Post-pandemic shifts means Patch will take co-working to UK small towns and suburbs

It would be fair to say the pandemic has had enormous effects on the world of work, but it has come at a time when other factors were already ongoing. The decline of main-street shopping due to e-commerce has only been hastened. The shift to remote working has sky-rocketed. And people no longer want to commute 8am-6pm anymore. But we’ve also found that working from home isn’t all its cracked up to be. Plus, they don’t see the point of commuting into a big city, only to have to co-work in something like a WeWork, when they could just as easily have gone to something local. The problem is, there is rarely a local co-working space, especially in the suburbs or smaller towns.

If, instead, you could bring work nearer to home (rather than working from home) then, the theory goes, you’d get a more balanced lifestyle, but also get that separation between work and home so many people, especially families, still desire.

Now, a new UK startup has come top with a ‘decentralized workspace’ idea which it plans to roll out across the UK.

Patch will take empty local high street shops and turn them into “collaborative cultural spaces” with its ‘Work Near Home’ proposition aimed at traditional commuters. There are an estimated 6 million knowledge work commuters in the UK, and Patch will run on monthly subscriptions from these kinds of members.

It’s now raised a $1.1M Seed funding round from a number of leading UK angel investors including Robin Klein (cofounder of LocalGlobe), Matt Clifford (Cofounder of Entrepreneur First), alongside Charlie Songhurst, Simon Murdoch (Episode 1), Wendy Becker (former CEO Jack Wills and NED at Great Portland Estates), Camilla Dolan (founding partner of sustainable investor Eka Ventures), Zoe Jervier (talent Director for US investment firm Sequoia), and Will Neale (founder of Grabyo and early-stage investor).

Patch says its ‘Work Near Home’ idea is geared to the Post-Covid ‘hybrid working’ movement and it plans to create public venues, “with a focus of entrepreneurship, technology, and cultural programming.”

Each Patch location will offer a range of private offices, co-working studios, “accessible low-cost options” and free scholarship places.

Patch’s first site will open in Chelmsford, Essex in early November, and the startup says several more sites are planned for 2022. It says it has received requests from people in Chester, St Albans, Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Yeovil, Bury, and Kingston upon Thames.

Patch’s founder Freddie Fforde said: “Where we work and where we live have traditionally be seen as distinct environments. This has led to the hollowing out of many high streets during the working week, and equally redundant office districts. We think that technology fundamentally changes this, allowing people to work near home and creating a new mixed environment of professional, civic, and cultural exchange.”

Fforde is a former Entrepreneur First founder and employee who has held various roles in early-stage tech companies in London and San Francisco. The head of product will be Paloma Strelitz, formerly cofounder of Assemble, a design studio that won the 2015 Turner Prize.

Commenting, Matt Clifford, Entrepreneur First and Code First Girls, said: “Technology has always changed the way we organize and work together. Patch will unlock opportunities for talented people based on who they are, unconstrained by where they live. We want to be a country where high-skilled jobs are available everywhere and Patch is a key part of that puzzle.”

Targeting towns and smaller cities, in residential areas, not the major city centres, Patch says it will look for under-utilised landmark buildings in the center of towns. In Chelmsford, their first space will be a Victorian brewery, for instance.

Grays Yard

Grays Yard

Chelmsford Councillor Simon Goldman, Deputy Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Small Business and representative for the BID board, said: “The introduction of a new co-working space in Gray’s Yard is a really positive scheme for the city. Providing local options for residents to work from will help them to have less of a commute which will hopefully allow a better work/life balance. Working closer to home brings many benefits for both individuals and their families, but also for the environment and the local economy.”

Patch says it will also operate a model of ‘giving back’, with 20% of peak event space hours donated to local and national providers of community services “that support the common good”. Early national partners include tech skills providers Code First Girls, and with Coder Dojo, a Raspberry Pi Foundation initiative.

Kapor Capital, Square co-founder Sam Wen back TomoCredit in its $10M Series A funding round

Building credit history can be difficult if you are a consumer that is having trouble getting access to credit in the first place.

Enter TomoCredit, which has developed a credit card focused on building credit history for first-time borrowers. The San Francisco-based startup is announcing today that it has raised $10 million in a Series A funding round co-led by Kapor Capital and KB Investment Inc. (KBIC), a subsidiary of South Korea’s leading consumer bank. Lewis & Clark Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Knollwood Investment Advisory, WTI, Bronze and Square co-founder Sam Wen also participated in the Series A financing.

