But underneath the cryptocurrency exchange’s public debut, other IPO news that matters did happen this week. And the news adds up to a somewhat muddled picture of the current IPO market.
To cap off the week, let’s run through IPO news from UiPath, Coinbase, Grab, AppLovin and Zenvia. The aggregate dataset should help you form your own perspective about where today’s IPO markets really are in terms of warmth for the often-unprofitable unicorns of the world.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. It was yet another busy week, but that just means we had a great time putting the show together and recording it. Honestly, we had a lot of fun this week, and we hope you crack a smile while we dig through the latest as a team.
Outschool also became an edtech unicorn, thanks to a new round led by Coatue and everyone’s rich cousin, Tiger Global. The conversation soon devolved into how Tiger Global is impacting the broader VC ecosystem, thanks to a fantastic analysis piece that you have to read here.
Papa raised $60 million, also from Tiger Global. What do you call tech aimed at old folks? Don’t call it elder tech, we have a brand new phrase in store. Let’s see if it catches on.
AI chips! Danny talks the team through grokking Groq, so that we can talk about TPUs without losing our minds. He’s a good egg.
At the end of 2020, I argued that edtech needs to think bigger in order to stay relevant after the pandemic. I urged founders to think less about how to bundle and unbundle lecture experience, and more about how to replace outdated systems and methods with new, tech-powered solutions. In other words, don’t simply put engaging content on a screen, but innovate on what that screen looks like, tracks and offers.
A few months into 2021, the exit environment in edtech…feels like it’s doing exactly that. The same startups that hit billion and multi-billion valuations during the pandemic are scooping up new talent to broaden their service offerings.
James Gallagher, the author of the report, tells me:
It is important to note that the full potential of bootcamps has not yet been realised. We are now seeing more exploration of niches like technology sales which provide gateways into new careers in tech for people who otherwise may not have been able to acquire training. To scale such models, new businesses will need venture capital.
He went on to explain how a notable acquisition from 2020 was K12 scooping up Galvanize, “which would give K12 exposure into corporate training and the coding bootcamp space, a market outside of K12’s focus at the moment.”
To me this report signal two things: the financial interest in boot camps isn’t simply stemming from other bootcamps (although that is happening), but it’s surprising partnerships. Leaving this subsector, we see creative acquisitions such as a Roblox for edtech buying a language learning tool, and a startup known for flashcards scooping up a tech tutoring service.
I’ll end with this: Successful startup founders are innately ambitious, finding opportunity in moonshots and convincing others that the odds are in their favor. However, the ceiling for what defines ambition heightens almost everyday. What used to be a win is now a nonnegotiable, and a feat is only a feat until your competitor hits the exact same milestone.
Acquisitions are one way to scoop up competition and synergistic talent, but it’s what happens next that matters the most.
In the rest of this newsletter, we will talk about Clubhouse competitors, how a homegrown experiment became one of the fastest growing companies in fitness tech and a cool-down in public markets (?!). As always, you can get this newsletter in your inbox each Saturday morning, so subscribe here to join the cool kids.
Clubhouse might create billions in value, but could capture none of it
Remember when everyone was buzzing around about building Stories? That’s so pre-pandemic. A number of companies recently announced plans to build their own versions of Clubhouse, after the buzzy app unearthed the consumer love for audio.
Here’s what to know: It might be easier to start guessing who isn’t building a Clubhouse clone at this point. Our predictions are already starting, but jokes aside, the rise in clones could mean that Clubhouse might have to make a run for its pre-monetized money (cough, cough, Twitter spaces). It doesn’t matter if a startup is first in unlocking a key insight, all that matters is who executes that key insight the best.
Here’s what to know: The new status underscores market growth for at-home fitness solutions. And while we don’t have a Tonal S-1 yet, we do have a Tonal EC-1. EC-1’s are TechCrunch’s riff on an S-1, and are essentially a deep dive into a company.
While several tech companies are opting to delay their IPOs in the face of less-than-enthusiastic market demand for their shares, real estate tech company Compass forged ahead and went public today. After pricing its shares at $18 apiece last night, the low end of a lowered IPO price range, Compass shares closed the day up just under 12% at $20.15 apiece.
