Our 11 favorite companies from Y Combinator’s S20 Demo Day: Part I

Startup incubator and investment group Y Combinator today held the first of two demo days for founders in its Summer 2020 batch.

So far, this cohort contains the usual mix of bold, impressive and, at times, slightly wacky ideas young companies so often show off.

This was Y Combinator’s second online demo day, its first all-virtual class and the first time that it held live, remote pitches. The event largely went well, with founders dialing in from around the globe to share a few paragraphs of notes and a single slide. There were few technical hiccups, given the sheer number of startups presenting.

But if you are not in the mood to parse through dozens (and dozens) of entries detailing each startup that showed off its problem, solution and growth, the TechCrunch crew has collected our own favorites based on how likely a company seems to succeed and how impressed we were with the creativity of their vision. For each entry, one staffer made the call that the startup in question was among their favorites.

We’re not investors, so we’re not pretending to sort the unicorns from the goats. But if what you need is a digest of some of the day’s best companies to get a good taste of what founders are building, we have your back.

ZipSchool and Hellosaurus

Natasha Mascarenhas

The next wave of edtech startups is entering a market that demands a better remote-learning solution for younger learners. But that’s the obvious product gap, one that is already being tackled by the biggest names in the booming category.

The non-obvious product-market deficit is how teachers, also impacted by the pandemic, are searching for new ways to interact with students. Teachers are collaborating and cross-pollinating on successful lesson plans that work across stale Zoom screens, so why not monetize that same content?

Max Levchin is looking ahead to fintech’s next big opportunities

Max Levchin needs little introduction in the world of tech. As an entrepreneur, he’s been the co-founder of PayPal (now public), Slide (acquired by Google) and Affirm (reportedly about to go public), some of the hottest startups to have come out of Silicon Valley. And as an investor, he’s applied his power of observation and execution also towards helping many others build huge technology businesses.

We sat down with Levchin for a recent session of Extra Crunch Live, where he spoke at length about what he sees as some of the big opportunities in fintech. Here’s an edited version of the conversation. You can watch and listen to the whole discussion — which includes stories about Levchin’s coffee and cycling habits, and how many times he’s seen “The Seven Samurai” (hint: more than once) — here, also embedded below, and you can check out the rest of the pretty cool ECL program here.

How e-commerce failed to evolve since his days at PayPal

Even going as far back as PayPal I think the industry has devolved. I think fintech had the promise of really bringing simplicity, honesty and transparency to the customer. Instead, we ended up putting a really nice user interface on products that are not designed with the user’s best interest in mind. I’m a big fan of throwing shade on credit cards, because I think fundamentally, their business model is remarkably similar to that of payday loans. You are allowed to borrow some money and don’t really know exactly what the terms are. It’s all in the fine print, don’t worry about it and then you just make the minimum payments and you stay in debt. Potentially forever.

A stampede of unicorn news

With a hot IPO market and a world accelerating its shift to digital technologies amidst a pandemic, it’s a busy time for late-stage startups. Happily, the current moment is generating a wave of leaks and news. So much so, it’s actually been pretty hard to keep up.

In honor of the somewhat crazy week we’ve had, I’ve compiled the biggest and best bits of unicorn news, with two final items concerning companies that are not quite unicorns. Our goal is to get caught up so we can start next week sufficiently informed.


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As always with this sort of work, we’ll have to handle each entry quickly. But if you want to know what’s up lately with the most valuable private companies, this should provide a working summary.

We’ll start with the Gong round, talk Palantir, peek at Stripe, chat about Airbnb’s results, detail a few other revenue milestones that were new to us, discuss Robinhood trading volume, gander at some Coinbase product news and a few other items, wrapping with a note on recent funding rounds from Parsable and Coda.

The theme, in case you were hoping for a unifying thread, is that the good times that took temporary flight in March and April, are back.

Today, it’s nearly hard to recall the fear that took over startup-land; sure, there are warning signs about cloud growth rates, but for many unicorns, we still live in boom times.

Let’s begin.

A  blessing of unicorns

As promised, we’re starting with the Gong round, which my dear friend Ron Miller covered for TechCrunch. The salestech software company put together a $200 million round at a $2.2 billion valuation after raising several other rounds in recent quarters. As Ron reports, the company’s growth has been torrid, with 1,300 customers and 2.5x revenue growth “this year alone.” But most critically, Gong’s CEO Amit Bendov said that “there’s a lot of liquidity in the market.” Yep.

