Post-pandemic shifts means Patch will take co-working to UK small towns and suburbs

It would be fair to say the pandemic has had enormous effects on the world of work, but it has come at a time when other factors were already ongoing. The decline of main-street shopping due to e-commerce has only been hastened. The shift to remote working has sky-rocketed. And people no longer want to commute 8am-6pm anymore. But we’ve also found that working from home isn’t all its cracked up to be. Plus, they don’t see the point of commuting into a big city, only to have to co-work in something like a WeWork, when they could just as easily have gone to something local. The problem is, there is rarely a local co-working space, especially in the suburbs or smaller towns.

If, instead, you could bring work nearer to home (rather than working from home) then, the theory goes, you’d get a more balanced lifestyle, but also get that separation between work and home so many people, especially families, still desire.

Now, a new UK startup has come top with a ‘decentralized workspace’ idea which it plans to roll out across the UK.

Patch will take empty local high street shops and turn them into “collaborative cultural spaces” with its ‘Work Near Home’ proposition aimed at traditional commuters. There are an estimated 6 million knowledge work commuters in the UK, and Patch will run on monthly subscriptions from these kinds of members.

It’s now raised a $1.1M Seed funding round from a number of leading UK angel investors including Robin Klein (cofounder of LocalGlobe), Matt Clifford (Cofounder of Entrepreneur First), alongside Charlie Songhurst, Simon Murdoch (Episode 1), Wendy Becker (former CEO Jack Wills and NED at Great Portland Estates), Camilla Dolan (founding partner of sustainable investor Eka Ventures), Zoe Jervier (talent Director for US investment firm Sequoia), and Will Neale (founder of Grabyo and early-stage investor).

Patch says its ‘Work Near Home’ idea is geared to the Post-Covid ‘hybrid working’ movement and it plans to create public venues, “with a focus of entrepreneurship, technology, and cultural programming.”

Each Patch location will offer a range of private offices, co-working studios, “accessible low-cost options” and free scholarship places.

Patch’s first site will open in Chelmsford, Essex in early November, and the startup says several more sites are planned for 2022. It says it has received requests from people in Chester, St Albans, Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Yeovil, Bury, and Kingston upon Thames.

Patch’s founder Freddie Fforde said: “Where we work and where we live have traditionally be seen as distinct environments. This has led to the hollowing out of many high streets during the working week, and equally redundant office districts. We think that technology fundamentally changes this, allowing people to work near home and creating a new mixed environment of professional, civic, and cultural exchange.”

Fforde is a former Entrepreneur First founder and employee who has held various roles in early-stage tech companies in London and San Francisco. The head of product will be Paloma Strelitz, formerly cofounder of Assemble, a design studio that won the 2015 Turner Prize.

Commenting, Matt Clifford, Entrepreneur First and Code First Girls, said: “Technology has always changed the way we organize and work together. Patch will unlock opportunities for talented people based on who they are, unconstrained by where they live. We want to be a country where high-skilled jobs are available everywhere and Patch is a key part of that puzzle.”

Targeting towns and smaller cities, in residential areas, not the major city centres, Patch says it will look for under-utilised landmark buildings in the center of towns. In Chelmsford, their first space will be a Victorian brewery, for instance.

Grays Yard

Grays Yard

Chelmsford Councillor Simon Goldman, Deputy Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Small Business and representative for the BID board, said: “The introduction of a new co-working space in Gray’s Yard is a really positive scheme for the city. Providing local options for residents to work from will help them to have less of a commute which will hopefully allow a better work/life balance. Working closer to home brings many benefits for both individuals and their families, but also for the environment and the local economy.”

Patch says it will also operate a model of ‘giving back’, with 20% of peak event space hours donated to local and national providers of community services “that support the common good”. Early national partners include tech skills providers Code First Girls, and with Coder Dojo, a Raspberry Pi Foundation initiative.

Cartona gets $4.5M pre-Series A to connect retailers with suppliers in Egypt

Year-old startup Capiter announced last week that it raised a $33 million Series A to digitize Egypt’s traditional offline retail market.

It’s looking to take a large pie in the budding e-commerce and retail play, where multiple startups are pulling their weight including Cartona, also a year-old startup out of Egypt.

Today, Cartona is announcing that it has raised a $4.5 million pre-Series A funding round to connect retailers and manufacturers via an application.

The company confirmed that Dubai-based venture capital firm Global Ventures led the round, with Pan-African firm Kepple Africa, T5 Capital and angel investors also participating.

Cairo-based Cartona, founded in August 2020, focuses on solving the supply-chain and operational challenges of players in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry by helping buyers access products from sellers on a single platform.

Buyers, in this case, are retailers, while sellers are FMCG companies, distributors and wholesalers.

The problem retailers in Egypt and most of Africa face mainly revolves around limited access to suppliers. There are also issues around transparency in market prices, which are dependent on traditional logistical capabilities.

For suppliers, the lack of data and inability to make data-backed decisions to improve margins and aid growth add up to unoptimized warehouses. 

