Equity Monday: China boosts pressure on its tech sector as Duolingo’s IPO looks to raise a few more bucks

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

Ever wake up to just a massive wall of news? That was us this morning, so we had to pick and choose. But since this show is about getting you caught up, we decided to focus on the largest, broadest new information that we could:

  • Asian stocks were down, European shares are lower, and American equities are set to open underwater. Bitcoin had a great weekend, however.
  • China’s edtech crackdown continued over the weekend, with the country’s ruling party setting new rules for online tutoring companies; they can no longer go public and will be forced to become non-profit entities. Chinese edtech stocks around the world fell.
  • China’s larger tech crackdown continued over the weekend and into the week, with new moves against the present-day business models of both food delivery companies, and Tencent Music. The former must ensure minimum incomes, while the latter must give up exclusive rights deals. Shares fell.
  • The Jam City SPAC is kaput. It will not be the last similar deal to fall apart.
  • And we chatted about this bit of Rivian news, as it stood out to us.

All that and we had a good time. Hugs and love from the Equity crew, chat Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Spotify adds an attention-grabbing ‘What’s New’ feed to addict users to its app

Spotify is taking a cue from social networks like Facebook, which deliver a constant stream of notifications under a “bell” icon in the mobile app to keep users engaged with the latest content. This morning, Spotify introduced what it’s calling the “What’s New” feed, which will deliver an ongoing series of updates to mobile app users focused on new releases.

According to the company, the What’s New feed will serve as another way for Spotify users to keep up with all the new music and podcasts that are released from the shows and artists that they follow on the service. In other words, it’s a personalized feed based on what you listen to, not a universal feed or one you more explicitly customize by making specific selections.

The feed will be under the new “bell” icon at the top of the home tab alongside the recently played and settings icons on the top right.

Image Credits: Spotify

The feed will be also updated in real-time, Spotify says, and will display a blue dot when there are new songs and episodes that arrived since you last opened the app. Before, you could find information about new releases in various places in the app, including your home tab and in hubs on the app’s search page.

While the feature may be useful because it gives you a single place to look in the Spotify app for everything that’s new, the use of a “notifications” feature that leverages dots is also a psychological trick that can make apps more addictive. Dots express a sense of urgency — making you feel as if you need to click to see what’s new or even just clear the dot. In fact, there was such a backlash against the overabundance of these dots inside social apps that even Facebook a couple of years ago rolled out tools that let you turn its annoying red notification dots off. (To be fair, Facebook hasn’t fully embraced red dot removal — the default is still set to “on” and there are plenty of notification dots all over its website today).

This seemingly minor addition to the Spotify app is actually a quite calculated one — and one that steps back from the humane technology movement that emerged in recent years as a way to counter the overuse of growth hacks and other tricks to make apps more addictive.

Now, many companies are moving away from addictive features. Apple, for example, has added consumer-facing tools that put users back in control of when apps can notify them, including with the upcoming iOS 15 release, which lets you bundle notifications into daily summaries for less important apps or switch into “focus” modes for when you need fewer distractions. TikTok, meanwhile, inserts videos that remind you when you’ve been watching for too long. Instagram added a message at the end of your feed to let you know when you were “all caught up.”

Spotify, with the launch of a more attention-grabbing notifications feature, is doing the opposite — it wants to increase user engagement, even if it understands that it may be sacrificing some sense of user comfort and enjoyment in the process.

What’s New is rolling out to all users globally on iOS and Android over the next few weeks.

NotCo gets its horn following $235M round to expand plant-based food products

NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, wrapped up another funding round this year, a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Tiger Global led the round and was joined by new investors, including DFJ Growth Fund, the social impact foundation, ZOMA Lab; athletes Lewis Hamilton and Roger Federer; and musician and DJ Questlove. Follow-on investors included Bezos Expeditions, Enlightened Hospitality Investments, Future Positive, L Catterton and Kaszek Ventures.

This funding round follows an undisclosed investment in June from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer through his firm EHI. In total, NotCo, with roots in both Chile and New York, has raised more than $350 million, founder and CEO Matias Muchnick told TechCrunch.

Currently, the company has four product lines: NotMilk, NotBurger and NotMeat, NoticeCream and NotMayo, which are available in the five countries of the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

The company is operating in the middle of a trend toward eating healthier food, as more consumers also question how their food is made, resulting in demand for alternative proteins. In fact, the market for alternative meat, eggs, dairy and seafood products is predicted to reach $290 billion by 2035, according to research by Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corp.

NotCo’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology, Giuseppe, matches animal proteins to their ideal replacements among thousands of plant-based ingredients. It is working to crack the code in understanding the molecular components and food characteristics in the combination of two ingredients that could mimic milk, but in a more sustainable and resourceful way — and that also tastes good, which is the biggest barrier to adoption, Muchnick said.

