The Daily Crunch: Peloton share price falls 14% after product recall and data breach; CEO apologizes

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Hello friends and welcome to Daily Crunch, bringing you the most important startup, tech and venture capital news in a single package.

Today’s entry marks the third time the new crew and I have put this note together for you. Frankly, it’s been a blast. We also want to improve the missive over time. So! Shoot me a note directly with your feedback.

Turning to today: I got to help write a long-form piece digging into what drove 2020’s disappointing startup fundraising gender equality numbers. With that in mind, let’s get into the rest of the news. — Alex

Peloton treads backward

Leading the site today was news that former unicorn and now public company Peloton admitted that its treadmill products are dangerous. The company is recalling them. And TechCrunch broke the news that the company has a pretty serious cybersecurity leak. Big ups to Zack for leading our reporting there.

Investors were incensed about the recall. For both its cost, I reckon, but also because the company was arguing in public that consumer safeguard groups were wrong just weeks ago. Imagine if you were an investor, content that Peloton knew better. And then it wound up not knowing better. And now your shares are off 13% to 14% in a single day. (Brian has been great on this story, in case you’re looking for someone new to follow on Twitter. If that’s you, could I also interest you in a 45-minute Power Zone Endurance ride? I’ll be doing one with Matt later. Feel free to join.)

On a more serious note, Peloton faces a grip of competition from Tonal (read our EC-1 here), to Mirror (which exited last year), all the way back to the recently funded Ergatta, which wants you to row at home. With smart tech! All that’s to say that there are lots of startups and venture capital bets aiming at Peloton, and this was a very, very bad day for Big Bike.

Let’s talk about some seed deals

But enough about public companies and their inability to make safe products. Let’s get into some recent venture capital deals that you need to know about. Here are my favorites from the day, and one that I wrote:

Closing up, a note on the amount of money that is still sloshing around the venture capital world. Early Zoom investor Emergence Capital is out with two new funds worth nearly $1 billion. The main vehicle is a sixth early-stage fund worth $575 million. Looking back in time, the company’s fifth fund was worth $435 million. Its fourth was worth just $335 million, Connie reports.

Inflation! Venture style, I suppose. Also having been to dinner at an Emergence partner’s house in a better part of San Francisco than the one I used to live in, I can confirm that some of the company’s funds have done well for both it and its backers. That or he was already rich.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

One CMO’s honest take on the modern chief marketing role

Every C-level executive faces unique challenges, but the chief marketing officer may be the most vulnerable.

Marketing is more art than science, which means everyone from the CEO to the person who waters the office plants can have an opinion about a PR blitz or the latest white paper.

That pressure takes a toll. According to management consultants Korn Ferry, the average tenure of a CMO is 3.5 years, the shortest of all C-suite roles.

In an exposé drawn from his own experience, Daniel Incandela, chief marketing officer of Terminus, shares his thoughts about what startups really expect from their lead storytellers. If you’re looking for a senior marketing role or know someone who is, read and share.

4 strategies for building a digital health unicorn

Two startups in Merck Global Health Innovation Fund’s portfolio — Preventice Holdings and Livongo — exited as unicorns last year.

“And we are expecting two more unicorn exits in 2021,” says GHI Fund President Bill Taranto.

Growing a health tech startup into a billion-dollar company isn’t easy, but it is somewhat straightforward, he says. For example, a CFO should be one of a digital health company’s first employees:

“Hiring just a bookkeeper or an accountant will create headaches for you later as you look to raise capital and support business development.”

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Apple goes Google, naturally

At this point you’ve either decided to tune into the Apple-Epic spat, or you have decided not to. If you have, here’s some more on the matter. If you aren’t into it, we can move on.

But not from Apple, which is following Google into trying to juice more ad dollars from its existing properties and expanding the ad density of its app store search feature. Here’s Sarah:

Apple is introducing a new way for developers to advertise on the App Store. Previously, developers could promote their apps after users initiated a search on the App Store by targeting specific keywords. For example, if you typed in “taxi,” you might then see an ad by Uber in the top slot above the search results. The new ad slot, however, will reach users before they search.

If this is what Apple is doing to its products now, imagine what comes next. Happily I don’t like apps, so I will largely avoid these ads.

Turning to the rest of Big Tech, we’ve seen better-than-expected earnings from Lyft this week, with Uber set to report after the bell today. Kirsten and I are cooking up something longer on both sets of results soon.

Also in the Big Tech bucket are a new clone from Facebook, this time of Nextdoor, Twitter trying to get you to post better tweets, and a new cloud framework that Ron reports is getting a nod of approval from Microsoft and Google and IBM.

Finally, the Equity crew spoke to two CFOs about the efficacy and morality of going public earlier. Honestly, it was a blast.

The Daily Crunch: Tech stocks hammered after US Treasury Secretary speculates on hiking interest rates

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Are startup valuations about to fall?

Hello, friends! Alex here to talk to you for a hot second about money. Then we’ll get into startups, venture capital, what Big Tech is up to and more. I promise. But hang with me for a moment.

Tech stocks got hammered today: The tech-heavy Nasdaq fell by more than 2%. Cloud stocks endured twice the damage. What happened? The U.S. government said that it might raise interest rates. So what? Well, when rates were low, lots of money that might have been invested elsewhere was instead funneled into tech stocks and VC funds that invest in startups.

