BrandProject previously invested from a $12 million fund tied BrandProject Studio, where the money is just a small part of what’s being offered — apparently six of the firm’s eight team members are entirely focused on supporting startups, often serving as de facto CTOs, CFOs and CMOs.

With the new BrandProject Capital fund, the firm will be able to make larger investments in (somewhat) more mature companies. Black estimated that the new fund will be writing checks of between $1 million and $3 million; the goal is for half of the deals to be new investments, while the other half consists of follow-on investments in startups from BrandProject Studio.

“We’re going to be supporting the same type of businesses out of Studio or Capital, but with Studio, nothing’s too early for us — we’re all about team, team, team,” said Partner Hayden Williams. “But if it’s a Capital deal, we’re going to look for some evidence that something working, even if it’s a small scale.”

The focus will continue to be direct-to-consumer brands, and although the pandemic has led to tremendous e-commerce growth, Black said it hasn’t changed the BrandProject strategy.

BrandProject Team

Image Credits: BrandProject

“We haven’t adjusted our investment focus at all because of COVID,” he said. “We’ve always invested behind categories, brands and segments that we just think the world needs.”

One of the limited partners who invested in the new fund is probably BrandProject’s biggest success story — Freshly co-founder and CEO Michael Wystrach, who sold his healthy meal startup to Nestlé for $1.5 billion. Wystrach recalled reading about BrandProject in TechCrunch and, after looking the firm up, sending unsolicited meals to Partner Jay Bhatti in New York.

At that point, Freshly had only raised friends-and-family funding, and Wystrach admitted, “We would have taken a check from anyone.” But he said he was lucky that Bhatti liked the food and the firm decided to invest, with Black becoming an interim co-CEO, Bhatti serving as interim CTO and Partner Andrew Bridge serving as an interim CMO.

“What I loved about BrandProject is that they never came in and told us what kind of business we’re building,” he continued. “It was never a case where they said, ‘You need to do this.’ It was our business, and they were team members in helping us build the business.”

To illustrate the idea behind the new fund, Wystrach compared the investment ecosystem to the U.S. schools: “Where Andrew and the team come in, they’re K through 8 or maybe K through 6, they’re very hands on … With the new fund, maybe they’re moving to middle school.”

Soona raises $10.2M to make remote photo and video shoots easy

Soona, a startup aiming to satisfy the growing content needs of the e-commerce ecosystem, is announcing that it has raised $10.2 million in Series A funding led by Union Square Ventures.

When I wrote about Soona in 2019, the model focused on staging shoots that can deliver videos and photos in 24 hours or less. The startup still operates studios in Austin, Denver and Minneapolis, but co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi told me that during the pandemic, Soona shifted to a fully virtual/remote model — customers ship their products to Soona, then then watch the shoot remotely and offer immediate feedback, and only pay for the photos ($39 each) and video clips ($93 each) that they actually want.

In some cases, the studio isn’t even necessary — Giorgi said that 30% of Soona’s photographers and crew members are working from home.

Soona has now worked with more than 4,000 customers, including Lola Tampons, The Sill, and Wild Earth, with revenue growing 400% last year. Giorgi said that even as larger in-person shoots become possible again, this approach still makes sense for many clients.

“There’s nothing we sell online that does not require a visual, but not every single visual requires a massive full day shoot,” she said.

Soona

Image Credits: Soona

Giorgi also suggested that Soona’s approach has unlocked a “new level of scalability,” adding, “Internally at Soona, we really believe in the remote shoot experience. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more fun not having to fly a brand manager from Miami and have them spend a full day at a warehouse in New York. That’s not only cost-prohibitive, it’s also a time-consuming and exhausting process for everyone.”

The new funding follows a $1.2 million seed round. Giorgi said the Series A will allow Soona to develop a subscription product with more collaboration tools and more data about what kinds of visual content is most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to own the visual ecosystem of e-commerce from beginning to end,” she said.

Giorgi also noted that Soona continues to employ its “candor clause” requiring investors to disclose whether they’ve ever faced complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination. In fact, the clause has been expanded to cover complaints around racism, ableism or anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“In some ways it’s a gate that prevents bad actors from being involved […] but it really drives a deeper connection with the investor and the founder,” Giorgi said. “We can have conversation about our values and how we see the world. We get to have a conversation about equality and justice at at time when we’re talking a lot about equity and the cap table.”

