Abandoned mall department stores may become Amazon’s next fulfillment centers

One of the largest owners of shopping mall real estate in the United Stages, Simon Property Group, has been talking to Amazon about transforming its anchor department stores into Amazon distribution hubs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In the case of Simon Property, the anchor tenants like J.C. Penney and Sears that used to be stable sources of revenue are now weights around the neck of the retail real estate manager, and transforming their ghostly halls of pale mannequins into warehouses for Amazon orders simply makes sense.

The transformation from showroom to storehouse for everything from books and sweaters to kitchenware and electronics won’t be too much of a stretch for the vacant storefronts of businesses that hvae both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Simon’s holdings include some 63 JC Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to the Journal’s reporting citing a May public filing from the real estate developer.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Amazon had turned to mall real estate for fulfillment centers. in 2019, the online retailer acquired a massive physical footprint in Akron, Ohio that it turned into a distribution center.

Gone are the days when gum smacking tweens and teens and their beleaguered parents would head to the local mall for a stroll around the retail block. Now shoppers prefer to peruse online and kids find Fortnite to be the Hot Topic to hang in. 

The deal, if it goes through, would be another nail in the coffin for a staple of late twentieth century culture that now mostly exists in the memory of baby boomers and Gen X consumers (thanks millennials and Gen Z).

Malls these days are lifestyle affairs that promise boutique branded shops than the sprawling department stores that had something for everyone. The big-box spaces that the Journal reported Amazon is negotiating for are the 100,000 square foot, multi-story behemoths, that are likely not long for the long tail world of niche commerce anyway.

These days, consumers are looking for brands that appeal to a persona or the bottom line of a pocketbook, and not the mass casual one-stop-shop of late twentieth century department store off-the-rack identities.

The Journal reported that, if the deals went through, Simon would like rent the space at a considerable discount to what it would charge another retailer. The paper estimated that rents could be as low as $4 per square foot to $19 per square foot, while warehouse rents average about $10.

At this point, shopping malls are looking for anything to bring in money. They’ve already tried schools, medical offices and senior living facilities, but the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown all of those plans into the abyss.

And, as the Journal notes, malls are already located in places that make them attractive distribution hubs. Amazon has bought some sites already and FedEx and DHL have done the same, according to the paper.

At this point, Amazon ownership may be a better fate for the real estate than totally abandoning it to empty space and the lingering soundtrack of 80s rock.

 

UK’s Selina Finance raises $42M for its SMB loans platform based on home equity

When you need a loan, the cost and speed of getting it can be as critical to get right as the financing itself, a principle that might be even more relevant today in our shaky pandemic-hit economy than ever before. Today, a company that proposes to cut both the time and price for securing financing, with a platform, initially aimed at SMBs, that lets business owners put up their home property as collateral to get the loan, is announcing a funding round to expand its business.

Selina Finance, which provides loans to small and medium businesses in the form of flexible credit facilities — you pay back only what you borrow, and you do that over time, rather than in one lump sum — that are backed by the value of your personal home, is today announcing that it has raised £42 million ($53 million) — £12 million in equity and £30 million in debt to distribute as loans. The company says it plans to raise significantly more debt in the coming months as its business expands.

The funding is coming from several investors, including Picus Capital and Global Founders Capital — two firms that are tied in part to the Samwer brothers, which built the Rocket Internet e-commerce incubator in Berlin. The company’s valuation is not being disclosed.

London-based Selina plans to use the funding in a couple of areas: first, to continue growing its business in the UK, which was founded by Andrea Olivari, Hubert Fenwick and Leonard Benning and launched in June 2019; and second, to start the process of opening up to other markets in Europe.

Selina today focuses on SMEs whose applications qualify as “prime” (as opposed to sub-prime). They can borrow up to £1 million in funds — the average amount is significantly less, £150,000, says Olivari — with interest rates starting at 4.95% APR. That undercuts the rates on typical unsecured loans. Selina is also in the process of getting a license to expand its offering to consumer borrowers, too.

