Krisp snags $5M A round as demand grows for its voice-isolating algorithm

Krisp’s smart noise suppression tech, which silences ambient sounds and isolates your voice for calls, arrived just in time. The company got out in front of the global shift to virtual presence, turning early niche traction has into real customers and attracting a shiny new $5 million series A funding round to expand and diversify its timely offering.

We first met Krisp back in 2018 when it emerged from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator. The company was an early one in the big surge of AI startups, but with a straightforward use case and obviously effective tech it was hard to be skeptical about.

Krisp applies a machine learning system to audio in real time that has been trained on what is and isn’t the human voice. What isn’t a voice gets carefully removed even during speech, and what remains sounds clearer. That’s pretty much it! There’s very little latency (15 milliseconds is the claim) and a modest computational overhead, meaning it can work on practically any device, especially ones with AI acceleration units like most modern smartphones.

The company began by offering its standalone software for free, with paid tier that removed time limits. It also shipped integrated into popular social chat app Discord. But the real business is, unsurprisingly, in enterprise.

“Early on our revenue was all pro, but in December we started onboarding enterprises. COVID has really accelerated that plan,” explained Davit Baghdasaryan, co-founder and CEO of Krisp. “In March, our biggest customer was a large tech company with 2,000 employees — and they bought 2,000 licenses, because everyone is remote. Gradually enterprise is taking over, because we’re signing up banks, call centers and so on. But we think Krisp will still be consumer-first, because everyone needs that, right?”

Now even more large companies have signed on, including one call center with some 40,000 employees. Baghdasaryan says the company went from 0 to 600 paying enterprises, and $0 to $4M annual recurring revenue in a single year, which probably makes the investment — by Storm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, TechNexus and Hive Ventures — look like a pretty safe one.

It’s a big win for the Krisp team, which is split between the U.S. and Armenia, where the company was founded, and a validation of a global approach to staffing — world-class talent isn’t just to be found in California, New York, Berlin and other tech centers, but in smaller countries that don’t have the benefit of local hype and investment infrastructure.

Funding is another story, of course, but having raised money the company is now working to expand its products and team. Krisp’s next move is essentially to monitor and present the metadata of conversation.

“The next iteration will tell you not just about noise, but give you real time feedback on how you are performing as a speaker,” Baghdasaryan explained. Not in the toastmasters sense, exactly, but haven’t you ever wondered about how much you actually spoke during some call, or whether you interrupted or were interrupted by others, and so on?

“Speaking is a skill that people can improve. Think Grammar.ly for voice and video,” Baghdasaryan ventured. “It’s going to be subtle about how it gives that feedback to you. When someone is speaking they may not necessarily want to see that. But over time we’ll analyze what you say, give you hints about vocabulary, how to improve your speaking abilities.”

Since architecturally Krisp is privy to all audio going in and out, it can fairly easily collect this data. But don’t worry — like the company’s other products, this will be entirely private and on-device. No cloud required.

“We’re very opinionated here: Ours is a company that never sends data to its servers,” said Baghdasaryan. “We’re never exposed to it. We take extra steps to create and optimize our tech so the audio never leaves the device.”

That should be reassuring for privacy wonks who are suspicious of sending all their conversations through a third party to  be analyzed. But after all, the type of advice Krisp is considering can be done without really “understanding” what is said, which also limits its scope. It won’t be coaching you into a modern Cicero, but it might help you speak more consistently or let you know when you’re taking up too much time.

For the immediate future, though, Krisp is still focused on improving its noise-suppression software, which you can download for free here.

Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

PandaDoc announces second Series B extension worth $30M

PandaDoc, the startup that provides a fully digital sales document workflow from proposal to electronic signature to collecting payment, announced a $30 million Series B extension today, making it the the second such extension the company has taken since taking its original $15 million Series B in 2017. The total for the three B investments is $50 million.

Company co-founder and CEO Mikita Mikado says that he took this approach, taking the original money in 2017, then $5 million last year along with the money announced today because it made more sense financially for the company than taking a huge chunk of money all at once.

“Basically when we do little chunks of cash frequently, [we found that] you dilute yourself less,” Mikado told TechCrunch. He said that they’ve grown comfortable with this approach because the business became more predictable once it passed 10,000 customers. In fact today it has 20,000.