Nelo raises $3M to grow ‘buy now, pay later’ in Mexico

Buy now, pay later is a way of paying for purchases via installment loans that generally have no interest. The concept has grown in popularity in recent years, especially in markets such as the United States, Europe and Australia. Numerous players abound, all fighting for market share — from Affirm to Klarna to Afterpay, among others.

But notably, none of these bigger players have yet to penetrate another very large market — Latin America. Enter Nelo, a startup founded by former Uber international growth team leads, which is building buy now, pay later in Mexico. The company is already live with more than 45 merchants and over 150,000 users.

San Francisco-based fintech-focused VC firm Homebrew led its recent seed round of $3 million, which also included participation from Susa Ventures, Crossbeam, Rogue Capital, Unpopular Ventures and others. With the latest capital infusion, Nelo has raised a total of $5.6 million since its 2019 inception.

Nelo is not the only player in the Mexican market. A number of others, including Alchemy and Addi, have recently outlined plans for buy now, pay later offerings in the region. But where Nelo has an advantage, believes CEO Kyle Miller, is its established relationships with about 45 merchants.

“What I’m excited about is the relationship with the merchants,” Miller told TechCrunch. “If we find a large global one and increase conversion for them, that is our defensibility [against competitors]. What’s important here is signing on merchants, since they usually only have one offering in their checkout.”

He and co-founder Stephen Hebson used to work for Uber’s international growth team, growing financial services products in India, Mexico, China and Brazil.

“We got to see a cross market where countries were accelerating and where others weren’t,” Miller recalls. “For example, China was a leader in mobile payments and digital finance in India was completely transformed.”

Nelo co-founders Stephen Hebson and Kyle Miller; Image courtesy of Nelo

But in markets like Mexico, the percentage of cash payments for trips was very high. And to Miller and Hebson, this spelled opportunity.

Nelo launched its first product in Mexico in January 2020, similar to a debit card offering from a neobank. In the middle of the year, the company launched credit installment loans.

“It became immediately clear that it was going to be our most popular feature,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, it was the vast majority of our business and something that our users were telling their friends about. We were solving a real pain point.”

Indeed, cash remains the dominant method of payment in Mexico, with an estimated 86% of all payments being in the form of cash. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth.

“Access to credit is something we take for granted in the U.S.,” Miller said. “By the end of the year, we realized this was the future of business, and we decided to focus just on credit.”

In March, Nelo launched its first product via an Android app and will be launching a web app soon.

Customers can use its offering like a credit card, connecting directly with merchants such as Netflix and Spotify. Many users are paying for things like utility bills and cell phone bills, turning them from prepaid to postpay.

With its current product, the company has lent about $2 million, and is seeing growth of about 20% month over month.

“We’re seeing massive demand for this new product in the way of organic signups,” Miller said, “for all the reasons Buy Now, Pay Later has been successful in markets like the U.S., Europe and Australia.”

Paying for installments is already common in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, so the concept is not foreign to residents in the region.

“We expected this is soon going to be a competitive market, so we’re hiring data scientists and engineers to continue improving our product, and grow,” Miller said.

Nelo has about 14 employees with an engineering team in New York.

Homebrew Partner Satya Patel says he’s excited about Nelo because he believes the startup “solves a serious problem related to the lack of credit for Mexican consumers.”

“Credit card penetration is less than 10% in Mexico and other forms of credit are effectively non-existent,” he wrote via email. “Nelo makes it possible for Mexicans to easily and inexpensively increase their purchasing power at the point of sale. And importantly, Nelo is delivering this solution online, supporting growing interest in e-commerce, and also offline, where consumers regularly shop today.”

Patel adds that what Nelo is building is valuable because he is not aware of any reliable, comprehensive consumer credit rating data set in Mexico.

“They are building underwriting models based on proprietary data and growing the merchant network at an incredible rate,” he said. “This buy now, pay later opportunity is untapped in Mexico but requires a very different approach than what has been successful in other markets.”

The Nelo team, according to Patel, understands the nuances of the market and “is executing at an exceptional pace.”