Regarding whether Compass is a tech company or a real estate brokerage, Reffkin — who raised the comparison himself — used the opportunity to note that companies like Amazon or Tesla aren’t only one thing. Amazon is a logistics company, an e-commerce company, a cloud-computing business and a media concern all at the same time. Price that.
The argument was good enough for Compass to sell 25 million shares — a lowered amount — at its IPO price for a gross worth $450 million. That, the CEO said, was his company’s goal for its public offering.
Sparing TechCrunch the usual CEO line about an IPO not being a destination but merely one stop on a longer journey at that juncture, Reffkin instead argued that putting nine figures of capital into his company was his objective, not a particular price or resulting valuation.
That might sound simple, but as Kaltura and Intermedia Cloud Communications have pushed their IPOs back, it’s a bit gutsy. Still, if financing was the key objective, Compass did succeed in its debut. And it was even rewarded with a neat little bump in value during its first day’s trading.
Reffkin did confirm to TechCrunch what we’ve been reporting lately, namely that the IPO market has changed for the worse in recent weeks. He described it as “challenging.”
So why go public now when there is so much capital available for private companies?
Reffkin cited a few numbers, but centered his view around having what he construes as the “right team” and the “right results.” We’ll get a bit more on the latter when Compass reports its first set of public earnings.
For now, it’s a company that braved stormier seas than we might have expected to see so soon after a blistering first few months of the year for IPOs.
And because I would also bring her along if I ever took a company public, here’s the company’s founder and CEO with his mother:
Taken together, the various market signs could point to a modest to moderate cooling in the tech IPO market.
The move by Compass, a venture-backed residential brokerage, to lower its implied public-market valuation and sell fewer shares is a rebuke of the company’s earlier optimism regarding its valuation and ability to raise capital. The company’s IPO is still slated to generate as much as a half-billion dollars, so it can hardly be called a failure if it executes at its rejiggered price range, but the cuts matter.
Especially when we consider several other factors. The Deliveroo IPO, as discussed this morning, was impacted by more than mere economics. And there are questions regarding how interested seemingly more conservative countries’ stock exchanges will prove in growth-oriented, unprofitable companies.
But added to the mix are recent declines in the valuation of public software companies, effectively repricing the value of high-margin, recurring revenue. The reasons behind that particular change are several, but may include a rotation by public investors into other asset categories, or an air-letting from a sector that may have enjoyed some valuation inflation in the last year.
Coursera, an edtech unicorn, will begin its life today as a public company after pricing its IPO at $33 per share yesterday evening. Using a simple share count, the company’s valuation comes to $4.30 billion, or $4.38 billion if its underwriters exercise their option to purchase shares at its offering price.
Coursera was last valued at $2.57 billion after raising $130 million in mid-2020, per PitchBook data. The company’s simple valuation is around a 67% gain on that final private figure; that gain rises to just over 70% if its underwriters purchase their available shares.
Using a diluted valuation, Coursera has roughly doubled its final private price. In under a year. For edtech investors looking to Coursera to help determine public market sentiment regarding the exit-value of their investments, TechCrunch reckons it’s a pretty good day.
The amount of private capital at play in edtech startups is staggering; billions and billions of potential returns could get a further shot in the arm if Coursera trades well this morning. And the very same billions of invested capital could lose the smile that Coursera’s seemingly-strong IPO pricing brought them.
Private investors, who put well north of $10 billion into edtech companies globally in 2020, are modestly bullish on edtech exit volume this year. In a prior TechCrunch venture capitalist survey, GSV managing partner Deborah Quazzo said the following:
Exit volume is rising already with a wide range of strategic and financial buyers of edtech companies — something that didn’t exist before. You will see numerous high-value exits in the first half of 2021. It’s the public market “exits” that have really lagged and that I hope turns around in 2021 and 2022. There are numerous global companies that could go public and the addition of SPAC IPOs creates another positive dynamic.
The Coursera IPO pricing at least, meets the mark for a high-value exit. Which could lead where? Extending Quazzo’s thinking a single step, perhaps a strong Coursera first-day trading session will bolster SPAC interest in taking more edtech startups and unicorns public.
Such a move could lock-in valuations for a number of currently illiquid edtech startups, and perhaps begin to return chunks of invested capital in the historically out-of-fashion technology sector.
