All posts in “Fundings & Exits”

Glowforge opens public orders for its desktop 3D laser cutter

Hardware startup Glowforge, which makes a desktop laser cutter and engraver for home or office use, has finally opened up sales to the general public.

The maker-targeted device, which can ‘print’ (read: engrave/laser cut) a variety of materials including leather, wood, acrylic, glass, and even the metal surface of a Macbook, starts at $2,495 for the entry level machine, rising to a full $5,995 for the pro model — which is billed as faster, able to print larger items, and capable of running for longer periods.

With a starter price-tag of $2.5k Glowforge is clearly not for everyone. Though arguably it does offer more creative bang for your buck than, say, the equally expensive Skydio face-tracking selfie drone. But horses for courses, and all that.

The Seattle-based startup has also topped up with $10M more in VC funding, according GeekWire, from existing investors True Ventures and Foundry Group — who also backed its $22M Series B, in mid 2016, and an earlier $9M Series A.

Glowforge has raised just over $60M at this point, according to Crunchbase, including pulling in almost $30M in pre-sales via a crowdfunding campaign back in 2015. We first covered the hardware startup ahead of that, when it announced its Series A.

Safe to say, it’s been a long journey to turn the founders’ novel idea and prototype into a market-ready and robust laser cutter — and get that into all its backers’ hands.

It’s also clearly been a frustrating process at times. But Glowforge now at least appears confident it can fulfill orders in a timely fashion — it’s offering a May 3 shipping date to new buyers (within the US).

That said, it does not look like all original backers have had their device shipped though.

According to founder Dan Shapiro’s comments to GeekWire, there are some backers who still haven’t got their device — for a few different reasons. “There’s some folks who haven’t replied, asked us not to send it yet, or live in a country that’s awaiting regulatory approval,” he told it.

A quasi-optional air filter component for the Glowforge — which costs an additional $995 — also isn’t shipping until November. (A note on the website says the machine can be used without it, though in that case it warns the placement of the machine “needs a window or 4″ dryer hose”.)

Pivotal CEO talks IPO and balancing life in Dell family of companies

Pivotal has kind of a strange role for a company. On one hand its part of the EMC federation companies that Dell acquired in 2016 for a cool $67 billion, but it’s also an independently operated entity within that broader Dell family of companies — and that has to be a fine line to walk.

Whatever the challenges, the company went public yesterday and joined VMware as a  separately traded company within Dell. CEO Rob Mee says the company took the step of IPOing because it wanted additional capital.

“I think we can definitely use the capital to invest in marketing and R&D. The wider technology ecosystem is moving quickly. It does take additional investment to keep up,” Mee told TechCrunch just a few hours after his company rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

As for that relationship of being a Dell company, he said that Michael Dell let him know early on after the EMC acquisition that he understood the company’s position. “From the time Dell acquired EMC, Michael was clear with me: You run the company. I’m just here to help. Dell is our largest shareholder, but we run independently. There have been opportunities to test that [since the acquisition] and it has held true,” Mee said.

Mee says that independence is essential because Pivotal has to remain technology-agnostic and it can’t favor Dell products and services over that mission. “It’s necessary because our core product is a cloud-agnostic platform. Our core value proposition is independence from any provider — and Dell and VMware are infrastructure providers,” he said.

That said, Mee also can play both sides because he can build products and services that do align with Dell and VMware offerings. “Certainly the companies inside the Dell family are customers of ours. Michael Dell has encouraged the IT group to adopt our methods and they are doing so,” he said. They have also started working more closely with VMware, announcing a container partnership last year.

Photo: Ron Miller

Overall though he sees his company’s mission in much broader terms, doing nothing less than helping the world’s largest companies transform their organizations. “Our mission is to transform how the world builds software. We are focused on the largest organizations in the world. What is a tailwind for us is that the reality is these large companies are at a tipping point of adopting how they digitize and develop software for strategic advantage,” Mee said.

The stock closed up 5 percent last night, but Mee says this isn’t about a single day. “We do very much focus on the long term. We have been executing to a quarterly cadence and have behaved like a public company inside Pivotal [even before the IPO]. We know how to do that while keeping an eye on the long term,” he said.

Wonolo picks up $13M to create a way to connect temp workers with companies

AJ Brustein was out spending time with a member of his merchandising team when a nearby store ran out of stock of some goods — but there was no one on staff responsible for that location. Fortunately, the employee he was with had already showed him how to restock the shelves, and he offered to peel off and do it himself.

But that gap in the workforce may have just continued, leading directly to potential lost revenue for companies that sell products in those stores. That’s why Brustein and Yong Kim started Wonolo, a tool to connect companies with temporary workers in order to fill the unexpected demand those companies might face in those same out-of-stock situations. Wonolo employees sign up for the platform, and the companies that partner with the startup have an opportunity to grab the necessary workers they need on a more flexible basis. Wonolo today said it has raised $13 million in a new financing round led by Sequoia Capital, including existing investors PivotNorth and Crunchfund, and new investor Base10. Sequoia Capital’s Jess Lee is joining the company’s board of directors as part of the financing.