E-commerce investor Upper90 raises $55M for equity investments

It might be strange to hear this from a firm that just raised a $55 million equity fund, but the team at Upper90 would like to remind you that equity isn’t the only funding that’s available.

Upper90 is led by CEO Billy Libby (former head of quantitative education sales at Goldman Sachs) and Chairman Jason Finger (co-founder of Seamless), and it was the first investor in both Thrasio and Clearbanc. The firm offers debt and equity funding, and it just closed a $195 million fund in December — but the fund announced today is Upper90’s first to be devoted purely to equity financing.

Finger said he and Libby have taken this combined approach because there are often predictable parts of an online business, where (for example) “if I’m doing some marketing, I know that $1 on Facebook will generate $8 of revenue.” In those cases, “equity is the most expensive way you can finance growth,” and he said it “really fundamentally bothered me that the founders and early investors who took a lot of the risks, dedicating their life on a 24/7 basis” would often end up owning a small percentage of the company.

That doesn’t mean debt is the only solution, but in Finger’s words, founders should stop seeing big equity rounds as “a badge of honor.” Instead, they can work with Upper90 to find the “optimal capital structure” combining both elements.

“Life isn’t binary,” he added. “Part of the reason we launched an equity fund in the [e-commerce] rollup sector is that equity is an important piece for you to get the highest quality lender — they’re going to want to know that there’s equity protection underneath their credit facility.”

He also suggested that making an equity investment turns Upper90 into a “long-term partner” for the companies it backs, freeing the team from being “purely focused on the returns related to our credit.”

As alluded to earlier, Libby and Finger see the e-commerce aggregation market as one that’s particularly well-suited to their approach. (Thrasio is perhaps the best-known startup rolling up Amazon sellers, while Clearbanc offers its own revenue-based financing to e-commerce and SaaS companies.)

“I always say: What’s new is old,” Libby told me. “If we had this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about rolling up gyms and dry cleaners and smoothie shops […] The infrastructure that Amazon has developed allows people to be entrepreneurs in a week, so I think that we’re still extremely early in this trend. There are going to be so many more people starting their own store on Amazon.”

And eventually, he suggested Upper90 could take a similar approach in other industries: “A content creator who starts a YouTube channel is not that different than the Amazon store owner. Five years from now, we could be talk about, what’s the value of a subscriber on YouTube, what’s the value of an influencer’s following on Instagram, how can we bring some of that revenue forward?”

E-commerce investor Upper90 raises $55M for equity investments

It might be strange to hear this from a firm that just raised a $55 million equity fund, but the team at Upper90 would like to remind you that equity isn’t the only funding that’s available.

Upper90 is led by CEO Billy Libby (former head of quantitative education sales at Goldman Sachs) and Chairman Jason Finger (co-founder of Seamless), and it was the first investor in both Thrasio and Clearbanc. The firm offers debt and equity funding, and it just closed a $195 million fund in December — but the fund announced today is Upper90’s first to be devoted purely to equity financing.

Finger said he and Libby have taken this combined approach because there are often predictable parts of an online business, where (for example) “if I’m doing some marketing, I know that $1 on Facebook will generate $8 of revenue.” In those cases, “equity is the most expensive way you can finance growth,” and he said it “really fundamentally bothered me that the founders and early investors who took a lot of the risks, dedicating their life on a 24/7 basis” would often end up owning a small percentage of the company.

That doesn’t mean debt is the only solution, but in Finger’s words, founders should stop seeing big equity rounds as “a badge of honor.” Instead, they can work with Upper90 to find the “optimal capital structure” combining both elements.

“Life isn’t binary,” he added. “Part of the reason we launched an equity fund in the [e-commerce] rollup sector is that equity is an important piece for you to get the highest quality lender — they’re going to want to know that there’s equity protection underneath their credit facility.”

He also suggested that making an equity investment turns Upper90 into a “long-term partner” for the companies it backs, freeing the team from being “purely focused on the returns related to our credit.”

As alluded to earlier, Libby and Finger see the e-commerce aggregation market as one that’s particularly well-suited to their approach. (Thrasio is perhaps the best-known startup rolling up Amazon sellers, while Clearbanc offers its own revenue-based financing to e-commerce and SaaS companies.)

