With so much late-stage money available, why are tech companies going public now?

Ringing the Nasdaq market bell was the thrill of a lifetime — both when I did it as a founder and also vicariously as a VC via my incredible founders who have taken their companies public. There’s nothing like seeing the baby you nurtured mature into a multibillion-dollar public entity.

But times have changed. The dramatic influx of late-stage venture capital is enabling companies to slow walk their public offerings. In addition, the accumulation of mountains of cash by strategic buyers and the rise of private equity buy-out firms are making other forms of exits viable options.

Case in point: The number of publicly listed companies has dropped 52%, but entrepreneurship momentum hasn’t slowed; it has actually accelerated. Many of the companies that are finally going public this year are doing so several years after they could have — and would have — in years past. When Uber went public this year, its valuation was so large that it would have registered as 280 on this year’s Fortune 500 list. TransferWise prolonged any move to the public markets through a secondary sale that allowed them to stay private while more than doubling their valuation.

IPOs aren’t for everyone or every company — or indeed for most companies. According to PitchBook, only 3% of venture-backed companies in the last decade eventually went public. Most startups that don’t go public never had the option to do so. However, some founders who could IPO are actively choosing to delay IPOs due to the many challenges of managing a public company.

What’s best for one company isn’t necessarily what’s best for another.

For starters, employee moods shift with the stock price. I once had an employee mad at me for not telling him to sell when I knew we were going to have a weak quarter. That would have been illegal! Also, IPOs come with a burden of public scrutiny; the administrative hassles take up precious time, and 90-day reporting cycles often conflict with long-term strategic planning. In addition, many public investors are only interested in short-term moves; plus, there’s the related risk of activist investors upending the company’s long-term strategy in pursuit of their own short-term goals.

Despite the challenges, going public is still important for many high-growth companies. Here’s why:

  • IPOs make it easier to compete for talent. Public stock offers clearly valued, tangible cash value to candidates and employees who are either weighing competitive offers or who need to be retained. While private companies can provide one-off private liquidity events via secondary sales, public companies have a far greater ability to engage and retain valued team members though the continuous, orderly disbursement of stock-based compensation.
  • IPOs can facilitate a company’s ability to make acquisitions, as well as facilitate strategic partnerships. After going public, my company used its public equity to make 16 acquisitions, which in part helped to fuel our growth from a few hundred million to a multibillion-dollar valuation. Even though private companies can make acquisitions with stock, it’s far easier to do a deal with tradable public currency. It’s also easier to enter into important strategic partnerships because prospective partners have easily accessible information about the company’s business and financial position.
  • IPOs are a big milestone and mark of achievement for the entire team. IPOs boost employee morale and job satisfaction. Employees who help shepherd their company from its early stages through IPO feel accomplishment and camaraderie, and achieving this milestone contributes measurably to corporate culture. They are not bad for employees’ and founders’ pocketbooks, either!
  • Operating under the watchful eye of Wall Street is cumbersome but makes a company resilient. As complicated as it is to manage a public company, public scrutiny often makes companies more disciplined on execution, which helps them build more predictable businesses. This discipline and transparency can drive long-term success — which in turn accrues to the benefit of its customers, partners, stockholders and employees.
  • The tech IPO window is open right now. Stock markets track the boom and bust cycles of the economy. The so-called “IPO window” for tech stocks can close as surely as it’s open right now. Many companies are planning to “get out” while this window is open. IPO windows can sometimes close for several years, so floating your stock when the window is open is an important consideration. In addition, due to the decline in number of publicly listed companies over the last decade, there is a pent-up demand for fast-growing tech IPOs, as demonstrated by the positive reception that Beyond Meat, CrowdStrike and Zoom received from public investors.

For those founders with their eye on the IPO ball, here’s my advice:

  • Raise plenty of money. Right now, VC dollars are plentiful, and the cost of capital is cheap. However, if you have access to plentiful capital, so do your worthy competitors; you don’t want be disadvantaged relative to them. Use this capital wisely and keep some in reserve just in case the markets turn. My company had to abort its IPO just days before we embarked on our IPO “road show” when the markets turned. We had to survive on the cash we had in the bank for a full two years before we successfully went public.
  • Consider vertical integration. A lot of the businesses going public today or on track to do so in the next few years have adopted business models that encompass every element of the user experience and allow companies to capture a large share of the value stack. We’re especially seeing this in capital-intensive verticals like Katerra in construction and Opendoor in housing (each valued at about $4 billion). We Company (WeWork), expected to IPO this year at a rumored $47 billion valuation, has vertically integrated every element of physical workspaces. Extraordinarily capital intensive, this type of vertical integration creates tremendous value and deep competitive moats. Importantly, these businesses only can be built in environments such as now, where plenty of capital is available with reasonable dilution.
  • Consider broadening your product capabilities. With plenty of cash on hand and your company sitting at a nice revenue multiple, it may be wise to consider broadening your offering while you are still private; both via investment in internal development resources and by acquiring companies with complementary products but less significant market traction. This is particularly relevant for enterprise companies where the cost of customer acquisition is high. With a broader product offering, you can sell more to existing customers, amortizing your acquisition costs and hopefully improving retention with a more complete product offering.
  • Scale as quickly as possible. Because capital is available so cheaply, the IPO-bound companies that win have become the companies that grow quickly, leveraging capital to capture market share faster than their competitors. Uber and WeWork are examples of companies that have used access to capital to scale so quickly that they’ve been able to capture market share from their numerous less-endowed competitors.
  • Review the capabilities of your team and your board for public market scrutiny. Unlike some people who believe that the company needs to bring in an “IPO team” to go public, my experience is that most founders and senior managers are perfectly capable of growing into the public market executive role. They just need to be aware of the rules and regulations, and they need to be advised to use proper judgement. Even so, you may find that you need to “beef up” your team in a few areas such as finance and bring in seasoned executives in other areas such as investor relations. The right board structure for a public company is equally important. Adding board talent with public company experience — particularly in audit oversight and governance areas — is highly recommended.