We’ve moved on from the days when property investing was so stable that “safe as houses” was a common expression to mean absolute reliability. But for most people, their properties continue to represent the single-biggest asset that they own and thus become a key part of how a person might construct their wider financial profile when it comes to borrowing money.

Selina’s tech essentially operates a kind of two-sided marketplace: on one hand, its algorithms process details about your property to determine its market value and how that will appreciate (or depreciate), and on the other, it’s evaluating the health of the SME business, and the purpose of the loan, to determine whether the borrower will be good for it. It’s only a year old and so it’s hard to say whether this is a strong record, but Benning notes that so far, no customers have defaulted on loans.

“We have the security of the home, yes,” he said, “but we only take credit-worthy customers to make sure the default scenario doesn’t happen. It’s something that we avoid at any cost. Technically there is a long process that leads to that outcome, but it almost never happens.” He noted that Selina has people on its team who have worked for sub-prime lenders, which gives them experience in helping to determine prime opportunities.

More generally, the idea of leveraging your property to raise capital — say, through a remortgage or loan against its value — are not new concepts: banks have been offering and distributing this kind of financing for years. The issue that Selina is addressing is that typically these deals come with high interest rates and commissions, and might take six to eight weeks from application to approval and finally loan. Selina’s pitch is that it can bring that down to five days, or possibly less.

“It’s critical that we can make a loan in five days to be be nimble and accurate, because this is one area where banks break down,” said Fenwick. “It can take two weeks to arrange for someone to walk around on behalf of a bank to make a valuation. It’s just a backwards and archaic process. We can use big data and tap different areas and dynamics all that into a model to assess the valuation of a property with a low margin of error.”

Selina is not the only tech company tackling this opportunity — specifically, Figure, the startup founded by Mike Cagney formerly of SoFi, is also providing loans to individuals against the value of their property, among other services. And for those who have followed other commerce startups financed by the Samwers, you could even say that there is a hint of cloning going on here, with even the sites of the two bearing some similarities. But for now at least Selina seems to be the only one of its kind in the UK, and for now that spells opportunity.

“Selina Finance is bringing much-needed innovation to the UK lending space by allowing customers to access the equity locked up in their residential property, seamlessly and on flexible terms,” said Robin Godenrath, MD at Picus Capital, in a statement. “The team impressed us with their strong focus on building a fully digital customer experience and have already achieved great product-market fit with their business loan use case. We’re excited and confident that Selina’s consumer proposition will also become an attractive alternative in the consumer lending space.”

Shelf Engine has a plan to reduce food waste at grocery stores, and $12 million in new cash to see i

For the first few months it was operating, Shelf Engine, the Seattle-based company that optimizes the process of stocking store shelves for supermarkets and groceries, didn’t have a name.

Co-founders Stefan Kalb and Bede Jordan were on a ski trip outside of Salt Lake City about four years ago when they began discussing what, exactly, could be done about the problem of food waste in the US.

Kalb is a serial entrepreneur whose first business was a food distribution company called Molly’s, which was sold to a company called HomeGrown back in 2019.

A graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in actuarial science, Kalb says he started his food company to make a difference in the world. While Molly’s did, indeed, promote healthy eating, the problem that Kalb and Bede, a former Microsoft engineer, are tackling at Shelf Engine may have even more of an impact.

Food waste isn’t just bad for its inefficiency in the face of a massive problem in the US with food insecurity for citizens, it’s also bad for the environment.

Shelf Engine proposes to tackle the problem by providing demand forecasting for perishable food items. The idea is to wring inefficiencies out of the ordering system. Typically about a third of food gets thrown out of the bakery section and other highly perishable goods stocked on store shelves. Shelf Engine guarantees use for the store and any items that remain unsold the company will pay for.

Image: OstapenkoOlena/iStock

Shelf Engine gets information about how much sales a store typically sees for particular items and can then predict how much demand for a particular product there will be. The company makes money off of the arbitrage between how much it pays for goods from vendors and how much it sells to grocers.

It allows groceries to lower the food waste and have a broader variety of products on shelves for customers.

