Seed is not the new Series A

The incredible success of the cloud business applications space in recent years has driven up valuations and fundraising across all stages of venture investment. That has in turn increased VC fund sizes, led to massive cloud IPOs and brought a new cadre of investors to further fuel the fire.

The median Series A raised by cloud companies these days is about $8 million and can often go well above $10 million, according to PitchBook data from the first quarter of 2021. Series Cs now routinely include secondary capital for founders, and many Series Ds are above $100 million with valuations in the billions.

There is a widening gap in the funding continuum between angel/seed funding at inception and the new-age $10 million Series A at $2 million in ARR.

Such an influx of capital and interest has upended many structures and long-held norms about how startups are funded. Venture funds continue to grow and must write larger checks, but ever-higher valuations force many firms to hunt for opportunities earlier. The VC alphabet soup has been spilled, making A rounds look like Bs used to, and the Bs seem like the Cs of old.

Which begs an interesting question: Is the seed round the new Series A?

We don’t think so.

Seed rounds have certainly grown — averaging about $3 million nowadays from around $1 million to $2 million previously — but otherwise, seed investments are the same as before and remain very different from Series As.

How to launch a successful RPA initiative

Robotic process automation (RPA) is rapidly moving beyond the early adoption phase across verticals. Automating just basic workflow processes has resulted in such tremendous efficiency improvements and cost savings that businesses are adapting automation at scale and across the enterprise.

While there is a technical component to robotic automation, RPA is not a traditional IT-driven solution. It is, however, still important to align the business and IT processes around RPA. Adapting business automation for the enterprise should be approached as a business solution that happens to require some technical support.

A strong working relationship between the CFO and CIO will go a long way in getting IT behind, and in support of, the initiative rather than in front of it.

A strong working relationship between the CFO and CIO will go a long way in getting IT behind, and in support of, the initiative rather than in front of it.

More important to the success of a large-scale RPA initiative is support from senior business executives across all lines of business and at every step of the project, with clear communications and an advocacy plan all the way down to LOB managers and employees.

As we’ve seen in real-world examples, successful campaigns for deploying automation at scale require a systematic approach to developing a vision, gathering stakeholder and employee buy-in, identifying use cases, building a center of excellence (CoE) and establishing a governance model.

Create an overarching vision

Your strategy should include defining measurable, strategic objectives. Identify strategic areas that benefit most from automation, such as the supply chain, call centers, AP or revenue cycle, and start with obvious areas where business sees delays due to manual workflow processes. Remember, the goal is not to replace employees; you’re aiming to speed up processes, reduce errors, increase efficiencies and let your employees focus on higher value tasks.

Gusto makes first acquisition, buying Ardius to expand into R&D tax credits

Free money from the government sounds like winning the lottery, but the reality is that most tech startups and even local retail businesses and restaurants can potentially qualify for tax credits related to research and development in the United States. Those credits, which is what helps tech giants keep their tax rates to near zero, are hard for smaller companies to receive because of extensive documentation requirements and potential audit costs.

So a number of startups have been launched to solve that gap, and now, larger companies are entering the fray as well.

Gusto, which started off with payroll for SMBs and has since expanded into employee on-boarding, insurance, benefits, and other HR offerings, today announced that it is acquiring Ardius, a startup designed to automate tax compliance particularly around R&D tax credits.

The Los Angeles-based company was founded by Joshua Lee in 2018, who previously had worked for more than a decade at accounting firm EY. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and Ardius will run as an independent business with the entire team transitioning to Gusto.

The strategy here is simple: most R&D credits require payroll documentation, data that is already stored in Gusto’s system of record. Ardius in its current incarnation was designed to tap into a number of payroll data providers and extract that data and turn it into verifiable tax documents. With this tie-up, the companies can simply do that automatically for Gusto’s extensive number of customers.

