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The wait was long but this week the time was right: Airbnb finally filed its S-1 and so did Affirm, C3.ai, Roblox, and Wish. We are likely to see these five price on public markets before the end of an already superlative year for tech IPOs. The ongoing pandemic and political turmoil were not scary enough, apparently.
This coming decade, you have to think that we’ll see a more even spread of tech companies going public. Many of the companies above have been bottled up for years behind privately funded growth strategies. Today, however, the industry has a better grasp of SPACs and direct listings, and various funding routes. Companies have more options from their founding for how they might grow and exit one day. Public investors in 2020 also seem to have a deeper appreciation for the current revenue numbers and future growth opportunities for tech companies. Why, I can still remember all the geniuses who bragged about shorting the Facebook IPO not so long ago.
Will we see a more even spread of where IPOs come from? While all of this week’s filers are headquartered in San Francisco or environs, that now feels almost like a coincidental reference to the years when these companies were founded. More states have been minting their own unicorns, with Ohio-based Root Insurance recently going public and Utah-based Qualtrics heading (back) that way. Tech startups are now global, meanwhile, and plenty of countries are working to keep their unicorns closer to home than New York.
On to the headlines from TechCrunch and Extra Crunch:
What does a Biden administration mean for tech?
What does Joe Biden intend as president around technology policy? On the one hand, tech companies might not be returning to the White House too fast. “All told, we’re seeing some familiar names in the mix, but 2020 isn’t 2008,” Taylor Hatmaker explains about potential presidential appointments from the industry. “Tech companies that emerged as golden children over the last 10 years are radioactive now. Regulation looms on the horizon in every direction. Whatever policy priorities emerge out of the Biden administration, Obama’s technocratic gilded age is over and we’re in for something new.”
However, tech industries and companies focused on shared goals might find support. In a review of Biden’s climate-change policies, Jon Shieber looks at major green infrastructure plans that could be on the way.
Any policies that a Biden administration enacts would have to focus on economic opportunity broadly, and much of the proposed plan from the campaign fulfills that need. One of its key propositions was that it would be “creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal,” according to the transition website. An early emphasis on grid and utility infrastructure could create significant opportunities for job creation across America — and be a boost for technology companies. “Our electric power infrastructure is old, aging and not secure,” said Abe Yokell, co-founder of the energy and climate-focused venture capital firm Congruent Ventures. “From an infrastructure standpoint, transmission distribution really should be upgraded and has been underinvested over the years. And it is in direct alignment with providing renewable energy deployment across the U.S. and the electrification of everything.”
The future of construction tech
A skilled labor shortage is piling on top of the construction industry’s traditional challenges this year. The result is that tech adoption is getting a big push into the real world, Allison Xu of Bain Capital Ventures writes in a guest column for Extra Crunch this week. She maps out six main construction categories where tech startups are emerging, including project conception, design and engineering, pre-construction, construction execution, post construction and construction management. Here’s an excerpt from the article about that last item:
- How it works today: Construction management and operations teams manage the end-to-end project, with functions such as document management, data and insights, accounting, financing, HR/payroll, etc.
- Key challenges: The complexity of the job site translates to highly complex and burdensome paperwork associated with each project. Managing the process requires communication and alignment across many stakeholders.
- How technology can address challenges: The nuances of the multistakeholder construction process merit value in a verticalized approach to managing the project. Construction management tools like Procore, Hyphen Solutions and IngeniousIO have created ways for contractors to coordinate and track the end-to-end process more seamlessly. Other players like Levelset have taken a construction-specific approach to functions like invoice management and payments.
Virtual HQs after the pandemic?
Pandemic-era work solutions like online team meeting spaces are heading towards a less certain, vaccine-based reality. Have we all gone remote-first enough that they will have a real market, still? Natasha Mascarenhas checks in with some of the top companies to see how it’s looking, here’s more:
With the goal of making remote work more spontaneous, there are dozens of new startups working to create virtual HQs for distributed teams. The three that have risen to the top include Branch, built by Gen Z gamers; Gather, created by engineers building a gamified Zoom; and Huddle, which is still in stealth.
The platforms are all racing to prove that the world is ready to be a part of virtual workspaces. By drawing on multiplayer gaming culture, the startups are using spatial technology, animations and productivity tools to create a metaverse dedicated to work.
The biggest challenge ahead? The startups need to convince venture capitalists and users alike that they’re more than Sims for Enterprise or an always-on Zoom call. The potential success could signal how the future of work will blend gaming and socialization for distributed teams.
Across the week
This week wound up being incredibly busy. What else, with a week that included both the Airbnb and Affirm IPO filings, a host of mega-rounds for new unicorns, some fascinating smaller funding events and some new funds?
