Corporate venture investment climbs higher throughout 2018

Many corporations are pinning their futures on their venture investment portfolios. If you can’t beat startups at the innovation game, go into business with them as financial partners.

Though many technology companies have robust venture investment initiatives—Alphabet’s venture funding universe and Intel Capital’s prolific approach to startup investment come to mind—other corporations are just now doubling down on venture investments.

Over the past several months, several big corporations committed additional capital to corporate investments. For example, defense firm Lockheed Martin added an additional $200 million to its in-house venture group back in June. Duck-represented insurance firm Aflac just bumped its corporate venture fund from $100 million to $250 million, and Cigna lust launched a $250 million fund of its own. This is to say nothing of financial vehicles like SoftBank’s truly enormous Vision Fund, into which the Japanese telecom giant invested $28 billion of its own capital.

And 2018 is on track to set a record for U.S. corporate involvement in venture deals. We come to this conclusion after analyzing corporate venture investment patterns of the top 100 publicly traded, U.S.-based companies (as ranked by market capitalizations at time of writing). The chart below shows that investing activity, broken out by stage, for each year since 2007.

A few things stick out in this chart.

The number of rounds these big corporations invest in is on track to set a new record in 2018. Keep in mind that there’s a little over one full quarter left in the year. And although the holidays tend to bring a modest slowdown in venture activity over time, there’s probably sufficient momentum to break prior records.

The other thing to note is that our subset of corporate investors have, over time, made more investments in seed and early-stage companies. In 2018 to date, seed and early-stage rounds account for over 60 percent of corporate venture deal flow, which may creep up as more rounds get reported. (There’s a documented reporting lag in angel, seed, and Series A deals in particular.) This is in line with the past couple of years.

Finally, we can view this chart as a kind of microcosm for blue-chip corporate risk attitudes over the past decade. It’s possible to see the fear and uncertainty of the 2008 financial crisis causing a pullback in risk capital investment.

Even though the crisis started in 2008, the stock market didn’t bottom out until 2009. You can see that bottom reflected in the low point of corporate venture investment activity. The economic recovery that followed, bolstered by cheap interest rates that ultimately yielded the slightly bloated and strung-out market for both public and private investors? We’re in the thick of it now.

Whereas most traditional venture firms are beholden to their limited partners, that investor base is often spread rather thinly between different pension funds, endowments, funds-of-funds, and high-net-worth family offices. With rare exception, corporate venture firms have just one investor: the corporation itself.

More often than not, that results in corporate venture investments being directionally aligned with corporate strategy. But corporations also invest in startups for the same reason garden-variety venture capitalists and angels do: to own a piece of the future.

A note on data

Our goal here was to develop as full a picture as possible of a corporation’s investing activity, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

We started with a somewhat constrained dataset: the top 100 U.S.-based publicly traded companies, ranked by market capitalization at time of writing. We then traversed through each corporation’s network of sub-organizations as represented in Crunchbase data. This allowed us to collect not just the direct investments made by a given corporation, but investments made by its in-house venture funds and other subsidiaries as well.

It’s a similar method to what we did when investigating Alphabet’s investing universe. Using Alphabet as an example, we were able to capture its direct investments, plus the investments associated with its sub-organizations, and their sub-organizations in turn. Except instead of doing that for just one company, we did it for a list of 100.

This is by no means a perfect approach. It’s possible that corporations have venture arms listed in Crunchbase, but for one reason or another, the venture arm isn’t listed as a sub-organization of its corporate parent. Additionally, since most of the corporations on this list have a global presence despite being based in the United States, it’s likely that some of them make investments in foreign markets that don’t get reported.

VCs say Silicon Valley isn’t the gold mine it used to be

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’

The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising rents are making it impossible for new blood to make a living, let alone build businesses. And according to a recent survey, 46 percent of Bay Area residents want to get the hell out, an increase from 34 percent two years ago.

Needless to say, the future of Silicon Valley was top of mind on stage at Disrupt.

“It’s hard to make a difference in San Francisco as a single entrepreneur,” said J.D. Vance, the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and a managing partner at Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, which backs seed-stage companies based outside Silicon Valley. “It’s not as a hard to make a difference as a successful entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio.”