Every company charts its own path to success, so what’s best for one company isn’t necessarily what’s best for another. I personally wouldn’t trade my experience of going public for the world, and I believe that the talented founders taking their companies public this year feel the same way. What’s great about today’s market environment is that going public — or not — is a choice that lies squarely where it should: in the hands of founders.

The IPO’d learn investing at First Round’s Angel Track

Startups depend on the angel lifecycle. A few flush post-exit individuals put the first cash into a fresh venture. With some skill and plenty of luck, the early team grows the company into a big success. It sells or goes public and those team members earn a fortune. They then pay it forward by investing in the next generation of startups.

If they hoard their spoils they starve the early-stage ecosystem or leave founders stuck with dumb money from non-strategic financiers. If they redistribute their winnings, they can influence startup culture by deciding what, and more importantly, who gets funding.

But how does a co-founder or VP learn to be a mini-VC? That’s the goal of First Round Capital’s Angel Track, a free three-month workshop series in San Francisco and New York for learning how to source, vet, close, and support angel investments.

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A scene from Angel Track’s first cohort

Every two weeks, an expert on some part of the investing process like finding deals or interviewing founders talks to the class, does Q&A, and then leaves the group to openly discuss what they learned and how to use it. Angel Track sessions have been tought by some of the smartest people in the valley like growth master Elad Gil, #ANGELS founding partner and former Twitter VP of corp dev Jessica Verrilli, and Precursor Ventures managing partner Charles Hudson.

Hundreds of startup execs apply for the 15 spots on each coast. After two classes in SF and one in NYC, today First Round unveiled its recently-graduated third cohort from programs in both cities. Those include Lucy Zhang who sold Facebook her chat startup Beluga that became the foundation of Messenger, and Mented Cosmetics co-founder and CEO KJ Miller. By the end of the program they’re taking joint pitch meetings from startups, showing each other the best questions to ask.

As with Y Combinator, it’s as much about the fellowship between new investors as the education. “It’s both a community and a masterclass” says First Round general partner Hayley Barna who oversees the NYC Angel Track. “It’s about bringing a talented group of emerging angels together to build a productive cohort of collaborators.”

She says diversity and inclusion is a big goal of the program, and it features 50% women and 20% underrepresented minorities. Being rich is not a pre-requisite. Barna declares “We’re not pulling in the bankers and the traders doing angel investing as a side-hustle.”

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LOS ANGELES, CA – MARCH 29: Confetti falls as Lyft CEO Logan Green (C) rings the Nasdaq opening bell celebrating the company’s initial public offering (IPO) on March 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The ride hailing app company’s shares were initially priced at $72. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

After a slew of big 2019 IPOs from Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, Slack, and Zoom, there are plenty of newly-minted potential angels for First Round to teach. The venture firm benefits by building a cadre of co-investors or alternative backers for deals it vets, and through added visibility into the next top fundraises. Unlike some VC scout programs, there’s no formal obligation to send opportunities to First Round or pledge funding alongside it. That keeps it appealing to future investors that innovation hubs need to keep the circle of life flowing.

First Round Logo 

“A lot of angel investors that got their start in the mid-to late 2000s, they’re almost all fund managers now. They went from angels or super angels to venture investors” First Round partner Brett Berson tells me. “There haven’t been a lot of people who’ve come in and filled that gap”, which could stunt the ecosystem’s growth. Graduates ramp up their angel investing while often staying in their operating roles, though some like former Pinterest head of culture Cat Lee who became a partner at Maveron turn investing into their day job.

First Round VP Ben Cmejla who helped launch the program explains that “Some people are doing it for the financial return. Some people want access to new ideas and are curious. Some people have a specific type of community they want to support with their investments.”

What Investors Learn From Angel Track

Becoming a successful angel means a lot more than evaluating term sheets. Just like how ideas are a dime a dozen and it’s about who can execute, fundraises are frequent but getting into the right ones takes hard work. First Round focuses on many of the soft skills required to win. Participants receive mentorship on how to:

  • Develop an area of expertise and personal brand
  • Mine their network for deals and post-investment assistance
  • Assess market opportunities rigorously
  • Judge an unproven startup’s team and product
  • Convince a founder to let them into a round and negotiate terms
  • Support their portfolio companies without being annoying

How to approach the delicate power balance of meetings with entrepreneurs can be especially tricky, so I spoke at length with First Round’s Phin Barnes about the session he teaches on founder interviews. I wanted to get a taste for what it’d be like in the classroom, despite First Round declining to let me attend the real thing. Turns out having a journalist in the room can disrupt a safe learning environment for budding angels.

