Where top VCs are investing in construction robotics

Venture capital has been flooding the various subverticals under the robotics umbrella in recent years, and the construction space is one of the largest beneficiaries.

Last November, we surveyed 13 of the top robotics-focused VCs to find out which areas of robotics are exciting them most going into 2020. One of the most common areas of attention respondents highlighted were startups focused on construction and manufacturing. In 2019 alone, the robotics space saw roughly 600 venture-backed fundraising rounds, while construction companies successfully raised roughly 200 venture rounds.

With our 2020 Robotics + AI sessions event on the horizon in early March, we’re diving back into the sector to learn about the attributes of construction attracting robotics VCs the most and which types of startups VCs are actually writing checks for in 2020. We asked 16 leading people who actively invest in construction robotics and work at firms spanning early to growth-stage to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunity in the sector:

 

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

True Ventures has been investing in industrial automation broadly for 4+ years and focusing on founders who bring technology to market that eliminates repetitive manual labor and multiplies human productivity by automating routine tasks.

Startup venture and alumni funds

According to the 2019 Annual European Venture Report by PitchBook, European startups raised €32.4 billion in 2019 (despite a lower deal count). Out of which, CVC participation grew to €14.7 billion, a substantial 52.6% YoY increase.

Corporate venture capital (CVC) represented 45% of the total capital raised. The rise of CVC volume is well documented (see post on VC Cafe), but what’s less discussed is funds started by mature startups or “new corporates”. These are funds launched by venture backed companies to deploy capital into early stage startups innovating in their space.

The definition of “startup” varies as Snap and Slack for example are publicly traded companies. For the purposes of this post, startups are companies started post financial crisis (since 2008), either private or public. The size of these funds, their models and motivations vary. In this post, I bring some of the most prominent startup and alumni fund examples.

Startup Funds

  • Slack Fund (founded 2009) – with a market cap of $12 billion, Slack Fund is an $80 million fund, investing dollars for equity to startups developing on the Slack platform. The fund is done in partnership with several top tier venture capital funds including Accel, A16Z, KPCB, Spark Capital and others.
    • In its own words:
      “The Slack Fund is designed to back companies who are solving problems for working teams by building on the Slack platform. Our goal is to create a thriving ecosystem that provides seed funding for innovative new services and helps them grow into lasting companies.”
    • What can companies expect apart from funding:
  • Carta Ventures (founded 2012) – Carta recently raised $300 million at a $1.7 billion valuation led by Andreessen Horowitz. Now the company wants to allocate some capital off balance sheet to invest into specific startup ideas the CEO, Henry Ward, sees as strategically important.
  • Snap (yellow) (founded 2010) – In May 2018 Snap launched Yellow, an LA based accelerator program consisting of cohorts of 10 startups who are involved in ‘creative mobile storytelling’. Yellow offers a standard deal, $150K checks (for equity) in exchange for a 3 month program in which startups are expected to be on site for seminars and mentorship.
  • Stripe (founded 2010) – at over $35 billion valuation, nothing seems to slow Stripe down on their quest to become the top payments solution online. While not official, Stripe made over 26 investments into fintech companies including Rapyd, Monzo Bank, Lambda School (ISAs), and others. Stripe has been seen leading series A rounds and join other growth rounds.
  • Coinbase Ventures (founded 2012) – the crypto wallet and one of the most popular cryptocurrency exchanges launched Coinbase Ventures in 2018 to invest in startups building the ‘open financial system’. According to recent reports, Coinbase ventures has already made 50 investments, only 12 of them in tokens. Their portfolio includes Messari, Opensea.io, and Celo.
  • WeWork (founded 2011) – the WeWork creator fund and WeWork future of work fund are led by Rohit Dave, the We company’s head of M&A. In addition to the company’s $20m creator awards, WeWork has made several minority investments in startups such as Jones, Proxy, and others. It’s unclear how the fund has been affected in the recent restructuring following WeWork’s failed IPO and series of divestments of non-core assets.
  • Okta Ventures (founded 2009) – Okta has a market cap of $16 billion. In April 2019, the Okta launched a $50 million fund to support the future of modern identity, security and privacy solutions.
  • Harry’s Ventures (founded 2013) – the direct to consumer razor brand, Harry’s, recently raised $112 million at a $1.3 billion valuation, recently appointed Tehmina Haider as head of Harry’s Ventures and quietly invested in D2C brands including Hims, Something Navy and Yumi.
  • Bumble Fund (founded 2014) – the popular dating app, Bumble, launched a fund aimed at supporting women led startups with an average check size of $25K-$50K.
  • Invision / Design Forward Fund (founded 2011) – Invision’s $5 million fund dedicated to the future of design startups. The fund invests in equity and provides grants.
  • Airbnb (founded 2008) – while not officially a fund, Airbnb made several dozen investments in startups off balance sheet and has also launched an internal hedge fund that reportedly makes $5 million a month. The company’s startup investments include leading $160M growth rounds in companies in Lyric, or Softbank backed Oyo Rooms to early stage investments in infrastructure as a service Finix Payments or tourist attraction booking platform Tiqets.