“Our theory is that there is a crazy dynamic among people: 60% who are already eating plant-based are not happy with the taste, and 30% of those who drink cow’s milk are waiting to change if there is a similar taste,” he added. “Our technology is based in AI so that we can create a different food system, as well as products faster and better than others in the space. There are 300,000 plant species, and we still have no idea what 99% of them can do.”

In addition to a flow of investments this year, the company launched its NotMilk brand in the United States seven months ago and is on track to be in 8,000 locations across retailers like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts and Wegmans by the end of 2021.

Muchnick plans to allocate some of the new funding to establish markets in Mexico and Canada and add market share in the U.S. and Chile. He expects to have 50% of its business coming from the U.S. over the next three years. He is also eyeing an expansion into Asia and Europe in the next year.

NotCo also intends to add more products, like chicken and other white meats and seafood, and to invest in technology and R&D. He expects to do that by doubling the company’s current headcount of 100 in the next two years. Muchnick also wants to establish more patents in food science — the company already has five — and to explore a potential intelligence side of the business.

Though NotCo reached unicorn status, Muchnick said the real prize is the brand awareness and subsequent sales boost, as well as opening doors for quick-service restaurant deals. NotBurger went into Burger King restaurants in Chile 11 months ago, and now has 5% of the market there, he added.

Sales overall have grown three times annually over the past four years, something Muchnick said was attractive to Tiger Global. He is equally happy to work with Tiger, especially as the company prepares to go public in the next two or three years. He said Tiger’s expertise will get NotCo there in a more prepared manner.

“NotCo has created world class plant-based food products that are rapidly gaining market share,” said Scott Shleifer, partner at Tiger Global, in a written statement. “We are excited to partner with Matias and his team. We expect continued product innovation and expansion into new geographies and food categories will fuel high and sustainable growth for years to come.”

 

Despite controversies and bans, facial recognition startups are flush with VC cash

If efforts by states and cities to pass privacy regulations curbing the use of facial recognition are anything to go by, you might fear the worst for the companies building the technology. But a recent influx of investor cash suggests the facial recognition startup sector is thriving, not suffering.

Facial recognition is one of the most controversial and complex policy areas in play. The technology can be used to track where you go and what you do. It’s used by public authorities and in private businesses like stores. But facial recognition has been shown to be flawed and inaccurate, often misidentifies non-white faces, and is disproportionately affects communities of color. Its flawed algorithms have already been used to send innocent people to jail, and privacy advocates have raised countless concerns about how this kind of biometric data is stored and used.

With the threat of federal legislation looming, some of the biggest facial recognition companies like Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft announced they would stop selling their facial recognition technology to police departments to try to appease angry investors, customers, and even their own employees who protested the deployment of such technologies by the U.S. government and immigration authorities.

The pushback against facial recognition didn’t stop there. Since the start of the year, Maine, Massachusetts, and the city of Minneapolis have all passed legislation curbing or banning the use of facial recognition in some form, following in the steps of many other cities and states before them and setting the stage for others, like New York, which are eyeing legislation of their own.

In those same six or so months, investors have funneled hundreds of millions into several facial recognition startups. A breakdown of Crunchbase data by FindBiometrics shows a sharp rise in venture funding in facial recognition companies at well over $500 million in 2021 so far, compared to $622 million for all of 2020.

About half of that $500 million comes from one startup alone. Israel-based startup AnyVision raised $235 million at Series C earlier this month from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 for its facial recognition technology that’s used in schools, stadiums, casinos, and retail stores. Macy’s is a known customer, and uses the face-scanning technology to identify shoplifters. It’s a steep funding round compared to a year earlier when Microsoft publicly pulled its investment in AnyVision’s Series A following an investigation by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder into reports that the startup’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

Read more on TechCrunch

Paravision, the company marred by controversy after it was accused of using facial recognition on its users without informing them, raised $23 million in a funding round led by J2 Ventures.

And last week, Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition startup that is the subject of several government investigations and multiple class-action suits for allegedly scraping billions of profile photos from social media sites, confirmed to The New York Times it raised $30 million from investors who asked “not to be identified,” only that they are “institutional investors and private family offices.” That is to say, while investors are happy to see their money go towards building facial recognition systems, they too are all too aware of the risks and controversies associated with attaching their names to the technology.

Although the applications and customers of facial recognition wildly vary, there’s still a big market for the technology.