“The trade market is completely inefficient and it’s not good for the supplier nor the manufacturers, and it’s definitely not good for retailers,” CEO Mahmoud Talaat told TechCrunch in an interview. “So we came up with the idea of Cartona, which is basically a fully light-asset model that connects manufacturers and wholesalers to retailers.”

Talaat founded the company alongside Mahmoud Abdel-Fattah. Before Cartona, Abdel-Fattah founded Speakol, a MENA-focused adtech platform serving 60 million monthly users, while Talaat was the chief commercial officer of agriculture company Lamar Egypt.

Cartona works as an asset-light marketplace. On the platform, grocery retailers can get orders from a curated network of sellers. The company says this way, it can provide visibility through real-time price comparisons and clarity on delivery times.

Also, FMCGs and suppliers can optimize their go-to-market execution through the use of data and analytics. Cartona tops it off by providing embedded finance and access to credit to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona makes money through all these processes. It takes a commission on orders made, charges suppliers for running advertising to merchants (since they compete for the latter’s attention), and provides market insights on buyer behavior, price competition and market share.

“It is time to capitalize on technology beyond warehouses and trucks. Data and technology will transform traditional retail to a digitally native one, which in return will drastically improve the supply chain efficiency,” Abdel-Fattah said about how the company sells information to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona has over 30,000 merchants on its platform. Together, they have processed more than 400,000 orders with an annualized gross merchandise value of EGP 1 billion (~$64 million). Cartona also works with more than 1,000 distributors, wholesalers and 100 FMCG companies, offering consumers more than 10,000 products, including dry, fresh and frozen food.

The company’s business and revenue model is similar to other companies in this space, but the main difference lies in whether they own assets or not.

Taking a look at the players in Egypt, for instance, MaxAB operates its warehouses and fleets; Capiter uses a hybrid model in which it rents these assets and owns inventory when dealing with high-turnover products. But Cartona solely manages an asset-light model.

The CEO tells me that he thinks this model works best for all the stakeholders involved in the retail market. He argues that not owning assets and leasing the ones on the ground shows that the company is trying to improve the operations of existing suppliers and merchants instead of displacing them.

I believe that the infrastructure already exists. We already have many warehouses, many small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, and wholesalers and distributors and companies that have a lot of assets. If you want to fix the problem, we think one should enable the people who are strategically located in small streets all over Egypt and have the infrastructure but don’t have the technology needed to optimize their warehouses and carts.”

The current margins for suppliers with warehouses are slim, and Cartona provides the technology — an inventory and ordering system — to provide efficiency in its supply chain.

The general partner at lead investor Global Ventures, Basil Moftah, said in a statement that Cartona’s technology and not owning inventory proved critical in the firm’s decision to back the company.

“The trade market is one of the most sophisticated, yet [it is] characterized by multiple critical inefficiencies across the value chain,” he said.Cartona’s asset-light approach tackles those inefficiencies by optimizing the trade process in unique ways and does so with minimal capital spent.”

Proceeds of the investment focus on improving this technology, Talaat said. In addition, Cartona is expanding its team and operations beyond two cities in Egypt — Cairo and Alexandria — to other parts.

A longer-term plan might include horizontal and vertical product expansion into pharmaceuticals, electronics and fashion.

Demand Curve: How to get social proof that grows your startup

When people are uncertain, they look to others for behavioral guidance. This is called social proof, which is a physiological effect that influences your decisions every day, whether you know it or not.

At Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve, we’ve helped over 1,000 startups improve their ability to convert cold traffic into repeat customers. We’ve found that effectively using social proof can lead to up to 400% improvement in conversion.

This post shares exactly how to collect and use social proof to help grow your SaaS, e-commerce, or B2B startup.

Surprisingly, we’ve actually seen negative reviews help improve conversion rates. Why? Because they help set customer expectations.

How businesses use social proof

Have you ever stopped to check out a restaurant because it had a large line of people out front? That wasn’t by chance.

It’s common for restaurants to limit the size of their reception area. This forces people to wait outside, and the line signals to people walking past that the restaurant is so good it’s worth waiting for.

But for Internet-based businesses, social proof looks a bit different. Instead of people lining up outside your storefront, you’re going to need to create social proof that resonates with your target customers — they’ll be looking for different clues to signal whether doing business with your company is “normal” or “acceptable” behavior.

Social proof for B2B

People love to compare themselves to others, and this is especially true when it comes to the customers of B2B businesses. If your competitor is able to get a contract with a company that you’ve been nurturing for months, you’d be upset (and want to know how they did it).

Therefore, B2B social proof is most effective when you display the logos of companies you do business with. This signals to people checking out your website that other businesses trust you to deliver on your offer. The more noteworthy or respected the logos on your site, the stronger the influence will be.

Social proof for SaaS

Depending on the type of SaaS product or service you’re selling, you’ll either be selling to an individual or to a business. The strategy remains the same, but the channels will vary slightly.

The most effective way to generate social proof for SaaS products is through positive reviews from trusted sources. For consumer SaaS, that will be through influential bloggers and YouTubers speaking highly of your product. For B2B SaaS, it will be through positive ratings on review sites like G2 or Capterra. Proudly display these testimonials on your site.