The new capital comes just over seven months after TomoCredit raised $7 million in seed funding, and brings its total raised this year to $17 million. The company also announced today it has appointed Ash Gupta, former CRO at American Express, to its board.

TomoCredit co-founder and CEO Kristy Kim came up with the concept for the company after being rejected multiple times for an auto loan while in her early 20s.

Kim, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with her family as a child, was disappointed that her lack of credit history proved to be such an obstacle despite the fact she had a job “and positive cash flow.”

So she teamed up with Dmitry Kashlev, a Russian immigrant, in January of 2019 to create a solution for other foreign-born individuals and young adults facing similar credit challenges. That fall, the startup (short for Tomorrow’s Credit) was accepted into the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars.

The fintech offers a credit card aimed at helping first-time borrowers build credit history, based on their cash flow, rather than on their FICO or credit report ratings. Its biggest differentiator, believes Kim, is that it has no fees, no APR and no credit pull. Traditional credit products rely heavily on fees and APR, she said, while TomoCredit makes money through merchant fees.

Image Credits: TomoCredit

TomoCredit is powered by Finicity (which was acquired by Mastercard last year), and leverages that company’s data network and open banking technology so that it can “securely” access applicants’ bank accounts to obtain financial data for underwriting purposes.

Once approved, applicants receive the TomoCredit Mastercard. The goal is to bring “millions of individuals that lack a credit score into the financial system, allowing a diverse group of consumers the opportunity to better position themselves as qualified candidates for mortgages, auto loans, or other major life purchases,” the company said.

TomoCredit has already pre-approved more than 300,000 customers and expects to issue a total of 500,000 cards by year’s end, according to Kim.

“We’ve grown 10x this year from the beginning of 2021,” Kim said. “Still, this round came together earlier than expected.”

Something that has been surprising to Kim is the interest from a variety of types of consumers.

“In the beginning, we thought international students and immigrants would be most interested in our product,” she told TechCrunch. “But after launching, we’ve realized that so many people can benefit — from gig economy workers to YouTubers to any young person who hasn’t had a chance to build credit yet. The market is way bigger than we even realized.”

In early 2022, the company plans to roll out the Tomo Black card, a product for some of its existing customers that “are showing good performance.” It’s currently testing it with some of its existing user base.

“This is a premium product that can grow with our customers, who we want to retain over the next 10 to 20 years,” Kim said. “We don’t want our product to be a stop-gap solution.”

Image Credits: TomoCredit

The startup plans to use its new capital to do more hiring and enhance features such as weekly autopay and high credit limits in an effort to “boost credit scores faster,” she added. Currently, TomoCredit has about 30 employees, up from 10 at the time of its last raise in February.

“My main focus is recruiting top talent,” Kim said, noting that the company had already hired “some senior people from Wells Fargo.” 

“When we recruit and hire, we care about diversity,” she added. “We’re building products for people who have been traditionally underserved by major banks. I think to align with our mission, we should embody that in building our team. More than 50% of our execs are female. The entire risk team is female. We are diverse in terms of gender, age and ethnicity because we want to truly understand our customers and build a product that is inclusive.”

Brian Dixon, partner at Kapor Capital, points out that there are about 45 million people in the U.S. who should have credit scores, but cannot take out a loan, get a credit card, or apply for a mortgage. And that number is only increasing.

“When we learned that Kristy experienced these issues firsthand when she moved to the United States and thoughtfully figured out a way to circumvent the predatory and broken credit card system, it deepened our conviction in her and the product itself,” he wrote via email.

Dixon believes that TomoCredit’s model of not charging the user makes it a “safe and affordable alternative” to what is in the market.

“Their mission aligns with our thesis of closing gaps of access and opportunity in the credit space at large as well,” he added.

Glassdoor acquires Fishbowl, a semi-anonymous social network and job board, to square up to LinkedIn

While LinkedIn doubles down on creators to bring a more human, less manicured element to its networking platform for professionals, a company that has built a reputation for publishing primarily the more messy and human impressions of work life has made an acquisition that might help it compete better with LinkedIn.

Glassdoor, the platform that lets people post anonymous and candid feedback about the organizations they work for, has acquired Fishbowl — an app that gives users an anonymous option also to provide frank employee feedback, as well as join interest-based conversation groups to chat about work, and search for jobs. Glassdoor, which has 55 million users, is already integrating Fishbowl content into its main platform, although Fishbowl, with its 1 million users, will also continue for now to operate as a standalone app, too.

