Vlocity nabs $60M Series C investment on $1B valuation

As we wrote last week in How Salesforce paved the way for the SaaS platform approach, the ability to build extensions, applications and even whole companies on top of the Salesforce platform set the stage and the bar for every SaaS company since. Vlocity certainly recognized that. Targeting five verticals, it built industry-specific CRM solutions on the Salesforce platform, and today it announced a $60 million Series C round on a fat unicorn $1 billion valuation.

The round was led by Sutter Hill Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. New investors Bessemer Venture Partners and existing strategic investors Accenture and New York Life also participated. The company has now raised $163 million.

Company co-founder Craig Ramsey whose extensive career includes stints with Siebel Systems, Oracle and Veeva Systems, says he and his co-founders wanted to take the idea of Veeva, which is a life sciences-focused company built on top of Salesforce, and extend that idea across five verticals, instead of just one. Those five verticals include communications and media, insurance and financial services, health, energy and utilities and government and non-profits.

The idea he said was to build a company with a market that was 10x the size of life sciences. “What we’re doing now is building five Veevas at once. If you could buy a product already tailored to the needs of your industry why wouldn’t you do that,” Ramsey said.

The theory seems to be working. He says that the company, which was founded in 2014, has already reached $100 million in revenue and expects to double that by the end of this year. Then of course, there is the unicorn valuation. While perhaps not as rare as it once was, reaching the $1 billion level is still a significant milestone for a startup.

In the Salesforce platform story, co-founder and CTO Parker Harris addressed the need for solutions like the ones from Veeva and Vlocity. “…Harris said they couldn’t build one Salesforce for healthcare and another for insurance and a third one for finance. “We knew that wouldn’t scale, and so the platform [eventually] just evolved out of this really close relationship with our customers and the needs they had,” he told TechCrunch. In other words, Salesforce made the platform flexible enough for companies like these to fill in the blanks.

“Vlocity is a perfect example of the incredible innovation occurring in the Salesforce ecosystem and how we are working together to provide customers in all industries the technologies they need to attract and serve customers in smarter ways,” Jujhar Singh, EVP and GM for Salesforce Industries said in a statement.

It’s also telling that of the three strategic investors in this round — New York Life, Accenture and Salesforce Ventures — Salesforce is the biggest investor, according to Ramsey.

The company has 150 customers including investor New York Life, Verizon (which owns this publication), Cigna and the City of New York. It already has 700 employees in 20 countries. With this additional investment, you can expect those numbers to increase.

“What this Series C round allows us to do is to really put the gas on investing in product development, because verticals are all about going deep,” Ramsey said.

Cross-border fintech startup Airwallex raises $100M at a valuation of over $1B

Australia-based Airwallex is the tech startup to enter the billion-dollar ‘unicorn club.’ The company announced today that it has closed a $100 million Series C round that values its business above $1 billion.

Started in Melbourne in 2015 by four Chinese founders, Airwallex provides a service that lets companies manage cross-border revenue and financing in their business much like consumer service TransferWise.

Its customers can, for example, set up overseas bank accounts if they have paying customers overseas. When they want to move that revenue back to their HQ, they simply do so through the Airwallex system which uses inter-bank exchanges to trade forex at a mid-market rate. That’s something that can save its clients as much as 90 percent on their foreign exchange rates, and it massively simplifies the challenge of doing business overseas.

This new round of funding is led by DST Global — the high profile investors that’s backed the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Xiaomi and more — with participation from returning investors that include Sequoia China, Tencent, Hillhouse Capital, Gobi Partners, Horizons Ventures and Australia’s SquarePeg Capital. Airwallex has now raised over $200 million; its previous investment was an $80 million raise around nine months ago.

Most impressively, the company has become a unicorn within three years of its launch — that’s an impressive feat, the company has come a long way since we wrote about its $3 million seed round in late 2016. CEO Jack Zhang told TechCrunch that the company is being public with its valuation for the first time because it provides a major validation that will help it build a reputation and develop additional services in the financial services space.

“We talked to a number of global funds we found interesting but we picked DST because our biggest priority is international expansion and [the firm will] help us opening doors and going after larger opportunities,” Zhang said of the lead investor for the round.

