Startups Weekly: What’s up with YC? Plus, mobility layoffs and Airbnb’s grand plans

Where to begin… Netflix darling Marie Kondo is hitting up Sand Hill Road in search of $40 million to fund an ecommerce platform, Y Combinator is giving $150,000 to a startup building a $380,000 flying motorcycle (because why not) and Jibo, the social robot, is calling it quits, speaking to owners directly of its imminent shutdown.

It was a hectic week in unicorn land so, I’m just going to get right to the good stuff.

Changes at Y Combinator

Where to begin! Not only did the prolific accelerator announce long-time president Sam Altman would be making an exit, but TechCrunch scooped the firm’s decision to move its headquarters to San Francisco. Y Combinator is going through a number of changes, outlined here. Interestingly, sources tell TechCrunch that YC has no succession plans. We’re guessing that’s because Altman had already mostly transitioned away from the firm, with CEO Michael Seibel assuming his responsibilities. The question is, is Altman planning to launch a startup? Hmmmmm.

Airbnb’s a hotelier

As it gears up for an IPO, Airbnb is showing its mature side. In a bid to accelerate growth, the home-sharing unicorn is buying HotelTonight in a deal said to be valued at around $465 million. Accel, the storied venture capital firm, was the business’s first-ever investors and is now its largest stakeholder. Oughta be a nice return. We’re still wondering whether it’s a cash deal, a cash and stock deal or an all-stock deal. Let me know if you’ve got the deets.

Mobility cuts

Lyft is preparing for its imminent IPO by getting lean. The ride-hailing company is trimming 50 staff members in its scooters and bikes unit, reports TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden. The cuts are mostly impacting those who joined the company when it acquired the electric bike-sharing startup Motivate, a deal that closed about three months ago. I’ll point out that Lyft employs 5,000 people; these layoffs are about one percent of their total workforce. And while we’re on the topic of mobility layoffs, Mobike, the former Chinese bike-share unicorn, is closing down all international operations and putting its sole focus on China.

Munchery goes bankrupt

Several weeks after a sudden shutdown left customers and vendors in the lurch, meal-kit service Munchery has filed for bankruptcy. In the Chapter 11 filing, Munchery chief executive officer James Beriker cites increased competition, over-funding, aggressive expansion efforts and Blue Apron’s failed IPO as reasons for its demise. Here’s the story, complete with Munchery’s bankruptcy filing.

Funders fundraise

This week Precursor Ventures closed its sophomore pre-seed fund on $32 million, NEA filed to raise its largest venture fund yet ($3.6 billion), SoftBank raised $2 billion on a $5 billion target for a Latin America Fund, aMoon raised $660 million for Israeli healthcare deals and Coral Capital brought in $45 million to make early-stage investments in Japan.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

Startup cash

Sea is raising up to $1.5B
Grab confirms $1.46B investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund
Music services company Kobalt is raising roughly $100M
Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids
Matterport raises $48M to ramp up its 3D imaging platform
Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo is looking to raise $40M
Blueground raises $20M for flexible apartment rentals

Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo

A16z gets even bigger

Andreessen Horowitz tapped David George as its newest general partner and its first top dealmaker focused on late-stage deals. George joins from General Atlantic, where he’d backed consumer internet, enterprise software and fintech startups as a principal since 2012. The firm’s swelling team is amongst the largest of any VC firm. Most partnerships consist of one to three top dealmakers and a few partners or principals. A16z breaks the mold with its ever-expanding team of GPs. We talked to George and a16z managing director Scott Kupor.

Worth reading

The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund, by TechCrunch’s Jon Russell and Jonathan Shieber.

SXSW

Stopping by SXSW? Meet TechCrunch’s writers at our annual Crunch By Crunch Fest party in Austin, Texas. RSVP here to join us on Sunday, March 10th from 1pm to 4pm at the Swan Dive at 615 Red River St. @ E. 7th St., just 3 blocks from the convention center. Hang out with TechCrunchers and fellow readers, enjoy free drinks and check out a live performance by electro-RnB musician Elderbrook.  And check out the full line-up of TechCrunch panels here. I will be discussing the double standard in sex tech with Lora Haddock, the CEO of Lora DiCarlo, on Thursday, March 14th at 2pm at the Fairmont Congressional A, 101 Red River.

Listen to me talk

This week on Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines, Crunchbase New’s editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss Y Combinator’s new HQ, Chime’s big funding round and SoftBank’s new Latin America fund. Listen here.

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Venture investors and startup execs say they don’t need Elizabeth Warren to defend them from big tech

Responding to Elizabeth Warren’s call to regulate and break up some of the nation’s largest technology companies, the venture capitalists that invest in technology companies are advising the presidential hopeful to move slowly and not break anything.

Warren’s plan called for regulators to be appointed to oversee the unwinding of several acquisitions that were critical to the development of the core technology that make Alphabet’s Google and the social media giant Facebook so profitable… and Zappos.

Warren also wanted regulation in place that would block companies making over $25 billion that operate as social media or search platforms or marketplaces from owning companies that also sell services on those marketplaces.

As a whole, venture capitalists viewing the policy were underwhelmed.

“As they say on Broadway, ‘you gotta have a gimmick’ and this is clearly Warren’s,” says Ben Narasin, an investor at one of the nation’s largest investment firms,” New Enterprise Associates, which has $18 billion in assets under management and has invested in consumer companies like Jet, an online and mobile retailer that competed with Amazon and was sold to Walmart for $3.3 billion.

“Decades ago, at the peak of Japanese growth as a technology competitor on the global stage, the US government sought to break up IBM . This is not a new model, and it makes no sense,” says Narasin. “We slow down our country, our economy and our ability to innovate when the government becomes excessively aggressive in efforts to break up technology companies, because they see them through a prior-decades lens, when they are operating in a future decade reality. This too shall pass.”

Balaji Sirinivasan, the chief technology officer of Coinbase, took to Twitter to offer his thoughts on the Warren plan. “If big companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are prevented from acquiring startups, that actually reduces competition,” Sirinivasan writes.

“There are two separate issues here that are being conflated. One issue is do we need regulation on the full platform companies. And the answer is absolutely,” says Venky Ganesan, the managing director of Menlo Ventures. “These platforms have a huge impact on society at large and they have huge influence.”

But while the platforms need to be regulated, Ganesan says, Senator Warren’s approach is an exercise in overreach.

“That plan is like taking a bazooka to a knife fight. It’s overwhelming and it’s not commensurate with the issues,” Ganesan says. “I don’t think at the end of the day venture capital is worrying about competition from these big platform companies. [And] as the proposal is composed it would create more obstacles rather than less.”

Using Warren’s own example of the antitrust cases that were brought against companies like AT&T and Microsoft, is a good model for how to proceed, Ganesan says. “We want to have the technocrats at the FTC figure out the right way to bring balance.”

Kara Nortman, a partner with the Los Angeles-based firm Upfront Ventures, is also concerned about the potential unforeseen consequences of Warren’s proposals.