“I always say: What’s new is old,” Libby told me. “If we had this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about rolling up gyms and dry cleaners and smoothie shops […] The infrastructure that Amazon has developed allows people to be entrepreneurs in a week, so I think that we’re still extremely early in this trend. There are going to be so many more people starting their own store on Amazon.”

And eventually, he suggested Upper90 could take a similar approach in other industries: “A content creator who starts a YouTube channel is not that different than the Amazon store owner. Five years from now, we could be talk about, what’s the value of a subscriber on YouTube, what’s the value of an influencer’s following on Instagram, how can we bring some of that revenue forward?”

Casa Blanca raises $2.6M to build the ‘Bumble for real estate’

Casa Blanca, which aims to develop a “Bumble-like app” for finding a home, has raised $2.6 million in seed funding.

Co-founder and CEO Hannah Bomze got her real estate license at the age of 18 and worked at Compass and  Douglas Elliman Real Estate before launching Casa Blanca last year.

She launched the app last October with the goal of matching home buyers and renters with homes using an in-app matchmaking algorithm combined with “expert agents.” Buyers get up to 1% of home purchases back at closing. Similar to dating apps, Casa Blanca’s app is powered by a simple swipe left or right.

Samuel Ben-Avraham, a partner and early investor of Kith and an early investor in WeWork, led the round for Casa Blanca, bringing its total raise to date to $4.1 million.

The New York-based startup recently launched in the Colorado market and has seen some impressive traction in a short amount of time. 

Since launching the app in October, Casa Blance has “made more than $100M in sales” and is projected to reach $280 million this year between New York and its Denver launch. 

Bomze said the app experience will be customized for each city with the goal of creating a personalized experience for each user. Casa Blanca claims to streamline and sort listings based on user preferences and lifestyle priorities.

Image Credits: Casa Blanca

“People love that there is one place to book, manage feedback, schedule and communicate with a branded agent for one cohesive experience,” Bomze said. “We have a breadth of users from first time buyers to people using our platform for $15 million listings.”

Unlike competitors, Casa Blanca applies to a direct-to-consumer model, she pointed out.

“While our agents are an integral part of the company, they are not responsible for bringing in business and have more organizational support, which allows them to focus on the individual more and creates a better end-to-end experience for the consumer,” Bomze said.

Casa Blanca currently has over 38 agents in NYC and Colorado, compared to about 15 at this time last year.

“We are in a growth phase and finding a unique opportunity in this climate, in particular, because there are many women exploring new, more flexible job opportunities,” Bomze noted. 

The company plans to use its new capital to continue expanding into new markets, nationally and globally; enhancingits technology and scaling.

“As we continue to grow in new markets, the app experience will be curated to each city – for example, in Colorado you can edit your preferences based on access to ski areas – to make sure we’re offering a personalized experience for each user,” Bomze said.

Altman brothers lead B2B payment startup Routable’s $30M Series B

We all know the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital adoption in a number of areas, particularly in the financial services space. Within financial services, there are few spaces hotter than B2B payments.

With a $120 trillion market size, it’s no surprise that an increasing number of fintechs focused on digitizing payments have been attracting investor interest. The latest is Routable, which has nabbed $30 million in a Series B raise that included participation from a slew of high-profile angel investors.

Unlike most raises, Routable didn’t raise the capital from a bunch of VC firms. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, and Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice, led the round. (The pair are brothers, in case you didn’t know.)

SoftBank-backed unicorn Flexport also participated, along with a number of angel investors, including Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff (who also started TIME Ventures),  DoorDash’s Gokul Rajaram, early Stripe employee turned angel Lachy Groom and Behance founder Scott Belsky.

The Series B comes just over eight months after Routable came out of stealth with a $12 million Series A.

CEO Omri Mor and CTO Tom Harel founded Routable in 2017 after previously working at marketplaces and recognizing the need for better internal tools for scaling business payments. They went through a Y Combinator batch and embarked on a process of interviewing hundreds of CFOs and finance leaders.

The pair found that the majority of the business payment tools that were out there were built for large companies with a low volume of business payments. 

After running enough customer development we identified a huge scramble to solve high-volume business payments, and that’s what we double down on,” Mor told TechCrunch. 