Now, with the government saying that it might shake up the current state of affairs, investors are responding by selling tech stocks. Bessemer Venture Partners investor Byron Deeter noted the drop, tweeting that after a “brutal few days in the clouds,” with software stocks off “~5% today and ~10% on the week,” he was curious if valuations are “just taking a breather after a massive 2020” or starting “a broader reset.”

That’s a great question. More on the underlying economics of the situation here and here. Now, into startup-land.

Twitter doubles down on subscriptions

If you were curious about how Twitter was going to pursue its subscription strategy, the answer, to a degree, is buying startups. Today Big Tweet announced that it is buying Scroll, a startup that charges its users a fee, providing them with an ad-free experience on various media sites. Scroll then split its user fee with those sites.

A neat model, yeah? It’s a bit like the startup called Contenture that TechCrunch covered a few times back in 2009. Only Scroll made more progress than Contenture did. And your humble servant was not a co-founder at Scroll.

Regardless, the Scroll-Twitter deal matters because the social media company is busy rolling up startups and products into its ecosystem to better craft a set of services that may help it monetize more effectively over the long haul. Sarah reports:

[Scroll] will become a part of Twitter’s larger plans to invest in subscriptions, the company says, and will later be offered as one of the premium features Twitter will provide to subscribers. Premium subscribers will be able to use Scroll to easily read their articles from news outlets and from Twitter’s own newsletters product, Revue, another recent acquisition that’s already been integrated into Twitter’s service. When subscribers use Scroll through Twitter, a portion of their subscription revenue will go to support the publishers and the writers creating the content, explains Twitter in an announcement.

Twitter vs. Substack? Yep. Twitter vs. Clubhouse? Yep. And if Twitter can help media companies better monetize and thus not die? Well, then it’s Twitter versus the a16z media operation. I didn’t really expect a Jack versus Marc 2021 but am here for it all the same.

A typical day in today’s startup funding market

There was a cornucopia of startup news today on the site, so I’ve narrowed it a bit to get you what you need in a hurry. Also, shoutout to Mary Ann for covering half of it all by herself.

Here’s the rundown:

To round out our startup and venture capital notes, here are two more bits of news: Austin-based Multicoin Capital has raised a $100 million fund to “further capitalize on rampant excitement in the crypto world,” per our own reporting. Oh, and London-based seed investment fund Stride VC has raised a £100 million fund.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How to break into Silicon Valley as an outsider

There is no magic spell that will induce an investor to meet with you. As with most things in life, it all comes down to who you know and what you have to offer.

“Nothing beats building human networks,” says Domm Holland, CEO and co-founder of Fast. “That’s the way that you’re going to get this done in terms of fundraising.”

Since its founding in 2019, Fast has raised $124 million across three rounds as it lands new users and partners like Stripe for its one-click checkout product. In this interview, Holland, a native Australian, shares actionable advice for other outsiders with startup dreams.

“Raising money isn’t the only thing,” Holland says. “You’ve got to hire people, you’ve got to build a team, you’ve got to build customers and suppliers, and you’ve got to build entire ecosystems.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

The enterprise strikes back

Before we get into the enterprise news, here’s what you want to read about: Tesla spent $3 (not a typo) to purchase patents relating to battery tech that we think could really matter.

On the enterprise front, Ron has two stories today from tech giants that matter. The first is an interview with SAP CEO Christian Klein. SAP, you will recall, spun out Qualtrics a little bit ago. What’s ahead for the software giant? Ron is on the case!

From the same pen, Box’s time in the barrel continues as some of its largest public shareholders are agitating to “inject [Box’s] board with still more new blood, taking a swipe at the Box leadership team while it was at it.” This is a fight worth watching as it could encourage, or discourage, more unicorns from going public.

Finally from Big Tech, some good news. Namely that Instagram is working on improving its caption tech, which could help with accessibility. And our own Twitter-free Devin reports that Microsoft wants to help kids read.

Community

We asked everyone on Twitter about their experience trying to learn a foreign language, and you can weigh in here. Some of you have tried using Duolingo (with success!) and some shockingly got through German class in junior high without learning a single sentence of the language. Regardless of your personal experience, give the Duolingo EC-1 a read and learn about how the company started, how they figured out how to make money and what’s up next for them.

Speaking of starting a company … if you’re building your own, join us for this week’s Extra Crunch LiveRegister here. It’s free! See you there.

The Daily Crunch: TechCrunch’s parent company sold for $5B, Duolingo’s origin story

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

TechCrunch’s new home

The original plan was to spend a minute today explaining that the Daily Crunch is now being put together by a new and expanded team. I, your friend Alex, will be writing and collecting the main sections from here on out. We’ll also have input from Walter and Annie on the Extra Crunch side of things (like today’s Exchange column!), along with community notes from Drew and more. It’s going to be great.

But with the news out today that TechCrunch’s parent company’s parent company is selling our parent company to a new parent company, we can’t do anything but admit that our newsletter shakeup is hardly the biggest news story of the day.