In conversation with Vance, Revolution CEO Steve Case said he’s noticed a “mega-trend” emerging. Founders from cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Portland are opting to stay in their hometowns instead of moving to U.S. innovation hubs like San Francisco.

“The sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

“We are seeing the beginnings of a slowing of what has been a brain drain the last 20 years,” Case said. “It’s not just watching where the capital flows, it’s watching where the talent flows. And the sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

Farewell, San Francisco

“It’s too expensive to live here,” said Aileen Lee, the founder of seed-stage VC firm Cowboy Ventures, amid a conversation with leading venture capitalists Spark Capital general partner Megan Quinn and Benchmark general partner Sarah Tavel .

“I know that there are a lot of people in the Bay Area that are trying to work on that problem and I hope that they are successful,” Lee added. “It’s an amazing place to live and we’ve made it really challenging for people to live here and not worry about making ends meet.”

One of Cowboy’s portfolio companies opted to relocate from Silicon Valley to Colorado when it came time to scale their business. That kind of move would’ve historically been seen as a failure. Today, it may be a sign of strong business acumen.

Quinn said that of all 28 of Spark’s growth-stage portfolio companies, Raleigh, North Carolina-based Pendo has the easiest time recruiting folks locally and from the Bay Area.

She advises her Bay Area-based late-stage companies to open a second office outside of the Valley where lower-cost talent is available.

“We often say go to [flySFO.com], draw a three-hour circle around San Francisco where they have direct flights, find a city that has a university and open up a second office as quickly as possible,” Quinn said.

Still, all three firms invest in a lot of companies based in San Francisco. Of Benchmark’s 10 most recent investments, for example, eight were based in SF, according to Crunchbase.

“I used to believe really strongly if you wanted to build a multi-billion dollar company you had to be based here,” Tavel said. “I’ve stopped giving that soap speech.”

Underestimated talent

A lot of Bay Area VCs have been blind to the droves of tech talent located outside the region. Believe it or not, there are great engineers in America’s small- and medium-sized markets too.

At Disrupt, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton announced the firm would launch an accelerator to further amplify companies led by underestimated founders. The program will have cohorts based in four cities; San Francisco was noticeably absent from that list.

Instead, the firm, which invests in underrepresented founders and recently raised a $36 million fund, will work with companies in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London and one more city, which will be determined by a public vote. Aniyia Williams, the founder of Tinsel and Black & Brown Founders, will spearhead the Philadelphia effort.

“For us, it’s about closing that wealth gap to address inequity in tech,” Williams said. “There needs to be more active participation from everyone.”

Hamilton added that for her, the tech talent in LA and London is undeniable.

“There is a lot of money and a lot of investors … it reminds me of three years ago in Silicon Valley,” Hamilton said.

Silicon Valley vs. China

Silicon Valley’s demise may not be just as a result of increased costs of living or investors overlooking talent in other geographies. It may be because of heightened competition abroad.

Doug Leone, an early- and growth-stage investor at Sequoia Capital, said at Disrupt that he’s noticed a very different work ethic in China.

Chinese entrepreneurs, he explained, are more ruthless than their American counterparts and they’re putting in a whole lot more hours.

“I’ve had dinner in China until after 10 p.m. and people go to work after 10 p.m.,” Leone recalled.

“We don’t see that in the U.S. I’m not saying the U.S. founders oughta do that but those are the differences. They are similar in character. They are similar in dreams. They are similar in how they want to change the world. They are ultra-driven … The Chinese founders have a half other gear because I think they are a little more desperate.”

Much of this, however, has been said before and still, somehow, Silicon Valley remained the place to be for investors and startup entrepreneurs.

The reality is, those engaged in tech culture are always anxiously awaiting for the bubble to pop, the market to crash and for “peak Valley” to finally arrive.

Maybe, just maybe, Silicon Valley is forever.

Here’s more of our coverage of Disrupt 2018.