“With a high velocity in-bound sales model, you can predict what’s going to happen next month or [say] six months out. So you kind of have this luxury of raising as much money as you need when you need it, minimizing dilution just like public companies do,” he said.

While he wouldn’t discuss specifics in terms of valuations he did say that the B1 had 2x the valuation of the original B round and the B2 had double the valuation of the B1.

For this round, One Peak led the investment with participation from Microsoft’s Venture Fund (M12), Savano Capital Partners, Rembrandt Venture Partners and EBRD Venture Capital Investment Programme.

Part of the company’s growth strategy is using their eSignature tool to move people to the platform. They made that tool free in March just as the pandemic was hitting hard in the U.S., and it has proven to be what Mikado called “a lead magnet” to get more people familiar with the company.

Once they do that he says, they start to look at the broader set of tools and they can become paying customers. “This launch helped us validate that businesses need a broader workflow solution. Businesses used to think of the eSignature as the holy grail in getting a deal done. Now they are realizing that eSignature is just a moment in time. The full value is what happens before, during and after the eSignature in order to get deals done,” Mikado said.

The company currently has 334 employees with plans to hit 380 by year’s end and is aiming for 470 by next year. With the office in San Francisco, Belarus and Manila, it has geographic diversity built in, but Mikado says it’s something they are still working at and includes anti-bias programs and training and leadership programs to give more people a chance to be hired or promoted into management.

When it came to shutting down offices and working from home, Mikado admits it was a challenge, especially since some of the geographies they operate in might not have access to a good internet connection at home or face other challenges, but overall he says it has worked out in terms of maintaining productivity across the company. And he points out being geographically diverse, they have had to deal with online communications for some time.

What Q2 fundraising data tells us about the rest of 2020

It’s safe to say that no one could have predicted how this year’s fundraising marketplace was going to shape up. The beginning of the year saw us trending toward a blockbuster start, similar to 2018, rather than the steady burn of 2019. But after March there was no clear road map for how VCs and founders were going to react.

We’ve been tracking three key data metrics from the 2020 DocSend Startup Index to show us real-time trends in the fundraising marketplace. Using aggregate and anonymous data pulled from thousands of pitch deck interactions across the DocSend platform, we’re able to track the supply and demand in the marketplace, as well as the quality of pitch deck interactions.

The main two metrics are Pitch Deck Interest and Founder Links Created. These are leading indicators for how the fundraising marketplace is shaping up as it measures the activity happening around the pitch deck. As that interest peaks, we expect the amount of funds deployed to increase in the months after. Pitch Deck Interest is measured by the average number of pitch deck interactions for each founder happening on our platform per week, and is a great proxy for demand.

Founder Links Created is how many unique links a founder is creating to their deck each week; because each person you send a document to in DocSend gets a unique link, we can use this as a proxy for supply by looking at how many investors a founder is sharing their deck with per week.

Here’s what we saw in Q2 and how that will affect the rest of the year.

VCs are shopping

VC interest has been at an all-time high over the last quarter. Interest rebounded over the course of a few weeks after the pandemic was declared and shelter-in-place orders were given. But once interest rebounded to pre-pandemic levels it did something surprising. It kept climbing. In fact, the top 10 weeks for VC interest this year were all in Q2. Overall, interest was up 21.6% QoQ and 26% YoY. This means we’re looking at VCs viewing more pitch decks than they have any time in the last two years.

This is in spite of VC interest traditionally declining from late spring into summer, before bottoming out during the last two weeks of August. After the initial peak in the spring, VC interest typically doesn’t rebound until October.

But not only can we see that VCs are interacting with a lot of decks, we also can determine the quality of those interactions. We measure how long a VC spends reading each deck. From our previous research we know that the average pitch deck interaction is less than 3.5 minutes. But the amount of time VCs spent reading each deck in Q2 steadily declined, going below two minutes toward the end of the quarter. This tells us VCs are speeding through decks. That means they either know what they’re looking for and aren’t wasting time, or they’re scrutinizing decks less, opting for a Zoom call to hear more from a founder.

For founders, this means having a tight deck is even more important than before. Don’t have more than 20 slides, don’t send your appendix in your send-ahead deck and keep your slides concise and thoughtful (read our guide on how to put together a send-ahead deck here).