You can read more of TechCrunch’s coverage of the deal here. We will have more on the matter in the coming weeks. You’ll learn more about it as we do.

I am beyond excited about getting the chance to write to you every day. A big thank you to Anthony Ha, who ran this fine newsletter for so long. But there is a lot of startup and tech news to get through today, so let’s put aside private equity buyouts of legacy media assets for the moment and get into the stuff we care about the most.

The big story: The Duolingo EC-1

TechCrunch has covered the explosive edtech sector extensively over the last year (some examples here and here), largely thanks to Natasha’s work. She joined the TC team just before the pandemic, making her focus on education technology instantly prescient as the world went into lockdown. Remote education became the default, and several billion dollars in venture capital quickly chased the trend.

Now, on perhaps the other end of the COVID era, Natasha just published a deep dive into one of the most fascinating companies in the edtech arena: Duolingo. Per her reporting in her brand-new EC-1 investigating the company, Duolingo has scaled to 500 million users and $190 million in 2020 bookings.

Edtech is now big business, and after a history of being a place where venture capital goes to die, it’s instead a red-hot sector with a . I’m still chewing on the 10,000+ words that we just shipped on Duolingo, but it’s clear already that Natasha crushed this particular assignment.

Startups and venture capital: Either NFTs are the next big thing or a lot of people are very wrong

Let’s talk startups, yeah? Turning to the day’s news, I found a few gems for your delectation.

We’ll start with Zoomo, an Australian e-bike company (formerly Bolt Bikes) that wants delivery folks to snag a subscription to its two-wheeled zoomers. As TechCrunch recently reported, you may have heard of the company after it “made a name for itself through partnerships with Uber Eats and DoorDash to help delivery workers access e-bikes through weekly subscriptions at discounted rates.”

It has since expanded to 10,000 bikes internationally and wants to work with companies of all sorts on getting their workers kitted about with its hardware. And it just raised $12 million. Let’s see how far its new capital allows the company to, er, scoot ahead.

Next up is Gatheround, which just raised $3.5 million in a seed round. The company, formerly known as Icebreaker, helps remote teams conduct engaging video meetings. Which is not a bad idea, as sometimes you need a little help to break the damn ice.

Per our own Mary Ann Azevedo, “Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors, such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky.”

Finally, it is impossible to cover startups in 2021 without NFTs cropping up somewhere, so let’s allow Lucas Matney to tap our brains into the cryptoverse:

The creators behind CryptoPunks, one of the most popular NFT projects on the web, just revealed their latest project called Meebits. The project boasts 20,000 procedurally generated 3D characters that are tradeable on the Ethereum blockchain.

I won’t lie, why not procedurally generate 200,000? Or 2,000,000? Or 20? A lot of my friends are tweeting about bored apes and breeding digital horses. Meanwhile, I sit around a stack of paper books feeling at once like a caveman and an oracle able to see what won’t last. Either way, it’s the year of non-fungible digital ownership of proof of digital ownership of fungible images.

Further reading:

The tech giants: Twitter vs. Clubhouse

Turning to the Big Tech companies, there was a good chunk of news today, the most important of which is that Twitter’s push into live audio is no joke. Nor is it some sort of side project that never really gets the full attention of the social giant’s product team. Instead, Twitter announced today that “it’s making Twitter Spaces available to any account with 600 followers or more, including both iOS and Android users,” Sarah reports.

Even more, the company also “officially unveiled some of the features it’s preparing to launch, like Ticketed Spaces, scheduling features, reminders, support for co-hosting, accessibility improvements and more.” Get hype, kids; Twitter versus Clubhouse is now in its second round and we’re pretty hype about it.

Two more things for your reading pleasure: When it comes to the biggest tech companies, a key topic — and the current theme of a lawsuit between Team Fornite and Team Dongle — has been the cut of revenues that app stores of all stripes get to take. Long stuck at 30%, a rate that Apple is apparently determined to stick to regardless of how poorly it makes them look, there’s movement on the matter.

Today, Epic Games bought ArtStation and instantly cut its commission rate from the 30% that it was to the 12% that Epic now charges on its own games store. Microsoft previously reduced its cut to 12%. That sound you hear is Apple screaming as some of its record net income is slowly eroded by more creator-friendly business practices.

Finally, in the world of Big Tech, Dell is selling Boomi to help cover the debts it accrued by buying EMC. Ron Miller has the details.

Twitter at CES 2020

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Analytics as a service: Why more enterprises should consider outsourcing

As KPIs go, return on experience (RoX) ranks near the top of the list. Unfortunately, many startups have no way to measure RoX — doing so requires a holistic approach that exceeds the capacity of most growth-focused, early-stage companies.

Startups that need to develop a data strategy while conserving engineering resources are driving growth in the analytics-as-a-service (AaaS) market. If you’re looking for insights into winning customers over strategically, cutting technical costs and making better decisions faster, AaaS can help you set realistic expectations.

How to attract large investors to your direct investing platform

A changing regulatory environment and pandemic-fueled growth has created a lot of new wealth and increased interest in direct investing.

In a guest post for Extra Crunch, investor David Teten examined several online platforms that serve as market-makers to get a better sense of how they attract investors and increase engagement.

