Is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

While many deemed 2020 the year of SPAC, short for special purpose acquisition company, 2021 may well make last year look quaint in comparison.

It’s probably not premature to be asking: is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

Just today, we saw the trading debut of the most valuable company to date go public through a merger with one of these SPACs: 35-five-year-old, Pontiac, Michigan-based United Wholesale Mortgage, which is among the biggest mortgage companies in the U.S.

Its shares slipped a bit by the end of trading, closing at $11.35 down from their starting price of $11.54, but it’s doubtful anyone involved is crying into their cocktails tonight. The outfit was valued at a whopping $16 billion when its merger with the blank-check outfit Gores Holdings IV was approved earlier this week.

Why is this interesting? Well, first, despite UWM’s size, unlike with a traditional IPO that can require 12 to 18 months of preparation, UWM’s path to going public took less than a year, beginning with Gores Holdings IV completing its IPO in late January 2020 and raising approximately $425 million in cash.

Alec Gores, the billionaire founder of of the private equity firm Gores Group, led the deal. It isn’t clear when Gores approached UWM, but the tie-up was announced back in September and ultimately included a $500 million private placement. (It’s typical to tack-on these transactions once a target company has been identified and accepts the terms of the proposed merger. Most targets are many times larger than the SPACs. In fact, according to law firm Vinson & Elkins, there’s no maximum size of a target company.)

Also notable is that UWM is a mature company, one that says it generated $1.3 billion in revenue in the third quarter of last year alone. UWM CEO Mat Ishbia, whose father started the company in 1986, said last fall that the company is “massively profitable.”

It’s a story unlike that of many other outfits to go public recently through the SPAC process. Many — Opendoor, Luminar Technologies, Virgin Galactic — are still developing businesses that need capital to keep going and which might not have found much more from private market investors. Indeed, today’s deal would seem to open up a new world of possibilities, and for companies of all sizes.

Either way, it isn’t likely to hold the record for ‘biggest SPAC deal ever’ for long. Not only is interest in SPACs as feverish as ever, billionaire investor William Ackman is still sitting on a $4 billion SPAC to which he has said he’ll throw in an additional $1 billion in cash from his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital.

You can bet the deal will be a doozy. Reportedly, Ackerman was at one point looking to take public Airbnb with his SPAC, which began trading in July. When Airbnb passed on the proposed merger, he reportedly reached out to the privately held media conglomerate Bloomberg (which Bloomberg has said is untrue).

Because SPACs typically complete a merger with a private company in two years or less, speculation continues to run rampant about what Ackman will put together. In the meantime, there have already been 59 new SPAC offerings this year — as many as in all of 2019 — that have raised $16.8 billion, and there’s seemingly no end in sight.

Just this week, Fifth Wall Ventures, the four-year-old, L.A.-based proptech focused venture firm, registered plans to raise $250 million for a new blank-check company.

Intel Chairman Omar Ishrak, who previously ran medical device giant Medtronic, is planning to raise between $750 million and $1 billion for a blank-check firm targeting deals in the health tech sector, Bloomberg reported on Sunday.

Gores Group isn’t done, either. On Wednesday, it registered plans to raise $400 million in an IPO for its newest blank check company. It will be the outfit’s seventh to date.

There are now so many companies to go public through a SPAC exchange-traded funds are beginning to pop up, putting together baskets of SPAC deals for investors who want to hedge their bets.

The very newest fund, reported on earlier this week by the WSJ and overseen by hedge fund Morgan Creek Capital Management and  fintech company Exos Financial, will be actively managed and snap up stakes in firms that recently went public by merging with a SPAC, as well as shell companies that are still on the prowl.

It will be joining the world’s first actively managed exchange-traded fund focused on SPACs, the Calgary-based Accelerate Arbitrage Fund, which launched in April of last year.

A second ETF, the Defiance NextGen Derived SPAC ETF, emerged in October.