Social proof for e-commerce brands

E-commerce brands will typically sell directly to an individual through ads, but because anyone can purchase an ad, you’re going to need to signal trust in other ways. The most common way we see e-commerce brands building social proof is by nurturing an organic social media following on Instagram or TikTok.

This signals to new customers that you’ve gotten the seal of approval from others like them. Having an audience also allows you to showcase user-generated content from your existing customers.

How to collect social proof

There are five avenues startups can tap to collect social proof:

  1. Product reviews
  2. Testimonials
  3. Public relations and earned media
  4. Influencers
  5. Social media and community

Here are a few tactics we’ve used to help startups build social proof.

Twitter Super Follows has generated only around $6K+ in its first two weeks

Twitter’s creator platform Super Follows is off to an inauspicious start, having contributed to somewhere around $6,000 in U.S. iOS revenue in the first two weeks the feature has been live, according to app intelligence data provided by Sensor Tower. And it’s made only around $600 or so in Canada. A small portion of that revenue may be attributed to Ticketed Spaces, Twitter’s other in-app purchase offered in the U.S. — but there’s no way for this portion to be calculated by an outside firm.

Twitter first announced its plans to launch Super Follows during its Analyst Day event in February, where the company detailed many of its upcoming initiatives to generate new revenue streams.

Today, Twitter’s business is highly dependant on advertising, and Super Follows is one of the few ways it’s aiming to diversify. The company is also now offering a way for creators to charge for access to their live events with Ticketed Spaces and, outside the U.S., Twitter has begun testing a premium product for power users called Twitter Blue.

Image Credits: Twitter

But Super Follows, which targets creators, is the effort with the most potential appeal to mainstream users.

It’s also one that is working to capitalize on the growing creator economy, where content creators build a following, then generate revenue directly through subscriptions — decreasing their own dependence on ads or brand deals, as a result. The platforms they use for this business skim a little off the top to help them fund the development of the creator tools. (In Twitter’s case, it’s taking only a 3% cut.)

The feature would seem to make sense for Twitter, a platform that already allows high-profile figures and regular folks to hobnob in the same timeline and have conversations. Super Follows ups that access by letting fans get even closer to their favorite creators — whether those are musicians, artists, comedians, influencers, writers, gamers, or other experts, for example. These creators can set a monthly subscription price of $2.99, $4.99, or $9.99 to provide fans with access to bonus, “behind-the-scenes” content of their choosing. These generally come in the form of extra tweets, Q&As, other interactions with subscribers.

Image Credits: Twitter

At launch, Twitter opened up Super Follows to a handful of creators, including the beauty and skincare-focused account @MakeupforWOC; astrology account @TarotByBronx; sports-focused @KingJosiah54; writer @myeshachou; internet personality and podcaster @MichaelaOkla; spiritual healer @kemimarie; music charts tweeter @chartdata; Twitch streamers @FaZeMew, @VelvetIsCake, @MackWood1, @GabeJRuiz, and @Saulsrevenge; YouTubers @DoubleH_YT, @LxckTV, and @PowerGotNow; and crypto traders @itsALLrisky and @moon_shine15; among others. Twitter says there are fewer than 100 creators in total who have access to Super Follows.

While access on the creation side is limited, the ability to subscribe to creators is not. Any Twitter iOS user in the U.S. or Canada can “Super Follow” any number of the supported creator accounts. In the U.S., Twitter has 169 million average monetizable daily active users as of Q2 2021. Of course, only some subset of those will be iOS users.

Still, Twitter could easily count millions upon millions of “potential” customers for its Super Follow platform at launch. Its current revenue indicates that, possibly, only thousands of consumers have done so, given many of the top in-app purchases are for creators offering content at lower price points.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Sensor Tower notes the $6,000 in U.S. consumer spending on iOS was calculated during the first two weeks of September (Sept. 1-14). Before this period, U.S. iOS users spent only $100 from August 25 through 31 — a figure that would indicate user spending on Ticketed Spaces during that time. In other words, the contribution of Tickets Spaces revenue to this total of $6,000 in iOS consumer spending is likely quite small.

In Canada, the other market where Super Follow is now available, Twitter’s iOS in-app purchase revenue from September 1 through September 14 was a negligible $600. (This would also include Twitter Blue subscription revenue, which is being tested in Canada and Australia.)

Worldwide, Twitter users on iOS spent $9,000 during that same time, which would include other Ticketed Spaces revenues and tests of its premium service, Twitter Blue. (Twitter’s Tip Jar, a way to pay creators directly, does not work through in-app purchases).

Unlike other Twitter products that developed by watching what users were already doing anyway — like using hashtags or retweeting content — many of Twitter’s newer features are attempts at redefining the use cases for its platform. In a massive rush of product pushes, Twitter has recently launched tools for not just for creators, but also for e-commerce, organizing reading materials, subscribing to newsletters, socializing in communities, chatting through audio, fact-checking content, keeping up with trends, conversing more privately, and more.

Twitter’s position on the slower start to Super Follows is that it’s still too early to make any determinations. While that’s fair, it’s also worth tracking adoption to see if the new product had seen any rapid, of-the-gate traction.

