All posts in “Startups”

Luge Capital raises $85M to invest in Canadian fintech startups

There are 831 financial technology startups headquartered in or operating in Canada, according to data collected by Fintech Growth Syndicate, yet only a handful of venture capital funds specializing in the region and sector.

Luge Capital, a fintech and AI-focused venture capital fund headquartered in Montreal and Toronto, is looking to close that gap. The firm has raised $85 million for its debut fund and plans to make seed investments as small as $150,000 and as large as $2 million.

The relatively new outfit, founded in 2018, is led by David Nault, a former vice president at iNovia Capital, and Karim Gillani, who previously led corporate development for Xoom, the PayPal -acquired remittances startup.

Luge Capital is backed by iA Financial Group, BDC Capital, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Desjardins Group, La Capitale, Sun Life Financial and Fonds de solidarité FTQ. In a somewhat unusual series of events, some of the limited partners approached Nault and Gillani and said if they raised a fund, they would bankroll them. And so the pair left their jobs to raise a debut vehicle to support fintech companies in Canada’s growing tech scene.

Luge Capital will deploy capital to startups across North America, but will focus on Canadian tech.

“We’ve seen growth in terms of absolute numbers of fintech companies,” Gillani tells TechCrunch. “We think it’s because there’s new access to capital. Companies can now find themselves getting funded and there’s a bigger appetite for larger companies to partner with these startups.”

Luge Capital has to date made five investments, three of which they were able to disclose. Gillani says they’ve provided checks to Flinks, which helps businesses connect apps and users’ bank accounts; Owl, a provider of a service that supports financial institutions with customer onboarding, fraud detection and more; and insurance technology company Finaeo.

According to PitchBook, nearly $3 billion has been invested in Canadian startups, a record year for the country.

“We are going to see more growth in venture in Canada,” says Gillani. “I think we are going to see founders in Canada having more of a global mindset such that they look at Canada as an initial market for them, with a focus to expand geographically soon after they’ve been able to prove the model in Canada. And I think because of that dynamic, we are going to see more and more outside capital to finance these founders.”

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

Report: SoftBank is taking control of WeWork at an ~$8B valuation

WeWork, once valued at $47 billion, will be worth as little as $7.5 billion on paper as SoftBank takes control of the struggling co-working business, CNBC reports.

SoftBank, a long-time WeWork investor, plans to invest between $4 billion and $5 billion in exchange for new and existing shares, according to CNBC . The deal, expected to be announced as soon as tomorrow, represents a lifeline for WeWork, which is said to be mere weeks from running out of cash and has been shopping several of its assets as it attempts to lessen its cash burn.

WeWork declined to comment.

To be clear, it is reportedly the Vision Fund’s parent company, SoftBank Group Corp. that is taking control, with SoftBank International chief executive officer Marcelo Claure stepping into to support company management, per reports.

The Japanese telecom giant’s move comes precisely four weeks after co-founder and former chief executive officer Adam Neumann relinquished control of the company and transitioned into a non-executive chairman role and about three weeks after the company decided to delay its highly-anticipated initial public offering. WeWork’s vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and the company’s president and chief operating officer Artie Minson stepped up to serve as co-CEOs.

In the days and weeks that followed, reports surfaced that WeWork was planning to slash thousands of jobs.

Now expected to go public in 2020 at a valuation, WeWork was also said to be in negotiations with JPMorgan for a last-minute cash infusion. The company, now a cautionary tale, will surely continue to reduce the sky-high costs of its money-losing operation in the upcoming months.

WeWork revealed an unusual IPO prospectus in August after raising more than $8 billion in equity and debt funding. Despite financials that showed losses of nearly $1 billion in the six months ending June 30, the company still managed to accumulate a valuation as high as $47 billion, largely as a result of Neumann’s fundraising abilities.

“As co-founder of WeWork, I am so proud of this team and the incredible company that we have built over the last decade,” Neumann said in a statement confirming his resignation last month. “Our global platform now spans 111 cities in 29 countries, serving more than 527,000 members each day. While our business has never been stronger, in recent weeks, the scrutiny directed toward me has become a significant distraction, and I have decided that it is in the best interest of the company to step down as chief executive. Thank you to my colleagues, our members, our landlord partners, and our investors for continuing to believe in this great business.”

Is there room for a U.S. equivalent to China’s #1 news app?

In China, Toutiao is literally big news.

Not only has its parent company ByteDance achieved a $75 billion valuation, two of its apps — Toutiao, a news aggregator, and Douyin (Tik Tok in China) — are chipping into WeChat’s user engagement numbers, no small feat considering the central role WeChat plays in the daily lives of the region’s smartphone users.

The success of Toutiao (its name means “headline”) prompts the question: why hasn’t one news aggregator app achieved similar success in the United States? There, users can pick from a roster of news apps, including Google News, Apple News (on iOS), Flipboard, Nuzzel and SmartNews, but no app is truly analogous to Toutiao, at least in terms of reach. Many readers still get news from Google Search (not the company’s news app) and when they do use an app for news, it’s Facebook.

