Elavon to acquire Sage Pay, a gateway that competes with Stripe, PayPal and Adyen, for $300M

E-commerce continues to gain momentum — a trend we’ll see played out in the next two months of holiday shopping — and with that comes more consolidation. Today, Elavon, the payments company that is a subsidiary of US Bancorp, announced that it will acquire Sage Pay, one of the bigger payment processors in the UK and Ireland serving small and medium businesses.

Sage Pay’s owner Sage Group said the deal is being done for £232 million in cash (or $300 million at today’s currency rates).

Elavon is active in 10 countries and says it’s the fourth-largest merchant acquirer in Europe, competing against the likes of  Global Payments, Vantiv, FIS, Ingenico, Verifone, Stripe, Chase, MasterCard and Visa. The deal is still subject to regulatory approval (both by the Federal Reserve in the US and the Central Bank of Ireland), and if all proceeds, the deal is expected to close in Q2 of 2020.

The acquisition points to a bigger trend underway in e-commerce. The market is very fragmented, not just in terms of the companies who sell goods online but also (and perhaps especially) in terms of the companies that manage the complexities at the back end.

In keeping with that, Sage Pay has a lot of competitors in its specific area of taking and managing the payments process for online retailers and others taking transactions online or via mobile apps. They include some of the same competitors as Elavon’s: newer entrants like Stripe, Adyen, and PayPal (all of which have extensive businesses covering many countries and are each larger than Sage, valued in the billions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars), but also smaller operations like GoCardless as well as more established companies like WorldPay.

This deal is a mark of the consolidation that’s been taking place to gain better economies of scale in a market where individual transactions generally generate incremental revenues.

Sage Pay, in that context, was a relatively small player. It 2018 revenues were £41 million, but it is profitable, with an operating profit of £15 million, and Sage said it expects “to report a statutory profit on disposal of approximately £180 million on completion.”

The deal comes on the heels of Sage Group — which is publicly traded — confirming reports in September that it was looking for strategic alternatives for the payments business. Sage Group for the last couple of years has been divesting payments and banking assets to focus more on accounting, people and payroll software, which it sells through an SaaS model.

“Our vision of becoming a great SaaS company for customers and colleagues alike means we will continue to focus on serving small and medium sized customers with subscription software solutions for Accounting & Financials and People & Payroll,” said Steve Hare, Sage’s CEO, in a statement. “Payments and banking services remain an integral part of Sage’s value proposition and we will deliver them through our growing network of partnerships, including Elavon.”

Elavon, as the consolidator here, was itself acquired by US Bancorp way back in 2001 for $2.1 billion. Currently it is active in 10 countries, but in that same vein of consolidation to improve economies of scale on the technical side, and to aggregate more incremental transactions on the financial side, Elavon’s main objective is to increase its overall share of the e-commerce market in Europe. specifically by expanding with Sage Pay further into the UK and Ireland.

“We are a customer-focused company that is helping businesses succeed in a global marketplace that is changing rapidly,” said Hannah Fitzsimons, president and general manager of Elavon Merchant Services, Europe. “This acquisition brings tremendous talent and leading technology to Elavon, which can be leveraged across the European market.”

Why each Libra member’s mutiny hurts Facebook

There’s a strategic cost to the defection of Visa, Stripe, eBay, and more from the Facebook -led cryptocurrency Libra Association . They’re not just names dropping off a list. Each potentially made Libra more useful, ubiquitous, or reputable. Now they could become obstacles to the token’s launch or growth.

Fearing regulators’ inquiries not just into their Libra involvement but the rest of their businesses, these companies are pulling out at least for now. None had made precise commitments to integrating Libra into their products, and they’ve said they could still get involved later. But their exit clouds the project’s future and leaves Facebook to absorb more of the blowback.

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Here’s what each of the departing Libra Association members brought to the table and how they could spawn new challenges for the cryptocurrency:

Visa

With one of most widely-accepted payment methods, Visa could have helped make Libra universally spendable. It’s also one of the most prestigious names in finance, lending deep credibility to the project. Visa’s departure leaves Libra looking more like tech companies barging into payments, conjuring fears of their move fast, break things approach that could cause financial ruin if Libra runs into problems. It also could leave Libra with a much weaker presence in brick-and-mortar shops. No one will want to own a cryptocurrency that doesn’t appreciate in value and can’t be easily spent.

MasterCard

The involvement of MasterCard alongside Visa made Libra look like the incumbents adapting to modern technologies. This made it less threatening, and gave cryptocurrency an air of inevitability. MasterCard would have also brought an even wider network of locations where Libra could one day be used for payment. Now MasterCard and Visa might actively work against Libra to prevent their payment methods being made obsolete by Libra and its elimination of transaction fees through the blockchain. Two of Libras biggest allies could become its biggest foes.