Shelf Engine initially went to market with a product that it was hoping to sell to groceries, but found more traction by becoming a marketplace and perfecting its models on how much of a particular item needs to go on store shelves.

The next item on the agenda for Bede and Kalb is to get insights into secondary sources like imperfect produce resellers or other grocery stores that work as an outlet.

The business model is already showing results at around 400 stores in the Northwest, according to Kalb and it now has another $12 million in financing to go to market.

The funds came from Garry Tan’s Initialized and GGV (and GGV managing director Hans Tung has a seat on the company’s board). Other investors in the company include Foundation Capital, Bain Capital, 1984 and Correlation Ventures .

Kalb said the money from the round will be used to scale up the engineering team and its sales and acquisition process.

The investment in Shelf Engine is part of a wave of new technology applications coming to the grocery store, as Sunny Dhillon, a partner at Signia Ventures, wrote in a piece for TechCrunch’s Extra Crunch.

“Grocery margins will always be razor thin, and the difference between a profitable and unprofitable grocer is often just cents on the dollar,” Dhillon wrote. “Thus, as the adoption of e-grocery becomes more commonplace, retailers must not only optimize their fulfillment operations (e.g, MFCs), but also the logistics of delivery to a customer’s doorstep to ensure speed and quality (e.g., darkstores).”

Beyond Dhillon’s version of a delivery only grocery network with mobile fulfillment centers and dark stores, there’s a lot of room for chains with existing real estate and bespoke shopping options to increase their margins on perishable goods as well.

 

Kibbo wants to remake the trailer park so #vanlife can be a life and not a lifestyle

Colin O’Donnell was already rethinking the notion of what makes cities and communities function even before the COVID-19 epidemic swept through the U.S. and revealed some of the cracks in centuries-old structures of urban life.

O’Donnell was part of the early wave of urban tech innovation, which began to rise about six years ago. He co-founded Intersection, a company manufacturing digital kiosks for public transportation services, which was eventually rolled up in one of the first big acquisitions from the Alphabet-owned subsidiary Sidewalk Labs .

While the initial optimism for — and interest in — technology’s ability to reshape the built environment has stumbled thanks to both Sidewalk’s data collection overreach in its initial Toronto project and the financial stresses that the COVID-19 epidemic has placed on cities across the country, experiments with how to integrate technology into society more intelligently continue on the margins. And investments in real estate technology continue to rise.

O’Donnell’s new company, Kibbo, takes advantage of both trends. The San Francisco-based startup aims to upgrade the American trailer park, making it a network of intentional communities for the remote-working, previously urban professionals (PUPs?).

To ensure that these remote working puppies (I’m going with it) can navigate the American roadways in the manner to which they’re accustomed, Kibbo pitches exclusive RV parks outfitted with amenities like kitchen supplies and basic staples like coffee and snacks, a gym and recreational facilities for congregating. The company is now taking applications for membership and will be charging $1,000 per month to access its locations of sites near major national parks across the West Coast.

For members who don’t have their own vehicles, Kibbo offers access to top-of-the-line Mercedes Sprinters outfitted with the latest in #vanlife amenities. The vans cost roughly $1,000 per month to rent.

Beginning in the fall, members who get past Kibbo’s virtual velvet rope and gain access to the company’s communities will be able to visit spots in Ojai, Zion, Black Rock Desert and Big Sur. Those locations will be complemented by spots in urban cores in Los Angeles, San Francisco and somewhere in Silicon Valley, according to a statement from O’Donnell.

“With the pressure of months of quarantine fueling the desire for people to get out of their expensive apartments in the city to explore nature and connect with people, we now have the demand and opportunity to rethink how we live, work, have fun, and find meaning,” he said. “We get to rethink the urban experience and define what we want cities of the future to really look like.”

With Kibbo’s launch, would-be puppies (still going with it) attracted to its vision of a network of community spaces shared by professionals whose companies have embraced remote work, can now pay $100 to apply to be part of the network.