Indeed, the Airwallex vision has grown since that seed round. Today the company, which has eight offices worldwide and over 260 staff, has expanded its focus in terms of both customers and services.

“Traditionally, we served a lot of the internet companies, but now we are saying that it doesn’t matter about size,” Zhang said. “We want to go after small companies and help all businesses to grow and expand globally.”

On the product side, he added that “the vision has evolved and now we’re building a fundamental global finance infrastructure.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, Zhang said Airwallex wants to be more than just a cross-border partner for companies. It already offers services like virtual bank accounts in 50 countries, it plugs in to partners to offer other financial services and its planned future products include credit card issuance to allow companies to manage money overseas with greater granular control.

Indeed, already Airwallex has an internal team nicknamed ‘Alpha/ that helps SMEs and other businesses to grow overseas, while Zhang said it has made undisclosed investments in companies where it sees an aligned ‘global’ vision.

“Alpha identifies early-stage companies and helps them to grow,” Zhang explained. “Whether they work with us or not we don’t care, we help connect them to investors and networks.”

The founders of Airwallex

The idea for the business came to Zhang, who spent time at Australia banks ANZ and NAB, after he grew frustrated of the challenges of importing overseas goods for a coffee business that he invested in with friends.

“We were importing from overseas and paying Western Union a bunch of money,” he recalls. “It was all very slow.”

Airwallex has fixed that problem for any would-be international-minded coffee shop owners/investors, but Zhang is convinced that the future of his business is to be an ecosystem for global banking and financial services. Precisely what that might mean in the future isn’t clear. But looking at companies that work closely with business customers, Airwallex is ideally placed to offer loans and financing, either directly or via partners, and really involve itself in growing its customers and their businesses.

Having started focused on Asia — and China in particular — Zhang is gunning for global growth, and that really means the U.S. and U.K and growing beyond Airwallex’s offices in London and San Francisco. The company is looking to kickstart that push through acquisitions, with Zhang admitting his team is “actively seeking interesting payment startups in the U.K and the U.S.”

Airwallex is also casting its eye on banking licenses in selected markets, which could mean it returns to raise additional capital at the end of this year or the startup of 2020.

Yunji, a startup that enables social commerce via WeChat, files for $200M US IPO

China’s Pinduoduo was all the rage in 2018 as the ecommerce upstart quickly rose to challenge Alibaba and raised $1.63 billion through a Nasdaq listing. Much of its success was attributable to its link to WeChat, China’s messaging leader. Now, another emerging ecommerce player that has leveraged WeChat is gearing up for a listing in the United States.

Yunji, which was founded in 2015, the same year Pinduoduo launched, is raising up to $200 million according to its prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week. Reuters reported citing sources in September that Yunji planned to raise around $1 billion in the IPO at a valuation of between $7 billion and $10 billion.

Like Pinduoduo, Yunji bills itself as a “social ecommerce” service, which means it takes advantage of social relationships on apps like WeChat to acquire, engage and sell to users. The pair differ, however, in how exactly they make money. Pinduoduo generates the bulk of its revenues — nearly 90 percent in the fourth quarter — from advertising fees collected from merchants. This is akin to Alibaba’s marketplace play of connecting buyers and third-party sellers. Yunji, which was started by ecommerce veteran Xiao Shanglue, focuses on direct sales like Alibaba’s arch-foe JD.com and derived 88 percent of its fourth-quarter revenues from selling to users.

In terms of size, Yunji was about $15 million behind Pinduoduo in revenue last year. It had 23.2 million buyers in 2018, compared to Pinduoduo’s 272.6 million monthly active users. Yunji was, however, much closer to achieving profitability than Pinduoduo, which spent most of its money on sales and marketing. Most of Yunji’s expenses went to fulfillment and logistics.

pinduoduo vs yunji

From inception, Yunji has boasted of its “innovative” membership-based ecommerce model. To join, people typically pay a fee, upon which they gain access to a variety of benefits and discounts as well as the permission to open their own micro-stores. Members then get compensated for successfully selling to others and recruiting new members.