“This is just the start for Super Follows,” a  Twitter spokesperson said. “Our main goal is focused on ensuring creators are set up for success and so we’re working closely with a small group of creators in this first iteration to ensure they have the best experience using Super Follows before we roll out more widely.”

The spokesperson also noted Twitter Super Follows had been set up to help creators make more money as it scales.

“With Super Follows, people are eligible to earn up to 97% of revenue after in-app purchase fees until they make $50,000 in lifetime earnings. After $50,000 in lifetime earnings, they can earn up to 80% of revenue after in-app purchase fees,” they said.

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned firsthand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 2017 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are, however, others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

Index leads $12.2M seed in Sourceful, a data play to make supply chains greener

Supply chains can be a complex logistical challenge. But they pose an even greater environmental challenge. And it’s that latter problem — global supply-chain sustainability — where UK startup Sourceful is fully focused, although it argues its approach can boost efficiency as well as shrink environmental impact. So it’s a win-win, per the pitch.

Early investors look impressed: Sourceful is announcing a $12.2 million seed funding round today, led by Europe’s Index Ventures (partner, Danny Rimer, is joining the board). Eka Ventures, Venrex and Dylan Field (Figma founder), also participated in the chunky raise.

The June 2020-founded startup says it will use the new funding to scale its operations and build out its platform for sustainable sourcing, with a plan to hire more staff across technology, sustainability, marketing and ops.

Its team has already grown fivefold since the start of 2021 — and it’s now aiming to reach 60 employees by the end of the year.

And all this is ahead of a public launch that’s programmed for early next year.

Sourceful’s platform is in pre-launch beta for now, with around 20 customers across a number of categories — such as food & beverages (Foundation Coffee House), fashion and accessories (Fenton), healthcare (Elder), and online marketplaces (Floom and Stitched) — kicking the tyres in the hopes of making better supply chain decisions.

Startup watchers will know that supply chain logistics and freight forwarding has been a hotbed of activity — with entrepreneurs making waves for years now, promising efficiency gains by digitizing legacy (and often still pretty manual) legacy processes.

Sustainability-focused supply chain startups are a bit more of a recent development (with some category-pioneering exceptions) but could be set for major uplift as the world’s attention spins toward decarbonizing. (Just this month we’ve also covered Portcast and Responsibly, for example.)

Sourceful joins the fray with a dual-sided promise to tackle sustainability and efficiency by mapping client requirements to vetted suppliers on its marketplace — handling the buying and shipping logistics piece (including a little warehousing) — and taking a commission on the overall price as its cut of the action.

At first glance it’s a curious choice of name for a sustainability startup, given the fact that sourcing (a whole lot) less is what’s ultimately going to be needed for humanity to cut its global carbon emissions enough to avert climate disaster. But maybe the intended wordplay here is ‘full’ — in the sense of ‘fully optimized’.

The UK startup is attacking the supply chain sustainability problem from the perspective of doing something right now, arguing that making a dent in consumer-driven environmental impacts of sourcing stuff (packaging, merchansize, components etc) is a lot better than letting the same old polluting status quo roll on. 

However, given all the unverifiable ‘eco’ marketing claims being attached to products nowadays — or, indeed, other forms of flagrant ‘greenwashing’ (like bogus carbon offsets) that are cynically trying to convince consumers it’s okay to keep consuming as much as ever — there are clearly pitfalls to avoid too.

If you’re talking about packaging — which is one of the products that Sourceful is deeply focused on, with a forthcoming design capability offering that will help businesses to customize packaging designs, pick materials, size etc based on real-time data, all with the goal of encouraging ‘greener’ choices — less really is more.

Ideally, zero packaging is what your business should be aiming for (where practical, ofc). Yet Sourceful’s service will, inevitably, support demand for packaging supply and manufacture. At least in the first blush. So there’s a bit of a conundrum.

“You can put a carbon footprint score on packaging in general. So you could say packaging overall is this amount so the best thing you could do is not use any packaging. But the reality is, for most brands right now, especially for ecommerce, if you’re trying to deliver your product to the customer there needs to be some packaging — and so if packaging is unavoidable in its current form or in another form then the best thing you can then do is optimize that packaging,” argues CEO and co-founder Wing Chan, when we make the point that zero packaging is the most sustainable option.

“Right now we think the best solution is to help you optimize your packaging — the next wave will be around circular forms of packaging. Packaging that you can return back to your courier, packaging that you can reuse in another form. But we wanted to start with what is the current pain point. And the pain point is: I’m buying packaging, it’s very expensive, it’s very time-consuming and if I try and get it to be ‘green’ I either put a marketing spin on it or I don’t know how to actually make it more sustainable.

“But I definitely agree with you that long term we’ve got to think about how do I get the supply chain number as close to zero and then offset whatever’s remaining.”

For now, then, Sourceful is using data — combined with its marketplace of vetted suppliers (~40 at this stage) in the UK and China — to help companies optimize sourcing logistics and shrink their supply chains’ environmental impact.

It does this by putting a “carbon footprint score” on the product choices its brand clients are making.

