Ambitious Singapore startup Delegate wants to bring its event booking platform to the US

It’s not often that you hear about a startup from Singapore with ambitions to expand to the U.S, but that’s exactly the goal for event booking service Delegate.

Founded in August 2015, the company aims to be a one-stop shop for booking an event, that covers corporate and professional functions, celebrations like weddings and more personal events such as birthdays or get-togethers.

Beyond the essential step of securing a venue, Delegate’s platform covers a range of different needs that include: food and beverage, photography and videography, flowers and decor, entertainment such as bands, invitation and gifts, event staff, production equipment and transport.

“We saw a huge gap in the market,” co-founders Melissa Lou and Jacqueline Ye, who both worked in the event industry prior to starting Delegate, told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “There was no one resource for finding events and resources.”

The Delegate platform covers venue booking, catering, staffing, entertainment and more.

But, beyond being a booking platform for consumers, Delegate has a smart hook that attracts those on venue and event hosting side. In addition to helping them generate bookings via its sites, Delegate offers a subscription ‘Pro’ product that helps them manage daily operations, generate leads, collect bookings and handle collaborations with others in their supply chain.

There’s also an element of granularity with the consumer side of the business. Delegate has set up options to make the myriads of suppliers, venues and more navigable for less experienced customers. That includes a ‘deals’ section for, well, deals and an inspiration board for the planning process which is itself inspired by Pinterest’s visual approach.

Coming soon, the company hopes to add payment plans to help make it easier to pay for major events, as well as a new offering focused squarely on business users and API integrations for third-party services.

Lou and Ye started the business nearly four years ago with around 100 vendors thanks to their personal and business networks. Today, it claims 1,700 vendors and 70,000 users across Singapore and Hong Kong, its first expansion market.

Delegate co-founders Jacqueline Ye and Melissa Lou (left and right) want to expand their service to the U.S. market.

Already present in two of Asia’s top event locations, where average spend is among the highest for the region. But since those countries are limited in size — Singapore’s population is just shy of six million, Hong Kong’s is around seven million, it makes sense that Delegate is now looking for its next moves. Lou and Ye said they plan to launch the service in “key cities” in Australia and the U.S. to tap what they see as lucrative markets, while Korea and Taiwan are also on the radar closer to home in Asia.

“We see these markets as a good fit for us,” Lou explained. “They have a fair share of corporate events already and, in particular, Australia is a good country because we have a good network there.”

Entering the U.S. might sound implausible to some, but already soft launches of the platform in LA and Austin have drawn interest from over 100 vendors, the Delegate co-founders said. That’s without any major marketing push to either businesses or consumers, and it gives the company optimism. Already the U.S. is a listed location on their service but, for now, there are less than a dozen vendors and there’s no specific location.

Beyond early outreach, the company has raised funds for expansion. Last month, Delegate announced a $1 million pre-Series A round from an undisclosed family office (with apparent links to the event industry) and angel investors who founded Zopim, the Singapore-based startup that sold to Zendesk for around $30 million in 2014.

That network and Saas expertise is likely to help with those ambitious global expansion plans, although Lou and Ye said they aren’t planning to raise their Series A just yet. They say they plan to stretch their runway and keep their costs lean, a practice the founders say they have stuck to since bootstrapping without outside funding for the first year of the business. It’s unlikely bet for most startups in Southeast Asia, but if Delegate can gain even just a small foothold in the U.S, it would be a massive validation of its business model and niche, and no doubt precipitate that larger Series A round.

Austin in January: Cash rich and maturing

2019 has been good to the Austin startup scene so far.

Combined, Austin startups have raised $240.3 million in January. That’s not much less than the nearly $300 million raised in all of Q4 2018. And since the beginning of the year, the Texas capital has seen a number of double-digit funding rounds and a nearly quarter of a billion dollar acquisition.