These companies play for high stakes, says Teten, because a competent direct-investing platform must be able to operate as seamlessly as a traditional fund.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Community

Come hang out on our shiny new Extra Crunch Discord server. Why do we have a Discord server? Great question; glad you asked. TechCrunch writers, company founders, investors and everyone in between can’t keep up with noisy Twitter banter in a meaningful way, so now we have a home to chat about just about anything that’s on your mind. Join us!

We’re absolutely thrilled to have FirstMark Capital Managing Partner Rick Heitzmann and Orchard CEO Court Cunningham join us on an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live. The event takes place on May 5 at 3 p.m. EDT/noon PDT. Register for free here.

Image Credits: Orchard / FirstMark Capital

 

Dear Sophie: What type of visa should we get to fundraise in Silicon Valley?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

A friend and I founded a tech startup last year. Like a lot of other startups, we’re looking for funding. Should we come to Silicon Valley to meet with venture capitalists?

How should we begin that process? What type of visa should we get and how easy is it to get?

—Logical in Lagos

Dear Logical:

Thanks for reaching out to me from the entrepreneurial hotspot of Lagos!

In a recent episode of my podcast, I spoke with Esther Tricoche, director of investments at Kapor Capital, who offered up many words of wisdom to founders. She also mentioned that in many emerging entrepreneurial markets, including Lagos, accelerator funding and Series A funding are relatively easy to find, but pre-seed and seed funding are not.

Getting yourselves and your startup in front of Silicon Valley investors that focus on pre-seed and seed funding will be important to rapidly scale. Esther mentioned that even in U.S. cities, such as Atlanta, that are entrepreneurial hotspots, investment dollars are not as plentiful as they are in Silicon Valley. Moreover, investors outside of Silicon Valley tend to be more risk-averse.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

So, yes, you should meet with Silicon Valley investors, but be aware that most U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed to routine visa and green card processing due to the ongoing pandemic. Given that, you can start requesting virtual meetings now; and you will have to wait until the U.S. consulate in Lagos comes back to full capacity to apply for a visa to come to the U.S. I like checking for visa availability through the Waypoint Embassy and Consulate Directory (full disclosure: I am an advisor to Waypoint).

As always, I recommend that you consult an experienced immigration attorney when you’re ready to take the step of actually applying for a visa.

Once U.S. consular offices reopen, if you aren’t eligible for ESTA, you can apply for a B-1 visitor visa for business. With a B-1 visa, you can request an initial stay of up to six months. This is a great status for business meetings such as to talk to prospective investors, negotiate contracts and incorporate a new business. However, you can’t work in the U.S. You must be aware that no hands-on work for pay (or even the chance of future remuneration) by a U.S. entity is allowed.

Address cybersecurity challenges before rolling out robotic process automation

Robotic process automation (RPA) is making a major impact across every industry. But many don’t know how common the technology is and may not realize that they are interacting with it regularly. RPA is a growing megatrend — by 2022, Gartner predicts that 90% of organizations globally will have adopted RPA and its received over $1.8 billion in investments in the past two years alone.

Due to the shift to remote work, companies across every industry have implemented some form of RPA to simplify their operations to deal with an influx of requests. For example, when major airlines were bombarded with cancellation requests at the onset of the pandemic, RPA became essential to their customer service strategy.

Throughout 2021, security teams will begin to realize the unconsidered security challenges of robotic process automation.

According to Forrester, one major airline had over 120,000 cancellations during the first few weeks of the pandemic. By utilizing RPA to handle the influx of cancellations, the airline was able to simplify its refund process and assist customers in a timely matter.

Delivering this type of streamlined cancellation process with such high demand would have been extremely challenging, if not impossible, without RPA technology.

The multitude of other RPA use cases that have popped up since COVID-19 have made it evident that RPA isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, interest in the usage of RPA is at an unprecedented high. Gartner inquiries related to RPA increased over 1,000% during 2020 as companies continue to invest.

However, there’s one big issue that’s commonly overlooked when it comes to RPA — security. Like we’ve seen with other innovations, the security aspect of RPA isn’t implemented in the early stages of development — leaving organizations vulnerable to cybercriminals.

If the security vulnerabilities of RPA aren’t addressed quickly, there will be a string of significant RPA breaches in 2021. However, by realizing that these new “digital coworkers” have identities of their own, companies can secure RPA before they make the headlines as the latest major breach.

Understanding RPA’s digital identity

With RPA, digital workers are created to take over repetitive manual tasks that have been traditionally performed by humans. Their interaction directly with business applications mimics the way humans use credentials and privilege — ultimately giving the robot an identity of its own. An identity that is created and operates much faster than any human identity but doesn’t eat, sleep, take holidays, go on strike or even get paid.

Why do SaaS companies with usage-based pricing grow faster?

Today we know of HubSpot — the maker of marketing, sales and service software products — as a preeminent public company with a market cap above $17 billion. But HubSpot wasn’t always on the IPO trajectory.

For its first five years in business, HubSpot offered three subscription packages ranging in price from $3,000 to $18,000 per year. The company struggled with poor churn and anemic expansion revenue. Net revenue retention was near 70%, a far cry from the 100%+ that most SaaS companies aim to achieve.