“The specifics of the policy as presented strike me as having potentially negative consequences for innovation, These companies are funding massive innovation initiatives in our country. They’re creating jobs and taking risks in areas of technology development where we could potentially fall behind other countries and wind up reducing our quality of life,” Nortman says. “We’re not seeing that innovation or initiative come from the government – or that support for encouraging immigration and by extension embracing the talented foreign entrepreneurs that could develop new technologies and businesses.”

Nortman sees the Warren announcement as an attempt to start a dialogue between government regulators and big technology companies.

“My hope is that this is the beginning of a dialogue that is constructive,” Nortman says. “And since Elizabeth Warren is a thoughtful policymaker this is likely the first salvo toward an engagement with the technology community to work collaboratively on issues that we all want to see solved and that some of us are dedicating our career in venture to help solving.”

VCs have growing appetite for “AgriFood”

Venture investors are pouring billions of dollars into feeding their hunger for food and agriculture startups. Whether that trend line is due to enthusiasm for the sector or just broader heavy investing in the VC space is much less clear.

According to a recent report published by AgFunder – a VC and investing marketplace focused on the agriculture and food sectors – the “AgriFood” space is booming. Using data from Crunchbase and several other data partners, the organization published its “2018 AgriFood Tech Investing Report” this morning, finding that investment in AgriFood companies increased 43% year-over-year, reaching $16.9 billion in 2018.

AgFunder classifies AgriFood tech as “the small but growing segment of the startup and venture capital universe that’s aiming to improve or disrupt the global food and agriculture industry.” Their definition is intentionally broad, encompassing everything from crop and livestock biotech, property management systems, and payments, to biomaterials and meat alternatives, all the way up to tech platforms for restaurants, grocers, deliveries and at-home cooks.

While some of the AgriFood tech categories – such as delivery or restaurant software – have long been popular destinations for venture capital, we’re now seeing a more diverse array of startups innovating across the entire food supply chain. According to the report, expansion in AgriFood is fairly consistent across upstream (agricultural and farming) subsectors to downstream (more consumer-facing) subsectors, with each group growing roughly 44% and 42% year-over-year respectively.

The data also shows growth occurring across almost all deal stages. AgriFood saw huge increases in the average deal size and total investment for late-stage companies in particular, as venture-backed startups have grown to global scale. And penetrating and attracting capital from international markets seems more feasible than ever. AgriFood investing, which traditionally has been largely US-centric, is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon, with more than half of total funding – and some of the largest rounds – now coming from companies and investors outside the US.

Vynn Capital snags investment from Malaysia’s MAVCAP for its maiden Southeast Asia fund

Vynn Capital, a new entrant to Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem, is gearing up to close its maiden fund after it landed an undisclosed sum from Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd (MAVCAP) as one of its anchor LPs.

Founded by former Gobi Ventures VC Victor Chua and Singaporean investor Darren Chua (no relation) one year ago, Kuala Lumpur-based Vynn is targeting a $40 million fund for Southeast Asia. The firm has already made four investments and, on the LP side, gone after traditional businesses and Southeast Asia’s family corporations. Landing MAVCAP — which is Malaysia’s largest investor has backed VC funds including Gobi — is a major coup for a debut fund.

“The investment from MAVCAP is a very good validation for Vynn Capital,” said Victor Chua, who is Malaysian. “Personally, having been active in the local and regional ecosystem, I’ve benefited from the growth trajectory of the ecosystem and am now able to launch a new fund that is addressing the need of the traditional businesses to be innovative.”

“The thesis of the fund is Southeast Asia, but through our investment we are focused on how it will be invested in Malaysian deals,” MAVCAP’s Shahril Anas told TechCrunch in an interview. “We have some carry and expect returns that we can invest into local entrepreneurs in Malaysia, we are also keen to look at how other countries’ economies interact with startups.”

Anas said the approach is to be very hands-off, MAVCAP has various other fund investments, but he reiterated that there may be specific data or insight that the organization looks to glean.

Southeast Asia is emerging from the shadows of China and India to become a target market for startups and, by extension, the investors who write the checks to finance them.

Beyond a cumulative population of over 600 million people, the region’s ‘digital economy’ is tipped to grow to $240 billion by 2025 from $31 million in 2015, according to a report from Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek.

Some of the other investors vying for a slice of the opportunity include new funds from Openspace Ventures ($135 million), Indonesia-focused Intudo ($50 million), Qualgro ($100 million) and Golden Gate Ventures ($100 million) and Sequoia India ($695 million).

On-demand logistics startup Lalamove raises $300M for Asia growth and becomes a unicorn

Lalamove, a Hong Kong-based on-demand logistics startup, has closed a $300 million Series D round as it seeks expansion across Asia. In doing so, the company has officially entered the unicorn club.

Founded in 2013 by Stanford graduate Shing Chow, Lalamove provides logistics and delivery services in a similar style to ride-hailing apps like Uber but it is primarily focused on business and corporate customers. That gives it more favorable economics and a more loyal customer base than its consumer-focused peers, who face discount wars to woo fickle consumers.

This new round is split into two, Lalamove said, with Hillhouse Capital leading the ‘D1’ tranche and Sequoia China heading up the ‘D2’ portion. The company didn’t reveal the size of the two pieces of the round. Other investors that took part included new backers Eastern Bell Venture Capital and PV Capital and returning investors ShunWei Capital — the firm founded by Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun — Xiang He Capital and MindWorks Ventures .

The deal takes Lalamove to over $460 million raised to date, and it follows a $100 million Series C that closed in late 2017. Lalamove isn’t disclosing a valuation but Blake Larson, the company’s head of international, told TechCrunch that it has been “past unicorn mark for quite some time [but] we just don’t talk about it.” That figures given the size of the round and the fact that Lalamove was just shy of the $1 billion mark for that Series C.

The Lalamove business is anchored in China where it covers over 130 cities with a network of over two million drivers covering vans, cars and motorbikes.

Beyond China, Lalamove is present in its native Hong Kong — where Uber once briefly tried a similar service — Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, where it works with popular chat app Line. All told, it covers 11 cities outside of China and this new capital will go towards expanding that figure with additional city launches in Southeast Asia and entry to India.

“If we do this well, then we are in countries that are more than half the world’s population,” Larsen said in an interview, although he didn’t rule out the potential for Lalamove to expand beyond Asia in the future.

There are also plans to grow the business in mainland China in terms of both geography and new services. Already, Lalamove has begun to offer driver services, starting with financing packages to help drivers with vehicle purchasing, and it is developing dedicated corporate offerings, too.

Lalamove CEO Shing Chow started Lalamove in late 2013, his past roles have included time with Bain & Company, a number of startup ventures — including a Hong Kong-based skin center — and a stint as a professional poker player

Overall, the business claims to have registered 3 million drivers to date and served more than 28 million users across all cities. With its headquarters in Hong Kong, it employs some 4,000 people across its business.

Rival GoGoVan exited through a merger with China-based 58 Suyun in 2017, at a claimed valuation of $1 billion, but Lalamove has remained independent and stuck to its guns. Larson said that already it is profitable in “a significant amount” of cities and typically, he said, the blueprint is to reach profitability within two years of opening a new location.