Out of 10 known rounds, six were for $10 million or over. In recent years, Austin has historically been known for having more early-stage companies that raised more seed and Series A rounds. But if this month is any indication, its venture scene is maturing.

Just today, RigUp — an on-demand staffing platform for the oil and gas industry — announced it has secured $60 million in a Series C round. The financing was raised at a $300 million post-money valuation, according to Axios. Founders Fund led the round, which also included participation from existing backers Bedrock Capital and Quantum Energy Partners.

Also of interest is who has been investing in the city. Silicon Valley-based Bessemer Venture Partners put money into at least two of the 10 rounds: legal tech software provider DISCO’s $83 million Series E and ScaleFactor’s $30 million Series B. So, Austin startups are definitely attracting money outside of the local venture ecosystem.

Paul O’Brien, CEO of Austin-based MediaTech Ventures, believes the past few weeks provide validation for venture capitalists who have invested in the area.

“The timing is right on the mark. Just a few years into the nascent local startup scene, we witnessed the growth and enthusiasm of local mentorship and angel investment, and years later, the presence of sophisticated startup programs like Techstars, Mass Challenge and Founder Institute… and now, as if on schedule for investors, we’re seeing substantial outcomes,” he told Crunchbase News. “What’s most exciting about being a part of the local startup community is experiencing that this is really just the beginning.”

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other big deals that were announced in Austin this month:

  • On January 3, AlertMedia closed on a $25 million Series C. The company has created a cloud-based mass notification system that aims to streamline notifications across devices and platforms.
  • Pensa Systems announced a $5 million Series A toward its mission of making retail more efficient with the use of drones.
  • On January 17, as mentioned above, back office automation startup ScaleFactor closed on a $30 million Series B led by Bessemer. The company told me at the time it saw 700 percent customer growth from 2017 to 2018, and its headcount grew by four times during the same period.
  • Dosh, maker of a cashback app, on January 22 closed on a $20 million Series B.
  • On January 23, Cision, a public relations software company, acquired Austin-based TrendKite, a media monitoring company that leverages AI, for $225 million. TrendKite will continue to be based in the Texas capital and will keep its name, according to this Austin Business Journal piece. And, its CEO Erik Huddleston, becomes president of publicly traded, Chicago-based Cision.
  • And, on January 24, Houston transplant DISCO revealed it had raised $83 million. Now, with more than $133 million in VC raised to date, DISCO says it has raised “more than any other enterprise legal tech company.”

With such a great month, Austin now has a lot of pressure to continue the momentum for the rest of the year.

Featured image credit: Mary Ann Azevedo

Whim, the all-in-one mobility app for ride sharing, public transit, and rentals is coming to the US

MaaS Global, the company behind the all-in-one mobility app Whim, which offers a subscription service for public transportation, ride-sharing, bike rentals, scooter rentals, taxis, or car rentals will be making its U.S. debut later this year.

The company will choose its American launch city from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Miami, according to Sampo Hietanan, the company’s chief executive.

The Whim app is currently available in Antwerp, Birmingham, UK, Helsinki, and Vienna, according to Hietanan, and offers a range of subscription options. The top of the line version is a EUR500 per month all-inclusive package giving users unlimited access to ride hailing, bike and car rentals, and access to public transportation.

“Cars take 70 percent of the market and it’s used 4 percent of the time so you’re paying for the optional capacity,” says Hietanan. Using Whim, which, at the high end costs about as much as a car in Europe, users can get all of the optionality without paying for the unused capacity. It should ideally reduce transportation costs and cut down on emissions, if Hietanan’s claims are accurate. 

The Helsinki-based company uses APIs to connect with the back end of a number of service providers. For car rentals, it’s working with businesses like Hertz, Enterprise, and EuropeCar; for ride share, the company has linked with Gett and local European taxi companies, according to Hietanan.

Users have already booked 3 million trips through the company’s app since its launch and the company is continuing to expand not just in North America, but in Asia as well. There are plans in the works for the company to launch operations in Singapore.