Something needed to change. So in 2011, they introduced usage-based pricing. As customers used the software to generate more leads, they would proportionally increase their spend with HubSpot.  This pricing change allowed HubSpot to share in the success of its customers.

In a usage-based model, expansion “just happens” as customers are successful.

By the time HubSpot went public in 2014, net revenue retention had jumped to nearly 100% — all without hurting the company’s ability to acquire new customers.

HubSpot isn’t an outlier. Public SaaS companies that have adopted usage-based pricing grow faster because they’re better at landing new customers, growing with them and keeping them as customers.

Image Credits: Kyle Poyar

Widen the top of the funnel

In a usage-based model, a company doesn’t get paid until after the customer has adopted the product. From the customer’s perspective, this means that there’s no risk to try before they buy. Products like Snowflake and Google Cloud Platform take this a step further and even offer $300+ in free usage credits for new developers to test drive their products.

Many of these free users won’t become profitable — and that’s okay. Like a VC firm, usage-based companies are making a portfolio of bets. Some of those will pay off spectacularly — and the company will directly share in that success.

Top-performing companies open up the top of the funnel by making it free to sign up for their products. They invest in a frictionless customer onboarding experience and high-quality support so that new users get hooked on the platform. As more new users become active, there’s a stronger foundation for future customer growth.

Investors are missing out on Black founders

I’m a Black man in America — that’s hard. Black founders, and uniquely Black founders in tech, are facing insurmountable odds.

As the recipients of less than 1% of venture capital raise, institutionalized systems are visibly at play. Within almost 10 years of my entrepreneurial journey, I have encountered just as many setbacks and failures as I have successes.

However, I have pressed forward despite the disparities that often plague the Black entrepreneurial community. From imbalances in fundraising to minimal capital and access, Black brilliance and its cloak of resilience continues to rise.

Now, as a CEO who has ambitiously raised nearly $13 million for my current venture, against the odds, I posit that it is not the Black founders who are missing out the most — it is the investors who are at a loss, not comprehending that they have underestimated the power of these founders’ Black brilliance.

Black founders need to own their resiliency and leverage the power that has resulted from their unique experiences.

When you think about the intersection of venture capital and technology, and specifically how it works — it is being led from an engineering perspective. Developers and coders historically go to specific schools and colleges, entering a funnel that guides them to success.

Historically, many Black students (more so Black male students), are influenced by sports as a vehicle to higher education and not necessarily the institutions recognized for technological prowess.

Their parents and community encourage athleticism because that is the only thing they know — as an institutionalized mindset reinforced over time. Unless they are guided into the accepted foundations for technology, or get into a Cal Berkeley, Stanford or Harvard, where many of the technology companies are built, they are immediately funneled outside of the “circle,” which sets the first of many ongoing obstacles for a Black tech founder.

I offer, however, that these “obstacles” are not in fact barriers but the crucial catalyst for these founders’ superpowers.

Admittedly, there were no entrepreneurs in my family. I did not have access to information about the best colleges. Despite having great grades and graduating with honors, I was completely unaware of how valuable an Ivy League education could be.

As a star basketball player, with my skills and grades, I could have played and graduated from somewhere like Yale, Brown, Columbia or even a school like Southern Methodist University where I was offered a full scholarship. But because of the lack of knowledge that I could actually do so and benefit from being inside the Ivy League “circle,” I didn’t.

I was in college from 2000 to 2004. A lot of great companies were started at elite schools during that period. It is this institutional blocking of information from myself and many other Black students that molded our overall perspective and created our glass ceilings.

Breaking through that glass ceiling, overcoming these odds to press forward relentlessly, with unyielding focus, and to hold conversations with the types of investors I have had to sit in front of, with the type of company that I have built, takes a different level of brilliance that only the Black experience can provide. For 2021 and beyond, Black founders need to not only recognize, but unlock that power as they look to fundraise and catapult their tech companies to success. It would be smart, and incredibly beneficial for investors, venture capitalists and the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem to take heed.

For Black founders, a paradigm shift is evident, but it can only manifest if implemented in these five ways.

Black founders: Forget what you think works in fundraising

Black founders and specifically Black tech founders are fed a monotonous script of how to raise money “the right way,” in light of disparaging statistics highlighting a lack of funding — so much that there is a robotic approach to the process. They try to become this cookie-cutter entrepreneur that is designed to raise money from investors, with their playbook and by their rules.

Black founders capitulate and conform to what society has dictated as appropriate fundraising, often glorifying the investor with the fate of their startup in their hands, without realizing that they hold the negotiating power. Their playbook hasn’t won us any games. As of today, own your power.

Become an irresistible force: Leverage your expertise

Set the playbook aside and lean more into your expertise and uniqueness.

Years ago, Mark Cuban delivered a keynote address at Dallas Startup Week that chronicled his road to success. One of his main points was to “Know your business, and know your business cold.” It was so simple, yet so impactful.

Early on in my career, I learned about venture capital from my experiences working for a startup. While I did not know the area in depth, I referenced what little knowledge I had as I raised for my own company years later. Although I was limited in my dealings with venture capitalists, I was confident in my background and expertise (at that time as a payroll technology sales professional) to truly stake my claim and seat at the table.