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First Round partner Phin Barnes

“Investing is a sell-side product” Barnes stresses. “Capital is a commodity, especially in this market. What you’re saying with a term sheet is that you think the founder’s equity is worth more than your dollars.” That means investors have to close the value gap with sweat.

Barnes gives me what he calls the ‘chocolate soufflé or brownies’ scenario. “The danger of being a smart, talented executive or entrepreneur is that when a founder talks to you about sugar and flour and butter, you start imagining a molten lava soufflé cake you’d build with the ingredients. You invest, and then the founder comes back with a tray of brownies. ‘That’s not what I thought I invested in!'”

The mistake comes in envisioning what you’d do rather than really listening to the founder — the one who’s cooking. Instead of trying to hijack the roadmap or being disappointed by the direction, angels need to help make those brownies as tasty as possible. That means entering into interviews with an open mind.

“You should be positively inclined to invest and have some critical questions. If you don’t think you should invest, you shouldn’t have the meeting in the first place” Barnes explains. “You want to hold that perspective loosely and as new information comes to light, you want to check ‘Am I still interested?’ By the end you want to know what you don’t know, and the open questions you need to answer to validate your hypothesis.”

The four main areas of evaluation are:

The market — Why does this category of product need to exist? What would the world look like if they dominate the category? Can they clearly explain to a five-year old the problem they’re trying to solve? What’s their contrarian thinking? And what motivation will keep them persevering to address the problem despite setbacks and opportunity cost?

The product — Is addressing this specific customer problem unique and defensible? It’s less about if the product is good or bad, or should the button be red or blue. It’s more about how the founder took the inputs and made the decision and how they process information. Have them walk you through the go-to-market plan and see how they shift between high-level strategy and ground-level tactics.

The team — Do they have on-paper talent like PhDs or experience? Can they iterate quickly? You have to weed out victims and look for people who are learners that evolve when faced with adversity. Do your homework on who they are before so you can dig deeper into how they tick. Ask how they show trust in their team and how they get their team to trust them. Have them tell you about the most important thing that happened at the company in the last week to understand their priorities and emotional connection to the process.

The relationship with the founder — Investors need to ask what the best way to work with them is, and what founders are looking for in support from an investor. Do they want a hands-off investor who only chimes in when summoned, or do they expect frequent co-building sessions? Do they need more help accessing a bigger network for hiring and partnerships, or industry-specific expertise to navigate complex decisions?

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“We have two roles. We interview and then we coach” Barnes says, providing tips for both. “The very best questions are open-ended. They start with a how/what/why and end with a question mark. Double-barreled questions are terrible. Ask them what would you do, and stop. Get comfortable with silence. They’ll usually fill the silence with something off-script that reveals a deeper truth.” Only once has a founder asked Barnes ‘are you ok?’ in response to his inquisitive stare.

Being able to summarize what you’ve learned lets you quickly cross-check your assumptions with the founder and get helpful corrections. That helps you figure out what questions you still need to ask and keep a diligent list of what you’ll need to research after.

When it comes to giving an answer on whether you’ll invest, “Second best to a quick yes is a quick no with a strong point of view and information for the entrepreneur. The worst is ghosting people. 90% of people operate that way but that’s not the way to do it” Barnes emphasizes. “If you walk out without a yes, no, or what to learn more about in specific detail, you’ve failed as an investor and wasted the time of the entrepreneur.”

The antidote to dumb money

“It was like the perfect mix of your favorite college seminar and a super practical apprenticeship” says Ariana Poursartip, the VP of product for fintech startup Petal who was in the first NYC Angel Track class. “I came away with a better sense of my personal investing approach, and a community of fellow angel investors who I’ll continue to learn from for years.”‘

Fostering better educated angels is crucial for enabling founders. “Dumb money” from investors without expertise in a relevant space, connections they’ll leverage to help, or an understanding of what startups need can be dangerous. It can lead founders to raise more but inefficient capital and make slower progress that puts them at risk of a future down-round that can trigger a startup death spiral.

First Round Angel Track Cohort 3

First Round’s Angel Track cohort 3

First Round is far from the only one trying to fill the angel gap. “Initiatives like Spearhead, YC’s Startup Investor School, and scout programs help lower the barrier to entry for many people who will be terrific and helpful investors for startups” says Cmejla. Sequoia, General Catalyst, Village Global and more run their own scout networks. There are some questionable programs out there too, though, like Venture University which charges from $4,000 to $65,000 for its programs that require students to source deals in exchange for a hazy profit-sharing agreement.

Cmejla insists “It isn’t about providing the capital, a short crash course, or a path to becoming a full-time VC, but about building a durable community that members can lean on and lean into as they level up.” Instead, First Round scores a way to connect founders it funds with relevant angels from its classes. That incentivizes the firm to teach savvy etiquette. Barna warns “You want to be thorough, but if you’re putting in a small check, you can’t ask founders to jump through too many hoops . . . and spend five hours just to get that dinky paycheck.”