Base10’s debut fund is the largest-ever for a Black-led VC firm

Adeyemi Ajao (above left), the co-founder and managing director of Base10 Partners, was surprised to hear his firm’s $137 million fund was the largest debut to date for a black-led venture capital firm.

He and his co-founder — managing director TJ Nahigian (above right) — found out from none other than their fund’s own limited partners, who told them they should seek out institutions looking to invest in diverse fund managers.

“Oh man, I was like, ‘yeah, I know I’m black but so what?'” Ajao told TechCrunch. “I can be a little bit naive about these things until they become extremely apparent.”

Ajao is African, European, Latin, and now, having spent a decade in San Francisco, American. Growing up in between Spain and Nigeria, it wasn’t until landing in the Bay Area that he was forced to confront a social dynamic absent in his international upbringing: racial inequality and being black in America.

“The U.S. is pretty different about those things,” he said. “I was surprised when at Stanford I got an invitation to a dinner of the Black Business Student Association. I’m like, ‘why would there be a Black Business Student Association? That’s so weird?’ It took me a while, a good, good while, to be like ok, here there’s actually a really entrenched history of a clash and people being treated differently day-to-day.”

In the business of venture capital, the gap in funding for black founders and other underrepresented entrepreneurs is jarring. There’s not a lot of good data out there to illustrate the gap, but one recent study by digitalundivided showed the median amount of funding raised by black women founders is $0, because most companies founded by black women receive no money.  

Ajao certainly hadn’t thought the color of his skin would impact his fundraising process, and, in retrospect, he doesn’t think it did. Still, he recognizes that pattern recognition and implicit bias continue to be barriers for diverse founders and investors.

Now, he plans to leverage his unique worldview to identify the next wave of unicorns others VCs are missing. Base10 doesn’t have a diversity thesis per say but it plans to invest in global companies fixing problems that affect 99 percent of the world, not the Silicon Valley 1 percent. 

I sat down with Ajao in Base10’s San Francisco office to discuss his background, the firm’s investment focus and the importance of looking beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

Automation of the real economy

Base10 is writing seed and Series A checks between 500,000 and $5 million. It’s completed 10 investments so far, including in Brazilian mobility startups Grin and Yellow, which closed a $63 million Series A last week.

The firm is looking for entrepreneurs who have spent years in their industries, whether that be agriculture, logistics, waste management, construction, real estate or otherwise, and are trying to solve problems they’ve experienced first-hand.

“We are much more likely to fund someone that actually worked for eight years on a construction site and was like, ‘you know what, I think this could be done better and maybe I can make my life easier with automation,’ rather than a Ph.D. in AI out of the Stanford lab that says ‘I think construction is inefficient and it can be done without people,'” Ajao said. “[We are] kind of flipping the paradigm in that sense.”

The firm has also backed birth control delivery startup The Pill Club, on-demand staffing company Wonolo and Tokensoft, a platform for compliant token sales. 

Beyond the bubble

Ajao and Nahigian have a mix of operational and investing experience.

On the VC side, Nahigian, a Los Angeles native, spent seven years investing via Summit Partners, Accel, then Coatue Management. In 2014, he co-founded Jobr, a mobile job platform that was later acquired by Monster, where he became the VP of product and head of mobile.

Ajao was most recently a VP at Workday where he led the launch of Workday Ventures, a VC fund focused on AI for enterprise software. He joined Workday after the company acquired his startup, Identified, in what was his second successful exit to date. Before that, he co-founded Spanish social media company Tuenti, which Telefonica paid $100 million for in 2010

He also helped incubate and launch Cabify, a Spanish ride-hailing company based in Madrid. The Uber competitor raised $160 million at a $1.4 billion valuation earlier this year.

Ajao was Nahigian’s first investor in Jobr, which was also backed by Tim Draper, Redpoint Ventures, Eniac Ventures, Lowercase Capital and more. The pair stayed in touch, discussed startups and potential deals, ultimately deciding to go into business together. 

They agreed Base10 should support companies solving real problems and that as investors, they needed to be able to see beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

Do we feel a little bit of a responsibility? Like … ‘hey, you should help Silicon Valley be more aware of global issues.’ Yes,” Ajao said. “I try to spend a lot of time meeting with founders that either look different or are trying to make it here and I try to be super open about my journey and my travels.”

