If you want to see more people of color in VC, “look to the people at the top,” says Lo Toney

Last week, we suggested that for a truly diverse venture industry, the limited partners who provide investing capital to VCs — institutions like universities and hospital systems — need to start incorporating diversity mandates into their work. Say a venture firm wanted to secure a commitment from the University of Texas System; it would first need to agree, in writing, to pour a certain percentage of its capital into startups founded by underrepresented groups.

Given how fragmented the world of institutional investing, the idea might sound impracticable. But Lo Toney, one of a small but growing number of black VCs in Silicon Valley, suggests it might actually be inevitable. He points, for example, to pension funds like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which manages the assets of 1.6 million employees, many of whom “look like me,” says Toney. Imagine what might happen if they started asking more questions about who is managing their money.

Not that Toney is waiting on this development. He doesn’t need to. As a former partner at Comcast Ventures, then GV, Toney was able to secure Alphabet as the anchor investor in his own investment firm, Plexo Capital, whose debut vehicle has been funding venture outfits, as well as making direct startup investments. Now, with renewed attention being paid to the dearth of people of color throughout the startup industry, Plexo has LPs knocking on its door again, and Toney’s plans for that second fund involve not just helping his current fund managers but helping more investors of color form venture firms of their own.

It’s an extension of work that’s already in progress. Plexo, which closed its debut fund last year with $42.5 million — including from the Ford Foundation, Intel, Cisco Systems, the Royal Bank of Canada, and Hampton University — already has stakes in 20 funds, including Precursor Ventures, Ingressive Capital, Kindred Ventures, Equal Ventures, Boldstart Ventures, and Work-Bench.

Almost all are run exclusively or in part by people of color. Meanwhile, Work-Bench has a female cofounder in Jessica Lin, a former Cisco Systems manager. “We have enough reports from the Harvard’s and the McKinsey’s of the world to show us that diversity at all levels matters,” says Toney. “We see better performance from companies with diverse boards, public companies with diverse management teams; when there are diverse managers, we see better performance.”

With his second fund, he’s hoping to turn the dial even further. More specifically, he says, to better assist those GPs in Plexo’s first fund and to fund more black GPs, it aims to help “develop a Y Combinator of sorts” that helps them understand some of the “nuances of making the transition from being a great investor to being a great fund manager.”

Part of the idea is to institutionalize the work that Plexo already does in an ad-hoc way around helping managers to prepare marketing materials, pitch their strategy to both high-net-worth individuals and institutions, and manage LP communications after that base of investors has been established. And those are just three aspects of the many elements of fund management with which Plexo can help, he says.

Plexo is also exploring “putting a strategy in place [to] help a lot of these younger GPs with working capital, to be able to incur the expenses that it takes to start a fund [given that] it can take, on average, a million dollars.” (That’s taking into account no salary, travel expenses, service providers, and the money that a general partner typically has to kick in to his or her own the fund, he adds.)

It’s a model that Plexo thinks it can use to move things along faster than were it solely investing in individual companies.

Still, Plexo can’t do it alone. Neither can its friends and allies, some of whom include Elliott Robinson of Bessemer Venture Partners, Frederik Groce of Storm Ventures and Sydney Sykes of the retail startup Dolls Kill, who separately steer a young organization called BLCK VC that works to connect and advance black venture investors.

Toney remains especially concerned over the few people of color at bigger and later-stage venture firms — investors who might otherwise have the networks and know-how to support black entrepreneurs as their startups mature. It’s a valid worry. According to a 2018 report in The Information, there were just seven black decision-makers at the then 102 venture firms with more than $250 million under management, and those numbers are relatively unchanged. The dearth is particularly glaring for black investors who are women.

The industry could, slowly, over time, grow less homogenous and more inclusive of underrepresented groups. But it would happen faster if institutions that accept federal funding or else manage the money of public employees decided to focus more on the issue. In fact, it’s conceivable that their constituents — including donors and employees through their pension fund contributions — might at some point insist on it.

“There’s often not really a collective realization of the power and influence that one can have within our asset class to actually affect change,” says Toney. “I suspect — and I don’t know this, and I’m not part of any initiatives — that we’ll see more of these [pension] funds take a stance, and that [this shift] will come from the bottom up, from their employee base.”