Telehealth startup Hims fell in its public trading debut — and that’s fine with its CEO

Hims & Hers, a San Francisco-based telehealth startup that sells sexual wellness and other health products and services to millennials, began trading publicly today on the NYSE after completing a reverse merger with the blank-check company Oaktree Acquisition Corp.

Its shares slipped a bit, ending the day down 5% from where they started, but the company, which was founded in 2017 and now claims nearly 300,000 paying subscribers for its various offerings, has never been focused on a splashy headline about its first-day performance, co-founder and CEO Andrew Dudum told us earlier today.

On the contrary, Dudum says that while Hims might have once imagined a traditional IPO, it decided to go the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) route because of their pricing mechanisms and because it was approached by a SPAC led by renowned money manager Howard Marks, the founder of the global alternative investment firm Oaktree Capital Management. (“We fell in love with the Oaktree team and the capital market experience and deep resources they have.”)

We talked with Dudum about that SPAC’s structure; the lockups involved now that Hims’ shares are trading; and how much of the business still centers around one of its first offerings, which was a generic version of erectile dysfunction pills. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You’re a Bay Area-based company selling to a mostly U.S. audience. How are you thinking about expanding that footprint geographically?

AD: We do have a small operation selling in the U.K.; we’re getting our feet wet in that market and building out a team and infrastructure and fulfillment. If you look at the regulatory landscape, there’s a huge amount of room [to grow] in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and Asia, and so in that order, we’ll start to [move into those markets].

TC: What is your average customer cost? 

AD: It has come down from $200 when we first launched, to roughly $100 last year, and we make, on average, close to $300 in the first couple of years in terms of a patient’s lifetime value.

TC: How quickly do customers churn?

AD: We break down lifetime value projections by quarter cohorts, and quarter over quarter, year over year, we’re monetizing each of these cohorts better, with high margin profiles.

As of last quarter, the business was growing 90% year-over-year, with 76% gross margins and greater cash efficiency, and that’s because as we provide more offerings, there is more cross purchasing. Also, word of mouth is becoming more of a dynamic, with more than 50% of the traffic to the site free at this point because we have built a brand with a young demographic.

TC: When are you projecting that you’ll turn profitable?

AD: We’ve reduced our annual burn and increased our margin efficiency and organic growth, so on a quarterly basis, we think in the next couple of years is a real possibility.

Image Credits: Hims & Hers

TC: Hims’s first wellness offerings included pills for male pattern hair loss and erectile dysfunction. How much revenue does that ED business account for?

AD: What we’ve disclosed is that roughly half [of our revenue] is that sexual health category — which includes [medicines for] generic erectile dysfunction, birth control, STDs, UTIs and premature ejaculation. The other half is predominately dermatology, including hair care [to address hair loss] and acne, and we’ve more recently moved into primary care and behavioral health.

TC: For retail investors, how do you differentiate the business from that of your rival Ro, which heavily promotes its ED products?

AD: There are a number of core differences between us and public and private players. First is our real focus on diversifying our offerings. With our focus on sexual health, dermatology, primary care and behavioral health, it’s in our DNA to quickly expand into new businesses.

We also think we’re different from most [rivals] in that we really invest time in building deep relationships with [those who represent] the future of healthcare markets — people in their teens, 20s and 30s. This demographic has a different set of tech expectations and consumer expectations than people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and if we want to build for the future, that means building for largest body of payers in the future.

Traditional healthcare companies monetize only the sick, but optimizing around that demographic precludes you from understanding what the next generation really needs and wants. I’ve never seen such a divergence between a patient population and legacy experience, and that’s a real advantage to us as a business.

TC: Hims just went public through a SPAC in a deal that gives the company around $280 million in cash – $205 million of that from Oaktree’s blank-check company and another $75 million through a private placement deal. How much runway does that give you?

AD: The company doesn’t burn a tremendous amount — between $10 million and $20 million a year — so a relatively long runway if we keep operating the business as is. But it does allow us to expand and grow into new businesses, too, including into big categories like sleep, infertility, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

TC: What about acquisitions?

