Moving storage in-house helped Dropbox thrive

Back in 2013, Dropbox was scaling fast.

The company had grown quickly by taking advantage of cloud infrastructure from Amazon Web Services (AWS), but when you grow rapidly, infrastructure costs can skyrocket, especially when approaching the scale Dropbox was at the time. The company decided to build its own storage system and network — a move that turned out to be a wise decision.

In a time when going from on-prem to cloud and closing private data centers was typical, Dropbox took a big chance by going the other way. The company still uses AWS for certain services, regional requirements and bursting workloads, but ultimately when it came to the company’s core storage business, it wanted to control its own destiny.

Storage is at the heart of Dropbox’s service, leaving it with scale issues like few other companies, even in an age of massive data storage. With 600 million users and 400,000 teams currently storing more than 3 exabytes of data (and growing) if it hadn’t taken this step, the company might have been squeezed by its growing cloud bills.

Controlling infrastructure helped control costs, which improved the company’s key business metrics. A look at historical performance data tells a story about the impact that taking control of storage costs had on Dropbox.

The numbers

In March of 2016, Dropbox announced that it was “storing and serving” more than 90% of user data on its own infrastructure for the first time, completing a 3-year journey to get to this point. To understand what impact the decision had on the company’s financial performance, you have to examine the numbers from 2016 forward.

There is good financial data from Dropbox going back to the first quarter of 2016 thanks to its IPO filing, but not before. So, the view into the impact of bringing storage in-house begins after the project was initially mostly completed. By examining the company’s 2016 and 2017 financial results, it’s clear that Dropbox’s revenue quality increased dramatically. Even better for the company, its revenue quality improved as its aggregate revenue grew.

In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.

Slack’s worth about 18x revenue, and there’s nothing wrong with that

One odd thing in 2019 has been Slack’s falling share price contrasted against the rising value of the Nasdaq composite, a tech-heavy index that many use as shorthand for the US tech market. Why one of tech’s hottest, and fastest-growing companies was losing altitude while tech stocks themselves broadly rose has been interesting to unpack.

Whether it was software-as-a-service’s (SaaS) modest repricing from summer highs, Microsoft’s Teams push, or Slack’s initial value just being too high, what the workplace productivity company is really worth has been an open question since it began to trade earlier this year; what became plain as the year went along, however, was that its initial trading range (above $40) and direct listing reference price ($26) were far too high, and a little too high, respectively.

But as the year comes to a close Slack has found a trading range that it likes, as we touched on a few weeks ago. This has led to the company’s revenue multiple itself stabilizing, which we should take a moment to explore. Why? Because the company’s new price/sales stability helps set a useful, upper-bound for SaaS valuations to an important degree. And because Slack’s new valuation is at once a real achievement, and, at the same time, a modest disappointment.

Why is Dropbox reinventing itself?

According to Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, 80% of the product’s users rely on it, at least partially, for work.

It makes sense, then, that the company is refocusing to try and cement its spot in the workplace; to shed its image as “just” a file storage company (in a time when just about every big company has its own cloud storage offering) and evolve into something more immutably core to daily operations.

Earlier this week, Dropbox announced that the “new Dropbox” would be rolling out to all users. It takes the simple, shared folders that Dropbox is known for and turns them into what the company calls “Spaces” — little mini collaboration hubs for your team, complete with comment streams, AI for highlighting files you might need mid-meeting, and integrations into things like Slack, Trello and G Suite. With an overhauled interface that brings much of Dropbox’s functionality out of the OS and into its own dedicated app, it’s by far the biggest user-facing change the product has seen since launching 12 years ago.

Shortly after the announcement, I sat down with Dropbox VP of Product Adam Nash and CTO Quentin Clark . We chatted about why the company is changing things up, why they’re building this on top of the existing Dropbox product, and the things they know they just can’t change.

You can find these interviews below, edited for brevity and clarity.

Greg Kumparak: Can you explain the new focus a bit?

Adam Nash: Sure! I think you know this already, but I run products and growth, so I’m gonna have a bit of a product bias to this whole thing. But Dropbox… one of its differentiating characteristics is really that when we built this utility, this “magic folder”, it kind of went everywhere.

TC’s Greg Epstein and Kate Clark talk mental health startups and the ‘Cult of the Founder’

Some weeks, tech ethics is in the news. And some weeks, it IS the news. This week was one of the latter,

There were so many ethically fraught news stories about technology companies over these past few days, I had trouble keeping track of them all. So I’m delighted that my latest interviewee for this series on ethics and technology is TechCrunch’s own Kate Clark, a reporter covering startups and venture capital.

