Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Grab ’em quick: More tickets released for 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize

You better move fast if you want to party with us and 1,000 of your closest startup entrepreneur and investor friends. We just released a fresh round of tickets to our 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize in San Francisco on February 7. Tickets are limited, and they fly off the shelf faster than you can say seed funding. Don’t get shut out — buy your tickets here.

What can you do at the Winter Party? Plenty. Commune with the Silicon Valley community over craft beer and signature cocktails. Nosh on delectable appetizers. Converse and connect in a fun, relaxed setting. You never know who you’ll meet, but you can be sure to find influencers eager to meet and greet.

Demo your startup and introduce your genius product to the Valley’s finest thinkers, makers and investors. We have a very limited number of tables available — only two demo tables left — so get cracking. FYI: The price of a demo table includes four tickets to the party. Bring your crew and maximize your networking mojo.

What else goes down at the Winter Party? Lots of laughter, party games and activities — killer karaoke, anyone? — and plenty of photo ops. You might even score door prizes, like TC swag and tickets to Disrupt SF, our flagship event coming in September 2020. We’ll toss in a few surprises that night, too. Sweet!

Here’s the Winter Party lowdown.

  • When: Friday, February 7, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Galvanize, 44 Tehama St., San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Ticket price: $85
  • Demo tables: $1,500 (buy tickets and tables here)

Remember, we release tickets in batches. If you don’t score a ticket this time, keep your eyes peeled for the next round. Don’t miss out!

Come to the 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize and hang out with your people. Enjoy the food, the drinks, the fun and the opportunity to expand your network in a relaxed setting. We’ll see you in February!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at the 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Lucky coffee, unicorn stumbles and Sam Altman’s YC wager

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

This week we had TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm and Danny Crichton on hand to dig into the news, with Chris Gates on the dials and more news than we could possibly cram into 30 minutes. So we went a bit over; sorry about that.

We kicked off by running through a few short-forms to get things going, including:

  • Alex wanted to talk about his recent story on Lily AI’s $12.5 million Series A. Canaan led the round into the e-commerce-focused recommendation engine that has a cool take on what people care about.
  • Danny talked about the acquisition of Armis Security by Insight for $1.1 billion, the VC round for self-driving forklift startup Vecna and an outside-the-Valley round for Houston-based HighRadius.

Turning to longer cuts, the team dug into the latest from SoftBank, its Vision Fund and the successes and struggles of its enormous startup bets. Leading the news cycle this week were layoffs at Zume, a robotic pizza delivery venture that is no longer pursuing robotic pizza delivery. Now it’s working on sustainable packaging. Cool, but it’s going to be hard for the company to grow into its valuation while pivoting.

Other issues have come up — more here — that paint some cracks onto the Vision Fund’s sunny exterior. Don’t be too beguiled by the bad news, Danny says; venture funds run like J-Curves, and there are still winners in that particular portfolio.

After that, we turned to China, in particular its venture slowdown. The bubble, in Danny’s view, has burst. The story discussed is here, if you want to read it. The short version for the lazy is that not only has China’s venture scene slowed down dramatically, but startups — even those with ample capital raised — are dying by the hundred. But one highly caffeinated Chinese startup continues to find growth in the world’s greatest tea market.

Finally we hit on the Sam Altman wager and the latest from Sisense, which is now a unicorn. All that and we had some fun.

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

Brand power vs. product power

Most tech companies — particularly B2B companies — either don’t understand the power of a brand, or do a really poor job of creating one.

An informal survey of a dozen of my young CEO friends showed that, given the choice, 10 out of 12 — 83% — would rather spend an extra dollar on product development than brand-building. It is dangerous (or at least foolish) to assume that the ROI on product development is greater than the ROI on brand building.

As a serial entrepreneur and CEO, I have had to make this choice many times. In 2006, I co-founded PC backup company Carbonite . I left the company five years ago after taking it public and I no longer have any financial interest in it, which is why I can write about it now — it was just sold for $1.4 billion to OpenText. There were many other backup products on the market at that time and many more appeared over the first five years of the company’s life. I would argue that Carbonite was slicker than most of the others, but essentially every backup product accomplishes the same result.

Unlike Carbonite’s competitors, we focused on our brand. That meant raising more money than we would have if we were just investing in R&D. But, after five years of investing in our brand, we had eleven times the brand recognition of any other consumer backup company and we dominated the market.

