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. 

Less than 1 year after launching its corporate card for startups, Brex eyes $2B valuation

Brex, the fintech business that’s taken the startup world by storm with its sought after corporate card tailored for entrepreneurs, is raising millions in Series D funding less than a year after it launched, TechCrunch has learned.

Bloomberg reports Brex is raising at a $2 billion valuation, though sources tell TechCrunch the company is still in negotiations with both new and existing investors. Brex didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kleiner Perkins is leading the round via former general partner Mood Rowghani, who left the storied venture capital fund last year to form Bond alongside Mary Meeker and Noah Knauf. As we’ve previously reported, the Bond crew is still in the process of deploying capital from Kleiner’s billion-dollar Digital Growth Fund III, the pool of capital they were responsible for before leaving the firm.

Bond, which recently closed on $1.25 billion for its debut effort and made its first investment, is not participating in the round for Brex, sources confirm to TechCrunch. Bond declined to comment.

Brex, a graduate of Y Combinator’s winter 2017 cohort, has raised $182 million in VC funding, reaching a valuation of $1.1 billion in October 2018 three months after launching its corporate card for startups and less than a year after completing YC’s accelerator program.

Most recently, Brex attracted a $125 million Series C investment led by Greenoaks Capital, DST Global and IVP. The startup is also backed by PayPal founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, and VC firms such as Ribbit Capital, Oneway Ventures and Mindset Ventures, according to PitchBook.

The company’s pace of growth is unheard of, even in Silicon Valley where inflated valuations and outsized rounds are the norm. Why? Brex has tapped into a market dominated by legacy players in dire need of technological innovation and, of course, startup founders always need access to credit. That, coupled with the fact that it’s capitalized on YC’s network of hundreds of startup founders — i.e. Brex customers — has accelerated its path to a multi-billion-dollar price tag.

Brex doesn’t require any kind of personal guarantee or security deposit from its customers, allowing founders near-instant access to credit. More importantly, it gives entrepreneurs a credit limit that’s as much as 10 times higher than what they would receive elsewhere.

Investors may also be enticed by the fact the company doesn’t use third-party legacy technology, boasting a software platform that is built from scratch. On top of that, Brex simplifies a lot of the frustrating parts of the corporate expense process by providing companies with a consolidated look at their spending.

“We have a very similar effect of what Stripe had in the beginning, but much faster because Silicon Valley companies are very good at spending money but making money is harder,” Brex co-founder and chief executive officer Henrique Dubugras told me late last year.

Stripe, for context, was founded in 2010. Not until 2014 did the company raise its unicorn round, landing a valuation of $1.75 billion with an $80 million financing. Today, Stripe has raised a total of roughly $1 billion at a valuation north of $20 billion.

Dubugras and Brex co-founder Pedro Franceschi, 23-year-old entrepreneurs, relocated from Brazil to Stanford in the fall of 2016 to attend the university. They dropped out upon getting accepted into YC, which they applied to with a big dreams for a virtual reality startup called Beyond. Beyond quickly became Brex, a name in which Dubugras recently told TechCrunch was chosen because it was one of few four-letter word domains available.

Brex’s funding history

March 2017: Brex graduates Y Combinator
April 2017: $6.5M Series A | $25M valuation
April 2018: $50M Series B | $220M valuation
October 2018: $125M Series C | $1.1B valuation
May 2019: undisclosed Series D | ~$2B valuation

In April, Brex secured a $100 million debt financing from Barclays Investment Bank. At the time, Dubugras told TechCrunch the business would not seek out venture investment in the near future, though he did comment that the debt capital would allow for a significant premium when Brex did indeed decide to raise capital again.

In 2019, Brex has taken steps several steps toward maturation.Recently, it launched a rewards program for customers and closed its first notable acquisition of a blockchain startup called Elph. Shortly after, Brex released its second product, a credit card made specifically for ecommerce companies.

Its upcoming infusion of capital will likely be used to develop payment services tailored to Fortune 500 business, which Dubugras has said is part of Brex’s long term plan to disrupt the entire financial technology space.

Unshackled Ventures has $20M to invest exclusively in immigrant founders

Unshackled Ventures isn’t like other venture capital funds.

The firm invests in immigrant founders and helps them secure visas so they can ditch their corporate job and launch the startup of their dreams. Today, Unshackled is announcing its sophomore fund of $20 million, topping its debut effort by $15.5 million.

“The point is to take the burden off of founders because they are not immigration experts, they are experts at building satellites or extracting protein from plants,” Unshackled founding partner Nitin Pachisia told TechCrunch. “These are people that if you go to a workspace, you’ll see them show up on nights and weekends because they want to build something but they can’t.”