The marketing practice helped Yunji quickly build up a large network of users. As of 2018, Yunji had 7.4 million members who contributed 11.9 percent of its annual revenues and 66.4 percent of annual transactions. But the firm went too far in exploiting the social links it controlled that it started to look like a pyramid scheme, which is banned in China. In 2017, the local government slapped Yunji with a $1.4 million fine for pyramid selling. The firm subsequently apologized and promised to revamp its marketing strategy. For instance, to avoid crossing the red line of awarding salespeople with “material” or “financial” benefits, Yunji resorted to virtual Yun-coins, which are not redeemable for cash and can only be used as coupons for future purchase.

But Yunji is still on the edge. The company warns in its prospectus that China could redefine what constitutes pyramid selling anytime.

“[T]here is no assurance that the competent governmental authorities in China that we communicate with will not change their views, or the other relevant government authorities will share the same view as our PRC legal counsel, or they will find our business model, not in violation of any applicable regulations, given the uncertainties in the interpretation and application of existing PRC laws, regulations and policies relating to our current business model, including, but not limited to, regulations regulating pyramid selling.”

Some of Yunji’s more notable investors include China’s CDH Investments and Huaxing Growth Capital, China Renaissance’s subsidiary focusing on high-growth startups.

Indonesia’s Kargo comes out of stealth with $7.6M from Travis Kalanick, Sequoia and others

Travis Kalanick may be busy cooking up a cloud kitchen business, but that hasn’t stopped the former Uber CEO’s VC fund from making its first investment in Southeast Asia. 10100, the firm that Kalanick launched last year for investments in Asia, just took part in a $7.6 million seed round for Kargo, an early-stage ‘Uber for trucks’ startup that is based in Indonesia and — you guessed it — founded by a former Uber Asia executive.

Kargo takes some of the concepts behind Uber and applies them to trucking and logistics. That’s to say that business customers order trucks using a mobile app or website but the scope is wider, Kargo CEO and co-founder Tiger Fang told TechCrunch.

The goal is to remove middlemen who broker logistics and trucking deals to provide greater transparency, better quality service and improved financials for clients and those operating the services — so cheaper pricing for companies and a larger share of the revenue for those actually out driving. So rather than being subject to closed discussions and chains of brokers, each taking their cut, Kargo wants to offer a direct connection.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Fang said in an interview. “We’ve been looking at what types of problems we can go and solve [since the Uber-Grab deal]… starting another e-commerce startup was probably not the best idea.

“We hope we can lower the price for shippers and raise the earnings from shippers and transporters,” he added. “We think there are hundreds of thousands of smaller companies who all get their hobs from agents and middleman.”

Fang — whose stint at Uber included time in the U.S, launches across Southeast Asia and managing its business in Chengdu, once the company’s busiest city on the planet based on daily trip volume — started Kargo late last year with Yodi Aditya, its CTO, following “months” of research after Uber sold its local business to Grab . They went on to close the financing deal before the end of 2018 and launch in beta early this year.

Operationally, Fang said Kargo is currently piloting with “a couple of big FMG companies” while, on the supply side, it has access to “thousands” of trucks. The initial focus is strictly on FMCG, he added, because each industry and segment requires different types of trucks.

As those figures suggest, Kargo is in its early stages and that makes a $7.6 million seed round pretty notable. Yes, valuations and rounds have been ratcheted up in Southeast Asia, where investors and tech companies see potential as internet access grows among the region’s 600 million-plus consumers, but this is a large check for a venture that is literally just kicking off. But that’s not all, the caliber of the backers is also quite unlike your average seed deal.

Kalanick’s 10100 firm is participating, but the round is led by Sequoia India and Southeast Asia, which announced its new $695 million fund six months ago and has since added an early-stage accelerator program. Other names involved including China’s Zhenfund, Indonesia-focused Intudo Ventures, a personal investment from Patrick Walujo — co-founder of Indonesian hedge fund group North Star — ATM Capital, Innoven Capital and Agaeti Ventures from Indonesian businessman Pandu Sjahrir.

Kalanick is, in many ways, the headline investor given his profile and connections to Fang and others at Kargo. TechCrunch understands that Kalanick agreed to invest last year when he visited Southeast Asia on a trip that combined hiring for his CloudKitchens startup and more generally catching up with the Uber alumni in Asia.

Fang declined to comment on the circumstances, but he said Kalanick “has been a big mentor” to him.