Giving consumers more options for transit through a single gateway could reduce demand for vehicles, but some analysts argue that it won’t do much to alleviate congestion on roads. Consumers, they argue, will choose the convenience of rideshare over mass transit and could actually increase.

As Richard Rowson, a mobility consultant from the UK noted in this post:

MaaS doesn’t implicitly mean a net decrease nor increase in the number of road vehicle miles. The changes are complex, but in balance look likely to result in an increase.

Factors such as migration from private car to public transport should cause a reduction, but migration from train and bus, to private hire and smaller demand responsive buses will cause an increase. Other factors such as ‘positioning’ movements as ‘on demand’ vehicles are positioned to exploit demand also create journeys.

Smart journey planning and navigation systems should make better use of available road capacity, such as identifying alternative routes – but at the expense of migrating through traffic to local access roads.

There is the potential that having a single point of access to mobility may actually help cities push riders to favor public transportation by offering a window into amount of time using each service would take and showing users the fastest route.

Last August the company said it had raised a EUR9 million round from undisclosed investors. It had previously received capital from Toyota Financial Services and its insurance partner Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance.

 

Apple plans major US expansion including a new $1 billion campus in Austin

Apple has announced a major expansion that will see it open a new campus in North Austin and open new offices in Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles as it bids to increase its workforce in the U.S. The firm said it intends also to significantly expand its presence in Pittsburgh, New York and Boulder, Colorado over the next three years.

The Austin campus alone will cost the company $1 billion, but Apple said that the 133-acre space will generate an initial 5,000 jobs across a broad range of roles with the potential to add 10,000 more. The company claims to have 6,200 employees in Austin — its largest enclave outside of Cupertino — and it said that the addition of these new roles will make it the largest private employer in the city.

Beyond a lot of new faces, the new campus will include more than 50 acres of open space and — as is standard with Apple’s operations these days — it will run entirely on renewable energy.

Apple already has 6,200 employees in Austin, but its new campus could add up to 15,000 more

The investment was lauded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

“Their decision to expand operations in our state is a testament to the high-quality workforce and unmatched economic environment that Texas offers. I thank Apple for this tremendous investment in Texas, and I look forward to building upon our strong partnership to create an even brighter future for the Lone Star State,” he said in a statement shared by Apple.

But Austin isn’t the only focal point for Apple growth in the U.S.

Outside of the Austin development, the iPhone-maker plans to expand to over 1,000 staff Seattle, San Diego and LA over the next three years, while adding “hundreds” of staff in Pittsburgh, New York, Boulder, Boston and Portland, Oregon.

More broadly, Apple said it added 6,000 jobs to its U.S. workforce this year to take its total in the country to 90,000. It said it remains on track to create 20,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2023.

Cities that didn’t win HQ2 shouldn’t be counted out

The more than year-long dance between cities and Amazon for its second headquarters is finally over, with New York City and Washington, DC, capturing the big prize. With one of the largest economic development windfalls in a generation on the line, 238 cities used every tactic in the book to court the company – including offering to rename a city “Amazon” and appointing Jeff Bezos “mayor for life.”

Now that the process, and hysteria, are over, and cities have stopped asking “how can we get Amazon,” we’d like to ask a different question: How can cities build stronger start-up ecosystems for the Amazon yet to be built?

In September 2017, Amazon announced that it would seek a second headquarters. But rather than being the typical site selection process, this would become a highly publicized Hunger Games-esque scenario.

An RFP was proffered on what the company sought, and it included everything any good urbanist would want, with walkability, transportation and cultural characteristics on the docket. But of course, incentives were also high on the list.

Amazon could have been a transformational catalyst for a plethora of cities throughout the US, but instead, it chose two superstar cities: the number one and five metro areas by GDP which, combined, amounts to a nearly $2 trillion GDP. These two metro areas also have some of the highest real estate prices in the country, a swath of high paying jobs and of course power — financial and political — close at hand.