Joshua Reeves, co-founder and CEO of Gusto, said that the acquisition falls in line with the company’s long-term focus on customers and simplicity. “We want to bring together technology, great service, [and] make government simpler,” he said. “In some ways, a lot of stuff we’re doing — make payroll simpler, make healthcare simpler, make PPP [loans] and tax credits simpler — just make these things work the way they’re intended to work.” The company presumably could have built out such functionality, but he noted that “time to market” was a crucial point in making Ardius the company’s first acquisition.

Tomer London, co-founder and chief product officer, said that “we’ve been looking at this space for a long time because it kind of connects to one of our original product principles of building a product that is opinionated,” he said. In a space as complicated as HR, “we want to be out there and be an advisor, not just a tool. And this is just such a great example of where you can take the payroll data that we already have and in just a few clicks and in a matter of a few days, get access to really important cash flow for a business.” He noted that tax credits is “something that’s been on our roadmap for a long time.”

Gusto works with more than 100 third-party services that integrate on top of its platform. Reeves emphasized that while Ardius is part of Gusto, all companies — even those who might compete directly with the product — will continue to have equal access to the platform’s data. In its release, the company pointed out that Boast.ai, Clarus, Neo.Tax, and TaxTaker are just some of the other tax products that integrate with Gusto today.

Of course, Ardius is just one of a number of competitors that have popped up in the R&D and economic development tax credit space. MainStreet, which I last profiled in 2020 for its seed round, just raised $60 million in funding in March led by SignalFire. Meanwhile, Neo.tax, which I also profiled last year, has raised a total of $5.5 million.

Reeves was sanguine about the attention the space is garnering and the potential competition for Ardius. When it comes to R&D tax credits, “whatever creates more accessibility, we’re a fan of,” he said. “It’s great that there’s more awareness because it’s still under-utilized frankly.” He emphasized that Gusto would be able to offer a more vertically-integrated solution given its data and software than other competitors in the space.

While the pandemic particularly hit SMBs, who often lacked the financial wherewithal of larger companies to survive the crisis, Gusto actually expanded its business as new companies sprouted up. Reeves said the company grew its customer base 50% in its last fiscal year, which ended in April. It “turns out in a health pandemic and in an economic crisis, things like payroll and accessing health care are quite important,” he said. Gusto launched a program to help SMBs collect the government’s stimulus PPP loans.

The company’s main bases of operation are in San Francisco, Denver and New York City, and the company has a growing contingent of remote workers, including the Ardius crew, who will remain based in LA. While Reeves demurred on future acquisitions, Gusto’s focus on expanding to a comprehensive financial wellness platform for both employees and businesses would likely suggest that additional acquisitions may well be in the offing in the future.

BrowserStack valued at $4 billion in $200 million BOND-led funding

Yet another SaaS startup, which began its journey in India, has attained the much coveted unicorn status. BrowserStack, a startup that operates a giant software testing platform, said on Wednesday it has raised $200 million in a new financing round that valued the 10-year-old firm at $4 billion.

BOND led the Dublin and San Francisco-headquartered startup’s Series B financing round, while Insight Partners and existing investor Accel participated in it. BrowserStack, which for the first six years of its journey didn’t raise any money and remains profitable, has raised $250 million to date.

As companies move to rapid development cycles they often don’t have the time to perform adequate testing. For instance, say Google is working to launch a new mobile app. The search giant will want to test the new app on thousands — if not tens of thousands — of different mobile devices.

At present, even a company the size of Google will find it cumbersome to secure, store and maintain all those test devices. That’s where BrowserStack comes into play.

The startup has 15 data centers across the world and a repository of over 2,000 devices. BrowserStack, which began its journey in India, licenses its service to firms to let them remotely test their apps and websites on its devices, explained Nakul Aggarwal, co-founder and CTO of BrowserStack, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Our mission has always been to help engineers build amazing products for their customers. Whenever they are developing an app or a website they have to ensure that it works across the fragmented ecosystem,” said Aggarwal, referring to various kinds of mobile devices, tablets, TVs, wearables and other platforms. “We are ensuring that engineers don’t have to worry about building their own in-house labs for devices.”