Christian Sutherland-Wong, the CEO of Glassdoor, said that he sees Fishbowl as the logical evolution of how Glassdoor is already being used. Similarly, since people are already seeking out feedback on prospective employers, it makes sense to bring recruitment and reviews closer together.

“We’ve always been about workplace transparency,” he said in an interview. “We expect in the future that jobseekers will use Glassdoor reviews, and also look to existing professionals in their fields to get answers from each other.” Fishbowl has seen a lot of traction during the Covid-19 pandemic, growing its user base threefold in the last year.

The acquisition is technically being made by Recruit Holdings, the Japanese employment listings and tech giant that acquired Glassdoor for $1.2 billion in 2018, and the companies are not disclosing any financial terms. San Francisco-based Fishbowl — founded in 2016 by Matt Sunbulli and Loren Appin — had raised less than $8 million, according to PitchBook data, from a pretty impressive set of investors, including Binary Capital, GGV, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and Scott Belsky.

Microsoft-owned LinkedIn towers over the likes of Glassdoor in terms of size. It now has more than 774 million users, making it by far the biggest social media platform targeting professionals and their work-related content. But for many, even some of those who use it, the platform leaves something to be desired.

LinkedIn is a reliable go-to for putting out a profile of yourself, for the public, for those in your professional life, or for recruiters, to find. But what LinkedIn largely lacks are normal people talking about work in an honest way. To read about other’s often self-congratulatory professional developments, or to see motivational words on professional development from already hugely successful personalities, or to browse developments relative to your industry that probably have already seen elsewhere is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s anodyne. Sometimes people just want tea to be spilled.

That’s where something like Glassdoor comes into the picture: the format of making comments anonymous on there turns it into something of the anti-LinkedIn. It is caustic, perhaps sometimes bitter, talk about the workplace, balanced out with positive words seem to get periodically suspected of being seeded by the companies themselves. Motivational, inspirational and aspirational are generally not part of the Glassdoor lexicon; honest, illuminating, and sobering perhaps are.

Fishbowl will be used to augment this and give Glassdoor another set of tools now to see how it might build out its platform beyond workplace reviews. The idea is to target people who come to Glassdoor to read about what people think of a company, or to put in their own comments: they can now also jump into conversations with others; and if they are coming to complain about their employer, now they can also look for a new one!

In the meantime, it feels like the swing to more authenticity is also a result of the shift we’ve seen in the world of work.

Covid-19 mandated office closures and social distancing have meant that many professionals have been working at home for the majority of the last year and a half (and many continue to do so). That has changed how we “come to work”, with many of our traditional divides between work and non-work personas and time management blurring. That has had an inevitable impact on how we see ourselves at work, and what we seek to get out of that engagement. And it also has led many people to feel isolated and in need of more ways to connect with colleagues.

Glassdoor’s acquisition, it said, was in part to meet this demand. A Harris Poll commissioned by Glassdoor found that 48% of employees felt isolated from coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic; 42% of employees felt their career stall due to the lack of in-person connection; and 45% of employees expect to work hybrid or full-time remotely going forward — all areas that Glassdoor believes can be addressed with better tools (like Fishbowl) for people to communicate.

Of course, it will remain to be seen whether Glassdoor can convert its visitors to use the new Fishbowl-powered tools, but if there really is a population of users out there looking for a new kind of LinkedIn — there certainly are enough who love to complain about it — then maybe this cold be one version of that.

SpotOn raises $300M at a $3.15B valuation and acquires Appetize

Last year at this time, SpotOn was on the brink of announcing a $60 million Series C funding round at a $625 million valuation.

Fast-forward to almost exactly one year later and a lot has changed for the payments and software startup.

Today, SpotOn said it has closed on $300 million in Series E financing that values the company at $3.15 billion — more than 5x of its valuation at the time of its Series C round, and significantly higher than its $1.875 billion valuation in May (yes, just three and a half months ago) when it raised $125 million in a Series D funding event.

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) led both the Series D and E rounds for the company, which says it has seen 100% growth year over year and a tripling in revenue over the past 18 months. Existing investors DST Global, 01 Advisors, Dragoneer Investment Group, Franklin Templeton and Mubadala Investment Company too doubled down on their investments in SpotOn, joining new backers Wellington Management and Coatue Management. Advisors Douglas Merritt, CEO of Splunk, and Mike Scarpelli, CFO of Snowflake, also made individual investments as angels. With the new capital, SpotOn has raised $628 million since its inception.