Past Angel Track participants like Poursartip and Instacart VP of growth Bengaly Kaba tell me they wish the program got them spending more time together both during and after the class, which could spur deeper alliances. “Currently the program ends and there is no formal programming to keep the alumni cohorts engaged and connected” Kaba notes. Many already back startups brought to the class by their peers. Still, Square Cash app product lead Ayo Omojola wanted a stronger structure like perhaps a syndicate so cohort-mates could do more investing together. 

What they all cited was the massive value of learning to codify what they’re looking for and what they bring to the table. Kaba highlighted how he enjoyed “Hearing how Elad Gil, [Floodgate co-founding partner] Ann Muira-Ko, Charles Hudson and other guest speakers defined their investment theses around macro trends, industry specific insights, and founder traits.”

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When the lock-ups expire on recent IPOs and employees start getting liquidity, “you’re going to see a whole new generation of investors get going over the next couple of years” says Berson.

Not every company spawns the same quality of investor, though. Companies like Uber that empower less-senior team members as the ride sharing company does with regional general managers tend to develop talent with the self-direction and conviction to be great angels. Looking back, you similarly see more angels and founders emerging from more decentralized Google than top-down Apple.

As software eats the world, unicorns proliferate, and the proceeds of tech’s winning streak are spread wide, more and more people will be ready to write angel checks. “It will most likely materially accelerate over the next 12-24 months” Berson concludes. Those without the skills could squander what they’ve earned. Angels who know what makes them special and can evaluate startups without getting swept up in the hype will crown the queens of tomorrow.

Equity transcribed: Slack’s IPO, the VCs behind Facebook Libra, founder salaries and trouble in scooter-land

Welcome back to this week’s transcribed edition of Equity.

This week, TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton filled in for co-host Alex Wilhelm – who was out in preparation for his wedding this weekend – joining Kate to cover the big news of the week.

Kate and Danny dive straight into Slack’s IPO and the implications of its direct listing strategy, before shifting gears to discuss the launch of Facebook’s new ‘Libra’ cryptocurrency and the VCs backing the initiative.

The duo then took a look at Lime’s latest fundraising efforts and the potential headwinds facing scooter companies with an appetite for capital. Lastly, Kate and Danny talk about underappreciated tensions for founders, including getting pushed out of their own companies and handling their own salaries.

Crichton: Talking about founders and compensation, our correspondent, Ron Miller, talked to a bunch of VCs to ask how are founders paying themselves today? Obviously, the cost of living in the Bay Area, in New York and other startup hubs has increased dramatically. So VCs have had to become acutely aware of their founders’ financial means.

One of the things that really came out of this survey though, from my perspective, was just how high the numbers are. We surveyed small number. We put it out in the interviews. It came out to post-Series A people are starting to get paid around 200K. But the numbers, even a couple of years ago, I seem to recall was like $120 was the magic number around the Series A, $90K if you had a serious seed fund and like $60 to $80 if you are just getting started.

But the numbers that we saw out of this were significantly higher. I think that shows a lot about how the cost of living has just continued to creep up in San Francisco and in New York.

Clark: Yeah. I think the point is made in the story. If you live in San Francisco and you’re paying a mortgage and you have kids, of course, you need to make six figures really to get by, which is just an unfortunate reality. I can’t say I was surprised by how those salaries looked. Seeing $125K for a founder, if anything, I thought was maybe a little low.

But it reminded me of, nearly a year ago at this point, when I wrote something on how much VCs are paid. I had written it based off data that was provided to me from a consulting firm. People were just up in arms at what I had written because, and I understand looking back, I think it grouped VCs together as VCs who work at really big funds who are getting the 2% carry out of a multi-billion dollar fund and who are paid a lot more.

And there are of course VCs who run seed funds or any kind of fund. There are many different sizes of VC funds. Some VCs actually don’t have a salary at all and are up against the same challenges, if not even more difficult challenges, of a startup founder.

Want more Extra Crunch? Need to read this entire transcript? Then become a member. You can learn more and try it for free. 

Kate Clark: Hello, and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast. My co-host, Alex, is getting married this weekend so he’s not with us today, unfortunately. But we’ve got TechCrunch editor, Danny Crichton on the line. Danny, how are you?

People familiar with Slack’s upcoming public offering share what to expect

Slack, the popular workplace messaging company, is expected to list on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday in the second major direct listing in the U.S. after Spotify introduced the concept to investors in April of last year.

At this point, plenty of industry observers think it makes sound sense for Slack to embrace the direct listing approach, wherein a company places its stock on a public exchange without raising any money or using underwriters. Though the company warned last week that its operating losses are widening as it chases new customers, it has $800 million on its balance sheet, meaning it doesn’t need to raise more right now.

Slack also doesn’t need underwriters who typically discount a company’s shares in order to ensure that they appreciate in value when they begin trading. It’s a known brand in the tech world, and that universe is broadening by the day. Put another way, Slack doesn’t need to be ‘sold’ for investors to want to snap up its shares.