Clearly, a lot of the interest in Kargo stems from the team’s credentials — Fang said a large chunk of Kargo’s 50 person team are ex-Uber Asia — but there are also promising examples of what Kargo is doing in other parts of the world.

China’s two trucking platform unicorns which merged to create Full Truck Alliance Group, a startup reportedly valued at $10 billion that counts Google and SoftBank among its investors, while in India, Blackbuck is reportedly raising at an $800 million valuation. It’s logical, then, that Indonesia — the world’s fourth largest population and Southeast Asia’s largest economy — would also come under the radar, and Fang believes that his team is ideally suited to go after the problem.

The focus is entirely on Indonesia for now, where Fang believes logistics accounts for close to one-quarter of the national $1 trillion GDP, but further down the line he anticipates that there will be expansions across Southeast Asia and potentially beyond.

“We definitely want to build a global company,” he said.

Uber had a tough run in Indonesia. Taxi drivers and those with interests in the industry staged often-violent demonstrations in protest at this ‘foreign’ entrant that posed a threat to their businesses and financial returns. Trucking feels a lot like that with decades of inefficiencies in place, and certain parties profiting from those extended chains of deal-making. Like taxis, those who are being disintermediated aren’t likely to take a threat lying down, so it remains to be seen if Fang, and his fellow ex-Uberites, will run into similar conflict in the future. But Kargo is certainly off to a bright start with plenty of money to go out and test its thesis.

Asia’s AnyMind pulls in another $8M and expands into outdoor advertising

Asia-focused marketing startup AnyMind Group has landed a further $8 million in funding to close out its Series B round and expand into new verticals.

The company announced a $13.4 million raise back in November, but that has now expanded to $21.4 million thanks to an additional injection from VGI Global Media, a Thailand-based firm that specializes in outdoor media, and Tokyo Century, a financial services firm that has invested in Grab among others. Japanese messaging app Line and Mirai Creation Fund, which is backed by Toyota, are among the original investors in the round, which valued the company at $200 million — though it isn’t clear if that number has increased with this new tranche of investment. The company has now raised close to $36 million to date.

AnyMind, which was formerly known as AdAsia, started out with a focus on internet advertising but it has since expanded to offer HR and marketing services. There are also further vertical expansions following this capital. AnyMind is moving into outdoor advertising in Thailand — through a joint venture with VGI focused on covering commuter routes and public transport — while, also in Thailand, it has acquired YouTube media company Moindy. Both of these moves are likely to come with regional expansions further down the line, according to AnyMind, which has a sizeable office in Thai capital city Bangkok.

Finally, AnyMind is also launching another new service: CastingAsia Creators Network, which is a network of social media influencers to complement its marketing and advertising media units.

Here’s more background on the company from our earlier report on the earlier Series B announcement:

AnyMind was founded in April 2016 by Japanese duo CEO Kosuke Sogo, the former managing director of Japan’s MicroAd in APAC, and COO Otohiko Kozutsumi, who had been with MicroAd Vietnam — and both men are ambitious with their plans to grow.

Indeed, despite being less than three years old, AnyMind says it has been profitable since early 2017. It said total revenue for 2017 was $26 million, up from $12.9 million one year previous. In an interview with TechCrunch, Sogo said he expects revenue for this year to be more than double that of 2017. He added that Southeast Asia, where the firm first set its focus, accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, with its one-year Japan operation pulling the remaining 30 percent.

Today, the company has 12 offices — including a product development center in Vietnam — and its services are present in 11 markets across Asia. It has some 330 staff, up from 90 just 18 months ago, and serves more than 1,000 clients across its three businesses.

To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

Marqeta files to raise $250M on a $1.9B valuation

The world of digital payments continues to power ahead — fuelled by the continuing growth of e-commerce and fintech — and now one of the bigger startups making waves in the secotr is raising a huge round of funding.

TechCrunch has learned that Marqeta — a payment processing company that works in the area of powering payment cards on behalf of other brands along with related services — is in the process of raising $250 million on a valuation of $1.875 billion.

The figures come by way of a Delaware filing, provided to TechCrunch by PrimeUnicornIndex. Marqeta declined to comment on the filing, but we understand that the round is in progress and could close as soon a weeks from now.