The latest investment is being used to finance the acquisition of another company in the space — Appetize, a digital and mobile commerce payments platform for enterprises such as sports and entertainment venues, theme parks and zoos. SpotOn is paying $415 million in cash and stock for the Los Angeles-based company.

Since its 2017 inception, SpotOn has been focused on providing software and payments technology to SMBs with an emphasis on restaurants and retail businesses. The acquisition of Appetize extends SpotOn’s reach to the enterprise space in a major way. Appetize will go to market as SpotOn and will work to grow its client base, which already includes an impressive list of companies and organizations, including Live Nation, LSU, Dodger Stadium and Urban Air. 

In fact, Appetize currently covers 65% of all major league sports stadiums, specializing in contactless payments, mobile ordering and menu management. So for example, when you’re ordering food at a game or concert, Appetize’s technology makes it easier to pay in a variety of contactless ways through point of sale (POS) devices, self-service kiosks, handheld devices, online ordering, mobile web and API integrations.

Image Credits: SpotOn

SpotOn is taking on the likes of Square in the payments space. But the company says its offering extends beyond traditional payment processing and point-of-sale software. Its platform aims to give SMBs the ability to run their businesses “from building a brand to taking payments and everything in between.” SpotOn’s goal is to be a “one-stop shop” by incorporating tools that include things such as custom website development, scheduling software, marketing, appointment scheduling, review management, analytics and digital loyalty.

The combined company will have 1,600 employees — 1,300 from SpotOn and 300 from Appetize. SpotOn will now have over 500 employees on its product and technology team, according to co-founder and co-CEO Zach Hyman. It will also have clients in the tens of thousands, a number that SpotOn says is growing by “thousands more every month.”

The acquisition is not the first for SpotOn, which also acquired SeatNinja last year and Emagine in 2018.

But in Appetize it saw a company that was complementary both in its go-to-market and tech stacks, and a “natural fit.”

“SMEs are going to benefit from the scalable tech that can grow with them, including things like kiosks and offline modes, and for the enterprise clients of Appetize, they’re going to be able to leverage products like sophisticated loyalty programs and extended marketing capabilities,” Hyman told TechCrunch. 

SpotOn was not necessarily planning to raise another round so soon, Hyman added, but the opportunity came up to acquire Appetize.

“We spent a lot of time together, and it was too compelling to pass up,” he told TechCrunch.

For its part, Appetize — which has raised over $77 million over its lifetime, according to Crunchbase — too saw the combination as a logical one.

“It was important to us to retain a stake in the business. We were not looking to cash out,” said Appetize CEO Max Roper. “We are deeply invested in growing the business together. It’s a big win for our team and our clients over the long term. This is a rocketship that we are excited to be on.” 

No doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic only emphasized the need for more digital offerings from small businesses to enterprises alike.

“There has been a high demand for our services and now as businesses are faced with a Covid resurgence, no one is closing down,” Hyman said. “So they see a responsibility to install the necessary technology to properly run their business.”

One of the moves SpotOn has made, for example, is launching a vaccination alert system in its reservation management software platform to make it easier for consumers to confirm they are vaccinated for cities and states that have those requirements.

Clearly, a16z General Partner David George too was bullish on the idea of a combined company.

He told TechCrunch that the two companies fit together “extremely nicely.”

“It felt like a no-brainer for us to want to lead the round, and continue to support them,” George said.

Since first investing in SpotOn in May, the startup’s growth has “exceeded” a16z’s expectations, he added.

“When companies are growing as fast as it is organically, they don’t need to rely on acquisitions to fuel growth,” he said. “But the strategic rationale here is so strong, that the acquisition will only turbocharge what is already high growth.”

While the Series E capital is primarily funding the acquisition, SpotOn continues to double down on its product and technology.

“This is our time to shine and invest in the future with forward-thinking technology,” Hyman told TechCrunch. “We’re thinking about things like how are consumers going to be ordering their beer at a Dodgers game in three years? Are they going to be standing in line for 25 minutes or are they going to be interacting and buying merchandise in other unique ways? Those are the things we’re looking to solve for.”

Startup insurance provider Vouch raises $90M, now valued at $550M

Vouch, a provider of business insurance to startups and high-growth companies, announced today it has raised $90 million in new funding.

