Lightspeed Venture Partners doubles its growth practice

Lightspeed Venture Partners, a firm behind the likes of BetterUp, Aurora, Goop and dozens of others, will allocate more capital to mature companies with the hiring of three new partners.

Adam Smith, Amy Wu and Arsham Memarzadeh join the Menlo Park-headquartered venture capital fund’s growth practice. The team is led by longtime partner Will Kohler and Brad Twohig, who joined LSVP in 2018 to amp up the firm’s late-stage efforts, leading a $1.25 billion investment in Epic Games only months after arriving from Insight Venture Partners.

“I think we will continue to add to the team as we see the market opportunity ahead of us, so we can better understand when and where to invest,” Twohig tells TechCrunch. “They are going out and helping us identify interesting new opportunities. We are really looking for outlier businesses. We aren’t trying to invest in any company. We want outlier founders, outlying companies with outlying performance.”

The new hires double the size of LSVP’s late-stage team and come shortly after the firm closed on $1.8 billion for two new funds. Last year, LSVP announced Lightspeed Venture Partners XII, a $750 million early-stage vehicle, and Lightspeed Venture Partners Select III, a $1.05 billion fund for late-stage follow-on fundings.

Lightspeed, historically an early-stage fund, has continued to move downstream as deal sizes swell across all stages. With fresh capital to deploy, LSVP is not only continuing to invest in existing portfolio companies but also backing companies for the first time as late as the Series E.

“We still think there are great opportunities to make investments with a strong return profile even at the late-stage,” Kohler tells TechCrunch, citing the buzzworthy financial technology business Carta as an example. “[Carta is] an exceptional company even at a growth-stage investment because it has so much potential to keep growing. We are convinced there will be venture-sized returns.”

In addition to Carta, which LSVP invested in at its Series E earlier this year, Lightspeed has made late-stage bets on the B2B sales platform Seismic, employee coaching service BetterUp, Indian hotel business Oyo and Indian B2B wholesale marketplace Udon.

“Some time ago it might not have made sense for us to do this,” Kohler said. “But as we followed the growth of our early-stage companies, we’ve realized the markets are getting bigger, the global demand is impacting the size these companies can get and we can invest at an entry point that’s later on and realize a great venture return.”

Kohler emphasized the firm’s global funds — Lightspeed operates venture funds in China and India — as helpful mechanisms for late-stage deal sourcing. He also noted the firm’s expansion into late-stage is a “natural extension of its original vision.”

Founded in 2000, Lightspeed’s four founding partners — Chris Schaepe, Barry Eggers, Ravi Mhatre and Peter Nieh — “understood the boring non-sexy elements of tech,” Kohler explained.

As for the newest additions, Wu joins from Discovery Inc., where she was chief financial officer and senior vice president of the company’s global digital division. She will be focused on scaling businesses within LSVP’s portfolio.

Smith, focused on high-growth enterprise and consumer investment opportunities, previously worked as a principal at Bain Capital Ventures and a lead operations manager at Uber. Finally, Memarzadeh, who will invest in product-driven software startups, spent the last five years at OpenView, a Boston-based venture firm.

Where top VCs are investing in media, entertainment & gaming

Most of the strategy discussions and news coverage in the media and entertainment industry is concerned with the unfolding corporate mega-mergers and the political implications of social media platforms.

These are important conversations, but they’re largely a story of twentieth-century media (and broader society) finally responding to the dominance Web 2.0 companies have achieved.

To entrepreneurs and VCs, the more pressing focus is on what the next generation of companies to transform entertainment will look like. Like other sectors, the underlying force is advances in artificial intelligence and computing power.

In this context, that results in a merging of gaming and linear storytelling into new interactive media. To highlight the opportunities here, I asked nine top VCs to share where they are putting their money.

Here are the media investment theses of: Cyan Banister (Founders Fund), Alex Taussig (Lightspeed), Matt Hartman (betaworks), Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia), Jordan Fudge (Sinai), Christian Dorffer (Sweet Capital), Charles Hudson (Precursor), MG Siegler (GV), and Eric Hippeau (Lerer Hippeau).

Cyan Banister, Partner at Founders Fund

In 2018 I was obsessed with the idea of how you can bring AI and entertainment together. Having made early investments in Brud, A.I. Foundation, Artie and Fable, it became clear that the missing piece behind most AR experiences was a lack of memory.

Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO

This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the ongoing struggle to decide who will lead HQ Trivia. According to multiple sources, over half of the startup’s staff signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. But Yusupov then fired three core supporters of the mutiny, leading to a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Store rank.

TechCrunch spoke to multiple sources familiar with HQ Trivia’s internal troubles to piece together how the live video mobile game went from blockbuster to nearly bust. Two sources said HQ recently only had around $6 million in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month, meaning its runway could be dwindling. But its early investors are reluctant to hand Yusupov any more cash. “

Employees petitioned to remove HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov

HQ reimagined gaming and mobile entertainment with the launch of its 12-question trivia game in August 2017 where players all competed live in twice-daily shows with anyone who got all the answers right split a cash jackpot. The games felt urgent since you could only participate at designated times, fun to play against friends or strangers, and winning carried a significance no single-player or non-stop online game could match.

When TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had just 3500 concurrent players. But by January it had climbed to the #3 game and #6 overall app in the App Store, and grown to 2.38 million players by March. Quickly, copycats from China and Facebook entered the market. But they all lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comedian Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Trap Trebek from the “HQties” who played daily, he was the de facto face of the startup.

Yet HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d also started Vine with Yusupov and sold it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a bad manager, Recode reported. He’d also picked up a reputation of being creepy around female employees, as well as Vine stars, TechCrunch has learned. Rapid growth and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that found no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way for a $15 million investment. The round was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.

Yusupov failed to translate that cash into sustained growth and product innovation. His public behavior had already raised flags. He yelled at a Daily Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky without Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fire the host. “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want? . . .  Please read me your story word for word,” Yusupov said. When he learned Rogowsky had expressed his preference for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He cannot say that! We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.” The next day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d never threatened Rogowsky’s job.

With HQ’s bank account full, sources say Yusupov was extremely slow to make decisions, allowing HQ to stagnate. The novelty of playing trivia for money via phone has begun to wear off, and people increasingly ignored HQ’s push notifications to join its next game. But beyond bringing in some guest hosts and the option to buy a second chance after a wrong answer, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 game on iOS and the #585 overall app as concurrent players waned.

That’s when things started to get a bit Game Of Thrones.

Pawns In A CEO War

Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 while moving Yusupov to Chief Creative Officer, which was confirmed despite an HR complaint against Kroll for aggressive management. However, three sources tell TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll. As the WSJ reported after Kroll’s death, that employee later left the startup because they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was definitely what felt like manipulation there, and that’s also why that employee resigned from the company.” one source said. Another source said that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to use them as a pawn in his CEO war and not because Rus actually cared about resolving things.”

Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the decision to swap out Yusupov due to her firm’s reputation of keeping founders in control, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that despite Kroll’s reputation, the staff believed in him. “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content” a source tells me. 

Three sources say that in a desperate ploy to retain power and prevent Kroll’s rise, Yusupov suggested Rogowsky, a comedian with no tech or management experience, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even suggested the company film a reality show about Rogowsky taking over. That idea was quickly shot down as preposterous.

“It was a very personal desperation tactic not to have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out idea” a source tells me, though another said it was always hard to tell if Yusupov’s crazy ideas were jokes. Both Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.

HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll passed away in December

Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. Employees were distraught over what would happen next. “Colin’s plan was to ship fast, and get new things out there” a source says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the release of HQ’s first new game type HQ Words modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t perfect but in the time he was in charge, the ship started to turn, but when Rus took over again it was like the 9 months where we did nothing.”

Coup d’éHQ

By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.

At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.

Mostly everyone was on Jeremy’s side as no one wanted to work under Rus. Jeremy wasn’t trying to screw him over the way Rus would screw other people over. He just wanted to do what was right, getting behind what everyone wanted” a source said of Liew. 

Instead, HQ’s board moved forward with instituting a new executive decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of production Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would remain interim CEO, and he continued to cling to power and there’s been little transparency about the CEO replacement process. Until a new CEO is found, HQ must subsist on its existing funds. The staff is “always worried about running out of runway” and are given vague answers when they ask leadership about how much money is left.

On March 1st, the committee emerged from a meeting and fired three employees who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.