“The focus has always been on sustainable growth and we’re very strong on the cash flow front,” the former Rocket Internet executive added.

Larson and Lalamove have been very forthcoming in their desire to go public in Hong Kong, noting so publicly as early as 2017 at a TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen. That desire is still evident — “we’re very proud to be from Hong Kong and Hong Kong would be a good place for an IPO,” Larson said this week — but still the company said that it has no particular plan on the cards, despite its consumer-focused peers Uber and Lyft lining up IPOs in the U.S. this year.

“We don’t spend maybe even five minutes a year talking about it,” Larsen told TechCrunch. “The discussion is really ‘Let’s make sure we’re IPO ready’ because sometimes there are macroeconomic conditions you can’t control.”

Clearly, investors are bullish and it is notable that Lalamove’s new round comes at a time when many Chinese companies are downsizing their staff, with the likes of Didi, Meituan and JD.com announcing cuts and refocusing strategies in recent weeks.

“[Lalamove CEO and founder] Shing is a role model for Hong Kong’s new generation of innovative entrepreneurs,” said Sequoia China founder and managing partner Neil Shen. “Raised in Hong Kong and educated at Stanford University, Shing returned and plunged himself in the entrepreneurial wave of ‘Internet Plus,’ becoming a figure of entrepreneurial success.”

Investors are still failing to back founders from diverse backgrounds

The large majority of venture dollars are invested in companies run by white men with a university degree, according to a new report by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC.

This new data reveals that despite the lip service investors have paid to backing founders from diverse backgrounds, much, much, more work needs to be done to actually achieve the industry’s stated goals. It also shows the vast gulf that separates the meritocratic myth that Silicon Valley has created for itself from the hard truths of its natural nepotistic state.

In 2017, venture capital investment reached $84.24 billion, a height not seen since the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s. The data from RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC covers a survey of the seed to Series D investments made during that year from what the two organizations selected as the top 135 firms by deal activity. Those firms invested in 4,475 companies, which collectively included 9,874 co-founders, according to the report.

Of those co-founders only 9 percent were women, while 17 percent identified as Asian American, 2.4 percent identified as Middle Eastern, 1.9 percent identified as Latinx and 1 percent identified as black.

“VCs should make more of a deliberate effort to spend quality time with communities of color that are otherwise unfamiliar,” said Suzy Ryoo, a venture partner and vice president of technology at Cross Culture Ventures . “Another tactical suggestion would be to co-host salon dinners community events with the growing group of early-stage venture funds managed by diverse investors, such as Cross Culture Ventures, Backstage Capital, Precursor Ventures, etc.”

The data compiled by Diversity VC and RateMyInvestor contains some other staggering statistics. Ivy League-educated founders captured 27 percent of all the dollars invested in venture capital startups, while all graduates from all other universities across the U.S. represented 50 percent of venture funding. Founders who graduated from international institutions had nearly 16 percent of venture funding. Founders without a university degree accounted for around 6 percent of the total capital invested.

Finally, investors are still wildly reluctant to leave Silicon Valley to look for new deals, according to the survey. This despite skyrocketing prices for real estate and talent and the emergence of big technology ecosystems in cities across the U.S.

“Silicon Valley has done a poor job of fostering diversity of all forms, especially diversity of thought,” said DCM partner Kyle Lui. “VCs and founders tend to back/hire people who are in their existing network who most likely share the same views as them, went to the same school as them, and shared similar life experiences as them.”

How to prepare for an investment apocalypse

Unlike 2000 and 2008, everyone in the startup world is expecting a crash to come at any moment. But few are taking concrete steps to prepare for it.

If you’re running a venture-backed startup, you should probably get on that. First, go read RIP Good Times from Sequoia to get a sense for how bad it can get, quickly. Then take a look at the checklist below. You don’t need to build a bomb shelter, yet, but adopting a bit of the prepper mentality now will pay dividends down the road.

Don’t wait, prepare

The first step in preparing for a coming downturn is making a plan for how you’d get to a point of sustainability. Many startups have been lulled into a false sense of confidence that profit is something they can figure out “later.” Keep in mind, it has to be done eventually and it’s easier to do when the broader economy isn’t crashing around you. There are two complicating factors to keep in mind.

You’ll have to do it with less revenue

In a downturn, business customers skip investing in capital equipment and new software. Likewise, consumer discretionary spending goes way down. The result is you’ll likely have less revenue than you do now. War-game a variety of scenarios — what you’d do if you lost 20 percent, 50 percent or 80 percent of your revenue, and what decisions would have to be taken to survive.

Sometimes capital can’t be had at any valuation

When a downturn comes, capital markets don’t soften, they seize. Depending on how bad a hypothetical financial crisis got, there’s a good chance that investors would close up their checkbooks and triage. If you aren’t one of your investor’s favorite portfolio companies, there’s a decent chance you may be left in the cold. Don’t even assume you’ll be able to close a down round. Fortunately, showing a plan with a clear path to profitability will allay investors concerns that you’ll need their capital indefinitely and make it more likely you’ll be able to raise.

Planning around these three realities — the need for profits, while experiencing dropping revenue, in a world where capital can’t be had at any valuation — is going to lead to unpleasant conclusions. A dramatically diminished business, major layoffs, and a decisive drop in morale are likely outcomes. Thankfully, you can take steps now to help soften the landing, or if you’re really successful, avoid it entirely.

Avoid “growth at all costs” mentality

Getting acquisition costs under control will help you in two ways. First, it’ll lower your burn rate. Chasing growth for growth’s sake is always a short-sighted decision, but especially during the late part of the business cycle. Avoid this even if you’re VC is encouraging it. Second, by carefully analyzing the inputs to your acquisition cost, it will force you to examine the dynamics of your business. It gives you an opportunity to decide if a poorly performing channel or lackluster sales reps are actually smart investments. Even cutting your payback period from 12 months to nine will provide an increased measure of visibility and control.

Increase the hiring bar

Instagram took over the web with a team of a dozen. Craigslist is a pillar of the internet with a staff of 40 employees. WhatsApp supported hundreds of millions of daily users with fewer than 50 people. Chances are you need fewer people than you think.

In his new book, Scott Belsky shares an algorithm he used building Behance into a $100M company — automate, automate, then hire. His point was that founders should encourage teams to push hard on improving processes and other labor-saving tools before adding more FTEs.

Don’t institute a hiring freeze or take other actions that might spook the staff, but do send the message that new hires should be the last resort, not the first response to a challenge.

Preach discipline — build it into the culture

Founders often try to change spending habits, and in turn culture, when it’s too late. Is there a fair bit of business class flying among the executive team? Do your employees stretch your free dinner policy by staying just past the dinner hour to take advantage of free food? At most tech ventures, everyone is truly an owner. Try to help the entire team to internalize that they are spending their own money.