It’s not clear who is in this round, but previous investors in the company that is based out of Oakland, CA have included Iconiq, Goldman Sachs, Visa, which led its most recent previous round, a Series D of $25 million; Max Levchin; CommerzVentures; 83North and more. Previous to this round, Marqeta had raised $116 million.

The Series E represents a big jump on Marqeta’s previous valuation, which was $545 million as of last year (when it raised an extension to that Series D round led by Iconiq — and that speaks both to Marqeta’s growth as well as the bigger opportunity in commerce.

The company — whose customers include other companies working in the fintech space such as Square, Alipay, Kabbage, Klarna and Affirm — said last October that its payment volume had grown 100 percent. In the same month, it also spearheaded its first moves into the European market, where there has been a mini-boom of digital only banks that have been successful in eating up market share from traditional incumbents. A recent report from Accenture, cited by Reuters, notes that startups like N26, Monese, Starling and Revolut now account for a collective 14 percent of the banking market’s revenues in Europe, or €206 billion ($238 billion) compared to just 3.5 percent of the US market (which is worth $1.04 trillion).

We will update this post as we learn more.

LogRocket nabs $11M Series A to fix web application errors faster

Every time a visitor experiences an issue on your website, it’s going to have an impact on their impression of the company. That’s why companies want to resolve issues in a timely manner.  LogRocket, a Cambridge, MA startup, announced an $11 Million Series A investment today to give engineering and web development teams access to more precise information they need to fix issues faster.

The round was led by Battery Ventures with participation from seed investor Matrix Partners. When combined with an earlier unannounced $4 million seed round, the company has raised of total of $15 million.

The two founders, Matthew Arbesfeld and Ben Edelstein, have been friends since birth growing up together in the Boston suburbs. After attending college separately at MIT and Columbia, the two friends both moved to San Francisco where they worked as engineers building front-end applications.

The company idea grew from the founders’ own frustration tracking errors. They found that they would have to do a lot of manual research to find problems, and it was taking too much time. That’s where they got the idea for LogRocket .

“What LogRocket does is we capture a recording in real time of all the user activity so the developer on the other end can replay exactly what went wrong and troubleshoot issues faster,” Arbesfeld explained.

Screenshot: LogRocket

The tool works by capturing low-resolution images of troublesome activity of each user and putting them together in a video. When there is an error or problem, the engineer can review the video and watch exactly what the user was doing when he or she encountered an error, allowing them to identify and resolve the problem much more quickly.

Arbesfeld said the company doesn’t have a video storage issue because it concentrates on capturing problems instead of the entire experience. “We’re looking at frustrating moments of the user, so that we can focus on the problem areas,” he explained.

Customers can access the data in the LogRocket dashboard, or it can be incorporated into help desk software like Zendesk. The company is growing quickly with 25 employees and 500 customers in just 18 months since inception, including Reddit, Ikea, CarGrus and Bloomberg.

As for the funding, they see this as the start of a long-term journey. “Our goal is to get out to a much wider audience and build a mature sales and marketing organization,” Arbesfeld said. He sees a future with thousands of customers and ambitious revenue goals. “We want to continue to use the data we have to offer more proactive insights into highest impact problems,” he said

Guesty, a tech platform for property managers on Airbnb and other rental sites, raises $35M

The growth of Airbnb — and likewise other platforms like Booking.com, VRBO and Homeaway for listing and renting short-term accommodation in private homes — has spawned an ecosystem of other businesses and services, from those who make money renting their homes, to cleaning companies that make properties “Airbnb-ready”, to those who help design listings that will get more clicks. Airbnb has seen some wild success so far, but it turns out that being a part of that ecosystem can be a lucrative business, too.

Today, Guesty — a Israeli startup that provides a suite of tools aimed at property managers that list on these platforms — is announcing that it has raised $35 million, money that it will use to fuel its growth, after seeing the number of properties managed in some 70 countries through its tech double to over 100,000 in the last year.

The company is not disclosing valuation with this round, which was led Viola Growth with participation also from Vertex Ventures, Journey Ventures, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, La Maison Compagnie d’Investissement, TLV Partners and Magma Ventures. But Amiad Soto, the CEO and co-founder, noted that it too has “more than doubled” since its last funding almost a year ago. PitchBook notes that round was around $90 million post-money, so this would put the current valuation at at least $180 million, likely more.