One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, despite sources saying at one point he’d tried to organize the staff to go on strike. Other employees had been cautious about standing up to Yusupov. “Everyone was terrified of retaliation. Their fears have totally been validated” a source explains. Engineers and other staffers with strong employment prospects began to drain out of the company. Those left were just trying to hold onto their jobs. Without inspiring leadership or a strategy to reverse user shrinkage, recruiting replacements would prove difficult.

Yusupov remains on the board, along with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his additional common seat. Liew retains his seat until the new CEO is found and given that seat. And Kroll’s seat appears to have gone to Lightspeed partner Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to respond to requests for comment.

Losing Face

Tensions at HQ and a desire to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to pick up a side gig hosting baseball talk show ChangeUp on the DAZN network, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to continue hosting HQ during its big weekend contests. But tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s desire for the host to remain exclusively at HQ led negotiations to sour causing Rogowsky to leave the startup entirely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been replaced by former HQ guest host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly told me Friday had polled higher than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s top players.

In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it won’t be possible for me to continue hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell show.” Finding a way to preserve Rogowsky’s ties to HQ likely would have been best for the startup.  TechCrunch had raised the concern a year ago that unless Rogowsky was properly locked in with an adequate equity vesting schedule at HQ, he could leave. Or worse, he could be poached by Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.

“Rus is a visionary but not a good leader. He is extremely manipulative in an unproductive way. He’s a dude who just cares a lot about his reputation” a source noted. “A lot of the negative sentiment amongst staff is the belief that he cares more about his reputation than the company itself.”

HQ’s next attempt to revive growth appears to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a new live show on your phone where our host shows funny viral videos and you decide on who gets paid.” Finally it seems willing to embrace the potential of interactive live video entertainment outside of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ saw just 8 percent as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.

After the loss of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the employees’ chosen leader Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, tough questions are what remain for HQ Trivia. The company’s struggles have paralyzed its progress towards finding a new viral mechanic or game format that attracts users. While HQ Words is fun, it’s too similar to its trivia competition to change the startup’s trajectory. And all of the in-fighting could scare off any talent hoping to turn HQ around. Unfortunately, securing an extra life for the game will take a more than a $3.99 in-app purchase.

Online catering marketplace ezCater gets another $150M at a $1.25B valuation

In 2007, Stefania Mallett and Briscoe Rodgers conceived of ezCater, an online marketplace for business catering, and began building the company in Mallet’s Boston home, mostly at her kitchen table.

Recently, sitting at that same table, Mallett negotiated with Brad Twohig of Lightspeed Venture Partners the final terms of a $150 million Series D-1 at a $1.25 billion valuation. Lightspeed, alongside GIC, co-led the round, with participation from Light Street Capital, Wellington Management, ICONIQ Capital and Quadrille Capital.

“Raising money or getting to unicorn status, it’s all nice validation but that’s not the purpose, the purpose of being in business is to grow a very successful company with happy customers and happy employees,” Mallett, ezCater’s chief executive officer, told TechCrunch. “We are going to have cupcakes with unicorns on them. That will take us about a half hour, then we will get back to work.”

EzCater co-founder and CEO Stefania Mallett

Mallett compares ezCater to Expedia . The travel company doesn’t own and operate hotels, nor do they create them. EzCater, similarly, works with 60,500 restaurants and caterers around the U.S. to fulfill orders, but at no point do they work directly with food nor make any deliveries themselves.

Since its inception, the ezCater marketplace has grown considerably, expanding 100 percent annually for the last eight years, Mallett tells us. Though, like most unicorns, ezCater isn’t profitable yet.

Both Mallett and Rodgers are software industry veterans, establishing engineering careers prior to tackling business catering. The pair bootstrapped the company until 2011, when they secured a small Series A investment of $2.7 million. That same year, U.S. foodtech startups raised $176 million, per PitchBook. EzCater would go on to raise more than $300 million in equity funding, including its latest round, and VC interest in foodtech would explode. Already this year, U.S. foodtech startups have brought in $626 million after pulling in a whopping $5 billion in 2018.

EzCater has benefited from this boom. The company raised a $100 million Series D just 10 months ago.