Get to know your potential acquirers

The week the market drops 50 percent is not the week to start a M&A conversation. You should be getting to know the five most likely buyers of your company, now. Find out who the decision makers at each of the companies are and build relationships. Make it a point to catch up with these people at conferences and even consider sending them regular updates about your company’s progress (but not too much data). You’re not running a formal sales process, but helping build up the internal desire to buy your company if the opportunity presents itself. It may not be the exit of your dreams, but it’s nice to have options if you need them.

Jettison expensive office space

If you’re coming to a T-juncture regarding office space, you may want to prioritize price and lease flexibility over quality and location. I remember one of our offices at my start-up was a twelve month lease with 6 months free. The landlords were desperate, and so were we!

Front-load revenue

If you’re in the kind of business that will support annual contracts, figure out a way to offer them. Pre-sell credits to consumers at a discount. More fundamentally, think about how you might be able to adjust your business model so you can get paid before you deliver services. Plenty of viable businesses are asphyxiated by delays in accounts receivable, don’t allow your ambitions to be thwarted by accounting.

Diversify your customer base

One lesson learned in the 2000 bubble was that startups that serve other startups tend to be hit hardest. It’s important to think about how a downturn will impact your customer base. If more than 30 percent of your revenue comes from one industry (perhaps start-ups!), or heaven help you, a single customer, start thinking about managing risk by diversifying your customer base.

Raise a pre-emptive round (AND DON’T SPEND IT)

Topping up your balance sheet at this point isn’t a bad idea, provided you have the discipline to treat it as a rainy day fund. Communicate this rationale to your investors. It’s also important to use this moment to reflect on valuation. An eye-popping valuation will feel good when you sign the term sheet, but it’s going to feel like a millstone if the economy turns, and the market for blue-chip tech stocks drops precipitously.

Consider venture debt

Many VCs discourage venture debt. They’ll say “if you need more money, we’ll backstop you.” The problem is when things ugly, they may not be there. Debt providers are a good way to extend the runway. The thing is that it’s best to raise debt capital when you don’t need it. Venture debt can add ⅓ to ½ of additional capital to some funding rounds with minimal dilution and relatively modest interest rates. Do note that when things get bad, some debt funds can get aggressive so do your homework before taking the notes.

Don’t panic

It’s tough to predict the top of the market. CNN, Time, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and many others argued Facebook paying $1 billion for Instagram was a sure sign of a bubble — in 2012. Reputable commentators have claimed that we’re in a bubble every year since, see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Going into survival mode in any of those years would have been a serious mistake for most startups.

Still, we’re only two quarters away from marking the longest economic expansion in US history. The good times have got to end at some point. Venture capital is a hell of a drug and withdrawal can be painful. Keep in mind that there’s no correlation between how much a company raised and how well they did on the public markets. If you’re struggling to make your startup’s economics work, read up on dozens of “invisible unicorns” who show that you can get big without relying on outsized amounts of venture capital.

If your house is in order when the downturn hits, you may actually be able to grow through it. As unprepared competitors go out of business, you’ll find that talent is more plentiful and customer acquisition costs plummet. Some of the best companies have been founded and thrived in the worst of times — if you’re prepared.

VCs give us their predictions for startups and tech in Southeast Asia in 2019

The new year is well underway and, before January is out, we polled VCs in Southeast Asia to get their thoughts on what to expect in 2019.

The number of VCs in the region has increased massively in recent years, in no small part due to forecasts of growth in the tech space as internet access continues to shoot up among Southeast Asia’s cumulative population of more than 600 million consumers.

There are other factors, including economic growth and emerging middle classes, but with more than 3.8 million people becoming first-time internet users each month — thanks to smartphones — Southeast Asia’s ‘digital economy’ is tipped to more than triple to reach $240 billion by 2025. That leaves plenty of opportunity for tech and online businesses and, by extension, venture capitalists.

With a VC corpus that now numbers dozens of investment firms, TechCrunch asked the people who write the checks what is on the horizon for 2019.

The only rule was no more than three predictions — below, in no particular order, is what they told us.


Alberty Shyy, Burda

Funds will continue to invest aggressively in Southeast Asia in the first half of this year but capital will tighten up by Q4 as funds and companies prepare for a possible recession. I think we will see a lot of companies opportunistically go out to fundraise in Q1/Q2 to take advantage of a bull market.

We will see two to three newly-minted unicorns from the region this year, after a relative lull last year.

This will (finally) be the year that we start to see some consolidation in the e-commerce scene


Dmitry Levit, Centro

A significant portion of capital returned by upcoming U.S. IPOs to institutional investors will be directed to growth markets outside of China, with India and Southeast Asia being the likeliest beneficiaries. Alternative assets such as venture and subsets of private equity in emerging markets will enter their golden age.

The withdrawal of Chinese strategic players held back by weakened domestic economy, prudent M&A by local strategics and ongoing caution among Japanese, Korean and global corporates, combined with ongoing valuations exuberance by late-stage investors allocating funds to Southeast Asia, will continue holding back large liquidity events. Save perhaps for a roll-up of a local champion or two into a global IPO. Fundraising will get more troublesome for some of Southeast Asia’s larger unprofitable market leaders. Lack of marquee liquidity events and curtailed access to late-stage capital for some will lead to a few visible failures (our money is on the subsidy-heavy wallets!) and a temporary burst of short-term skepticism around Southeast Asia as an investment destination towards the end of 2019.

The trend towards the emergence of value-chain specific funds and fund managers will continue, as digitalization is reaching ever further into numerous industry sectors and as Southeast Asia hosts an increasing portion of global supply chains. We foresee at least dozen new venture firms and vehicles emerging in 2019 with clear sector-led investment thesis around the place of Southeast Asian economies in the global value chains of fashion industry, agriculture and food; labour, healthcare services; manufacturing, construction tech and so on, with investment teams that have the necessary expertise to unravel this increasing complexity.


Willson Cuaca, East Ventures

Jakarta becomes Southeast Asia’s startup capital surpassing Singapore in terms of the number of deals and investment amount.

As Indonesia’s startup scene heats up, regional seed and series A funds move away from Indonesia and target Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines (in market priority order).

Southeast gets two new unicorns.


Rachel Lau, RHL Ventures

North Asian companies will provide well-needed liquidity as they withdraw capital from developed American and European markets due to the Federal Reserve’s actions. The FED raised interest rates and reduced the size of its balance sheet (by not replacing the bonds that were maturing at a rate of $50 billion a month). This has been seen in the recent fundraising exercise by Southeast Asian unicorns. Grab has recently seen an impressive list of North Asian investors such as Mirae, Toyota and Yamaha . A recent stat stated that 85 percent of the funding of Southeast Asia startups have gone to billion dollar unicorn such as Grab and Gojek, bypassing the early stage startups that are more in need for funding, this trend is expected to continue. Therefore, we will see early-stage companies and venture capitalists becoming more focused on generating cash flow from operating operations instead as fundraising activities become more difficult.

A growth in urbanization in Southeast will create new job opportunities in small/medium businesses, as evident in China. Currently, only 12 percent of Asia’s urban population live in megacities, while four percent live in towns of fewer than 300,000 inhabitants. New companies will see the blurred lines between brick and mortar businesses vs pure online businesses. In the past year or so, we have seen more and more offline businesses going online and more online businesses going offline.

