We asked 12 Boston startups about their diversity efforts

Boston’s tech boom has led to a huge need for tech-related talent. But while the last decade has brought nearly 72,000 new tech jobs to Massachusetts, the growth brought with it slim progress regarding the makeup of who actually fills those roles. (Spoiler: It’s largely white men.)

According to MassTLC, it will take until 2085 for Black workers to reach the same hiring rate of white men in the industry today. For Latinos, it will take until 2045. And for women, it will take until 2070.

In this month’s Boston column, we decided to check in on the region’s diversity efforts. Boston is a city that has been defined both by a historically racist reputation and its university-driven liberal bonafides. As companies across the country have reacted to systemic racism with promises to do better when it comes to hiring, we wondered: Is Boston stepping up to the plate when it comes to hiring underrepresented candidates?

Using a list generated by a simple, time-bounded Crunchbase search for most recent Boston-area fundraising events. we turned to 15 companies that have recently raised within Boston and asked about their diversity efforts:

  • Ginkgo Bioworks
  • Wasabi Technologies
  • Orbita AI
  • Atea Pharmaceuticals
  • Amwell
  • Hemista
  • LifePod Solutions
  • Jellyfish
  • AllHere Education
  • Canvas GFX
  • PIC Therapeutics
  • Tyme Wear

Only a handful of companies responded, which wasn’t a good sign. Boston has a stunted record of releasing diversity data, so the silence was somewhat expected, if a little disappointing. Let’s review the responses we received to see what we can learn from both the answers (and the nonanswers).

At the end, we’ll look at some recent Boston venture data. We also have a new Boston investor survey coming later this month, so stay tuned.

The responses

Pinterest rolls out new board features including notes, dates and section suggestions

Pinterest is today introducing new features that make it easier for those planning recipes, virtual events, and other quarantine activities. These include the ability to add a date or notes to a board as well as automated ways to better organize your pins on a given board, with the aid of machine learning technology.

The company has seen increases in particular types of activities on its platform amid the quarantine. For example, it’s seen an over 50% increase in people using the site to plan virtual events — like virtual birthday parties, baby showers, or virtual educational activities.

Meanwhile, it’s also seen people planning ahead for their post-quarantine projects as well as an overall 60% increase in the number of boards created versus the same time last year. Engagement with boards is also up nearly 75% on a year-over-year basis and up nearly 50% month-over-month.

The addition of board notes will allow Pinterest users to annotate their saves with personal notes — like adding a list of ingredients accompany a pinned recipe, a list of tasks for a project, a to-do list, or anything else they want to note.

Also new is the ability to add a date to board. This can help with project planning or to just keep boards better organized by dates. When projects wrap, it may be easier to find the old boards to archive if they have a date attached.

Finally, Pinterest is upgrading its board technology to suggest sections to add to a board.

For example, if you have a fairly broad topic — like “kids’ activities” — Pinterest may now recommend organizing the pins into sections like “art projects,” “outdoor games,” and others. And when you’re starting a new board, Pinterest may suggest sections to add as soon as you save your first pin.

The company says it’s using its data on billions of saved ideas combined with machine learning and Pinterest’s own PinSage technology, in order to determine how pins should be grouped. This problem is challenging, Pinterest notes, because it has to accurately cluster together similar pins and predict how a Pinner may want to organize their board.

These new board features are rolling out globally starting today on web, iOS and Android.

The new features are meant to help Pinterest respond to the changes in consumer behavior since the COVID-19 pandemic, where people had temporarily turned away from planning for travel or in-person events, and instead are using their boards to organize for quarantine-related activities, like a child’s homeschooling or virtual events.

The launches follow Pinterest’s report this week of a solid Q1 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The company grew its revenue 35% year-over-year to $272 million and grew its user base 26% year-over-year to 367 million, beating projections for both. However, it reported a loss of 10 cents per share, versus the expected loss of 9 cents per share.

But Wall St. wasn’t happy with Pinterest’s user growth, CNBC reported, which was up 6% year-over-year in the U.S., compared with 8% in the fourth quarter. Overall, Pinterest’s growth of 26% was the same annualized growth rate it saw in the fourth quarter — in other words, flat. This was unexpected, given Pinterest’s claims of pandemic-related record usage in March and the gains other social platforms have seen, including Facebook and Snapchat.

Pinterest also warned of a tough road ahead, due to pandemic-related adverting declines.

The great unicorn retreat

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re taking stock of what’s happening to a number of unicorns, both public and private. This is the third time we’ve sat down to document what feels like a wave of unicorn cuts, capped in this case by Airbnb’s decision to cut around a quarter of its global staff (25.3%, according to provided numbers).

Airbnb’s cuts follow recent excisions at Lime, Oyo, and others. Notably the cuts are not only landing amongst the best-known unicorns. Indeed, Crunchbase News (n.b. I was once its Editor in Chief) wrote a few weeks back that 36 unicorns had cut a known 8,416 jobs, according to a layoff tracker.