So while they may have sold a company for $7 billion or have $35 billion AUM (assets under management), I knew that they were not as well-versed in payroll or payroll technology than I was. It was this tenacious mindset that made me look at investors, rather than up to them, thereby positioning us on equal footing.

Connect in the common goal of brilliance

As a Black founder in tech, I have encountered many injustices — from networking to fundraising to the game of business as a whole. Even among those sitting at the table, there is a plethora of worldviews, political preferences, religious propensities and more that create a melting pot of divisiveness. However, recognizing that the common thread between all of the players in the game is the desire to be part of the brilliant business opportunity at hand is what will ultimately prevail.

It served me well not to overindex whether the venture capitalists liked me or on our differences. Locking in on the ambition of my entrepreneurial spirit and focusing on my brilliance — my Black brilliance — made them want to invest in me. Simplistically, investors want to give their money to founders who will make them money — passionately and ambitiously. Be you and find the investor that appreciates you.

Get in front of as many investors as you can

Black founders are not getting in front of enough investors. Systemically, the venture capital landscape has marginalized this community and has failed to expand their network for inclusiveness. Currently, ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in the venture capital industry. Eighty percent of investment partners are white, with only a staggering 3% being Black or African-American.

Regardless, Black entrepreneurs must press forward and still show up. The sheer number of people that entrepreneurs must face during the fundraising process is astronomical, so one must not be swayed by the disillusionment of opportunity.

Realistically speaking, it takes a long time to raise money. Period. I have talked to thousands of potential investors to raise nearly $13 million for my current company. If you are a Black founder, it is going to take you longer to fundraise and you are going to have to get in front of more people. So I ask, “Do you have enough oxygen in the tank to withstand the obstacles, for a long enough period of time, to attract the venture capital that you need?The wealth gap says no.

When I first started Gig Wage, the number one question I received from investors is, “How much runway do you have?” I would answer, “Until I get to where I need to get.” They would then rephrase, “How much money do you have in the bank? How long is your wife going to let you do this?” I would reply, “It does not matter how much money I have in the bank because I’m going to keep going until this happens.”

Discriminatively, there was this unspoken expectation that I lacked the financial wherewithal and stamina to withstand the fundraising process, and at times it was extremely discouraging — because to be honest, when I looked in the bank account, I realistically had about nine to 12 months of runway.

The reason Black people raise less than 1% of venture capital is because the racism weaved into the fabric of American society bleeds over into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Despite it all, I took thousands of meetings. I was willing to endure with an ambitious conviction that I was going to win. Again, this is Black brilliance.

Own your resiliency, own your power 

As a Black man, I have personally endured challenges to build resiliency — mirroring similar realities of other Black men in America. Whether it was dealing with the police or witnessing men in my family struggle with drugs, violence, poverty or the like — I often think, “Why would I be intimidated by an investor meeting or a term sheet?” The construct of America has dealt me much worse.

Black founders need to own their resiliency and leverage the power that has resulted from their unique experiences. The victory mentality that ensues thereafter is the type of mindset that venture capitalists should want to invest in, and if they do not, they are undoubtedly missing out.

The unyielding focus of “The world is stacked against me but I’m not going to quit. I’m going to pivot. I’m going to be resourceful. I’m going to figure it out — even if I’m scared,” is a person you need to invest in. It is not necessarily that they have a groundbreaking business idea, but culturally, Black people have a passion and a perspective that is unmatched, with limitless possibilities that venture capitalists are overlooking.

So for 2021 and well beyond, Black founders, and those especially in tech, need to shift their respective paradigms, own their place within the entrepreneurial space, take back their power and continue to operate at the utmost in Black brilliance. It is the investors, not the founders, that are missing out. Be bold. Be courageous. Be audacious.

As for me, the best thing that I can do right now is to continue to drive the conversation, illuminate the disparities and be as successful for Black entrepreneurs, Black professionals and the world at large as possible. I am owning my power and I’m committed to epitomizing and evangelizing Black brilliance.

4 strategies for deep tech startups recruiting top growth marketers

In an earlier article, I wrote about how and when to build go-to-market teams at deep tech companies. There, I noted that it is more important for growth hires at deep tech companies to have functional expertise than industry expertise.

But how do deep tech companies connect and cultivate strong relationships with talented nontechnical growth people outside of their industry? In this article, I answer this question, articulating exactly how to:

  • Write role descriptions that entice talented growth people.
  • Create company marketing materials that brands your startup well to talent.
  • Craft thoughtful end-to-end candidate experiences for growth talent.
  • Close top growth candidates.

Incredible growth people are independent and creative and are drawn to environments that explicitly value these traits.

Write a job description that explains how you operate

Underscore the autonomy. Incredible growth people are independent and creative and are drawn to environments that explicitly value these traits. Growth talent wants to know that they have room to experiment, fail and iterate with the support and trust of their company. Highlight the creative agency you give to your growth team. Paint the role as one of managing a subset of the startup and its initiatives.

Show you are ready for a growth marketer. Do not expect your growth person to be a panacea for the company. Growth people work cross-functionally, but there are boundaries where the growth role starts and ends. Growth people cannot sell a product that is not ready. Growth people cannot fix product bugs. Growth people cannot replace excellent customer service. Ensure your role description is clear on what the growth person would do and what they would lean on other teams for. Demonstrate that you have a team structure in place where a growth marketer could fit in and thrive.