If you’re still not able to get a meeting with a VC during this intense shopping season, you may want to consider changing your fundraising strategy.

Founder timelines have changed

We can see over the last quarter that there have been clear spikes in the amount of links founders are sending out. Founders sent out 11% more deck links in Q2 than they did in Q1, but what’s interesting is that the number of links created actually dropped below 2019 levels on three separate occasions. So while founders might have been rushing to send their deck out during unstable times, there were plenty of weeks where founders were hanging back.

This conflicting story can tell us several things. First, founders have most likely condensed their fundraising efforts. According to our research earlier this year, the average pre-seed round takes longer than three months to complete. For those fundraising during a pandemic, three months can seem like a lifetime. This is not only due to the logistics of setting meetings with VCs who have packed calendars, but also the iteration process of receiving feedback from a potential investor, working on your deck, then sending it out to new targets. With global uncertainty, many founders likely decided to shorten their time away from their business by reducing their fundraising efforts to just a few weeks.

Second, due to aggressive cost cutting at the beginning of the pandemic, many founders found themselves with more runway than they expected. In fact, according to a recent survey we did, nearly 50% of founders changed their fundraising timeline by either moving it forward or delaying it. Founders that could afford to decided to avoid the volatile fundraising marketplace in an effort to preserve their valuations.

We’re looking at more than displaced interest from March

While it was easy during April and early May to think the fundraising marketplace was experiencing delayed activity due to the crash in March, the sustained interest makes it hard to believe that’s still the case, especially taking into account seasonality. The last week of the quarter saw a 37% increase in interest over 2019 and an 18% increase over 2018. With that level of activity, we’ve clearly entered a new normal for fundraising.

While valuations might be fluctuating, it’s quite clear VCs are shopping. To figure out why, you don’t have to look any further than the 2008 financial crisis. The businesses born out of crises tend to address real, systemic problems that require big, bold fixes. And the pandemic has certainly laid bare many societal issues that are worth addressing.

What Q3 and Q4 could look like based on current trends

If it’s clear that VCs are shopping, and it’s clear that this isn’t displaced interest from earlier this year, what does that mean for the future? We would normally see an increase in founder activity starting in late summer, leading to peak VC interest in the fall. Founder activity has been up and down, and VC interest has been steadily rising, which tells us there’s still pent-up demand to deploy capital. We should also see many founders who delayed their fundraising efforts enter the marketplace in the next few months. If pandemic conditions worsen, we might also see founders who had decided to push their fundraising efforts to next year moving their timelines forward.

If the current level of interest represents the new normal for VCs, we expect it to only increase as we enter the fall. And with more founders coming online in early to late fall, that pent-up demand should result in an increasingly active market. If you’re a founder, I would recommend kicking off your fundraise now in order to capitalize on the increased interest from investors and decreased competition for at least the first pitch meeting.

Q3 2020 is primed to be an intense shopping season for VCs

With the high possibility of an extremely active fundraising marketplace for the rest of the year, founders need to know how to take advantage of it. As you can see from the DocSend Pitch Deck Interest Metrics, spikes in the marketplace previously have resulted in some pretty specific behaviors by VCs.

Here are some tips on how to use the increasing levels of VC interest to your advantage.

VCs are spending less time on your deck, so get to the point

We’re seeing record low time spent per pitch deck. We know from previous research that VCs spend on average 3.5 minutes per pitch deck. But over the last quarter that time has dipped below three minutes. That can actually be a good and a bad thing. It implies that VCs are streamlining their process of looking at decks, which means they most likely know what they want. The downside of this is if you break a few cardinal rules right now your deck could end up in the reject pile.

From our research, VCs expect a deck to be around 20 pages. They expect a straightforward narrative that starts with your problem, leading to the solution, and then your product and business model. Our data found that VCs respond best to 35-50 words per slide (too few words per slide is also an issue; you want to offer enough context for your deck to make sense without you presenting it). The only place you can increase your word count is on your Team page. Our data shows the average number of words on a successful Team slide is 80. This gives you room to highlight the founding team’s relevant experience and show how you’re uniquely suited to build your business.