Fertility rates in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam exceed 2.1 births per woman — the level that sustains a population — but rates below 1.5 in Singapore and Thailand mean their populations will decline without immigration. As we see more startup activities coming to Southeast Asian countries, we expect to see more qualified foreign talent moving to the region vs staying in low growth American and European countries.


Kay-Mok Ku, Gobi Ventures

First Chinese “Seaward” Unicorn in Southeast Asia. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese startups are targeting overseas markets from the get go (known as Chuhai 出海 or “Seaward”). These Chinese entrepreneurs typically bring with them best practices in consumer marketing and product development honed by a hyper-competitive home market, supported by strong, dedicated technical team based out of China and increasingly capitalized by Chinese VCs which have raised billion-dollar funds.

Consolidation among ASEAN Unicorns. While ASEAN now boasts 10 unicorns, they are duplicative in the sense that more than one exists in a particular category, which is unsustainable for winner-takes-all markets. For example, in the ASEAN ride-hailing space, while one unicorn is busy with regional geographic expansion, the other simply co-exists by staying focused on scope expansion within its home market. This will never happen in a single country market like China but now that the ASEAN ride hailing unicorns are finally locking horns, the stage may be set for a Didi-Kuadi like scenario to unfold.

ASEAN jumps on Chinese 5G bandwagon. The tech world in the future will likely bifurcate into American and Chinese-led platforms. As it is, emerging markets are adopting Chinese business models based on bite-sized payment and have embraced Chinese mobile apps often bundled with cheap Chinese smartphones. Looking ahead, 5G will be a game changer as its impact goes beyond smartphones to generic IoT devices, having strategic implications for industries such as autonomous driving. As a result, the US-China Trade War will likely evolve into a Tech War and ASEAN will be forced to choose side.


Darren Tan, Golden Equator Capital

We are excited by growth in the AI and deep tech sectors. The focus has generally been on consumer-focused tech in Southeast Asia as an emerging market, but we are starting to see proprietary solutions emerge for industries such as medtech and fintech. AI also has great applicability across a wide range of consumer sectors in reducing reliance on manpower and creating cost savings.

Data analytics to uncover organizational efficiencies and customer trends will continue to be even more widely used, but there will also be greater emphasis on securing such data especially confidential information in light of multiple high-profile data breaches in 2018. Tools enabling the collection, storage, safe-keeping and analysis of data will be essential.

We are seeing the emergence of more institutional funds from North Asia. So far it has predominantly been Chinese tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba, now we are starting to see Korean and Japanese institutions placing greater emphasis on investment in the Southeast Asian region.


Vinnie Lauria, Golden Gate Ventures

Even more capital flowing from U.S. and China into Southeast Asia, with VCs from both locations soon to open offices in the region

A fresh wave of Series A investments into Vietnam.

Ten exits over $100 million.

 


Amit Anand, Jungle Ventures

The emergence of a financial services super app, think the Meituan or WeChat but only for financial services: The Southeast Asian millennial is one of the most underserved customer from a financial services perspective whether it is payments, consumer goods loans, personal loans, personal finance management, investments or other financial services. We will see the emergence of digital platforms that will aggregate all these related services and provide a one stop financial services shop for this digitally native consumer.

Digitisation of SMEs will be new fintech: Southeast Asia is home to over 100 million SMEs that are at the cusp of digital transformation. Generational change in ownership, local governments push for digitization and increased globalization have created a perfect storm for these SMEs to adopt cloud and other digital technologies at neck-breaking pace. Startups focussing on this segment will get mainstream attention from the venture community over the next few years as they look for new industries that are getting enabled or disrupted by technology.


Kuo-Yi Lim and Peng Ong, Monk’s Hill Ventures

Lyft and Uber go public and show the path to profitability for other rideshare businesses. This has positive effect for the regional rideshare players but also puts pressure on them to demonstrate the same economics in ridesharing. Regional rideshare players double down on super-app positioning instead, to demonstrate value in other ways as rideshare business alone may not reach profitability — ever.

The trade war between China and the US reaches a truce, but a general sense of uncertainty lingers. This is now the new norm — things are less certain and companies have to plan for more adverse scenarios. In the short term, Southeast Asia benefits. Companies — Chinese, American etc — see Southeast Asia as the neutral ground. Investment pours in, creating jobs across industries. Acquisition of local champions intensifies as foreign players jostle for the lead positions.

“Solve the problem” – tech companies will become more prominent… tech companies that are real-estate brokers, recruiters, healthcare providers, food suppliers, logistics… why: many industries are very inefficient.


Hian Goh, Openspace Ventures

Fight to quality will happen. Fundraising across all stages from seed to Series C and beyond will be challenging if you don’t have the metrics. Investors will want to see a path to profitability, or an ability to turn profitable if the environment becomes worse. This will mean Saas companies with stable cash flows, vertical e-commerce with strong metrics will be attractive investment opportunities.

Investor selection will become critical, as investors take a wait and see approach. Existing or new investors into companies will be judged upon their dry powder in their funds and their ability to fund further rounds

The regulatory risk for fintech lenders will be higher this year, rising compliance cost and uncertainty on licensing, which would lead to consolidation in the market.


Heang Chhor, Qualgro

Southeast Asia: an intensifying battlefield for tech investments

There has never been so much VC money in Southeast Asia chasing interesting startups, at all life cycle stages. The 10 most active local and regional VCs have raised their second or third funds recently, amassing at least two times more money than a few years ago, probably reaching a total amount close to $1 billion. In addition, international VCs have also doubled down on their allocation into the region, while top Chinese VCs have visibly stated their intent not to miss the dynamic momentum. Several growth funds have recently built a local presence in order to target Southeast Asia tech companies at Series C and beyond. Not counting the amount going to the unicorns, there might be now more than $3-4 billion available for seed to growth stages, which may be 3-4 times the amount of three years ago. There are, of course, many more good startups coming up to invest into. But the most promising startups will be in a very favorable position to negotiate higher valuation and better terms. However, they should not forget that, eventually, what creates value is how they make a difference with their tech capabilities or their business model, how they acquire and retain the best talent, with the funds raised, not only how much money they will be able to raise. Most local and regional corporate VCs are likely to lose in this more intense investment game.

Significant VC money investing into so-called ‘AI-based startups’, but are there really much (deep) Artificial Intelligence capabilities around?

A good portion of the SEA startups claim they have ‘something-AI’. Investors are overwhelmed, if not confused, by the ‘AI claim’ that they find in most startup pitches. While there is no doubt that Southeast Asia will grow its own strong AI-competence pool in the future, unfortunately today most ‘AI-based’ business models from the region would still be just ‘good algorithms or machine learning’ that can process some amount of data to come up with good-enough outcomes, that do not always generate substantial business value to users/customers. The significant budget that some of the very-well-funded Southeast Asia unicorns are putting into their ‘AI-based apps’ or ‘AI platform’ is unlikely to make a real difference for the consumers, for lack of deep AI competences in the region. 2019 may be another year of AI-promise, not realized. Hopefully, public and private research labs, universities and startups will continue to be (much more) strongly supported (especially by governments) to significantly build bigger AI talent pool, which means growing and attracting AI talent into the region.