Kate is one of the tech reporters on whom I rely most heavily for insight into what the hell is going on in Silicon Valley, and not just because she’s prolific, a fine writer, and so hardworking she seems to attend every VC dinner and startup product launch in Northern California (though she is all of those things).

I also turn to her (well actually, I turn to her Twitter — we’ve never met in person) because, though she would never claim to have any special training or authority in ethics, she has three of the top qualities I look for in an ethical leader: a passion for equitable inclusion; a well-modulated bullshit detector; and enough compassion for humanity to expect better of us all.

When Kate and I spoke on Wednesday afternoon, she was as harried as you might expect, at least based on her tweets.

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Image via Twitter / Kate Clark / @KateClarkTweets

Greg Epstein: I’ve been looking forward to talking to you for a while now, and I certainly picked a busy day.

Kate Clark: Not as bad as yesterday.

Epstein: I follow your work closely; it informs mine. I’m sitting here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I work, and I’m thinking about the ethics of technology.

Startups Weekly: Part & Parcel plans plus-sized fashion empire

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Stripe’s grand plans. Before that, I noted Peloton’s secret weapons

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.

Startup spotlight

The best companies are built by people who have personally experienced the problem they’re attempting to solve. Lauren Jonas, the founder and chief executive officer of Part & Parcel, is intimately familiar with the struggles faced by the women she’s building for.

San Francisco-based Part & Parcel is a plus-sized clothing and shoe startup providing dimensional sizing to women across the U.S. The company operates a bit differently than your standard direct-to-consumer business by seeking to include the women who wear and evangelize the Part & Parcel designs by giving them a cut of their sales.

Here’s how it works: Ambassadors sign up to receive signature styles from Part & Parcel, which they then share and sell to women in their network. Ultimately, the sellers are eligible to receive up to 30% of the profit per sale. The out-of-the-box model, which might remind you somewhat of Mary Kay or Tupperware’s business strategy, is meant to encourage a sense of community and usher in a new era in which plus-sized women can facilitate other plus-sized women’s access to great clothes. 

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“I bought a brown men’s polyester suit and wore it to an interview,” Jonas, an early employee at Poshmark and the long-time author of the popular blog, ‘The Pear Shape,’ tells TechCrunch. “I was that kid wearing a men’s suit.”

Clothing tailored to plus-sized women has long been missing from the retail market. Increasingly, however, new brands are building thriving businesses by catering precisely to the historically forgotten demographic. Dia&Co., for example, raised another $70 million in venture capital funding last fall from Sequoia and USV. And Walmart recently acquired another brand in the space, ELOQUII, for an undisclosed amount. Part & Parcel, for its part, has raised $4 million in seed funding in a round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Jeremy Liew.

The startup launched earlier this year in Anchorage, “a clothing desert,” and has since grown its network to include women in several other underserved markets. Given her own history struggling to find a fitted woman’s suit, Jonas launched her line with structured pieces, including suits and blouses — though the startup’s biggest success yet, she says, has been its boots, which come in three different calf width options.

“Seventy percent of women in this country are plus-sized,” Jonas said. “I’m bringing plus out of the dark corner of the department store.”

This week in VC

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Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Must read

TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey published a highly anticipated deep dive on the state of sex tech this week. The piece provides new data on funding in sex tech and wellness companies, analysis on sex tech startup’s battle for public advertising and responses from industry leaders on how we can destigmatize sex with technology. Here’s a short passage from the story:

Cindy Gallop sees a market opportunity in every type of business obstacle she encounters. That’s why All The Sky will also seek to invest in startups that tackle the infrastructural tools needed to fuel sextech, like payments, hosting providers and e-commerce sites.

“I want to fund the sextech ecosystem to maintain and sustain a portfolio for All the Skies, to create a bloody huge sextech ecosystem and three, to monopolistically build out the ecosystem to be a multi-trillion-dollar market,” Gallop says.

On my radar

I swung by Contrary Capital‘s Demo Day this week, in which a number of startups gave a 4- to 5-minute pitch. Next on my list is Alchemist‘s Demo Day in Menlo Park. The accelerator welcomes enterprise startups for a six-month program focused on early customer adoption, company development and mentorship.

Also on my radar is Females To The Front. The event began this week in Palm Springs and if I were based in SoCal, I would have swung by. Led by Amy Margolis, the event is said to be the largest gathering of female cannabis founders and funders to date. Here’s how the group describes the event: “Females to the Front Retreat will mix immersive and hands-on workshops, pitch training, investment deck preparation and business skill set education with investor meetings and plenty of shared meals, pool time, yoga, connections, rest and rejuvenation. Every workshop is built to directly engage attendees instead of powerpoint and panels. Be prepared to return home inspired, engaged and with so many more tools in your toolbox.”