Immigrants looking to start their own businesses face a huge barrier. Take Jyoti Bansal for example. He famously waited seven years before launching AppDynamics, a business that later sold to Cisco for $3.7 billion days before its initial public offering. Why? Because as an Indian immigrant with H-1B visa status, he could work for startups but wasn’t legally allowed to start his own. It wasn’t until receiving an employment authorization document (EAD), a part of the green card process, that Bansal could finally found AppDynamics. If Bansal had the opportunity to pitch to Unshackled, which provides bespoke immigration solutions to each founder, he could have launched AppDynamics years prior.

Immigrant founders, according to a 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy, are responsible for 55 percent of U.S. billion-dollar companies, or “unicorns,” as they are known. Uber, SpaceX, WeWork, Palantir Technologies, Stripe, Slack, Moderna Therapeutics, Robinhood, Instacart, Houzz, Credit Karma, Tanium, Zoox and CrowdStrike all count at least one immigrant co-founder.

“The difference between success and failures is oftentimes who you know and when,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta told TechCrunch. “We can bring those resources at just 1/200th the size of Andreessen Horowitz to immigrants at day zero.”

“We’re creating the best place for immigrants to start their companies,” he added. “And guess what? We’re keeping American innovation in America.”

Unshackled Ventures portfolio company Lily AI.

The firm was founded by Mehta, the son of immigrants, and Pachisia, an Indian immigrant, in 2015. Since then, the duo have written pre-seed checks to 31 companies with a 100 percent success rate in procuring visas to keep talent working in the U.S. Startups in its portfolio include the very recent Y Combinator graduate Career Karma, Starsky Robotics, Plutoshift, Togg, Hype, Lily AI and more.

“I didn’t think it was possible to start a company on a visa in the U.S., let alone scale one to hit the next major milestone so quickly,” Plutoshift founder Prateek Joshi said in a statement. “That all changed when we met the Unshackled team.”

Mehta and Pachisia say its startups have gone on to raise $54 million in follow-on investments from top investors like First Round Capital, NEA and Shasta.

In addition to supporting companies based in Silicon Valley, the investors search far and wide for aspiring immigrant founders, as well as respond to every single cold email they receive. Recently, they joined the Rise of the Rest tour, a trip hosted by Steve Case and JD Vance that showcases startups in underrepresented geographies, and they make frequent visits to college campuses across the U.S.

Unshackled’s limited partners include Bloomberg Beta, Jerry Yang’s AME Cloud Ventures and Emerson Collective.

“I think the name represents the feeling that you’re a little bit shackled to a framework or a policy that doesn’t necessarily encourage entrepreneurship,” Mehta said. “When if you take a step back, immigrants are probably more entrepreneurial than native-born people.”

Fastly, the content delivery network, files for an IPO

Fastly, the content delivery network that’s raised $219 million in financing from investors (according to Crunchbase), is ready for its close up in the public markets.

The eight-year-old company is one of several businesses that improve the download time and delivery of different websites to internet browsers and it has just filed for an IPO.

Media companies like The New York Times use Fastly to cache their homepages, media and articles on Fastly’s servers so that when somebody wants to browse the Times online, Fastly’s servers can send it directly to the browser. In some cases, Fastly serves up to 90 percent of browser requests.

E-commerce companies like Stripe and Ticketmaster are also big users of the service. They appreciate Fastly because its network of servers enable faster load times — sometimes as quickly as 20 or 30 milliseconds, according to the company.

The company raised its last round of financing roughly nine months ago, a $40 million investment that Fastly said would be the last before a public offering.

True to its word, the company is hoping public markets have the appetite to feast on yet another “unicorn” business.

While Fastly lacks the sizzle of companies like Zoom, Pinterest or Lyft, its technology enables a huge portion of the activities in which consumers engage online, and it could be a bellwether for competitors like Cloudflare, which recently raised $150 million and was also exploring a public listing.

The company’s public filing has a placeholder amount of $100 million, but given the amount of funding the company has received, it’s far more likely to seek closer to $1 billion when it finally prices its shares.

Fastly reported revenue of roughly $145 million in 2018, compared to $105 million in 2017, and its losses declined year on year to $29 million, down from $31 million in the year-ago period. So its losses are shrinking, its revenue is growing (albeit slowly) and its cost of revenues are rising from $46 million to around $65 million over the same period.

That’s not a great number for the company, but it’s offset by the amount of money that the company’s getting from its customers. Fastly breaks out that number in its dollar-based net expansion rate figure, which grew 132 percent in 2018.