Bigger Series A and Series B rounds to fuel more convincing growth trajectory, towards growth-stage fundraising.

Although situations vary a lot: typical Series A in Southeast Asia used to be around $5 million, and Series B around $10-15 million. Investors tended to accept that normally companies would raise money after 18 months or so, between A and B, and between B and C. There has been an increasing number of larger raises at A and B recently, and very likely this trend will accelerate. The fact that VCs now have much more money to deploy into each investment will contribute to this trend. However, the required milestones for raising Series C have become much more around: minimum scale and very solid growth (and profit) drivers. Therefore, entrepreneurs will have to look for getting as much funding reserve as possible, irrespective of time between raises, to build growth engines that take their companies past the milestones of the next Series, be it B or C. In the future, we will see more Series A of $10 million and more Series B of well-above $20 million. Compelling businesses will not have too much difficulties for doing so, but most Southeast Asia entrepreneurs would be wise to learn to more effectively master fundraising skills for capturing much bigger amounts than in the past. Of course, this assumes that their businesses are compelling enough in the eyes of investors.


Vicknesh Pillay, TNB Aura

Out-sized valuations will be less commonplace in 2019 as Southeast Asian investors learn from experience and become more sophisticated. Therefore, we do see opportunities at Series A/B for undervalued deals due to lack of early-stage funding while we expect to continue to see the trend of the majority of venture capital investments going into later stage companies (Series C and beyond) due to lower risk appetite and ‘herd’ mentality.

2018 has also seen the rapid emergence of many corporate venture capital funds and innovation programs. But, 2019 will see large corporations cutting back on their allocation towards startup investing which would be the easiest option for them in case of adverse news to the jittery public markets in 2019.

With the growth of AI, the need for API connections and increased thought leadership to embrace tech, Southeast Asia is going to see an upsurge in SaaS startups and existing startups moving to a Saas business model. Hence, we expect increased investments into Saas companies focused on IoT and cybersecurity as hardware data and software are moved onto the cloud.


Chua Kee Lock, Vertex Ventures

Southeast Asia VC investment pace has grown steadily and significantly since 2010 where it started from less than $100 million in VC investment in the region. For the first eight months of 2018, the region’s VC investment was over $5.4 billion. For the whole of 2018, it will likely end around $8 billion. For 2019, we expect the VC investment pace to surpass 2018 level and record between $9-10 billion. Southeast Asia will continue to attract more VC investments because:

(1) Governments in Southeast Asia, especially ASEAN, continue their support policy to encourage startups.

(2) young demographics and the fast technology adoption in Southeast Asia give rise to more innovative and disruptive ideas.

(3) global investors looking for a better return and will naturally focus on growing emerging market like Southeast Asia.

The trend towards gig economy will begin to have an impact in the region. In developed economies like the U.S, gig economy is expected to reach over 40 percent by 2020. The young population will look for more freelance opportunities as a way to increase income levels while still maintaining flexibility. This will include white-collar work like computer programming, accounting, customer service, etc. and also blue-collar work like delivery services, ride-sharing, home services, etc. We believe that the gig economy will grow to over 15 percent in Southeast Asia by 2019.

AI-heavy or -driven startups will begin to make inroads into Southeast Asia.


Victor Chua, Vynn Capital

The BIG convergence — there will more integration between industries and sectors. Traveloka went into car rental, Blibli went into travel business and these are only some examples. There is a lot of synergistic value between travel startups and food startups or between property startups and automotive startups. Imagine a future where you travel to a city where you stay in an apartment you rented through a marketplace (like Travelio, my portfolio company), and when you need to book a restaurant you can make the reservation through a platform that is integrated with the property manager, and when you need to move around you go down to the car park to drive a car you rent from an automotive marketplace. There is clear synergy between selective industries and this leads to an overall convergence between companies, between industries.

More channels to raise Series B/C, early-stage companies find fundraising more challenging — We have seen a number of VC funds raising or already raised growth funds, this means that there are now more channels for Series A or B companies to raise growth rounds. As the market matures, there will be more competition for investments amongst growth funds as there is considerably more growth in the number of growth funds than companies that are raising at growth-stage. On the flip side, the feel is that there is a consistent growth in the number of early-stage companies, yet the amount of capital in early-stage funds is not growing as much as more VCs prefer bigger and later stages, due to the maturity of their existing portfolio companies.

Newcomers gaining weight — there will be at least 10 companies that will hit a valuation of at least $100 million. These valuations will not be based on a single market exposure. Companies that raise larger rounds will need to show that they are regional.


Thanks to all the VCs who took part, I certainly felt like the class teacher collecting assignments.

TechCrunch Conversations: Direct listings

Last April, Spotify surprised Wall Street bankers by choosing to go public through a direct listing process rather than through a traditional IPO. Instead of issuing new shares, the company simply sold existing shares held by insiders, employees and investors directly to the market – bypassing the roadshow process and avoiding at least some of Wall Street’s fees. That pattens is set to continue in 2019 as Silicon Valley darlings Slack and Airbnb take the direct listing approach.

Have we reached a new normal where tech companies choose to test their own fate and disrupt the traditional capital markets process?  This week, we asked a panel of six experts on IPOs and direct listings: “What are the implications of direct listing tech IPOs for financial services, regulation, venture capital, and capital markets activity?” 

This week’s participants include: IPO researcher Jay R. Ritter (University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business), Spotify’s CFO Barry McCarthy, fintech venture capitalist Josh Kuzon (Reciprocal Ventures), IPO attorney Eric Jensen (Cooley LLP), research analyst Barbara Gray, CFA (Brady Capital Research), and capital markets advisor Graham A. Powis (Brookline Capital Markets).

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. Consider this a recurring venue for debate, where leading experts – with a diverse range of vantage points and opinions – provide us with thoughts on some of the biggest issues currently in tech, startups and venture. If you have any feedback, please reach out: [email protected].


Thoughts & Responses:


Jay R. Ritter

Jay Ritter is the Cordell Eminent Scholar at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. He is the world’s most-cited academic expert on IPOs. His analysis of the Google IPO is available here.

In April last year, Spotify stock started to trade without a formal IPO, in what is known as a direct listing. The direct listing provided liquidity for shareholders, but unlike most traditional IPOs, did not raise any money for the company. Slack has announced that they will also conduct a direct listing, and it is rumored that some of the other prominent unicorns are considering doing the same.

Although no equity capital is raised by the company in a direct listing, after trading is established the company could do a follow-on offering to raise money. The big advantage of a direct listing is that it reduces the two big costs of an IPO—the direct cost of the fees paid to investment bankers, which are typically 7% of the proceeds for IPOs raising less than $150 million, and the indirect cost of selling shares at an offer price less than what the stocks subsequently trades at, which adds on another 18%, on average. For a unicorn in which the company and existing shareholders sell $1 billion in a traditional IPO using bookbuilding, the strategy of a direct listing and subsequent follow-on offering could net the company and selling shareholders an extra $200 million.