AD: We’ll keep an eye open for strategic opportunities and consolidation opportunities. More than a dozen businesses a month come to us to be consolidated into the brand, but generally speaking, we’ve had the belief that so much is in front of us that we don’t want to be distracted.

TC: Is there a lockup period for anyone?

AD: There’s a traditional lock-up for executives and employees and the board.

TC: Did your SPAC sponsors get a board seat?

AD: No.

TC: How much do they now own of the company, and can they sell?

AD: Oaktree owns a couple percent and [the syndicate they brought to do the private placement] [owns] 12% But the very reason we went with them was the quality of the team and the organization . . . and they have the added incentive for the next year or two from a compensation standpoint for the company to succeed and to prove [out their thesis that Hims is a smart investment].

TC: Do you think the traditional IPO process is broken?

AD: The traditional IPO market hasn’t changed. It takes 12 to 18 months of preparation, which is a crazy amount of time for management to be distracted, then there’s this one-day PIPE that gives institutions a tremendous amount of money instantaneously. Maybe it makes for a good CNBC headline but at tremendous cost to the company. It’s atrocious. If you were a founder or employee and getting diluted twice as much as you have to be, you’d be really upset. It’s no surprise to me that founders like myself are looking at other modalities with better pricing and better structures.

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Coinbase commits to a “better customer experience” following complaints

Coinbase has a problem. As interest in bitcoin has soared along with its price, the popular cryptocurrency exchange has found itself the target of a growing spate of angry customers who haven’t been able to access customer service.

A quick look at Twitter tells the story. As ranted one upset user of the service just earlier today: “Multiple issues over the last month which cost me $$$ several open cases and 0% response?? When are you going to help me or is it easier to just forget. This wont be so easy when your publicly traded. Will be following up with [SEC] soon.”

There are many (many) similar complaints to be found.

In the interest of full disclosure, this editor asked the company this week for more insight into its customer service operations after emailing its support staff more than a half dozen times and tweeting once over 10 days, and receiving no response. (I bought one unit of Ether in 2018 on the platform and wanted to access my account, which I’d been locked out of nearly two years ago.)

To its credit, Coinbase today issued a statement, promising to do better. Its VP of customer success, Casper Sorenson, wrote on the company’s blog that Coinbase is “committing to a better customer experience during this time of heightened interest in the cryptoeconomy,”  The company says it is adding more people to its team; adding more self-service options (there are startling few); expanding its “help center”, and launching a new educational site, Coinbase Learn, “as a one-stop-shop for first timers, experienced investors, and everyone in between.”

Most meaningful perhaps, Coinbase says that in the coming months, it will begin offering live messaging with Coinbase representatives, which is not currently an option. Indeed, Coinbase does not offer live support of any kind. A help support phone line is only available to users wanting to freeze their accounts, and it is automated.  (The flip side of its slow customer response times may tie to the apparent seriousness with which Coinbase, which works closely with regulated banks, takes security issues.)

Still, the company will have to do far more for its increasingly mainstream users as a publicly traded outfit, both because regulators will undoubtedly take a greater interest in its unhappy customers and because it will otherwise lose existing and potential clients to rivals, of which there are a growing array, from the international payment giant PayPal, which is now seeing record daily cryptocurrency trading, to investment brokers like Robinhood. (Another increasingly popular option: digital asset managers like Grayscale whose trusts are publicly traded over the counter.)

More attention to the issue appears overdue. While Coinbase has presumably been dealing with a surge in complaints that corresponds with the volatility of Bitcoin’s ups and downs, customer service has been an ongoing issue for the nearly nine-year-old, San Francisco outfit, which filed its confidential form with the SEC in December to go public and says it has 35 million users in more than 100 countries.