The $90 million figure was raised across two rounds: a $60 million Series C co-led by SVB Capital (a subsidiary of Silicon Valley Bank) and Ribbit Capital that values the company at $550 million, and a previously unannounced $30 million Series B1 led by Redpoint Ventures.

With the latest financing, San Francisco-based Vouch has now raised a total of $160 million since its 2018 inception. Other investors include Allegis Group, Sound Ventures and SiriusPoint.

While there are many insurance technology companies out there that serve consumers, there are far fewer that offer it to companies, much less startups. Vouch describes itself as “a new kind of insurance platform” for startups that offers fully digital, “tailored coverage that takes minutes to activate.”

Over the past year, Vouch has seen impressive growth. The company declined to reveal hard revenue figures, but said it saw “7x” increase in its customer base year over year and currently protects over $5.7 billion in risk across thousands of policies. Today, Vouch has more than 1,600 clients, including Pipe, Middesk, Neighbor and Routable. It is also the “preferred” business insurance provider to the customers of Silicon Valley Bank, Brex, Carta and WeWork. Y Combinator too also refers Vouch to its portfolio companies. 

To Vouch co-founder and CEO Sam Hodges, the ability to attract some of the highest-profile businesses in the startup world speaks to the company’s understanding of the startup ecosystem. 

“It’s our responsibility to meet startup founders where they are, and give startups flexibility as they navigate changing laws, regulations and the virtual and physical locations of their businesses,” he said.

Like many other companies, Vouch had to shift its model during the pandemic to adapt to the different types of emerging risks businesses have faced. For example, last year, Vouch saw a change in where its startup clients’ teams were distributed. Before the pandemic, nearly 30% of the teams were remote. During the pandemic, that figure has shifted to over 53%. As a result, Vouch developed a broader range of insurance coverages to adapt to the “new normal.”

Included in its new line of proprietary products and services aimed at startups are: work from anywhere coverage, broader cyber coverages and embedded insurance. It also expanded its underwriting capabilities to serve early-stage to growth-market startups.

In particular, the work from anywhere coverage is in direct response to the pandemic-related shift in remote work and can insure up to $500,000 per occurrence and can include a specified property owned by a startup regardless of the location of that property.

One major differentiator for Vouch, said Hodges, is that it is now the only business insurance provider that has its own insurance carrier, which means the company backs its own policies.

“This capability means we have a lot of control over how we build and underwrite our policies — which translates into superior coverage and a better experience for our clients,” he said.

 Hodges co-founded Vouch with Travis Hedge three years ago after seeing how challenging it could be for a company to get the business insurance it needs to start and then scale.

The goal is to make it as easy as possible to onboard new customers and personalize the coverage as much as possible based on each company’s needs based on what they do, their customer base, stage of growth and the founder’s threshold for risk.

“A typical client can get a quote and bind their coverage online in under 10 minutes, without any phone calls or paperwork,” he told TechCrunch. “Vouch also has many coverage features that are uniquely geared for startups. For example, our directors and officers coverage includes a cap table coverage feature meant specifically to protect startups.”

Vouch looks at startups that need business insurance on a case by case basis, Hodges added. 

For example, it asks questions like, “Does an e-commerce company handle a very limited amount of client-sensitive information?” If so, it could make sense that it has a lower cyber insurance coverage limit and pay less for its policy. 

Conversely, if a startup is trying to raise money, it might need to invest more in Vouch’s directors and officers insurance to make sure it is covered should disputes arise in the future. 

Looking ahead, Hodges said the new capital would go toward continued investment in technical capabilities, an expansion of its product offerings, more hiring and building embedded insurance for its partners.

With regard to the embedded capabilities, within the next 12 months, all of the company’s partners’ customers will be able to purchase Vouch insurance directly from those partners’ websites. Vouch’s headcount has more than doubled, from 55 employees in September 2020 to 125 full-time employees presently, and Hodges expects that will continue to grow.

Greg Becker, president and CEO of SVB Financial Group, said that Vouch’s mission aligns with SVB’s in that they both aim to “empower the innovation economy.” 

That’s what Vouch is doing today, helping startups and tech innovators mitigate their risks as they grow,” he wrote via email. “We are proud to co-lead Vouch’s latest funding round to give startups access to the insurance they need as they add headcount, increase their customer base, or raise funding rounds of their own.”