Adding to that sentiment is Owl Ventures’ managing director Ian Chiu, who told TechCrunch in the same survey that “the pipeline for potential IPO candidates coming from the edtech sector continues to grow larger.” Let’s hope — parsing the Coursera S-1 filing was good fun and we’d like another at-bat with an edtech IPO document.
Chih-Han Yu, chief executive officer and co-founder of Appier Group Inc., right, holds a hammer next to a bell during an event marking the listing of the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, at the company’s office in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Appier’s initial public offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange yesterday was a milestone not only for the company, but also Sequoia Capital India, one of its earliest investors. Founded in Taiwan, Appier was the fund’s first investment outside of India, and is now also the first company in its portfolio outside of India to go public. In an interview with TechCrunch, Sequoia Capital managing director Abheek Anand talked about what drew the firm to Appier, which develops AI-based marketing software.
Before shifting its focus to marketing, Appier’s founders—chief executive officer Chih-Han Yu, chief operating officer Winnie Lee and chief technology officer Joe Su—worked on a startup called Plaxie to develop AI-powered gaming engines. Yu and Su came up with the idea when they were both graduate students at Harvard, but found there was little demand at the time. Anand met them in 2013, soon after their pivot to big data and marketing, and Sequoia Capital India invested in Appier’s Series A a few months later.
“It’s easy to say in retrospect what worked and what didn’t work. What really stands out without trying to write revisionist history is that this was just an incredibly smart team,” said Anand. “They had probably the most technical core DNA of any Series A company that we’ve met in years, I would argue.” Yu holds a PhD in computer science from Harvard, Wu earned a PhD in immunology at Washington University in St. Louis and Su has a M.S. in computer science from Harvard. The company also filled its team with AI and machine learning researchers from top universities in Taiwan and the United States.
At the time, Sequoia Capital “had a broad thesis that there would be adoption of AI in enterprises,” Anand said. “What we believed was there were a bunch of people going after that problem, but they were trying to solve business problems without necessarily having the technical depth to do it.” Appier stood out because they “were swinging at it from the other end, where they had an enormous amount of technical expertise.”
Since Appier’s launch in 2012, more companies have emerged that use machine learning and big data to help companies automate marketing decisions and create online campaigns. Anand said one of the reasons Appier, which now operates in 14 markets across the Asia-Pacific region, remains competitive is its strategy of cross-selling new products and focusing on specific use cases instead of building a general purpose platform.
Appier’s core product is a cross-platform advertising engine called CrossX that focuses on user acquisition. Then it has products that address other parts of their customers’ value chain: AiDeal to help companies send coupons to the customers who are most likely to use them; user engagement platform AIQUA; and AIXON, a data science platform that uses AI models to predict customer actions, including the likelihood of repeat purchases.
“I think the number one thing that the company has spent a lot of time on is focusing on efficiency,” said Anand. “Customers have tons of data, both external and first-party, that they’re processing to drive business outcomes. It’s a very hard technical problem. Appier starts with a solution that is relatively easy to break into a customer, and then builds deeper and deeper solutions for those customers.”
Appier’s listing is also noteworthy because it marks the first time a company from Taiwan has listed in Japan since Trend Micro’s IPO in 1998. Japan is one of Appier’s biggest markets (customers there include Rakuten, Toyota and Shiseido), making the Tokyo Stock Exchange a natural fit, Anand said, even though most of Sequoia Capital India’s portfolio companies list in India or the United States.
The Tokyo Stock Exchange also stood out because of its retail investor participation, liquidity and total volume. Some of Appier’s other core investors, including JAFCO Asia and SoftBank Group Corp., are also based in Japan. But though it has almost $30 billion in average trading volume, the vast majority of listings are domestic companies. In a recent report, Nikkei Asia cited a higher corporate tax rate and lack of potential underwriters, especially for smaller listings, as a potential obstacles for foreign companies.
But Appier’s debut may lead the way for other Asian startups to chose the Tokyo Stock Exchange, said Anand. “Getting ready for the Japanese exchange meant having the right accounting practices, the right reporting, a whole bunch of compliance stuff. It was a long process. In some ways we were leading the charge for external companies to get there, and I’m sure over time it will keep getting easier and easier.”