PayPal

Facebook has repeatedly told regulators that its Calibra app plus integrations into Messenger and WhatsApp would not be the only Libra wallets, pointing to PayPal . Facebook’s head of Libra David Marcus told Congress when asked about the social network’s outsized power to exploit Libra through its own Calibra wallet that “you have companies like PayPal and others that will, of course, collaborate, but [also] compete with us”. Now Facebook won’t have a scaled payment method it doesn’t own to point to as a likely alternative for people who don’t want to trust Facebook’s Calibra, Messenger, or WhatsApp to be their Libra wallet. The Libra Association also loses PayPal’s enormous network of online merchants that accept it, plus the inroad to integration into its peer-to-peer payback app Venmo. PayPal convinced the mainstream public to trust online payments — the exact kind of trust Facebook desperately needs. The fact that Marcus was also the former president of PayPal but couldn’t keep it in the association raises concerns about the group’s coalition-building prowess.

Stripe

Stripe’s enormous popularity with ecommerce vendors made it a valuable Libra Association member. Together with PayPal, Stripe facilitates a huge portion of online transactions outside of China. Its ease of integration made it a top pick for developers Facebook surely hoped would build atop Libra. Stripe’s exit destroys a critical bridge to the fintech startup ecosystem that could have helped institutionalize Libra. Now the association will have to work on engineering payment widgets from scratch without Stripe’s assistance, which could slow adoption if it ever launches.

There’s a clear reason all these payment processors bailed. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote a letter to Visa, MasterCard, and Stripe’s CEOs this week explaining that “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related activities, but on all payment activities.”

eBay

As one of the longest standing ecommerce companies, eBay bolstered beliefs that Libra could be used to power transactions between untrusted strangers without a costly middleman. It might have also put Libra into practice on one of the top western online marketplaces outside of Amazon. Without destinations like eBay onboard, average netizens will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to Libra’s potential to eliminate transaction fees.

Mercado Pago

One of the lesser-known Libra Association members, Mercado Pago helps merchants receive payments via email or in installments. The idea of connecting financially underserved populations has been core to Facebook’s pitch for why Libra should exist. The Libra Association has been light on the details of how exactly it serves this demographic, relying on the inclusion of partners like Mercado Pago to help it figure this out later. Mercado Pago’s departure leaves Libra looking more like a financial power grab rather than a tool to assist the disadvantaged.

Who’s Left?

On Monday, the remaining Libra Association members will meet to finalize the initial member list, elect a board, and create a charter to govern the project. This forced the hands of the companies above, who had their last chance to depart this week before being pulled deeper into Libra.

Facebook Currency Hearing

UNITED STATES – JULY 16: David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra digital wallet service, prepares to testify during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Who’s left includes venture capital firms, ride sharing companies, non-profits, and cryptocurrency companies. They are less tied up with the status quo of payment processing, and therefore had less to lose. The blockchain-specific companies were likely hoping to piggyback on financial giants like Visa to get Libra approved and create more legitimacy for their industry as a whole.

These partners could help fund an ecosystem of Libra developers, create daily use cases, spread the system in the developing world, and push for alliances between Libra and cryptocurrency players. Facebook will need to fight to keep them aboard if it wants to avoid Libra looking like a unilateral disruption of the economy.

For Libra to actually launch, Facebook needs to make serious concessions and divert from its initial vision. Otherwise if it continues to butt heads with regulators, more members could flee. One option floated by Libra Association member Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto partner Chris Dixon was for Libra to be denominated in US dollars instead of a basket of international currencies. That might lessen fears that Libra intends to compete directly with the dollar.

It’s become apparent that Facebook will not get its ideal cryptocurrency out the door. This is the brand tax of 100 scandals coming back to bite it. Now the best it can hope for is to get even a watered-down version launched, prove it can actually help the underbanked, and then hope to convince regulators it’s well-intentioned.

Why San Francisco is still the gold mine for tech startups

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where each week we discuss other people’s copious dollars and lacking sense.

This week was special! Kate and Alex at Disrupt where they recorded live in front of an audience. Equity has recorded at Disrupt before. Equity has taped before an audience before. But this was the first time that we taped it at Disrupt and in front of an audience that actually had chairs. Progress!

Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures joined us as well, making for an excellent show. Astute listeners among us will recall that Hudson is a former guest on the show, having taken part back in mid-2017.

Onto the topics, we discussed the impending Precursor Ventures opportunity fund (more here). We wanted to know why it was of modest size, especially in an era of ever-larger venture capital funds.

Next, we turned to a trio of startup stories, starting with Rhino, a company that is working to shake up the rental deposit market. Hate paying deposits for an apartment? Would you rather pay a small, regular fee? Rhino hopes that you would, and has raised $21 million to build out the idea.

Also on our list of topics was a small upstart by the name of Knowable, our colleague Josh Constine profiled the business here. The company sells educational audio bits, and they want you to know, they are not a podcasting business. We’re still a bit unclear of the difference between educational audio and podcast but VCs seem confident enough in the company’s prospects, funneling $3.75 million in the project.

The last startup we riffed on is called oollee. The company provides people with an unlimited supply of filtered drinking water for a small monthly fee. It’s raised $1 million in pre-seed funding from investors, including Mission Gate Inc. and Columbus Holdings, and, of course, we have thoughts!

After that we touched on the most valuable Y Combinator companies, including Stripe (more here and here), Airbnb and DoorDash. The list of YC’s hits is getting long. And, it provided the perfect segue to Airbnb.

Airbnb intends to go public via a direct listing, according to a whole bunch of recent reports. Every VC in town seems to have opinions about direct listings as the next best path to the public markets, maybe they’re right. Finally, WeWork is selling off a bunch of stuff that it bought recently. Here’s a list of what it bought, but SpaceIQ, Teem, Conductor and more are said to be on the chopping block.