It might not take much to get the ball rolling. “They could put the pressure on our industry even simply asking questions [including]: ‘How many black partners do you have?’ ‘How many women do you have?’ ‘What does the composition of your portfolio look like?'”

“Even just asking those questions as a first step — that in and of itself would affect change,” he says, “because who wants to look bad when answering those questions?”

Decrypted: iOS 13.5 jailbreak, FBI slams Apple, VCs talk cybersecurity

It was a busy week in security.

Newly released documents shown exclusively to TechCrunch show that U.S. immigration authorities used a controversial cell phone snooping technology known as a “stingray” hundreds of times in the past three years. Also, if you haven’t updated your Android phone in a while, now would be a good time to check. That’s because a brand-new security vulnerability was found — and patched. The bug, if exploited, could let a malicious app trick a user into thinking they’re using a legitimate app that can be used to steal passwords.

Here’s more from the week.


THE BIG PICTURE

Every iPhone now has a working jailbreak

Cisco to acquire internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes

When Cisco bought AppDynamics in 2017 for $3.7 billion just before the IPO, the company sent a clear signal it wanted to move beyond its pure network hardware roots into the software monitoring side of the equation. Yesterday afternoon the company announced it intends to buy another monitoring company, this time snagging internet monitoring solution ThousandEyes.

Cisco would not comment on the price when asked by TechCrunch, but published reports from CNBC and others pegged the deal at around $1 billion. If that’s accurate, it means the company has paid around $4.7 billion for a pair of monitoring solutions companies.

Cisco’s Todd Nightingale, writing in a blog post announcing the deal said that the kind of data that ThousandEyes provides around internet user experience is more important than ever as internet connections have come under tremendous pressure with huge numbers of employees working from home.

ThousandEyes keeps watch on those connections and should fit in well with other Cisco monitoring technologies. “With thousands of agents deployed throughout the internet, ThousandEyes’ platform has an unprecedented understanding of the internet and grows more intelligent with every deployment, Nightingale wrote.

He added, “Cisco will incorporate ThousandEyes’ capabilities in our AppDynamics application intelligence portfolio to enhance visibility across the enterprise, internet and the cloud.”

As for ThousandEyes, co-founder and CEO Mohit Lad told a typical acquisition story. It was about growing faster inside the big corporation than it could on its own. “We decided to become part of Cisco because we saw the potential to do much more, much faster, and truly create a legacy for ThousandEyes,” Lad wrote.

It’s interesting to note that yesterday’s move, and the company’s larger acquisition strategy over the last decade is part of a broader move to software and services as a complement to its core networking hardware business.

Just yesterday, Synergy Research released its network switch and router revenue report and it wasn’t great. As companies have hunkered down during the pandemic, they have been buying much less network hardware, dropping the Q1 numbers to seven year low. That translated into a $1 billion less in overall revenue in this category, according to Synergy.

While Cisco owns the vast majority of the market, it obviously wants to keep moving into software services as a hedge against this shifting market. This deal simply builds on that approach.

ThousandEyes was founded in 2010 and raised over $110 million on a post valuation of $670 million as of February 2019, according to Pitchbook Data.

Looking back at Zoom’s ascent a year after it filed to go public

Zoom, a video chat service then popular with corporations, filed to go public on March 22, 2019.

Best known in venture and corporate circles, Zoom was far from a household name at the time. However, the groundwork for its 2020-era consumer breakthrough during the novel coronavirus epidemic was detailed during its IPO march in the years leading up to its public debut.

The company didn’t begin trading until mid-April last year, but it was through its March 2019 IPO filing that its name took on new prominence; here was a quickly growing software as a service (SaaS) business that was posting profits at the same time. As the rate at which unprofitable companies went public set records, Zoom’s growth and positive net income helped it gain brand recognition even before its shares began to trade.

Investors certainly recognized this was a rarity among SaaS companies, sending its IPO share price up 72% in its first day. The company’s equity has risen more than 100% since that first close, more than doubling in less than a year. Not bad in a market that has turned ice-cold in recent weeks.

To understand how Zoom became so valuable as a business — and later as a consumer product — let’s go back in time to consider its product and business strategies. As we’ll see, to become the video chat tool that everyone is using today, Zoom had to beat a host of entrenched competition. And it did so while making money, helping set the financial stage for its prominence today.