Many of the cities and towns with facial recognition bans also have carve outs that allow its use in some circumstances, or broad exemptions for private businesses that can freely buy and use the technology. The exclusion of many China-based facial recognition companies, like Hikvision and Dahua, which the government has linked to human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, as well as dozens of other startups blacklisted by the U.S. government, has helped push out some of the greatest competition from the most lucrative U.S. markets, like government customers

But as facial recognition continues to draw scrutiny, investors are urging companies to do more to make sure their technologies are not being misused.

In June, a group of 50 investors with more than $4.5 trillion in assets called on dozens of facial recognition companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba and Huawei, to build their technologies ethically.

“In some instances, new technologies such as facial recognition technology may also undermine our fundamental rights. Yet this technology is being designed and used in a largely unconstrained way, presenting risks to basic human rights,” the statement read.

It’s not just ethics, but also a matter of trying to future-proof the industry from inevitable further political headwinds. In April, the European Union’s top data protection watchdog called for an end to facial recognition in public spaces across the bloc.

“As mass surveillance expands, technological innovation is outpacing human rights protection. There are growing reports of bans, fines, and blacklistings of the use of facial recognition technology. There is a pressing need to consider these questions,” the statement added.

One of Nigeria’s high profile angel investors is launching a fund for African startups

Olumide Soyombo is one of the well-known active angel investors in Nigeria tech startups and Africa at large. Since he began angel investing in 2014, Soyombo has invested in 33 startups, including Stripe-owned Paystack, PiggyVest, and TeamApt.

Today, the investor is announcing the launch of Voltron Capital, a Pan-African venture capital firm he co-founded with Abe Choi, a U.S.-based entrepreneur and investor.

Voltron will be deploying capital to roughly 30 startups, mostly in pre-seed and seed-stage across Africa, in a bid to “address the severe lack of access to early-stage funding for African tech companies.” The ticket sizes will range from $20,000 to $100,000, focusing on startups in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and North Africa.

Soyombo is one of the few founder-cum-investors on the continent, despite his company not being the traditional VC-backed startup the world has become accustomed to. In 2008, he started Bluechip Technologies with a friend, Kazeem Tewogbade as an enterprise company that provides data warehousing solutions and enterprise applications to banks, telcos, insurance firms. Some of its biggest clients include OEMs like Oracle.

Non-traditional startup founder to an angel investor

Six years later, the pair decided to venture into tech, a relatively nascent industry in Nigeria at the time and began investing in startups via LeadPath, an early-stage firm they launched in Lagos, Nigeria. The idea was to invest $25,000 and take the startups through a three-month accelerator program culminating in a Demo Day. The plan was to run LeadPath like Y Combinator but it didn’t take off as planned.

“In 2014, three months after we found out that there was no investor to put them in front of. So you’d have to write another check yourself,” Soyombo said humorously over the phone. “We quickly saw that the accelerator model didn’t work, so we started investing individually. It’s funny how things have changed since then.”

LeadPath became a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the pair to carry out their angel investing deals. And over the years, Soyombo has launched several SPVs for the same purpose. So, why do things differently now by creating a fund? Soyombo walks me through one of the processes he has used to fund deals over the years to answer this question.

As an influential figure in Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, Soyombo has access to almost any important deal in the market. “I get the privilege of seeing many deals before most people see them. I’ve built that network within the startup ecosystem and reputation as an angel always ready to help. So obviously, that helped me see many deals very quickly,” he said. Often, his deal flows are filled with startups seeking six-figure pre-seed to seed investments. Say, for instance, a founder is looking to raise $300,000, Soyombo can typically invest $50,000 of his own money. And based on his perception of the startup’s growth prospects, he can choose to bring his friends and acquaintances on board to fill the round.

This informal approach is what Soyombo wants to make formal via a structured format where each individual or organisational LPs gets access to his deal flow simultaneously. The investor believes companies will get capital quicker this way. And the interesting bit is that his work in corporate Nigeria has allowed him to access non-traditional capital which means some of the investors that use Soyombo’s deal flows are outside the typical Nigerian tech investing landscape. 

He sees his job as someone bridging the gap of angel investing between his corporate friends and colleagues who have not typically invested in tech and startups that need their money. 

“There’s a bit of FOMO now,” he said. “People, including high net worth individuals, tell me to carry them along anytime I’m investing, and then I have startups looking for capital as well. But then again, I’m not trying to get a full job by managing a full fund which is why we’ve structured it this way.”

Anyone familiar with the happenings in African tech these past few months knows the two events that have caused this FOMO: Paystack’s exit to Stripe and Flutterwave’s unicorn status. Soyombo was an early investor in the former, marking his solitary primary exit alongside two secondaries within a portfolio that have cumulatively raised over $70 million. Thus, it’s not hard to see why Soyombo isn’t having a hard time convincing non-traditional investors, including HNIs (who are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to tech investing), to write checks in startups.