Image Credit: Kibbo

The company is tapping in to a part of the American zeitgeist that’s nearly as old as the country itself. From its inception, people came (and colonized) the country in an effort to create communities that would reflect their values and beliefs and afford them an opportunity to flourish (at the expense of others).

It’s also working off of the glamping phenomenon that netted HipCamp a valuation over $100 million and grabbed Tentrr an $11 million round of financing. HipCamp offers a database of campsites that earns money by taking a commission from the bookings it facilitates to over 300,000 sites across the U.S.

Like Tentrr, Kibbo is using private land to set up sites accessible to membership. But unlike Tentrr, Kibbo owns its own real estate and is setting up its sites to be part of a community rather than just an experience for travelers looking for a different option from a city vacation or competing for campsites at national parks.

Kibbo also thinks of itself as developing a new kind of roving cities comprised of a certain kind of membership.

“Unlike, traditional top-down designed and built real estate developments, Kibbo is setting out to build the first of the next generation of cities: flexible, reconfigurable, designed and defined by the people that live in it, off the grid and sustainable,” O’Donnell said. 

That’s what attracted Urban.us investor Shaun Abrahamson.

“In the short and medium term, I think this looks like a specialty part of the RV market. However, our sense is that RV experience was designed for vacations or retirees and trends like remote work and van life suggest there is demand for different kind of infrastructure and experience… Our longer term interest is climate and affordable housing,” Abrahamson said.  

Climate change and the resulting flooding, fires and rising sea levels are going to change the kinds of infrastructure to support permanent housing, Abrahamson said.

Van life is benefitting from mobile infrastructure — solar + batteries make off-grid easier. As prices come down, mobile housing and infrastructure will become more attractive. And Kibbo is filling in other lightweight pieces of infrastructure related to things like sanitation and security and, yes, they’ll layer in experiences, too,” he said.  

Both Abrahamson and O’Donnell think there will be more nomadic communities far beyond vacations and retirement, and Kibbo is the firm’s attempt to tap into that trend. It’s a vision for a future of cities that doesn’t include them, and one that O’Donnell, a New York transplant living in a communal space in San Francisco, embraces.

“While Kibbo offers an exciting lifestyle from day one, we’re making a bet that the future of cities is electric, autonomous, distributed, renewable and user-generated,” O’Donnell said.

Image Credit: Kibbo

Layer gets $5.6M to make joint working on spreadsheets less hassle

Layer is not trying to replace Excel or Google Sheets. Instead the Berlin-based productivity startup wants to make life easier for those whose job entails wrangling massive spreadsheets and managing data inputs from across an organization — such as for budgeting, financial reporting or HR functions — by adding a granular control access layer on top.

The idea for a ‘SaaS to supercharge spreadsheets’ came to the co-founders as a result of their own experience of workflow process pain-points at the place they used to work, as is often the case with productivity startups.

“Constantin [Schünemann] and I met at Helpling, the marketplace for cleaning services, where I was the company’s CFO and I had to deal with spreadsheets on a daily level,” explains co-founder Moritz ten Eikelder. “There was one particular reference case for what we’re building here — the update of the company’s financial model and business case which was a 20MB Excel file with 30 different tabs, hundreds of roles of assumptions. It was a key steering tool for management and founders. It was also the basis for the financial reporting.

“On average it needed to be updated twice per month. And that required input by around about 20-25 people across the organization. So right then about 40 different country managers and various department heads. The problem was we could not share the entire file with [all the] people involved because it contained a lot of very sensitive information like salary data, cash burn, cash management etc.”

While sharing a Dropbox link to the file with the necessary individuals so they could update the sheet with their respective contributions would have risked breaking the master file. So instead he says they created individual templates and “carve outs” for different contributors. But this was still far from optimal from a productivity point of view. Hence feeling the workflow burn — and their own entrepreneurial itch.

“Once all the input was collected from the stakeholders you would start a very extensive and tedious copy paste exercise — where you would copy from these 25 difference sources and insert them data into your master file in order to create an up to date version,” says ten Eikelder, adding: “The pain points are pretty clear. It’s an extremely time consuming and tedious process… And it’s extremely prone to error.”