It’s an encouraging number, but as the company notes in its prospectus, it’s got an increasing number of challenges from new and legacy vendors in the content delivery network space.

The market for cloud computing platforms, particularly enterprise-grade products, “is highly fragmented, competitive and constantly evolving,” the company said in its prospectus. “With the introduction of new technologies and market entrants, we expect that the competitive environment in which we compete will remain intense going forward. Legacy CDNs, such as Akamai, Limelight, EdgeCast (part of Verizon Digital Media), Level3, and Imperva, and small business-focused CDNs, such as Cloudflare, InStart, StackPath, and Section.io, offer products that compete with ours. We also compete with cloud providers who are starting to offer compute functionality at the edge like Amazon’s CloudFront, AWS Lambda, and Google Cloud Platform.”

Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M

Five years after Dropbox acquired their startup Zulip, Waseem Daher, Jeff Arnold and Jessica McKellar have gained traction for their third business together: Pilot.

Pilot helps startups and small businesses manage their back office. Chief executive officer Daher admits it may seem a little boring, but the market opportunity is undeniably huge. To tackle the market, Pilot is today announcing a $40 million Series B led by Index Ventures with participation from Stripe, the online payment processing system.

The round values Pilot, which has raised about $60 million to date, at $355 million.

“It’s a massive industry that has sucked in the past,” Daher told TechCrunch. “People want a really high-quality solution to the bookkeeping problem. The market really wants this to exist and we’ve assembled a world-class team that’s capable of knocking this out of the park.”

San Francisco-based Pilot launched in 2017, more than a decade after the three founders met in MIT’s student computing group. It’s not surprising they’ve garnered attention from venture capitalists, given that their first two companies resulted in notable acquisitions.

Pilot has taken on a massively overlooked but strategic segment — bookkeeping,” Index’s Mark Goldberg told TechCrunch via email. “While dry on the surface, the opportunity is enormous given that an estimated $60 billion is spent on bookkeeping and accounting in the U.S. alone. It’s a service industry that can finally be automated with technology and this is the perfect team to take this on — third-time founders with a perfect combo of financial acumen and engineering.”

The trio of founders’ first project, Linux upgrade software called Ksplice, sold to Oracle in 2011. Their next business, Zulip, exited to Dropbox before it even had the chance to publicly launch.

It was actually upon building Ksplice that Daher and team realized their dire need for tech-enabled bookkeeping solutions.

“We built something internally like this as a byproduct of just running [Ksplice],” Daher explained. “When Oracle was acquiring our company, we met with their finance people and we described this system to them and they were blown away.”

It took a few years for the team to refocus their efforts on streamlining back-office processes for startups, opting to build business chat software in Zulip first.

Pilot’s software integrates with other financial services products to bring the bookkeeping process into the 21st century. Its platform, for example, works seamlessly on top of QuickBooks so customers aren’t wasting precious time updating and managing the accounting application.

“It’s better than the slow, painful process of doing it yourself and it’s better than hiring a third-party bookkeeper,” Daher said. “If you care at all about having the work be high-quality, you have to have software do it. People aren’t good at these mechanical, repetitive, formula-driven tasks.”

Currently, Pilot handles bookkeeping for more than $100 million per month in financial transactions but hopes to use the infusion of venture funding to accelerate customer adoption. The company also plans to launch a tax prep offering that they say will make the tax prep experience “easy and seamless.”

“It’s our first foray into Pilot’s larger mission, which is taking care of running your companies entire back office so you can focus on your business,” Daher said.

As for whether the team will sell to another big acquirer, it’s unlikely.

“The opportunity for Pilot is so large and so substantive, I think it would be a mistake for this to be anything other than a large and enduring public company,” Daher said. “This is the company that we’re going to do this with.”

Instacart rolls out an Instant Cashout feature for shoppers

Instacart is today launching a new feature aimed at allowing shoppers to access their earnings more quickly, the company announced this morning. Instant Cashout, as the option is called, was built in partnership with payments platform Stripe and is being made available to shoppers in-app for instant transfers to a debit card.

Previously, workers would have to wait a week to get paid.

With Instant Cashout, they can instead opt to have their pay immediately transferred to a debit card.

The company says setting up Instant Cashout takes less than five minutes, and shoppers will then be able to use the feature anytime going forward, 24/7.

The option will begin rolling out today in select cities, including Boston, Mass. and Bend, Ore. It will reach all Instacart shoppers by June 2019.