All of a sudden, everyone is interested in what’s happening in the space. The HNIs that would’ve thrown money into real estate are looking for startups. We even see older HNIs telling their children to invest on their behalf, so it’s an easier conversation to have. Most of them want to diversify their portfolio by having a piece of that pie,” he said, pointing to Paystack and Flutterwave successes.

Abe Choi (Co-founder, Voltron)

Voltron Capital will be managed on AngelList. Its investors cut across HNIs and executives from banks, telcos, among other sectors, each investing a minimum of $10,000. Voltron is similar to a typical seven-figure fund targeting pre-seed and seed-stage startups in Africa, yet it’s quite different in the way it chooses to back founders. The fund remains an embodiment of Soyombo’s investment stance, which is “founders-first regardless of the industry.”

“I’m going to continue backing interesting entrepreneurs. If Odunayo of PiggyVest was building a healthtech or edtech company, I’ll still back that company,” he said, referring to the $1 million investment he made three years ago in one of Nigeria’s widely celebrated fintechs. “So I think the investability of sectors, for me, is driven by quality entrepreneurs that are going to solve problems in that area.”

Early-stage investing needs more work

In 2019, African tech startups raised a record $2 billion, according to Partech Africa. They have raised half that number already this year, and some publications predict these startups will break 2019’s record.

A large chunk of these investments goes into late-stage deals, which is typical of most tech ecosystems globally. But Africa stands out because early-stage startups find it more difficult to raise investments compared to other regions. For instance, IFC reported that 82% of African tech startups cite access to seed funding and a lack of angel investors as major problems they face. Without early-stage funding, many of the startups primed to drive this growth are missing out on vital capital to support their early operations and generate revenue, which is a key requirement for securing later rounds of funding and a larger scale.

Voltron, in its little capacity, wants to fill this gap in the best way it can. Besides listing local investors as LPs, Soyombo says startups will be able to access foreign capital too. Choi is the key to making that happen. Personally, Choi has invested in 15 startups (exiting two); therefore, his experience and network in the U.S. will be crucial in sourcing foreign capital into the continent

Soyombo believes Stripe acquisition of Paystack has made foreign investors take notice of African startups. He humorously references Paul Graham’s tweet after the acquisition as another reason why foreign investors’ interests have also piqued. The tweet from the Y Combinator co-founder read: “Investors who ignore Nigeria now have to ask themselves: What do I know that Patrick Collision doesn’t?”

That said, the investor holds that the pace at which the African tech ecosystem is maturing should excite anyone. The quality of founders on the continent is improving and will continue in that manner because there are more problems to solve, he continued.

“Also, as our startups mature, we’ll see people leaving to set up theirs. We want the next wave of African tech success stories to not only make an impact on the continent but to be truly global; through Abe’s strategic connections to the USA, we’re confident we can provide our portfolio with the best possible opportunities to achieve this through our US and global network.”

Sproutl is an online marketplace for gardeners founded by former Farfetch executives

Meet Sproutl, a marketplace for gardeners living in the U.K. The startup founded by former Farfetch executives has raised a $9 million seed round. It wants to make gardening more accessible by providing a curated list of items, relevant advice as well as inspiration.

Index Ventures is leading the round in the startup with Ada Ventures and several business angels also participating. The funding round originally closed in April of this year.

“A few years ago, we bought a flat in London with a tiny little garden. We were both working full time in quite intense jobs with young kids. I went online assuming that I would be able to sort out this garden space. And I didn’t know a lot about gardening. And I just didn’t find anything that spoke to me as a new gardener. It felt like what was available was more for more knowledgeable people,” co-founder and CEO Anni Noel-Johnson told me.

If you’ve ever tried to search for gardening videos on YouTube, you may have end up on long-winded videos with instructions that don’t make any sense to you. Similarly, there are not a lot of e-commerce websites focused on gardening specifically.

And yet, the market opportunity is quite big. There are millions of gardeners in the U.K. There are also quite a few independent garden centers, nurseries and shops with a turnover of several millions of pounds per year. More importantly, they generate the vast majority of their sales in store. Some of them have never sold anything online.

Sproutl is teaming up with those businesses so that they can find new customers across the U.K. Those third-party sellers list their items on Sproutl while the startup takes care of logistics, packaging sourcing and delivery.

On the marketplace, customers can buy indoor and outdoor plants, pots, gardening essentials and outdoor living products. Partners currently include Rosebourne, Polhill, Millbrook, Middleton, Bellr, Fertile Fibre and Horticus.

Anni Noel-Johnson, the CEO of the company, was the VP of Trading and Strategy at Farfetch. Sproutl CTO Andy Done also worked at Farfetch at some point as Director of Data Engineering.