You have to include a “why now” slide and it should mention COVID-19

We already know that investors respond well to a Why Now slide. Our research shows that 54% of successful pitch decks included a Why Now slide, where only 38% of failed decks included it. That slide now has to work twice as hard. We’re hearing from investors that they expect to see information in your pitch deck about how your business has been affected by COVID-19 and how you plan to manage that impact moving forward. Even if the pandemic has had no material effect on your business, the investor will still have the question. Get out in front of it with a well-formed response near the beginning of your deck.

Direct-to-consumer cat food startup Smalls raises $9M

While dog owners have plenty of direct-to-consumer options if they want to order pet food online, we haven’t seen a similar wave of startups for cats. But that may be starting to change.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Cat Person, a startup backed by Harry’s Labs offering a variety of cat care products, including food. And Smalls, a cat food startup that launched in 2018, is announcing today that it has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Co-founders Matt Michaelson (CEO) and Calvin Bohn (COO) said that it’s not simply a matter of taking the D2C dog food model and applying it to cats.

“The traditional sort of MO for companies in the pet care space is to do everything for dogs first,” and then expand into cat products, Bohn said.

Michaelson argued that this means companies “often overlooked the nutritional needs of cat.” In particular, he said, “We found that we needed a much broader range of products to really succeed. Cats are picky because they’re apex predators.”

So Smalls offers a variety of food options, including what it says is fresh, human-grade chicken and beef; freeze-dried chicken, turkey and duck; plus other treats (and non-food products like litter and toys).

Smalls

Image Credits: Smalls

Michaelson and Bohn started out by cooking the food in the kitchen of their New York City apartments, then moved into what was then known as Brooklyn Foodworks. Smalls now manufactures its cat food in a facility in Chicago.

They acknowledged that the cost can be a bit higher than what cat owners are used to paying — the exact comparison will depend on the brand and quality you currently buy, but after taking a quick quiz on the Smalls website, I was offered subscription plans that cost around $3 or $4 per cat per day. Michaelson noted that “retention is not correlated to income” (so Smalls customers aren’t just wealthy cat owners), and he argued that investing healthy food for your cat could save money down the road

“We don’t have studies to say that yet, but at the same time, you would naturally assume eating better food is going to be a good investment in yourself,” he said.

Bohn added that when cat owners switch to Smalls, they quickly notice the difference: “Within weeks, their cats were sleeping better at night, their coats were more lustrous, their stool smelled better.” (Journalists who tried it out seem to agree.)

The Series A brings Smalls’ total funding to $12 million. It was led by Left Lane Capital (whose partner Jason Fiedler previously invested in The Farmer’s Dog), with participation from Founder Collective and Companion Fund.

“While we’ve seen a proliferation of highly successful healthy dog food brands, the cat food market has remained completely ignored,” Fiedler said in a statement. “Smalls has successfully developed a brand, product mix, supply chain and customer experience that is specifically optimized for cats that no one else has.”

Michaelson said Smalls currently has “several thousand” active subscribers, up 4x year-over-year. And while the pandemic has created some supply chain challenges, it also led to “a huge rise in pet adoption,” as well as convincing some owners that they should look for alternatives to their local pet store.

“Because we’re seeing this big movement towards the direct-to-consumer side of things with COVID, it’s really an opportunity to lean into that and grow faster,” he said.

Springboard raises $31 million to expand its mentor-guided education platform to more geographies

Springboard, an online education platform that provides upskilling and reskilling training courses to people looking to learn in-demand roles, has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand to more geographies.

The Series B financing round for the San Francisco-headquartered startup was led by investment firm Telstra Ventures . Vulcan Capital and SJF Ventures, as well as existing investors Costanoa Ventures, Pearson Ventures, Reach Capital, International Finance Corporation (IFC), 500 Startups, Blue Fog Capital, and Learn Capital also participated in the round, said the seven-year-old startup, which has raised more than $50 million to date.

Springboard offers a range of six-month and nine-month courses on data-science, design, coding, analytics and other upskilling subjects to help students and those who are already employed somewhere land better jobs.

The startup, which expanded to India last year, also connects students with mentors — people who are working at Fortune 500 companies — to guide them better navigate professional decisions, Vivek Kumar, Managing Director at Springboard, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Startups offering upskilling courses have gained traction in recent years as companies across the globe complain about not being satisfied with a large portion of the undergraduate students who are applying for a job with them.