The numbers are now sharply higher if we only added in Airbnb’s cuts. However, looking at the same database this morning, cuts amongst late-stage startups since the prior count was assembled include reductions at Swiggy, Deliveroo, Sisense, Magic Leap, DesktopMetal, Cohesity, and others.

TechCrunch first covered a wave of unicorn layoffs towards the start of the year, when companies backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund were rapidly trying to curtail their costs and move closer to profitability. Suddenly their chief-backer, formerly the most aggressive pool of private capital in the world was on retreat, and it was time to batten the hatches.

Those cuts, however, felt less driven by a unicorn-wide issue and more led by quarters of overly indulgent self-aggrandizement by a number of business that ran further in the red than made sense.

The second wave of unicorn layoffs came in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Well-known companies like Bird, ZipRecruiter, GetAround, Sonder, TripActions, and others cut staff as the economy rapidly changed as cities and states asked regular folks to stay home.

That post, out towards the end of March, almost looks like we published it too early in retrospect. It came before Toast dramatically cut staff or BounceX’s own layoffs. In other words, the trend we were discussing was just getting started.

So let’s talk about what’s happened since our March 30 check-in on the state of unicorn employment, and why we’re now in what could be the third wave of unicorn cuts this year.

Equity Monday: Intel covets Moovit, two early stage rounds, and Uber’s earnings

Good morning and welcome back to TechCrunch’s Equity Monday, a jumpstart for your week.

Equity had a busy last few days, so to help you catch up: Friday’s episode was a lot of fun (Duolingo, Figma, OMERS, and aquafaba), and we also dropped an Equity Shot on Saturday, digging into the first major technology earnings week.

But this morning we were busy digging through what’s happened over the last few days, and what’s to come. Here’s the rundown:

We wrapped asking that’s going to come for companies that were still speculative businesses before the slowdown. They’re going to vaporize, right?

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 AM PT and Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Precursor’s Charles Hudson for a Q&A this Thursday

The new Extra Crunch Live series is taking flight this week. Today we’re talking to Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee and Ted Wang. This Thursday we’re keeping the parade of well-known investors coming, when Charles Hudson will join Natasha Mascarenhas and I for a deep-dive into all things pre-seed and seed.

Extra Crunch Live Episode 2: Charles Hudson will air at 3 PM PT/6 PM ET this Thursday. Important Note: Extra Crunch members will be able to ask their own questions live on the call.

Hudson has been a guest on Equity a few times and even popped up onstage at Disrupt. Why? Because he’s made a number of notable investments and he has a penchant for explaining the seed venture market in useful, easy-to-grok terms.

Precursor Ventures, Hudson’s firm, has raised a number of funds, and filed paperwork to put together a $40 million third fund earlier this year. If closed, the new vehicle would be Precursor’s largest to date. The firm previously raised two main funds, and one $10 million “opportunity” fund.

Hudson, along with senior associate Sydney Thomas and analyst Ayanna Kerrison, tends to invest in software, internet-focused and e-commerce companies, according to Crunchbase data. However, other data indicates that the firm’s investment pace may have slowed in 2019 as the world unwittingly marched toward the new, COVID-19 era.

The new world we live in is precisely why we wanted to get Charles back for a chat. The last time we spoke with him Airbnb was still going public in 2020 on the back of a direct listing. We also chatted about which Y Combinator companies were the biggest. Now Airbnb’s been forced to borrow expensive capital, cut its valuation and is generally expected to delay its public debut. And Y Combinator is pulling back on its investing cadence.

A new world, a changed world.

Before we let you go, while prepping for our talk with Hudson, we discovered that Precursor put money into both payment firm Finix’s seed round and Series A, according to Crunchbase data. The startup later raised a Series B that would wind up being more complicated than it first seemed.

If you aren’t a member of Extra Crunch just yet, join up and don’t miss any of the next few months’ worth of live chats that are going to be pretty damn cool.

You can find all the Zoom information below, as well as an AddEvent link to put the details directly onto your calendar.

See you soon!

Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Pinterest adds DoorDash exec and Caviar lead Gokul Rajaram to its board

Pinterest is bringing on a new board member. The company announced today it has appointed Gokul Rajaram, Caviar lead at soon-to-go-public DoorDash, to its board of directors and as a member of its Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee. The addition signals Pinterest’s desire to bring more digital advertising expertise to its board, given Rajaram’s experience as product director of Ads at Facebook and product management director at Google AdSense.

“Gokul brings great experience and innovation to our Board and we look forward to his many contributions,” said Pinterest CEO and co-founder Ben Silbermann, in a statement. “His proven track record in shopping, digital advertising and content will be incredibly beneficial as we continue to bring inspirational experiences to users and advertisers on Pinterest,” he added.