All that and we had fun! Back to normal next week.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast, Pocketcast, Downcast and all the casts.

APIs are the next big SaaS wave

While the software revolution started out slowly, over the past few years it’s exploded and the fastest-growing segment to-date has been the shift towards software as a service or SaaS.

SaaS has dramatically lowered the intrinsic total cost of ownership for adopting software, solved scaling challenges and taken away the burden of issues with local hardware. In short, it has allowed a business to focus primarily on just that — its business — while simultaneously reducing the burden of IT operations.

Today, SaaS adoption is increasingly ubiquitous. According to IDG’s 2018 Cloud Computing Survey, 73% of organizations have at least one application or a portion of their computing infrastructure already in the cloud. While this software explosion has created a whole range of downstream impacts, it has also caused software developers to become more and more valuable.

The increasing value of developers has meant that, like traditional SaaS buyers before them, they also better intuit the value of their time and increasingly prefer businesses that can help alleviate the hassles of procurement, integration, management, and operations. Developer needs to address those hassles are specialized.

They are looking to deeply integrate products into their own applications and to do so, they need access to an Application Programming Interface, or API. Best practices for API onboarding include technical documentation, examples, and sandbox environments to test.

APIs tend to also offer metered billing upfront. For these and other reasons, APIs are a distinct subset of SaaS.

For fast-moving developers building on a global-scale, APIs are no longer a stop-gap to the future—they’re a critical part of their strategy. Why would you dedicate precious resources to recreating something in-house that’s done better elsewhere when you can instead focus your efforts on creating a differentiated product?

Thanks to this mindset shift, APIs are on track to create another SaaS-sized impact across all industries and at a much faster pace. By exposing often complex services as simplified code, API-first products are far more extensible, easier for customers to integrate into, and have the ability to foster a greater community around potential use cases.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.40.51 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Billion-dollar businesses building APIs

Whether you realize it or not, chances are that your favorite consumer and enterprise apps—Uber, Airbnb, PayPal, and countless more—have a number of third-party APIs and developer services running in the background. Just like most modern enterprises have invested in SaaS technologies for all the above reasons, many of today’s multi-billion dollar companies have built their businesses on the backs of these scalable developer services that let them abstract everything from SMS and email to payments, location-based data, search and more.

Simultaneously, the entrepreneurs behind these API-first companies like Twilio, Segment, Scale and many others are building sustainable, independent—and big—businesses.

Valued today at over $22 billion, Stripe is the biggest independent API-first company. Stripe took off because of its initial laser-focus on the developer experience setting up and taking payments. It was even initially known as /dev/payments!

Stripe spent extra time building the right, idiomatic SDKs for each language platform and beautiful documentation. But it wasn’t just those things, they rebuilt an entire business process around being API-first.

Companies using Stripe didn’t need to fill out a PDF and set up a separate merchant account before getting started. Once sign-up was complete, users could immediately test the API with a sandbox and integrate it directly into their application. Even pricing was different.

Stripe chose to simplify pricing dramatically by starting with a single, simple price for all cards and not breaking out cards by type even though the costs for AmEx cards versus Visa can differ. Stripe also did away with a monthly minimum fee that competitors had.

Many competitors used the monthly minimum to offset the high cost of support for new customers who weren’t necessarily processing payments yet. Stripe flipped that on its head. Developers integrate Stripe earlier than they integrated payments before, and while it costs Stripe a lot in setup and support costs, it pays off in brand and loyalty.

Checkr is another excellent example of an API-first company vastly simplifying a massive yet slow-moving industry. Very little had changed over the last few decades in how businesses ran background checks on their employees and contractors, involving manual paperwork and the help of 3rd party services that spent days verifying an individual.

Checkr’s API gives companies immediate access to a variety of disparate verification sources and allows these companies to plug Checkr into their existing on-boarding and HR workflows. It’s used today by more than 10,000 businesses including Uber, Instacart, Zenefits and more.

Like Checkr and Stripe, Plaid provides a similar value prop to applications in need of banking data and connections, abstracting away banking relationships and complexities brought upon by a lack of tech in a category dominated by hundred-year-old banks. Plaid has shown an incredible ramp these past three years, from closing a $12 million Series A in 2015 to reaching a valuation over $2.5 billion this year.

Today the company is fueling an entire generation of financial applications, all on the back of their well-built API.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.02 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

Then and now

Accel’s first API investment was in Braintree, a mobile and web payment systems for e-commerce companies, in 2011. Braintree eventually sold to, and became an integral part of, PayPal as it spun out from eBay and grew to be worth more than $100 billion. Unsurprisingly, it was shortly thereafter that our team decided to it was time to go big on the category. By the end of 2014 we had led the Series As in Segment and Checkr and followed those investments with our first APX conference in 2015.

Plaid, Segment, Auth0, and Checkr had only raised Seed or Series A financings! And we are even more excited and bullish on the space. To convey just how much API-first businesses have grown in such a short period of time, we thought it would be useful perspective to share some metrics over the past five years, which we’ve broken out in the two visuals included above in this article.