In many markets like India, one of the global hubs for tech consulting firms, it has become a common sight for several major IT giants to spend months in retraining their new hires. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in elimination of tens of thousands of additional jobs.

Springboard offers these courses at customized price points to students based on where they live. For instance, a nine-month course that sells for around $7,500 in the U.S., is priced at $3,300 in India, explained Kumar.

“Technology used to be a niche area but that’s no longer the case. As more and more companies are built on tech, the need to understand concepts like Data Science, AI, ML, UI/UX has become more homogenous. For learning to be meaningful, it needs to encompass state-of-the-art curriculum with real-world projects as well as mentorship and that is what Springboard stands for. With this funding we are in a good position to build on our strengths to provide in-demand job skills and holistic support at every step,” he said.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Hollywood’s Triller sets its own rhythm even as it gains from TikTok troubles

Triller, the short video app backed by a Hollywood mogul and music celebrities, is rapidly ballooning in both user size and valuation. It’s now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

That’s a leap from its $130 million valuation reported last October. Triller’s founder and CEO Mike Lu declined to comment, although another executive confirmed the funding with Dot.la.

The app has emerged as what many see as a TikTok replacement, but it has been around since 2015, two years before TikTok’s debut, and has its own “identity and ecosystem,” the founder insisted.

According to Lu, Triller was already recording “significant growth” even before the Trump administration began mulling a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, although he also admitted the app is getting a boost from the TikTok backlash. 35 million new active users joined Triller just within the last few days. The app has so far collected 250 million downloads worldwide.

The Los Angeles-based startup still has a long way to catch up with TikTok, which crossed 2 billion downloads in April. The rivals both tout their capability to let users match videos with music, a defining feature for their success. In fact, Triller recently filed a lawsuit accusing its Chinese rival for infringing its patent for “creating music videos synchronized with an audio track.”

Triller attributed part of its achievement to majority investor Proxima Media, the Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh. Lu said his company has spent zero in marketing to reach its size, something that “has never happened in technology history.” But Ryan, the film producer and financier behind hits like The Fast and the Furious and The Social Network, has no doubt brought unmatched media exposure, celebrity connections, and naturally, their fans who convert to Triller users.

Triller has also secured deals with major record labels, clearing the way for users to make music-centered videos. Its roster of angel investors include Snoop Dogg, The Weekend, Marshmellow, Lil Wayne, among other big names.

“Ryan is second to none in Hollywood, entertainment and media,” said Lu. “I give [Proxima Media] a ton of credit for helping us get to this stage, this massive growth. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Celebrity-quality content is one thing that sets Triller apart from TikTok, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested in Triller in a strategic round.

“TikTok tries to grow its own celebrities. Triller already has all the big celebrities,” the investor said, refering to videos shared by Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmellow, and Eminem via Triller, which is now a popular place for releasing songs. TikTok has also become a testing ground for artists to test new works.

Meanwhile, the app strives to keep its ordinary users engaged, one thing TikTok has done very well. For example, it boasts of AI-powered editing features that enable users to make professionally looking music videos. It’s also lanched a Billboard chart that ranks the biggest Triller songs, leveling the playing field between emerging creators and celebrities.

“It gives the young people a feeling that they are close to celebrities,” observed Uzzaman.

The investor also believes there’s room for multiple players in the short video space, akin to how Uber and Lyft co-exist. Indeed, China has seen TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin going head to head with Kuaishou in recent years.

For Lu, Triller’s identity is anchored in music, especially hip hop music in the early days, with a demographic of 18-25.

Triller’s App Store images.

TikTok, in comparison, can be everything from light-hearted dance videos to goofy skits. One gets a hint of their differences from the visuals they picked for their App Store pages.

TikTok’s App Store images.

The TikTok alts

The fate of TikTok could still change dramatically in the coming weeks, although so far, there’s a decent chance that Microsoft may scoop up the Chinese-owned app. Some startups are betting that their US identity will help them win over users from TikTok, but a survey done by California-based Creative Digital Agency suggests that may not be the case.

65% of the hundreds of TikTok users it asked said they won’t feel more comfortable with their data policies even if TikTok were an American company, and 84.6% believe the proposed ban is motivated by political concerns.

