All posts in “Startups”

Unicorns aren’t profitable, and Wall Street doesn’t care

In Silicon Valley, investors don’t expect their portfolio companies to be profitable. “Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies,” a bible for founders, instead calls for heavy spending on growth to scale in an Amazon -like fashion.

As for Wall Street, it’s shown an affinity for stock in Jeff Bezos’ business, despite the many years it spent navigating a path to profitability, as well as other money-losing endeavors. Why? Because it too is far less concerned with profitability than market opportunity.

Lyft, a ride-hailing company expected to go public this week, is not profitable. It posted losses of $911 million in 2018, a statistic that will make it the biggest loser amongst U.S. startups to have gone public, according to data collected by The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, Lyft’s $2.2 billion in 2018 revenue places it atop the list of largest annual revenues for a pre-IPO business, trailing behind only Facebook and Google in that category.

Wall Street, in short, is betting on Lyft’s revenue growth, assuming it will narrow its loses and reach profitability… eventually.

Wall Street’s hungry for unicorns

Lyft, losses notwithstanding, is growing rapidly and Wall Street is paying attention. On the second day of its road show, reports emerged that its IPO was already oversubscribed. As a result, Lyft is said to have upped the cost of its stock, with new plans to raise more than $2 billion at a valuation upwards of $25 billion. That represents a revenue multiple of more than 11x, a step up multiple of more than 1.6x from its most recent private valuation of $15.1 billion and, of course, Wall Street’s insatiable desire for unicorns, profitable or not.

New data from PitchBook exploring the performance of billion-dollar-plus VC exits confirms Wall Street’s leniency toward unprofitable tech companies. Sixty-four percent of the 100+ companies valued at more than $1 billion to complete a VC-backed IPO since 2010 were unprofitable, and in 2018, money-losing startups actually fared better on the stock exchange than money-earning businesses. Moreover, U.S. tech companies that had raised more than $20 million traded up nearly 25 percent of 2018, while the S&P 500 technology sector posted flat returns.

Wall Street is still adapting to the rapid growth of the tech industry; public markets investors, therefore, are willing to deal with negative to minimal cash flows for, well, a very long time.

A tolerance for outsized exits

There’s no doubt Lyft and its much larger competitor, Uber, will go public at monstrous valuations. The two IPOs, set to create a whole bunch of millionaires and return a number of venture capital funds, will provide Silicon Valley a lesson in Wall Street’s tolerance for outsized exits.

Much like a seed-stage investor must bet on a founder’s vision, Wall Street, given a choice of several unprofitable businesses, has to bet on potential market value. Fortunately, this strategy can work quite well. Take Floodgate, for example. The seed fund invested a small amount of capital in Lyft when it was still a quirky idea for ridesharing called Zimride. Now, it boasts shares worth more than $100 million. I’m sure early shareholders in Amazon — which went public as a money-losing company in 1997 — are pretty happy, too.

Ultimately, Wall Street’s appetite for unicorns like Lyft is a result of the shortage of VC-backed IPOs. In 2006, it was the norm for a company to make its stock market debut at 7.9 years old, per PitchBook. In 2018, companies waited until the ripe age of 10.9 years, causing a significant slowdown in big liquidity events and stock sales.

Fund sizes, however, have grown larger and the proliferation of unicorns continues at unforeseen rates. That may mean, eventually, an influx of publicly shared unicorn stock. If that’s the case, might Wall Street start asking more of these startups? At the very least, public market investors, please don’t be swayed by WeWork‘s eventual stock offering and its “community adjusted EBITDA.” Silicon Valley’s pixie dust can’t be that potent.

Linear Labs’ next-gen electric motor attracts $4.5 million in funding

Linear Labs, a startup developing an electric motor for cars, scooters, robots, wind turbines and even HVAC systems, has raised $4.5 million in a seed round led by Science Inc. and Kindred Ventures. 

Investors Chris and Crystal Sacca, Ryan Graves of Saltwater Ventures, Dynamic Signal CEO Russ Fradin, Masergy executive chairman and former-CEO Chris MacFarland, as well as Ustream co-founder Gyula Feher also participated in the round. 

The four-year-old company was founded by Brad and Fred Hunstable, who say they have invented a lighter, more flexible electric motor. The pair came up with the motor they’ve dubbed the Hunstable Electric Turbine (HET) while working to design a device that could pump clean water and provide power for small communities in underdeveloped regions of the world. 

Linear Labs currently has 50 filed patents, 21 of which are issued, with 29 patents pending.