Google is not a hypothetical example. The Android-maker along with giants including Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter, Tesco, Ikea, Spotify, Expedia, and Trivago are among over 50,000 customers of BrowserStack. Over 60% of BrowserStack’s customers today are in the U.S.

“As software continues to rewire everything, the bar on speed and quality continues to rise, and testing software across the expanding number of browsers and devices is a huge and expensive challenge for development teams to manage on their own,” said Jay Simons, General Partner at BOND, in a statement.

“BrowserStack makes this simple and cost-effective, giving developers instant access to the widest range of browser and device configurations to test their applications. This product is an absolute boon for today’s web and app developers.”

It wasn’t until early 2018 when BrowserStack, which bootstrapped its way to profitability, first raised capital from an investor. Aggarwal said the founding team’s previous failed ventures made them more disciplined about money and it wasn’t until BrowserStack had assumed the market leading position and began scaling to new markets that it started to explore outside capital.

Aggarwal said BrowserStack wants to become the testing infrastructure of the internet and the new funds will help achieve that. “Every pull request that is getting raise, we want to become the infrastructure where it is getting tested,” he said. The startup, which recently acquired visual testing and review platform Percy, is open to more acquisition and acquihire opportunities.

“Our recent acquisition of Percy, a visual testing platform, was just the start. We will accelerate the rate at which we take new products to market through acquisitions and investment in our Product and Engineering teams. We want to achieve our vision of becoming the testing infrastructure for the internet,” said Ritesh Arora, co-founder and chief executive of BrowserStack.

BrowserStack joins a number of SaaS startups — including Chargebee and Gupshup — that began their journey in India and became a unicorn this year.

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

ApplyBoard, a startup that helps international students find opportunities to study abroad, announced today that it has nearly doubled its valuation in a little over a year. The Ontario-based company is now worth around $3.2 billion after raising a $300 million Series D round led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

ApplyBoard makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college after using their services, ApplyBoard receives a cut of the tuition. Meanwhile, the service, which helps students search and apply to schools, is free to use.

Co-founder and CEO Martin Basiri did not share specifics on revenue, but he confirmed that his company is growing its sales at a 400% year-over-year rate in 2021. For context, sales in 2019 hit $300 million, meaning that ApplyBoard is making at least $1.2 billion in sales this year.

These figures violate the prevailing edtech narrative from last year: Higher ed is dead! Students don’t want to attend college anymore. Bring back the gap year, but make it permanent!

Instead, this company is proving that the university tech stack is more lucrative than many assumed, especially if you look beyond content offerings and into back-end marketing support.

My take: Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

“Students want a seamless and pain-free application process”

ApplyBoard’s recent fundraising efforts shed a light on its strategy to become, effectively, a tech-savvy guidance counselor for the approximately 200,000 students that it has served to date.

The company raised a $55 million extension round in September to bring on a partner, Education Testing Services (ETS) Strategy Capital, the venture arm of the world’s largest nonprofit education testing and assessment organization. ETS helps administer the TOEFL English-language proficiency test and the GRE graduate admissions test.

The synergies there led ApplyBoard to launch ApplyProof, a service that helps admissions and immigrant officers verify documents that international students need to apply to colleges around the world. Today’s financing event similarly brings in a strategic investor, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

“The demand remains high post-pandemic and we continue to see a strong, pent-up demand from students wishing to study abroad,” Basiri said. “Students want a seamless and pain-free application process and be able to have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”

Anrok raises $4.3M to solve sales tax for SaaS companies

It’s easier than ever to build a product and sell it around the United States, or the world. But if you want to do so without incurring the wrath of any particular state, or nation-state, you’d best have your tax matters in order. This is why Stripe’s news last week that it has built tax-focused tooling to help its customers manage their state bills mattered.

But for SaaS companies, things can be more complicated from a tax perspective. That’s what Anrok, a startup working to build sales tax software for SaaS firms, told TechCrunch.