Here’s why: a study by Kettlefire Creative showed that 59% of people prefer to buy brands that they have heard of. Since none of our competitors had widely recognized brands, we got most of that 59%. Of the remaining 41%, we fought it out on other criteria and won most of that as well. Put yourself in the shoes of a potential customer looking to back up their PC. What do you worry about? Well, before we even launched the company, we asked PC owners to choose the five most important attributes of their ideal backup company from a list of ten possible attributes, and we found the following:

1. Trustworthy: you won’t look at my files or allow anyone to see them (1127 votes)

2. Peace of mind: when I go to retrieve my backup, it will always be there (811 votes)

3. Reliable: it backs up everything and doesn’t stop (696 votes)

4. Helpful: if I lose my computer, I want to talk to a human who can help me (446 votes)

5. Easy: it should be simple and require little attention (444 votes)

The attributes that didn’t make the top five:

6. Fast: backups happen quickly

GetYourGuide widens its horizons, will expand its Originals short tours into day trips and more

GetYourGuide has made a name for itself as the startup that helped the stale idea of guided tours for travellers on its head. Tapping into the generation of consumers who think of travel not just as going somewhere, but having an “experience” (and, ideally, recording it for Insta-posterity), it has built a marketplace to connect them with people who will help guarantee that this is what they will get. It’s a concept that has helped it sell more than 25 million tickets, hit a $1 billion valuation, and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in VC funding.

And the startup has grown quite a lot since passing the 25 million mark in May. “We’ve had 40 million travelers over the last 12 months. We’re the market leader in every European geography. We’re #2 in the U.S. and about to become #1,” co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck said at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Now GetYourGuide is taking the next step in its strategy to expand its touchpoints with users, and grow and diversify its business in the process. The company is expanding its “Originals” business — its own in-house tour operation — into one-day tours and other longer journeys, with the aim of hitting 1 million sales of Originals this year. It will kick off the effort with a small number — between five and 10 — one-day tours in different exotic locations. Examples will include “dune-bashing in Dubai,” glacier excursions from Reykjavik, and trips to Bali’s “most instagrammable hidden spots.”

GetYourGuide Originals have been working well. “We’ve had tremendous success, we have an average score of 4.8 [out of 5] compared to 4.4 for the other marketplace activities,” Reck said. Originals have a 40% higher repeat rate than other activities.

“And we’re now extending it to day trips. For those who are not familiar with the travel experience, day trip is the single biggest vertical inside of experiences,” Reck said.

Originals was launched a year and a half ago as a way for GetYourGuide to build its own tours — which it kicked off first with shorter walking tours — as a complement to the marketplace where it offers travellers a way of discovering and purchasing places on tours organised by third parties. Today it offers 23 different Originals in 17 cities like Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Up to now, GYG has sold some 200,000 places on its Originals tours — which is actually a tiny proportion of business, when you consider that the number of tours booked through the platform has passed 25 million.

The startup likes to describe its own Orignals as “like Netflix Originals, but in the real world!” And that analogy is true in a couple of ways. Not only does it give GYG more curatorial control on what is actually part of the tour, where it’s run, who guides it and more; but it gives the company potentially a bigger margin when it comes to making money off the effort, and means it does not have to negotiate with third parties on revenue share and other business details.

That’s, of course, not considering the challenges of scaling in this way.

Adding in more Originals and extending to transportation to get to the destination (and potentially staying overnight at some point) will mean taking on costs and organizational efforts, and risks, around more operational segments: making sure vehicles are safe and working, that hotels have clean sheets (and rooms), and more. More things can go wrong, and customers will have many more reasons to complain (or praise). It will be one of those moments when the startup will have to rethink what it’s core competency is, and whether it can deliver on that.

On the other side, if it works, GYG will diversify its the business while finding new revenue streams. But the strategy to grow Originals is a logical next step for other reasons, too.

The most important of these is probably competition: GYG may have been the pioneer of hipster travel experiences, but today it is by no means the only company focusing on this segment. Companies like Airbnb and TripAdvisor have tacked on tours and “Experiences” as a complement to their own offerings, as ways of extending their own consumer touchpoints beyond, respectively, booking a place to say or finding a cool place that popular with locals, or figure out what attractions to see.

Get Your Guide needs to find ways of keeping existing and new users returning to its own platform, rather than simply tacking on its tour packages while organising other aspects of their vacation.

The other is that, as Get Your Guide continues to break ground on changing the conversation around travel, building its own content rather than relying on others to fulfil its vision will become ever more essential, and paves the way for how the company will approach adding ever more components into the chain between your home and your destination.

VTEX, an e-commerce platform used by Walmart, raises $140M led by SoftBank’s LatAm fund

E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management; front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.

The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers, and Riverwood continues to be a backer, too, the company said.

Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.

VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.

This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas, and proptech startup QuintoAndar.

The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered) and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.