In 2018, Mashable obtained 134 pages of complaints filed to the SEC and the California Department of Business Oversight following a five-month FOIA process,  and the picture that emerged was “not of a responsible actor in the cryptocurrency space opening the market to new investors, but rather a company overwhelmed by and underprepared for its own success,” the outlet reported at the time.

Asked today, among other things, how Coinbase’s processes have since changed, how many of its more than 1,100 employees are focused on customer support, and whether the outfit could share its latest customer numbers, Coinbase, currently in its SEC-mandated quiet period, declined to comment.

A theory about the current IPO market

As expected, shares of Poshmark exploded this morning, blasting over 130% higher in afternoon trading from the company’s above-range IPO price of $42. The enormous and noisy debut of Poshmark comes a day after Affirm, another IPO, was treated similarly by the public markets.

Both explosive debuts were preceded by huge December debuts from C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb. It seems today that any venture-backed company that can claim some sort of tech mantle is being treated to a strong IPO pricing run and a huge first-day result.

This is, of course, annoying to some people. Namely, certain elements of the venture capital community who would prefer to keep all outsized gains in their own pockets. But, no matter. You might be wondering what is going on. Let’s talk about it.

Here’s how you get a big first-day IPO pop

TechCrunch has covered the IPO window as closely as we can over the last few years. And the late-stage venture capital markets, along with the changing value of tech stocks and the huge boom in consumer (retail) investing.

Based on my participation in as much of that reporting as I could take part in here’s how you get a 130% first-day IPO pop in a company that has actually been around long enough for investors to math-out reasonable growth and profit expectations for the future:

  1. Exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates. This leads to super-cheap money, bonds being shit and no one wanting to hold cash. Lots of dollars go into more speculative assets, like stocks. And lots of money goes into exotic investments, like venture capital funds.

Poshmark is pushing into the public market at a high-end valuation as the resale market sizzles

Poshmark, the nine-year-old, Redwood City Ca.-based online marketplace for second-hand clothing, beauty, and home decor products, is set to start trading as a public company on the Nasdaq tomorrow after pricing 6.6 million shares higher than originally planned, according to Bloomberg.

Per its report, the company, which originally planned to sell shares at between $35 and $39 million, saw enough demand to rationalize a $42-per-share price — one that values the company at $3.5 billion on a fully diluted basis.

Given investors’ feverish embrace of all kinds of newly public consumer brands, including Airbnb, DoorDash and, to a more moderate degree, Wish (trading currently where it opened when it hit the market in mid-December), most anticipate smooth sailing for the company as it makes the move from private to publicly traded company.

What it has going for it: More than 70 million Poshmark users having sold more than 130 million items through the platform since its inception, according to the company.

Its numbers are moving in the right direction. Poshmark makes money off commissions on peer-to-peer sales and on products that it sells sold via wholesale and the company turned profitable last year for the first time Specifically, according to its S-1, it produced net income of $21 million off revenue of $193 million during the nine months ended September 30, 2020, compared with a net loss of $34 million on revenue of $150 million during the same period in 2019.

Also, unlike many brick-and-mortar retail businesses to be hard hit by pandemic-related shutdowns  — J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and Brooks Brothers are just a few in a line of companies that have declared bankruptcy — Poshmark only facilitates transactions between buyers and sellers so it doesn’t have the burden or expense of holding inventory.

More, resale platforms have the wind at their back right now. Shoppers are more interested than ever in sustainability, and buying someone else’s never- or lightly-used items is more environmentally friendly than supporting, say, a fast fashion brand. (Forever 21, the fast-fashion mall staple, filed for bankruptcy in 2019.)

What Poshmark is going up against: making public market investors understand how it differs from already publicly traded rivals like The RealReal, which went public in 2019 and whose current market cap is roughly $2.3 billion, as well as other newer entrants. For example, another company set to go public (unless it gets SPAC’d) is ThredUp, which filed a confidential registration statement with the SEC for an IPO last fall around the same time that Poshmark did this. Unlike The RealReal, which is focused exclusively on high-end luxury goods that it authenticates, Poshmark and ThredUp make accessible a wider range of more affordable items and compete more directly.

