Where VCs are looking for voice startup investments

Led by Amazon’s Alexa, smart speakers’ install base is expected to reach 200 million units worldwide by 2020. A quarter of Americans over the age of 12 own a smart speaker, and the majority of those users have more than one device in their home. Moreover, Apple could sell 50 million of its Airpods this year (generating $8 billion in sales) as Bluetooth earpieces explode in popularity.

For the market penetration of this hardware, the app ecosystem remains limited in terms of mainstream adoption. Podcast production and consumption has exploded, but they don’t take advantage of smart speakers and headphones as interactive devices. Even though there were 57,000 Alexa skills available at the end of last year, most people are using smart speakers mainly to check the weather, check the news, ask simple questions and play music.

If voice is a new operating system, where are the opportunities to build giant companies on top of it?

To get a better sense of how the smart money views this market, I asked five VCs who have spent the most time in this space to share which types of startups have captured their attention:

  • Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures
  • Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
  • Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon
  • Ann Miura-Ko, Partner at Floodgate
  • Jordan Cooper, Partner at Pace Capital

Here are their responses:

Matt Hartman, Partner at Betaworks Ventures

The most recent wave of audio was about constant connectivity and streaming, and we invested in Anchor, Gimlet, and other audio-first businesses that would thrive in the podcast renaissance. For the next wave of audio, we’re focused [on] three broad categories: personalization, new behaviors/new interfaces, and monetization. Personalization means both utilizing location, Apple Watch, and other data to create magical audio experiences and customized audio content, but also advances in generative content like Resemble.ai and Descript that can create custom audio. 

In terms of new behaviors/new interfaces, people are leaving their Airpods in longer, which means there may be an opportunity for “Airpod-first” product design. Finally, as audio becomes an industry, monetization will be improved and also re-thought: subscription products such as Shine and Headspace are interesting in the context that if they don’t really work as ad-supported podcasts, and they are packaged in such a way that people are willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription.

Nicole Quinn, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

We are in between platforms and it’s not clear what the next platform will be. VR and AR are options, but I believe voice will be the next major platform with mass adoption. The biggest hurdle right now is discoverability which in turn leads to engagement and retention issues. This was the same for mobile before the App Store allowed us to discover new apps. We need the same for voice.

We will then see voice move from a music and list creation tool to one which quickly becomes part of popular culture around shopping, games, travel, meditation, etc. Leading audio apps such as Calm, the meditation and sleep app, are already set up to take advantage of the move to voice.

Paul Bernard, Director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon

Alexa got its start in the home, but we knew early on that bringing this experience to customers outside the home would become important. Our investments in companies like North (smart glasses), Vesper (power-efficient microphones) and Syntiant (power-efficient AI chip) were inspired by this vision, and reflect the idea that ambient computing is becoming part of daily life.

These companies are also helping create the surface area for interactive entertainment and information services, such as Drivetime’s trivia games (we are an investor there too), and social ones like TTYL, which enables friends wearing earbuds to maintain “audio-presence” with each other throughout their day while they multi-task. We also expect to see innovation in how voice can help seniors aging in place — our recent investment in Labrador Systems, which builds assistive robots, is a good example of this trend.

Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew is on the hunt for always-on media startups

Perhaps best known for a career-making seed investment in Snapchat, Lightspeed partner Jeremy Liew is a leading investor across media and entertainment, making bets on startups like Cheddar, Giphy, HQ, SpecialGuest, Mic, Beme, Playdom, Duta and Flixster.

I spoke to him earlier this week about how he assesses the market for media startups, which led into a discussion about “always-on” forms of entertainment that add stimulation to a person’s environment, instead of commanding their full focus.

Here’s the transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Eric Peckham: Do you have a consistent framework for evaluating potential investments?

Jeremy Liew: Our perspective is that consumer technology is now more about the consumer side than the technology side. It’s really more about pop culture than new innovations in technology. 

When we are assessing a consumer investment we ask ourselves, “does this have the potential to become part of pop culture?” One way to think about it is whether people who don’t use the product will still become familiar with what it is. Like how you can understand a reference to “Game of Thrones” even if you don’t watch it. 

Another key question is, whether there is a scalable, repeatable way for the product to reach its audience. That can be advertising, it can be word of mouth, it could be through social channels.

We also asked ourselves, “is this product going to build a new habit?” and we assess whether the entrepreneur has a unique insight into both why this is happening and why it’s happening now.

