This founder raised millions to build Fair, a neobank for immigrants

Fair, a multilingual digital bank and financial services platform, is launching to the public after raising $20 million in 40 days earlier this year.

Founder Khalid Parekh raised the capital primarily from the very demographic that Houston-based Fair aims to serve: from a group consisting of a number of immigrants, many of whom were first-time investors.

“There was not a single check from a VC or bank or from a family office,” Parekh told TechCrunch. “Ninety percent of our investors are minorities or are immigrants like myself that believed in the concept of Fair.”

One could say that it’s also fitting that Fair’s headquarters are in Houston, which at the time of the last census was the most ethnically diverse city in the United States.

Parekh is not your traditional fintech founder. He doesn’t have banking or financial services experience, although he does have experience founding and running a successful company: AMSYS Group, which is valued at nearly $350 million. His mission with Fair is largely personal. Upon arriving in the U.S. from India with just $100 in his pocket 22 years ago, he struggled to not only get a loan but also to open a bank account. 

Image Credits: Founder and CEO Khalid Parekh / Fair

“I was an engineer by background, but was very confused with the American banking system. There is not a lot of help for immigrants who don’t understand it well,” Parekh recalls. “My biggest challenge was sending money back home. There was just a lack of welcome.”

In 2020, he used his own cash to build out the technology behind Fair, which is designed to be an option to those who are new to the country, have no credit or need access to interest-free loans. Fair operates with Coastal Community Bank as its sponsor bank. Parekh’s goal with Fair is to provide “ethical, transparent banking” – to anyone – via a membership model that eliminates all banking fees. Members can pay a one-time membership fee of $99 (paid in full or in installments) to have access to all of Fair’s online banking and financial services.

“Another challenge that I saw is that there were hardly any options for insurance and retirement services for immigrants and low-income people,” Parekh said. “All big institutions catered to people with a lot of money. But we want to create an institution where we are fair to everybody, regardless of religion, race, color, net worth or how much is in their bank account. We want everyone to be treated the same.”

Over the past year, the nation has seen a surge of neobanks emerge aimed at specific demographics, including Greenwood, First Boulevard and Cheese. Welcome Technologies is also aimed at serving the immigrant population. 

Fair aims to differentiate itself, according to Parekh, by offering interest-free lending, as well as the ability to invest, get insurance and plan for retirement in one platform that is available in English, Arabic and Spanish (with more languages to come). Ultimately, his goal in Fair is to help address the “longstanding racial income inequalities and widening wealth disparities in the U.S.” He won’t get a salary for his role as CEO.

Among Fair’s features are free international transfer, early access to paycheck funds, “instant, interest-free” microloans — essentially buy now, pay later at the register — an annual dividend account, debit card accounts for kids and interest-free loans for home, auto and business that are equity-based. Those equity-based loans are Sharia compliant, meaning that it’s not kosher to take interest. They also comply with Jewish law.

Instead, if a member wants to buy a home, they can put 20% down, and Fair will provide 80% via an LLC, of which the member and bank will be co-owners.

“The members will have the option of buying out our shares on whatever schedule they wish,” Parekh said.

In partnership with Avibra, Fair is offering free supplemental life, accident medical and AD&D insurance to all members as part of its banking services.

Fair aims to practice socially responsible investing (SRI), an approach to investing that reduces exposure to companies that are deemed to have a negative social impact. The fintech also practices ESG investing, which measures the sustainability of an investment and its overall impact in three specific categories: environmental, social and corporate governance. And, it’s also working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and World Relief, and will donate 2.5% of profits to refugee missions globally, as well as racial economic empowerment initiatives.

Among Fair’s advisors are Manolo Sánchez, a director at Fannie Mae and Stewart Information Systems and former chair & CEO of BBVA Compass, and Samuel Golden, managing director at management consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal and founder of A&M’s Financial Industry practice.

Tiger Global is betting that more schools are going to share future student earnings

Income-share agreements, or ISAs, are a way to bring flexibility to the often steep financial costs of higher education. The financial model allows a student to learn at zero upfront cost, and then pay any costs through a percentage of future income over time.

While the model has caught fire from a variety of trade schools and bootcamps, it’s a hard service to offer at scale. It required underwriting a risky group of people — and that costs money. Just last week, a leader in the ISA space Lambda School laid off 65 employees amid a broader restructuring.