This means that instead of only being able to claim “qualitative things” — such as that a product uses less plastic or a different type of plastic — Sourceful’s customers can display an actual benchmarked carbon footprint score (in the form of a number), based on its lifecycle assessment of the stuff involved in making up the finished product.

“It’s a lifecycle view,” says Chan. “For example if you take packaging we look at the box, we look at what is the cardboard material, where does it come from, how far has it travelled, what type of material is it, how much material gets used, how is then transported — for example is it a manufacturer in Asia all the way to the UK — so we get an overall score. So rather than it just being comparing paper and plastic we actually help the brands to see an overall quantitive outcome.”

“We’ve built the [software] engine that allows you to make choices and see the actual output — so, for example, if you make your box bigger what does that actually do to your carbon footprint score?” he adds.

Sourceful has an internal climate science team to do this work. It is also building on publicly available data sources, per Chan — such as ecoinvent (“the market standard based data”) — but he says the public data available isn’t up-to-date, saying it’s also therefore working with researchers to update these key sources with the last five years of data.

It wants the protocol it’s devised for scoring carbon footprint via this lifecycle assessment to become a universal standard. Hence it’s currently going through an ISO certification process — hoping to have that in place before the planned public launch of its platform in Q1 next year.

“There’s two ISO standards for doing a lifecycle assessment and normally you’d get ISO approval for a specific product but we’re getting ISO approval for the whole methodology — essentially the platform that we’ve built,” explains Chan. “There’s an independent panel of people, from universities, from other consultancies, who will be reviewing this as part of that ISO review — that’s why it’s so important to us that we’re doing that.”

The vetting of the suppliers on its marketplace is something Sourceful is doing entirely by itself, though — without any outside help. So its customers still need to trust that it’s doing a proper job of monitoring all the third parties on its marketplace.

But, on this, Chan argues that’s since sustainability is core to its value proposition it is incentivized to do the vetting in a more thorough and comprehensive way than any other individual player would be.

“The key thing for us is we combine both the data capture you would do when you’re understanding a supplier — asking all the questions about how their supply chain works and all of the laws entered by the new country — but we’re coupling that with a human visit as well. So we have a team in the UK as well as a team in Asia who actually go and visit the manufacturers. So it’s an extra layer of comfort for the brands that we’ve actually spent the time to go and meet them,” he suggests.

“The second thing is, as part of our marketplace build, we’re understanding how their supply chain works — in order to build the lifecycle assessment we actually understand each stage of their manufacturing process. So we have a much deeper understanding of their way of operating than all of the other platforms would have. So, yes it’s more involved, but we think that gives better accountability and a more accurate outcome.”

“We’re taking [the vetting process] to another level,” he adds. “We didn’t find anyone that was going into the same level of depth as us — so that’s why we’ve done it ourselves.”

Pressed a little more, Chan also tells TechCrunch: “Supply chain risks never disappear but the thing is how much investment are you making to learn more about it? And for us because we’re capturing this data on lifecycle assessment it’s part of that process of understanding the supplier. So rather than it being another cost that we pay to go visit the manufacturer, we see it as part of our data gathering — a key part of the platform.

“So rather than it being a cost to minimize, which is why a lot of companies end up in trouble because they don’t visit [their suppliers] enough, we’re invested in making sure that data is as accurate and up-to-date as possible. And the manufacturers see that because they want to have a score that’s good, they also want to understand where their footprint could be improved. So it’s a partnership, rather than it just being a bunch of tick boxes to check — which is what a lot of the audits are… We’re here to try and understand their process better.”

Zooming out to look at the driving forces pressing for supply chain sustainability, Chan suggests demand for greener sourcing by businesses is being driven by consumers themselves — who are certainly more aware than ever of environmental concerns. And can, to a degree, vote with their wallet by choosing more eco products (and/or by putting direct reputational pressure on businesses, such as via social media channels).

There is some regulatory pressure, too — such as existing sustainability and carbon reporting requirements (typically for larger businesses). Along with the overarching ‘net zero’ targets which governments in Europe and elsewhere have signed up for. So there should be increasing ‘top down’ pressure on businesses to decarbonize.

Chan also points to another swathe of environmental laws coming in — such as those banning things like single use plastics — which he says are creating further momentum for businesses to re-evaluate their supply chains.

Nonetheless, he believes the biggest source of pressure for companies to decarbonize is coming from consumers themselves. So — the premise is — brands that can present the strongest story to people about what they’re doing to reduce their environmental impact — backed up by a certified lifecycle assessment (assuming Sourceful gets its ISO stamp) — stand to win the business of growing numbers of eco-minded buyers, at the same time as netting cost efficiencies by optimizing their supply chains.

(And, indeed, part of the team’s inspiration for Sourceful’s business was to challenge the idea that consumers are to blame for the world’s environmental problems — given the lack of choice people so often have over what they can buy, not to mention the paucity of information to inform purchasing choices.)

“In the absence of government regulation on [lifecycle assessment] we’re actually saying to the brand, you’ve got existing products, we’ve measured the material, production, transport, all of these things — given you a carbon footprint score, and actually when you go and look at alternatives we can quantitatively assess the difference between those options. So rather than just pandering to the latest marketing buzzword you get a quantitive view on that,” he says.