China’s largest question and answer platform Zhihu began trading in New York at $9.5 per share at the lower end of its IPO range, valuing the company at about $5.3 billion.
The aggregate offering size of Zhihu’s IPO and the concurrent private placements is $772.5 million, assuming the underwriters do not exercise their option to purchase additional ADSs. With Zhihu’s sizable flotation, some Silicon Valley executives and investors may start to pay more attention to this ten-year-old company from China that was once simply regarded as the “Quora of China.”
Q&A remains at the core of Zhihu, which means “do you know” in classical Chinese, but the service has become much more than the American counterpart that was founded two years before it.
“I think Quora is a good product, but I think Quora today still equals Quora ten years ago,” said Kai-Fu Lee, whose investment firm Sinovation Ventures is a seed investor in Zhihu and is the company’s largest outside shareholder with a 13% stake.
“Zhihu has already grown up and is on the path to becoming a multifaceted super app centered around knowledge, while Quora is still a question and answer website with an app,” added Lee, an AI expert and an avid Zhihu contributor himself.
Asides from facilitating Q&As, Zhihu has also dabbled in premium content, live videos and audio, online education, among other forms that it believes are ripe for sharing knowledge.
Today, Zhihu generates about 70-80% of its revenues from advertising, according to its prospectus, though other businesses like membership and e-commerce are growing financial contributors, a sign that it’s working to diversify monetization streams.
The willingness of Chinese startups to “reinvent themselves and cannibalize their own success” is what differentiates them from American companies, Lee observed.
“Because they know if they don’t do that, their challenger will, and they are ambitious towards building the super app as a dream. I think American entrepreneurs tend to build something really good and light, partner with other companies and stay in their comfort zone,” said the investor who was the president of Google China in the late 2000s.
“I really think that Silicon Valley and U.S. entrepreneurs should look to China for ideas or inspirations of doing things differently.”
Conflict of interest
From 2019 to 2020, Zhihu’s monthly active users grew from 48 million to 68.5 million, an indication that the platform has thrived beyond the small clientele of Chinese tech elites, investors and academics whom it first attracted. A new mother could be on Zhihu asking for postnatal tips and a Foxconn worker may be on the site sharing her factory stories.
Zhihu’s revenue increased from 670.5 million yuan ($102 million) in 2019 to 1.4 billion yuan in 2020, while its net loss shrank from 1 billion yuan to 517.6 million yuan. It may seem at first that commercialization is at odds with Zhihu’s principle rooted in open user collaboration. Oftentimes, answerers are not economically incentivized but simply participating for leisure. But Zhihu is for-profit from day one and needs income after all.
It’s a always delicate matter to balance a product’s commercial and user interests. The bottom line is to be vigilant and deliberate about the kind of ads or sponsored content allowed on the platform. Restrain could mean smaller advertising revenue, but a medical ad scandal that hit Chinese search giant Baidu back in 2016 showed how easily user trust could be lost. Well-placed and responsible ads, on the other hand, could bring greater returns for both advertisers and the platform.
On the innovative side, not all users have appreciated Zhihu’s new features. Zhihu has recently upped its ante on short videos, which have become the default medium through which many Chinese users receive information, thanks to more affordable connectivity and industry forerunners like Douyin and Kuaishou. But some users argue that short videos by nature verge on entertainment and are obtrusive for the more serious, text-focused Zhihu.
Zhihu has other interests to balance. Its shareholders include Tencent, Baidu and Kuaishou, which are “super apps” themselves for their extensive functionalities. They all have traffic deals with Zhihu. For example, Zhihu content is surfaced in the search results on WeChat, which has its own search engine.
While joining hands with giants could drive user growth for a smaller player, dependence on outsiders could also handcuff a startup, forcing it to give away significant shares too early and joggle the interests of multiple allies, who could be rivals themselves.
Lee declined to comment on Zhihu’s relationship with any specific partner, but he did indicate that Zhihu doesn’t currently have an “overreliance” on partners and that the firm keeps “natural working business relationships with them.”
“That also speaks to the purity and the ambition of the Zhihu team that it hopes to maintain more independence by making more friends,” said Lee.