For the record, I don’t advertise events in my newsletter just wanted to give props to this one because it’s a great development for the cannabis tech ecosystem.

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Time to Disrupt

We are just weeks away from our flagship conference, TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco. We have dozens of amazing speakers lined up. In addition to taking in the great line-up of speakers, ticket holders can roam around Startup Alley to catch the more than 1,000 companies showcasing their products and technologies. And, of course, you’ll get the opportunity to watch the Startup Battlefield competition live. Past competitors include Dropbox, Cloudflare and Mint… You never know which future unicorn will compete next.

You can take a look at the full agenda here. And if you still need convincing, here’s five reasons to attend this year’s conference from our COO himself.

And finally… #EquityPod

This week, the lovely Alex Wilhelm, editor-in-chief of Crunchbase News, and I gathered to discuss a number of topics including WeWork’s IPO and Uber’s attempts to bypass a new law meant to protect gig workers. Listen here.

How Dropbox, Nike, Salesforce, MailChimp, Google and Pepsi welcome their new hires

The first day of work at a new job can be very stressful. The unfamiliar surroundings and onslaught of new material can cause new hires some degree of discomfort. But sometimes the atmosphere at the new company can be welcoming and can help counteract the stress.

Different companies have their own traditions to help make this transition period more comfortable and memorable for new hires. Some of these traditions include:

  • Team-building day trips for new hires
  • Breakfast with the CEO
  • Tours of the best cafes, parks, and other spots in the neighborhood
  • Office “quests” (or some other gamification of onboarding)
  • Personalized onboarding programs or interactive company academies

Usually, only employees can experience these traditions. But there’s one new-hire tradition that has become extremely popular and often highly publicized: the “welcome kit”.

Welcome kits usually contain a hodgepodge of items that employees will need on the job (pens, notebooks, books, etc.) and things to make employees feel welcome (clothing, stickers, water bottles, or more unusual items — often with the company name or logo on them).

To get a sense of how different companies handle their kits, we talked to four successful startups about their welcome kits in the article below, followed by our look at a dozen more:

Table of Contents:

This article is based on the personal welcome kit collection of Vladimir Polo, founder of AcademyOcean. AcademyOcean is a tool for interactive onboarding and training (and Vladimir Polo is a fan of welcome kits).

Dropbox

Fresh out of Y Combinator, Tandem lands millions from Andreessen Horowitz

Tandem, one of the most sought after companies to graduate from Y Combinator’s summer batch, will emerge from the accelerator program with a supersized seed round and an uncharacteristically high valuation.

The months-old business, which is developing communication software for remote teams after pivoting from crypto, is raising a $7.5 million seed financing at a valuation north of $30 million, sources tell TechCrunch. Airbnb investor Andreessen Horowitz is leading the round.

Tandem and a16z declined to comment for this story. The round has yet to close, which means the deal size is subject to change. Y Combinator startups raise capital using SAFE agreements, or simple agreements for future equity, which allow investors to buy shares in a future priced round at a previously agreed-upon valuation.

We’re told several top venture capital firms were vying for a stake in Tandem. One firm even gifted the founders a tandem bike, sources tell TechCrunch, resorting to amusing measures to sway the Tandem team. But it was a16z — which has an established interest in the growing future of work sector, evidenced by its recent investment in the popular email app Superhuman — that ultimately won the coveted lead investor spot.

Tandem provides a virtual office for remote teams, complete with video-chatting and messaging capabilities, as well as integrations with top enterprise tools including Notion, GitHub and Trello. The service launched one month ago and has signed contracts with Airbnb, Dropbox and others. The company claims to be growing 50% week-over-week.

“Every company is a remote company,” Tandem chief executive officer Rajiv Ayyangar said during his pitch to investors on day two of Y Combinator Demo Days this week. “You have salespeople in the field, [companies with] multiple offices, people working from home. Tandem isn’t just building the future of remote work, it’s building the future of work.”

Ayyangar was previously a data scientist at Yahoo before joining Yakit, a startup seeking to simplify ecommerce delivery, as the director of product. Co-founders Bernat Fortet Unanue and Tim Su are also Yahoo alums.

We’re told Tandem’s fundraise was nearly complete before it pitched to investors Tuesday afternoon. Startups that participate in YC are often flooded with offers from VCs throughout the three-month program. Firms are hungry for the batch’s Airbnb, Dropbox or Stripe — graduates of the program — and will pay premiums on startup equity for their chance to invest in a future ‘unicorn.’