Hollie Newton is also going to be a key team member at Sproutl. She previously wrote a best-selling gardening book called ‘How to Grow’. She’s now the Chief Creative Officer at Sproutl.

This is key to understanding Sproutl’s growth strategy. The company plans to provide a ton of content on all things related to your garden — the startup has already released a jargon buster. You might end up on Sproutl the next time you’re looking for gardening advice on Google.

And it’s also going to differentiate the platform from all-encompassing e-commerce platforms, such as Amazon. Other e-commerce companies focused on one vertical in particular, such as ManoMano, have been quite successful. With the right focus, Sproutl could quickly build a loyal customer base as well.

Data-driven iteration helped China’s Genki Forest become a $6B beverage giant in 5 years

China’s e-commerce and industrial ecosystem is as different from the Western world as its culture. The country took decades to earn its reputation as the Factory of the World, but it now boasts a supply chain and manufacturing ability that few countries can match.

Creative use of the country’s networked manufacturing and logistics hubs make mass production both cheap and easy. Clothing, electronics, toys, automobiles, musical instruments, furniture — you name it and you’ll find a manufacturer in China who can turn your intangible concept into mass-manufacturable reality in mere days. And they’ll do it for cheaper than anywhere else in the world.

It was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

China is also home to one of the world’s largest e-commerce and tech ecosystems. Hundreds of startups dot the landscape, and the amount of money being raised and spent on innovating around the country’s industrial heft is mind-boggling.

So it was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The tech revolution hasn’t yet affected the bottled beverage industry quite as much as it has others. Incumbent giants therefore could lose a sizable chunk of market share if a company could just manage to weave together China’s manufacturing proficiency and agility with the modern tech startup philosophy of “moving fast and breaking stuff.”

Genki Forest, a Chinese direct-to-consumer (D2C) bottled beverage startup, is one such contender. A philosophy centered around iteration informed by data, quick turnarounds and a laser focus on taking advantage of China’s huge e-commerce ecosystem has helped this company’s revenues rise rapidly since it started five years ago. Its sugar-free sodas, milk teas and energy drinks sell in 40 countries and generated revenue of about $450 million in 2020. The company aims to reach $1.2 billion this year.

If anything, Genki Forest’s valuation has shot up even faster. It recently completed its fourth VC round that values it at a whopping $6 billion, triple the price it fetched a year earlier, and it has so far raised at least half a billion dollars.

It’s striking how closely Genki Forest’s operations resemble that of a tech startup. So we thought we should take a closer look and see what this company’s graph can tell us about the new wave of Chinese D2C entrepreneurship looking to take over the globe.

Finding a bigger wave to ride

The bottled beverage industry wasn’t what Genki Forest’s founder, Binsen Tang, initially set out to tackle. His first startup was a successful casual, mostly mobile gaming outfit known as ELEX Technology. It was nowhere near record-breaking, though — some 50 million users logged on to a few popular games in over 40 countries worldwide, including one of the first versions of Happy Farm, a predecessor to Zynga’s Farmville. But Tang wasn’t satisfied and eventually sold ELEX Technology to a publicly listed company for about $400 million in 2014.

Tang would walk away with a few important lessons. He’d learned by now that Chinese products were already competitive globally, whether people realized it or not, and that and geographic arbitrage was real, Happy Farm being the perfect example of this. Lastly, he now knew that it was far more important to choose the right “racetrack” (as Chinese investors and entrepreneurs like to put it) than to have a great product.

Picking the right race to win was perhaps the most important takeaway. It’s also an idea that sets Chinese entrepreneurs apart from their Western counterparts — the most worthwhile endeavors are in identifying the largest and most rewarding market at hand, regardless of one’s previous expertise. It was what led Zhang Yiming to create ByteDance, and Lei Jun to found Xiaomi.

That very philosophy led Tang to build Genki Forest. After selling ELEX Technology, Tang didn’t go back to the business that netted him his first pot of gold. As much as he had benefited from the rise of the mobile internet, he thought there was a far bigger opportunity building a consumer brand and applying the lessons he learned from programming to the manufacture of tangible products.

He soon set up his own investment fund, Challenjers Capital, convinced that the next big tech opportunity in China was in tech’s application to everyday consumer products. He soon began to invest in everything from ramen and hotpots to bottled beverages.

China’s quickly expanding e-commerce ecosystem and the plethora of D2C businesses flourishing on Alibaba and JD.com would also influence his decision to sell directly to his target audience rather than take the traditional route. But to truly understand his motivations, we need to take a look at the extremely unique D2C environment in China and how it has changed over the years.

What’s different about Chinese D2C?

“China doesn’t need any more good platforms,” Tang told his team in an internal email in 2015, “but it does need good products.” Tang was talking about how the age of building infrastructure for e-commerce in China was largely over; it was now time to create brands that could take advantage of the advanced distribution network that had been laid out.