His piece of advice to other VCs is one that countless diverse founders and investors have been shouting at the top of their lungs: Invest in underrepresented founders, it’s just good business.

“If you have the same company and one is run by a female and one is run by a male, and it’s the same stuff, you should probably invest in the female, because that person probably had a harder time getting there,” he said. “It’s actually good business. I believe that.”

“The more open and comfortable we get about talking about these things, the better it is for both parties.”

This is how much VCs are paid

Venture capital is known for being an opaque industry, so it’s no surprise most of us have no idea what the average VC earns in a year.

I got a closer look at the survey results of J. Thelander Consulting‘s annual venture firm compensation survey and, unsurprisingly, VCs make a lot of money.

Just how much? Well, of the 204 VCs surveyed (172 male and 32 female), the average general partner expects to make roughly $634,000 this year, including a bonus for 2017 performance.

The averages varied a bit depending on the size of the firm. VCs at firms with less than $250 million assets under management (AUM), for example, earn less than their counterparts at larger firms.

[gallery ids="1712989,1712990,1712991"]

 

GPs, who sit at the top of the ranks at VC firms, have the largest compensation packages. Their yearly bonuses are, on average, larger than an associate’s, or entry-level investor’s, average base pay.

The survey didn’t parse out data from firms with billions AUM, aka the Sequoias, NEAs or Kleiner Perkins of the world. Those folks, if the above is any indicator, earn more.

Take note: This is all in addition to a VC’s carried interest, or percentage of a fund’s profits paid to firms’ partners.

Crypto’s second bubble, Juul has 60 days and three Chinese IPOs

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

After a long run of having guests climb aboard each week, we took a pause on that front, bringing together three of our regular hosts instead: Connie Loizos, Danny Chrichton, and myself.

Despite the fact that there were just three of us instead of the usual four, we got through a mountain of stuff. Which was good as it was a surprisingly busy week, and we didn’t want to leave too much behind.

Up top we dug into the latest in the land of crypto, which Danny had politely summarized for us in an article. The gist of his argument is that the analogies relating crypto as an industry to the Internet may work, but most people have their timelines wrong: Crypto isn’t like the Internet in the 90s, perhaps. More like the 80s.

On the same topic, crypto companies formed a team lobbying effort, and a high-flying crypto fund is struggling to once again post strong profit figures.

Moving along, Juul is back in the news. Not, however, for raising more money or posting quick growth. Well, sort of the latter, as the government is after it. The Food and Drug Administration has put Juul on a countdown to get its act together regarding teens and smoking. That the financially-impressive unicorn is in as much trouble as it is nearly surprising.

Finally, we ran through the three most recent Chinese IPOs that hit our radar. Here they are:

  • Meituan Dianping: The Tencent-backed group buying, delivery, and everything company raised over $4 billion in its debut, which was impressive, but also short of expectations. The firm won’t begin trading until the 20th, but it’s one more massive deal that got done in 2018.
  • 111: We spent a minute on the show discussing what counts as a technology company thanks to 111. We voted that the Chinese online-to-offline pharmacy startup did in fact count. So, it’s in our list. Some notes on its debut can be found here.
  • NIO: Finally on our list was NIO, a Chinese electric car company with, as we have discussed on Equity before, a shockingly short history of revenue generation. Whether the company is a gamble or not, it did raise $1 billion in its own offering. And its stock is off like a rocket to boot.

And that was the end of things. Thanks for sticking with us, as always. Speaking of which, our 100th episode is coming up. Who should we bring onto the show to celebrate?

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Golden Gate Ventures closes new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures has announced the close of its newest (and third) fund for Southeast Asia at a total of $100 million.

The fund hit a first close in the summer, as TechCrunch reported at the time, and now it has reached full capacity. Seven-year-old Golden Gate said its LPs include existing backers Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Korea’s Hanwha, Naver — the owner of messaging app Line — and EE Capital. Investors backing the firm for the first time through this fund include Mistletoe — the fund from Taizo Son, brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son — Mitsui Fudosan, IDO Investments, CTBC Group, Korea Venture Investment Corporation (KVIC), and Ion Pacific.