Your colleague Alex Taussig told me you have an overarching “future of TV” thesis that’s guided a number of your investments. Tell me about that thesis and how it filters opportunities in the media & entertainment space for you.

I think you can split what used to be called TV into two core use cases: “TV as entertainment” and “TV as company.”

“TV as entertainment” is most of what Netflix, Amazon, Apple, HBO, and similar companies have been focused on. It is high-production quality entertainment you have to pay attention to. Think shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Succession,” “Orange is the New Black.”

Then there’s another classic category of TV — “TV as company,” which is stuff that’s on while you’re doing something else. You’ve got the morning show on while you’re getting the kids ready for school or you’re getting ready to go to work. That’s how you get the five hours of TV viewing per day that Americans average.

TV as entertainment has to be so good that you choose to watch it over doing anything else; TV as company you just have to not choose to turn it off.

The vast amount of attention to the move to video — with subscription video on-demand (SVOD) and so forth — has been on TV as entertainment. There are hit shows that will attract people to Netflix, or to HBO Go, to Disney+. But what causes them to stay as a subscriber after they binge-watched all the way through the stuff that brought them in the first place?

That tends to be the TV as company content. If you actually look at hours watched in television, no one is tuning in to catch the latest episode of “Shark Week” — it is just what’s on. Think about the TV Guide grid: every genre, every channel will likely have a mobile native equivalent.

Some of these already exist. ESPN — it’s a channel where men watch the best competitors in the world play the sports they used to play when they were in high school and then they talk about it with their friends. Twitch is a place where men, mostly, watch the best competitors in the world play the games they used to play when they were younger and talk about it with their friends.

The future of cybersecurity VC investing with Lightspeed’s Arif Janmohamed

There are two types of enterprise startups: those that create value and those that protect value. Cybersecurity is most definitely part of the latter group, and as a vertical, it has sprawled the past few years as the scale of attacks on companies, organizations, and governments has continuously expanded.

That may be a constant threat for the executives of major companies, but for cybersecurity VCs who pick the right startup targets for investment, it’s a potential gold mine. Here at Extra Crunch, we compiled a list of top VCs who have invested in cybersecurity and enterprise more broadly and asked them what’s interesting in the space these days. We compiled ten of their responses as part of our investor survey and you should definitely take a look for their interesting takes on the space.

But we wanted to go a bit deeper on the topic to learn more about what’s happening right now in cybersecurity. So today, we talk with Arif Janmohamed of Lightspeed Venture Partners, one of the leading investors at one of the top enterprise VC firms in the world. He’s invested in companies ranging from cloud-access security broker Netskope and search analytics platform ThoughtSpot to Qubole (big data analytics), Nutanix (hyper-converged infrastructure), and Arceo.ai (cyber risk management).

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Arif Janmohamed. Image via Lightspeed Venture Partners

TechCrunch’s security guru Zack Whittaker, managing editor Danny Crichton and operations editor Arman Tabatabai sat down with him to discuss what he’s seeing at the earliest stages in cybersecurity, which trends are being ignored by the industry and what he sees as the future of security in an always-changing present.

Introduction and Background

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Danny Crichton: Let’s start with a bit of your background.

Arif Janmohamed: Sure. I’m on the early-stage side, so I have the most fun when I’m working with founders at the very earliest stages of company formation, where I can focus on company design, product and go-to-market and then find the right balance of teams to fill that out.

I’m on the board of Netskope, which is a cloud-security company. That one I did the Series B back in 2013. I’m on the board of TripActions, which is a corporate travel company, I did that one and then led the Series A and the Series B. I’m on the board of Moveworks, which is an AI engine for IT that was seeded by me and then I’ve supported them through their subsequent financing. I’m also on the board of a number of other companies.

Am I purely security-focused? The answer is no, I’m very much enterprise-focused. Security in my mind really fits within that rubric of the enterprise stack that’s getting rebuilt for a cloud-first world.

What’s snake oil and what has real value?

Zack Whittaker: So I’ve got a question that I just want to jump right in with. I’m always curious about this, especially when it comes to the very early stage, how do you go about distinguishing between potential snake oil and the things that seem really viable in the security world?

MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

Shoe companies Rothy’s and Steve Madden are at each other’s throats

In August, after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the venture-backed shoe startup Rothy’s, shoe giant Steven Madden filed a pre-emptive lawsuit asking a federal court to rule that its Rosy Flat shoes don’t copy design elements of the Point ballet flat that Rothy’s began selling soon after its 2015 launch.