Other investors noticed as well. Albus Yu, principal at China Growth Capital, told me that his fund had stopped making investments in independent consumer-facing platforms or marketplaces for a while. “2014 might have been the last year it was economically feasible to start such a business due to the soaring cost of acquiring customers and the strength of incumbents,” he said.

Indeed, 2015 was the year when CACs began to exceed or at least rival ARPUs for Alibaba and JD.com.

In China, that distribution network was present across the digital and physical worlds. Online, there was immense market power concentrated in the hands of just two players: Alibaba and JD.com, which used to have, and still maintain, 80% or above in market share.

In fact, the dominance of Alibaba, in particular, was so overwhelming that for years, VCs invested not in D2C, but in “Taobao brands,” since that was the only channel one needed to conquer in order to make it.

Customer acquisition was therefore straightforward — throw everything into advertising on Alibaba’s Tmall platform, especially during its annual flagship shopping festival, Singles’ Day. Even today, garnering a top spot in one of the category leaderboards remains a surefire way to build brand awareness, investor interest, as well as sales records.

Physically, the Chinese market also differs greatly from much of the developed West. Years of heavy investment in logistics by the private sector, accelerated by government support and infrastructure buildout, means that delivery costs have come down significantly over the years, even dipping below $0.40 per package wholesale as of this year. Innovations such as return insurance have also sped up customer adoption.

By 2016, China was shipping 30 billion packages a year, already accounting for 44% of global shipments. That number has been doubling every three years and is expected to exceed 100 billion this year. And the low cost of delivery is one of the biggest reasons for China’s outsized e-commerce market — the largest globally and estimated to reach $2.8 trillion in 2021, more than triple that of the No. 2, the U.S.

Express parcels sit stacked at a logistic base of e-commerce giant Suning before the 618 Shopping Festival

Express parcels sit stacked at a logistic base of e-commerce giant Suning before the 618 Shopping Festival. Image Credits: VCG

Present-day China also presents another edge: Proximity to an advanced, flexible manufacturing network and supply chain for the vast majority of consumer products, and the ability to outsource almost everything to them.

The original equipment manufacturers of years past have long since evolved into original design manufacturers. An expected consequence of being “the Factory of the World” for so many years, making goods for some of the best brands in the world, is that some of the knowledge was bound to transfer.

It may be difficult for outsiders to understand just how strong China’s networked manufacturing hubs are these days. What used to take weeks now takes mere days, the lead times shortened drastically by software, robots and other advancements. For example, Chinese cross-border ultra-fast-fashion company Shein has compressed design-to-ship timelines to as little as seven days.

And it’s definitely not just for making crop tops. The turnaround can be astonishingly fast even when manufacturing completely unfamiliar goods, such as when electric vehicle maker BYD turned its factory into the world’s largest face mask plant in just two weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.

Companies leverage this manufacturing flexibility and agility for more than just speed. Chinese cosmetics upstart Perfect Diary uses it to launch twice as many SKUs as foreign competitors. In addition, the quick turnaround allows agile brands to take advantage of that most ephemeral of IP, memes.

It’s not to say that the Chinese supply chain is inaccessible to foreign entrepreneurs. Best-selling mattress maker Zinus, for example, is founded by a South Korean, but its products are manufactured in China and sold mostly on Amazon to U.S. customers.

It’s just that very few non-Chinese companies have figured out how to tap as deeply into the supply chain as this new crop of Chinese D2C brands, which can require years of working not just alongside but physically inside the factories, building trust and know-how. Shein, for example, watches carefully what other brands are making by staying close to the factories.

The China opportunity

Before global sensations such as TikTok weakened the mantra, “copy to China” used to be a dominant characterization of Chinese startups. In December 2015, when Tang registered the Genki Forest trademark, that was still very much a relevant strategy.

Kotak Mahindra Capital tops League Table for Transaction Advisors to M&A deals in H1’21

Deloitte and ICICI Securities claim the No.2 & No.3 slotsKotak Mahindra Capital topped the Venture Intelligence League Table for Transaction Advisor to M&A Deals during the first six months of 2021, advising 5 deals worth USD 2.7 Billion. Deloitte (USD 1.8 Billion across 3 deals) and ICICI Securities (USD 1.2 Billion across 2 deals) took the second and third spots respectively by value of deals.

The DL on CockroachDB

As college students at Berkeley, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis created a successful open-source graphics program, GIMP, which got the attention of Google. The duo ultimately joined Google, and even personally got kudos from Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Kimball and Mattis quickly rose to prominence within the company, and then chose to leave it all behind to start what would eventually become CockroachDB. Years later, Cockroach Labs has over 250 employees and has received investments from the likes of Benchmark, GV, Index Ventures and Redpoint totaling more than $350 million, according to Crunchbase. The company is now on route to what some think is an “inevitable IPO.”