“There’s a big opportunity  helping people fill in their schedule with shifts,” Brustein said. “We really found there’s this huge untapped market of people who are looking for work who are underemployed. Let’s say Mary is a great worker and has a great job at the Home Depot, but no matter how good she, is she can only get 29 hours of work. It’s hard to manage schedules between different employers that want you to work the same hours. That’s the market we’ve really focused on, the underemployed market, which is a growing unfortunate trend in the U.S. That’s changed a little bit about the types of jobs we have on the platform.”

Wonolo is essentially looking to replace the typical temp agency experience, which helps workers find positions with companies that need a more limited amount of time. Meanwhile, those workers get an opportunity to fill in extra shifts that they might need for additional income on a more flexible schedule. Once a company posts a job to Wonolo, employees will get notified that it’s available and then get a chance to pick up those shifts, and when the job is approved those workers get paid right away.

While the jobs that Wonolo is suited for are more along the lines of merchandising, events staff, or more general labor, the hope is that the service will also expose those employees to a variety of companies who may actually end up wanting to hire them at some point. It allows them to get a good snapshot of all the work that’s available, and theoretically would help offer them an additional step on a career path that could get them to a direct full-time job with any of the companies from which they might end up accepting jobs.

“We thought we could address [the idea of being able to deal with unpredictability] better than temp staffing, and we realized the antidote was flexibility on the worker side,” Brustein said. “We could match them with these jobs that would unpredictably pop up. When we dug into it, we realized flexibility was something that was just completely lacking for workers. We took a very different approach to the way that people will often recruit talent for staffing agencies or their own employees. We are looking at character traits.”

Wonolo was born out of Brustein and Kim’s experience at Coca-Cola, where they had an opportunity to work with a major brand for a number of years. After a while, they got an opportunity to start working on a more entrepreneurial project, and that’s when that whole merchandising scenario played out and prompted them to start working on Wonolo. That part about character traits is an important part for Wonolo, Brustein said — because as long as someone can complete a job, they don’t have to be an absolute expert, as long as they are there ready and good to go.

There are, of course, companies trying to create platforms for temporary workers, like TrueBlue, and Brustein said Wonolo will inevitably have to compete with more local players as it looks to expand. But the hope is that aiming to tap the same kind of flexibility that made Uber so popular for temporary staffers — and potentially that pathway to a big career opportunity — will be one that attracts them to their service.

Taiwanese startup Kdan Mobile raises $5M Series A for its cloud-based content creation tools

Kdan Mobile founder and CEO Kenny Su

Kdan Mobile, a Taiwanese startup that makes cloud-based software for content creators, announced a $5 million Series A today, raised from investors including W.I. Harper Group, Darwin Venture Management and Accord Ventures. Founded in 2009, the Tainan City startup says its products have been downloaded more 120 million times, with about 40% of its customers located in the United States.

Its Series A takes Kdan Mobile’s total funding so far to $6.5 million. The capital will be used for product development, including blockchain-based encryption for documents and real-time collaboration features, to appeal to enterprise and education users. The company also plans to spend more on user acquisition in the U.S. and China, two of its growth markets.

Kdan Mobile’s products include Creativity 365, a software suite with a mobile animation creator and video editor, and Document 365, launched last year to attract enterprise users. The company also recently began offering new subscription plans for businesses and educational organizations and claims that its cloud platform, called Kdan Cloud, now counts over 3.5 million members.

Founder and chief executive officer Kenny Su says Kdan Mobile is seeking new partners that will allow it to establish a bigger presence in markets like Japan. One of its Series A investors, Accord Ventures, is based in Tokyo, and Kdan Mobile may start marketing to the country’s animation industry, Su tells TechCrunch. The company already has partnerships with Taiwanese mobile services provider GMobi, Jot Stylus maker Adonit and Ningbo, China-based design sharing platform LKKER.

Su says one of the ways Kdan’s products differentiate from cloud-based software by Google, Microsoft, Adobe and other major competitors is its focus on artists, designers and other creative professionals. Kdan’s products were also created to allow users to start projects on mobile devices before moving onto desktop apps. As many users of Google Docs, Office 365 or Adobe Creative Cloud have discovered, accessing them on mobile devices feels much more awkward than on desktop. Kdan Mobile, however, was founded just as smartphones and tablets usage was becoming widespread, and its products were created specifically for mobile.

“We are trying to fill the gap, helping users create content on mobile and then allowing them to finish it in a desktop environment, not only with our own tools, but also by exporting to other places including Adobe,” says Su.

Part of Kdan Mobile’s Series A financing will also be used to figure out how to the company can increase the use of artificial intelligence in its products. Kdan Mobile already uses machine learning algorithms to improve its software by analyzing what users upload and recommend on its content sharing platform.

In a press statement, W.I. Harper Group managing director Y.K. Chu said “We are stunned by Kdan’s leading development technology and global vision. We are glad to be part of their development plan and expect to grow with them.”