Routable’s mission is simple: to automate bill payment and invoicing processes (also known as accounts payables and accounts receivables), so that businesses can focus on scaling their core product offerings without worrying about payments.

“A business payment is more like moving a bill through Congress, where a consumer payment is more like a tweet,” Mor said. “We automate every step from purchase order to reconciliation and by extending an API, companies don’t have to build their own inner integration. We handle it, while helping them move their money faster.”

Since its August 2020 raise, Routable has seen its revenue grow by 380%, according to Mor. And last month alone, the company tripled its amount of new customers compared to the month prior. Customers include Snackpass, Ticketmaster and Re-Max, among others.

“We’ve been beating every quarter expectation for the past 18 months,” he told TechCrunch.

The company started out focused on the startup and SMB customer, but based on demand and feedback, is expanding into the enterprise space as well.

It has established integrations with QuickBooks, NetSuite and Xero and is looking to invest moving forward in integrating with Oracle, Microsoft Dynamics Workday and SAP. 

“A lot of our investment moving forward is to be able to bring that same level of automation and ease of use that we do for SMB and mid-market customers to the enterprise world,” Mor told TechCrunch.

Lead investor Sam Altman is in favor of that approach, noting that the recent booms in the gig and creator economies are leading to a big spike in the volume of both payments and payees.

“With the addition of enterprise capabilities, we think this can lead to an enormous business,” he said. 

The round brings Routable’s total raised to $46 million. The company has headquarters in San Francisco and Seattle with primarily a remote team. 

Sam Altman also told me that he was drawn to Routable after having experienced the pain of high-volume business payments himself and working with many startup founders who had experienced the same problem.

He was also impressed with the company’s engineering-forward approach.

“They can offer the best service by being embedded in a company’s flow of funds instead of the usual approach of just being an interface for moving money,” Altman said. 

With regard to the other investors, Mor said the decision to partner with founders of a number of prominent tech companies was intentional so that Routable could benefit from their “deep enterprise and high-growth experience.”

As mentioned above, the B2B payments space is white-hot. Earlier this year, Melio, which provides a platform for SMBs to pay other companies electronically using bank transfers, debit cards or credit — along with the option of cutting paper checks for recipients if that is what the recipients request — closed on $110 million in funding at a $1.3 billion valuation.

SoftBank in talks to invest up to $500 million in Swiggy

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in advanced stages of talks to invest up to half a billion dollars into food delivery startup Swiggy, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The new investment values the Indian startup at over $5.5 billion, the sources said.

The new investment is on top of $800 million fundraise Swiggy unveiled earlier this month.

Swiggy and SoftBank declined to comment.

The new investment talks come amid Zomato raising $910 million in recent months as the Gurgaon-headquartered firm prepares for an IPO this year. The last tranche of investment valued Zomato at $5.4 billion. During its fundraise, Zomato said it was raising money partially to fight off “any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business.”

A third player, Amazon, also entered the food delivery market in India last year, though its operations are still limited to parts of Bangalore.

At stake is India’s food delivery market, which analysts at Bernstein expect to balloon to be worth $12 billion by 2022, they wrote in a report to clients earlier this year. Zomato currently leads the market with about 50% market share, Bernstein analysts wrote.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Cado Security locks in $10M for its cloud-native digital forensics platform

As computing systems become increasingly bigger and more complex, forensics have become an increasingly important part of how organizations can better secure them. As the recent Solar Winds breach has shown, it’s not always just a matter of being able to identify data loss, or prevent hackers from coming in in the first place. In cases where a network has already been breached, running a thorough investigation is often the only way to identify what happened, if a breach is still active, and whether a malicious hacker can strike again.

As a sign of this growing priority, a startup called Cado Security, which has built forensics technology native to the cloud to run those investigations, is announcing $10 million in funding to expand its business.

Cado’s tools today are used directly by organizations, but also security companies like Redacted — a somewhat under-the-radar security startup in San Francisco co-founded by Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly and John Hering, the co-founder of Lookout. It uses Cado to carry out the forensics part of its work.

The funding for London-based Cado is being led by Blossom Capital, with existing investors Ten Eleven Ventures also participating, among others. As another signal of demand, this Series A is coming only six months after Cado raised its seed round.