Direct listings are not the only way to reduce the direct and indirect costs of going public. Starting twenty years ago, when Ravenswood Winery went public in 1999, some companies have gone public using an auction rather than bookbuilding. Prominent companies that have used an auction include Google, Morningstar, and Interactive Brokers Group. Auctions, however, have not taken off, in spite of lower fees and less underpricing. The last few years no U.S. IPO has used one.

Traditional investment banks view direct listings and auction IPOs as a threat. Not only are the fees that they receive lower, but the investment bankers can no longer promise underpriced shares to their hedge fund clients. Issuing firms and their shareholders are the beneficiaries when direct listings are used.

If auctions and direct listings are so great, why haven’t more issuers used them? One important reason is that investment banks typically bundle analyst coverage with other business. If a small company hires a top investment bank such as Credit Suisse to take them public with a traditional IPO, Credit Suisse is almost certainly going to have its analyst that covers the industry follow the stock, at least for a while. Many companies have discovered, however, that if the company doesn’t live up to expectations, the major investment banks are only too happy to drop coverage a few years later. In contrast, an analyst at a second-tier investment bank, such as William Blair, Raymond James, Jefferies, Stephens, or Stifel, is much more likely to continue to follow the company for many years if the investment bank had been hired for the IPO. In my opinion, the pursuit of coverage from analysts at the top investment banks has discouraged many companies from bucking the system. The prominent unicorns, however, will get analyst coverage no matter what method they use or which investment banks they hire.


Barry McCarthy

Barry McCarthy is the Chief Financial Officer of Spotify. Prior to joining Spotify, Mr. McCarthy was a private investor and served as a board member for several major public and private companies, including Spotify, Pandora and Chegg. McCarthy also serves as an Executive Adviser to Technology Crossover Ventures and previously served as the Chief Financial Officer and Principal Accounting Officer of Netflix.

If we take a leap of faith and imagine that direct listings become an established alternative to the traditional IPO process, then we can expect:

  1. Financing costs to come down – The overall “cost” of the traditional IPO process will come down, in order to compete with the lower cost alternative (lower underwriting fees and no IPO discount) of a direct listing.
  2. The regulatory framework to remain unchanged – No change was / is required in federal securities laws, which already enable the direct listing process. With the SEC’s guidance and regulatory oversight, Spotify repurposed an existing process for direct listings – we didn’t invent a new one.

  3. A level playing field for exits – Spotify listed without the traditional 180 day lock-up. In order to compete with direct listings, traditional IPOs may eliminate the lock-up (and the short selling hedge funds do into the lock-up expiry).

  4. Financing frequency; right church, wrong pew – Regardless of what people tell you, an IPO is just another financing event. But you don’t need to complete a traditional IPO anymore if you want to sell equity. Conventional wisdom says you do, but I think conventional wisdom is evolving with the realities of the marketplace. Here’s how we’d do it at Spotify if we needed to raise additional equity capital. We’d execute a secondary or follow-on transaction, pay a 1% transaction fee and price our shares at about a 4% discount to the closing price on the day we priced our secondary offering. This is much less expensive “financing” than a traditional IPO with underwriter fees ranging from 3-7% (larger deals mean smaller fees) and the underwriter’s discount of ~36% to the full conviction price for the offering. You simply uncouple the going public event from the money raising event.


Josh Kuzon

Josh Kuzon is a Partner at Reciprocal Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in NYC focused on FinTech and blockchain. An expert in payments and banking systems, Josh is focused on backing the next generation of FinTech companies across payments, credit, financial infrastructure, and financial management software.

I think the implications of direct listing tech IPOs are positive for venture capitalists, as it creates a channel for efficient exits. However, the threat of low liquidity from a direct listing is significant and may ultimately outweigh the benefits for the listing company. 

Direct listing tech IPOs offers a compelling model for company employees and existing investors in pursuit of a liquidity event. The model features a non-dilutive, no lock-up period, and underwriting fee-less transaction, which is a short-term benefit of the strategy. Additionally, as a publicly traded company, there are longer-term benefits in being able to access public markets for financing, using company stock to pay for acquisitions, and potentially broaden global awareness of an organization. However, these benefits come with tradeoffs that should not be overlooked. 

One concern is the circular problem of liquidity. Without a defined supply of stock, it can be difficult to generate meaningful buyside demand. A floating price and indeterminate quantity will dampen institutional interest, no matter how great the listing company may be. Institutions require size and certainty; not only do they desire to build large positions, but they need to know they can exit them if needed. Without consistent institutional bids, sellers are less motivated to unwind their stakes, for fear of volatility and soft prices.

I believe institutional investors and their brokers are crucial ingredients for a properly functioning public equities market structure. They help make markets more liquid and efficient and serve as a check on companies to drive better business outcomes for their shareholders. A lack of institutional investors could be a very expensive long-term tradeoff for a short-term gain.

For companies that have significant brand awareness, don’t need to raise additional capital, or already have a diverse institutional investor base, the direct listing model may work out well for them. Few companies, however, fit this profile. Many more will likely have to work a lot harder to persuade the capital markets to participate in a direct listing and even if successful, may ultimately come back to bite them as they evolve and require additional capital markets cooperation.


Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is a partner at Cooley LLP. He advises leading technology entrepreneurs, venture funds and investment banks in formation, financing, capital market and M&A transactions, and in in the past seven years was involved in over 55 offerings, raising over $21 billion, for companies such as Appian, Atlassian, Alteryx, Avalara, DocuSign, FireEye, Forty Seven, LinkedIn, MongoDB, NVIDIA, Redfin, SendGrid, ServiceNow, Tenable, Zendesk, Zulilly and Zynga.

It is challenging to draw market lessons from a single completed “direct listing.” The degree of interest I am seeing, often without folks knowing what it means, shows that the IPO model has issues. So first I describe to a client what it means – an IPO without the “I” and the “O”, meaning you are not selling any stock and therefore you don’t have a set initial stock price. These factors mean that a direct listing is relevant only for a small subset of private companies – those that:

  1. Sold stock to a number of institutional buyers that are likely to hold or increase their interest once trading begins;
  2. Are large enough (and didn’t restrict transfers) such that an active trading market developed as a private company, to be used as a proxy for the public trading price;
  3. Don’t need to raise primary capital, and
  4. Want to make their mark by doing something different, at the expense of placing IPO stock in the hands of new investors they have selected.

There is no evidence to indicate that it accelerates public market access, any company that can do a direct listing could do an IPO. The SEC doesn’t go away, and compared to the highly tuned IPO process, SEC scrutiny is actually higher. As least based on Spotify, it doesn’t put investment bankers out of a job, nor does it dramatically reduce total transactions costs. Spotify had no lock-up agreement, so the VCs I know love this feature, but it is not inherent in a direct listing, and IPOs don’t require lock-ups.

In my book, too soon to tell if it is the reverse Dutch Auction of its day.