Perhaps the take-away for cities isn’t that we should all be so focused on hooking that big fish from afar, but instead that we should be growing it in our own waters. Amazon itself is a great example of this. It’s worth remembering that over the course of a quarter century, Amazon went from a garage in Seattle’s suburbs to consuming 16 percent — or 81 million square feet — of the city’s downtown. On the other end of the spectrum, the largest global technology company in 1994 (the year of Amazon’s birth) was Netscape, which no longer exists.

The upshot is that cities that rely only on attracting massive technology companies are usually too late.

At the National League of Cities, we think there are ways to expand the pie that don’t reinforce existing spatial inequalities. This is exactly the idea behind the launch of our city innovation ecosystems commitments process. With support from the Schmidt Futures Foundation, fifty cities, ranging from rural townships, college towns, and major metros, have joined with over 200 local partners and leveraged over $100 million in regional and national resources to support young businesses, leverage technology and expand STEM education and workforce training for all.

The investments these cities are making today may in fact be the precursor to some of the largest tech companies of the future.

With that idea in mind, here are eight cities that didn’t win HQ2 bids but are ensuring their cities will be prepared to create the next tranche of high-growth startups. 

Austin

Austin just built a medical school adjacent to a tier one research university, the University of Texas. It’s the first such project to be completed in America in over fifty years. To ensure the addition translates into economic opportunity for the city, Austin’s public, private and civic leaders have come together to create Capital City Innovation to launch the city’s first Innovation District at the new medical school. This will help expand the city’s already world class startup ecosystem into the health and wellness markets.

Baltimore

Baltimore is home to over $2 billion in academic research, ranking it third in the nation behind Boston and Philadelphia. In order to ensure everyone participates in the expanding research-based startup ecosystem, the city is transforming community recreation centers into maker and technology training centers to connect disadvantaged youth and families to new skills and careers in technology. The Rec-to-Tech Initiative will begin with community design sessions at four recreation centers, in partnership with the Digital Harbor Foundation, to create a feasibility study and implementation plan to review for further expansion.

Buffalo

The 120-acre Buffalo Niagara Medical Center (BNMC) is home to eight academic institutions and hospitals and over 150 private technology and health companies. To ensure Buffalo’s startups reflect the diversity of its population, the Innovation Center at BNMC has just announced a new program to provide free space and mentorship to 10 high potential minority- and/or women-owned start-ups.

Denver

Like Seattle, real estate development in Denver is growing at a feverish rate. And while the growth is bringing new opportunity, the city is expanding faster than the workforce can keep pace. To ensure a sustainable growth trajectory, Denver has recruited the Next Generation City Builders to train students and retrain existing workers to fill high-demand jobs in architecture, design, construction and transportation. 

Providence

With a population of 180,000, Providence is home to eight higher education institutions – including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design – making it a hub for both technical and creative talent. The city of Providence, in collaboration with its higher education institutions and two hospital systems, has created a new public-private-university partnership, the Urban Innovation Partnership, to collectively contribute and support the city’s growing innovation economy. 

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh may have once been known as a steel town, but today it is a global mecca for robotics research, with over 4.5 times the national average robotics R&D within its borders. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh is creating a more inclusive innovation economy through a Rec-to-Tech program that will re-invest in the city’s 10 recreational centers, connecting students and parents to the skills needed to participate in the economy of the future. 

Tampa

Tampa is already home to 30,000 technical and scientific consultant and computer design jobs — and that number is growing. To meet future demand and ensure the region has an inclusive growth strategy, the city of Tampa, with 13 university, civic and private sector partners, has announced “Future Innovators of Tampa Bay.” The new six-year initiative seeks to provide the opportunity for every one of the Tampa Bay Region’s 600,000 K-12 students to be trained in digital creativity, invention and entrepreneurship.