“Mature” startup funds

  • Epic Games (founded 1991) – creator of Fortnite and the Unreal gaming engine launched a $100M fund that offers MegaGrants from $25K to $500K “to support game developers, enterprise professionals, media and entertainment creators, students, educators, and tool developers doing amazing things with Unreal Engine or enhancing open-source capabilities for the 3D graphics community”. This is not a loan, and it comes equity free. The mega grants are a way for Epic Games to back developers and companies using their Unreal engine.
  • Shopify Sustainability Fund (founded 2004) – with a market cap of $73 billion, publicly traded Shopify launched a $5 million annual fund to invest in environmental technology fighting climate change.
  • UiPath – originally from Romania, UiPath pioneered the RPA (Robotic Process Automation) category and experienced meteoric growth in recent years and raised almost a billion dollars to date. In October 2018, UiPath Venture Innovation Fund was announced, to invest $20M into startups accelerating the democratization of RPA and deliver on the true benefits of AI in the enterprise.
  • Wix (founded 2006) – publicly traded in Nasdaq with a market cap of over $7 billion, Wix is hardly a startup. That said, the company made several venture investments in startups including Spike, Affogata and others.

Alumni funds

Silicon Valley has long been a fan of “Startup Mafias”. Perhaps the most famous web 1.0 is the Paypal Mafia, with a star studded list of alumni including Reid Hoffman, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Keith Rabois, Max Levchim and others. As successful startups mature and go public, early employees often leave to start their own business, a trend that goes back to the early days of the valley as far as Fairchild Semiconductors. This has contributed to the rise of another kind of startup fund, the alumni funds.

The trend is in full swing since the IPOs of Slack, Uber, Lyft, Postmates and others. Several alumni funds have popped up in the recent years. For example, Airbnb alumni Riley Newman raised $55M for Wave Capital, to invest in Airbnb alumni following the anticipated IPO for the company in 2020, according to this NYT article. Another one is Moving Capital, a fund dedicated to Uber alumni.

More common than dedicated alumni funds has been the trend of hiring former execs from unicorn startups as partners in established funds, to tap into the talent networks of the unicorns. Examples are plenty:

  • Andrew Chen (A16Z) – ex Uber’s head of rider growth (and one of the creators of the term growth hacking
  • Jonathan Golden (NEA) – ex director of product at AirBnb
  • Annie Kadavy (Redpoint) – ex head of strategic operations, Uber freight
  • Ilya Fushman (Kleiner Perkins) – ex head of product at Dropbox

Notably missing from this list are Unity, Bytedance, Spotify and several other global unicorns. In the next post, I will analyse the volume of investment into startups by Unicorns.

I’m grateful to PitchBook for the data used to compile this list as well as the tweeps who responded to my tweet over the weekend. Their replies inspired this post.

Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 2 of 2)

In part two of a survey that asks top VCs about exciting opportunities in open source and dev tools, we dig into responses from 10 leading open-source-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stage across software-specific firms, corporate venture arms and prominent generalist firms.