Google signs up six more partners for its digital banking platform coming to Google Pay

Google is expanding its plans to offer digital banking services in the U.S. The company announced today it’s partnering with half a dozen more banks to offer digital checking and savings accounts to Google Pay users in the U.S., starting sometime next year. The new partners include Bank Mobile, BBVA USA, BMO Harris, Coastal Community Bank, First Independence Bank and SEFCU. They join Google’s existing partners Citi and SFCU, announced earlier, for a total of now eight banks lined up for the project.

News of Google’s big move into banking and personal finance through an effort known internally as “Project Cache” was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in November. Much like the mobile banking services offered today by a number of startups, Google will provide the consumer-facing front-end to the digital banking services it makes available, while the accounts themselves will be held by the FDIC-backed partner institutions.

However, unlike with mobile banking startups, which tend to note their banking partners only in the fine print, Google is giving the banks a co-branded experience. In addition, Google explains that by working with a range of partners from large, global banks down to smaller credit unions with deep community ties, it will be able to do a better job building products that meet its customers’ diverse set of needs.

“We had confirmed earlier that we are exploring how we can partner with banks and credit unions in the U.S. to offer digital bank accounts through Google Pay, helping their customers benefit from useful insights and budgeting tools, while keeping their money in an FDIC or NCUA-insured account,” a Google spokesperson says. “We are excited that six new banks have signed up to offer digital checking and savings.”

The company says it plans to add even more U.S. financial institutions over time.

Google today operates its digital payments service Google Pay and complementary Google Wallet product to serve its customers’ financial needs. But today, more consumers — and particularly younger people — are moving away from brick-and-mortar banking institutions to instead manage their money online. Apple already tapped into consumer demand for digital banking with the launch of its co-branded Apple Card credit card with Goldman Sachs. But it has not yet offered a full banking service, only Apple Cash — a service where you store your “cashback” credits from Apple Card use, payments from friends or the cash you transfer in from a connected bank.

Google’s plans are more extensive. Though it won’t host the bank accounts, it will be able to draw on data to offer customers financial insights and other budgeting tools. For the partners, the service gives them a way to market their brand to consumers in an increasingly mobile-first, online-only market.

“Being able to support our customers’ financial lives in more places where they’re spending their digital time is important to helping them be successful,” said Brett Pitts, chief digital officer for BMO Financial Group, in a statement about BMO’s partnership with Google. “Collaborating to launch this new BMO digital product accelerates our ability to deliver financial advice to our customers and is an innovative step in the evolution of how we serve them.”

For BBVA, the collaboration is another step forward for its BBVA Open Platform, which allows the bank to acquire customers by embedding its financial products within other apps and services.

“BBVA has focused for decades on how it could use digital to advance the financial industry, and in so doing, create more and better opportunities for customers to manage their financial health,” said BBVA USA President and CEO Javier Rodriguez Soler. “Collaborations with companies like Google represent the future of banking,” he added.

The accounts are expected to launch in 2021, several banks said in their announcements. Google has not provided a more specific time frame for the launch.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze?

I wanted to write an essay about Microsoft and TikTok today, because I was effectively a full-time reporter covering the software giant when it hired Satya Nadella in 2014. But, everyone else has already done that and, frankly, there’s a more pressing financial topic for us to parse.

Let’s take a minute to take stock of SPAC (special purpose acquisition companies) which have risen sharply to fresh prominence in recent months. Also known as blank-check companies, SPACS are firms that are sent public with a bunch of cash and the reputation of their backers. Then, they combine with a private company, effectively allowing yet-private firms to go public with far less hassle than with a traditional IPO.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


And less scrutiny, which is why historically SPACs haven’t been the path forward for companies of the highest-quality; a look at the historical data doesn’t paint a great picture of post-IPO performance.

But that historical stigma isn’t stopping a flow of SPACs taking private companies public this year. A host of SPACs have already happened, something we should have remarked on more in Q1 and Q2.

Still, better late than never. This morning, let’s peek at two new pieces of SPAC news: electric truck company Lordstown Motors merging with a SPAC to go public, and fintech company Paya going public via FinTech III, another SPAC.