Today Bloomberg reported, and Axios confirmed that Robinhood has filed privately to go public. The well-financed Robinhood is an American fintech company that provides zero-cost trading services to consumers.
Private IPO filings have become common in recent quarters, making Robinhood’s decision to file behind closed doors before showing its numbers to the public unsurprising. That it has filed privately, however, implies that the company is closer to a public debut than we might have anticipated.
Robinhood has long been expected to have a 2021 IPO in its plans. The company has not yet responded to an inquiry from TechCrunch regarding the news of its private IPO filing.
There are several reasons why Robinhood may be interested in a near-term public debut, despite running into controversies in recent quarters. No amount of time in front of Congress, bad PR from a user’s suicide, or settlements with the SEC can change the fact that today’s stock market favors growth, something that the company has in spades. Or that recent IPOs have been rapturously received by public investors as a cohort; it’s a warm time to pursue public-market liquidity.
The company’s revenue expanded greatly in 2020, something that TechCrunch has covered through the lens of Robinhood’s payment for order flow, or PFOF income. The company told Congress that the particular revenue source was the majority of its top line, meaning that PFOF growth is a reasonable comp for the company’s aggregate growth. And as TechCrunch has reported, those numbers rose sharply in 2020, from around ~$91 million in Q1 2020, to ~$178 million in Q2 2020, and ~$183 million and ~$221 million in the third and fourth quarter of last year.
Robinhood also makes money from consumer subscriptions, and other sources.
The fact that Robinhood has filed privately implies that it will go public sometimes soon, though perhaps not quickly enough to get around providing Q1 2021 numbers. More when we get our hands on the filing.
TuSimple, the self-driving truck company that is backed by a diverse consortium of strategic investors, including Volkswagen AG’s heavy-truck business The Traton Group, Navistar, Goodyear, and freight company U.S. Xpress, filed Tuesday for an initial public offering.
TuSimple is taking the traditional path to going public, a departure from the recent trend — particularly among electric and autonomous vehicle startups — to merge with a special purpose acquisition companies.
The number of shares to be offered and the price range for the proposed offering have not yet been determined, according to the regulatory filing. TuSimple intends to list its common stock on the Nasdaq Global Select Market under the ticker symbol “TSP.” Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan are the lead underwriters for the proposed offering.
According to the company’s S-1, which was filed Tuesday, TuSimple has primarily financed its operations through the sale of redeemable convertible preferred stock and loans from stockholders. The company’s principal sources of liquidity were $310.8 million of cash and cash equivalents, exclusive of restricted cash of $1.5 million. Cash and cash equivalents consist primarily of cash on deposit with banks as well as certificates of deposit.
The S-1 shows that TuSimple had a loss from operations of $177.9 million in 2020, more than double loss of $84.8 million incurred in the previous year. The company said it had net losses from operations of $45 in 2018. Its accumulated deficit was $405.2 million as of December 31, 2020.
Net loss attributable to common stockholders sat at $198.8 million in 2020, up from a loss of $145 million a year earlier.
The company’s revenue did rise to $1.8 million in 2020, up from $710,000 the previous year.
TuSimple, which was founded in 2015, was one of the first autonomous trucking startups to emerge in what has become a small, yet bustling industry that now includes Aurora, Embark, Kodiak and Waymo. While TuSimple’s founding team and its earliest backers Sina and Composite Capital are from China, a chunk of its operations are in the United States, including its global headquarters in San Diego. TuSimple also operates an engineering center and truck depot in Tucson and more recently set up a facility in Texas to support its autonomous trips —always with a human safety operator behind the wheel. TuSimple also has operations in Beijing and Shanghai.
Despite its U.S. operations and U.S. partners, its shares are largely held by Chinese investors, the S-1 prospectus shows. The company’s principal stockholders of Class A shares are Sun Dream Inc with 20%, Composite Capital Master Fund with 7.28% and Navistar with 6%. Navistar is now owned by Volkswagen Group’s The Traton Group. TuSimple’s co-founders Mo Chen and Xiaodi Hou hold 9.1% and 8.5%, respectively in Class A shares. The two each hold 50% of the Class B shares.
The Sun Dream is ultimately controlled by Charles Chao, who is a board member, but perhaps best known as the chairman of Sina, which owns Weibo.