You can’t hack your YC application, but here’s what to avoid

The Y Combinator application season is upon us. I have been through YC a couple of times and have reviewed thousands of applications as a volunteer in later years.

Typically, you hear advice focused on ways to improve your YC application so it gets accepted. Here are some tips on what not to do and why so many YC applications get rejected. I’ve also put down some advice about what else to anticipate and take into consideration as you navigate the application process.

In short, don’t overthink your application, and keep it simple and straightforward.

When should I submit my YC application?

When in doubt, read YC’s instructions and answer the question literally. Avoid verbose marketing lingo and keep answers short and concise.

The best applications are often those made at the last minute, because applicants do not overthink their responses and toil over details they think need to be shoved into a question. While I do not recommend submitting applications at the deadline because the system has had issues receiving submissions, you can capture the essence of last-minute submissions by being clear and concise.

Remember that your application should be good enough to get an interview, not win a prize. Go back to work instead of spending more time perfecting an application.

YC experiments frequently. For this batch and the last, there was an early deadline that would give accepted teams access to YC before the batch officially began. Applying early gives you an opportunity to land an interview in the early round and to update your application to be considered in the standard round.

Is it OK to submit my YC application late?

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.

But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.

LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected, and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, A.I., Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including Chief Product & Innovation Officer, Corporate Development Officer, and Chief Strategy Officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also Chief Digital Officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist, Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer, Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS, and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today —  in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can you video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to 5 call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 different languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join you. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles, or

LOVE says its at valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV, and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

ForgeRock files for IPO as identity and access management business grows

ForgeRock filed its form S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this morning as the identity management provider takes the next step toward its IPO.

The company did not provide initial pricing for its shares, which will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FORG. The IPO is being led by Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., with the company being valued as high as $4 billion, according to Bloomberg, which is a significant uplift over the $730 million post-money value that PitchBook had for the company after its last round in 2020.

With the ever-increasing volume of cybersecurity attacks against organizations of all sizes, the need to secure and manage user identities is of growing importance. Based in San Francisco, ForgeRock has raised $233 million in funding across multiple rounds. The company’s last round was a $93.5 million Series E announced in April 2020, which was led by Riverwood Capital alongside Accenture Ventures. At that time, CEO Fran Rosch told TechCrunch that the round would be the last before an IPO, which was also what former CEO Mike Ellis told us after the startup’s $88 million Series D in September 2017.

While the timing of its IPO might have been unclear over the last few years, the company has been on a positive trajectory for growth. In its S-1, ForgeRock reported that as of June 30, its annual recurring revenue (ARR) was $155 million, representing 30% year-over-year growth. 

While revenue is growing, losses are narrowing as the company reported a $20 million net loss down from $36 million a year ago. There certainly is a whole lot of room to grow, as the company estimates that the total global addressable market for identity services to be worth $71 billion. 

Among the many competitors that ForgeRock faces is Okta, which went public in 2017 and has been growing in the years since. In March, Okta acquired cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion in a deal that raised a few eyebrows. Another competitor is Ping Identity, which went public in 2019 and is also growing, reporting on August 4 that its ARR hit $279.6 million in its quarter ended June 30, for a 19% year-over-year gain. There have also been a few big exits in the space over the years, including Duo Security, which was acquired by Cisco for $2.35 billion in 2018.

“ForgeRock has a good access management tool and they continue to be a strong player in customer identity and access management (CIAM),” commented Michael Kelley, senior research director at Gartner.

Kelley noted that in 2020, ForgeRock converted most of its core access management services to a SaaS delivery model, which helped the company catch up with the rest of the market that already offered access management as SaaS. Also last year the company expanded into identity governance, introducing a brand new identity, governance and administration (IGA) product.

“I think one of the more interesting products that ForgeRock offers is ForgeRock Trees, which is a no-code/low-code orchestration tool for building complex authentication and authorization journeys for customers, which is particularly helpful in the CIAM market,” Kelly added.

ForgeRock was founded in 2010, but its roots go back even further to an open-source single sign-on project known as OpenSSO that was created by Sun Microsystems in 2005. When Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems in early 2010, a number of its open-source efforts were left to languish, which is what led a number of former Sun employees to start ForgeRock. 

Over the last decade, ForgeRock has expanded significantly beyond just providing a single sign-on to providing an identity platform that can handle consumer, enterprise and IoT use-cases. The company’s platform today handles identity and access management as well as identity governance.