Golden Gate was founded by former Silicon Valley-based trio Vinnie Lauria, Jeffrey Paine and Paul Bragiel . It has investments across five markets in Southeast Asia — with a particular focus on Indonesia and Singapore — and that portfolio includes Singapore’s Carousell, automotive marketplace Carro, P2P lending startup Funding Societies, payment enabler Omise and health tech startup AlodokterGolden Gate’s previous fund was $60 million and it closed in 2016.

Some of the firm’s exits so far include the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of WoomooLine’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek. It claims that its first two funds have had distributions of cash (DPI) of 1.56x and 0.13x, and IRRs of 48 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

“When I compare the tech ecosystem of Southeast Asia (SEA) to other markets, it’s really hit an inflection point — annual investment is now measured in the billions. That puts SEA on a global stage with the US, China, and India. Yet there is a youthfulness that reminds me of Silicon Valley circa 2005, shortly before social media and the iPhone took off,” Lauria said in a statement.

A report from Google and Temasek forecasts that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will grow from $50 billion in 2017 to over $200 billion by 2025 as internet penetration continues to grow across the region thanks to increased ownership of smartphones. That opportunity to reach a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers — more of whom are online today than the entire U.S. population — is feeding optimism around startups and tech companies.

Golden Gate isn’t alone in developing a fund to explore those possibilities, there’s plenty of VC activity in the region.

Some of those include Openspace, which was formerly known as NSI Ventures and just closed a $135 million fund, Qualgro, which is raising a $100 million vehicle and Golden Equator, which paired up with Korea Investment Partners on a joint $88 million fund. Temasek-affiliated Vertex closed a $210 million fund last year and that remains a record for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate also has a dedicated crypto fund, LuneX, which is in the process of raising $10 million.

Chipmaker Renesas goes deeper into autonomous vehicles with $6.7B acquisition

Japan-based semiconductor firm Renesas — one of the world’s largest supplier of chips for the automotive industry — is scooping up U.S. chip company IDT in a $6.7 billion deal that increases its focus on self-driving technology.

Renesas produces microprocessor and circuits that power devices, and automotive is its core focus. It is second only to NXP on supply, and more than half of its revenue comes from automotive. IDT, meanwhile, includes power management and memory among its products, which focus on wireless networks and the converting and storing of data. Those are two areas that are increasingly important with the growth of connected devices and particularly vehicles which demand high levels of data streaming and interaction.

The acquisition of IDT — which is being made a 29.5 percent on its share price — is set to expand Renesas’ expertise on autonomous vehicles. The firm said it would also broaden its business into the “data economy” space, such as robotics, data centers and other types of connected devices.

Renesas has already demoed self-driving car tech, which puts it into direct competition with the likes of Intel . Last year, the firm paid $3.2 billion to buy up Intersil, which develops technology for controlling battery voltage in hybrid and electric vehicles, and IDT deal pushes it further in that direction.

“There’s little overlap between their product portfolios, so it’s a strategically sound move for Renesas. But it does seem like the price is a little high,” said Bloomberg analyst Masahiro Wakasugi.

The IDT deal has been on the table for a couple of weeks after Renesas first revealed its interest in an acquisition last month. It is expected to close in the first half of 2019 following relevant approvals.

Startups should read this checklist before they go “whale hunting” for big partners

A top four tech company recently approached the CEO of one of our B2B portfolio companies with a tremendous offer. This company, with buy-in from its world-famous CEO, believes the startup’s core technology could help them catch up to a rival in an incredibly important space and wanted to discuss a $20M investment on extremely favorable terms. This partnership would allow the startup to grow 10X in a year and would provide invaluable validation.

The founder was elated. I was terrified. This kind of deal is a classic “whale hunt,” and most of the startups who engage in them are doomed to end up like Captain Ahab.