“The vast majority believe that all American social media platforms are doing exactly the same thing in mining personal data, which is the big privacy concern,” the agency’s managing director Kevin Almeida suggested.

That said, TikTok’s growth has slowed down recently, as some creators hedge the risk of losing followers in the case of a ban. The app’s installs in the US last week were down 7% compared to the four-week average, shows data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. Its total downloads in the US are close to 190 million.

Triller is hardly the only US startup thriving against the backdrop of TikTok’s uncertain future. At least three other micro-video apps have seen new downloads in the hundreds of thousands in the US over the past week, according to Sensor Tower, and two are rooted in China.

They are Byte, Dom Hofmann’s new app after Vine was shuttered by Twitter; Zynn, which is run by Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese homegrown rival; and Likee, operated by Bigo, a Singapore-based company acquired by China’s YY. These apps totaled downloads of 2.9 million, 6.4 million, and 16.3 million in the US, respectively.

Growth of TikTok’s old rival Dubsmash isn’t as remarkable but the app has the most US installs among the competitors, reaching 41.6 million recently.

In comparison, Triller has accumulated 23.8 million downloads in the US. The app has seen a surge in downloads in India following the country’s TikTok ban, but it has also ranked among the top photo and video apps across multiple European and African countries where TikTok remains accessible.

The company operates a global team of 350 employees, most of whom are in the US and work on content operation and engineering.

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

Qualified raises $12M make websites smarter about sales and marketing

Qualified, a startup co-founded by former Salesforce executives Kraig Swensrud and Sean Whiteley, has raised $12 million in Series A funding.

Swensrud (Qualified’s CEO) said the startup is meant to solve a problem that he faced back when he was CMO at Salesforce. Apparently he’d complaining about being “blind,” because he knew so little about who was visiting the Salesforce website.

“There could be 10 or 100 or 100,000 people on my website right now, and I don’t know who they are, I don’t know what they’re interested in, my sales team has no idea that they’re even there,” he said.

Apparently, this is a big problem in business-to-business sales, where waiting five minutes after a lead leaves your website can result in a 10x decrease in the odds of making contact. But the solution currently adopted by many websites is just a chatbot that treats every visitor similarly.

Qualified, meanwhile, connects real-time website visitor information with a company’s Salesforce customer database. That means it can identify visitors from high-value accounts and route them to the correct salesperson while they’re still on the website, turning into a full-on sales meeting that can also include a phone call and screensharing.

Qualified screenshot

Image Credits: Qualified

Of course, the amount of data Qualified has access to will differ from visitor to visitor. Some visitors may be purely incognito, while in other cases, the platform might simply know your city or what company you work for. In still others (say if you click on a link from marketing email), it can identify you individually.

That’s something I experienced myself, when I decided to take a look at the Qualified website this morning and was quickly greeted with a message that read, “👋 Welcome TechCrunch! We’re excited about our funding announcement…” It was a little creepy, but also much more effective than my visits to other marketing technology websites, where someone usually sends me a generic sales message.

Swensrud acknowledged that using Qualified represents “a change to people’s selling processes,” since it requires sales to respond in real-time to website visitors (as a last resort, Qualified can also use chatbots and schedule future calls), but he argued that it’s a necessary change.

“If you email them later, some percentage of those people, they ghost you, they get bored, they moved on to the competition,” he said. “This real-time approach, it forces organizations to think differently in terms of their process.”

And it’s an approach that seems to be working. Among Qualified’s customers, the company says ThoughtSpot increased conversations with its target accounts by 10x, Bitly grew its enterprise sales pipeline by 6x and Gamma drove over $2.5 million in new business pipeline.

The Series A brings Qualified’s total funding to $17 million. It was led by Norwest Venture Partners, with participation from existing investors including Redpoint Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. Norwest’s Scott Beechuk is joining Qualified’s board of directors.

“The conversational model is simply a better way to connect with new customers,” Beechuk said in a statement. “Buyers love the real-time engagement, sellers love the instant connections, and marketers have the confidence that every dollar spent on demand generation is maximized. The multi-billion-dollar market for Salesforce automation software is going to adopt this new model, and Qualified is perfectly positioned to capture that demand.”