“We really didn’t need the money, we have quite a lot of money in the bank from the last round,” Mallett said. “There was so much talk of a funding winter and a recession coming so we said maybe we should try to raise money and then people jumped on it so we thought OK, why not? If there is a funding winter, we’re set; if not, well, we are still set.”

The investment comes hot off the heels of ezCater’s acquisition of Monkey Group, a cloud platform for take-out, delivery and catering. Mallett declined to disclose terms of the deal but said the partnership makes ezCater the indisputable market leader in catering management software. The company will use its recently expanded war chest to accelerate its international expansion and, potentially, continue its M&A streak. As for the future, an initial public offering is amongst the possibilities.

“We certainly are considering it,” Mallett said. “As we’ve grown, we’ve become more sophisticated and mature; that puts us in a good position to continue operating as a successful standalone company or be acquired by a public company or go public if we see an opportunity to do that. We are not wedded to any of these outcomes.”

To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

Lightspeed announces new $560 million fund for China

Global investor Lightspeed is starting 2019 with its largest-ever fund for China, where it has backed a number of new internet challengers. The firm announced this week that its fourth China fund has closed with a total capital commitment of $560 million.

The firm had a massive 2018, with no fewer than five of its portfolio holding IPOs including two of China’s up-and-coming startups that are challenging the country’s internet establishment — they are Meituan, the super app firm that specializes in deliveries, and Pinduoduo, a group e-commerce company that is threatening Alibaba’s dominance.

Based on those successes, it is perhaps not a surprise that Lightspeed has pulled in a record new fund. TechCrunch previously reported that the new fund was aimed at $360 million based on filings, but it added more capital to give more options.

Lightspeed said it has $360 million for early-stage deals aimed at Series A and Series B stages, with an additional $200 million set aside for “growth investments.” The new fund dwarfs Lightspeed’s previous vehicles in China — the firm’s previous two China funds each closed at $260 million while it raised $168 million for its debut fund in the country in 2013.

Lightspeed Venture Partners is a well-known investor that is anchored in Silicon Valley with global funds in India, Israeli and — of course — China. Together, those funds manage around $6 billion in capital, according to the firm.

Led by partners Chris Schaepe, Herry Han and James Mi, the China operation has backed a range of unicorns, including the aforementioned Meituan, which raised over $4 billion via a Hong Kong IPO last year, and Pinduoduo, which raised $1.6 billion via a U.S. listing in 2018. Other Lightspeed China IPOs from last year were PPDai, Rong360 and InnoLight while the firm also counts $9 billion-valued Full Truck Alliance, real estate platform Fangdd and Airbnb-like Tujia, both of which are valued in the billions, among the more mature bets in its portfolio.

“We believe there are plenty of new opportunities in China consumer Internet given the depth of China’s mobile payment and social networks. Innovation and entrepreneurship in the next decade will bring more China-based startups to the world stage. This will be China’s first decade of truly global innovation. Chinese entrepreneurs are now developing business plans with global expansion in mind from day one,” said Han, one of the firm’s founding partners, in a statement.

Last year, Lightspeed Venture Partners — the U.S. entity — filed to raise a record $1.8 billion in new capital commitments. In December, it added five new partners to its consumer and enterprise investment teams, including Slack’s former head of growth and Twitter’s former vice president of global business development.

5 unicorns that will probably go public in 2019 (besides Uber and Lyft)

There’s been plenty of fanfare surrounding Uber and Lyft’s initial public offerings — slated for early 2019 — since the two companies filed confidential IPO paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in early December. On top of that, public and private investors have had plenty to say about Slack and Pinterest’s rumored 2019 IPOs but those aren’t the only “unicorn” exits we should expect to witness in the year ahead.

Using its proprietary company rating algorithm, data provider CB Insights ranked five billion dollar companies most likely to perform IPOs next year in its latest tech IPO report. The algorithm analyzes non-traditional public signals, including hiring activity, web traffic and mobile app data to make its predictions. These are the startups that topped their list.

 

Peloton

Peloton Co-Founder and CEO John Foley speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch).

Peloton, dubbed the “Netflix of fitness,” has raised nearly $1 billion in venture capital funding in the six years since it was founded by John Foley, most recently raising $550 million at a $4 billion valuation. The manufacturer of tech-enabled exercise equipment is more than doubling in size every year and is “weirdly profitable,” an unusual characteristic for a venture-backed business of its age. Headquartered in New York, Peloton doesn’t have any public IPO plans, though Foley recently told The Wall Street Journal that 2019 “makes a lot of sense” for its stock market debut.