Further, while investors are excited about the many companies that are finally beginning to trade publicly, companies like Poshmark are competing for mindshare with other newer entrants.

Among these is the lending company Affirm. Its shares began trading earlier today.

Affirm doubles after starting to trade despite strong IPO pricing

Today shares of Affirm, a buy-now-pay-later unicorn, started trading above $90 per share, far above its $49 per-share IPO price, a figure that was already miles above the company’s early expectations.

The pop comes after Affirm raised its pricing range earlier this week, to $41 to $44 per share, up from an initial range of $33 to $38 per share. To see the company double from its raised price implies strong demand for its shares, a thin float, or both.

Affirm’s explosive debut comes on the heels of similarly-strong results from DoorDash, C3.ai, and Airbnb. Those companies’ debuts were so strong that Roblox delayed its IPO, later swapping a traditional IPO for a direct listing to get around the pricing issue.

Today’s IPO shows that the same dynamics that were at play in those IPOs have persisted into 2021. More public debuts are expected in Q1, including Coinbase, another well-known unicorn. Other names like Robinhood, Bumble, and others are in the wings.

Affirm’s first-day performance will certainly raise eyebrows from regular critics of the traditional IPO process. But the company did raise more money than it perhaps anticipated, and is having a raucous first-day’s trading, so it’s hard to fret too much for the company. If its share price is still as high in a month as it is today, perhaps it was as underpriced as some will claim.

Fintech

Affirm’s pricing brings a green splash to a busy week for fintech giants. Yesterday, Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid failed to go through due to regulatory concerns. While the fallen deal could have a chilling effect on fintech startups, Plaid told TechCrunch that it saw 60% customer growth in 2020, bringing it to more than 4,000 clients. Plaid’s next step, per many in the VC and tech community, will be even bigger than its once-planned $5.3 billion dollar exit.

Some tweets here to give you a sense of the momentum around fintech right now:

Affirm’s pop and Plaid’s forward-looking attitude show that the exit market for fintech feels both optimistic and energetic.

Chinese facial recognition unicorn Megvii prepares China IPO

Megvii, one of China’s largest facial recognition startups, is gearing up for an initial public offering in Shanghai. The company is working with CITIC Securities to prepare for its planned listing, according to an announcement posted by the China Securities Regulatory Commission on Tuesday.

The move came more than a year after Megvii, known for its computer vision platform Face++, filed to go public in Hong Kong in August 2019. At the time, Reuters reported that the company could raise between $500 million and $1 billion. However, the firm’s IPO application in Hong Kong has lapsed for undisclosed reasons and its focus is now on Shanghai’s STAR board, a person with knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch.

In 2019, China established the STAR board to attract high-growth, unprofitable Chinese tech startups after losing them to the U.S. for years. In the meantime, a domestic flotation is increasingly appealing to Chinese firms, especially those that count on government contracts and are caught in the U.S.-China tech competition.

Megvii and its rivals SenseTime, Yitu, and CloudWalk are collectively recognized as the “Four AI Dragons” of China for their market dominance and fundings from highflying investors. Megvii’s technology can be found powering smart city infrastructure across China as well as many smartphones and mobile apps. Alibaba, Ant Group and the Bank of China are among the group of investors who have pumped about $1.4 billion into the ten-year-old company since its inception.

The AI Dragons are less celebrated outside their home market. Last year, Megvii, Yitu and SenseTime were added to the U.S. Entity List for their alleged roles in enabling the government’s mass surveillance of the Muslim minority groups in western China. CloudWalk was subsequently added to the blacklist in 2020 and cut off from its U.S. suppliers.

According to the notice posted by China’s securities authority, Megvii plans to issue Chinese depositary receipts (CDRs), which are similar to American depositary receipts and allow domestic investors to hold overseas shares. That suggests the Beijing-based AI unicorn has not ruled out listing outside mainland China.