While it’s immensely gratifying to receive this kind of validation from a market leader, the startup is at an early and important developmental stage. I’ve seen many promising startups blown up by ill-advised business development deals that swelled teams in a bout of euphoria only to see them wither if interest and focus from their partner wanes.

In my experience, arrangements that pair a behemoth megacorp with a Seed/Series A stage startup have a success rate well below 50%. I didn’t tell the founder to decline the offer outright, but I did suggest that the management team consider a few questions before pursuing it.

How much MRR will it add to your business? The project with the large company is in line with the startup’s long-term vision, but it’s a departure from their current focus. A $20M investment is very nice indeed, but once that money is spent, what will the ongoing revenue be? And what is the opportunity cost of not supporting the current business plan? What discount rate will you apply to compensate for the small probability of this deal working out? My advice was that if he couldn’t satisfactorily answer those questions, it was probably the right move to turn the deal down. Even if the deal was structured as $20M in revenue rather than equity I’d hesitate.

How, in detail, will this project help your core business? There’s an argument for entering into an agreement like this even if the immediate revenue contribution is low. If the project will allow the startup to speed up the development of a core technology that is generally applicable to other customers, it would seem far more worthy of consideration but beware our human ability to rationalize (first and foremost to ourselves).

These projects more often end up as bespoke development engagements where despite the initial intention, the startup is producing a custom application for the big co. Founders will rationalize the deviations from their product roadmap, but ultimately sell out their future for a long-shot opportunity to integrate with a worldwide leader.

My advice is to not think magically about product/market fit, and instead, to try pre-selling it to other customers as a form of market development. If you can sell the product, great! If not, you’re probably using venture capital to subsidize the R&D budget of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

What happens if this doesn’t work out? It’s easy to visualize success, but what happens if the deal doesn’t lead anywhere? In this scenario, imagine the big tech company decides to change its priorities and abandons the initiative. SaaS startups face a similar failure mode when they go to great lengths to impress big companies during pilot programs only to see their project die due to lack of interest. When considering a high-risk, high-reward partnership, founders need to spend time envisioning a gruesome demise.

● What will your pitch be for a bridge round of financing when you have no revenue, you just came up short during a prolonged engagement with the best possible customer in your industry?

● How will you reassure your most talented team members that you know what you’re doing when the deal fails, and capital is running short?

● How quickly can you reorient the company to focus on other customers and how quickly will you start generating revenue from them?

Image courtesy of Flickr/Felipe Campos

How well do you understand the Big Company? Founders with little exposure to big companies are susceptible to misreading cues. My partner Eric Paley wrote about how entrepreneurs regularly misread their likelihood of getting funding from VCs, and the pattern is similar with this kind of business development deal.

When I started an ISP in South Africa in the 1990s, I had the chance to pitch the executive team at the country’s equivalent to Walmart . We were talking about the upcoming Olympic Games, which they were sponsoring. I asked if they were bringing their biggest customers to the events. One of the VPs looked at me, bewildered, and said: “Your mother may well be our biggest customer.”

I instantly realized they didn’t have big customers; they were a big customer. Their suppliers took them to the Games and fancy dinners. I felt silly at the moment but learned a valuable lesson about B2B power dynamics. Here are some other dynamics to be cautious of:

Are You Aware of the Work Pace Differential?

Startups measure their survival quarter to quarter while big companies plan in five-year increments. It’s often shocking how slowly big company partners move on everything from email to product roll-outs. Decisions made by gut feel at startups have to navigate a maze of meetings and committees at a big company. Startups often drown in the number of process leviathans require to make the smallest of improvements.

Who are the Internal Champions?

Promising projects can die on the vine because the internal champion gets reassigned or leaves the company. Successful partnerships will involve multiple high-level people from the larger organization. They also typically involve the startup being paid a fair market rate or are paired with a strategic investment to help defray the burden of non-recurring expenses. If not, beware.

Most sponsors will say their project is critical to the company, but it’s the startups CEO’s job to check that out. Founders should reference the opportunity in the same way they would reference an investor. This kind of deal is often an all or nothing bet on your company, don’t make it too blithely.

Is the Project a Priority for the CXO/VP?