“So what we’ve been showing is you can move to a more sustainable outcome — from a quantitative point of view — but also save money. So we’re tackling both problems. The supply chain itself is not very efficient so we can save money and the supply chain is not very transparent so we can give them better visibility into their actual carbon footprint.”

“Every brand that we’ve met that has been started in the last two years, their founder or their premise of the brand had sustainability involved — it’s such a hot topic that if you start a fashion brand or a beauty brand or food brand you have to have somewhere in your mission statement/founder story about your commitment to sustainability. So we thought that’s where the market is going to be. But actually we saw more established companies had the same view — that their consumers are also asking for there to be change in how they talk about their products, how they understand their lifecycle journey. So actually I think the government drive on regulation is of course important but it’s still far behind and actually consumers are driving more of a change,” he adds.

Sourceful’s offering includes a warehousing ‘managed service’ component — where it’s using a predictive algorithm to power auto-stocking so that brands can store (non-current) inventory in its warehouses (to save space etc) and have the goods shipped to them as they need them.

Being able to source supplies like components or packaging in bulk obviously reduces purchasing costs. But depending on how it’s done, it may also mean you can optimize things like transportation requirements, which could limit shipping emissions, so there are potentially efficiency and sustainability strands here too.

“Sea freight is several times more energy efficient than air freight so if we can organize more shipments to go via sea freight than air then that’s a major win. The[n] if we can fill the container up with different client orders so that you end up with one very full container, rather than lots of containers with half of it empty, you’re also going to save a lot of energy too. And so that’s another part of the journey that we do,” says Chan. “The other thing is because were aggregating orders with the manufacturer — they actually have better utilization as well, which is more efficient for them. So all of these things are really important to driving the overall cost as well sustainability score down.”

“The more we thought about it, the more there are so many parts of the supply chain which haven’t been optimzied,” he adds. “So many times you order 2,000 boxes it comes in these air freight shipments and someone has to courier it to you in one trip — there’s so many places where aggregating and being smarter about data you can save so much footprint.”

 

Logistics startup Stord raises $90M in Kleiner Perkins-led round, becomes a unicorn and acquires a company

When Kleiner Perkins led Stord’s $12.4 million Series A in 2019, its founders were in their early 20s and so passionate about their startup that they each dropped out of their respective schools to focus on growing the business.

Fast-forward two years and Stord — an Atlanta-based company that has developed a cloud supply chain — is raising more capital in a round again led by Kleiner Perkins.

This time, Stord has raised $90 million in a Series D round of funding at a post-money valuation of $1.125 billion — more than double the $510 million that the company was valued at when raising $65 million in a Series C financing just six months ago.

In fact, today’s funding marks Stord’s third since early December of 2020, when it raised its Series B led by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, and brings the company’s total raised since its 2015 inception to $205 million.

Besides Kleiner Perkins, Lux Capital, D1 Capital, Palm Tree Crew, BOND, Dynamo Ventures, Founders Fund, Lineage Logistics and Susa Ventures also participated in the Series D financing. In addition, Michael Rubin, Fanatics founder and founder of GSI Commerce; Carlos Cashman, CEO of Thrasio; Max Mullen, co-founder of Instacart; and Will Gaybrick, CPO at Stripe, put money in the round.

Founders Sean Henry, 24, and Jacob Boudreau, 23, met while Henry was at Georgia Tech and Boudreau was in online classes at Arizona State (ASU) but running his own business, a software development firm, in Atlanta.

Over time, Stord has evolved into a cloud supply chain that can give companies a way to compete and grow with logistics, and provides an integrated platform “that’s available exactly when and where they need it,” Henry said. Stord combines physical logistics services such as freight, warehousing and fulfillment in that platform, which aims to provide “complete visibility, rapid optimization and elastic scale” for its users.

About two months ago, Stord announced the opening of its first fulfillment center, a 386,000-square-foot facility, in Atlanta, which features warehouse robotics and automation technologies. “It was the first time we were in a building ourselves running it end to end,” Henry said.

And today, the company is announcing it has acquired Connecticut-based Fulfillment Works, a 22-year-old company with direct-to-consumer (DTC) experience and warehouses in Nevada and in its home state.

With FulfillmentWorks, the company says it has increased its first-party warehouses, coupled with its network of over 400 warehouse partners and 15,000 carriers.

While Stord would not disclose the amount it paid for Fulfillment Works, Henry did share some of Stord’s impressive financial metrics. The company, he said, in 2020 delivered its third consecutive year of 300+% growth, and is on track to do so again in 2021. Stord also achieved more than $100 million in revenue in the first two quarters of 2021, according to Henry, and grew its headcount from 160 people last year to over 450 so far in 2021 (including about 150 Fulfillment Works employees). And since the fourth quarter is often when people do the most online shopping, Henry expects the three-month period to be Stord’s heaviest revenue quarter.

For some context, Stord’s new sales were up “7x” in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year. So far in the third quarter, sales are up almost 10x, according to Henry.