The company’s CEO, Michelle Valentine, said that modern software companies need specialized help. And her startup is announcing a $4.3 million fundraise today to back its efforts. The capital event was led by Seqouia and Index, the latter firm a place where Valentine used to work.

Anrok delivers its service via an API, and charges based on the total dollar value of sales that it helps a customer manage. Its percentage-fee falls with volume, and you can’t pay more than 0.19% of managed revenue, so it’s pretty cheap regardless, given how strong software gross margins tend to be.

The Anrok founding team: Michelle Valentine, and Kannan Goundan. Via the company.

Valentine said that there are three things that make SaaS tax issues more complex than other products. The first deals with addresses. Software companies have to pay sales tax where customers are located, and often only have partial information. Anrok will help with that problem. The CEO also said that variable SaaS billing makes charging the right amount of tax an interesting issue, and that states have tax laws specifically aimed at the software market that must be navigated.

So, a more mass-market solution might not be the best fit for SaaS companies looking to avoid both trouble with states and the work of handling tax matters themselves.

It’s not hard to see why Anrok was able to raise capital. The company is early-stage with its first customers onboarded, so it’s not posting the sort of revenue growth that investors covet at the later stages. What then were its more fetching attributes? From our perspective, on-demand pricing and a simply gigantic market.

Sure, Anrok is serving SaaS businesses, but it’s doing so using what could be described as a post-SaaS business model; on-demand, or usage-based pricing is an increasingly popular way to charge for software products today, putting Anrok closer to the cutting edge in business-model terms. And the company’s market is essentially every software business out there. That’s a lot of TAM to carve into, something that investors love to see.

AI startup Eightfold valued at $2.1B in SoftBank-led $220M funding

Eightfold AI, a startup which uses deep learning and artificial intelligence to help companies find, recruit and retain workers, said on Thursday it has raised $220 million in a new round as it looks to accelerate its growth.

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 led the Series E round of the five-year-old startup, which is now valued at $2.1 billion, up from $1 billion in Series E last October, Eightfold AI founder and chief executive Ashutosh Garg told TechCrunch in an interview.

Existing investors General Catalyst, Capital One Ventures, Foundation Capital, IVP and Lightspeed Venture Partners also participated in the new round, which brings the startup’s all-time raise to over $410 million.

The Mountain View-based startup provides its clients with a talent acquisition platform that helps them identify suitable candidates and import and filter thousands of resumes. One of Eightfold AI’s missions is to help companies reduce biases in their hirings, so it masks candidates’ personal information during evaluation.

“Instead of searching for a job, a candidate can upload their resume and the system will tell what is the most relevant job for that candidate in real-time,” explained Garg. “What this does is, it reduces the drop-off rate. And our clients see more applications — and field more diverse applications.”

The startup, which has amassed clients in over 100 countries and offers its platform in over a dozen languages, also enables employers to deploy the Eightfold platform internally and help employees discover promotions and new role opportunities within their organizations. “This has helped businesses almost double their internal mobility,” said Garg, who previously worked at IBM Research, where he filed patents on understanding behaviors of people, and Google, where he worked on the company’s user personalization efforts.

Garg said recruiting remains big global problem and an untapped opportunity. “Transforming HR and global talent further unlocks trillions of dollars’ worth of human potential. SoftBank shares our bold vision, and we are excited to welcome them as our partner,” he said.

In the state of Indiana, Eightfold maintains partnership for people applying for unemployment insurance to build up their resumes and find job opportunities instantly. The startup also has a program for veterans in the U.S. to find opportunities relevant to their skills, said Garg.

“Powered by AI and machine learning, Eightfold’s platform provides global enterprises with a single solution for managing the entire talent lifecycle, including hiring, retaining, and growing a diverse global workforce,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers and who previously worked for nearly six years at LinkedIn. “We are pleased to partner with Ashutosh and the Eightfold team to support their ambition of transforming how enterprises manage talent and how people build their careers.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Health clouds are set to play a key role in healthcare innovation

The U.S. healthcare industry is amidst one of the biggest transformations any industry has seen since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. This massive change is being stimulated by federal mandates, technological innovation, and the need to improve clinical outcomes and communication between providers, patients, and payers.