It’s here that a startup like Blair, which graduated Y Combinator in 2019, could be of use. The startup today helps universities finance and offer income-share agreements, or ISAs, to students. The startup has two services: a capital arm (Blair Capital) for which it secured a $100 million debt facility, and a services arm (Blair Servicing) that helps manage the flow of money, which just got a new tranche of capital to expand

The company told TechCrunch that it has raised a $6.3 million round led by Tiger Global. Other investors include Rainfall and 468 Capital, along with angels such as Teachable’s Ankur Nagpal and Vouch’s Sam Hodges. The raise came on top of a $1.1 million pre-seed round, bringing Blair’s total capital raised to date at $7.4 million.

A big portion of the venture capital money will go toward doubling or tripling Blair’s San Francisco team, said CEO Mike Mahlkow. It is especially investing in engineering and product, as well as a few senior hires in finance, compliance and the service side.

The Blair founding team.

Notably, Blair’s eight person team is fully male. The lack of gender diversity, even as an early-stage startup with a handful of employees, could hurt its competitive advantage, recruiting prospects, and and performance over time. About 25 percent of the employees are LGBT and 27.5% identify as non-white.

Blair started as a tool to underwrite students with loans that would pay for college, a sum that would eventually be repaid through an income-share agreement. It was similar to an Affirm for Education, where it could help students get access with low or nonexistent upfront costs.

“The model worked very well until March last year,” Mahlkow said. “And then the debt market was fairly dead, so we needed to shift our focus to a more software-like approach.” Now, Blair focuses on building ISA-based programs for schools, and underwrites loans based on certain programs at certain schools that have historical returns.

Most companies use its servicing piece — aka an operating system for offering ISAs — but a number of companies turn to Blair to help finance the costs of offering an ISA. Either colleges and bootcamps finance the ISA themselves and put it on the balance sheet, or they sell it to a company like Blair to get the money upfront and get repaid eventually.

Blair Servicing takes a percent of money from an ISA once a student is employed post-graduation, and Blair Capital takes a base fee plus a portion for the ISA as well.

While the company did not share exact numbers, it did say it has doubled its customers since February, tripling revenue during the same time period. Of course, a bet from the ever-ravenous Tiger Global is a statement. And, unlike his new investor, Mahlkow plans to keep growth sustainable and lean. Long-term, Blair is betting that outcome-based financing could get traction in more than just a savvy startup bootcamp but in how recruiting and placement works in various industries. The startup is in talks with a sports association and large companies that are working on upskilling and reskilling their workforces. Incentives are key in edtech, and Blair speaking that language as an early-stage startup is key as the sector moves more into the spotlight.

Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80M round the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11M to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning in a flash — literally. Instead of using charge, logic gates, and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects, and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

A rack of Lightmatter servers.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a ‘general purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal datacenter racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an NVIDIA A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15 percent of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in datacenters, where as much as 10 percent of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

A Lightmatter chip with its logo on the side.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple, or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. 5-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own datacenters and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support, and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11M A round, then GV hopping on with a $22M A-1, then this $80M.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger datacenters.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

Figure raises $7.5M to help startup employees better understand their compensation

The topic of compensation has historically been a delicate one that has left many people — especially startup employees — wondering just what drives what can feel like random decisions around pay and equity.

Last June, software engineers (and housemates) Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand set about trying to solve the problem for companies by developing a data-driven platform that aims to help companies structure their compensation plans and transparently communicate them to candidates.

Now today, the startup behind that platform, Figure, announced it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding led by CRV. Bling Capital, Better Tomorrow Ventures and Garage Capital also participated in the financing, along with angel investors such as AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant, Jason Calacanis, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and other executives based in Silicon Valley.

The startup has amassed a client list that includes other startups such as fintechs Brex and NerdWallet and AI-powered fitness company Tempo. 

Put simply, Hobby and Tisserand’s mission is to improve workflows and transparency around pay, particularly equity. The pair had both worked at startups themselves (Uber and Instacart, respectively) and ended up leaving money on the table when they left those companies because no one had properly explained to them what their equity, which changed at every valuation, meant.  

Image Credits: Figure co-founders and co-CEOs Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand. Image Credits: Figure

So, one of their goals was to create a solution that would provide a user-friendly explanation of what a person’s equity stake really means, from tax implications to whether or not they have to buy the stock and/or hold onto it.