Put simply, Stord aims to give brands a way to compete with the likes of Amazon, which has set expectations of fast fulfillment and delivery. The company guarantees two-day shipping to anywhere in the country.

“The supply chain is the new competitive battleground,” Henry said. “Today’s buying expectations set by Amazon and the rise of the omni-channel shopper have placed immense pressure on companies to maintain more nimble and efficient supply chains… We want every company to have world-class, Prime-like supply chains.”

What makes Stord unique, according to Henry, is the fact that it has built what it believes to be the only end-to-end logistics network that combines the physical infrastructure with software.

That too is one of the reasons that Kleiner Perkins doubled down on its investment in the company.

Ilya Fushman, Stord board director and partner at Kleiner Perkins, said even at the time of his firm’s investment in 2019, that Henry displayed “amazing maturity and vision.”

At a high level, the firm was also just drawn to what he described as the “incredibly large market opportunity.”

“It’s trillions of dollars of products moving around with consumer expectation that these products will get to them the same day or next day, wherever they are,” Fushman told TechCrunch. “And while companies like Amazon have built amazing infrastructure to do that themselves, the rest of the world hasn’t really caught up… So there’s just amazing opportunity to build software and services to modernize this multitrillion-dollar market.”

In other words, Fushman explained, Stord is serving as a “plug and play” or “one stop shop” for retailers and merchants so they don’t have to spend resources on their own warehouses or building their own logistics platforms.

Stord launched the software part of its business in January 2020, and it grew 900% during the year, and is today one of the fastest-growing parts of its business.

“We built software to run our logistics and network of hundreds of warehouses,” Henry told TechCrunch. “But if companies want to use the same system for existing logistics, they can buy our software to get that kind of visibility.”

Creative ad tech is on the cusp of a revolution, and VCs should take note

2021 has been a good year to be an ad tech investor. Valuations are surging, Wall Street is happy and exits are frequent and satisfying. It’s the perfect time to double down and invest in an area that has been largely ignored but is poised for major upside in the next few years: Digital creative ad technology.

Think about it. When was the last time we saw a major ad tech funding round that was directed at the actual ads themselves — the messages people actually see everyday? I’d argue that now is the perfect time.

The adtech startups that can figure out how to adapt ads that can interact with the remote control, a synced smartphone or voice commands — maybe even make them shoppable — can theoretically produce a game-changer.

Here are five reasons why VCs should consider ratcheting up their investment into ad tech startups building the next generation of creative tools:

Creative tech is far from being saturated

Consider how much has been spent over the 15 years on digital advertising mechanics such as targeting, serving, measuring and verification. Not to mention the trillions that have gone toward helping brands keep track of customer data and interactions — the marketing clouds, DMPs and CDPs.

Yet you can count the number of creative-centric ad tech companies on one hand. This means there is a lot of room for innovation and early leaders. VideoAmp, which helps brands make ads for various social platforms, pulled in $75 million earlier this year. Given how fast platforms like TikTok and Snap are growing, it won’t be the last.

Digital ad targeting is being squeezed

Ads need to do more work today. Between regulation, cookies going away and Apple locking down data collection, we’ve seen a renewed interest in contextual advertising, including funding for the likes of GumGum, as well as identity resolution firms like InfoSum.

But the digital ad ecosystem can’t get by only using broader data-crunching techniques to replace “retargeting.” The medium is practically crying out for a creative revival that can only be sparked by scalable tech. The recent funding for creative testing startup Marpipe is a start, but more focus is needed on actual tech-driven ideation and automation.

Commercetools raises $140M at a $1.9B valuation as ‘headless’ commerce continues to boom

E-commerce these days is now a major part of every retailer’s strategy, so technology builders and platforms that are helping them compete better on digital screens are seeing a huge boost in business. In the latest turn, Commercetools — a provider of e-commerce APIs that larger retailers can use to build customized payment, check-out, social commerce, marketplace and other services — has closed $140 million in funding, a Series C that CEO Dirk Hoerig has confirmed to me values the company at $1.9 billion. 

The funding is being led by Accel, with previous investors Insight Partners and REWE Group also participating. Munich, Germany-based Commercetools spun out of REWE — a giant German retailer, and also a customer — and announced $145 million in investment led by Insight in October 2019.

This latest round represents a huge hike on its valuation since then, when Commercetools was valued at around $300 million.

Part of the reason for the big bump, of course, has been the wave of interest in digital transactions from shopping online. E-commerce was already growing at a steady pace before 2020, by some estimates representing more than half of all commerce transactions. The Covid-19 pandemic turbo-charged that proportion, with many retailers switching exclusively to internet sales, and consumers stuck at home happy to shop with a click.

While companies like Shopify have addressed the needs of smaller retailers, providing them with an alternative or complement to listing on third-party marketplaces like Amazon’s, Commercetools has built its business around catering to larger retailers and the many specific, large-scale needs and investment budgets that they may have for building their digital commerce solutions.

It provides some 300 APIs today around some nine “buckets” of services, and a wide network of integration partners, Hoerig said, and powers some $10 billion of sales annually for its customers, which include the likes of Audi, AT&T, Danone, Tiffany & Co., John Lewis and many others.