The ability to scale is a key selling point that ForgeRock makes in the S-1, noting that its platform can handle over 60,000 user-based access transactions per second per customer. 

“As of June 30, 2021, we had four customers with 100 million or more licensed identities, the company stated in the S-1. “Our ability to serve mission-critical needs in complex environments for large customers enables us to grow our base of large customers and expand within each of them. “

 

Sequoia leads $13M investment in Aalto, an online marketplace that lets homeowners sell directly to buyers

If you’ve ever sold a house, you know what a pain it is to go through the process of listing, showing and negotiating the sale of your home.

It’s so much of a pain that many people put it off as long as possible because they don’t want to deal with it. The result is fewer homes on the market, which exacerbates existing housing shortages in already tight markets such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

In an attempt to help address the problem, one startup called Aalto has built out a new kind of homeowner marketplace. It’s a private one that doesn’t rely on the MLS, and gives sellers more control of how and when their homes are listed, shown and sold. Today Aalto is emerging from stealth and announcing that it has raised $13 million in a Series A funding round led by Sequoia Capital. 

Background Capital, Defy Partners, Maple VC and Greg Waldorf — the first investor at Trulia — also participated in the financing, which brings Aalto’s total raised to $17.3 million since its 2018 inception.

Aalto’s online marketplace, which launched in April of this year, directly connects homeowners to buyers. The company claims that a potential seller can list their home on its platform in five minutes, rather than a typical process that is closer to five weeks. Since launching in the Bay Area, Aalto has built up a network of more than 30,000 buyers and more than two dozen homes have been sold via the marketplace. Currently, about 85 homes are listed for sale on its platform, with an average of one new home being added per day. 

Ironically, Aalto founder and CEO Nick Narodny is the son and brother of real estate agents. He concedes that the startup’s platform could be seen as a threat to the industry, but notes the trade-off is that more homes end up on the market, which helps minimize the region’s affordability crisis, and sellers see higher returns.

Currently, 5-10% of total available inventory listed in competitive markets like Dublin, Fremont, Mill Valley and Milpitas are listed on the Aalto platform. And, Narodny said, the company is on its way to bring more homes to market, sooner.

“Buying or selling a home is one of the biggest events people will ever experience, but it’s also a tedious, outdated process,” he said. 

Image Credits: Nick Narodny / Aalto

Aalto aims to double the number of homes on the market in the Bay Area by streamlining the way homeowners can list, without the third-parties or contracts required elsewhere. This dramatically lowers the bar to sell, according to Narodny, bringing homes to market an average of four and a half months earlier than traditional real estate processes.

The platform offers a preview listing feature that allows sellers to list with no commitment. They can also build a waitlist of qualified buyers for their home while they consider a sale. 

“We pull the tax record and info to make it super easy and ask the seller to fill out a Q&A,” Narodny said. After filling out that info, sellers can then see interested buyers and those that are prequalified or that can make all cash offers.

The process is also less intrusive, Narodny said, by giving the seller more of a say in who sees their home and when. For example, sellers can also line up virtual or in-person showings on their own schedule. And they can sell the homes on their timelines — whether it be in a few weeks, or few months.

For example, a San Francisco-based hand surgeon recently listed his home on the Aalto platform with the desire of moving at the end of October. More than two dozen people were interested and he allowed a few people to tour the home. He was able to sell the house based on a timeline that was more beneficial for him.

“People can sell totally on their terms and are much more connected in the process,” Narodny said. Busy professionals such as the surgeon with director and above titles and growing families so far are among the most common sellers on the platform.

Image Credits: Aalto

Also, there is an economic benefit. By removing a middleman, or agent, from the process, sellers can make an average of $44,000 more on their home sale, according to Narodny. The startup charges a 1% fee, compared to the 2-2.5% commission that an agent charges. But if a seller requires help “with the hard stuff,” Aalto has “expert, licensed” people available.

Sellers can craft descriptions of their homes in a way that comes across as more personal than if an agent does it, according to Narodny.

“We have them tell their own story of their home,” he said.

The approach also gives them more privacy. For example, an MLS will show when a home was listed and any price reductions. A home listed on Aalto won’t include any of that information. Also similar to Airbnb, the seller’s exact address is not shared, just a radius. 

The benefit for buyers — besides having more options — is the ability to set up instant alerts, join waitlists and schedule showings in one easy-to-use platform. They can also “anonymously prequalify and share that with a seller,” Narodny said.