More, it asked that seven related patents that Rothy’s has been issued — and that Rothy’s has accused Madden of infringing — be declared invalid.

Now, Rothy’s is batting back again, today filing counterclaims of design patent and trade dress infringement, trademark dilution and unfair competition, while also managing to get in a sick burn, writing in its filing that instead of “pursuing independent product development, Madden has chosen to slavishly copy Rothy’s product design in violation of Rothy’s valuable intellectual property rights.”

It’s hard to argue they aren’t copycats once you see both shoes. Nearly as galling to Rothy’s, Steve Madden’s shoes retail for half the price. (Rothy’s charges $145 for its shoes. Steve Madden sells its version for $70, and, unlike Rothy’s, which are never discounted, Steve Madden’s version of the shoe is currently on sale at Nordstrom Rack for $39.99.)

Steve Madden — now a 29-year-old company that’s publicly traded, valued by investors at $3 billion and largely still run by Steve Madden himself (he’s its creative and design chief) — is known for finding inspiration in the work of other brands that wish it would not. Among a handful of companies to tangle legally with the shoe titan in recent years is venture-backed Allbirds, which accused Steve Madden of copying its wool trainer in 2017.

AllBirds soon settled its lawsuit with the company. Alas, now AllBirds is reportedly fighting an Austrian footwear company, Giesswein Walkwaren, for making and selling sneakers that are “identical in all material respects” to Allbirds’s wool runners.

Meanwhile, Rothy’s just last month settled with a company, OESH, against which it had separately filed a patent and trade dress infringement lawsuit alleging its round-toe ballet flats are too similar to Rothy’s own.

Neither is an uncommon situation. Instead, both underscore that for young retail brands, fending off competitors both big and small can prove both expensive and distracting. Indeed, the question begged is whether it’s worth engaging.

While that’s something that’s often determined in hindsight, not everyone thinks it makes sense to spend the time and resources battling knock-offs. When we talked earlier this year with the venture-backed slipper-shoe startup Birdies, co-founder Bianca Gates noted that Target had already begun offering a similar slipper at a cheaper price point. “Everybody copies everybody,” she said.

The company could use some of its funding to wage war, but she thought focusing on the company’s product made more sense. “It’s our job to create a brand beyond the silhouette of a slipper, because that can be knocked off, it’s not defensible. What is defensible is why [a customer] is buying Birdies, and why she is telling her friends to shop us.”

Tutoring business-in-a-box service Clark has been acquired by edtech startup Noodle

Clark, the tutor management business-in-a-box service, has been acquired by the New York-based education startup Noodle for an undisclosed amount, TechCrunch has learned.

Founded by John Katzman, the serial entrepreneur behind education technology giants including The Princeton Review and 2U, Noodle offers education search services to help people apply to the right programs that meet their needs.

Megan O’Connor, the co-founder and chief executive of Clark, actually met Katzman two weeks after she launched the company, which is backed by investors including Lightspeed Venture Partners, Winklevoss Capital, Rethink Education, Flat World Partners and Human Ventures (where O’Connor worked as the chief growth officer).

It’s not a stretch to call Katzman the godfather of tutoring, and, from the beginning, the seasoned executive took an interest in what Clark was doing, according to O’Connor.

With the acquisition, Clark’s shareholders will receive an equity stake in Noodle and O’Connor and her co-founder, Sam Gimbel, will take roles within Noodle to build out a tutoring service within the company, O’Connor says.

Going forward, Gimbel and O’Connor will build up the tutoring component of Noodle’s business as a complement to the company’s higher education and elementary and secondary school divisions.

One of the core components of the new tutoring platform within Noodle will be a focus on the individualization and personalization of tutoring sessions, buoyed by a community of tutors who share information on the most effective teaching strategies for different kinds of students.

What the tutoring practice won’t do, O’Connor says, is teach to a standardized curriculum. “If we can give them the software of shared services, then they can be more hands-on with the student,” O’Connor says.

Startups Weekly: Part & Parcel plans plus-sized fashion empire

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about Stripe’s grand plans. Before that, I noted Peloton’s secret weapons

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.

Startup spotlight

The best companies are built by people who have personally experienced the problem they’re attempting to solve. Lauren Jonas, the founder and chief executive officer of Part & Parcel, is intimately familiar with the struggles faced by the women she’s building for.