The task of securing data on digital networks has grown increasingly complex over the years: not only are there more devices, more data and a wider range of configurations and uses around it, but malicious hackers have become increasingly sophisticated in their approaches to needling inside networks and doing their dirty work.

The move to the cloud has also been a major factor. While it has helped a wave of organizations expand and run much bigger computing processes are part of their business operations, it has also increased the so-called attack surface and made investigations much more complicated, not least because a lot of organizations run elastic processes, scaling their capacity up and down: this means when something is scaled down, logs of previous activity essentially disappear.

Cado’s Response product — which works proactively on a network and all of its activity after it’s installed — is built to work across cloud, on-premise and hybrid environments. Currently it’s available for AWS EC2 deployments and Docker, Kubernetes, OpenShift and AWS Fargate container systems, and the plan is to expand to Azure very soon. (Google Cloud Platform is less of a priority at the moment, CEO James Campbell said, since it rarely comes up with current and potential customers.)

Campbell co-founded Cado with Christopher Doman (the CTO) last April, with the concept for the company coming out of their respective experiences working on security services together at PwC, and respectively for government organizations (Campbell in Australia) and AlienVault (the security firm acquired by AT&T). In all of those, one persistent issue the two continued to encounter was the issue with adequate forensics data, essential for tracking the most complex breaches.

A lot of legacy forensics tools, in particular those tackling the trove of data in the cloud, was based on “processing data with open source and pulling together analysis in spreadsheets,” Campbell said. “There is a need to modernize this space for the cloud era.”

In a typical breach, it can take up to a month to run a thorough investigation to figure out what is going on, since, as Doman describes it, forensics looks at “every part of the disk, the files in a binary system. You just can’t find what you need without going to that level, those logs. We would look at the whole thing.”

However, that posed a major problem. “Having a month with a hacker running around before you can do something about it is just not acceptable,” Campbell added. The result, typically, is that other forensics tools investigate only about 5% of an organization’s data.

The solution — for which Cado has filed patents, the pair said — has essentially involved building big data tools that can automate and speed up the very labor intensive process of looking through activity logs to figure out what looks unusual and to find patterns within all the ones and zeros.

“That gives security teams more room to focus on what the hacker is getting up to, the remediation aspect,” Campbell explained.

Arguably, if there were better, faster tracking and investigation technology in place, something like Solar Winds could have been better mitigated.

The plan for the company is to bring in more integrations to cover more kinds of systems, and go beyond deployments that you’d generally classify as “infrastructure as a service.”

“Over the past year, enterprises have compressed their cloud adoption timelines while protecting the applications that enable their remote workforces,” said Imran Ghory, partner at Blossom Capital, in a statement. “Yet as high-profile breaches like SolarWinds illustrate, the complexity of cloud environments makes rapid investigation and response extremely difficult since security analysts typically are not trained as cloud experts. Cado Security solves for this with an elegant solution that automates time-consuming tasks like capturing forensically sound cloud data so security teams can move faster and more efficiently. The opportunity to help Cado Security scale rapidly is a terrific one for Blossom Capital.”

Lingoda, an on-demand online language school with live instructors and Zoom classrooms, raises $67M

A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.

Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $67 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.

The company currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Shangkuan said that its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.

“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”

The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Parnters, and the valuation is not being disclosed.

Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient.

“We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.

A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent years has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments: technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.

So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online, and it’s keen to bring more analytics and other tech into the equation to improve learning between lessons, to help teachers get a better sense of students’ engagement and progress during class, and to more — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.

This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.

Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).

“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based learning around live teachers.

There are a number of reasons for why human teaching may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner.

Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.

On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner.

Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. Students meanwhile pay for courses along a sliding scale depending on various factors like whether you opt for group or one-to-one classes, how frequently you use the service, and which language you are learning, with per-classes prices typically ranging between $6.75 and $14.30 depending on what you choose.

Students can request a teaching level if they want it: there is always a wide selection yet with dozens of levels between basic A1 and advanced C1 proficiency, if you don’t find what you want and order it, it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class. But in any case, a teacher needs to set the class herself or himself. This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.

“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”

After students complete a course, Lingoda provides them with a certification. In English, you can take a recognized Cambridge assessment to verify your proficiency.

Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.

To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.

But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.

“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.