Shoppers will be alerted by email when the feature becomes available in their location, Instacart says.

The launch comes at a time when Instacart is trying to reset relations with workers, with whom it’s had a rocky relationship over the years.

Last month, the company reversed a controversial change to its tipping policy where it was using customers’ tips to offset wages. In some cases, when customers tipped up front believing their shopper was receiving that as a bonus on top of their wages, the shopper was actually receiving less money because the hefty tip was used for the guaranteed minimum payments Instacart promised.

Following the backlash from shoppers (and the threat of a class action suit), Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta admitted the tipping policy was misguided, apologized and said the company would stop taking workers’ tips going forward. It also retroactively compensated shoppers when tips were taken, and raised its minimum batch payments.

That wasn’t the first time that Instacart has faced issues around worker pay, either.

The company settled a $4.6 million suit in 2017 regarding claims that it had misclassified its shoppers as independent contractors and didn’t reimburse them for work expenses. As a result, it also had to change the section in the app describing its “service fee,” which many customers believed was a tip.

The year prior to that, Instacart removed the option to tip entirely in favor of higher delivery commissions, until workers’ complaints led the company to reconsider.

While workers will likely welcome a way to more quickly access their pay, it’s not exactly a groundbreaking feature at this point. In fact, it’s a case of Instacart catching up with other gig economy businesses — including Uber, Lyft, Postmates and DoorDash, for example — which already offer instant payments.

The feature was rumored to be in development as of a few months ago, so today’s launch may not come as a huge surprise for some. However, its arrival may help to retain some shoppers who would have otherwise decided to ditch Instacart given the ongoing issues around pay.

Africa Roundup: Paga goes global and 4 startups raise $99M in VC

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga is gearing up for international expansion with a $10 million round led by the Global Innovation Fund.

The company is exploring the release of its payments product in Ethiopia, Mexico, and the Philippines—CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch.

Paga looks to go head to head with regional and global payment players, such as PayPal, Alipay, and Safaricom according to Oviosu.

“We are not only in a position to compete with them, we’re going beyond them,” he said of Kenya’s MPesa mobile money product. “Our goal is to build a global payment ecosystem across many emerging markets.”

Launched in 2012, Paga has created a multi-channel network and platform to transfer money, pay bills, and buy things digitally 9 million customers in Nigeria—including 6000 businesses.

Since inception, the startup has processed 57 million transactions worth $3.6 billion, according to Oviosu. He joined Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge and Helios Investment Partners’ Fope Adelowo at Disrupt San Francisco to discuss fintech and Africa’s tech ecosystem.

South African fintech startup Jumo raised a $52 million round (led by Goldman Sachs) to bring its fintech services to Asia. The company—that offers loans to the unbanked in Africa—has opened an office in Singapore to lead the way.

The new round takes Jumo to $90 million raised from investors and also saw participation from existing backers that include Proparco — which is attached to the French Development Agency — Finnfund, Vostok Emerging Finance, Gemcorp Capital, and LeapFrog Investments.

Launched in 2014, Jumo specializes in social impact financial products. That means loans and saving options for those who sit outside of the existing banking system, and particularly small businesses.

To date, it claims to have helped nine million consumers across its six markets in Africa and originated over $700 million in loans. The company, which has some 350 staff across 10 offices in Africa, Europe and Asia, was part of Google’s Launchpad accelerator last year. Jumo is led by CEO Andrew Watkins-Ball, who has close to two decades in finance and investing.

Lagos based Paystack raised an $8 million Series A round led by Stripe.

In Nigeria the company’s payment API integrates with tens of thousands of businesses, and in two years it has grown to process 15 percent of all online payments.

In 2016, Paystack became the first startup from Nigeria to enter Y Combinator, and the incubator is doing some follow-on investing in this round.

Other strategic investors in this Series A include Visa and the Chinese online giant Tencent, parent of WeChat and a plethora of other services. Tencent also invested in Paystack’s previous round: the startup has raised $10 million to date.

Paystack integrates a wide range of payment options (wire transfers, cards, and mobile) that Nigerians (and soon, those in other countries in Africa) use both to accept and make payments. There’s more about the company’s platform and strategy in this TechCrunch feature.

South African startup Yoco raised $16 million in a new round of funding to expand its payment management and audit services for small and medium-sized businesses as it angles to become one of Africa’s billion-dollar businesses.

To get there the company that “builds tools and services to help SMEs get paid and manage their business” plans to tap $20 billion in commercial activity that the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Katlego Maphai estimates is waiting to move from cash payments to digital offerings.