These eight cities help demonstrate the innovation we are seeing on the ground now, all throughout the country. The seeds of success have been planted with people, partnerships and public leadership at the fore. Perhaps they didn’t land HQ2 this time, but when we fast forward to 2038 — and the search for Argo AISparkCognition or Welltok’s new headquarters is well underway — the groundwork will have been laid for cities with strong ecosystems already in place to compete on an even playing field.

Freight trucking startup Shipwell gets a $10 million boost

Shipwell, a startup pitching a marketplace for domestic ground shipping and fleet and cargo management services for freight trucking companies, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding.

A booming American economy coupled with failing infrastructure and a low-margin business reluctant to adopt new technologies have put stress on domestic logistics companies in the $900 billion market for U.S. trucking services.

Shipwell combines a marketplace for shippers to connect with freight companies and online tools to manage those shipments. In effect, the company is pitching a version of the proprietary logistics management toolkit that has made Amazon so successful, to any retailer or outlet. 

We coordinate the freight, we pay the truckers, we help optimize the fleets,” says Shipwell president and co-founder, Jason Traff. 

Those services — and the company’s growing business among small and medium-sized suppliers to the construction industry — brought the Austin-based company to the attention of Fifth Wall Ventures, the Los Angeles based investment firm whose limited partners are among the biggest construction companies in the world.

For Fifth Wall the opportunity was clear. “Shipwell’s full-service, digitized brokerage platform can streamline the way many of our Anchor LPs and portfolio companies approach large-scale freight shipping,” the firm’s principal — and newest Shipwell board member — Vik Chawla wrote in a blog post announcing its most recent deal.

Fifth Wall led the company’s Series A round, which also included the new investor Global Founders Capital and previous investors First Round Capital, Base 10 Ventures, Capital Theory and Village Global .

The company’s business isn’t for big shippers that deal with thousands of shipments per-day, but rather the small and medium sized businesses that spend $100 million or less per-year on freight. And the small-fleet shipping companies that make up the bulk of the industry.

“In addition to the obvious use case for Shipwell customers who own warehousing, landlords can use Shipwell to become effective facilitators for their tenants,” according to Chawla. “Some Anchor LPs [the limited partners that provide capital for Fifth Wall to invest] are already engaged in this shipping ecosystem on behalf of their tenants, while others act as transport hubs. Beyond these, however, there are easy tie-ins within a number of key categories of Fifth Wall Anchors [sic] that regularly ship or receive freight—developers, of course, but also retail, office, homebuilding anchors.”

“We focus on the longer tail. If you are doing $50 million in freight per-year then you’re doing dozens of shipments per week,” said Traff. “Most of our freight is less than a truckload or a full truckload freight and it’s more long-haul.”

It hasn’t been a straight road for Traff and his co-founder Gregory Price. Traff originally got the startup bug in Asia, where he launched a company that would sell low-cost copies of old masters paintings. When he sold that business he moved back to the U.S. and pitched an idea to Y Combinator that eventually became Leaky, a car insurance company.

When Leaky shut down and its business was acquired by Navion in 2013, Traff moved to Austin to figure out his next move.I t was there that he ran into a fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus named Greg Price and the two began hatching schemes for the company that would become Shipwell.

The two men began planning the business in 2016 and only launched the service in the beginning of this year. “Supply chains were very complex and there was a lot of building to do,” Traff said. 

Shipwell makes money by charging a commission on freight services and fees for its freight management software platform.

Ultimately this could create a new model to unify a fragmented industry. “This connective approach makes all of the difference in an industry with so many small companies at play,” Chawla wrote. “A surprising 89% of freight trucks in the U.S. are owned by carriers with fewer than five total trucks, and 99% of freight carriers possess fewer than 10 total trucks in their fleet. Despite the big business of freight shipping in the U.S., it’s actually a fragmented market of small businesses.”