Teachable raises $4M to create a tool to turn any online class into a true business

Online coursework is exploding across all kinds of verticals and fields of expertise — but those courses inevitably end up on platforms like Udemy, and for Ankur Nagpal, that’s really not a way to build a true business.

That’s why Nagpal started Teachable, a platform for experts that want to create a business around their coursework that helps them build an entire online education suite beyond just platforms like Coursera or Udemy. Niche expertise can be way too valuable for just a simple marketplace like Coursera, Nagpal says, and experts in those areas — even seminars on mindfulness or Feng Shui — should be able to make more than just a few thousand dollars a year off that coursework. Nagpal said the company has raised an additional $4 million in equity from existing investors Accomplice Ventures and AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant.

“In the past, if you wanted to teach courses, you could either put it in the marketplace or have it on your own website — with your brand and domain name and full control of everything — but there’s no easy way to do it,” Nagpal said. “It’s the difference between listing a physical good on Amazon and having your own storefront. While you could make a few thousand dollars on Udemy, you couldn’t build a sustainable business selling courses for $10 to $15.”

That fundraise, however, comes with a whopping $134 million valuation in the end as the company expects to be profitable by the end of Q4 this year. Teachable has around 10 million students across 125,000 courses, with 12,000 paying customers on the platform. Nagpal says it is aiming for a business that will generate more than $200 million in sales this year, which might not be so far off given the speed at which it has ramped up from just $5 million in 2015 to around $90 million in 2017.

In Teachable’s earliest days, instructors focused on marketing or programming, which is where a lot of online coursework got its start when the value of knowledge skills like Ruby or Python skyrocketed. But since then, Teachable has grown into a platform where users with niche skill sets can create robust coursework, and if they already have content ready to go like videos, can get their domain up and running in just a few hours. Teachable has a multi-tier pricing structure ranging from taking small transaction fees to a paid subscription of nearly $299 a month in order to manage its online domains, which is designed to appeal to a wide variety of potential instructors looking to get their start.

“If you look at our top 10 or 20 instructors, there’s virtually no pattern of verticals that are successful,” Nagpal said. “[The popular courses are based on] professional skills, or learning to play a musical instrument, or fly a drone, or even financial empowerment. There’s almost an anti-pattern.”

And again, these aren’t supposed to be courses that get wrapped up into a $49 per-month subscription. Courses in highly specific verticals — like something like Feng shui — can cost up to a hundred dollars or more. But the idea is that these seminars have so much value that students who are looking to dive deep into them are willing to go beyond the cost of just a Udemy in order to get the most valuable content. Teachable aims to make it easy to port the kind of content instructors might post on one of those marketplaces to quickly get them up and running with their own independent online course.

That free plan with a transaction fee is ultimately what at least piques the interest of potential instructors, and Teachable also hosts workshops to try to get them more excited about the opportunity — and then get them to start paying as they look to attract more and more students and need a more robust toolkit, like advanced reporting. or priority product support. The company doesn’t really focus on paid marketing because Nagpal says it’s “not very good at it,” as it primarily leans on word of mouth and affiliates.

“Courses on marketplaces are effectively commoditized,” he said. “I would buy the top-rated courses, but the first course is as valuable as the second or third. On our platform, if people are buying the Ruby on Rails course, it’s probably because they’ve followed an expert on that for a year. What I’m buying is not commoditized, I have a relationship with that person. Their content is much more valuable. All the sales are generated through an instructor.”

Nagpal said he got his start building a bunch of, well, bad Facebook apps like personality quizzes and really simple flash games in the early days of the Facebook Platform. Getting such an early glimpse at that behavior on the Facebook Platform is pretty controversial today with the massive privacy scandal Facebook faces after Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm, ended up with personal data of up to 87 million people through a simple app on the Facebook Platform. Nagpal, however, said what now seems like a treasure trove of data was at the time not really all that useful for that business.

“We got some of that data, but to us it was junk and we never stored it,” he said. “It just seemed like noise.”

The biggest challenge for Teachable, Nagpal says, is making sure instructors actually want to remain instructors. The free tier might attract them to getting started, but instructors might just get burnt out from being instructors in general — whether that’s on Teachable or a marketplace like Udemy. The real competition, he says, are platforms like YouTube and other time sinks for content creators. To keep them on board, Teachable hopes to expand to other verticals of content like coaching and services. That, too, might keep it ahead of marketplaces like Coursera and eventually woo instructors with the opportunity to build an entire online business on Teachable.

“Every month we have 50 people getting more [than the top paid instructor on a platform like Skillshare],” he said. “The sustainability of the business is very different. It’s really hard to make a living selling $10 courses. On our platform, the average price point is closer to $100, which in turn gets reinvested to create actually good content. We’re finding most of the instructors don’t just sell courses, and they have multiple income streams. We’re trying to see if we can get our checkout product powering all that. That creates network lock-in.”

Teachable also took on a few smaller investors including Shopify founder Tobias Lutke, Weebly founder Chris Fanini, Lynda.com CEO Eric Robison, and Getty Images founder Jonathan Klein.