Currently seeking guidance in the pre-application stage, Megvii’s planned listing still needs approval from Chinese regulators.

UIPath files confidential IPO paperwork with SEC

UIPath, the robotic process automation startup that has been growing like gangbusters, filed confidential paperwork with the SEC today ahead of a potential IPO.

UiPath, Inc. today announced that it has submitted a draft registration statement on a confidential basis to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) for a proposed public offering of its Class A common stock. The number of shares of Class A common stock to be sold and the price range for the proposed offering have not yet been determined. UiPath intends to commence the public offering following completion of the SEC review process, subject to market and other conditions,” the company said in a statement.

The company has raised over $1.2 billion from investors like Accel, CapitalG, Sequoia and others. Its biggest raise was $568 million led by Coatue on an impressive $7 billion valuation in April 2019. It raised another $225 million led by Alkeon Capital last July when its valuation soared to $10.2 billion.

At the time of the July raise, CEO and co-founder Daniel Dines did not shy away from the idea of an IPO, telling me:

“We’re evaluating the market conditions and I wouldn’t say this to be vague, but we haven’t chosen a day that says on this day we’re going public. We’re really in the mindset that says we should be prepared when the market is ready, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s in the next 12-18 months,” he said.

This definitely falls within that window. RPA helps companies take highly repetitive manual tasks and automate them. So for example, it could pull a number from an invoice, fill in a number in spreadsheet and send an email to accounts payable, all without a human touching it.

It is a technology that has great appeal right now because it enables companies to take advantage of automation without ripping and replacing their legacy systems. While the company has raised a ton of money, and seen its valuation take off, it will be interesting to see if it will get the same positive reception as companies like Airbnb, C3.ai and Snowflake.

Early DoorDash investor dismisses froth talk, says company could grow 10x from here

The stunning debut of the food delivery company DoorDash on the public market this week has plenty of people puzzled. While undeniably fast-growing, the unprofitable delivery company has come under fire numerous times over its employment practices, and its IPO, like that of other gig-economy companies, leaves a lot of economic issues unresolved.

So why is a company that lost $667 million in 2019 and $149 million in the first nine months of 2020 — during a period of hypergrowth because of the pandemic — being valued at $55.8 billion by public market investors? Have they lost their minds?

Saar Gur thinks he has answers to such questions. Gur, a longtime general partner with the early-stage venture firm CRV, was able to write a check to DoorDash in its earliest rounds, including its seed, Series A and Series B financings, and we gather the firm’s stake in the business will return multitudes of the CRV fund from which those checks came. In short, he’s very far from biased. However, in a call earlier today, he painted a picture of DoorDash wherein it not only becomes profitable but is 10 times larger than it is today. It was an interesting conversation, one that has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You wrote a seed check to DoorDash. Did you seek out the company or did the team pitch CRV?

SG: I went on this hunt, looking for Tony. [Rival delivery service] Postmates had started two-and-a-half to three years earlier, and I thought the founder was great [but I wasn’t sure about investing]. Another company, Fluc, was run by this very scrappy entrepreneur, Adam, who was getting some buzz in Palo Alto, and I was quite curious and met the team because we were in the food business and knew a lot of restaurant owners; my wife was a food entrepreneur and built this chain of homemade yogurt stores called Fraiche.

So I emailed my friend Misty, who was the general manager at the time of Oren’s Hummus on University Avenue [in Palo Alto] and said, ‘We’re looking at this company, Fluc, and we’d love to get your thoughts.’ And she said, ‘The team at Fluc is okay; their technology is better [than some others], but they don’t understand our problems in a way that’s truly helpful to us. You should talk to these kids out of Stanford at DoorDash.’

If there’s any skill in investing, it’s not just confirmation bias of investing in Fluc [whose founders later moved on] but we did a hard pivot and chased down the DoorDash team. We met them at Fraiche in Palo Alto, and from that moment, it was like we were finishing each other’s sentences.