Enter Layer: A web app that’s billed as a productivity platform for spreadsheets which augments rather than replaces them — sitting atop Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets files and bringing in a range of granular controls.

The idea is to offer a one-stop shop for managing access and data flows around multi-stakeholder spreadsheets, enabling access down to individual cell level and aiding collaboration and overall productivity around these key documents by streamlining the process of making and receiving data input requests.

“You start off by uploading an Excel file to our web application. In that web app you can start to build workflows across a feature spectrum,” says Schünemann — noting, for example, that the web viewer allows users to drag the curser to highlight a range of cells they wish to share.

“You can do granular user provisioning on top of that where in the offline world you’d have to create manual carve outs or manual copies of that file to be able to shield away data for example,” he goes on. “On top of that you can then request input [via an email asking for a data submission].

“Your colleagues keep on working in their known environments and then once he has submitted input we’ve built something that is very similar to a track changes functionality in Word. So you as a master user could review all changes in the Layer app — regardless of whether they’re coming through Excel or Google Sheets… And then we’ve built a consolidation feature so that you don’t need to manually copy-paste from different spreadsheets into one. So with just a couple of clicks you can accept changes and they will be taken over into your master file.”

Layer’s initial sales focus is on the financial reporting function but the co-founders say they see this as a way of getting a toe in the door of their target mid-sized companies.

The team believes there are wider use-cases for the tool, given the ubiquity of spreadsheets as a business tool. Although, for now, their target users are organizations with between 150-250 employees so they’re not (yet) going after the enterprise market.

“We believe this is a pretty big [opportunity],” Schünemann tells TechCrunch. “Why because back in 2018 when we did our first research we initially started out with this one spreadsheet at Helpling but after talking to 50 executives, most of them from the finance world or from the financial function of different sized companies, it’s pretty clear that the spreadsheet dependency is still to this day extremely high. And that holds true for financial use cases — 87% of all budgeting globally is still done via spreadsheets and not big ERP systems… but it also goes beyond that. If you think about it spreadsheets are really the number one workflow platform still used to this day. It’s probably the most used user interface in any given company of a certain size.”

“Our current users we have, for example, a real estate company whereby the finance function is using Layer but also the project controller and also some parts of the HR team,” he adds. “And this is a similar pattern. You have similarly structured workflows on top of spreadsheets in almost all functions of a company. And the bigger you get, the more of them you have.

“We use the finance function as our wedge into a company — just because it’s where our domain experience lies. You also usually have a couple of selective use cases which tend to have these problems more because of the intersections between other departments… However sharing or collecting data in spreadsheets is used not only in finance functions.”

The 2019 founded startup’s productivity platform remains in private beta for now — and likely the rest of this year — but they’ve just nabbed €5 million (~$5.6M) in seed funding to get the product to market, with a launch pegged for Q1 2021.

The seed round is led by Index Ventures (Max Rimpel is lead there), and with participation from earlier backers btov Partners. Angel investors also joining the seed include Ajay Vashee (CFO at Dropbox); Carlos Gonzales-Cadenaz (COO of GoCardless), Felix Jahn (founder and CEO of McMakler), Matt Robinson (founder of GoCardless and Nested) and Max Tayenthal (co-founder and CFO of N26).

Commenting in a statement, Index’s Rimpel emphasized the utility the tool offers for “large distributed organizations”, saying: “Spreadsheets are one of the most successful UI’s ever created, but they’ve been built primarily for a single user, not for large distributed organisations with many teams and departments inputting data to a single document. Just as GitHub has helped developers contribute seamlessly to a single code base, Layer is now bringing sophisticated collaboration tools to the one billion spreadsheet users across the globe.”

On the competition front, Layer said it sees its product as complementary to tech giants Google and Microsoft, given the platform plugs directly into those spreadsheet standards. Whereas other productivity startups, such as the likes of Airtable (a database tool for non-coders) and Smartsheets (which bills itself as a “collaboration platform”) are taking a more direct swing at the giants by gunning to assimilate the spreadsheet function itself, at least for certain use cases.