Still, we wondered about some of the thinking that has gone into preparing Slack for its move into the world of publicly traded companies, so we talked with a couple of people who are familiar with what’s happening behind the scenes to find out more. They asked not to be named, but what we learned:

1.) Unlike with the popular streaming music platform Spotify, which has more than 100 million premium subscribers and roughly twice as many active monthly users, Slack wasn’t as well-known to Wall Street as Silicon Valley might imagine. In fact, we’re told the bankers that were selected to advise Slack on its offering– Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Allen & Co, which are the same three that advised Spotify — had to provide more education to analysts and institutional investors this time around.

2.) There will (hopefully) be enough shares to go around, while also not a glut of them. The big concern in a direct offering — which does not feature a lock-up period — is that too many people will dump their shares on the market, crushing the company’s share price, or else that too few will part with their holdings, turning the buying and selling of the company’s shares into a financial game of chicken. We’ll see what happens here, but we’re told the banks have spent the last six months trying to ensure that many — but not all —  of the company’s institutional shareholders will be selling some of their stakes at the offering, Also worth noting is that unlike with Spotify, some Slack employees have restricted stock units that will vest upon its public listing and so be part of the supply of shares on its first day.

3.) In establishing guidance around how Spotify’s shares should be valued, the banks advising the company looked almost entirely to its private market trades, of which they were many. There has been less secondary activity with Slack’s shares, so the banks are likely to rely on these sales but also to use other inputs. We’ll learn soon enough what they settle on, but based on the latest prices at which its shares have traded in the private market, Slack is presumed valued right now at $16.7 billion, or 36 times trailing 12-month sales.

4.) You might imagine that banks hate direct listings because of the rich underwriting fees they aren’t collecting, and they probably do. Still, even with a direct listing, they get paid pretty well, thanks to both advisory fees and also because investors often trade through the banks named as advisers in the prospectus. There are also fewer mouths to feed on a deal with a direct listing. In Slack’s case — as happened with Spotify — Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Allen & Co will reportedly reap almost all of the spoils — or a reported 90 percent of the $22 million in fees earmarked for all the advisers involved in the deal. In a traditional IPO, a longer number of banks that promise research coverage are given shares to sell, which eats into lead underwriters’ allotment.

5.) One risk that Slack shouldn’t necessarily run into but that may have adversely impacted Uber’s IPO is its investor base. According to Slack’s S-1, its biggest outside shareholders include Accel (it owns 24% sailing into the offering), Andreessen Horowitz (13.3%), Social Capital (10.2%), and SoftBank (7.3 %).  Why it matters: Slack doesn’t have to worry about less traditional private company backers like mutual funds not wanting to buy up its shares because they’re too busy trying to offload some.

6.) Direct listings may well become a more popular product for consumer companies because companies can avoid further dilution, and there’s no lock-up on their shares, creating a shorter path to liquidity for the company and its employees and its investors. Still, Slack is probably anomalous as an enterprise company with a high enough profile to pull one off. The listings are really for companies that don’t need money any time soon and whose shares are already of interest to investors, who don’t need inducements to pay attention.

7.) This is the second direct listing of a highly valued privately held company and, for the second time, it’s happening on the NYSE, with the same market maker, Citadel Securities, charged with ensuring orderly trading; the same bank, Morgan Stanley, selected to advise Citadel; and even the same law firms that worked on Spotify’s direct listing pulled back into service.

It’s nice if you’re part of this particular club, and no one can blame Slack for not wanting to reinvent the wheel. But one wonders how nervous it makes Nasdaq, as well as other banks and law firms, to be shut out of this process a second time.

Fiverr shares climb 90% in first day of trading

Freelance marketplace Fiverr had a good first day on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company priced its IPO at $21 per share last night, raising around $111 million. It then started trading this morning at $26, with shares climbing for most of the day and closing at $39.90 — up 90% from the IPO price.

Fiverr is one of the most well-known companies facilitating the so-called gig economy. When it filed to go public last month, the company said it has facilitated 50 million transactions between 5.5 million buyers and 830,000 freelancers.

Investors seem willing to bet on the company despite the fact that it’s losing money, reporting a net loss of $36.1 million on revenue of $75.5 million in 2018. In an interview this afternoon, founder and CEO Micha Kaufman noted that the company’s negative EBITDA is shrinking (at least when you compare the first quarter of 2019 to Q1 2018).

“We are on the path to profitability,” Kaufman said. “That’s the balance we’re trying to keep — focusing on growth while building a business that would be profitable in the long term.”

I’ll have a full story on our interview tomorrow morning.

China opens Nasdaq-style board to lure tech firms back home

China’s much-anticipated Science and Technology Innovation board officially launched in Shanghai today, marking Beijing’s major step in drawing high-potential tech companies to list at home.

The new Star Market, first announced by President Xi Jinping in November, is expected to be a key fundraising avenue for tech companies from an array of stages, given its criteria (link in Chinese) are less stringent than other domestic boards. Beijing has over the past year encouraged local firms to become more self-reliant in producing chips and other core technologies as an escalating trade war threatens to cut China off the U.S. supply chain.

The new startup board began taking applications in late March and have so far received applications from 122 companies, according to information from the Shanghai Stock Exchange .