While SaaS may have pioneered the idea that the best way to do business isn’t to actually build everything in-house, today we’re seeing APIs amplify this theme. At Accel, we firmly believe that APIs are the next big SaaS wave — having as much if not more impact as its predecessor thanks to developers at today’s fastest-growing startups and their preference for API-first products. We’ve actively continued to invest in the space (in companies like, Scale, mentioned above).

And much like how a robust ecosystem developed around SaaS, we believe that one will continue to develop around APIs. Given the amount of progress that has happened in just a few short years, Accel is hosting our second APX conference to once again bring together this remarkable community and continue to facilitate discussion and innovation.

Screen Shot 2019 09 06 at 10.41.10 AM

Graphics courtesy of Accel

The 11 best startups from Y Combinator’s S19 Demo Day 1

Y Combinator, the genesis for many of the companies that have shaped Silicon Valley including Airbnb, PagerDuty and Stripe, has minted another 200 some graduates. Half of those companies made their pitch to investors today during Day 1 of Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 Demo Day event and we’re here to tell you which startups are on the fast-track to the unicorn club.

Eighty-four startups presented (read the full run-through of every company plus some early analysis here) and after chatting with investors, batch founders and of course, debating amongst ourselves, we’ve nailed down the 11 most promising startups to present during Day 1. We’ll be back Tuesday with our second round of top picks.


Startups Weekly: SoftBank’s second act

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I noted some challenges plaguing mental health tech startups. Before that, I wrote about Zoom and Superhuman’s PR disasters.

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

Anyway, onto the subject on everyone’s mind this week: SoftBank’s second Vision Fund.

Well into the evening on Thursday, SoftBank announced a target of $108 billion for the Vision Fund 2. Yes, you read that correctly, $108 billion. SoftBank indeed plans to raise even more capital for its sophomore vehicle than it did for the record-breaking debut vision fund of $98 billion, which was majority-backed by the government funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, as well as Apple, Foxconn and several other limited partners.

Its upcoming fund, to which SoftBank itself has committed $38 billion, has attracted investment from the National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Apple, Foxconn, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and more. Microsoft, a new LP for SoftBank, reportedly hopped on board with the Japanese telecom giant as part of a grand scheme to convince the massive fund’s portfolio companies to transition to Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud platform that competes with Amazon Web Services . Here’s more on that and some analysis from TechCrunch editor Jonathan Shieber.

News of the second Vision Fund comes as somewhat of a surprise. We’d heard SoftBank was having some trouble landing commitments for the effort. Why? Well, because SoftBank’s investments have included a wide-range of upstarts, including some uncertain bets. Brandless, a company into which SoftBank injected a lot of money, has struggled in recent months, for example. Wag is said to be going downhill fast. And WeWork, backed with billions from SoftBank, still has a lot to prove.

Here’s everything else we know about The Vision Fund 2:

  • It’s focused on the “AI revolution through investment in market-leading, tech-enabled growth companies.”
  • The full list of investors also includes seven Japanese financial institutions: Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, SMBC Nikko Securities and Daiwa Securities Group. Also, international banking services provider Standard Chartered Bank, as well as “major participants from Taiwan.”
  • The $108 billion figure is based on memoranda of understandings (MOUs), or agreements for future investment from the aforementioned entities. That means SoftBank hasn’t yet collected all this capital, aside from the $38 billion it plans to invest itself in the new Vision Fund.
  • Saudi and Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth funds are not listed as investors in the new fund.
  • SoftBank is expected to begin deploying capital fund from Fund 2 immediately, and a first close is expected in two months, per The Financial Times.
  • We’ll keep you updated on the Vision Fund 2’s investments, fundraising efforts and more as we learn about them.

On to other news…

iHeartMedia And WeWork's "Work Radio" Launch Party

IPO Corner

WeWork is planning a September listing

The company made headlines again this week after word slipped it was accelerating its IPO plans and targeting a September listing. We don’t know much about its IPO plans yet as we are still waiting on the co-working business to unveil its S-1 filing. Whether WeWork can match or exceed its current private market valuation of $47 billion is unlikely. I expect it will pull an Uber and struggle, for quite some time, to earn a market cap larger than what VCs imagined it was worth months earlier.

Robinhood had a wild week

The consumer financial app made headlines twice this week. The first time because it raised a whopping $323 million at a $7.6 billion valuation. That is a whole lot of money for a business that just raised a similarly sized monster round one year ago. In fact, it left us wondering, why the hell is Robinhood worth $7.6 billion? Then, in a major security faux pas, the company revealed it has been storing user passwords in plaintext. So, go change your Robinhood password and don’t trust any business to value your security. Sigh.

Another day, another huge fintech round

While we’re on the subject on fintech, TechCrunch editor Danny Crichton noted this week the rise of mega-rounds in the fintech space. This week, it was personalized banking app MoneyLion, which raised $100 million at a near unicorn valuation. Last week, it was N26, which raised another $170 million on top of its $300 million round earlier this yearBrex raised another $100 million last month on top of its $125 million Series C from late last year. Meanwhile, companies like payments platform Stripesavings and investment platform Raisintraveler lender Uplift, mortgage backers Blend and Better and savings depositor Acorns have also raised massive new rounds this year. Naturally, VC investment in fintech is poised to reach record levels this year, according to PitchBook.