In the conclusion to our survey, we’ll hear from:

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including which floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than three meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information, such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

Lily AI raises a $12.5M Series A led by Canaan to accelerate its e-commerce recommendation tech

Lily AI, a startup focused on using deep learning to help brands better convert customers through emotionally tailored recommendations, announced this morning that it has raised a $12.5 million Series A led by Canaan Partners. Prior investors NEA, Unshackled and Fernbrook Capital also took part in the funding event.

Prior to its Series A, Lily had raised just a few million, according to Crunchbase data.

The round caught our eye for a few reasons. First, the investor leading the round — Maha Ibrahim — also led The RealReal’s Series C back in 2014. That company, which also sports a focus on the sartorial, went public in 2019. (Ibrahim has also dropped by TechCrunch from time to time, including here.) To see the investor lead an early round in a company operating in a related space was notable.

And the technology that co-founders Purva Gupta (formerly Eko India and UNICEF) Sowmiya Chocka Narayanan (formerly of Box) have built is neat.

TechCrunch first covered Lily back in 2017 when it raised $2 million from NEA. At the time it had an iOS application, along with a web app and API designed to help retailers “better understand a woman’s personal preferences around fashion” in their “own catalogs and digital storefronts.”

In a phone call with TechCrunch, Gupta said that she and Narayanan decided that “from a business model perspective” their technology was “better for an enterprise product.” The iOS app was eventually deprioritized (in “less than a year” after launch according to the CEO), with the company making a formal move to focus on enterprise offerings in early 2018.

So what does Lily AI do and what is it selling to large retailers? An e-commerce power-up.

How it works

Lily’s founding hypothesis came from Gupta’s time exploring fashion in New York, asking hundreds of women about what they had bought recently (more on the company’s founding story here). What came out of that exercise was the idea that every customer is “roaming around with [their own] emotional context,” how “they think about their body” and “how they react to different types of details and items.”

The CEO thought that if you could get that context into an online shop, it would probably help consumers find what they want, and help the store sell more at the same time. That’s the hypothesis behind Lily AI, according to Gupta, who wants to know the “individual emotional context” of “each customer” when they shop online.

It’s that idea that helped the company raise $12.5 million in its A, more capital by far than it had raised before in total.

The service works in three steps, starting with tech that can pull out myriad more attributes from items in a catalog; the more variables you have the more you can know about any particular product. Gupta told TechCrunch in an email that her company’s “approach captures significantly more detail on each product based on the traits customers look for when buying apparel,” including “style, fit, occasion” and the like.

Then, Lily uses “hashed customer data” that brands already collect, married to its item attribute data to “create a high-confidence prediction of each customer’s affinity to every attribute of every product in the catalog,” she continued. From there it’s a recommendation game.

The result of all this work is that “100 percent” of Lily’s customers have seen a “step gain in metrics,” not “just incremental” improvements, according to Gupta. (The company’s website claims a “10x ROI” on customer spend on its products.)

Lily charges for its service on a volume basis.

And there should be lots of that. According to Canaan’s Ibrahim, e-commerce “will continue to grow between 15-20% annually and will represent ~20% of all retail spending in 2020 […] off of an enormous absolute number base of ~$4T of e-commerce spend.” That means Lily has a pretty big market to grow into, which is just what venture investors love to see.

One final thing. During our call, I asked Gupta about privacy. After all, her company is pairing consumer preferences with other information for the benefit of a brand. In our discussion about how her startup protects customer privacy, she said something interesting that I asked her to expand on. Here’s how she described how her firm is built around understanding the feelings of others, or what’s better known as empathy:

We started Lily AI with the goal of helping customers look and feel their best. And I’m so proud that we use ‘Empathy’ as the guiding principle for everything: building products, hiring, retaining talent and establishing company culture.

Not a bad place to build from.

Chicago’s Sprout Social prices IPO mid-range at $17 per share, raising $150M

On the heels of Bill.com’s debut, Chicago-based social media software company Sprout Social priced its IPO last night at $17 per share, in the middle of its proposed $16 to $18 per-share range. Selling 8.8 million shares, Sprout raised just under $150 million in its debut.

Underwriters have the option to purchase an additional 1.3 million shares if they so choose.

The IPO is a good result for the company’s investors (Lightbank, New Enterprise Associates, Goldman Sachs and Future Fund), but also for Chicago, a growing startup scene that doesn’t often get its due in the public mind.