Articulate your talent needs. Growth is a broad category. Some growth marketers are more creative. Others are more quantitative. Some have more industry experience. Others have more functional experience. Be clear on what type of growth marketer you need and how this person’s talents would complement those of the existing team.

Use marketing to share your history and chart the future

Generate excitement and establish credibility. People can naturally be skeptical about new technologies and younger companies. Do anything you can to ameliorate these concerns. Link to relevant news articles from well-known publications and thought leaders in your industry. Incorporate customer testimonials that speak to the transformative impact your product creates. Name drop well-known advisors, investors and team members.

European VC funds are building community around ESG initiatives

In general, ESG stands for “environment-social-governance” and comprises a set of principles that touches on issues from diversity and board structures to labor relations, supply chain, data ethics, environmental impact and legal requirements.

Unlike impact investing, which is squarely focused on the (external) effects of a business, ESG concerns mostly internal practices and processes that could support both a fund and its portfolio companies to make them more sustainable.

While other asset classes from buyout funds to public equities have seen a big push toward ESG ratings and initiatives, venture capital has been lagging behind. What has changed recently?

Over the last several months, quite a few mostly European funds have stepped forward with initiatives to tackle ESG. Balderton, for instance, announced its Sustainable Future Goals with a bang at the startup event Slush in early December 2020. Their efforts are focused both internally on the fund and externally on investment decisions and portfolio support. I asked Colin Hanna, one of the leaders of the development internally and a principal at the firm, how this initiative came about:

While our efforts on this front preceded COVID, this year we saw that a real impact was possible on climate-change-related goals […] we have become accustomed to doing virtual board meetings, cutting down on travel; the challenge will be to continue those efforts going forward and rolling them out to our portfolio companies even as the world returns to normal. Having a framework helps us do that.

This rationale also recently brought a group of about 25 VCs to form a community around ESG for VC for the first time. The initiative is led by GMG Ventures and Houghton Street Venture, a new firm affiliated with the London School of Economics that met for the first time in December with representatives from LocalGlobe and Latitude, Kindred Capital, Balderton, the Westly Group and Blisce. The group’s stated goal is to share expertise from the bottom up and fill the gap where existing frameworks don’t quite work.

This is direly needed right now, says Sophia Bendz, partner at Berlin-based firm Cherry Ventures:

Beginning with topics around DEI and climate issues, we are really keen on upping our ESG game. ESG involves such important issues and we have to dedicate the time to learn more to ultimately do more on these fronts now. Yet, I also believe that true impact doesn’t result from knowledge silos. It’s great that we are learning from and supporting each other to have more societal impacts in our day-to-day roles. I am really passionate about this.

What are the main drivers for this push? 

I asked Susan Winterberg, an ESG consultant who recently finished a two-year fellowship at Harvard producing a groundbreaking report on the subject of ESG for VCs specifically about the “why now”:

There are broadly two sets of reasons why investors and company leaders adopt ESG. The first set relates to increased awareness of how their activities impact external events happening in the world such as climate change and social justice. The second relates to increased awareness of how adopting ESG can advance specific business goals they have such as increasing sales, attracting top talent, and reducing operating risks.”

Obviously, 2020 was a watershed year to drive change based on both of these sets of rationales. Social justice issues — from Black Lives Matter and racial equity, COVID-19 and healthcare to freedom of expression and democracy — were prevalent across the spectrum. Startup leaders and investors were influenced by these societal movements as much as by new research helping them understand how ESG can help advance business objectives in venture capital. The two reports published by CDC/FMO and the Belfer Center are only two examples of this evidence.

What do VCs say, how has change happened for them? Hana told me that at Balderton a combination of factors mentioned by Winterberg above, worked together to start the process:

It was both a push and a pull within Balderton. Our investors and the leaders at the top of our firm were proponents of this change but the efforts were also driven by the younger generation within the firm; they felt it was important. Overall, we were silent about climate change and sustainability for a long time, which was not really an option anymore.

For Martin Weber, founding partner at HV Capital that’s working with the St. Gallen-based ESG initiative ROSE, the conversation really started with Leaders for Climate Action. Weber admits: “We didn’t think about ESG enough […] beyond our own horizon really […] sometimes you really need a kick in the butt, that’s what Leaders for Climate Action did for us; a small change started our awareness and commitment to ESG.”

ESG concerns mostly internal practices and processes that could support both a fund and its portfolio companies to make them more sustainable.

For HV Capital but also some funds in the U.S. such as the Westly Group a specific ESG vector started the journey — that could be the E as in environment but also DEI as part of the S and G of ESG.

I also spoke to several LPs recently among others moderating a panel at the U.K.-based Allocate conference; the atmosphere seems to be shifting more drastically toward “doing business better” among the asset owners, too. Particularly family offices managing their own money are outspoken already, but big asset owners are becoming aware (and active) as well.

Michael Cappucci, managing director of Compliance and Sustainable Investing at the Harvard Management Company — Harvard’s endowment — thinks that “we are long past the time to ‘wait and see’ if ESG integration is a worthwhile undertaking for investors” (see the UNPRI report for more context).