The story of CockroachDB, from its origin to its future, was told in a four-part series in our latest EC-1: 

I’m biased, but it’s a must-read that gets into tensions that any startup founder can relate to: from navigating heavyweight competitors, to growing past free tiers, to maintaining your users’ attention. It’s the eighth EC-1 we’ve published to date, which my colleague and TC Managing Editor Danny Crichton estimates puts us at 90,000 words all about startup beginnings, product development, marketing and more.

In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll get into that WeWork book, bite-sized entrepreneurship and some SPACs. Follow me on Twitter @nmasc_. Or don’t, it’s your choice!

The Cult of We

Adam Neumann (WeWork) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017. Image Credits: TechCrunch

This week on Equity, Alex and I interviewed Eliot Brown, who wrote “The Cult of We” along with Maureen Farrell. Our conversation riffed on some of the book’s eyebrow-raising details and anecdotes, but mainly focused on what WeWork’s rise and fall did to the state of startups and tech journalism more broadly.

Here’s what to know: Not much has changed. Jokes aside, Brown shared his notes on how the current boom in startup financings has a worrisome air of frenzy and fluff. He also chatted about how sometimes the most illuminating question can be a simple one: What makes you a tech company?

More money, more problems?

TikTok what again?

tiktok glitch

Image Credits: TechCrunch

TikTok kept popping up throughout the week. Index Ventures, for example, noted how the firm’s TikTok account has amassed an impressive following and is a channel to talk to the younger generations. Nothing like some short-form videos to stay hip and relatable while raising $3 billion in one go. 

Here’s what to know: While TikTok has certainly changed the world, I worry when I see the allure of bite-sized content get edtech’d. Bite-sized content can be a nifty way to spread content, but it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Duolingo, which priced its IPO this week, still struggles to show meaningful learning outcomes and optimizes more for motivation than comprehension. This tension is a key note for companies like Numerade and Sololearn, which both raised this week, to not overly TikTok learning materials.

Other edtech content for your eyes:

So, SPACs

hands signing check 1

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

It’s been awhile since I’ve used that acronym in Startups Weekly. That said, special purpose acquisition vehicles are still very much a thing and are still very much worth paying attention to.

Here’s what to know: Lucid Motors’ SPAC merger was just approved. Reporter Aria Alamalhodaei  writes that the move came after executives extended the deadline to vote to merge by one day after not enough investors showed up. “The issue is unusual but could become more common as more companies eschew the traditional IPO path to public markets and instead merge with SPACs,” she writes.

Also special:

Around TC

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Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

Seen on Extra Crunch

Same time, same place next week? Bring a friend!

N

Should we be worried about insurtech valuations?

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s inspired by what the weekday Exchange column digs into, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.

Hello everyone, I hope you had a lovely week. I turned 32 after experiencing sleep-destroying heartburn. So, a little good and a little bad. But that didn’t stop the markets. Nope. Not a bit. Which means we have a lot to talk about, including falling insurtech stocks and what the situation might mean for startups, and a raft of IPOs. This will be fun!

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of our chats with newly public companies Kaltura, Couchbase and Enovix, let’s talk insurtech.

In the last year or so we’ve seen a number of insurtech startups go public, including Root (auto insurance), Metromile (car insurance), and Lemonade (rental insurance). Here’s a quick digest of how their performance looks today:

  • Root: $7.72 per share, 71.4% down from its $27 per share IPO price.
  • Metromile: $7.26 per share, down 64.4% from its post-combination highs.
  • Lemonade: $86.97 per share, up 199.9% from its IPO price of $29 per share.

Recall that Root and Metromile began to trade after Lemonade, so their declines are not over a longer time horizon, but a shorter interval. Which makes the situation all the more interesting.

What’s going on? Well, two of the three insurtech public offerings (SPACs, IPOs, etc.) are sharply underwater. That doesn’t bode incredibly well for Hippo, which is pursuing its own SPAC-led combination that should be wrapping up in short order. The huge declines don’t seem bullish for insurtech startups, who will have to answer private-market investor doubts concerning their value.

Does Lemonade’s strong post-IPO performance allay concerns? It’s tricky. The company has been busy expanding into new markets, including auto insurance. The company did take a somewhat material hit from the Texas freeze earlier this year — per its most recent earnings report — but past those two data points it’s not entirely clear what the company is doing that the other two are not. But investors are stoked about Lemonade, and not Root and Metromile. Figuring out why that’s the case, and why their startup is more Lemonade than the other two, is going to be key for the many insurtech startups still scaling toward their own IPOs.