“We never want to be a new Excel and we’re also not aiming to be a new Google Sheets,” says Schünemann, discussing the differences between Layer and Airtable et al. “What Github is to code we want to be to spreadsheets.”

Given it’s working with the prevailing spreadsheet standard it’s a productivity play which, should it prove successful, could see tech giants copying or cloning some of its features. Given enough scale, the startup could even end up as an acquisition target for a larger productivity focused giant wanting to enhance its own product offering. Though the team claims not to have entertained anything but the most passing thoughts of such an exit at this early stage of their business building journey.

“Right now we are really complementary to both big platforms [Google and Microsoft],” says Schünemann. “However it would be naive for us to think that one or the other feature that we build won’t make it onto the product roadmap of either Microsoft or Google. However our value proposition goes beyond just a single feature. So we really view ourselves as being complementary now and also in the future. Because we don’t push out Excel or Google Sheets from an organization. We augment both.”

“Our biggest competitor right now is probably the ‘we’ve always done it like that’ attitude in companies,” he adds, rolling out the standard early stage startup response when asked to name major obstacles. “Because any company has hacked their processes and tools to make it work for them. Some have built little macros. Some are using Jira or Atlassian tools for their project management. Some have hired people to manage their spreadsheet ensembles for them.”

On the acquisition point, Schünemann also has this to say: “A pre-requisite for any successful exit is building a successful company beforehand and I think we believe we are in a space where there are a couple of interesting exit routes to be taken. And Microsoft and Google are obviously candidates where there would be a very obvious fit but the list goes beyond that — all the file hosting tools like Dropbox or the big CRM tools, Salesforce, could also be interesting for them because it very much integrates into the heart of any organization… But we haven’t gone beyond that simple high level thought of who could acquire us at some point.” 

Legaltech startup Orbital Witness scores £3.3M to create a ‘universal risk rating’ for real estate

Orbital Witness, a U.K.-based legaltech startup developing “AI-powered” software to transform the £4 billion U.K. property due diligence market, has raised £3.3 million in seed funding.

The round is led by LocalGlobe and Outward VC, with participation from previous investors, including Seedcamp and JLL Spark. It brings Orbital Witness’s total funding to £4.5 million.

Launched with its first customer in September 2018 and now used by numerous large law firms, including four of the five so-called “Magic Circle” firms, Orbital Witness’ long-term vision is to build a “universal risk rating” for real estate. “Think of a credit risk check for land and property,” Orbital Witness co-founder and COO Will Pearce tells me.

To do this, the startup is employing machine learning technology that it hopes can mirror the process a lawyer goes through when gathering and checking property information. The idea is to use AI to “predetermine” issues that constitute a potential risk.

“Our technology is adept at trawling through and extracting key issues from the wide range of sources that a property lawyer considers, including HM Land Registry and local authorities,” explains Pearce. “For example, a user is alerted to third party rights, charges and restrictions that might block a sale. In our current state of product development, this allows Orbital Witness to act as an ‘early warning system’ for property lawyers”.

Zooming out further, Pearce says real estate is the world’s largest asset class, but that the process of recording and reporting on property rights has not materially changed in 150 years. This sees real estate lawyers having to manually collect and review information from an array of disparate sources, which can often take weeks to arrive before they can even start. Meanwhile, the various real estate stakeholders — from banks making lending decisions, large commercial real estate PE funds, to residential homebuyers — can’t sign off transactions until the lawyers have completed their due diligence.

“Anyone who has ever bought a home will appreciate the frustrations of dealing with this legal due diligence process, and in commercial real estate, where Orbital Witness is initially focussed, many of these problems are amplified,” says Pearce.

The longer term plan is to ingest a broader range of data, so that Orbital Witness can eventually become trusted to provide a universal risk rating for real estate. This will see its risk modelling solutions wired to also include geographic information (e.g. flood risk), privately held information that can be uploaded to the platform (e.g. rights of lights reports), and also non-legal information (e.g. financial data from public records and ratings agencies).