“Our main focus is the retailer with more than $100 million in gross merchandise value,” Hoerig said. “This is when it becomes interesting.” But he added that the force of market growth is such that Commercetools is also seeing a lot of business from smaller companies that are simply needing more functionality to address their fast growth. “So we also sometimes have customers that start at $5 million in GMV and quickly go to $50 million. With that scale, they also have specific requirements, so the lines get a bit blurry.” (And that also explains why investors are so interested: there is a lot of evidence of the market growing and growing; and by capturing smaller retailers on big trajectories, that represents a lot more scale for Commercetools.)

Hoerig is sometimes credited with being the person who first coined the term “headless commerce”, which basically means APIs that can be used by a company, or its team of strategists, developers and designers, to build their own customized check-out and other purchasing experiences, rather than fitting these into templates provided by the tech company powering the checkout.

But as the API economy has continued to grow, and the world of non-tech companies that use tech continues to mature, that has taking on a mass-market appeal, and so Commercetools is far from being the only one in this area. In addition to Shopify (which has its own version targeting larger businesses, Shopify Plus), others include SprykerSwellFabricChord and Shogun.

Commercetools will be using the funding both to continue organically expanding its business, but also to make some acquisitions to bolt on new customers, and new technology, tapping into some of the scaling and consolidation that is taking place across e-commerce as a whole. What will be interesting to see is where consolidation will happen, and which startups will be raising money to scale on their own: right now there is a lot of enthusiasm around the space because it is so buoyant, and that will spell more money being funneled to more startups.

Case in point: when I first got wind of this funding round, Commercetools told me it was in the middle of a deal to acquire a company. In the end, that company decided to stay independent and take some more investment to try to grow on its own. Hoerig said it’s now pursuing another target.

Indeed, that is also the bigger force that has brought Commercetools to where it is today.

“The chance to invest in a fast-growing, innovative commerce platform was one we could not pass up,” said Ping Li, the partner at Accel who led on this deal, said in a statement. “Commercetools provides e-commerce enterprises the technology necessary to capture revenue in the rapidly growing global e-commerce market.”

Is India’s BNPL 2.0 set to disrupt B2B?

Both as a term and as a financial product, “buy now, pay later” has become mainstream in the past few years. BNPL has evolved to assume various forms today, from small-ticket offerings by fintechs on consumer checkout platforms and marketplaces, to closed-loop products offered on marketplaces such as Amazon Pay Later (which they are now extending for outside use as well). You can also see some variants offered by companies that want to expand the scope of consumption and consumer credit.

Globally, BNPL has seen the most growth in the consumer segment and has driven retail consumption and lending over the past few years. Consumer BNPL offerings are a good alternative to credit cards, especially for people who do not have a credit history and can’t get credit from banks. That said, a specific vertical of BNPL products is gaining traction — one targeted toward small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This new vertical is known as “SME BNPL.”

BNPL can be particularly useful when flow-based underwriting or transaction-based underwriting is used to offer credit to small businesses.

B2B commerce in India is moving online

E-commerce has seen tremendous growth in India over the past decade. Skyrocketing smartphone and internet penetration led to rapid growth in e-commerce across large cities and smaller towns alike. Consumer credit has also taken off in parallel as credit cards and digital lending spurred credit-based consumption across offline and online stores.

However, the large B2B supply chain enabling the burgeoning retail market was plagued by bottlenecks and inefficiencies because it involved a plethora of intermediaries and streamlining became a big problem. A number of tech players responded by organizing the previously disorganized B2B commerce market at various touch points, inserting convenience, pricing and easier product access through tech-enabled logistics and a modern supply chain.

Online B2B and B2C penetration in India in 2019

Image Credits: Redseer

India’s B2B e-commerce space has developed rapidly since 2020. Small businesses have moved from using paper to smartphone apps for running a significant part of their day-to-day business, leading to widespread disruption in how businesses transact today. The COVID-19 pandemic also forced small businesses, which were earlier using physical means to procure goods and services, to try new and online models to conduct their affairs.

Graph depicting growth of India's B2B retail market

Image Credits: Redseer

Moreover, the Indian government’s widespread promotion of an instant payments system in the form of the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has changed how people send money to each other or pay merchants for their goods and services. The next step for solving the digital B2B puzzle is to embed credit inside every transaction and invoice.

Investments in online B2B in india 2016-19

Image Credits: Redseer

If we compare online B2B transactions to the offline world, there is only one missing link: The terms offered to small businesses by their supplier/distributor or vendor. Businesses, unlike consumers, must buy goods and services to eventually trade them, or add value and sell to consumers or others down the value chain. This process is not immediate and has a certain time cycle attached.

The longer sales cycle means many small businesses require credit payment terms when buying inventory. As B2B commerce scales and grows through digital means, a BNPL product that caters to the needs of SMEs can support their growth and alleviate the burden on their cash flows.

How does consumer BNPL differ from SME BNPL?

An SME BNPL product is a purchase financing product for small businesses transacting with suppliers, distributors, aggregator platforms or B2B marketplaces.