San Francisco-based Part & Parcel is a plus-sized clothing and shoe startup providing dimensional sizing to women across the U.S. The company operates a bit differently than your standard direct-to-consumer business by seeking to include the women who wear and evangelize the Part & Parcel designs by giving them a cut of their sales.

Here’s how it works: Ambassadors sign up to receive signature styles from Part & Parcel, which they then share and sell to women in their network. Ultimately, the sellers are eligible to receive up to 30% of the profit per sale. The out-of-the-box model, which might remind you somewhat of Mary Kay or Tupperware’s business strategy, is meant to encourage a sense of community and usher in a new era in which plus-sized women can facilitate other plus-sized women’s access to great clothes. 

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“I bought a brown men’s polyester suit and wore it to an interview,” Jonas, an early employee at Poshmark and the long-time author of the popular blog, ‘The Pear Shape,’ tells TechCrunch. “I was that kid wearing a men’s suit.”

Clothing tailored to plus-sized women has long been missing from the retail market. Increasingly, however, new brands are building thriving businesses by catering precisely to the historically forgotten demographic. Dia&Co., for example, raised another $70 million in venture capital funding last fall from Sequoia and USV. And Walmart recently acquired another brand in the space, ELOQUII, for an undisclosed amount. Part & Parcel, for its part, has raised $4 million in seed funding in a round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Jeremy Liew.

The startup launched earlier this year in Anchorage, “a clothing desert,” and has since grown its network to include women in several other underserved markets. Given her own history struggling to find a fitted woman’s suit, Jonas launched her line with structured pieces, including suits and blouses — though the startup’s biggest success yet, she says, has been its boots, which come in three different calf width options.

“Seventy percent of women in this country are plus-sized,” Jonas said. “I’m bringing plus out of the dark corner of the department store.”

This week in VC

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Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Must read

TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey published a highly anticipated deep dive on the state of sex tech this week. The piece provides new data on funding in sex tech and wellness companies, analysis on sex tech startup’s battle for public advertising and responses from industry leaders on how we can destigmatize sex with technology. Here’s a short passage from the story:

Cindy Gallop sees a market opportunity in every type of business obstacle she encounters. That’s why All The Sky will also seek to invest in startups that tackle the infrastructural tools needed to fuel sextech, like payments, hosting providers and e-commerce sites.

“I want to fund the sextech ecosystem to maintain and sustain a portfolio for All the Skies, to create a bloody huge sextech ecosystem and three, to monopolistically build out the ecosystem to be a multi-trillion-dollar market,” Gallop says.

On my radar

I swung by Contrary Capital‘s Demo Day this week, in which a number of startups gave a 4- to 5-minute pitch. Next on my list is Alchemist‘s Demo Day in Menlo Park. The accelerator welcomes enterprise startups for a six-month program focused on early customer adoption, company development and mentorship.

Also on my radar is Females To The Front. The event began this week in Palm Springs and if I were based in SoCal, I would have swung by. Led by Amy Margolis, the event is said to be the largest gathering of female cannabis founders and funders to date. Here’s how the group describes the event: “Females to the Front Retreat will mix immersive and hands-on workshops, pitch training, investment deck preparation and business skill set education with investor meetings and plenty of shared meals, pool time, yoga, connections, rest and rejuvenation. Every workshop is built to directly engage attendees instead of powerpoint and panels. Be prepared to return home inspired, engaged and with so many more tools in your toolbox.”

For the record, I don’t advertise events in my newsletter just wanted to give props to this one because it’s a great development for the cannabis tech ecosystem.

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Time to Disrupt

We are just weeks away from our flagship conference, TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco. We have dozens of amazing speakers lined up. In addition to taking in the great line-up of speakers, ticket holders can roam around Startup Alley to catch the more than 1,000 companies showcasing their products and technologies. And, of course, you’ll get the opportunity to watch the Startup Battlefield competition live. Past competitors include Dropbox, Cloudflare and Mint… You never know which future unicorn will compete next.

You can take a look at the full agenda here. And if you still need convincing, here’s five reasons to attend this year’s conference from our COO himself.

And finally… #EquityPod

This week, the lovely Alex Wilhelm, editor-in-chief of Crunchbase News, and I gathered to discuss a number of topics including WeWork’s IPO and Uber’s attempts to bypass a new law meant to protect gig workers. Listen here.