Select investors: L Catterton, True Ventures, Tiger Global

Cloudflare

Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince appears on stage at the 2014 TechCrunch Disrupt Europe/London. (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Cybersecurity unicorn Cloudflare is likely to transition to the public markets in the first half of 2019 in what is poised to be a strong year for IPOs in the security industry. The web performance and security platform is said to be preparing for an IPO at a potential valuation of more than $3.5 billion after last raising capital in 2015 at a $1.8 billion valuation. Since it was founded in 2009, the San Francisco-based company has raised just north of $250 million in VC funding. CrowdStrike, another security unicorn, is also on track to go public next year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Illumio and Lookout make the jump to the public markets as well.

Select investors: Pelion Venture Partners, NEA, Venrock

Zoom

San Jose-based Zoom Video Communications has reportedly tapped Morgan Stanley to lead its upcoming IPO.

Zoom, a provider of video conferencing services, online meeting and group messaging tools that’s raised $160 million in VC cash to date, is eyeing a multi-billion IPO in 2019 and has reportedly hired Morgan Stanley to lead the offering. Founded in 2011, the company most recently brought in a $100 million Series D financing, entirely funded by Sequoia, at a $1 billion valuation in early 2017. Based in San Jose, Zoom is hoping to garner a valuation significantly larger than $1 billion when it IPOs, according to Reuters.

Select investors: Sequoia, Emergence Capital Partners, Horizons Ventures

Rubrik

Data management company Rubrik co-founder and CEO Bipul Sinha.

Data management company Rubrik has quietly made moves indicative of an impending IPO. The startup, which provides data backup and recovery services for businesses across cloud and on-premises environments, hired former Atlassian chief financial officer Murray Demo as its CFO earlier this year, as well as its first chief legal officer, Peter McGoff. Palo Alto-based Rubrik was valued at over of $1 billion with a $180 million funding round in 2017. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date.

Select investors: Lightspeed Venture Partners, Greylock, Khosla Ventures

Medallia

Medallia, a customer experience management platform that’s nearly two decades old, may finally become a public company in 2019. The San Mateo-based company, which has been rumored to be planning an IPO for several years, hired a new CEO this year and reported $250 million in GAAP revenue for the year ending Jan. 31, 2018, according to Forbes. Medallia hasn’t raised capital since 2015, when it secured a $150 million funding deal at a $1.2 billion valuation. It has raised a total of just over $250 million.

Select investor: Sequoia

Lightspeed is raising its largest China fund yet

Lightspeed China Partners, the China-focused affiliate of Silicon Valley-based Lightspeed Venture Partners, has set a $360 million target for its fourth flagship venture fund, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission today.

If the target is reached, the fund will be Lightspeed China’s largest yet, per PitchBook. Lightspeed China’s previous two funds each closed on $260 million. The VC raised $168 million for its debut China-focused fund in 2013.

Lightspeed China is led by David Mi (pictured). Mi, an investor in multiple billion-dollar Chinese companies, was previously the director of corporate development at Google, where he helped lead the search giant’s investment in Baidu. He joined Lightspeed in 2008 and established the firm’s China presence in 2011. Yan Han, a long-time Lightspeed investor and co-founder of the Chinese branch, is also listed on the filing.

Lightspeed China has backed e-commerce platform Pingduoduo and loan provider Rong360, a pair of Chinese “unicorns” that both completed U.S. initial public offerings since 2017. Typically, the firm makes early-stage investments in the internet, mobile and enterprise spaces. 

Earlier this year, Lightspeed Venture Partners filed to raise a record $1.8 billion in new capital commitments. This month, it tacked five new partners onto its consumer and enterprise investment teams, including Slack’s former head of growth and Twitter’s former vice president of global business development.

Lightspeed didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Distinguished VCs back wholesale marketplace Faire with $100M at a $535M valuation

A slew of venture capitalists known for high-profile exits — Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures, Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital and Alex Taussig of Lightspeed Venture Partners — have invested in Faire (formerly known as Indigo Fair), a 2-year-old wholesale marketplace for artisanal products.