Adds the Orbital Witness co-founder: “Very importantly, risk in real estate is dependent on the context of a transaction. For a real estate investor purchasing a block of flats, they are interested in understanding the security of rental income derived from the leaseholds. However, a property developer transacting on the same building, may be more interested in any hidden covenants that could prevent the ability to build or redevelop the site”.

WeWork’s chairman says it expects to have positive cash flow in 2021

After aggressive cost-cutting measures, including mass layoffs and selling several of its businesses, WeWork’s chairman expects the company to have positive cash flow in 2021. Marcelo Claure, who became WeWork’s chairman after co-founder Adam Neumann resigned as chief executive officer last fall, told the Financial Times that the co-working space startup is on target to meet its goal, set in February, of reaching operating profitability by the end of next year.

Claure is also chief operating officer of SoftBank Group, which invested $18.5 billion in the co-working space, according to leaked comments made by Claure during an October all-hands meeting.

SoftBank said in April that it would lose $24 billion on investments, with one of the main reasons being WeWork’s implosion last year. The company’s financial and management issues brought its valuation down from as much as $47 billion at the beginning of 2019 to $2.9 billion in March, according to a May report by CNBC.

In addition to the layoffs, WeWork sold off businesses including Flatiron School, Teem and its share of The Wing. Claure told the Financial times that WeWork also cut its workforce from a high of 14,000 last year to 5,600.

Neumann resigned as CEO in September, reportedly at the behest of SoftBank, over concerns about the company’s financial health and his behavior. Then the company postponed its IPO filing. The next month, SoftBank took ownership of WeWork as part of a financing package.

Claure is credited with orchestrating a turnaround at Sprint, cutting losses and increasing its stock price in 2015, three years after it was acquired by SoftBank. He has served as SoftBank Group’s COO since 2018.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many people to work from home, Claure said that companies have been leasing spaces from WeWork to serve as satellite offices close to where employees live. But he also said that revenues were flat during the second-quarter because many tenants terminated their leases or stopped paying rent.

Startups are poised to disrupt the $14B title insurance industry

If you have bought a house in the last decade, you likely started the process online. Perhaps you browsed for your future dream home on a website like Zillow or Realtor, and you may have been surprised by how quickly things moved from seeing a property to making an offer.

When you reached the closing stage, however, things slowed to a crawl. Some of those roadblocks were anticipated, such as the process of getting a mortgage, but one likely wasn’t: the tedious and time-consuming process of obtaining title insurance — that is, insurance that protects your claim to home ownership should any claims arise against it after sale.

For a product that is all but required to purchase a home, title insurance isn’t something many people know about until they have to pay for it and then wait up to two months to get.

Now, finally, a handful of startups are taking on the title insurance industry, hoping to make the process of buying a policy easier, cheaper and more transparent. These startups, including Spruce, States Title, JetClosing, Qualia, Modus and Endpoint, enable part or all of the title insurance buying process. Whether these startups can finally topple the title insurance monopoly remains to be seen, but they are already causing cracks in the system.

To that end, we’ve outlined what’s broken about today’s title industry; recent developments in technology and government that are priming the industry for change; and a synthesis of some key trends we’ve observed in the space, as entrepreneurs begin to capitalize on a tipping point in a century-old, $14 billion business.

Title insurance 101

To understand how startups are beginning to challenge title insurance incumbents, we need to first understand what title insurance is and what title companies do.

Title insurance is unique from other types of insurance, which require ongoing payments and protect a buyer against future incidents. Instead, title insurance is a one-time payment that protects a buyer from what has already happened — namely errors in the public record, liens against the property, claims of inheritance and fraud. When you buy a home, title insurance companies research your property’s history, contained in public archives, to make sure no such claims are attached to it, then correct any issues before granting a title insurance policy.