The movement here seems to be coming even stronger from Europe again, however. As a result, the same group around Houghton Street Ventures and GMG Ventures pushing ESG for VCs is also in the process to get more LPs on board with a special workshop in February, as I learned. The tempo on the LP front is increasing as we speak.

What is still missing?

While lots of progress has been made on the level of individual funds, individual LPs and in baby steps toward a more general industry-wide push, there are still some core elements that are not in place. I believe the five key gaps concern a clear differentiation of ESG from impact, finding the right language, establishing a common framework, agreeing on metrics and real LP commitment.

  1. Know what ESG is: Many investors (and LPs) I speak with still don’t really know the difference between impact and ESG. In very simple terms, ESG principles are about the (internal) processes (of a fund, portfolio company, etc.) while impact investing is about outcomes (sometimes operationalized through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)). While impact will likely remain a niche asset class for the foreseeable future, ESG principles should inform the practices of all investors in one way or the other.
  2. Find the right language: On a related note, finding the right language to talk about what ESG (versus impact) is, might help us to differentiate better. As Sarah Drinkwater of Omidyar Network made very clear in her post from September last year, we simply don’t have a good word to describe (and own) what ESG expresses in the world of venture capital and technology — principled, progressive, equitable? Possibly, “setting a standard” can help with this issue, too.
  3. Somebody, set a standard: ESG (and impact) frameworks developed and deployed slowly in the venture industry are still all over the place; they are influenced by all kinds of other frameworks (from other asset classes and related activities, such as impact) and mostly made up by individual funds themselves. There is certainly a risk of green washing if it stays that way; (self-proclaimed and reported) marketing is one thing but if we really want to change the industry, an authoritative body will have to step forward. What the biggest European anchor investor — the European Investment Fund — has done on that front so far with a very high-level questionnaire is not enough. How about, for instance, the UNPRI descends from the plane of high level down to individual industry principles?
  4. What isn’t measured: One part of what could really lead to an industry standard is a set of widely accepted and benchmarkable metrics; what are the most important measurements across early-stage and late-stage VC portfolio companies? The group of funds in London has for good reason announced that this particularly question will be one of the focus points they are working on next. But how will this again be adopted and spread industrywide? Another set of players might get involved in that again: LPs. If they make their GPs report on ESG on an annual basis, this will surely shift the industry as a whole and make the next generation of startups more equitable, responsible and stakeholder-focused.
  5. LPs really need to bite: So far, we are still missing real LP commitments when it comes to ESG. On the one hand, many GPs I spoke with that have recently been fundraising reported that LPs in general still don’t ask about ESG. In fact, some LPs particularly in the U.S. believe ESG might be a distraction from generating returns. In any case, ESG still has not become a must-have but is merely regarded a nice-to-do. The ESG questionnaires that do exist — like the EIF framework — are so far really high level and unspecific. When big anchor LPs like the EIF and BBB in Europe or big foundations and university endowments ask about it in their due diligence meetings, GPs will have to comply — all of them. Their influence as agenda setters might in the medium term be the biggest driving factor toward making ESG for VC the normal way of doing business. Given that there is state-money, all of our money, involved here, it seems an absolute no-brainer to take that step.

Subscription-based pricing is dead: Smart SaaS companies are shifting to usage-based models

Software buying has evolved. The days of executives choosing software for their employees based on IT compatibility or KPIs are gone. Employees now tell their boss what to buy. This is why we’re seeing more and more SaaS companies — Datadog, Twilio, AWS, Snowflake and Stripe, to name a few — find success with a usage-based pricing model.

The usage-based model allows a customer to start at a low cost, while still preserving the ability to monetize a customer over time.

The usage-based model allows a customer to start at a low cost, minimizing friction to getting started while still preserving the ability to monetize a customer over time because the price is directly tied with the value a customer receives. Not limiting the number of users who can access the software, customers are able to find new use cases — which leads to more long-term success and higher lifetime value.

While we aren’t going 100% usage-based overnight, looking at some of the megatrends in software —  automation, AI and APIs — the value of a product normally doesn’t scale with more logins. Usage-based pricing will be the key to successful monetization in the future. Here are four top tips to help companies scale to $100+ million ARR with this model.

1. Land-and-expand is real

Usage-based pricing is in all layers of the tech stack. Though it was pioneered in the infrastructure layer (think: AWS and Azure), it’s becoming increasingly popular for API-based products and application software — across infrastructure, middleware and applications.

API-based products and appliacation software – across infrastructure, middleware and applications.

Image Credits: Kyle Povar / OpenView

Some fear that investors will hate usage-based pricing because customers aren’t locked into a subscription. But, investors actually see it as a sign that customers are seeing value from a product and there’s no shelf-ware.

In fact, investors are increasingly rewarding usage-based companies in the market. Usage-based companies are trading at a 50% revenue multiple premium over their peers.

Investors especially love how the usage-based pricing model pairs with the land-and-expand business model. And of the IPOs over the last three years, seven of the nine that had the best net dollar retention all have a usage-based model. Snowflake in particular is off the charts with a 158% net dollar retention.