It’s IPO season

The Exchange has been busy on the phones these last two weeks, talking to CEOs of companies going public to try and learn from their recent experiences. So, what follows are notes from calls with folks at Kaltura, Couchbase and Enovix. Enjoy!

Kaltura

  • Reminder: Online-video-focused Kaltura filed to go public earlier this year before delaying its IPO and taking another run at the funding event.
  • The Exchange spoke with Kaltura CEO Ron Yekutiel, who said that the company’s IPO’s timing was impacted by the early-2021 public market turmoil. That was not a surprise, but it was good to get confirmation regardless.
  • That freeze was partially caused by the Archegos implosion, per Yekutiel. That makes sense, but was news to us.
  • Yekutiel said that his company wasn’t thrilled about the delay — going public is the only fundraise that you pre-announce, he noted — but added that investors his company had already spoken to the first-time around were still enthused about Kaltura on its second run at an IPO.
  • Per the CEO, Kaltura’s preliminary Q2 results showed investors that what it was talking about earlier in the year was coming true. He also stressed uptake in new products as key to the company’s continued growth.
  • The CEO was happy with how his company priced and traded during its first day, snagging a flat 20% uptick in value upon trading. He noted that more would have been excessive, and less would have been un-good.
  • Regarding the lower valuation that Kaltura priced at compared to its March-era IPO price range, Yekutiel said that you don’t get a third chance to make a first impression and that his company wanted to get the offering done. So they did. Points for not getting lost in their own head.
  • Kaltura is up 17.5% from its $10 per-share IPO price as of the time of writing.

One anecdote, if I may. Kaltura won an early TechCrunch40 — the precursor to the TechCrunch50 event, itself a predecessor to today’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference series — thanks to a single vote cast via physical token. Yekutiel still has that token, and showed it to us during our chat. Neat!

Couchbase

  • The Exchange spoke with noSQL database company Couchbase’s CEO Matt Cain. Couchbase priced at $24 per share, above its $20 to $23 per-share IPO price range.
  • Today it’s worth $33.20, rising 9.2% in today’s trading as of the time of writing.
  • Cain was talking from a pretty strict script — a pretty standard situation amongst newly public CEOs worried about fucking up and going to jail — so we didn’t get the precise answers we were looking for. But we still managed to learn a few things, including that Couchbase was yet another company that found the meeting density made possible by remote roadshows to be accretive.
  • The CEO was focused on discussing the scale of the opportunity ahead of Couchbase, namely the world of operational databases. It’s hard to find a bigger market, he argued, which made investors excited about what his company might be able to accomplish. Our read here is that there’s probably plenty of surface area for startups in the database world, if the market is as big as Cain reckons it is.
  • We wanted to learn a bit more about how public-market investors view open-source powered companies, but didn’t get too much from him on the matter. Still, the company’s IPO is a pretty damn strong one, implying that being OSS-built isn’t exactly a detriment to a company hoping to exit.

Enovix

  • The Exchange wanted to chat with newly public company Enovix because it debuted via a SPAC. Why does that matter? Because there are other battery-focused companies looking to go public via SPACs. So, the chat was good background for later work.
  • And we love talking to public companies. Who doesn’t?
  • Asked if combination-and-trade-under-new-ticker-symbol day was like an IPO to his firm, Rust said that it was. Fair enough.
  • The company’s combination date for its SPAC slipped from Q2 to Q3, we noticed. Why was that? Some SEC changes regarding accounting, in short. Not a big deal was our impression from the chat, but one that did cause a slight delay to Enovix’s trading date.
  • Why go public via a SPAC? Cash, but also the particular sponsor of their combination, which Rust said was a key resource in terms of operational knowledge. The company has also hired from its SPAC sponsor’s network, which felt notable. (Hey look, actual investor value-add!)
  • Asked why his company is worth less than the impending SES SPAC, another battery company that has yet to generate revenue, Rust said that the value of his company in its SPAC deal was a negotiation, and that if the company is successful, whether it was valued at $1.1 billion or $1.4 billion wouldn’t really matter.
  • What’s fun about Enovix is that it is not starting with its impending battery tech aimed at EVs. Instead, it’s targeting high-end electronics. Why? Quick cycles to get batteries into hardware and possible pricing power. It does intend to get into EVs in time, however.
  • The company is worth $17.33 per share, giving it what Yahoo Finance describes as a $2.5 billion valuation. That’s a good markup from what it expected and could bode well for SES’s own, future debut.

Yo, that was a lot. Thanks for sticking with me. And thanks for reading The Exchange’s little newsletter. You can catch up on all our work here if you want some long-form reads on the global venture capital market, edtech and other topics. Stay cool!

Your friend,

Alex