Yoco offers a point of sale card reader that links to its proprietary payment and performance software at an entry cost of just over $100.

With this kit, cash-based businesses can start accepting cards and tracking metrics such as top-selling products, peak sales periods, and inventory flows.

Yoco has positioned itself as a missing link to “solving an access problem” for SMEs. Though South Africa has POS and business enterprise providers — and relatively high card (75 percent) and mobile penetration (68 percent) — the company estimates only 7 percent of South African businesses accept cards.

Yoco says it is already processing $280 million in annualized payment volume for just under 30,000 businesses.

The startup generates revenue through margins on hardware and software sales and fees of 2.95 percent per transaction on its POS devices.

Yoco will use the $16 million round on product and platform development, growing its distribution channels, and acquiring new talent.

Emerging markets credit startup Mines.io closed a $13 million Series A round led by The Rise Fund, and looks to expand in South America and Asia.

Mines provides business to consumer (B2C) “credit-as-a-service” products to large firms.

“We’re a technology company that facilitates local institutions — banks, mobile operators, retailers — to offer credit to their customers,” Mines CEO and co-founder Ekechi Nwokah told TechCrunch.

Most of Mines’ partnerships entail white-label lending products offered on mobile phones, including non-smart USSD devices.

With offices in San Mateo and Lagos, Mines uses big-data (extracted primarily from mobile users) and proprietary risk algorithms “to enable lending decisions,” Nwokah explained.

Mines started operations in Nigeria and counts payment processor Interswitch and mobile operator Airtel as current partners. In addition to talent acquisition, the startup plans to use the Series A to expand its credit-as-a-service products into new markets in South America and Southeast Asia “in the next few months,” according to its CEO.

Nwokah wouldn’t name specific countries for the startup’s pending South America and Southeast Asia expansion, but believes “this technology is scalable across geographies.”

As part of the Series A, Yemi Lalude from TPG Growth (founder of The Rise Fund) will join Mines’ board of directors.

 

Digital infrastructure company Liquid Telecom is betting big on African startups by rolling out multiple sponsorships and free internet across key access points to the continent’s tech entrepreneurs.

The Econet Wireless subsidiary is also partnering with local and global players like Afrilabs and Microsoft­­ to create a cross-border commercial network for the continent’s startup community.

“We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch.

With 13 offices on the continent, Liquid Telecom’s core business is building the infrastructure for all things digital in Africa.

The company provides voice, high-speed internet, and IP services at the carrier, enterprise, and retail level across Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. It operates data centers in Nairobi and Johannesburg with 6,800 square meters of rack space.

Liquid Telecom has built a 50,000 kilometer fiber network, from Cape Town to Nairobi and this year switched on the Cape to Cairo initiative—a land-based fiber link from South Africa to Egypt.

Though startups don’t provide an immediate revenue windfall, the company is betting they will as future enterprise clients.

“Step one…in supporting startups has been….supporting co-working spaces and events with sponsorships and free internet,” Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts told TechCrunch. “Step two is helping startups to adopt…business services.”

Liquid Telecom provides free internet to 30 hubs in seven countries and is active sponsoring startup related events.

On the infrastructure side, it’s developing commercial services for startups to plug into.

“At the early stage and middle stage, we’re offering startups connectivity, skills development, and access to capital through the hubs,” said Liquid Telecom’s Oswald Jumira.

“When they reach the more mature level, we’re focused on how we can scale them up…and be a go to market partner for them. To do that they’ll need to leverage…cloud services.”

Microsoft and Liquid Telecom announced a partnership in 2017 to offer cloud services such as Microsoft’s Azure, Dynamics 365, and Office 365 to select startups through free credits—and connected to comp packages of Liquid Telecom product offerings.

On the venture side, Liquid Telecom doesn’t have a fund but that could be in the cards.

“We haven’t yet started investing in startups, but I’d like to see that we do,” said chief technology officer Ben Roberts. “That can be the next move onwards… from having successful business partnerships.”

And finally, tickets are now available here for Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos this December. The first two speakers were also announced, TLcom Capital senior partner and former minister of communication technology for Nigeria Omobola Johnson and Singularity Investment’s Lexi Novitske will discuss keys to investing across Africa’s startup landscape.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

African Tech Around the Net

Stripe will establish an engineering hub in Dublin

 Stripe will open its first engineering center outside the United States in Dublin, the company told Reuters today. Dublin isn’t a surprising choice. Though the online payment processing provider is based in San Francisco, its founders are Irish and Stripe’s European headquarters are already in the Irish capital, where it has about 100 employees. Reuters says Stripe will hire… Read More