- Affirm has filed to go public! The fintech unicorn is big, growing and losing less money over time. We were pretty impressed in our first look. Then, with a bit more time, we dug deeper and found a weakness or two. Still, Affirm is heading public and not in poor shape.
- Airbnb filed, and we jumped into an Equity Shot as fast as we could on Tuesday to get our minds around the news. Since then, Danny dug through the venture capital winners circle — a surprisingly small subset of firms! — and we also got into some questions that I had about the company’s finances.
- Robinhood is said to have an IPO in the books, so we talked a bit about what we know concerning its Q3 growth.
- And then there was edtech, as always. This week we talked about Tencent backing Udemy, Duolingo raising again and Transfr picking up a Series A that we thought was super interesting.
- Danny wanted to talk about the Trust & Will Series A. We tried to not make that many jokes.
- ZenBusiness raised $ 55 million as well, in an outsized Series B.
- Financial Venture Studio put together a new fund to cut small checks into seed-stage fintech startups. We think that’s great. Especially given what we know about what is going on in the fintech venture world.
- And Natasha walked us through her latest deep-dive, a look into the world of virtual headquarters. This led to the worst joke of the show.
What a week! Three episodes, some new records, and a very tired us after all the action. More on Monday!
This morning Wish, a well-known mobile ecommerce startup, filed to go public. It joins Affirm, Airbnb, and Roblox in filing this week as many well-known and valuable private companies look to debut before the year ends and the holidays start.
Wish’s S-1 (which is filed under its corporate name ContextLogic) is of particular interest given that COVID-19 and the global pandemic have changed consumer behavior around the world in 2020. As going to stores became more risky over time, many shoppers turned to buying more goods from the Internet, bolstering ecommerce players like Shopify, BigCommerce, as well as companies that facilitate online payments, like Square and PayPal.
How has the pandemic impacted Wish? It appears to have accelerated its growth.
Looking back in time, Wish saw its revenue growth slow in 2019, before expanding much more quickly in 2020. From 2017 to 2018, for example, when Wish saw revenues of $ 1.10 billion and $ 1.73 billion respectively, it grew 57%. But from 2018 to 2019, its revenue only grew to $ 1.90 billion, up a far-smaller 10%.
More recently, the situation has improved for the digital retailer, with Wish managing to grow more quickly in the first three months of 2020. In the first nine months of 2019, Wish racked up revenues of $ 1.33 billion. In the same period of 2020 the company’s top line grew to $ 1.75 billion, up 32% from the year-ago result.
That’s far better than the 10% growth pace that Wish showed in 2019. Wish’s growth acceleration helps explain why it is going public now: it has a growth story to tell investors.
But the company’s accelerated growth has come at a cost, namely rising losses. During the first three quarters of 2019, Wish posted net losses of just $ 5 million, before some preferred stock costs pushed its total deficit to $ 12 million. In the same period of 2020 Wish lost a far steeper $ 176 million.
Wish’s falling gross margins have not helped. In 2018, Wish had gross margins of 84%. That number fell to 77% in 2019, and then to just 65% in the first three quarters of 2020.
But the ecommerce player did have some more positive details to show, as this table details:
Improving free cash flow in 2020 compared to 2019? Check. Monthly active user growth rising nicely? Yes. Active buyers up compared to the year-ago period? Yep. Looking at the company’s adjusted profitability is not encouraging, but a 6% adjusted EBITDA margin won’t send investors packing for the hills if they buy Wish’s growth story.
COVID-19 was not simply a boost to Wish, its S-1 makes clear. The pandemic shut some supply hubs, slowed supply chains, and lengthened delivery times. But the company also said that it “benefited from greater mobile usage and less competition from physical retail as a result of shelter-in-place mandates” and “benefited from increased user spending due to U.S. government stimulus programs.” Noting that stimulus is fading, Wish warns investors in the document that it “cannot assure you that increased levels of mobile commerce will continue when COVID-19 has subsided or otherwise, or that the U.S. government will offer additional stimulus programs.”
Wish is wealthy, with around $ 1.1 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and marketable securities. It also has no long-term debts that could cause concern.
Finally, who is going to win in the deal? Most notably Peter Szulczewski, Wish’s founder and CEO. He controls 65.5% of the Company’s Class B shares and around 58% of its total voting power, pre-IPO. Major investors include DST Global, Formation8, Founder Fund, GGV Capital, and Republic Technologies.
Quite a lot of venture hopes and returns are riding on this IPO, then. More soon.
When you’re running your own venture — especially if it’s your first — it’s unlikely you will find the time to deep dive into how venture capital firms work. Fundraising is distracting for founders and can even hurt their company in the early days. But if you only start learning about VCs when you’re already down the fundraising path, you’ll already be too late.