Atmos wants to make building a house a one-click effort

Homebuilding is not for the faint of heart, particularly those who want to build something custom. Selecting the right architect and designer, the myriad of contractors, the complexity of building codes and siting, the regulatory approvals from local authorities. It’s a full-time job — and you don’t even have a roof built over your head.

Atmos wants to massively simplify homebuilding, and in the process, democratize customization to more and more homeowners.

The startup, which is in the current Y Combinator batch, wants to take both the big decisions and the sundries of construction and combine them onto one platform where selecting a design and moving forward is as simple as clicking through a Shopify shopping cart.

It’s a vision that has already piqued the attention of investors. The company disclosed that it has already raised $2 million according to CEO and co-founder Nick Donahue from Sam Altman, former YC president and now head of OpenAI, and Adam Nash, former president and CEO of Wealthfront, along with a bunch of other angels.

It’s also a vision that is a radical turn from where Atmos was before, which was centered in virtual reality.

Donahue comes from a line of homebuilders — his father built home subdivisions as a profession — but his interests initially turned toward the virtual. He dropped out of college after realizing process engineering wasn’t all that exciting (who can blame him?) and headed out to the Valley, where he built projects like “a Burning Man art installation and [an] open-source VR headset.” That headset attracted the attention of angels, who funded its development.

The concept at the heart of the headset was around what the team dubbed the “spatial web.” Donahue explained that the idea was that “the concept of the web would one day flow from the 2D into the 3D and that physical spaces would function more like websites.” The headset he was developing would act as a sort of “browser” to navigate these spaces.

Of course, the limitations around VR hit his company as much as the rest of the industry, including limits on computation performance to build these 3D environments and the lack of scaling in the sector so far.

The thinking around changing physical spaces though got Donahue pondering about what the future of the home would look like. “We think the next kind of wave of this is going to be an introduction to compute,” he said, arguing that “every home will have like a brain to it.” Homes will be digital, controllable, and customizable, and that will revolutionize the definition of the home that has remained stagnant for generations.

The big vision for Atmos going forward then is to capture that trend, but for today at least, the company is focused on making housing customization easier.

To use the platform, a user inputs the location for a new home and a floorplan for the site, and Atmos will find builders that best match the plan and coordinate the rest of the tasks to get the home built. It’s targeting homes in the $400,000-800,000 range, and its focus cities are Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta, Denver, and Austin.

It’s very much early stages for the company — Donahue says that the company has its first few projects underway in the Raleigh-Durham area and is working to partner and scale up with larger homebuilders.

Photo by KentWeakley via Getty Images.

Will it work? That’s the big question with anything that touches construction. Customization is great — everyone loves to have their own pad — but the traditional challenge for construction is that the only way to bring down the cost of housing is to make it as uniform as possible. That’s why you get “cookie-cutter” subdivisions and rows of identical apartment buildings — the sameness allows a builder to find scale: work crews can move from one lot to the next in synchronicity saving labor costs and time while building materials can be bought in bulk to save costs.

With better technology and some controls, Atmos might be able to find synergies between its customers, particularly if it gets market penetration in individual cities. Yet, I find the longer-term vision ultimately more compelling for the company: redefining the home may not have made much sense three months ago, but as more people work from home and connect with virtual worlds, how should our homes be redesigned to accommodate these activities? If Atmos can find an answer, it is sitting on a gold mine.

Atmos team pic (minus two). Photo via Atmos.

In addition to Altman and Nash, Mark Goldberg, JLL Spark, Shrug Capital, Daniel Gross’ Pioneer, Venture Hacks, Yuri Sagalov, Brian Norgard and others participated in the company’s angel/seed round.

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before shutting down in 2018.

By then, Conrad had already moved on, deciding in late 2017 that one of the many nascent teams that was camping out at Lemnos was onto a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate or, at the time, a burning passion for the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information. Using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes at construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity. “We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered. Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer who is on the 50th floor of the skyscraper he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are astonishingly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them, too. (Quartz is currently charging $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.)

It’s a big enough opportunity in fact, that Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having founded a venture firm and spent years as an investor may serve him well, too. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he also says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”