“I’ve gone through the job search process many times before and there’s all these complex legal documents to understand why you’re getting 10,000 stock options, but obviously we knew the vast majority of people have no idea how that works,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We saw an opportunity there to help companies actually convey the value to their candidates while also making them aware of the potential risks of owning something that’s so illiquid.”

Image Credits: Figure

Another goal of Figure’s is to help create a more fair and balanced process about decisions around pay and equity so that there’s less inequality out there. Pointedly, it aims to remove some of the biases that exist around those decisions by systematizing the process.

“We saw a void in this kind of context around equity…and knew that there had to be a better way for companies to structure, manage and explain their compensation plans,” Hobby said.

To Hobby and Tisserand, Figure is designed to help stop instances of implicit bias.

“Compensation should be based on the work that you’re doing, and not gender or ethnic background,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We’re trying to give that context and remove biases. So, we’re trying to help at two different stages –– to surface inequities that already exist and make sure there are no anomalies, and then to help stop them before they can exist.”

Figure also aims to give companies the tools to educate candidates and employees on their total compensation — including equity, salary, benefits and bonuses — in a “straightforward and user-friendly” way. For example, it can create custom offer letters that interactively detail a candidate’s compensation.

“Our goal is for Figure to become an operating system for compensation, where a company can encode their compensation philosophy into our system, and we help them determine their job architecture, compensation bands and offer numbers while monitoring their compensation health to provide adjustment suggestions when needed,” Hobby said.

Post-hire, Figure’s compensation management system “helps keep everything running smoothly.”

Anna Khan, general partner of enterprise software at CRV, is joining Figure’s board as part of the funding. The decision to back the startup was in part personal, she said.

“I’d been investing in software for eight years and was alarmed that no one was building anything around pay equity when it comes to how we’re paid, why we’re paid what we’re paid and on how to build equity long term,” Khan told TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, discussions around compensation and equity still happen behind closed doors and this extends into workflow around compensation — equally broken — with manual leveling, old data and large pay inequities.”

The company plans to use its new capital to expand its product offerings and scale its organization.

Oculii looks to supercharge radar for autonomy with $55M round B

Autonomous vehicles rely on many sensors to perceive the world around them, and while cameras and lidar get a lot of the attention, good old radar is an important piece of the puzzle — though it has some fundamental limitations. Oculii, which just raised a $55M round, aims to minimize those limitations and make radar more capable with a smart software layer for existing devices — and sell its own as well.

Radar’s advantages lie in its superior range, and in the fact that its radio frequency beams can pass through things like raindrops, snow, and fog — making it crucial for perceiving the environment during inclement weather. Lidar and ordinary visible light cameras can be totally flummoxed by these common events, so it’s necessary to have a backup.

But radar’s major disadvantage is that, due to the wavelengths and how the antennas work, it can’t image things in detail the way lidar can. You tend to get very precisely located blobs rather than detailed shapes. It still provides invaluable capabilities in a suite of sensors, but if anyone could add a bit of extra fidelity to its scans, it would be that much better.

That’s exactly what Oculii does — take an ordinary radar and supercharge it. The company claims a 100x improvement to spatial resolution accomplished by handing over control of the system to its software. Co-founder and CEO Steven Hong explained in an email that a standard radar might have, for a 120 degree field of view, a 10 degree spatial resolution, so it can tell where something is with a precision of a few degrees on either side, and little or no ability to tell the object’s elevation.

Some are better, some worse, but for the purposes of this example that amounts to an effectively 12×1 resolution. Not great!

Handing over control to the Oculii system, however, which intelligently adjusts the transmissions based on what it’s already perceiving, could raise that to a 0.5° horizonal x 1° vertical resolution, giving it an effective resolution of perhaps 120×10. (Again, these numbers are purely for explanatory purposes and aren’t inherent to the system.)

That’s a huge improvement and results in the ability to see that something is, for example, two objects near each other and not one large one, or that an object is smaller than another near it, or — with additional computation — that it is moving one way or the other at such and such a speed relative to the radar unit.