Product history

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

Smart TV hub Solaborate secures $10M Series A and a go-to-market partnership

When siblings Labinot and Mimoza Bytyqi fled the war in Kosovo in 1999, arriving as refugees on the West Coast of the US, they would have had no idea they’d go on to launch a technology company together.

But as adults, the pair set up attacking the $6.7 billion telepresence and video communication category which hasn’t evolved much since the older business systems form Cisco and Polycom . By integrating their Solaborate device with Smart TVs, the entrepreneurs have come up with a drastically cheaper device and platform.

Solaborate has now closed a $10 million Series A funding round from EPOS and Demant Group. EPOS is a newly established company under the healthcare tech company Demant Group in Denmark which makes high-end audio solutions designed for enterprise and gaming. The funding will be used to accelerate the development of Solaborate’s new product line of all-in-one HELLO devices and its cloud communication platform.

After two successful Kickstarter campaigns, Solaborate will now work with EPOS to combine compute, microphones, speakers and Smart TVs with their technology to create products fully-owned by and branded under EPOS. These will include Solaborate’s patented auto echo-cancellation delay.

Labinot Bytyqi, founder and CE) said: “We believe that privacy is a fundamental human right and that’s why we engineered HELLO devices with video and audio built-in hack-proof privacy controls and end-to-end encryption for everyone’s protection and peace of mind.”

A HELLO device require only two cables – HDMI and power – and then turns any TV into a voice-controlled open cross-platform communication and collaboration device supporting video conferencing platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts Meet, Zoom, Skype, Cisco WebEx, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, BlueJeans, Fuze, Unify, and several more.

The partnership will focus on video collaboration to deliver integrated audio/video solutions to the platforms of EPOS’ current strategic partners such as Microsoft.

They are pushing at an open door. The video conferencing market is predicted to grow from an estimated $1.8bn to more than $2.8bn by 2022, according to some studies.

Nigeria is becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets and Nigeria is becoming its unofficial capital.

While the West African nation is commonly associated with negative cliches around corruption and terrorism — which persist as serious problems, and influenced the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on Nigerian immigration to the U.S.

Even so, there’s more to the country than Boko Haram or fictitious princes with inheritances.

Nigeria has become a magnet for VC, a hotbed for startup formation and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley. As a frontier market, there is certainly a volatility to the country’s political and economic trajectory. The nation teeters back and forth between its stereotypical basket-case status and getting its act together to become Africa’s unrivaled superpower.

The upside of that pendulum is why — despite its problems — so much American, Chinese and African tech capital is gravitating to Nigeria.

Demographics

“Whatever you think of Africa, you can’t ignore the numbers,” Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote told me in 2015, noting that demographics are creating an imperative for global businesses to enter the continent.

Identifying opportunities in today’s saturated cybersecurity market

Yoav Leitersdorf is the founder of YL Ventures, a 12-year-old, Mill Valley, California.-based seed-stage venture firm that invests narrowly in Israeli cybersecurity startups and closed its fourth fund with $120 million in capital commitments last summer — a vehicle that brings the capital it now manages to $260 million.

The outfit takes a concentrated approach to investing that has seemingly been paying off. YL Ventures was the biggest shareholder in the container security startup Twistlock, for example, which sold to Palo Alto Networks last year for $410 million after raising $63 million altogether. (YL Ventures had plugged $12 million into the company over four years.) It was also the biggest outside shareholder in Hexadite, an Israeli startup that used AI to identify and protect against attacks and that sold in 2017 to Microsoft for a reported $100 million.

Still, the firm sees a lot of cybersecurity startups. It also has an advisory board that’s comprised of more than 50 security pros from heavyweight companies. For insight into what they’re shopping for this year — and how startups might grab their attention — we reached out to Leitersdorf last week to ask what he’s hearing.

The SaaS gold rush will become the ‘Hunger Games’

SaaS has been the motherlode of enterprise software investing for two decades now. Venture investors, entrepreneurs, and Wall Street have all learned to pile on, leading to a shared consensus that cloud investing is “a sure thing.” Nothing is more destructive to investors over the long term than a sure thing, so I began to wonder, “what could cause the wonderful economics of cloud investing to unravel?”

My conclusion is that while the cloud is obviously here to stay, the next five years in cloud investing will neither be the same nor as easy as the last 10. My reason for writing this post is not to be a party pooper, but to provide a context for startups to navigate this potentially harsher environment. This post identifies three different startup strategies, all of which can work even in the more competitive cloud economy that I envisage. More on that below.