“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”

Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the US (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.

There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe, and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid- and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).

E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out before, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point, while VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relative small return on that: $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons why VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.

“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region and now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.'” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”

Atlassian expands Jira Service Desk beyond IT teams

Atlassian today announced a set of new templates and workflows for Jira Service Desk that were purpose-built for HR, legal and facilities teams. Service Desk started six years ago as a version of Jira that was mostly meant for IT departments. Atlassian, however, found that other teams inside the companies that adopted it started to use it as well, including various teams at Twitter and Airbnb, for example. With today’s update, it’s now making it easier for these teams, at least in legal, HR and facilities, to get started with Jira Service Desk without having to customize the product themselves.

“Over the last six years, one of the observations that we’ve made was that we need to provide really good services — the idea that we can provide great services to employees is really something that is really on the rise,” said Edwin Wong, the head of the company’s IT products. “I think in the past, maybe we were a bit more forgiving in terms of what employees expected from services departments. But today you’re just so used to great experiences in your consumer life and when you come to work, you expect the same.”

But lots of service teams, he argues, didn’t have the tools to provide this experience, yet they were looking for tools to streamline their workflows (think onboarding for HR teams, for example) and to move from manual processes to something more automated and modern. Jira was already flexible enough to allow them to do this, but the new set of templates now codifies these processes for them.

Wong stressed this isn’t just about tracking but also managing work across teams and providing them a more centralized hub for information. “One of the big challenges that we’ve seen from many of the customers that we’ve spoken to is the challenge of just figuring out where to go when you want something,” he said. “When I have a new employee, where do I go to ask for a new laptop? Is that the same process as telling my facilities teams that perhaps there is an issue with a bathroom?”

Atlassian is starting with these three templates because that’s where it saw the most immediate need. Over time, I’m sure we’ll see the company get into other verticals as well.

WhatsApp’s latest feature, Catalogs, caters to small businesses skipping the web for mobile

WhatsApp is expanding the capabilities of its dedicated app for business owners who want to reach their customers on smartphones. The Facebook-owned company is today introducing a new “catalogs” feature to the WhatsApp Business app that will allow the businesses to showcase and share their products and services to potential customers, who can browse photos, view prices, and read product descriptions to help inform their purchase decisions.

These catalogs effectively serve as a mobile storefront on WhatsApp — and one that can be operated without the need for a web page at all. Instead, the business owner simply visits the new Catalog option in their app’s settings and uploads photos of whatever is they’re selling and fill out the details which can optionally include a product or service code (e.g. a SKU), if need be.

These catalog items can then be sent to customers in a WhatsApp chat message. For example, if a customer asks about a particular item or for a recommendation, the business owner can tap to send a particular item from their catalog that includes all the information the customer wants to know.

The catalogs are particularly appealing to WhatsApp’s customer base in emerging markets, where much of users’ online activity is taking place inside apps instead of on the wider web. As new users come online in these regions, they’re often skipping the PC revolution entirely and going straight to smartphones instead.

Already, the WhatsApp Business app is claiming a portion of that market. Earlier this year, the company said the app had reached some 5 million business customers.

The Catalogs feature today joins several others designed with the needs of businesses in mind, including business profiles, quick replies for messages, chat labels, and automated messages.

WhatsApp says the new feature is available to businesses using the WhatsApp Business app on both Android and iPhone in Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the U.K., and the U.S., for the time being. It will roll out to other worldwide markets “soon,” but didn’t offer a more exact launch time frame.

WeWork-owned Meetup confirms restructuring, layoffs

WeWork’s efforts to cut costs following the ouster of its chief executive officer and a delayed initial public offering looks to be impacting its subsidiaries. Meetup, which WeWork acquired for a reported $200 million in 2017, announced a round of layoffs this morning, TechCrunch has learned.

The company, which helps people foster in-person connections by facilitating events across the globe, has shed as much as 25% of its workforce, most of which were employees of the company’s engineering department, sources tell TechCrunch.

Meetup’s top priority is building the best possible product for our community of more than 44 million members around the world,” a representative of the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Today we made some organizational changes with that goal in mind, including restructuring across some of our departments.”

The news follows WeWork’s own well-documented attempts at restructuring its high-loss business. Late last month, SoftBank provided the over-valued co-working business a much-needed lifeline in the form of a $5 billion loan, a $3 billion tender offer and another $1.5 billion in equity funding, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s in addition to the billions already invested by the Japanese telecom giant, which now owns a roughly 80% stake. SoftBank’s mountain of cash had previously valued WeWork at an eye-popping $47 billion; the latest investment package, however, valued the company at just $8 billion. 