Bryan Schreier, partner at Sequoia Capital, believes that real estate is “one of the last giant industries with a 1900s experience.”

“It’s a painful process where the seller has limited visibility and the buyer is holding their breath after every bid,” he said. “Aalto is the first company to reinvent how homes are bought and sold by putting the consumer first. It goes far beyond a listing site and reinvents every aspect of the experience to be customer oriented rather than realtor oriented.”

Looking ahead, the company plans to expand beyond the Bay Area to other major metropolitan real estate markets in California and across the country. It also plans to use its new capital to continue improving its technology.

Meanwhile, Narodny insists that while the platform may be seen as a threat by some agents, it’s not a malicious thing.

“My family and I are very close. It’s something that I talk about with them quite a bit,” he told TechCrunch. “I believe Aalto truly is additive. We still work with them every day and will continue to…It’s not like agents are totally being replaced.”

Construction tech startup Agora raises $33M in Tiger Global-led round amid 760% YoY ARR growth

Agora, a startup that has built a materials management platform for contractors, has raised $33 million in a Series B round of funding led by Tiger Global Management.

8VC, Tishman Speyer, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, Michael Ovitz, DST, LeFrak and Kevin Hartz also participated in the financing, which brings the startup’s total raised since its 2018 inception to about $45 million.

Construction tech is one of those sectors that has not historically been considered “sexy” in a startup world that often favors glitzier technology. But construction fuels the commercial and real estate industries, which in turn impacts all of us in one way or another.

Meanwhile, the $10 trillion construction industry has long been plagued with productivity challenges. In fact, according to McKinsey, labor productivity growth in the industry has been stagnant since 1947.

Image Credits: Agora

Maria Rioumine and Ryan Gibson founded Agora with the mission of making it easier for commercial trade contractors to order and track materials, automate manual data entry and give everyone involved in the procurement process a single platform by which they can communicate with each other.

The end goal is to help projects move along faster, and contractors to avoid unnecessary delays by reducing building costs. The bigger picture impact, Agora hopes, is that its SaaS platform can help make the “built environment faster and more efficient to build,” and thus help make cities “more affordable and accessible to all.” 

San Francisco-based Agora is tackling the problem in a very specific, niche way that is proving to be popular both with contractors and investors alike. Rather than attempting to be a blanket solution for all trades, Agora is focusing on specific trade verticals, one by one. For example, it started out with electrical and is now moving into mechanical.

“Last year, there was more than $101 billion worth of electrical work done. Our customers work on all types of products,” Rioumine told TechCrunch. “For example, we have customers that do power stations, some that build hospitals and others that build school classrooms and university campuses, and still others that build churches and casinos. The work that these contractors do is so essential.”

Agora’s annual recurring revenue has grown 760% year over year while its customer base is up 6x during the same time frame, according to the company. It has also tripled its headcount to 45 people and today is processing $140 million in annualized materials volume for its customers.

The startup wasn’t actively raising for the Series B — instead, investors were proactively offering term sheets, Rioumine said.

“A few investors that knew us well approached us about preempting the round,” she told TechCrunch. “Twelve days after the first conversation, we had multiple term sheets.”

Tiger Global Partner John Curtius said he was drawn to Agora’s “unique” trade-specific approach.

In his view, the startup is “defining the future of procurement in construction.”

“Agora is solving a huge and critical problem,” Curtius wrote via email. “Billions of dollars a year are wasted because of inefficient procurement processes and breakages in the supply chain.”

The platform specifically does things like give contractors the ability to: customize templates, create pre-approved materials lists and easily reorder frequently needed items, order from a catalogue that offers more than 400,000 SKUs and eliminate manual data entry, which reduces errors and automates basic processes.

By bringing both field and office teams onto one digital platform, Agora claims it saves office teams 75% of the time they spend processing purchase orders, and field teams 38% of the time their foremen spend on materials management. In total, the company said its technology can provide up to $300,000 of potential annual savings for its average customer.

The company plans to use its new capital to hire across a number of teams, as well as continue to expand beyond 30 states and into other trade verticals.

“There has been this really heavy underinvestment in tech in construction for a long time,” Rioumine said. On average, the technology spend as a proportion of revenue in construction is about 1.5%, “which is actually the lowest of the industries out there where the median is 3.3%,” she added.

“So when we think about just how large this industry is and how little productivity improvements there have been recently, I think now we have this amazing opportunity to really invest in technology and bring it on to the job sites and into trade contractors’ hands.”