Barbara Gray

Barbara Gray, CFA is a former top-ranked sell-side Equity Analyst and the Founder of Brady Capital Research Inc., a leading-edge investment research firm focused on structural disruption. She is also the author of the books Secrets of the Amazon 2.0, Secrets of the Amazon and Ubernomics.

Although Spotify successfully broke free of its reins last April and entered the public arena unescorted, I expect most unicorns will still choose to pay the fat underwriting fees to be paraded around by investment bankers. 

Realistically, the direct listing route is most suitable for companies meeting the following three criteria: 1) consumer-facing with strong brand equity; 2) easy-to-understand business model; and 3) no need to raise capital. Even if a company meets this criteria, the “escorted” IPO route could provide a positive return on investment as the IPO roadshow is designed to provide a valuation uptick through building awareness and preference versus competitive offerings by enabling a company to: a) reach and engage a larger investment pool; b) optimally position its story; and c) showcase its skilled management team.

Although the concept of democratizing capital markets by providing equal access to all investors is appealing, if a large institution isn’t able to get an IPO allocation, they may be less willing to build up a meaningful position in the aftermarket. The direct listings option also introduces a higher level of pricing risk and volatility as the opening price and vulnerable early trading days of the stock are left to the whims of the market. Unlike with an IPO, with benefits of stabilizing bids and 90 to 180 days lock-up agreements prohibiting existing investors from selling their shares, a flood of sellers could hit the market.


Graham Powis

Graham A. Powis is Senior Capital Markets Advisor at Brookline Capital Markets, a division of CIM Securities, LLC. Brookline is a boutique investment bank that provides a comprehensive suite of capital markets and advisory services to the healthcare industry. Mr. Powis previously held senior investment banking positions at BTIG, Lazard and Cowen.

While Spotify’s direct listing in 2018 and recent reports that Slack is considering a direct listing in 2019 have heightened curiosity around this approach to “going public,” we expect that most issuers in the near-to medium-term will continue to pursue a traditional IPO path. Potential benefits of a direct listing include the avoidance of further dilution to existing holders and underwriter fees. However, large, high-profile and well-financed corporations, most often in the technology and consumer sectors, are the companies typically best-suited to pursue these direct listings. By contrast, smaller companies seeking to raise capital alongside an exchange listing, and with an eye on overcoming challenges in attracting interest from the investing public, will continue to follow a well-established IPO process.

A case in point is the healthcare segment of the US IPO market, which has accounted for one-third of all US IPO activity over the last five years. The healthcare vertical tilts toward small unprofitable companies with significant capital needs and, as a result, direct listings aren’t likely to become a popular choice in that industry. Since 2014, unprofitable companies have accounted for more than 90% of all healthcare IPOs completed. Furthermore, the biotechnology subsector has been by far the most active corner of the healthcare IPO market, and biotechnology companies are voracious consumers of capital. Finally, healthcare IPOs tend to be relatively small: since 2014, healthcare IPO issuers have raised, on average, only 47% of the amount raised by non-healthcare issuers, and more than half have already returned to the market at least once for additional capital.

Startups Weekly: Squad’s screen-shares and Slack’s swastika

We’re three weeks into January. We’ve recovered from our CES hangover and, hopefully, from the CES flu. We’ve started writing the correct year, 2019, not 2018.

Venture capitalists have gone full steam ahead with fundraising efforts, several startups have closed multi-hundred million dollar rounds, a virtual influencer raised equity funding and yet, all anyone wants to talk about is Slack’s new logo… As part of its public listing prep, Slack announced some changes to its branding this week, including a vaguely different looking logo. Considering the flack the $7 billion startup received instantaneously and accusations that the negative space in the logo resembled a swastika — Slack would’ve been better off leaving its original logo alone; alas…

On to more important matters.

Rubrik more than doubled its valuation

The data management startup raised a $261 million Series E funding at a $3.3 billion valuation, an increase from the $1.3 billion valuation it garnered with a previous round. In true unicorn form, Rubrik’s CEO told TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden it’s intentionally unprofitable: “Our goal is to build a long-term, iconic company, and so we want to become profitable but not at the cost of growth,” he said. “We are leading this market transformation while it continues to grow.”

Deal of the week: Knock gets $400M to take on Opendoor

Will 2019 be a banner year for real estate tech investment? As $4.65 billion was funneled into the space in 2018 across more than 350 deals and with high-flying startups attracting investors (Compass, Opendoor, Knock), the excitement is poised to continue. This week, Knock brought in $400 million at an undisclosed valuation to accelerate its national expansion. “We are trying to make it as easy to trade in your house as it is to trade in your car,” Knock CEO Sean Black told me.

Cybersecurity stays hot

While we’re on the subject of VCs’ favorite industries, TechCrunch cybersecurity reporter Zack Whittaker highlights some new data on venture investment in the industry. Strategic Cyber Ventures says more than $5.3 billion was funneled into companies focused on protecting networks, systems and data across the world, despite fewer deals done during the year. We can thank Tanium, CrowdStrike and Anchorfree’s massive deals for a good chunk of that activity.

Send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

Fundraising efforts continue

I would be remiss not to highlight a slew of venture firms that made public their intent to raise new funds this week. Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures filed to raise $350 million across two new funds and Redpoint Ventures set a $400 million target for two new China-focused funds. Meanwhile, Resolute Ventures closed on $75 million for its fourth early-stage fund, BlueRun Ventures nabbed $130 million for its sixth effort, Maverick Ventures announced a $382 million evergreen fund, First Round Capital introduced a new pre-seed fund that will target recent graduates, Techstars decided to double down on its corporate connections with the launch of a new venture studio and, last but not least, Lance Armstrong wrote his very first check as a VC out of his new fund, Next Ventures.

More money goes toward scooters

In case you were concerned there wasn’t enough VC investment in electric scooter startups, worry no more! Flash, a Berlin-based micro-mobility company, emerged from stealth this week with a whopping €55 million in Series A funding. Flash is already operating in Switzerland and Portugal, with plans to launch into France, Italy and Spain in 2019. Bird and Lime are in the process of raising $700 million between them, too, indicating the scooter funding extravaganza of 2018 will extend into 2019 — oh boy!

Startups secure cash

  • Niantic finally closed its Series C with $245 million in capital commitments and a lofty $4 billion valuation.
  • Outdoorsy, which connects customers with underused RVs, raised $50 million in Series C funding led by Greenspring Associates, with participation from Aviva Ventures, Altos Ventures, AutoTech Ventures and Tandem Capital.
  • Ciitizen, a developer of tools to help cancer patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz.
  • Footwear startup Birdies — no, I don’t mean Allbirds or Rothy’s — brought in an $8 million Series A led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from Slow Ventures and earlier investor Forerunner Ventures.
  • And Brud, the company behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela, is now worth $125 million with new funding.

Feature of the week

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine introduced readers to Squad this week, a screensharing app for social phone addicts.

Listen to me talk

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I marveled at the dollars going into scooter startups, discussed Slack’s upcoming direct listing and debated how the government shutdown might impact the IPO market.

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