The founders come with a background in entrepreneurship and electrical engineering. Brad Hunstable is former CEO and founder of Ustream, the live-video-streaming service that sold to IBM in 2016 for $150 million. Fred Hunstable, who comes with a background in electrical engineering and nuclear power, led Ebasco and Walker Engineering’s efforts in designing, upgrading and completing electrical infrastructure, environmental and enterprise projects as well as safety and commercial-grade evaluation programs.

The HET uses multiple rotors that can adapt to varying conditions, according to the company. It also produces twice as much torque density and three times the power density than permanent magnet motors. Linear Labs says its motor produces two times the output per given motor size, and minimum 10 percent more range. 

The HET design makes it ideally suited for mobility applications such as electric vehicles because it produces high levels of torque without the need for a gearbox. This helps cut production cuts, the company contends. 

“The holy grail in electric motors has always been high torque and no gearbox, and the HET achieves both in a smaller, lighter and more efficient package that is more powerful than traditional motors,” Linear Labs CTO Fred Hunstable said in a statement.

The upshot could be electric vehicles with better range and more powerful electric scooters.

The commercialization of the electric motor will result in substantial leaps in terms of energy savings, reliability enhancement, and low-cost manufacturing, according to Babak Fahimi, founding director of the Renewable Energy and Vehicular Technology (REVT) Laboratory at the University of Texas at Dallas. 

The company plans to use the seed funding to market its invention to customers. It’s also hiring talent and recently added new people to its leadership team, including John Curry as their president and Jon Hurry as vice president. Curry comes from KLA-Tencor and NanoPhotonics. Hurry has held positions at Tesla and Faraday Future.

Gig workers need health & benefits. Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates, and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans, and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to be come an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it’s raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners, and Steve Jang. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance, and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity” recalls Tyrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers, and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern, and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance ‘paid’ time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about what benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose what programs you want, and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off, and retirement balances up 300% in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos, and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. 21 percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of
the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services including Nerdwallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club fonder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn, and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brough on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures, and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

MoviePass co-founder’s new startup PreShow gives you free movie tickets for watching ads

As founding CEO of MoviePass, Stacy Spikes has already changed the way we think about paying for movie tickets. Now he’s pursuing a new approach — providing a free ticket to people who watch 15 to 20 minutes of ads.

Spikes told me that when it comes to watching movies outside the theater, there are three basic business models — pay-per-view, subscription and ad-supported. MoviePass brought a subscription approach into theaters, but Spikes (who stepped down as MoviePass CEO in 2016) said he kept wondering, “Well, why can’t you have an ad-supported version that will allow you to go to movies for free?”

It’s hard to imagine digital advertising being worth enough to really pay for that ticket, but Spikes insisted, “You’re paying your way. This is not going to be a loss leader model. It’s an ad-revenue based business.”

To make that work, he said the new service, called PreShow, is bringing a couple innovations to the table. First, there’s facial recognition technology that ensures you’re actually present and watching the ad.

Spikes demonstrated this feature for me last week, showing me how his face unlocked the PreShow app. Once he’d chosen the film he wanted to watch, he was presented with a package of video ads that were specifically selected to run with that movie — and any time he looked away from the screen or moved too far away from his phone, the ads would stop playing. (Apparently the sensitivity can be dialed up or down depending on user feedback.)

PreShow facial recognition

Spikes also said the ads should tie into the film in some way, whether that’s thematically, or by highlighting products that are also featured in the movie. And they’ll always include an opportunity to further engage with the advertiser.

So although 15 to 20 minutes might sound like a long time to watch ads,  it should be more interesting for the viewer than just watching a random collection of promotional videos. And for the advertisers who are already paying for product placement in a film, this could be a way to reinforce their message with consumers who are actually watching the movie. (Spikes also compared this to the marketing packages that usually play before showtime in theaters — hence the company name.)

By watching one of these 15- to 20-minute packages, you should earn enough points to purchase a ticket at the theater using a virtual credit card provided by PreShow. Technically, those points can be used to buy any movie ticket, but Spikes said you won’t be able to earn more than two tickets at once, “so people don’t stockpile.”

As for whether PreShow is competing with his old company, Spikes said, “I don’t think they’re competitive in any way. If you compare a subscription platform to an ad platform to a pay-per-view platform, they’re different animals.”

Stacy Spikes

Stacy Spikes

The plan is to start testing the service with a select group of users in the next three to six months, and to find those users, PreShow is launching a Kickstarter campaign today. Pledge levels range from $15 to $60, with the amount you pay determining how early you get access, and how many friend invites you receiving.