At $17 per share, not including the possible underwriter option, Sprout Social is worth about $814 million. That’s just a hair over its final private valuation set during its $40.5 million Series D in December of 2018. That particular investment valued Sprout at $800.5 million, according to Crunchbase data.

So what?

Sprout’s debut is interesting for a few reasons. First, the company raised just a little over $110 million while private, and will generate over $100 million in trailing GAAP revenue this year. In effect, Sprout Social used less than $110 million to build up over $100 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) — the firm reached the $100 million ARR mark between Q2 and Q3 of 2019. That’s a remarkably efficient result for the unicorn era.

And the company is interesting, as it gives us a look at how investors value slower-growth SaaS companies. As we’ve written, Sprout Social grew by a little over 30% in the first three quarters of 2019. That’s a healthy rate, but not as fast as, say, Bill.com . (Bill.com’s strong market response puts its own growth rate in context.)

Thinking very loosely, Sprout Social closed Q3 2019 with ARR of about $105 million. Worth $814 million now, we can surmise that Sprout priced at an ARR multiple of about 7.75x. That’s a useful benchmark for private companies that sell software: If you want a higher multiple when you go public, you’ll have to grow a little faster.

All the same, the IPO is a win for Chicago, and a win for the company’s investors. We’ll update this piece later with how the stock performs, once it begins to trade.

LA-based gaming studio Scopely raises $200M at a $1.4B valuation

The Los Angeles-based mobile game development studio Scopely has become America’s newest unicorn thanks to a $200 million financing which values the company at a whopping $1.4 billion.

Scopely said it would use the capital to continue its strategy of developing and acquiring new games as it looks to continue its run of six consecutive mobile games that will gross $100 million or more in lifetime revenue.

The new investment follows Scopely’s milestone of achieving more than $1 billion in lifetime revenue. Games in the company’s portfolio include: Looney Tunes World of Mayhem and Star Trek Fleet Command, created with the recently acquired DIGIT Game Studios.

Indeed, part of the reason for the financing is to accelerate the pace of its acquisitions and investments into new game development studios, according to chief executive, Walter Driver .

“The barrier to entry from independent studios is to find product-market fit,” says Driver. “Increasingly, it’s helpful for them to have publishing capabilities that are more global in nature and more scaled.”

The unicorn gaming company has amassed increasingly larger rounds over the past three years on a nearly annual basis. The company raised a $55 million round of financing in 2016, $60 million in 2017 and $100 million in 2018.

For investors, what makes the company compelling (beyond its string of successful games) is the technology platform that undergirds its popular mobile gaming titles. “What the company allows you to do is look at engagement and alter a game midstream to tailor the experience,” says Ravi Viswanathan, the founder and managing partner of NewView Capital .

NewView, a growth stage venture capital firm spun out of the multibillion dollar investment firm NEA, led the most recent $200 million round for Scopely.

Scopely is the firm’s first major investment in a gaming company and was part of a portfolio of investments that NewView took over when it spun off from NEA.

For Scopely, the latest capital infusion is just more money in the bank to invest in or acquire budding game studios and give them access to the technology stack that has made Scopely so compelling, according to Driver.

“Our technology platform is about optimizing free digital experiences for the largest amount of players possible,” Driver says. “We’re primarily focused on finding the most passionate and talented game developers that want to specialize in making the kind of game design and might have the kind of specialized expertise that we admire.”

In the eight years since Scopely first launched the gaming industry has been transformed by the opportunities that exist in the mobile market — and both Scopely and companies like Jam City have capitalized on the new platform.

“We see the future of gaming as free live services that give users choice and agency of how they want to play,” says Driver. “Being able to refine those live services over time and react to the data that you’re seeing and optimize those products,” has been at the core of Scopely’s technology stack.

The company is already raking in more than $400 million in annualized revenue and it was that growth that convinced NewView and investors like the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board to commit capital as part of this latest round.

Scopely has already made a few select minority investments in gaming studios and with the new cash, Driver hopes to roll up more independent game developers.

 

Bodega, once dubbed ‘America’s most hated startup,’ has quietly raised millions

2What’s in a name?