The tech bourse opened as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange next door got a big boost. China’s ecommerce titan Alibaba has filed confidentially for a second listing in Hong Kong, according to reports from Bloomberg and Reuters on Thursday citing sources. A spokesperson for Alibaba declined to comment.

Rumors of Alibaba’s potential IPO have swirled for months, but the Hangzhou-based firm has recently accelerated its application process as the U.S.-China trade war intensifies, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Other Chinese firms that want to be closer to home now have another option to raise equity. Through the new tech board, China will allow loss-making companies to list on an exchange for the first time. This will likely draw promising, pre-profit tech firms that would have otherwise chosen to list in New York for more lax regulations.

For example, unprofitable companies with an income of at least 300 million yuan ($43.43 million) from the previous year are allowed to list in Shanghai if they have a minimum market capitalization of 2 billion yuan and generated a cash flow of no less than 100 million yuan over the past three years.

The board will be the first to have adopted a “registration-based” IPO system designed to streamline applications and limit the securities authority’s influence over pricing and timing of a flotation.

Companies with a dual-class shareholding structure, which has proven popular with a range of tech giants including Facebook, Alphabet, Alibaba and JD.com, will be eligible to apply. Alibaba famously snubbed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange after the bourse rejected its application over its corporate structure. HKEX recently dropped its dual-class ban and admitted that Alibaba’s decision to list in New York had compelled it to rethink the restriction. 

Applicants that adopt the variable interest entities (VIE) structure, a controversial framework that many Chinese internet firms use to operate as domestic companies controlled by foreign entities, are also welcome to apply.

Chewy founder Ryan Cohen on its fast-approaching IPO: “It’s like seeing my baby graduate”

Ask any venture capitalist about the most important ingredient to success in startups, and they’ll tell you it centers on founders who can persuade not only investors to part with some of their capital but, more important, who can convince people to leave what are often more stable jobs in order to build a company from scratch.

Ryan Cohen certainly fits the description. It goes a long way in explaining why Chewy, the online retailer of pet food and supplies that he cofounded in 2011, sold to PetSmart for a reported $3.35 billion in 2017 — and why it’s also expected to stage a successful IPO this Friday, when PetSmart spins it off (though PetSmart will continue to hold a majority stake in the company).

Just today, the expected IPO price range, originally planned at between $17 and $19 per share, was raised to $19 to $21 per share, with the IPO advisory firm IPO Boutique saying the guidance it has received is that the deal is “multiple times oversubscribed.”

Cohen stepped away from Chewy last year, nearly a year after its all-cash sale. Naturally, he’s still excited to stand on the balcony of the NYSE as the company’s shares begin trading publicly on Friday. We talked with him earlier today about his path, beginning as a baby-faced founder without a college degree or any kind of network — and what, at age 33, he’s planning to do next.

TC: Your company sold in what was called at the time as the biggest e-commerce sale in history, yet most people still don’t know who you are. Who are you?

RC: [Laughs.] I’ve been an entrepreneur since as far back a I can remember. My father was a glassware importer — so a businessperson — and I saw what it was like to be accountable and responsible and to have your own employees and from an early age, I just knew that I wasn’t cut out for a traditional job, that entrepreneurship was the right path for me.

TC: Were you coding away in your bedroom like 90 percent of the founders we talk with?

RC: I was building websites at [age] 13, 14, then I moved on to affiliate marketing . . . My cofounder, Michael Day [who became Chewy’s CTO] and I met each other in an internet chat room, back when they were pure and bad things weren’t happening [online]. It was [centered around] website design computer programming, and we just hit it off.

TC: You get together, and then you settle on creating a retail pets business. Why? 

RC: We were doing affiliate marketing and we wanted to own the entire customer experience and were looking for big categories that were underpenetrated. In fact, we thought the jewelry space was ripe for disruption, so we started going to trade shows and building the site and the back end.

We even spent a few hundred thousand dollars on jewelry and we were a few weeks away from launching the company, but I have a poodle, Tylee, who’s now 12 years old, and I would go every couple of weeks to buy products from this store owner who knew me and who I really trusted and who was a pet lover like me. And I had this epiphany; I realized I’m so much more passionate about this category. So we sold the jewelry, luckily getting back most of our money, and started Chewy.

TC: Obviously, you’d heard of the terrible fate of dot.com high-flier Pets.com. Why didn’t that dissuade you?

RC: The world was full of business models back then didn’t make sense. People weren’t online. They were using dial-up. They weren’t comfortable putting their credit cards online. But over time, so much changed, including that the pets market had moved up into high-margin, higher-retail price points. You could also suddenly ship 30-pound boxes from most of the country overnight, thanks to shipping density.

TC: You were living in Dania Beach, Florida — not exactly a tech hub at the time. Did you think about moving?

RC: I had family here, growing up. I also knew it would be really expensive to build out customer service in a big city.  So it ended up working our really well. But you’re right, from a financing standpoint, south Florida is not a popular tech hub. We also had the fact that we were going head-to-head with Amazon, that I have no college eduction, and the demise of Pets.com, and so when we talked with VCs, it was like, ‘We’ll pass.’

TC: Without outside help, how did you get started?