Partnerships between startups and big companies work best when it solves the problem of a VP or CXO level executive. Below that level, we’ve seen startups spend large sums and risk their future on what amounts to a proof of concept project for a mid-level director with no real juice.

This is especially common with startups who sell to retailers. Theoretically, the brick and mortar shops need a bulwark against Amazon, but in reality, we’ve seen many of them default to more focused on protecting their physical retail turf rather than truly investing in online sales. They’ll run pilots to assure investors that they have their eye on the future when in reality the efforts are more PR than a business plan.

Do you Understand Big Company Logic?

A $20M investment to a small startup is a massive deal. For a big company, it’s essentially the size of an acquihire and can be shut down with no repercussions. In the context of a half-billion dollar company, $20M bets actually fail far more than a startup may appreciate.

Are you competing with another startup?

Is this project a “bake-off” where multiple companies are competing? The most dangerous kind of whale hunting is when a startup is competing with one or more competitors to win a large book of business. Founders considering this kind of arrangement should give serious thought to skipping the process and building out a less concentrated revenue base with fewer impediments while your competitors fight to the death.

Do you have a deep bench of vetted candidates ready to be hired? Founders often underestimate the challenge of growing 3-5X in short order. Every successful startup has to do this, but it usually happens more organically over time. The kind of business development deal our portfolio CEO is considering will change the company overnight.

Entrepreneurs need to ask if they have a long list of former co-workers, peers, vetted candidates eager to join their company? If not, massively scaling the company to meet the demands of a major partner will likely lead to sub-par hires to fill an urgent need while slowly poisoning the company’s culture. Money is rarely the most challenging part of hiring. Hiring fast when you control your destiny is hard enough, doing so in an uncertain arrangement can be very detrimental.

Beyond hiring, it’s important to view a partnership through the lens of Activity Based Costing.

How much time will this take up? 50%? 80%? More? Will you have to drop existing customers or products to make the project work? Are you still able to grow the business outside of this partnership or is it genuinely all-consuming?

Are You Ready for the Hunt?

If you can answer these questions confidently, then you may be ready to go whale hunting. When these projects work, they can be the first domino in a cascade that leads to growth and good places. More often, it results in a startup spending a year and a large chunk of its capital on a high-risk business development deal that more often fails to pan out. Chart your course accordingly.

With no white knight in sight, Tesla shares plummet from Musk’s tweet-related highs

Investors definitely aren’t stoked by the deafening silence coming from Tesla after its chief executive announced in a tweet that he plans to drop a fat sack of cash on public shareholders in a bid to take the company private.

Tesla’s shares have tumbled from their post-tweet highs as investors are now left with the embers of what is increasingly looking like a Musk-induced pipe dream to lift the economic burdens the company faces by delisting it.

At the close of the market Tesla shares were down $17.89 to $352.45, basically erasing the gains it had earned based on speculation of an acquirer at a $420 price tag.

Days after Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted a $420 per share buyout offer for the company, no new details have emerged and several potential contenders for Tesla’s white knight have basically said “It wasn’t me.”

Reports from The New York Times, Axios, and Bloomberg indicate that none of the likely buyers — the private equity firms, multinational banks, sovereign wealth funds, or SoftBank — had approached or been approached by Tesla about the take-private transaction.

Dan Primack reported in Axios that “it’s none of the usual suspects on the debt side (i.e. big Wall Street banks). Nor many on the equity side, such as big strategics (not Apple or Uber), private equity (not KKR, Mithril, Silver Lake, TPG, etc.) nor deeper financial pockets (not SoftBank or Mubadala).”

That’s kind of everyone that would be involved in what would be the biggest take-private deal in history (Primack valued Tesla at around $85 billion including debt).

Indeed, the New York Times noted that Wall Street banks are only now looking at ways to get in on the action.

From the Times’ report:

Executives at banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are discussing ways a deal could be structured, angling to land the potentially prestigious assignment of taking the maker of electric cars off public markets, according to people familiar with the discussions. Bankers and lawyers on Wall Street said any deal is likely to be valued at $10 billion to $20 billion.