Uber’s changing board

Arianna Huffington, the CEO of Thrive Global, stepped down from Uber’s board of directors this week, a team she had been apart of since 2016. She addressed the news in a tweet, explaining that there were no disagreements between her and the company, rather, she was busy and had other things to focus on. Fair. Benchmark’s Matt Cohler also stepped down from the board this week, which leads us to believe the ride-hailing giant’s advisors are in a period of transition. If you remember, Uber’s first employee and longtime board member Ryan Graves stepped down from the board in May, just after the company’s IPO. 

Startup Capital

Unity, now valued at $6B, raising up to $525M
Bird is raising a Sequoia-led Series D at $2.5B valuation
SMB payroll startup Gusto raises $200M Series D
Elon Musk’s Boring Company snags $120M
a16z values camping business HipCamp at $127M
An inside look at the startup behind Ashton Kutcher’s weird tweets
Dataplor raises $2M to digitize small businesses in Latin America

Extra Crunch

While we’re on the subject of amazing TechCrunch #content, it’s probably time for a reminder for all of you to sign up for Extra Crunch. For a low price, you can learn more about the startups and venture capital ecosystem through exclusive deep dives, Q&As, newsletters, resources and recommendations and fundamental startup how-to guides. Here are some of my current favorite EC posts:

  1. What types of startups are the most profitable?
  2. The roles tools play in employee engagement
  3. What to watch for in a VC term sheet

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm, TechCrunch editor Danny Crichton and I unpack Robinhood’s valuation and argue about scooter startups. Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast and Spotify.

That’s all, folks.

Embedded finance, or why fintech mega VC rounds have become so common

Another day, another monster fintech venture round.

This morning, it was personalized banking app MoneyLion, which raised $100 million at a near unicorn valuation. Last week, it was N26, which raised another $170 million on top of its $300 million round earlier this year. Brex raised another $100 million last month on top of its $125 million Series C from late last year. Meanwhile, companies like payments platform Stripe, savings and investment platform Raisin, traveler lender Uplift, mortgage backers Blend and Better, and savings depositor Acorns have also raised massive new rounds this year.

That’s all on top of 2018’s record-breaking year for fintech, which saw $52.5 billion of investment flow into the space according to KPMG’s estimate.

What’s with all the money flowing into the fintech world? And what does all this investment portend not only for the industry and other potential entrants, but also for customers of financial services? The answer is that this new wave of fintech startups has figured out embedded finance, and that it is changing the entire economics of disruptive financial services.

First, this isn’t (really) about blockchain

Let’s get one thing out of the way right away, for whenever the topic of financial services and digital disruption come together, some blatherer always yells blockchain from the proverbial back row (often with a bit of foaming at the mouth I might add).

Still in stealth mode, Duffel raises $21.5m in Series A from Benchmark for its travel platform

Ten months ago London startup hinted that it would be “a new way to book travel online, aiming at the booking experience ‘end to end’”, announced a healthy $4.7M funding round, but not much else.

Today it goes further, announcing a $21.5m in Series A funding from VC giant Benchmark, which also backed Snap, Twitter and Uber. Benchmark is joined by Blossom Capital and Index Ventures, who participated in Duffel’s $4.7m seed round last year.

With this news, we at least get a little more detail. It will be a B2B offering, allowing individual travel agents to large online travel management companies and tour operators to offer a “seamless travel experience” to their end customers, making the booking experience simpler, faster and cheaper.

Is this a new Sabre? Steve Domin, co-founder and CEO of Duffel, hints that it is: “The travel industry is underpinned by archaic software and processes that are fundamentally prohibitive for the modern day traveler. We are reinventing the underwiring between online agents and the providers – airlines, hotels, transport operators – in much the same way that the payments world is changing for merchants, because of tools like Adyen and Stripe.”

In other words, Duffel appears to be building a new software stack for travel, in the same way that challenge banks started from scratch to make themselves more agile than the laggard, incumbent banks.

Duffel was one of the Y Combinator S18 cohort and have put together a team drawn from their alumni companies including GoCardless, Gitlab and Turo. It plans to launch this Autumn.

Chetan Puttagunta, general partner at Benchmark, said: “We have been watching Duffel from a distance and we are incredibly excited by the possibility it has to create something valuable for customers and travel providers alike. Duffel is focused on providing a better booking experience by building a platform that is easy to use with deep functionality.”

Ophelia Brown, founder of Blossom Capital, said: “Duffel has been clear on its vision to improve the travel experience for everyone from day one. This is a great example of the way that European founders are becoming more ambitious than ever before.”

The market is waiting with baited-breath to find out if Duffel’s stellar fund-raising capabilities can eventually match the claims made for the product.

Startups Weekly: The Peloton IPO (bull vs. bear)

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s noteworthy venture capital deals, funds and trends. Before I dive into this week’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about the proliferation of billion-dollar companies. Before that, I noted the uptick in beverage startup rounds. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

Now, time for some quick notes on Peloton’s confirmed initial public offering. The fitness unicorn, which sells a high-tech exercise bike and affiliated subscription to original fitness content, confidentially filed to go public earlier this week. Unfortunately, there’s no S-1 to pore through yet; all I can do for now is speculate a bit about Peloton’s long-term potential.