A quick glance at Faire suggests it’s a combination of Pinterest and Etsy, complete with trendy, pastel stationery, soap, baby products and more, all made by independent artisans and sold to retailers. Faire has today announced a $100 million fundraise across two financing rounds: a $40 million Series B led by Taussig at Lightspeed and a $60 million Series C led by Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. New investors Founders Fund, the venture firm founded by Peter Thiel, and DST Global also participated. The business has previously brought in a total of $16 million.

The latest financing values Faire at $535 million, according to a source familiar with the deal.

If you’re feeling a little bit of déjà vu, that’s because a similar startup also raised a sizeable round of venture capital funding, announced today. That’s Minted . The 10-year-old company, best known for its wide assortment of wedding invitations and stationery, raised $208 million led by Permira, with participation from T. Rowe Price. Though Minted is first and foremost a consumer-facing marketplace, it plans to double down on its wholesale business with its latest infusion of capital, setting it up to be among Faire’s biggest competitors.

Like Minted, Faire leverages artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to forecast which products will fly off its virtual shelves in order to to source and manage inventory as efficiently as possible. The approach appears to be working; Faire says it has 15,000 retailers actively purchasing from its platform — a 3,140 percent year-over-year increase. It’s garnered $100 million in run rate sales and has expanded its community of artists 445 percent YoY, to 2,000.

The company, headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Ontario and Waterloo, was founded by three former Square employees: chief executive officer Max Rhodes, who was product manager on a variety of strategic initiatives, including Square Capital and Square Cash; chief data officer Daniele Perito, who led risk and security for Square Cash; and chief technology officer Marcelo Cortes, a former engineering lead for Square Cash.

“Our mission at Faire is to empower entrepreneurs to chase their dreams,” Rhodes wrote in a blog post this morning. “We believe entrepreneurship is a calling. Starting a business provides a level of autonomy and fulfillment that’s become difficult to find for many elsewhere in the economy. With this in mind, we built Faire to help entrepreneurs on both sides of our marketplace succeed.”

The Epic Games Store is now live

It’s a busy week for Epic Games . Fresh from pushing out a major season 7 update for Fortnite, so the gaming giant has taken the wraps off its own games store.

First announced earlier this week, the Epic Games Store is targeted squarely at Steam — the giant in the digital game commerce space — and it quietly went live today.

Right now there’s a small cluster of games available including Hades, a new title from Supergiant Games that is in ‘early access’ for $19.99, and Epic’s own Fortnite and Unreal Tournament, both of which are free. But Epic is saying that’s there’s a lot more to come. In particular, the store will offer a free game every two weeks, starting out with Subnautica from December 14-17 and Super Meat Boy from December 28 until January 10.

What is most interesting about the store is the revenue split, which is just twelve percent. That has set off a change at Valve, the firm behind Steam, as we reported earlier this week:

While Valve will continue to take an App Store-like 30 percent from sales of game makers with less than 10 million in revenue, that figure drops to 25 percent until they hit 50 million revenue, from which point the slice drops to 20 percent.

All in all, the store is very early-stage but you can imagine that Epic is working to add more flesh to the bones. It makes absolute sense that the company is aiming to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Fortnite — which was estimated to be grossing as much as $2 million per day in the summer — by building a destination for gamers. Indeed, a big clue came from its decision to bypass the Google Play Store and offer its Android app directly from its website — that’s a move that is estimated to cost Google around $50 million in lost earnings in 2018.

“As a developer ourselves, we have always wanted a platform with great economics that connects us directly with our players,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told TechCrunch in an emailed statement sent earlier this week. “Thanks to the success of Fortnite, we now have this and are ready to share it with other developers.”

The Epic Games Store is part of a wider vision for the coming that prompted a range of investors to pump $1.25 billion into the company in October. That round was participation from the likes of KKR, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed Venture Partners and it is said to value the Epic Games business — which also includes Unreal Engine for game development — at more than $15 billion.

Epic is the only gaming firm to go after Valve this year. Discord introduced a game store in August — just months earlier, Valve appeared to go after Discord with the rollout of its own gamer chat system.

So everyone is going after everyone, but Epic’s big advantage continues to be Fortnite.