RC: We contacted a local distributor who worked with a [third-party logistics] company that was next to him, and we started buying product the same day.  Then we started marketing to cities and states near fulfillment centers, using all direct response marketing that we were able to optimize on the fly. We’d buy the inventory as we sold it and we were doing almost everything ourselves, so if an order came in and we didn’t have inventory, I’d go buy the product and ship it out from a local Kinkos.

For the first couple of years, it was three guys and a call center.

TC: When did that change?

RC: We hit an inflection point where three [third party logistics companies] we were working with [were getting overwhelmed]. We’d give them weekly or monthly projections so they could plan ahead and have warehouse space, but they didn’t fully believe our growth and by the end of 2013, we had these 3PLs that couldn’t scale any more, so we had to bring fulfillment in house.

We didn’t know anything about this, so we hired a bunch of people who were experts in fulfillment and we flew to Mechanicsburg, Pa. to lease a 4,000-square-foot space, and within nine months or so, we became expert at doing fulfillment. It was risky. It was totally outside of our areas of competence. But by August of 2014, after breaking everything first, that center was humming along, and then we launched another in Reno. At that point, we went national.

TC: How would you describe your hiring process?

RC: A lot of it was intuitive. I believe in the Warren Buffett model of treating people with respect and being honest and transparent with them. A lot of these people would come from Amazon and Wayfair.  I went home at night and reached out to them after finding them on LinkedIn. We’d jump on a call and we’d talk about this vision to build the largest pet retailer in the world, while focusing on delighting customers and being category experts. And all of my management team, they came from amazing companies and stable jobs, and they pulled their kids out of school to come to south Florida because they believed in me.

I was really grateful they took that leap of faith, but it was also a huge responsibility, so I was going to fight even harder; I wasn’t going to let them down.

TC: You say VCs weren’t interested. What happened exactly?

RC: Almost from the beginning we reached out to investors, but I knew nothing about raising capital. I have no network. I come from a middle-class family. I don’t have a rich uncle. We just started cold-calling VCs and I learned the hard way that’s not how it works. [Laughs.]. I got turned down basically every single time, until Larry [Cheng of Volition Capital] invested, and it was not a competitive process.

TC: What convinced Larry to write you that first check?

RC: We’d reached out to Volition six to nine months earlier and spoke to an associate who took down our information, and they followed up with us in late 2012. We’d given them our projections and we were crushing our numbers. Larry was doing to Disneyland anyway with his family, so he decided to make a pit stop to meet with us. I remember he was like, ‘Who is going to take this company to $100 million in sales?’ and I was like, ‘Me! Who do you think?’

I looked very young at the time so I think I was easy to underestimate. I’ve been slightly aged now from Chewy. But he gave us that needed credibility. Then Greenspring Associates — they’re investors in Volition — came in to lead our Series B.

TC: Did you want to take the company public or were you hugely relieved when PetSmart came knocking?

RC: We were building a big company that inevitably was going to go public. Especially in those later years, we’d become ‘public company ready.’ We built up our finance and accounting team; we had audited financials. We’d raised a lot of capital — $350 million — but we had a lot of discipline. We also had a lot of revenue. We went from $200 million in sales in 2014 to $3.5 billion in sales by 2018. We burned through $130 million, but that cash burn was going to new customer acquisition and future fulfillment centers.

TC: So when you got that call from PetSmart . . .

RC: It was very fast. From the time I had a conversation with Raymond [Svider, the executive chairman of PetSmart] to the time he gave us a term sheet — and I was looking for an all-cash deal — the entire thing happened in 30 days, on our terms. We weren’t going to go and open up the kimono unless we got comfortable, and we were comfortable with the entire transaction.

TC: You stayed on for bit, though I gather you weren’t locked up.

RC: I wasn’t locked up at all. I could have left the day after the deal. I stayed but I felt like the teams were built and the systems and strategy were in place, and it felt like a fine-oiled machine. The business was at a significant scale. I just felt like my job was done. I’d been at it for more than seven years, going 24/7. I gave my life to this thing. But I have a two-year-old today and just being with my family and being able to return to civilian life was [irresistible after a point].

TC: I’m a Chewy customer but I’m not even sure why, except that it’s easy for me to re-order. Why do you think I’m a Chewy customer?

RC: Because Chewy is the best in the business. It has the best selection, competitive pricing, fast shipping, excellent customer service and we know the product better than our competitors. If you need a weight loss product for your dog, we’ll tell you which to buy.  All Chewy does is sell pet products, and that’s a big differentiator. E-commerce can feel like a series of faceless transactions; we wanted to recreate that feeling I use to enjoy at the pet store, shopping with a pet parent who I trusted. And we did that at scale, which is hard but we stayed focused.

TC: How are you feeling about the IPO?

RC: It feels like my baby is graduating from the college that I never went to.

TC: There are concerns over the fact that Chewy remains unprofitable. Do you worry that, as a publicly traded company, Chewy might have to change — that it may need to charge for shipping, for example?

RC: It’s not profitable because it’s continuing to execute on scale and market leadership. If you reduce your marketing and decide you don’t want to grow as much, the company could have been profitable years ago. The underlying company is profitable.