Big picture, the summary points are as follows:

First, cloud company valuations are at all-time highs which cannot be justified by improved company operating performance but can explained by 20 years of consistent 30% growth in the cloud software market. This has given investors the comfort to “pay up.”

Second, within the next two to three years, there will be a “growth crunch” as many cloud markets saturate. At that point the Gold Rush will become the Hunger Games, as cloud companies large and small compete against each other for survival.

Third, there will be three winning strategies for a startup when this happens: fight, or compete head on in an existing cloud market; focus, or find those parts of the cloud market where there is still low competition and good growth; fly, which is to build a company based on more than just the move to the cloud.

Fourth, “beyond the cloud” means “assume the cloud” and build on top of that stack using newer technologies and a design approach where instead of the user working for the software, the software works for (or instead of) the user. At Scale, we think of this as building the Intelligent Connected World (ICW).

Let’s walk through the details.

How did we get here?

We got here because the cloud model works. It works as a computer architecture, and there is no clear replacement architecture on the horizon. It works for customers by aligning incentives with vendors to keep their software working. And it works – brilliantly – as a financial model. In a world of low growth and low interest rates, SaaS looks like a perpetual motion machine and the valuations show it. Today the median SaaS multiple is 8.5x run rate versus an all-time average of 5.6x. Higher growth companies trade at even loftier multiples of 20x and 30x.

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Are cloud companies performing better than ever?

The short answer is no. The four charts below show growth rate, profitability, Sales Efficiency and the Rule of 40 (a combination of growth and profitability) for the entire public SaaS universe from 2004 to today. Each chart also shows separately the median for three sub-periods within this time period: pre-crash (2004 to 2008), the crash period (2009 to 2011), and post-crash (2011 to today).

The story is the same in every case. Pre-crash operating performance was stellar in what was then a new uncrowded market. The crash was brutal on growth and forced companies to get profitable fast. But since 2011, growth rates, EBITDA, Sales Efficiency and Rule of 40 measures have all been roughly flat and provide no justification for almost a doubling of valuations in the last two years.

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So why are these companies trading so richly?

It’s all about the growth

Sometimes the answer is in plain sight. The big picture in all the above numbers is that public companies in this sector have been growing at 30% plus for 15 years now, since the Salesforce IPO in 2004. Growth has not gone up but, far more importantly, it has not gone down.

Edge computing startup Pensando comes out of stealth mode with a total of $278 million in funding

Pensando, an edge computing startup founded by former Cisco engineers, came out of stealth mode today with an announcement that it has raised a $145 million Series C. The company’s software and hardware technology, created to give data centers more of the flexibility of cloud computing servers, is being positioned as a competitor to Amazon Web Services Nitro.

The round was led by Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lightspeed Venture Partners and brings Pensando’s total raised so far to $278 million. HPE chief technology officer Mark Potter and Lightspeed Venture partner Barry Eggers will join Pensando’s board of directors. The company’s chairman is former Cisco CEO John Chambers, who is also one of Pensando’s investors through JC2 Ventures.

Pensando was founded in 2017 by Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, Luca Cafiero and Soni Jiandani, a team of engineers who spearheaded the development of several of Cisco’s key technologies, and founded four startups that were acquired by Cisco, including Insieme Networks. (In an interview with Reuters, Pensando chief financial offier Randy Pond, a former Cisco executive vice president, said it isn’t clear if Cisco is interested in acquiring the startup, adding “our aspirations at this point would be to IPO. But, you know, there’s always other possibilities for monetization events.”)

The startup claims its edge computing platform performs five to nine times better than AWS Nitro, in terms of productivity and scale. Pensando prepares data center infrastructure for edge computing, better equipping them to handle data from 5G, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things applications. While in stealth mode, Pensando acquired customers including HPE, Goldman Sachs, NetApp and Equinix.

In a press statement, Potter said “Today’s rapidly transforming, hyper-connected world requires enterprises to operate with even greater flexibility and choices than ever before. HPE’s expanding relationship with Pensando Systems stems from our shared understanding of enterprises and the cloud. We are proud to announce our investment and solution partnership with Pensando and will continue to drive solutions that anticipate our customers’ needs together.”