More than two years ago, Fast Company published a story with the headline “Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete.” The focus of the story was a nascent startup by the name of Bodega .

The company had raised $2.5 million in funding from First Round Capital’s Josh Kopelman, Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and Homebrew’s Hunter Walk. To announce their funding and vision to create the unmanned store of the future, Bodega briefed a number of journalists on its big idea. Given the simplicity of its product — a tech-enabled vending machine, in essence — the team was blindsided by the uproarious response that followed. September 13, 2017 was supposed to be the most exciting day in the startup’s history, at least until that point; instead, it was a nightmarish lesson in poor branding and messaging.

Why do tech wizards keep thinking of new and more horrible ways to avoid dealing with people? -CityLab, September 13, 2017

The press storm and public lambasting catapulted Bodega into the limelight — for all the wrong reasons. Overnight, the company went from just another early-stage commerce business to the symbol of everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley. Many wondered if it would fall victim to criticism and crumble like Juicero, a well-financed startup that sold a $400 juicer — that is, until a Bloomberg story proved its juice packets could be squeezed by hand, no machine necessary. Or would it take the public condemnation in stride, hearing out the critics and amending its brand as necessary?

Two years after its ill-fated launch, the latter seems to be true. Today, the three-year-old Oakland-based company — now known as Stockwell — is said to be growing quickly thanks to more than $45 million in venture capital funding from a number of deep-pocketed investors, the company has confirmed to TechCrunch.

Bodega

Bodega’s original branding included a cat logo. Cats are often features of small neighborhood stores, known as bodegas.

Public outcry

Bodega is either the worst named startup of the year, or the most devious,” wrote The Verge in the fall of 2017. “Tech firm markets glorified vending machines where users can buy groceries,” said The Guardian. The Washington Post dubbed the company “America’s most hated start-up.” CityLab, which writes about issues impacting cities, bluntly reported “Bodega, a Startup for Disrupting Bodegas, Is Terrible,” followed by 30 reasons why the startup sucks: “Maybe a Bodega can stock Soylent to appeal to people who also think that eating delicious food is a grim burden,” CityLab wrote. “Why do tech wizards keep thinking of new and more horrible ways to avoid dealing with people? How come they hate being human?”

It’s safe to say Bodega endured one of the most catastrophic company launches in the history of tech startups. But the press cycle surrounding Bodega was more than an attack on the startup alone. It represented a greater frustration with Silicon Valley culture and its reputation for funding “disruptive” products devoid of impact. Time and time again, VCs had proven their willingness to inject millions into standard concepts lacking originality. A juicer had raised more than $100 million, after all, scooters were beginning to attract private capital and Soylent, which sells a meal replacement drink fit for techies, was hot off the heels of a $50 million round.

A mini-fridge equipped with computer vision technology boasting a culturally insensitive name wasn’t going to change the world. Questioning why it had the support of VCs was only fair.

An innocent misunderstanding?

Behind the upsetting name was a business developing hundreds of five-foot-wide pantry boxes to be housed in luxury apartment lobbies, offices, college campuses, gyms and more. Similar to Amazon Go, the “smart stores” recognize what customers remove from the cases using computer vision and automatically charge the credit card associated with the account.

When you’re not in the room, the name of your company is what gets passed between people. -James Currier, NFX .

Bodega was founded by a pair of Google veterans, Paul McDonald and Ashwath Rajan. It had all the ingredients for a successful startup stew. Founders with years of experience in big tech: McDonald spent more than a decade at Google; Rajan had just finished up the search engine’s competitive associate product manager program. Both attended top universities: University of California -Berkeley and Columbia University, respectively. Still, neither of the two men nor their investors seemed to have predicted the controversy afoot.

“Bodega doesn’t want to disrupt the bodega,” Hunter Walk, a Bodega investor and co-founder of the seed fund Homebrew, wrote in a 2017 blog post. “Some instances of today’s press coverage suggested that element, a sound bite which, exacerbated by Bodega’s naming, pissed people off as another example of tech startups being at best tone-deaf, and at worst, predatory … It didn’t occur to me that some people would see the word and associate its use in this context with whitewashing or cultural appropriation.”

The company, too, quickly authored a blog post outlining their thought process behind the name: “Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration,” McDonald wrote.