Founders tend to make a series of classic mistakes when raising funding. Error number one (and two) is to raise the wrong amount of money and to do it at the wrong time. This double whammy results in founders being very diluted too early or not raising enough money to reach the next funding stage.
They can also put all their eggs in one basket too early. I made that mistake. I had signed a term-sheet (a nonbinding agreement) for a €2.5 million Series A round, passed the due diligence process, and the investment committee had approved the deal. But at the very last minute, a claim from one of the angels on my cap table made the prospect investor change his mind. In a Point Nine Capital survey, founders said that the two most stressful elements of raising venture capital are not knowing where in the fundraising process they are and not understanding why VCs have rejected their proposal.
On the other hand, if you know what VCs all about, you’ll be geared up for the ride, know the kind of investor personality you’re aiming for, and crucially — you’ll optimize the value of your equity in the long run. Founders who manage to raise more VC funds end up having a greater value stake in their company when the time comes to IPO, according to statistical research. The learning curve is steep; you’re not just studying VC as an industry, but the individual investors themselves. So, I’ve decided to share the main lessons about VC that I wish I’d known when I was a startup founder chasing venture capital.
1. It’s not about raising, it’s about raising the right amount at the right time
Startups are all about reaching two milestones: (a) product/market fit and (b) a profitable, repeatable and scalable growth model. Once those two corners are turned, the risk of a startup decreases enormously, which is normally reflected in the valuation. As an early-stage founder, if you want to protect your ownership, make sure you’re raising small amounts of money while your valuations are low.
Save your cash until you de-risk your early-stage startup. Then, raise aggressively when you finally have hard evidence that you have a strong product/market fit and a clear growth model. Be sure you understand when your company reaches that stage and becomes a scaleup. You don’t want to be a founder that has successfully raised a Series A round but has very little ownership and a very long road ahead.
Sometimes, the timing is out of your hands. The price of equity in startups is governed by the supply and demand of capital. Investors themselves have to raise money from another type of investor called Limited Partners (LPs), who may hold stakes in a variety of assets. If LPs have a strong interest in VC assets, there is more supply of capital and the price of startup equity will rise. But the opposite is also true. If you take a look at the last two recessions in the United States (2000 and 2008), you will see that the stock market crash coincided with corrections to valuations in the VC market.
So, be strategic and raise when “the market” has a strong appetite for your equity; otherwise, stretch your runway and wait for the right time. Right now, it’s common to see startups postponing their next raise to 2021, looking for stronger winds.
2. Location: Tell me where you are and I’ll tell you how much you’ll raise
I see two conditions for startups to raise a large round: (a) a large market that can justify a sizable exit, and (b) a large VC fund (small funds don’t need super sizable exits to be successful).
Assuming the first condition is met, where can we find those large VC funds? Typically, they’ll be in locations close to large markets, with a track record of sizable exits.
It seems hard to find unbiased people interested in talking about a startup idea. I've spent lot of time and effort finding communities that are relevant to my business that have more than 2 or 3 people who are willing to start a discussion. Am I just bad at networking or have other people experienced similar things?
Bootstrapping startup and I've never hired before, so it's going to be a huge step for me!
In my mind I have three really simple selection criteria:
- Can they do what I need them to do, or pick it up in a reasonable amount of time?
- Will I enjoy working with them and vice versa?
- Can I afford them?
Number 3 is easy to deal with and from what I've researched it's achievable on my budget. I have a fixed limit of what I'm willing to safely spend so if I can't find anyone within this range I'll have no choice but to persevere for a while. It'll slow things down a lot but I'll get by.
I think I have a fairly good plan of how to verify number 1. It's a software engineering role and this is my background. I've been through enough recruitment processes on the other side to know what works and what is respectful of a candidate's time and effort. This criteria is also easier to manage since I'm willing to invest a bit of extra effort on support in case someone doesn't initially meet expectations. In the unfortunate scenario that they're incapable of making progress or they're actually dragging things down with no sign of ROI it's also easier to justify letting them go.
I'm expecting number 2 to be the hardest. In fact I'm not really sure how to tackle this problem. I suppose it's whether I get along with them in the interview? I'm aware that gut feel is a terrible approach but I can't think of a way to quantify "team dynamic". It's my biggest concern for things go awry since this kind of drama can be disastrous. I suspect it would also be more challenging to let someone go on these grounds.
So now that you have some context and insight into the kinds of things I'm thinking about, I want you to fill me with anxiety by revealing your hiring horror stories, or revel in your times of triumph, or any other tidbits/advice you think might come in handy to me. Let me bask in your wisdom!