We’ll see that in hot sectors there’s ample capital hunting for deals of any stripe. How the boom in alt-liquidity will fare long-term isn’t clear, but what is plain today is that where caution is lacking, yield-hunting is more than willing to step in.

Electric vehicles as SPAC nirvana

The boom in the value of Tesla shares has lifted all electric vehicle (EV) boats. The value of historically-struggling public EV companies like NIO have come back, and private companies in the space have been hot for SPACs as a way to go public in a hurry and cash in on investor interest.

Working to understand Affirm’s reported IPO pricing hopes

News broke last night that Affirm, a well-known fintech unicorn, could approach the public markets at a valuation of $5 to $10 billion. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the news, said that Affirm could begin trading this year and that its IPO options include debuting via a special purpose acquisition company, also known as a SPAC.

That Affirm is considering listing is not a surprise. The company is around eight years old and has raised north of $1 billion, meaning it has locked up investor cash during its life as a private company. And liquidity has become an increasingly attractive possibility in 2020, when new offerings of all quality levels are enjoying strong reception from investors and traders who are hungry for equity in growing companies.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. You can read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But $10 billion? That price tag is a multiple of what Affirm was worth last year when it added $300 million to its coffer at a post-money price of $2.9 billion. There were rumors that the firm was hunting a far larger round later in 2019, though it doesn’t appear — per PitchBook records — that Affirm raised more capital since its Series F.

This morning let’s chat about the company’s possible IPO valuation. The Journal noted the strong public performance of Afterpay as a possible cognate for Affirm — the Australian buy-now, pay-later firm saw its value dip to $8.01 per share inside the last year before soaring to around $68 today. But given the firm’s reporting cycle, it’s a hard company to use as a comp.

Happily, we have another option to lean on that is domestically listed, meaning it has more regular and recent financial disclosures. So let’s how learn much revenue it takes to earn an eleven-figure valuation on the public markets by offering consumers credit.

Affirm’s business

Affirm loans consumers funds at the point of sale that are repaid on a schedule at a certain cost of capital. Affirm customers can select different repayment periods, raising or lowering their regular payments, and total interest cost.

Synchrony offers similar installment loans to consumers, along with other forms of capital access, including privately-branded credit cards. (Verizon, TechCrunch’s parent company, recent offered a card with the company, I should note.)  Synchrony is worth $13.5 billion as of this morning, making it a company of similar-ish value compared to the top end of the possible Affirm valuation range.

Opportunities (and challenges) in church tech

Americans are rapidly becoming less religious. Weekly church attendance is falling, congregations are getting smaller or even closing and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religiously unaffiliated” has spiked.

Despite all this, now might be the perfect time for church tech companies to thrive.

A combination of COVID-19-induced adoption, underrated demographic trends and pressure to innovate is setting the stage for new successes in the previously sleepy church tech space. Venture dollars are flowing in, and Silicon Valley is slowly showing serious interest in the sector. Hot new startups are finding creative growth hacks to penetrate a difficult market. Major challenges remain for companies in this space, but their odds seem better than ever.

Less religion, more spirituality

Yes, Americans are going to church less often, but that doesn’t mean they’re not staying spiritual. In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown faster than any other group in this Pew survey on religiosity. This fact is reflected in other data. For example, the percentage of Americans that pray daily or weekly has stayed fairly flat even as overall religiosity declined. This opens up two distinct opportunities, as well as two challenges.

Opportunities:

  • What tools do the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd need?
  • Churches are realizing they need to innovate or die. What tools do they need to reach out to their members and gain new congregants?

Challenges:

  • Two demographics: young, tech-savvy and more willing to try a new product, but less involved in church tradition versus older, not as tech-savvy and harder to reach.
  • Very byzantine market: as documented in part one of this series, the market is dominated by small companies waging a turf war with one another. In addition, because churches are so local and hard to sell to, all of the companies to date have been smaller land-grabs rather than anything with scale or accumulating advantage.

Rapidly growing startups in the space are deftly navigating this landscape and taking advantage of these trends.

Jesus, SaaS and digital tithing

There are more than 300,000 congregations in the U.S., and entrepreneurs are creating billion-dollar companies by building software to service them. Welcome to church tech.