TC: What about the fact that Amazon and Walmart are expanding their own pet product offerings?

RC: Amazon made us fight really hard. Obviously, they’re a fierce competitor. But I don’t think it was the category that made us successful. I think it was delighting our customers. You focus on that and you’re going to do just fine.

TC: You’re a young guy. Are you retiring?

RC: Retirement is overrated.

I’m lucky. I’m talking to a lot of different entrepreneurs and business and looking at corporate board opportunities. I’m going through that exploratory process.

TC: Would you partner again with Michael on a different e-commerce business or maybe a venture outfit?

RC: We’re really close. It needs to be the right opportunity obviously, and we need to be picky. But I have no plans to sit in retirement, that’s for sure. I’m 33 and I’m competitive and I like consumer businesses and I like to win.

Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO

Exercise tech company Peloton filed confidentially for IPO this week, and already the big question is whether their last private valuation at $4 billion might be too rich for the appetites of public market investors. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons leading up to the as-yet revealed market debut date.

Risk factors

The biggest thing to pay attention to when it comes time for Peloton to actually pull back the curtains and provide some more detailed info about its customers in its S-1. To date, all we really know is that Peloton has “more than 1 million users,” and that’s including both users of its hardware and subscribers to its software.

The mix is important – how many of these are actually generating recurring revenue (vs. one-time hardware sales) will be a key gauge. MRR is probably going to be more important to prospective investors when compared with single-purchases of Peloton’s hardware, even with its premium pricing of around $2,000 for the bike and about $4,000 for the treadmill. Peloton CEO John Foley even said last year that bike sales went up when the startup increased prices.

Hardware numbers are not entirely distinct from subscriber revenue, however: Per month pricing is actually higher with Peloton’s hardware than without, at $39 per month with either the treadmill or the bike, and $19.49 per month for just the digital subscription for iOS, Android and web on its own.

That makes sense when you consider that its classes are mostly tailored to this, and that it can create new content from its live classes which occur in person in New York, and then are recast on-demand to its users (which is a low-cost production and distribution model for content that always feels fresh to users).

CrowdStrike sets terms for $378M Nasdaq IPO

CrowdStrike, in preparation for its Nasdaq initial public offering, has inked plans to sell 18 million shares at between $19 and $23 apiece. At a midpoint price, CrowdStrike will raise $378 million at a valuation north of $4 billion.

The company, which develops cloud-native endpoint protection software to prevent cyber breaches, has raised $480 million in venture capital funding to date from Warburg Pincus, which owns a 30.2% pre-IPO stake, Accel (20.2%) and CapitalG (11.1%), according to its IPO prospectus. The business was valued at $3.3 billion with a $200 million January 2018 Series E funding.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based CrowdStrike outlined its IPO plans two weeks ago. The company plans to trade under the ticker symbol “CRWD.”

The cybersecurity unicorn follows several other highly valued venture-backed startups to the public markets, including Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, PagerDuty and Zoom. CrowdStrike’s offering will represent only the second cybersecurity IPO in 2019, however. It follows Israel’s Tufin Software Technologies, which went public earlier this year. Last year, for its part, saw the IPOs of Zscaler, Carbon Black and Tenable.

Founded in 2011 by former McAfee executives George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch, CrowdStrike is up against steep competition in the cyber protection space. It’s battling the likes of McAfee, Cylance, Palo Alto Networks, Symantec, Carbon Black and more.

The business’ revenues, fortunately, are growing at an impressive rate, increasing from $53 million in 2017 and $119 million in 2018 to $250 million in the year ending January 31, 2019. In the quarter ending April 30, 2019, its revenues shot up from $47.3 million in 2018 Q1 to between $93.6 million to $95.7 million.

CrowdStrike is also backed by IVP, March Capital Partners, General Atlantic and others.

Alibaba reportedly mulling to raise $20B through a second listing in Hong Kong

Massive news just dropped for Hong Kong’s capital markets. Alibaba, one of the world’s largest tech companies, is considering raising $20 billion through a second listing in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported on Monday citing sources.

TechCrunch has reached out to Alibaba for comment and will update the story if and when we have more information.

Unnamed people told Bloomberg that the money raised in Hong Kong is intended to help Alibaba “diversify funding channels and boost liquidity.” The Chinese ecommerce behemoth is aiming to file a listing application confidentially as early as the second half of 2019, according to the report. That would come five years after Alibaba famously scored a record $25 billion listing on the New York Stock Exchange following Hong Kong’s refusal to approve its filing due to rules around company structure.

But the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is becoming an increasingly popular destination for public offerings that put Chinese tech businesses closer to investors at home, as my colleague Jon Russell explained in 2017. The turning point came when the bourse finally introduced dual-class tech stock listings last year, a major appeal that helped HKEX attract such tech darlings as smartphone maker Xiaomi and food delivery service Meituan Dianping.

The news also arrived at a time when Chinese tech firms are coping with increasing hostility in the US amid a series of prolonged trade negotiations. Just last week, China’s largest chipmaker announced that it would delist from the NYSE and focused on its existing Hong Kong listing, although the company claimed the plan had been brewing for some time and had nothing to do with the trade war.