The top social media platform continues to be a major source of news for many Americans, even as they express reservations about the reliability of the content they find there. According to research from Columbia Journalism Review, 43% of Americans use Facebook and other social media platforms to get news, but 57% said they “expect the news they see on those platforms to be largely inaccurate.” Regardless, they stick with Facebook because it’s timely, convenient and they can share content with friends and read other’s comments.

The social media platform is one of the main reasons why no single news aggregator app has won over American users the same way Toutiao has in China, but it’s not the only one. Other factors, including differences between how the Internet developed in each country, also play a role, says Ruiwan Xu, the founder and CEO of CareerTu, an online education platform that focuses on data analytics, digital marketing and research.

While Americans first encountered the Internet on PCs and then shifted to mobile devices, many people in China first went online through their smartphones and the majority of the country’s 800 million Internet users access it through mobile. This makes them much more open to consuming content — including news and streaming video — on mobile.

Superhuman founder seeks to raise debut venture fund

The founder of one of 2019’s most buzzworthy startups is putting on his VC hat.

Rahul Vohra, the creator of the $30/month subscription emailing service Superhuman, and Todd Goldberg, the founder of the marketing business Mailjoy, are circulating a pitch deck to potential limited partners, with plans to raise a $4 million debut angel fund, TechCrunch has learned.

Goldberg declined to comment. Vohra did not respond to a request for comment.

San Francisco-based Superhuman has raised millions in venture capital funding, attracting a $260 million valuation with a $33 million investment led by the respected firm Andreessen Horowitz earlier this year. Quickly, Superhuman developed a loyal fan base and inspired a new wave of startups building for the “prosumer.”

“Superhuman has become an aspirational brand and product that many SaaS companies want to emulate,” Vohra and Goldberg write in the deck, obtained by TechCrunch. “Founders of these companies seek out Rahul as an investor. This helps us get into the hottest rounds — even the closed ones.”

Vohra and Goldberg have been seeding startups for the past four years, according to the deck. Both men have completed the Y Combinator startup accelerator and funded other graduates of the program, including Tandem, which emerged from YC this summer with funding from a16z, Vohra and several others. One or both of the pair have also invested in Command E, a tool that enables instant cloud search; Mercury, a bank tailored to the needs of startups; and Sandbox VR, which is developing premium virtual reality experiences in retail locations.

Many of Vohra and Goldberg’s existing investments, such as Sandbox VR, Tandem and Mercury, are also a16z portfolio companies, as is Superhuman. We’re guessing Vohra has served as a sort of scout for the firm, bringing in attractive deals for a16z to lead, with room for him to nab a friendly allocation.

Vohra and Goldberg are hoping to collect capital from LPs to scale their investment activity. According to the deck, they will make 25 to 35 deals with check sizes ranging between $50,000 to $150,000. The fund will invest in the “prosumerization” of the enterprise, business infrastructure, health, fitness & wellness, “devsumer” & low-code/no-code, audio-first products, creator tools and “enterprization” of consumers.

Indeed, the deck is packed with buzzwords. The “prosumerization” of the enterprise is tech-speak for work products with nicer interfaces and more premium features. A “devsumer” tool is one that enables consumers to complete developer tasks on their own, i.e. without coding — devsumer products on the market include Airtable, Notion and Retool. Finally, the “enterprization” of consumers simply means the rise of business tools built for consumers first.

Vohra and Goldberg cite their experience as operators as one of their “unfair advantages,” along with their ability to secure large allocations (a decent piece of the pie) in startups, their YC network, relationships with other angels & funds and their ability to get pro rata access in later rounds.

Founders often search for established operators to join their cap tables for exactly these reasons. Someone like Vohra can help startups foster relationships with big-name venture capital backers and make critical introductions to their own rapidly growing pool of customers.

The rise of micro-funds led by networked entrepreneurs, including Niv Dror’s Shrug Capital or Brianne Kimmel’s new outfit, Work Life Ventures, for example, could pose a threat to existing institutional seed investors, who may not be as well-versed in specific sectors or able to offer as much time to potential founders. On the other hand, many micro-funds co-invest with or are backed by VCs, which means returns from the fund end up in the same pockets, in essence.

Deploying capital from a fund, however, is time consuming. How Vohra can balance building a Series B startup and investing in upwards of 35 businesses remains to be seen.

Though Superhuman was founded in 2014 — Vohra incorporated the business immediately after the LinkedIn acquisition of his previous startup, Rapportive — the company is essentially still in closed beta (those looking for access must be approved for the service in iOS’s TestFlight, where constant beta updates are delivered). Today, it’s popular in the Bay Area tech scene where the tagline “sent via Superhuman” has become a status symbol of sorts. But many are uncertain non-techies will be willing to shell out $30 per month for a luxury email tool.

With that said, Superhuman has a wait list of 180,000 people, according to The New York Times, which spoke to Vohra in June. With a large and growing valuation, an email tool with rave reviews and a set of loyal followers, Vohra will likely have no trouble navigating his way into Silicon Valley’s hottest deals.