 

After extradition to Texas, 3D-printed gunmaker Cody Wilson is out on bail

Last week, after Hatreon creator and 3D-printed gun activist Cody Wilson was charged with the sexual assault of a minor, he managed to evade arrest briefly in Taipei. On Friday, authorities successfully located Wilson and extradited him back to Texas, booking him into a Harris County jail. Now, Wilson is out on a $150,000 bond.

Wilson’s arrest in a Taipei hotel on Friday was the result of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Marshals, Taiwan’s police force and the U.S. State Department. His charges stem from an August 22 incident during which Wilson allegedly sexually assaulted a 16-year-old he found on SugarDaddyMeet.com, paying her $500 for sex in a North Austin hotel.

The charges are corroborated by security footage showing Wilson himself and a car with a license plate registered to his business. The charges originated from a report by a counselor who had spoken with the 16-year-old girl who identified Wilson and described the alleged assault.

Wilson lives in Austin where he owns and operates Defense Distributed, a defense company that conducts research and development “for the benefit of the American rifleman.” He reportedly fled to Taiwan after receiving a tip that authorities sought to arrest him.

“This was a collaborative effort that demonstrates the dedication of local, state, federal and international officials working together to bring this fugitive to justice,” U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas Susan Pamerleau said of the arrest.

In a statement to local news, Wilson’s lawyer Samy Khalil announced Wilson’s intentions to fight the charges. “We are glad that Cody is back in Texas again where we can work with him on his case,” Khalil said. “That’s our focus right now, representing our client and preparing his defense.”

Hacking the websites responsible for election information is so easy an 11 year-old did it

It’s time to talk about election security.

Over the weekend at Def Con, the annual hacker convention in Las Vegas to discuss some of the latest and greatest (or scariest) trends in the wild world of hacking, a pair of election security hacking demonstrations set up for adults and kids alike offered up some frightening revelations about America’s voting infrastructure. (I’m not even going to begin to touch Voatz.)

For 11 year-old Emmett from Austin, hacking the website for the Florida Secretary of State was as easy as a simple SQL injection.

While it took Emmett only 10 minutes to break into the election reporting section of the Florida Secretary of State web page, it’s important to note that these pages were set up as replicas.

The idea, according to event organizers from Wickr (a secure communications platform), “was mainly focused on breaking into the portions of the websites that are critical to the election process, [so] the kids worked against the replicas of the webpages where election results are reported by secretaries of state.”

The replicas were built by the team at Wall of Sheep Village and they issued the following statement: “The main issues with the live sites we are creating the replicas of are related to poor coding practices. They have popped up across the industry and are not vendor specific.”

And while the National Association for the Secretaries of State had some choice words for the Voting Machine Hacking Village, they didn’t address the hacks the kids made on their actual web sites.

In all, some 47 kids participated in the election hacking contest and 89% of them managed to get in to the virtual web sites set up by Wickr and Wall of Sheep Village.

Emmett, whose dad works in cybersecurity and who has been attending Def Con now for four years, has some thoughts on how easy it was for him to get into the system and change the vote tallies for election results.

“It’s actually kind of scary,” the 11 year-old said. “People can easily hack in to websites like these and they can probably do way more harmful things to these types of websites.”

The point, according to Wickr’s (badass) founder Nico Sell, is to bring attention to just how flawed security operations remain at the state level in areas that are vital to the nation’s democracy.

“The really important reason why we’re doing this is because we’re not taking the problem serious enough how significantly someone can mess with our elections,” said Sell. “And by showing this with eight year old kids we can call attention to the problem in such a way that we can fix the system so our democracy isn’t ruined.”

Some executives at big corporations share the same concerns. For Hugh Thompson, the chief technology officer at Symantec, the risks are real — even if the problems won’t manifest in the most important elections.