Understandably, WeWork’s new leadership (former vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and former president and chief operating officer Artie Minson are serving as co-CEOs) seem to be hyper-focused on its new cost-cutting strategy. Multiple reports have indicated the business is weighing sales of several of its subsidiaries, including Meetup, Managed by Q and Conductor. We’ve asked Meetup whether its parent company enforced the staff cuts and will update this story if we hear back.

As for WeWork, it must make a concerted effort to boost its balance sheet in the next few months if it plans to stay committed to a 2020 IPO. The company initially revealed its IPO prospectus in August, disclosing revenue north of $1.5 billion in the six months ending June 30 on losses of $904.6 million. Shortly after, its co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann’s misbehaviors were published in a number of incriminating stories by The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Neumann’s trashed reputation coupled with WeWork’s mounting losses forced the company to replace its founding CEO and shelve its IPO, which would have been the second-largest offering of 2019 behind only Uber.

Meetup, founded in 2002, was one of the first IRL social networks. Today’s cuts are not the first since WeWork came into the picture, according to earlier reporting by Gizmodo. Meetup shed roughly 10% of its staff amid negotiations for the acquisition and underwent cultural changes as managers pushed for growth and “more aggressiveness in the workplace.”

The future of Meetup is unclear. WeWork may move forward with a sale of the business or pressure its own cost-cutting measures on the company. In a recent email to Meetup members, CEO David Siegel wrote that he appreciated the recent outpouring of support from the community, as it became apparent the company was in a precarious position because of its owner.

“As you may be aware, there has been significant news about our parent company, WeWork, and what this means for the future of Meetup,” Siegel wrote. “As Meetup’s CEO, I want to personally tell you we’re as committed as ever to bringing people together in person. 

Bosun Tijani talks strategy as CEO of Africa’s new largest tech hub

With CcHub‘s acquisition of iHub in September, Nigerian Bosun Tijani is at the helm of (arguably) the largest tech network in Africa.

He is now CEO of both organizations, including their robust membership rosters, startup incubation programs, global partnerships, and VC activities from Nigeria to Kenya .

One could conclude Tijani has become one of the most powerful figures in African tech with the CcHub iHub merger. But that would be a little shortsighted.

The techie from Lagos still faces plenty of challenges and unknowns in integrating two innovation hubs that lie 3,818 flight kilometers apart. Several sources speaking on background over the last year have indicated iHub was experiencing financial difficulties.

Tijani offered TechCrunch some initial details last month on how the acquisition will fall together.

But more recently he shared greater detail on his strategy for operating the multi-country innovation network. A big test for Tijani will be aligning the organizations on a path to sustainability. The buzzword is usually code for generating consistent operating income beyond expenses.

The growth of innovation spaces, accelerators and incubators in Africa — which tally 618 per GSMA stats — is often lauded as an achievement for the continent’s tech ecosystem.

But debate on how these focal points for startup formation, training and IT activity fund themselves is ever-present.

Grant income has served as a dominant revenue source for Africa’s tech hubs — including iHub in its early days — though many have worked to diversify.

TechHubsinAfricain2019 Briter Bridges

That includes CcHub, according to Tijani, who plans to continue the trend across the expanded CcHub, iHub organization.

“When people talk about sustainability, we’ve been in business for 9 years,” he notes of CcHub Nigeria.

“We de-emphasized grant funding six years ago; most of our revenue is actually earned revenue.”

On income sources Tijani looks to foster across both organizations, he named consulting services (for corporates, governments, and development agencies), events services, and generating greater return on investment.

iHub has been active with startup seed-investments and CcHub has a portfolio of companies through its Growth Capital Fund.

“Our size will become a major part of us being able to invest in startups and the longer we stay invested the more we will start to see significant returns and exits,” said Tijani.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani

The CcHub iHub nexus will also use its size to leverage more partnerships. Tijani and team have already mastered gaining collaborations with big African and global tech names, such as MainOne and Facebook.

Tijani will look to connect iHub to CcHub’s Google sponsored Pitch Drive — which has done African startup tours of Asia and Europe — and potentially take the show to the U.S.

“We’re talking about it,” Tijani said, of a U.S. pitch trip. And this could lead to a permanent presence in San Francisco for the new CcHub, iHub entity.

“Beyond just a tour, we want to build strong presence in the Bay Area,” Tijani said, but didn’t offer more specifics on what that could mean.

So on the list of things to emerge from the CcHub-iHub acquisition, African tech planting a big flag in San Francisco is a future possibility.

A more immediate result of the union between the innovation spaces will be Bosun Tijani becoming a regular sight on flights between Lagos and Nairobi.