As a result, the median seed deal for U.S. startups in 2018 was roughly $2 million — a record high — with typical pre-money valuations hovering north of $10 million. Tandem’s seed financing represents both a trend of swelling seed deals and valuations, as well as a tendency for VCs to dole out more cash to fresh-from-YC companies amid heightened competition amongst their peers.

The previous YC batch, which wrapped up in March, included ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch, a trio of companies that pocketed venture capital ahead of demo day. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation before demo day, sources told TechCrunch at the time (months after demo day, Zero Down announced a whopping $30 million financing). ZeroDown was an outlier, of course, as the company’s founders had previously co-founded the billion-dollar HR software company Zenefits.

As for the summer batch, we’re told Actiondesk, Taskade and Tandem are amongst the startups to garner the most hype from investors. Some even forwent the demo day pitch altogether. BraveCare, which is creating urgent care clinics intended just for kids, raised $4.1 million ahead of demo day, we’re told. The company opted not to pitch to additional investors this week.

You can read about all the company’s that pitched during demo day one here and demo day two here.

UnitedMasters releases iPhone app for DIY cross-service music distribution

Alphabet-backed UnitedMasters, the music label distribution startup and record label alternative that offers artists 100 percent ownership of everything they create, launched its iPhone app today.

The iPhone app works like the service they used to offer only via the web, giving artists the chance to upload their own tracks (from iCloud, Dropbox or directly from text messages), then distribute them to a full range of streaming music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more. In exchange for this distribution, as well as analytics on how your music is performing, UnitedMasters takes a 10% share on revenue generated by tracks it distributes, but artists retain full ownership of the content they create.

UnitedMasters also works with brand partners, including Bose, the NBA and AT&T, to place tracks in marketing use across the brand’s properties and distributed content. Music creators are paid out via PayPal once they connect their accounts, and they can also tie-in their social accounts for connecting their overall online presence with their music.

UnitedMasters

Using the app, artists can create entire releases by uploading not only music tracks but also high-quality cover art, and by entering information like whether any producers participated in the music creation, and whether the tracks contain any explicit lyrics. You can also specific an exact desired release date, and UnitedMasters will do its best to distribute across services on that day, pending content approvals.

UnitedMasters was founded by former Interscope Records president Steve Stoute, and also has funding from Andreessen Horwitz and 20th Century Fox. It’s aiming to serve a new generation of artists who are disenfranchised by the traditional label model, but seeking distribution through the services where listeners actually spend their time, and using the iPhone as manage the entire process definitely fits with serving that customer base.

Corporate travel platform TripActions quadruples valuation with $250M Series D

Venture capital investors Andreessen Horowitz, Zeev Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners and SGVC have valued TripActions, a travel booking service tailored for large enterprises, at $4 billion with a $250 million Series D.

The round, announced this morning, brings the business’s total raised to $480 million.

TripActions co-founder and chief executive officer Ariel Cohen tells TechCrunch the company’s revenue is growing 5x year-over-year but declined to disclose 2018 revenues. Currently, it has more than 2,000 customers, including WeWork, Zoom, Dropbox and Robinhood.

Founded in 2015, TripActions is out to replace antiquated travel booking systems with a platform that integrates company HR and expense systems. Using TripActions, business travelers can arrange flights, hotels and transportation, with 24/7 global support from the startup’s staff.

“We are going after a really big industry,” Cohen said. “We are replacing something people don’t like. They don’t like the tools corporates are giving them today to book business trips.”

TripActions plans to use the cash to accelerate its international expansion. Only 18 months ago, it operated just one office out of its headquarters in Palo Alto. Today, the company has 700 employees with offices in London, Sydney, Amsterdam and more.

Co-founder and chief technology officer Ilan Twig says once they brought on large enterprise customers like Box, for example, they had no choice but to better craft the service for markets located outside the U.S.

“In a year we went from a startup with an office in Palo Alto to having more than 100 employees in Europe,” Twig tells TechCrunch. “We need to meet users where they are … We need agents and operations in the various [geographies] that we are serving. And then of course sales and marketing in all of these [geographies].”

With the latest round, TripActions is sitting on a mountain of cash. The founders tell us they’ve yet to spend a dime of their $154 million Series C. Closed in November, the financing valued the company at $1 billion, cementing its position in the unicorn club.

“We want to make sure we are equipped to take the market,” Cohen said. “Do we need the entire amount of money we’ve raised to date? The answer is no. But do we want the means to seize the opportunity in the long term? The answer is hell yes.”