An aging population, increase in chronic diseases, lower reimbursement rates, and a shift to value-based payments—plus the COVID-19 pandemic—have added pressure and highlighted the need for new technology to enhance virtual and value-based care.

Improving medical outcomes now requires processing massive amounts of healthcare data, and the cloud plays a pivotal role in meeting the current needs of healthcare organizations.

Challenges in healthcare

Most of today’s healthcare challenges fall into two broad categories: rapidly rising costs, and an increased burden on resources. Rising costs — and the resulting inadequacy of healthcare resources — can stem from:

An aging population: As people age and live longer, healthcare gets more expensive. As medicine improves, people aged 65 and above are expected to account for 20% of the U.S. population by 2030, per the U.S. Census Bureau. And as older people spend more on healthcare, an aging population is expected to contribute to increasing healthcare costs over time.

Prevalence of chronic illnesses: According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information report, chronic disease treatment makes up 85% of healthcare costs, and more than half of all Americans have a chronic illness (diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, lower back and neck pain, etc.)

Higher ambulatory costs: The cost of ambulatory care, including outpatient hospital services and emergency room care, increased the most of all treatment categories covered in a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Rising healthcare premiums, out-of-pocket costs, and Medicare and Medicaid: Healthcare premiums rose by an estimated 54% between 2009 and 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred enrollment into government programs like Medicaid and Medicare, which has increased the overall demand for medical services, contributing to rising costs. A 2021 IRS report highlighted that a shift to high-deductible health plans — with out-of-pocket costs of up to $14,000 per family — has also increased the cost of healthcare.

Delayed care and surgeries due to COVID-19: A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in May 2020 indicated that up to 48% people have avoided or postponed medical care due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. About 11% of those people reported that their medical condition worsened after skipping or postponing care. Non-emergency surgeries were frequently postponed, as resources were set aside for COVID-19 patients. These delays make treatable conditions more costly and increase overall costs.

A lack of pricing transparency: Without transparency, it’s difficult to know the actual cost of healthcare. The fragmented data landscape fails to capture complete details and complex medical bills, and does not give patients a complete view of payments.

The need to modernize

To mitigate the impact of increased costs and inadequate resources, healthcare organizations need to replace legacy IT programs and adopt modern systems designed to support rapid innovation for site-agnostic, collaborative, whole-person care — all while being affordable and accessible.

How bottom-up sales helped Expensify blaze the path for SaaS

You’d expect an expense management company to have a large sales department and advertise through all kinds of channels to maximize customer acquisition. But like we’ve seen over and over through the course of this EC-1, Expensify just doesn’t do what you think it should.

Keeping in mind this company’s propensity to just stick to its guts, it’s not much of a surprise that it got to more than $100M in annual recurring revenue and millions of users with a staff of 130, some contractors, and an almost non-existent sales team.

If you’re wondering how its possible to grow to such a level without an established sales team, the short answer is: Word of mouth. To an extent, Expensify can do this due to the space it’s in, as expense reporting is such a thankless, almost mind numbingly boring task that anyone who found a good solution is bound to recommend it to their colleagues and friends.

But it’s more interesting how Expensify grows bottom-up within SMBs, its core customer base. By providing an easy and meaningful experience via the product itself, the company has come to a point where it only takes one or two users who love the service to turn their company into customers.

This approach flips the traditional sales model on its head and is now known as product-led growth, but Expensify did it long before it was an accepted business model. Though that was harder than it sounds, it also put the company in a uniquely privileged position, which it is fully intent on leveraging.

Starting the flywheel

There are many ways to get such a business model started, but as usual, Expensify threw caution and all advice out the window and banked on turning its users into evangelizers for its product.