The $20 billion figure, far lower than what would be required for full privatization, assumes that Tesla is only looking to reduce the number of shareholders on its cap table so that it is no longer required to list on a major exchange. The argument is that with fewer shareholders, the company would not be subject to the whims of short sellers as easily as it is on the open markets.

That’s the publicly stated rationale that Musk has given for his desire to take the company private.

While some speculate about what Elon may have been smoking when he made his (potential) bid public on Twitter. SEC regulators are more concerned with whether he’d told investors he had a quality deal instead of just shake.

Clouding the picture is the large stake that Saudi Arabia’s investment fund had taken in the company right before Musk baked short sellers’ positions with the buyout tweet and the promise of financing.

Some conspiracy-minded speculators on HackerNews even theorized that the tweet was an attempt to forestall a hostile takeover from the Saudis.

No matter the rationale, Musk may have more to worry about than just Tesla’s stock price should more detailed plans of the financing not materialize. The Securities and Exchange Commission is knocking, and they don’t take too kindly to the practice of defrauding investors.

 

Japan’s Freee raises $60M to grow its cloud accounting business

Japan-based accounting software company Freee, one of the country’s most-prominent startups, has raised a $60 million Series E funding round as it bids to expand its services into other areas of management for its customers.

Freee was founded six years ago — we wrote about the startup when it raised a Series A in 2013 — which makes it one of the ‘oldest’ startups in Japan, while this round is also a large one for the country, too. Japan’s startup ecosystem has a culture that encourages founders to take their companies’ public earlier than in most parts of the world, to mitigate some risk, but there are signs of alternative approaches that include this round and of course the recent IPO of Mercari, which went public this summer and raised over $1 billion.

“Japan is a country that respects precedent a lot,” Freee founder and CEO Daisuke Sasaki told TechCrunch in an interview. “Having present cases will change [the culture] a lot, we are staying private and investing in growth. The ecosystem isn’t changing [yet] but [startups, founders and VCs] now have more options.”

Free was one of the first Japanese startups to raise from overseas investors, a move that helped get Japanese VCs interested in enterprise and Saas, and this time around it has pulled in capital from a bunch of big names: Chat app company Line, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) — Japan’s largest bank — consumer credit firm Life Card and “several [unnamed] international institutional investors.”

DCM and Infinity Investments are among the startup’s earliest backers.

Today, Freee offers cloud-based accounting and HR software and it claims to have over one million business accounts. It has over 5,000 certified accountant advisors — who help it reach new customers and also use it for their own work — and the company said that over 3,500 apps and services, including mainly financial products, are integration with its software.

Going forward, Sasaki — who is a former Googler — said Freee will use this new capital to build out an API ecosystem to enable more integrations — some of its practical ones right now include Slack and Salesforce — while it is planning a major collaboration with Line to allow Line business customers to integrate their use of the app with Free, while it is exploring how it can collaborate around Line Pay.

Freee founder and CEO Daisuke Sasaki

Freee is also focused on expanding the scope of its services to branch out into products that help with more general management and operational tasks.

“We want to focus not only on back office but also to add value to customers to make their businesses better through dashboards, reporting and insight. Customers who use the [existing business] reports grow faster. Our vision is to give much better insight and business advice through AI [and] to do that we need more data, not just back office but front line too,” Sasaki said.

Finally, the startup is exploring ways it can enable banks and financial organizations to work more closely with its customer base. Already customers can share data within Freee to banks for assessment for loans and other credit products, and the company is exploring the potential to introduce a marketplace that would give its customers a place to scout out financial products at more preferential rates.

“Initially we focused on small business but now our biggest customers have a couple of hundred employees so we are going upmarket,” Sasaki told TechCrunch.

One area Freee won’t be moving into is overseas markets. Yet at least. Sasaki explained that the company wants to build out that vision of an expanded ecosystem of connected services and more in-depth business tools before branching out into new countries.

SmartHR, a younger rival to free which specializes in HR as the name suggests, raised $13.3 million earlier this year to push on into areas such as payroll and more. That could begin to pose a threat to Freee, particularly since SmartHR a developer platform to hose third-party applications and services.