After penning blog posts, the founders continued working on the company under the provocative and upsetting name. Meanwhile, investors seemed unfazed by the negative press, evidenced by the company’s ability to continue raising venture capital funding. After all, many of the best businesses endure the wrath of bloggers, competing founders and the general public. As for VCs, high-risk bets are just part of the ball game.

DCM Ventures, a U.S.-based venture capital fund with offices in Beijing, Tokyo and Silicon Valley, was the first to agree to invest in Bodega following the PR disaster. The firm, an investor in Lime, Hims and SoFi, led a $7.5 million Series A financing in the business in early 2018, the company confirmed. DCM co-founder and general partner David Chao joined the company’s board following the deal. DCM vice president David Cheng is also actively involved with the company, according to his bio.

Finally, after pocketing nearly $10 million in total funding, Bodega announced a name change: “Did you buy something today from a Bodega?” Bodega’s McDonald wrote. “You may have noticed that we’ve changed our name to Stockwell . Our new name is one of the changes we’re making as we expand our offerings and open more stores around the country.”

Stockwell Founders

Stockwell, fka Bodega, founders Paul McDonald (left) and Ashwath Rajan (Courtesy of Stockwell).

A new era

With a new logo and a toned-down, somewhat bland identity, Stockwell had a fresh start and, soon, more attention from top VCs. In late 2018, the company raised a $35 million round of funding co-led by Uber and Slack-backer GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, and NEA, an investor known for bets in Coursera, MasterClass and OpenDoor, Stockwell has confirmed. NEA’s Amit Mukherjee and GV’s John Lyman joined Stockwell’s board as part of the deal, which is said to have valued the business at north of $100 million. Stockwell, however, declined to confirm the figure.

Stockwell's funding history

Instead of announcing the news via TechCrunch, Venture Beat, Forbes or another tech publication, as is the norm for fast-growing consumer-facing startups, Stockwell remained mum on financing events and scaling plans, assumedly burned by the press and the public’s scorn a year prior.

Rather than subject itself to continued scrutiny as it attempted to rewrite its narrative, Stockwell was heads down, iterating, expanding and quietly raising millions. Bad press can break a startup, and given the sheer number of negative reports on Stockwell so early on, the company had already defied the odds. Keeping a low profile was undoubtedly the best strategy moving forward, and it seems to have paid off.

“It was a difficult time and transition and we learned a lot from it,” a spokesperson for Stockwell said in an email to TechCrunch. “As a company, we put our heads down and focused on building our business. We kept a low profile and concentrated on our core product, the mission, and the people who work for us. We’re excited for the progress we’ve made but won’t forget the path that got us here.”

Today the company counts 1,000 “stores” in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. Stockwell has used its latest infusion of funding to explore shared ownership models, i.e. the opportunity for anyone to run their own Stockwell store. The company tells TechCrunch they are also working on building out their “unique curation model,” which allows customers to help determine what items are stocked in their local “store,” as well as their support for emerging brands, whose products they can stock in their next-generation vending machines.

Stockwell

Stockwell’s five-foot wide next-generation vending machine.

So what’s in a name?

Human beings make snap judgments, evaluate products quickly and can develop distaste for brands in a matter of seconds. A company’s moniker is their first opportunity to impress customers.

“When you’re not in the room, the name of your company is what gets passed between people,” writes NFX co-founder James Currier. “It speaks for you when you’re not there … It sets expectations of your company in the blink of an eye. And first impressions are hard to change. Both positive and negative.”

Most cases of poor startup naming are easily fixed. Most founders aren’t forced to bear the brunt of the internet’s fury. The case of Bodega is much more extreme and, as such, serves as the ultimate lesson for founders searching for the best way to tell their story. At the end of the day, avoiding a complete and total train-wreck is easy if you include a diverse group of people in the naming process and remember there’s a lot in a name — if that weren’t the case, Bodega would still be Bodega.

At TechCrunch Disrupt, insights into key trends in venture capital

At TechCrunch Disrupt, the original tech startup conference, venture capitalists remain amongst the premier guests.