Currently, Rajaram serves on DoorDash’s executive team where he leads the premium food ordering service, Caviar, which DoorDash acquired from Square last year for $410 million. The Caviar deal included Rajaram and team, in addition to the service’s restaurant partnerships. At Square, Rajaram spent five years heading Caviar and before that, had led several product development teams.

Rajaram’s background also includes time at Facebook and Google, where he focused on digital ads. At Facebook, he helped the company transform its ads business to become mobile-first. And at Google, he helped launch the Google AdSense product and grow it into a substantial portion of Google’s business, Pinterest notes.

Other relevant experience includes time on RetailMeNot’s board, as well as an investor and advisor to numerous startups, including those that intersected retail/e-commerce, analytics and social — like Pinterest-focused Piquora, mobile ad company Vungle, retail advertising startup PromoteIQ and many others.

Today, Rajaram additionally serves on the boards of The Trade Desk and Course Hero.

Rajaram has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur where he was class valedictorian. He received an MBA from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin, where he received the MCD University Fellowship.

His addition to Pinterest’s board comes at a time when the company’s ad business is growing.

Earlier this month, Pinterest reported revenues for 2019 had topped $1 billion, up 51% over 2018. In the fourth quarter alone, Pinterest saw $400 million in revenue, up 46% year-over-year, and beating analyst forecasts of $371.2 million. Feed-based Shopping Ads contributed heavily to this growth, with the ads more than doubling in the second half of 2019 compared with the first. Pinterest also said its investment in measurement tools had been paying off. In Q4, conversion campaigns — which let advertisers track from pin clicks to actions, like adding items to a cart — grew by 150%.

The company said during earnings that scaling its ads business would continue to be a strategic priority in 2020, as it looks to capture more mid-size and international advertisers and make the service more shoppable.

“Pinterest is a beloved brand that inspires people to create a life they love,” said Gokul Rajaram, about his board appointment. “I’ve always been excited about Pinterest’s mission and impact on people’s everyday lives, and am thrilled to help Ben, Evan, and the team continue building amazing products that empower people and advertisers around the world,” he said.

Rajaram joins other Pinterest board members Jeffrey Jordan, GP at Andreessen Horowitz; Leslie Kilgore, previously Netflix CMO; BVP partner Jeremy Levine; Fredric Reynolds, previously CFO at CBS; Michelle Wilson, previously from Amazon legal; and Pinterest co-founders Evan Sharp and Ben Silbermann.

 

 

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

With $30 million in fresh funds, The Bouqs plans to plant its flower delivery business in Japan

The Bouqs plans to take a slice of Japan’s $6 billion flower market this year with a $30 million strategic growth round from Japanese enterprise business investor Yamasa. While The Bouqs still must compete with bigger contenders like 1-800-Flowers and FTD in the U.S., it will now have to take on incumbents like Ayoma Flower Market and FloraJapan, both of which also offer same-day delivery throughout the land of the rising sun.

So why Japan? According to The Bouqs founder and CEO John Tabis, his company had been looking to expand internationally for awhile and Japan seemed to fit well within that plan.

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

And as far as bigger competition in any country, Tabis is undeterred, telling TechCrunch there’s plenty of opportunities in the flower delivery business if you know where to look. “There’ve been four or five other startups that tried something similar — some of them no longer exist,” Tabis said. “But the thing that’s worked for us, the first is the way that we’ve sourced is unique and it’s really the foundation of our brand.”

The Bouqs sprung up in a wave of Silicon Valley funded flower delivery startups like BloomThat, Farm Girl and  Urban Stems, all promising Pinterest -worthy bouquets at the click of a button. But what set it apart was its farm-direct supply chain, cutting out costs from middlemen and delivering flowers that last longer.

This particular round now puts The Bouqs up top as far as total funding raised among its flower delivery startup peers, bringing in $74 million in total funding to date, with competitor Urban Stems at a close second with $27 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Tabis also tells TechCrunch the new funds will also further the company’s development into brick-and-mortar stores and that it’s jumping into the wedding biz. As anyone who’s ever planned a wedding will tell you, it’s an industry ripe for disruption — with brides and grooms spending about 8% of the budget on the flowers alone.

One other renewed focus for the company will be its subscription business, keeping customers set up with a fresh bunch of flowers once the old bouquet is ready for tossing. “It’s sort of the linchpin of our business that’s grown very nicely…expanding both our revenue and profitability,” Tabis told TechCrunch.

The SVP of Yamasa, Norikazu Sano, also mentioned further expansion into Asia for the company in a company press release so we could see the Bouqs in more international areas over time, if all goes right in Japan.

“This financing will enable us to fully realize our vision to create a global network of top quality farms paired with a category-defining local floral brand enabled by proprietary supply chain technology and vertically-integrated sourcing capabilities. We’re so excited for this next phase of the business, and all of the opportunities that lie ahead,” Tabis said.