TC: What did you talk about?

SG: The team from day one talked about building a logistics company. For example, they understood [eatery] Oren’s Hummus, which at that time was quite popular but had limited front-of-house seating and a big kitchen in the back. And [co-founder and CEO] Tony [Xu] and [co-founder turned VC] Evan Moore said, ‘We want to target customers of popular concepts that have limited [seating] and extra kitchen capacity, and to integrate directly with the kitchen so we don’t have to interact with front-of-the-house staff.’

At the time, Postmates had pivoted from waiting in line to get you an iPhone to delivering food, including from Fraiche, but they would send someone to your store, place the order and wait. DoorDash instead put an iPad in the kitchen.

TC: You’ve said that CRV missed out on Uber, that Travis Kalanick left your offices and headed over to Benchmark, where they wouldn’t let him leave until he signed a term sheet. Do you think Uber could or should have been DoorDash? I met with Travis in 2011, before DoorDash was founded, and he called Uber a logistics company that would deliver food and a lot of other things. Given DoorDash’s dominant market share, do you think Uber waited too long to jump into deliveries? 

SG: The original Uber was not at all about food; it was that ride hailing hadn’t changed [over time]. Its Series A deck was a picture of a guy holding his hand up and trying to hail a taxi, with no real vision about food — at least that’s my recollection. Over time, it became Uber for everything.

But in terms of what happened, DoorDash launched in Palo Alto. A number of other companies were in San Francisco, and Tony and the team had to decide whether to launch in San Francisco as its next major city or whether to launch somewhere else. And after a number of discussions that I was a part of, they focused on San Jose.

Most people don’t know, but San Jose is something like the 10th largest city in the United States and its layout is much more similar to other mid-tier cities and suburban America than it is to San Francisco. I think that was one key strategic decision. At the time, [larger rivals] Grubhub and Seamless had proven [the model] in dense cities. It was really not obvious that it would work in San Jose or any suburb.

TC: Clearly, investors are excited about what DoorDash has built — so excited that its stock went crazy yesterday. Are you, like Bill Gurley, frustrated that money was left on the table by its underwriters? Do you think traditional IPOs are broken?

SG: I actually started my career at Lehman Brothers on the investment banking team, and so having seen the IPO process, while I can appreciate [frustration that a] company left some money on the table based on the pricing, the tactical challenge [is that] it’s very hard to predict. You know what the market will bear once it moves to retail investors.

What’s exciting to me is [that] DoorDash is raising money because they are just getting started. I do think this could be a $500 billion-plus company. There’s so much to be excited about. As for the capital-raising event, I think it’s hard for the bankers to know where it will land with the broader market, so I’m not as negative as maybe some others.

TC: Five-hundred billion dollars is a big number. How do you get there?

SG: Let’s just start with food delivery. DoorDash’s suburban market share has grown to more than 60% and its overall U.S. market share is over 52%, so they’ve won the market in food delivery. And if you look at the [Chinese shopping platform] Meituan and other global food delivery businesses, that alone paints a path where DoorDash should be [valued at] $100 billion, assuming they continue to execute on the path that they’re on.

But the bigger story to me is, if you go back to U.S. Postal Service, it used to take two weeks to get a letter. Then FedEx launches and all of a sudden the mail seems slow. The [net promoter score] was really high for the USPS until FedEx launched. Or [think of] dial-up [internet access], which was great until [we had] broadband.

Image Credits: CRV

What we’re seeing is that consumers prefer immediacy and this magic ability to press a button and have ice cream delivered in under 25 minutes, or milk, and you start to layer [items on] from there. We’ve partnered with Macy’s in December, for example, so if you buy a shirt or a dress, you can now have it at your house in an hour. When you look at the infrastructure that DoorDash has built to deliver on that vision, that’s where this company looks more like Amazon .

That’s dreaming the dream, and that’s a very different business than ridesharing and Uber’s core business.