What I know: 

  • Peloton is profitable. Founder and chief executive John Foley said at one point that he expected 2018 revenues of $700 million, more than double 2017’s revenues of $400 million.
  • There is strong investor demand for Peloton stock. Javier Avolos, vice president at the secondary marketplace Forge, tells TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington that “investor interest [in Peloton] has been consistently strong from both institutional and retail investors. Our view is that this is a result of perceived strong performance by the company, a clear path to a liquidity event, and historically low availability of supply in the market due to restrictions around selling or transferring shares in the secondary market.”
  • Peloton, despite initially struggling to raise venture capital, has accrued nearly $1 billion in funding to date. Most recently, it raised a $550 million Series F at a $4.25 billion valuation. It’s backed by Tiger Global Management, TCV, Kleiner Perkins and others.

 

A bullish perspective: Peloton, an early player in the fitness tech space, has garnered a cult following since its founding in 2012. There is something to be said about being an early-player in a burgeoning industry — tech-enabled personal fitness equipment, that is — and Peloton has certainly proven its bike to be genre-defining technology. Plus, Peloton is actually profitable and we all know that’s rare for a Silicon Valley company. (Peloton is actually New York-based but you get the idea.)

A bearish perspective: The market for fitness tech is heating up, largely as a result of Peloton’s own success. That means increased competition. Peloton has not proven itself to be a nimble business in the slightest. As Darrell noted in his piece, in its seven years of operation, “Peloton has put out exactly two pieces of hardware, and seems unlikely to ramp that pace. The cost of their equipment makes frequent upgrade cycles unlikely, and there’s a limited field in terms of other hardware types to even consider making. If hardware innovation is your measure for success, Peloton hasn’t really shown that it’s doing enough in this category to fend of legacy players or new entrants.”

TL;DR: Peloton, unlike any other company before it, sits evenly at the intersection of fitness, software, hardware and media. One wonders how Wall Street will value a company so varied. Will Peloton be yet another example of an over-valued venture-backed unicorn that flounders once public? Or will it mature in time to triumphantly navigate the uncertain public company waters? Let me know what you think. And If you want more Peloton deets, read Darrell’s full story: Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO.

Anyways…

Public company corner

In addition to Peloton’s IPO announcement, CrowdStrike boosted its IPO expectations. Aside from those two updates, IPO land was pretty quiet this week. Let’s check in with some recently public businesses instead.

Uber: The ride-hailing giant has let go of two key managers: its chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. All of this comes just a few weeks after it went public. On the brightside, Uber traded above its IPO price for the first time this week. The bump didn’t last long but now that the investment banks behind its IPO are allowed to share their bullish perspective publicly, things may improve. Or not.

Zoom: The video communications business posted its first earnings report this week. As you might have guessed, things are looking great for Zoom. In short, it beat estimates with revenues of $122 million in the last quarter. That’s growth of 109% year-over-year. Not bad Zoom, not bad at all.

Must reads

We cover a lot of startup and big tech news here at TechCrunch. Sometimes, the really great features writers put a lot of time and energy into fall between the cracks. With that said, I just want to take a moment this week to highlight a few of the great stories published on our site recently:

A peek inside Sequoia Capital’s low-flying, wide-reaching scout program by Connie Loizos

On the road to self-driving trucks, Starsky Robotics built a traditional trucking business by Kirsten Korosec

The Stanford connection behind Latin America’s multi-billion dollar startup renaissance by Jon Shieber 

How to calculate your event ROI by Sarah Shewey

Why four security companies just sold for $1.5B by Ron Miller 

Scooters gonna scoot

In case you missed it, Bird is in negotiations to acquire Scoot, a smaller scooter upstart with licenses to operate in the coveted market of San Francisco. Scoot was last valued at around $71 million, having raised about $47 million in equity funding to date from Scout Ventures, Vision Ridge Partners, angel investor Joanne Wilson and more. Bird, of course, is a whole lot larger, valued at $2.3 billion recently.

On top of this deal, there was no shortage of scooter news this week. Bird, for example, unveiled the Bird Cruiser, an electric vehicle that is essentially a blend between a bicycle and a moped. Here’s more on the booming scooter industry.

Startup Capital

WorldRemit raises $175M at a $900M valuation to help users send money to contacts in emerging markets 

Thumbtack is raising up to $120M on a flat valuation

Depop, a shopping app for millennials, bags $62M

Fitness startup Mirror nears $300M valuation with fresh funding

Step raises $22.5M led by Stripe to build no-fee banking services for teens

Possible Finance lands $10.5M to provide kinder short-term loans

Voatz raises $7M for its mobile voting technology

Flexible housing startup raises $2.5M

Legacy, a sperm testing and freezing service, raises $1.5M

Equity

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss how a future without the SoftBank Vision Fund would look, Peloton’s IPO and data-driven investing.

A peek inside Sequoia Capital’s low-flying, wide-reaching scout program

Ten years ago, Sequoia Capital began quietly encouraging founders of its portfolio companies to consider which of their founder friends they might like to get behind financially. Sequoia would let them write checks to those companies, and it would share with them any later rewards.