BuyerAssist launches with $2M in funding to help B2B sales team keep their buyers engaged

A group photo of BuyerAssist founders Shyam HN, Amit Dugar and Shankar Ganapathy

BuyerAssist founders Shyam HN, Amit Dugar and Shankar Ganapathy

Selling enterprise software is much more complicated than convincing a potential customer that your solution is the best and signing a contract. A recent Gartner study found that buying groups for B2B solutions can involve up to six to 10 decision makers, and that the majority of buyers said their most recent purchase was “very complex or difficult” as they came to a consensus while negotiating with vendors.

BuyerAssist, a new startup founded by former employees of sales readiness platform MindTickle, wants to make the buying process as smooth as possible. The company is launching its beta product to the public today with $2 million in seed funding led by Stellaris Venture Partners and Emergent Ventures, with participation from angel investors. The capital will be used for hiring in the U.S. and India, with plans to bring BuyerAssist’s platform out of beta later this year.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with an office in Pune, India, BuyerAssist.io was founded last year by Amit Dugar, Shankar Ganapathy and Shyam HN, all alumni of SoftBank Vision 2-backed MindTickle, a platform that enables companies to train their sales staff at scale. The philosophy behind BuyerAssist draws on HN and Ganapathy’s experience on the sales and marketing side of MindTickle: Ganapathy was its director of strategic accounts, while HN served as head of global sales development.

“We’ve sold half a million dollar deals, and deals where you have anywhere form 10 to 25 people involved from the buyer side,” HN told TechCrunch. “There’s a core team of about five to 10 people, but then there is also an extended team that comes and goes during the process.”

The pandemic added an extra layer of complexity to B2B sales, because many deals were done remotely. Furthermore, sales representatives get less time to interact with buyers. The Gartner report found that when B2B buying teams consider a purchase, they spend only 17% of that time meeting with potential suppliers, and the amount of time they spend interacting with any sales representative may be only 5% to 6%. This means vendors have to find ways to keep potential buyers engaged, while making the process easier for them.

BuyerAssist describes itself as a “operating system for B2B companies to deliver the most effective buying experience.” It helps by providing a centralized place to gather information that would usually be buried in emails and notes, and make it searchable. It also lets both vendors and buyers share information about their needs (like pricing, information security reviews and when they want to deploy software by), creating more transparency for each side, and stores important files like proposals, contracts and legal documentation.

For vendors, having information and questions from potential buyers organized in one place can help them better understand their deals pipeline and meet revenue goals. BuyerAssist also provides analytics that can help them retain more contracts. For example, it alerts vendors when buyers become less engaged, which may mean they are losing interest.

During its beta stage, BuyerAssist worked with four companies. The platform is currently focused on enterprise software and SaaS companies that do a lot of their sales remotely, but can be used for any complex sales process that involves multiple calls and emails. Other sectors BuyerAssist wants to enter include manufacturing and financial services.

BuyerAssist is part of a new crop of startups focused on helping vendors and buyers work together on complicated sales. Others include Accord, MetaCX, Dealpoint and Recapped.io. HN said that the space is still very new, so companies are still figuring out their positioning. In BuyerAssist’s case, this means focusing on buyer engagement, instead of mutual success plans or collaborations, from the beginning. HN said the company will double down on investing in two key areas of product development: building its enterprise grade product to support complex sales and becoming the preferred way for buying teams to engage with BuyerAssist’s clients.

In statement about the investment, Stellaris Venture Partners partner Alok Goyal said, “As a venture capitalist focusing on the SaaS space, we get to see hundreds of teams. But it is very rare to find teams that create a perfect storm of domain expertise, functional expertise in different areas of building SaaS companies and at the same time bringing the perfect complementarity between the founders.”

Anupam Rastogi, a partner at Emergent Ventures, said “What excites me about BuyerAssist is that it focuses on reducing friction between buyers and sellers. Buyers want more flexibility and less noise. Sellers want to run a more consistent sales process. BuyerAssist facilitates this, and enables both to build a long term partnership. This is where we see the industry heading in the years and decades to come.”