The sector was growing prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic forced many congregations to go entirely online, which rapidly accelerated growth in this space. While many of these companies were bootstrapped, VC dollars are also increasingly flowing in. Unfortunately, it’s hard to come across a lot of resources covering this expanding, unique sector.

Market map

In broad terms, we can split church tech into six categories:

  • church management software (ChMS)
  • digital giving
  • member outreach/messaging
  • streaming/content
  • Bible study
  • website and app building

Horizontal integration is huge in this sector, and nearly all the companies operating in this space fall into several of these categories. Many have expanded through M&A.

The categories

  • Church management software: Almost all are SaaS businesses, mostly using cloud hosting. Typical features include workflow management, virtual check-in for events, a database of members and online scheduling. Examples include Elvanto and One Church.

‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ and the limits of today’s game economies

“Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is a bonafide wonder. The game has been setting new records for Nintendo, is adored by players and critics alike and provides millions of players a peaceful escape during these unprecedented times.

But there’s been something even more extraordinary happening on the fringe: Players are finding ways to augment the game experience through community-organized activities and tools. These include free weed-pulling services (tips welcome!) from virtual Samaritans, and custom-designed items for sale — for real-world money, via WeChat Pay and AliPay.

Well-known personalities and companies are also contributing, with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Gary Whitta hosting an A-list celebrity talk show using the game, and luxury fashion brand Marc Jacobs providing some of its popular clothing designs to players. 100 Thieves, the white-hot esports and apparel company, even created and gave away digital versions of its entire collection of impossible-to-find clothes.

This community-based phenomenon gives us a pithy glimpse into not only where games are inevitably going, but what their true potential is as a form of creative, technical and economic expression. It also exemplifies what we at Forte call “community economics,” a system that lies at the heart of our aim in bringing new creative and economic opportunities to billions of people around the world.

What is community economics?

Formally, community economics is the synthesis of economic activity that takes place inside, and emerges outside, virtual game worlds. It is rooted in a cooperative economic relationship between all participants in a game’s network, and characterized by an economic pluralism that is unified by open technology owned by no single party. And notably, it results in increased autonomy for players, better business models for game creators, and new economic and creative opportunities for both.

The fundamental shift that underlies community economics is the evolution of games from centralized entertainment experiences to open economic platforms. We believe this is where things are heading.

Jack Ma’s fintech giant tops 1.3 billion users globally

The speculation that Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Group will go public has been swirling around for years. New details came to light recently. Reuters reported last week that the fintech giant could float as soon as this year in an initial public offering that values it at $200 billion. As a private firm, details of the payments and financial services firm remain sparse, but a new filing by Alibaba, which holds a 33% stake in Ant, provides a rare glimpse into its performance.

Alipay, the brand of Ant’s consumer finance app, claims to earmark 1.3 billion annual active users as of March. The majority of its users came from China, while the rest were brought by its nine e-wallet partners in India, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

In recent years Ant has been striving to scale back its reliance on in-house financial products in response to Beijing’s tightening grip on China’s fledgling fintech industry. Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis, is considered a lot more reserved in the financial space but its WeChat Pay app has been slowly eating away at Alipay’s share of the payments market.

In a symbolic move in May, the Alibaba affiliate changed its name from Ant Financial to Ant Group. Even prior to that, Ant had been actively publicizing itself as a “technology” company that offers payments gateways and sells digital infrastructure to banks, insurance groups, and other traditional financial institutions — rather than being a direct competitor to them. On the Alipay app, users can browse and access a raft of third-party financial services including wealth management, microloans, and insurance.

As of March, Ant’s wealth management unit facilitated 4 trillion yuan ($570 billion) of assets under management for its partners offering money market funds, fixed income products, and equity investment services. During the same period, total insurance premiums facilitated by Ant more than doubled from the year before.

In June, Ant’s new boss Hu Xiaoming set the goal for the firm to generate 80% of total revenues from technology service fees, up from about 50% in 2019. He anticipated the monetary contribution of Ant’s own proprietary financial services to shrink as a result.

Ant grew out of Alipay, the payments service launched by Alibaba as an escrow service to ensure trust between e-commerce buyers and sellers. In 2011, Alibaba spun off Ant, allegedly to comply with local regulations governing third-party payments services. Ant has since taken on several rounds of equity financing. Today, Alibaba founder Jack Ma still controls a majority of Ant’s voting interests.