The idea for Guesty came about like many of the best startup ideas do: out of a personal need. In 2013, twin brothers Amiad and Koby were renting out their own apartments on Airbnb, and found themselves spending a lot of time doing the work needed to list and manage those properties.

Their first stab at a business was an all-in-one service to help hosts get their properties ready and subsequently tidied up for listings. “I was cleaning apartments, Koby was doing the business development, and my girlfriend was doing the laundry,” Soto told me in an interview. They quickly realised that this was never going to scale, “and also that our competitive advantage was building software. We are computer geeks.”

So the company quickly pivoted to building a platform that could provide all the tools that property managers — who work with individual property hosts/owners and had started emerging as key players as Airbnb itself scaled out — needed to juggle multiple listings. (That girlfriend is now his wife, so seems like they may have pivoted just in time.)

Guesty started as SuperHost and, like Airbnb, went through the Y-Combinator accelerator. It eventually rebranded to Guesty, and it now provides tools in a dozen areas that touch property managers and the job they do: Channel Manager (“channel” being the platform where the property is being listed), Multi-Calendar, Unified Inbox, Automation Tools, Mobile Management App, Branded Website Task Management, Reporting Tools, Owners Portal, Payment Processing, Analytics, Open API, 24/7 Guest Communication.

The plan is to complement that in coming years with more “smart” tools: the company is introducing AI and machine learning elements that will help it suggest more services to users, and for managers to use to do their jobs better. (One example of how this might work: if you have a property manager in New York City, and the city regulator changes something in the tax code for properties in Brooklyn, this will now be suggested through to managers whose properties are affected, and this can help with pricing modelling down the line if the manager, say, wanted to keep a specific margin on rentals.)

Perhaps because short-term property renting is a relatively new area of the accommodation and residential market, it’s fairly fragmented, and so Guesty is providing a clear move to consolidate and simplify some of that work.

“There are about 700 different services and other things that go into short-term property rentals,” Soto noted when I asked him about this. “It would take me hours to go through it all with you.”

And indeed, the market itself is much bigger than what Guesty is currently working with. Soto estimates that there are around 7 million properties now collectively getting listed on these short-term letting platforms, speaking to the opportunity ahead.

Guesty very much got its start with Airbnb and that helped it not only establish what property managers needed, but also to forge a close relationship with Airbnb at a time when it wasn’t yet building many bridges to third-party services. Soto said Guesty built its own private API to use with Airbnb, and subsequently helped inform how Airbnb eventually build an API that others could use.

It’s still a trusted partner in that regard. Now that Airbnb is moving into multi-dwelling arrangements — that is, rooms in hotels (which will now expand with its HotelTonight acquisition), plus multiple apartments in single buildings for big groups that might want to secure bookings at several places at once — it will very soon be launching a tool for these kinds of listings. Guesty has helped in the building of that, too.

Still, the opportunity for short-term lettings is bigger than Airbnb itself these days. Booking.com and its many subsidiary businesses have made a big move into this area, as have many other companies, and Guesty now handles bookings on a number of “channels”. Soto said on average, the number of bookings on its platform that are listing on Airbnb is 60 percent, with some vacation spots seeing the percentage much lower, and some urban markets seeing a much higher penetration.

This is one of those cases where being an early mover in identifying a market opportunity has worked in a startup’s favor. Guesty’s strong work with Airbnb has helped the startup build stronger ties with those companies that hope to compete with it and give Airbnb a run for its money: Booking.com, Soto notes, is a premier partner these days.

“Guesty was the first to recognize the potential of the property management market and has quickly become a category leader with its vertical-oriented, end-to-end approach,” said Natalie Refuah, partner at Viola Growth, in a statement. “Technology and AI continue to disrupt the innovation stack, acting as a catalyst to the digitization of “traditional” areas such as real estate and travel. Guesty is leading the charge, fostering a more seamless experience for property managers while providing clear advantages to customers and ultimately, their guests. We believe that with its experienced and elite executive team, Guesty is fully equipped to modernize and revolutionize the property management ecosystem.” Refuah is joining Guesty’s Board of Directors.