Spikes said he’s less interested in raising money (which is why the campaign’s official goal is only $10,000) and more in attracting film lovers who want to try out the app.

“It’s a way to have innovation happen more organically, versus if you just open it up for the general public,” Spikes said.

Morphin instantly Deepfakes your face into GIFs

Want to star in your favorite memes and movie scenes? Upload a selfie to Morphin, choose your favorite GIF and your face is grafted in to create a personalized copy you can share anywhere. Become Tony Stark as he suits up like Iron Man. Drop the mic like Obama, dance like Drake or slap your mug on Fortnite characters.

Now after three years in stealth developing image-mapping technology, Morphin is ready to launch its put-you-in-a-GIF maker. While it might look like just a toy, investors see real business potential. Morphin raised $1 million last summer from Betaworks, the incubator that spawned Giphy, plus Founders Fund, Precursor, Shrug Capital and Boost.vc’s accelerator.

Elon Musk as Iron Man

“We believe in the future you’ll be able to be the main character in your own film. Imagine a super hero movie where you’re the main protagonist?,” co-founder Loic Ledoux asks. “That sounded like science fiction a few years ago and now with AI and computer vision we definitely see our tech going there.”

Ledoux also wants to reclaim faceswaps as something fun rather than a weapon for misinformation. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision. But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self expressions and storytelling.” And since Morphin re-generates the whole clip from scratch with CGI animation, they look right at a glance, but clearly aren’t manipulated copies of the original video designed to fool anyone.

Kanye performs magic

Morphin started three years ago with the intention to build personalized avatars for games and VR so you could be a FIFA soccer player or Skyrim knight. Ledoux had started a 3D printing company to explore opportunities in scanning and modeling when he saw a chance to connect your real and virtual faces. He teamed up with his co-founder Nicholas Heriveaux, who’d spent 13 years working on 3D tech while modding games like Grand Theft Auto to insert his avatar and assets.

What they quickly recognized was that “People were just reacting to themselves on the screen,” ignoring the gameplay, Ledoux recalls. “Being able to see yourself as a hero was the underlying sentiment, so we focused on video completely.” Recognizable GIFs became its preferred medium, as they combine familiarity and the ability to convey complex emotions with a template that’s easy to personalize so they stand out.

Morphin’s tech no longer requires 3D scanning hardware and it works with just a regular selfie. You just snap a headshot, select a GIF from its iOS or Android app’s library and a few seconds later you have a CGI version of yourself in the scene (with no watermark) that you can export and post. “We wanted it to be super straightforward because we wanted people to relate to the content,” Ledoux notes. Over 1 million scenes have been created by 50,000 beta users, and each time a celebrity shares one of the GIFs Morphin has been sending them for marketing, scores of their followers demand to know which app they were using.

Morphin’s nine-person French team will have to keep innovating to stay ahead of avatar-making competitors like the ubiquitous Snapchat Bitmoji, Genies, Moji Edit and Mirror AI. Facebook, Microsoft and Google all have launched or are building their own avatar creators. But these typically live as 2D stickers or 3D AR animations you overlay on the real world. By using GIFs as a canvas, Morphin takes the pressure off your visage looking perfect and instead emphasizes the message you’re trying to get across.

The challenge will be for Morphin to become a consistent part of people’s communication stack. It’s easy to imagine playing with it and posting a few GIFs. But iconic new GIFs don’t emerge each day and without a social network to stay for, Morphin is at risk of becoming merely a forgotten tool. The app might need TikTok-style challenges like submitting the best personalized GIF to match a prompt or a GIF browsing feed to keep people coming back.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

Morphin isn’t racing to monetize yet, but sees a chance to sell longer premium video scenes à la carte or as an unlimited subscription. Ledoux eventually hopes to unlock new forms of storytelling beyond existing GIFs. There’s also a chance for Morphin to highlight sponsored clips from upcoming movies or TV shows. “In the long-term we’re more interested in the analogy of Lil Miquela and how people are interacting with digital characters,” Ledoux explains, citing a virtual pop star whose developer Brud recently raised at a $125 million valuation.

One of the most exciting things about Morphin is that it will allow people to take the spotlight no matter how they look. Often times certain races, genders and looks are unfairly excluded from starring in today’s most popular media. But Morphin could let the underrepresented take their rightful place as stars of the screen.

Your faithful author Josh Constine dropping the mic like Obama

Featured image via MannyNotFound