It was a brilliant idea. It allowed Sequoia to keep tabs on entrepreneurs — and nascent technologies — not yet in its universe. It cemented the firm’s ties to the founders who were already in its family. Not last, it grew Sequoia’s already considerable influence in Silicon Valley.

Fast forward, and the ripple effects of the highly successful program have not only been wide-reaching, but they’ve quietly reshaped the industry in ways that only those closest to Sequoia have been able to fully appreciate — until now.

To learn more on the tenth anniversary of Sequoia’s “scouts” initiative — which has since been widely copied by other venture firms — we reached out to Sequoia’s Mike Vernal, the partner who today oversees the seed-stage program, as well as four scouts whose names you will recognize. What we learned in the process is that their experiences, while fairly different, have had an outsize impact on the way they lead as well, as on the founders whose paths have crossed with their own.

Ready, set. . .

It began working almost immediately, too. Among those first scouts — one of now hundreds to work with Sequoia — was Jason Calacanis, a serial entrepreneur whose then startup, a search engine called Mahalo, quickly raised $20 million from Sequoia and others after its 2007 founding.

Mahalo didn’t wind up putting Google or Yahoo out of business, but even back then, Calacanis, who’d earlier sold a blog network to AOL, had an established network that Sequoia realized was valuable. As Calacanis tells it, he’d told Sequoia about Zynga when its founder, Mark Pincus, was still figuring out the company in 2007. He’d also told Sequoia about a project that his friend Ev Williams was fiddling with. Both times, it passed.

Those decisions seemed to smart. At least, not long after, Sequoia’s Roelof Botha reached out to Calacanis and asked him, “‘What if we’d just given you some money to make those investments?'”

According to Calacanis, Botha explained that if he could turn up other interesting deals, Sequoia would give him money to invest, then split some of the profits with him and other Sequoia-backed founders who it was also inviting to scout deals on its behalf. (One of them was Sam Altman, then the founder of another Sequoia-backed startup called Loopt. Other early scouts included Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, and Dropbox founders Arash Ferdowsi and Drew Houston.)

Calacanis loved the proposal, though he chafed at Botha’s insistence that he write an investment memo. As pushback, Calacanis says his first deal memo as a scout included two words, “Cabs suck.”

Calacanis laughs about it now. “I was protesting the fact that Roelof was making me do homework.” As it turns out, his short memo was spot on. The company Calacanis wanted to back was Uber. Sequoia approved it, and the small stake ultimately grew to be valued at “over nine figures,” according to Calacanis, who has collectively plugged $600,000 into 20 startups over the years as part of Sequoia’s scouts program.

From scout to VC . . .

As industry watchers may know, Calacanis has since gone on to raise his own funds, including two $10 million vehicles, and, more recently, a $30 million fund. Yet he’s far from the only person to learn the ropes with Sequoia’s help.

Altman, of course, went on to advise Y Combinator companies, then to become the organization’s president, before resigning earlier this year.  Other former scouts who have joined the world of venture capital full-time include Lee Linden of Quiet Capital, David Ulevitch of Andreessen Horowitz, Jana Messerschmidt of Lightspeed Venture Partners, Cat Lee of Maveron, and Deep Nishar of SoftBank Investment Advisors.

Three other former scouts have landed inside of Sequoia itself: Vernal, who before joining Sequoia spent more than eight years at Facebook, including as a vice president of engineering and product; Jess Lee, who previously cofounded the shopping site Polyvore and oversaw its sale to Yahoo; and Alfred Lin, the former COO and chairman of Zappos.

Not every scout has been plucked from Sequoia’s portfolio, as Mike Vernal himself makes plain. Though Vernal declines to delve into certain specifics about the program, including exactly how many scouts have worked with Sequoia, he says that while “early on, in that first batch, the program was biased toward Sequoia companies,” it’s no longer the case that Sequoia taps only the founders it has already backed.

We also know that Sequoia is now in the middle of its fifth batch of scouts, that it chooses two “classes” of scouts for each separate scout fund, and there have been three to date, including a $180 million fund it closed last year.

As for how much they have to spend, scouts are given up to $100,000. Some invest a little bit in a lot of companies; others invest more in a few. Their checks tend to lead to more checks, too, unsurprisingly. More than 230 companies that have received checks written by Sequoia scouts have gone on to raise more than $6 billion in follow-on financing, excluding Uber. Many of these have received further funding from Sequoia itself, including Faire, GenEdit, Guardant Health, Stripe, Thumbtack, and Vector.

It can also prove a lucrative side gig for those in Sequoia’s scouting program. According to Calacanis, for example, Altman wrote a check to Stripe as a scout, a position that’s now worth $25 million. As with Uber, Calacanis says, “It’s likely that everyone in that class will get a taste of that, too.”

No blank checks . . .

Still, being a scout does not mean having carte blanche to do whatever one chooses. When PlanGrid cofounder and CEO Tracy Young was asked by one of the partners to become a scout for Sequoia, “I had no idea what that meant, but they basically give us $100,000 to do whatever we want, assuming it passes a stringent approval process. [Sequoia] wants to know: how big can this get? What’s the market?”

It can take “hours of conversation” with a founder before Young — whose Sequoia-backed construction software company sold last year to Autodesk for a whopping $875 million — is able to “write up this whole thing, almost like a business plan” to pitch Sequoia, she says.