Self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics begin deliveries in Texas

A year after coming out of stealth mode with $40 million, self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics will begin making its first commercial deliveries in Texas.

Kodiak will open a new facility in North Texas to support it freight operations along with increased testing in the state. The commercial route

There are some caveats to the milestone. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks will have a human safety driver behind the wheel. And it’s unclear how significant this initial launch is; the company didn’t provide details on who its customers are or what it will be hauling.

Kodiak has eight autonomous trucks in its fleet, and according to the company it’s “growing quickly.”

Still, it does mark progress for such a young company, which co-founders Don Burnette and Paz Eshel say is due to its talented and experienced workforce. 

Burnette, who is CEO of Kodiak, was part of the Google self-driving project before leaving and co-founding Otto in early 2016, along with Anthony Levandowski, Lior Ron and Claire Delaunay. Uber would acquire Otto (and its co-founders). Burnette left Uber to launch Kodiak in April 2018 with Eshel, a former venture capitalist and now the startup’s COO.

In August 2018, the company announced it had raised $40 million in Series A financing led by Battery Ventures . CRV, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Tusk Ventures also participated in the round. Itzik Parnafes, a general partner at Battery Ventures, joined Kodiak’s board.

Kodiak is the latest autonomous vehicle company to test its technology in Texas. The state has become a magnet for autonomous vehicle startups, particularly those working on self-driving trucks. That’s largely due to the combination of a friendly regulatory environment and the state’s position as a logistics and transportation hub.

“As a region adding more than 1 million new residents each decade, it is important to develop a comprehensive strategy for the safe and reliable movement of people and goods,” Thomas Bamonte, senior program manager of Automated Vehicles for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said in a statement. “Our policy officials on the Regional Transportation Council have been very forward-thinking in their recognition of technology as part of the answer, which is positioning our region as a leader in the automated vehicle industry.”

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple was awarded a contract this spring to complete five round trips, for a two-week pilot, hauling USPS trailers more than 1,000 miles between the postal service’s Phoenix and Dallas distribution centers. A safety engineer and driver will be on board throughout the pilot.

Other companies developing autonomous vehicle technology for trucks such as Embark and Starsky Robotics have also tested on Texas roads.

A 23-year-old B2B company has shown how keen India is for tech IPOs

Away from the limelight of the press and the frenzy of fundraising, a tech startup in India has achieved a feat that few of its peers have managed: going public.

IndiaMART, the country’s largest online platform for selling products directly to businesses, raised nearly $70 million in a rare tech IPO for India this week.

The milestone for the 23-year-old firm is so uncommon for India’s otherwise burgeoning startup ecosystem that, beyond being over-subscribed 36 times, pent up demand for IndiaMART’s stock saw its share price pop 40% on its first day of trading on National Stock Exchange on Thursday — a momentum that it sustained on Friday.

The stock ended Friday at Rs 1326 ($19.3), compared to its issue price of Rs 973 ($14.2).

IndiaMART is the first business-to-business e-commerce firm to go public in India. Its IPO also marks the first listing for a firm following the May reelection of Narendra Modi as the nation’s Prime Minister and the months-long drought that led to it.

Accounting firm EY said it expects more companies from India to follow suit and file for IPO in the coming months.

“Now that national elections are over and favorable results secured, IPO activity is expected to gain momentum in H2 2019 (second half of the year). Companies that had filed their offer documents with the Indian stock markets regulator during H2 2018 and Q1 2019 may finally come to market in the months ahead,” it said in a statement (PDF).

IndiaMART’s origin

The fireworks of the IPO are just as impressive as IndiaMART’s journey.

The startup was founded in 1996 and for the first 13 years, it focused on exports to customers abroad, but it has since modernized its business following the wave of the internet.

“The thesis was, in 1996, there were no computers or internet in India. The information about India’s market to the West was very limited,” Dinesh Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of IndiaMART, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Until 2008, IndiaMART was fully bootstrapped and profitable with $10 million in revenue, Agarwal said. But things started to dramatically change in that year.

“The Indian rupee became very strong against the dollar, which dwindled the exports business. This is also when the stock market was collapsing in the West, which further hurt the exports demand,” he explained.

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Dinesh Agarwal, founder and CEO of IndiaMart.com, poses for a profile shot on July 29, 2015 in Noida, India.

By this time, millions of people in India were on the internet and, with tens of millions of people owning a feature phone, the conditions of the market had begun to shift towards digital.