VCs are responsible for helping startups — the focus of the three-day event — get off the ground and as such, they are often the most familiar with trends in the startup ecosystem, ready to deliver insights, anecdotes and advice to our audience of entrepreneurs, investors, operators, managers and more.

In the first half of 2019, VCs spent $66 billion purchasing equity in promising upstarts, according to the latest data from PitchBook. At that pace, VC spending could surpass $100 billion for the second year in a row. We plan to welcome a slew of investors to TechCrunch Disrupt to discuss this major feat and the investing trends that have paved the way for recording funding.

Mega-funds and the promise of unicorn initial public offerings continue to drive investment. SoftBank, of course, began raising its second Vision Fund this year, a vehicle expected to exceed $100 billion. Meanwhile, more traditional VC outfits revisited limited partners to stay competitive with the Japanese telecom giant. Andreessen Horowitz, for example, collected $2.75 billion for two new funds earlier this year. We’ll have a16z general partners Chris Dixon, Angela Strange and Andrew Chen at Disrupt for insight into the firm’s latest activity.

At the early-stage, the fight for seed deals continued, with larger funds moving downstream to muscle their way into seed and Series A financings. Pre-seed has risen to prominence, with new funds from Afore Capital and Bee Partners helping to legitimize the stage. Bolstering the early-stage further, Y Combinator admitted more than 400 companies across its two most recent batches,

We’ll welcome pre-seed and seed investor Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures and Redpoint Ventures general partner Annie Kadavy to give founders tips on how to raise VC. Plus, Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel and Ali Rowghani, the CEO of YC’s Continuity Fund, which invests in and advises growth-stage startups, will join us on the Disrupt Extra Crunch stage ready with tips on how to get accepted to the respected accelerator.

Moreover, activity in high-growth sectors, particularly enterprise SaaS, has permitted a series of outsized rounds across all stages of financing. Speaking on this trend, we’ll have AppDynamics founder and Unusual Ventures co-founder Jyoti Bansal and Battery Ventures general partner Neeraj Agrawal in conversation with TechCrunch’s enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

We would be remiss not to analyze activity on Wall Street in 2019, too. As top venture funds refueled with new capital, Silicon Valley’s favorite unicorns completed highly-anticipated IPOs, a critical step towards bringing a much needed bout of liquidity to their investors. Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, Zoom, PagerDuty, Slack and several others went public this year and other well-financed companies, including Peloton, Postmates and WeWork have completed paperwork for upcoming public listings. To detail this year’s venture activity and IPO extravaganza, David Krane, CEO and managing partner of Uber and Slack investor GV will be on deck, as will Sequoia general partner Jess Lee, Floodgate’s Ann Miura-Ko and Aspect Ventures’ Theresia Gouw.

There’s more where that came from. In addition to the VCs already named, Disrupt attendees can expect to hear from Bessemer Venture Partners’ Tess Hatch, who will provide her expertise on the growing “space economy.” Forerunner Ventures’ Eurie Kim will give the Extra Crunch Stage audience tips on building a subscription product, Mithril Capital’s Ajay Royan will explore opportunities in the medical robotics field, SOSV’s Arvind Gupta will dive deep into the cutting edge world of health tech and more.

Disrupt SF runs October 2 – 4 at the Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco. Passes are available here.

How to fundraise in August

August is often considered the black hole of venture capital fundraising. Everyone is on vacation (well, everyone who’s not a founder anyway), while half of Silicon Valley is slogging down to Black Rock City for Burning Man. It understandably can just seem like an exercise in futility to try to raise any funding at all.

I’m here to tell you though that August is not the bleakest month of the year for fundraising (that actually would be December according to data from DocSend we’ve published). In fact, using August effectively for fundraising is perhaps the single most important factor for success in the coming fundraising season (there is a reason that YC Demo Day, one of the largest fundraising events in the calendar, is set for August 19-20 after all).

Let’s walk through a plan of attack.

First, the truth about VCs and vacation

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, VCs take vacation, sometimes sparklingly expensive ones, like the kinds with yachts or the kinds where someone rents out a whole ski chalet (or two). It can seem like an incredibly enviable lifestyle, and it is at a certain point of success, particularly in comparison to the context of a founder who is working around the clock and eating instant ramen.