As Thompson (who worked on election security in the early 2000s) told The Financial Times, “The risk that I think most of us worried about at that time is still the biggest one: someone goes into a state or a county that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the election, is not going to change the balance on x, y or z, but then publishes details of the attack,” he said. “Undermining confidence in the vote is scary.”

Stakes are incredibly high, according to experts familiar with election security. Despite the indictments that Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference, issued against 12 Russian nationals for targeting the 2016 US election, Russian hacking remains a threat in the current election cycle.

Microsoft has already said that it has detected evidence of attempted Russian interference into three campaigns already in the 2018 election cycle.

As Fortune reported in July, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security, said that researchers at the company had discovered phishing campaigns that were linked to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit tied to the DNC election hacks from 2016.

For security officers working on the websites for the secretaries of state in the battleground states that the tween and teen hackers targeted during Def Con, young Emmett has some advice.

“Use more protection. Upgrade your security and obviously test your own websites against some of the common vulnerabilities,” the 11 year-old advised. 

Taking the pain out of accounting and payroll for small businesses, ScaleFactor raises $10 million

ScaleFactor, the Techstars alumnus that’s selling accounting and payroll management software as a service, has raised $10 million in a new round of funding as it looks to scale up its sales and marketing efforts.

Founded by longtime accountant, Kurt Rathmann, the Austin-based company has created a software service that collects and analyzes data from point of sale systems, bank accounts, credit cards and billing systems, to automate recordkeeping and payroll functions.

Rathmann, a former KPMG employee, started ScaleFactor after seeing the lack of innovation in the backoffice functions that are really the engine of any small business.

“Around the tech stack, accounting and financials were lacking the most,” Rathmann says. So he left his job at KPMG and started ScaleFactor Consulting out of his garage in Austin in 2014.

After a few years of basically going door-to-door (a throwback to Rathmann’s first company as an 18-year-old selling outdoor lighting in suburban Dallas) to find out what small businesses needed from an accounting software solution, ScaleFactor developed the API toolkit and management software that would become the services it’s pitching today.

After graduating from TechStars’ Austin accelerator, the company was able to nab $2.5 million in a seed financing round that included TechStars Ventures, NextCoast Ventures, and two Kansas City-based investment firms — Firebrand Ventures and Flyover Capital.

While the initial services business holds a lot of value and has managed to attract scores of small businesses, both Rathmann and his new investors led by Canaan Partners and including Citi Ventures and Broadhaven Capital see bigger opportunities down the road for ScaleFactor.

With the window that the company has into the operations of small businesses around the country, ScaleFactor can serve as an unimpeachable source of information for small business lenders.

With insight of (and control over) payroll management, billpay, cash approvals, cash accounting, and an ability to project forward cash flows (along with invoicing and tax management for part time employees), ScaleFactor will be able to offer lending services to smooth bumps in a company’s progress. 

“Bookkeeping and accounting is really the nucleus,” says Michael Gilroy, a principal with Canaan Partners. 

While Square has moved into lending services (and now is on the hunt for a banking license) through its window into a company’s revenues through point-of-sale devices, a company like ScaleFactor has a more holistic view of the health of a business, says Gilroy.

Equipped with that information ScaleFactor software can do things — like prompt business owners of the revenue targets they need to hit each month or suggest lending options to cover shortfalls — that better equip business owners to handle disruptions. 

“With our foundation established, a big part of our Series A is how do we power the business owner past bookkeeping & accounting? We see many opportunities to help further and our next steps will include things like lending, payments and many other activities that take a business owner/operators focus away from driving their business forward,” Rathmann wrote in an email.

3D printed guns are now legal… What’s next?

On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.

At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.

LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.

The legacy machine

Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.

Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.

The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)

LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.

Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.

The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.

All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.

The author with LMT Defense hardware.

Guns, drugs, and a million Karl Lewises

This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.

Except this isn’t what will happen.

Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.

The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.

In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.

Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.

Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.

Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.

In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.

This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.

Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm

First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.

The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.

Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.

As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.