It may sound inconvenient, but she has learned much from this back-and-forth, she says. “Much of what we do as founders centers on our own problems within our own companies in our own industries. I’m in the construction software world every day, and [being a scout] has enabled me to see other companies’ problems in a deeper way.”

Clara Shih, a scout and the founder and CEO of Hearsay Systems, a Sequoia-backed digital marketing platform for financial services, echoes the sentiment, adding that the “series of diligence items that we go through” also helps to sharpen her thinking about her own company.

“When you’re the CEO of a company, that’s your baby and you’re biased in favor of your own startup,” says Shih. Scouting on behalf of Sequoia — along with her role as a director on the board of Starbucks —  “helps me think what would someone from the outside be [prioritize as part of] their strategy for Hearsay. It helps me to think more objectively and gets me out of the minutiae” that can occupy a founder’s thoughts and time otherwise.

Altogether, Young says she has made “six of seven” investments to date on behalf of Sequoia, and “probably talked with 50 companies” altogether, though not always with investing in mind. Shih has made a similar number of bets.

Both say their primary responsibilities are running their companies but that they are often contacted by founders who are looking to them for advice, and that it’s during these meetings that they sometimes wear the hat of investor, too.

“I’m not out there prospecting,” says Shih, “but a lot of women entrepreneurs reach out to me, because there are still too few of us and it’s my mission to change that.” Young meanwhile says she hears from founders in spaces “adjacent” to her own.

Both suggest that becoming a VC that it’s a path to which they’re open — though not yet. “I have a very busy full-time job,” says Shih. Young also says she’s “full time at Autodesk right now, integrating PlanGrid into the company.”

Still, she continues, “We’ll see. I’m pretty sure a lot of [people in the scout program] are going to become future VCs because a lot of them are really good at investing in and valuing companies.”

A lot of them are also women and minorities, she notes. “I’m biased,” says Young, “but having pitched to a lot of white men at different venture firms, including at Sequoia in 2014, when you walk into a room of scouts, it’s super diverse. It just feels different.”

Calacanis tells us the same. “They’ll never get enough credit for this, but one thing Sequoia did was use scouts to radically increase the amount of diversity in the industry,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was a bunch of Stanford people of a certain gender and [skin] color. But they opened the aperture to get more women and underrepresented investors” into their network, and he says it’s now among the most diverse groups in Silicon Valley — even if it’s also one of the lowest-flying.

Down the road . . .

One outstanding question is what happens when a scout sell his or her company, or takes it public, or otherwise becomes wealthy enough to invest on their own. After all, Sequoia tends to work with founders who have the contacts and the industry know-how, but who also need its financial support if they want to invest in their founder friends.

Calacanis falls into this category, yet says he still does the occasional scout deal and happily. “Sequoia is the greatest venture firm in the world. Whatever they ask me to do, it’s like ‘Yes.’ It’s a no-brainer.”

Another member of this particular club is Matt Macinnis, the founder of Sequoia-backed Inkling Systems, which sold for an undisclosed amount to the private equity firm Marlin Equity Partners last year. Macinnis is today the COO of Rippling, the online payroll and HR startup founded by Zenefits cofounder Parker Conrad, and he says that he has written 24 checks for Sequoia over the last five years, including to note-taking app Notion (founder Ivan Zhao spent a year working on product at Inkling) and the education applications company Clever, whose founder was a Harvard classmate of Macinnis.

Macinnis suggests that as he has begun investing more actively as an angel investor, deciding how much of his own money to pour into a company has become a more complicated affair. Yet like Calacanis, he only sings Sequoia’s praises.

He points to a new investment in Memfault, a startup that was among the most popular to graduate from the Y Combinator’s accelerator program this past winter. He says he was “super excited about the company because they’re doing firmware deployment to internet of things devices — doorknobs, cars, temperature sensors.” He also liked that the startup’s CTO came out of Fitbit.

In fact, he excitedly told Sequoia about the company.  The good news: Sequoia partner Bill Coughran — a former SVP of engineering at Google who well understands hardware — grew excited, too. The bad news, he made the company an offer before Macinnis had closed his own investment.  (Says Macinnis, the company was “surprise, surprise, oversubscribed right away.”)

Given different circumstances, Macinnis might have been out of luck. Instead, he says. “It was not problem at all. Bill adjusted the allocation so that both [I] and the scout program and the founder were able to get the desired outcome. He made room.”

There’s allegiance for good reason, suggests Macinnis, who implies that scouts get as much if not more than Sequoia from their relationship. To underscore his point, he points to DoorDash founder and former scout Tony Xu, whose company is currently valued at $7.1 billion,  and to Weebly cofounder David Rusenko, whose Sequoia-backed company sold last year to Square for $365 million. “I’m not Tony or David,” he says, “but those guys wouldn’t hesitate for a millisecond to pitch in and help a scouts company however they could.”

Says Calacanis separately, “I thought angel investing was stupid” before becoming a scout, which he credits with changing his career trajectory. “I thought I should invest in myself, that I was the smartest entrepreneur I know.” Sequoia, he says, knew better. “They know If you’re smart, your friends are probably pretty smart, too.”

Pictured above: Mike Vernal and Tracy Young.