“This is when we decided to pursue a completely different path. We started to focus on the domestic market,” Agarwal said.

Over the last 10 years, IndiaMART has become the largest e-commerce platform for businesses with about 60% market share, according to research firm KPMG. It handles 97,000 product categories — ranging from machine parts, medical equipment and textile products to cranes — and has amassed 83 million buyers and 5.5 million suppliers from thousands of towns and cities of India.

According to the most recent data published by the Indian government, there are about 50 to 60 million small and medium-sized businesses in India, but only around 10 million of them have any presence on the web. Some 97% of the top 50 companies listed on National Stock Exchange use IndiaMART’s services, Agarwal said.

That’s not to say that the transition to the current day was a straightforward process for the company. IndiaMART tried to capitalize on its early mover advantage with a stream of new services which ultimately didn’t reap the desired rewards.

In 2002, it launched a travel portal for businesses. A year later, it launched a business verification service. It also unveiled a payments platform called ABCPayments. None of these services worked and the firm quickly moved on.

Part of IndiaMART’s success story is its firm leadership and how cautiously it has raised and spent its money, Rajesh Sawhney, a serial angel investor who sits on IndiaMART’s board, told TechCrunch in an interview.

IndiaMART, which employs about 4,000 people, is operationally profitable as of the financial year that ended in March this year. It clocked some $82 million in revenue in the year. It has raised about $32 million to date from Intel Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners and Quona Capital. (Notably, Agarwal said that he rejected offers from VCs for a very long time.)

The firm makes most of its revenue from subscriptions it sells to sellers. A subscription gives a seller a range of benefits including getting featured on storefronts.

Where the industry stands

There are only a handful of internet companies in India that have gone public in the last decade. Online travel service MakeMyTrip went public in 2010. Software firm Intellect Design Arena and e-commerce store Koovs listed in 2014, then travel portal Yatra and e-commerce firm Infibeam followed two years later.

India has consistently attracted billions of dollars in funding in recent years and produced many unicorns. Those include Flipkart, which was acquired by Walmart last year for $16 billion, Paytm, which has raised more than $2 billion to date, Swiggy, which has bagged $1.5 billion to date, Zomato, which has raised $750 million, and relatively new entrant Byju’s — but few of them are nearing profitability and most likely do not see an IPO in their immediate future.

In that context, IndiaMART may set a benchmark for others to follow.

“The fact that we have a homegrown digital commerce business, serving both the urban and smaller cities, and having struggled and been around for so long building a very difficult business and finally going public in the local exchange is a phenomenal story,” Ganesh Rengaswamy, a partner at Quona Capital, told TechCrunch in an interview. “It keeps the story of India tech, to the Western world, going.”

Generally, it is agreed that there are too few IPOs in India and the industry can benefit from momentum and encouragement of high profile and successful public listings.

“There is a firm consensus that in India, markets will prefer only the IPOs of companies that are profitable. And investors in India might not value those companies. Both of these issues are being addressed by IndiaMART,” said Sawhney.

“We need 30 to 40 more IPOs. This will also mean that the stock market here has matured and understands the tech stocks and how it is different from other consumer stocks they usually handle. More tech companies going public would also pave the way for many to explore stock exchanges outside of India.

“Indian market is ready for more tech stocks. We just need to get more companies to go out there,” Sawhney added, although he did predict that it will take a few years before the vast majority of leading startups are ready for the public market.

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The Indian government, for its part, this week announced a number of incentives to uplift the “entrepreneurial spirit” in the nation.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would ease foreign direct investment rules for certain sectors — including e-commerce, food delivery, grocery — and improve the digital payments ecosystem. Sitharaman, who is the first woman to hold this position in India, said the government would also launch a TV program to help startups connect with venture capitalists.

The path ahead for IndiaMART

IndiaMART has managed to build a sticky business that compels more than 55% of its customers to come back to the platform and make another transaction within 90 days, Agarwal — its CEO — said. With some 3,500 of its 4,000 employees classified as sales executives, the company is aggressive in its pursuit of new customers. Moving forward, that will remain one of its biggest focuses, according to Agarwal.

“Most of our time still goes into educating MSMEs on how to use the internet. That was a challenge 20 years ago and it remains a challenge today,” he told TechCrunch.

In recent years, IndiaMART has begun to expand its suite of offerings to its business customers in a bid to increase the value they get from its platform and thus increase their reliance on its service.