TC: You’re comparing DoorDash to Amazon, which is a much more capital-intensive business with lots of hard assets. Do you see DoorDash moving in that direction? Relatedly, what kinds of acquisitions would DoorDash be potentially interested in making?

SG: The company is always focused on technology first. DoorDash Drive is a product that many people don’t understand but it powers merchants that don’t want to roll out their own delivery network. Say you go to Walmart.com and order a bunch of groceries. DoorDash is powering those deliveries. Macy’s wants to roll out one-hour delivery. DoorDash Drive is allowing them to do that. DoorDash also now has a product that’s purely like a SaaS business that enables larger chains that want to control the whole experience of delivery with their own drivers to do that. Jimmy John’s [a sandwich chain] is now running its entire order and delivery business with their own drivers, using DoorDash software.

There are parts of DoorDash that are a true software business, just like AWS, and there are parts of it that are capital-intensive, like Dashmart [that rolled out this summer and which are convenience stores are owned and operated by DoorDash]. Will they buy 7-Eleven or something like that? We saw [delivery startup] goPuff acquire BevMo last month; it’s not out of the question that there might be a reason to do that. With Dashmart, they already can see a lot of stuff based on data that people want to have immediately.

TC: DoorDash has also ventured into the ghost kitchen market, opening a facility in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. Could this become a bigger initiative?

SG: I think it’s definitely in the zone. DoorDash can use data and say, you know, you don’t need to build another Long John Silver or Taco Bell [to get closer to some of your customers]; you use our Redwood City kitchen. We can already show you the data that [highlights how] deliveries that might take an hour could be turned into 15 minutes. They’re really facilitating the revenue growth of these concepts.

There’s another set of entrepreneurs where they can use the data to say, for example, ‘Hey, there is no pizza restaurant in Palo Alto, so we’re just going to launch Saar’s Pizza Company to fill that hole and do it cost-effectively because we don’t need to build a location out with seating and all the building codes involved serving customers in person.’

TC: In the meantime, one reads stories of restaurateurs who complain about the fees involved in working with DoorDash.

SG: Having been a restaurant owner, I can tell you, even for my wife, who has a Wharton MBA, it’s very hard to keep track of all the numbers. You feel like everyone is screwing you; it’s just really hard to run a small business. So it’s not based on great data, or even if it is, if you view that DoorDash is adding incremental revenue, and if you understand the concept of marginal profit, then you should continue to sell things as you can make money on the margins of the food and you have the excess kitchen capacity. 

If you look, that’s why DoorDash has signed [roughly] 45 of the top 50 quick-service restaurants. Those are quantitative groups, and they wouldn’t do it do it for as long as they have and invest in these partnerships if it wasn’t working.

But there’s always going to be a sticker shock.

TC: Regarding these quick-service restaurants and ghost kitchens, these systems are so efficient that the worry is that mom-and-pop restaurants get wiped out over time. How do you think about that concern?

SG: I think we are social beings and we look for experiences [and] breaking bread with someone is not going away. I think smarter brands will — just like what we see in retail with physical locations and online locations — [be both offline and online]. Smarter concepts will understand how to build those brands across channels. And then I still think that the Saisons of the world and The French Laundry will only continue to to do well post-COVID as people look for these experiences of how to be together and share food, which is a passion of many folks.

TC: How does DoorDash itself become profitable? 

SG: If you check the facts, this summer the company was actually profitable. Not only that, they gave $120 million, or they give credit, to other small businesses, in support of COVID, so had they not done that, they actually would have produced quite a bit of cash.

With a company like DoorDash, you have to sell a big vision and be able to recruit, but you also need to be highly quantitative, and Tony has always been able to spit out numbers that are accurate and set goals that are very quantitative. And while they’re not profitable in the newer markets [because they are growing], they’ve got the cohorts to show you not only how they’re profitable in older markets but how their profitability expands over time in those markets.

At any point, they could kind of slow their growth and become more profitable, but that’s not the playbook.