IndiaMART has built a customer relationship management (CRM) tool so that customers need not rely on spreadsheets or other third-party services.

“We will continue to explore more SaaS offerings and look into solving problems in accounting, invoice management and other areas,” said Agarwal.

The firm also recently started to offer payment facilitation between buyers and sellers through a PayPal -like escrow system.

“This will bridge the trust gap between the entities and improve an MSME’s ability to accept all kinds of payment options including the new age offerings.”

There’s an elephant in the room, however.

A bigger challenge that looms for IndiaMART is the growing interest of Amazon and Walmart in the business-to-business space. Several startups including Udaan — which has raised north of $280 million from DST Global and Lightspeed Venture Partners — have risen up in recent years and are increasingly expanding their operations. Agarwal did not seem much worried, however, telling TechCrunch that he believes that his prime competition is more focused on B2C and serving niche audiences. Besides he has $100 million in the bank himself.

Indeed, as Quona Capital’s Rengaswamy astutely noted, competition is not new for IndiaMART — the company has survived and thrived more than two decades of it.

“Alibaba came and gave up,” he noted.

An important — and unanswered question — that follows the successful IPO is how IndiaMART’s stock will fare over the coming months. A glance to the U.S. — where hyped companies like Uber, Lyft and others have seen prices taper off — shows clearly that early demand and sustained stock performance are not one and the same.

Nobody knows at this point, and the added complexity at play is that the concept of a tech IPO is so uncommon in India that there is no definitive answer to it… yet. But IndiaMART’s biggest achievement may be that it sets the pathway that many others will follow.

Calm raises $27M to McConaughey you to sleep

Meditation app unicorn Calm wants you to doze off to the dulcet tones of actor Matthew McConaughey’s southern drawl or writer Stephen Fry’s english accent. Calm’s Sleep Stories feature that launched last year is a hit, with over 150 million listens from its 2 million paid subscribers and 50 million downloads. While lots of people want to meditate, they need to sleep. The 7-year-old app has finally found its must-have feature that makes it a habit rather than an aspiration.

Keen to capitalize on solving the insomnia problems plaguing people around the world, Lightspeed tells TechCrunch it has just invested $27 million into a Series B extension round in Calm alongside some celebrity angels at a $1 billion valuation. The cash will help the $70 per year subscription app further expand from guided meditations into more self-help masterclasses, stretching routines, relaxing music, breathing exercises, stories for children, and celebrity readings that lull you to sleep.

Calm App

The funding adds to Calm’s $88 million Series B led by TPG that was announced in February that was also at a $1 billion valuation, bringing the full B round to $115 million and Calm’s total funding to about $141 million. Lightspeed partner Nicole Quinn confirms the fund started talks with Calm around the same time as TPG, but took longer to finish due diligence, which is why the valuation didn’t grow despite Calm’s progress since February.

“Nicole and Lightspeed are valueable partners as we continue to double down on entertainment through our content” Calm’s head of communications Alexia Marchetti tells me. The startup plans to announce more celebrity content tie-ins later this summer.

Broadening its appeal is critical for Calm amidst a crowded meditation app market including Headspace, Simple Habit, and Insight Timer plus newer entrants like Peloton’s mindfulness sessions and Journey’s live group classes. It’s become easy to find guided meditations online for free, so Calm needs to become a holistic mental wellness hub.

While it risks diluting its message by doing so much, Calm’s plethora of services could make it a gateway to more of your personal health spend, including therapy, meditation retreats, and health merchandise from airy clothing to yoga mats. But subscription fees alone are powering a big business. Calm quadrupled revenue in 2018 to reach $150 million in ARR and hit profitability.

Calm is poised to keep up its rapid revenue growth. After the launch of Sleep Stories, “it was incredible to see the engagement spike up and also the retention” says Quinn. Users can choose from having McConaughey describe the wonders of the cosmos, John McEnroe walk them through the rules of tennis, fairy tales like The Little Mermaid, and more.

Quinn tells me “Sleep Stories is now a huge percentage of the business, and also the length of time people spend on the app has gone up dramatically.” She tells me that so many startups are “trying to invent a problem where there isn’t one.” But difficulty snoozing is so widespread and detrimental that users are eager to pay for an app instead of a sleeping pill. Having the Inception actor talk about the universe until I pass out sounds alright, alright, alright.

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