Here’s a video demonstration of one of their own devices, showing considerably more detail than one would expect:

Exactly how this is done is part of Oculii’s proprietary magic, and Hong did not elaborate much on how exactly the system works. “Oculii’s sensor uses AI to adaptively generate an ‘intelligent’ waveform that adapts to the environment and embed information across time that can be leveraged to improve the resolution significantly,” he said. (Integrating information over time is what gives it the “4D” moniker, by the way.)

Here’s a little sizzle reel that gives a very general idea:

Autonomous vehicle manufacturers have not yet hit on any canonical set of sensors that AVs should have, but something like Oculii could give radar a more prominent place — its limitations sometimes mean it is relegated to emergency braking detection at the front or some such situation. With more detail and more data, radar could play a larger role in AV decisionmaking systems.

The company is definitely making deals — it’s working with Tier-1s and OEMs, one of which (Hella) is an investor, which gives a sense of confidence in Oculii’s approach. It’s also working with radar makers and has some commercial contracts looking at a 2024-2025 timeline.

CG render of Oculii's two radar units.

Image Credits: Oculii

It’s also getting into making its own all-in-one radar units, doing the hardware-software synergy thing. It claims these are the world’s highest resolution radars, and I don’t see any competitors out there contradicting this — the simple fact is radars don’t compete much on “resolution,” but more on the precision of their rangefinding and speed detection.

One exception might be Echodyne, which uses a metamaterial radar surface to direct a customizable radar beam anywhere in its field of view, examining objects in detail or scanning the whole area quickly. But even then its “resolution” isn’t so easy to estimate.

At any rate the company’s new Eagle and Falcon radars might be tempting to manufacturers working on putting together cutting-edge sensing suites for their autonomous experiments or production driver-assist systems.

It’s clear that with radar tipped as a major component of autonomous vehicles, robots, aircraft and other devices, it’s worth investing seriously in the space. The $55M B round certainly demonstrates that well enough. It was, as Oculii’s press release lists it, “co-led by Catapult Ventures and Conductive Ventures, with participation from Taiwania Capital, Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG), HELLA Ventures, PHI-Zoyi Capital, R7 Partners, VectoIQ, ACVC Partners, Mesh Ventures, Schox Ventures, and Signature Bank.”

The money will allow for the expected scaling and hiring, and as Hong added, “continued investment of the technology to deliver higher resolution, longer range, more compact and cheaper sensors that will accelerate an autonomous future.”

From bootstrapped to a $2.1B valuation, ReCharge raises $227M for subscription management platform

ReCharge, a provider of subscription management software for e-commerce, announced today that it has raised $227 million in a Series B growth round at a $2.1 billion valuation. 

Summit Partners, ICONIQ Growth and Bain Capital Ventures provided the capital.

Notably, Santa Monica, California-based ReCharge was bootstrapped for several years before raising $50 million in a previously undisclosed Series A from Summit Partners in January of 2020. And, it’s currently cash flow positive, according to company execs. With this round, ReCharge has raised a total of $277 million in funding.

Over the years, the company’s SaaS platform has evolved from a subscription billing/payments platform to include a broader set of offerings aimed at helping e-commerce businesses boost revenues and cut operating costs.

Specifically, ReCharge’s cloud-based software is designed to give e-commerce merchants a way to offer and manage subscriptions for physical products. It also aims to help these brands, primarily direct to consumer companies, grow by providing them with ways to “easily” add subscription offerings to their business with the goal of turning one-time purchasers “into loyal, repeat customers.”

The company has some impressive growth metrics, no doubt in part driven by the COVID-19 pandemic’s push to all things digital. ReCharge’s ARR grew 146% in 2020, while revenue grew over 136% over the same period, according to co-founder and CEO Oisin O’Connor, although he declined to reveal hard numbers. The startup has 15,000 customers and 20 million subscribers across 180 countries on its platform. Customers include Harry’s, Oatly, Fiji Water, Billie and Native. But even prior to the pandemic, it had doubled its processing volume each year for the past five years and has processed over $5.3 billion in transactions since its 2014 inception.

ReCharge also has 328 employees, up from 140 in January of 2020.

“We saw many brick and mortar stores, such as Oatly, offer their products through subscriptions as a result of the pandemic in 2020,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “Certain categories such as food & beverage and pet foods were some of the fastest growing segments in total subscriber count, with 100% and 147% increases, respectively, as non-discretionary spending shifted online.”

He was surprised to see that growth also extend beyond the most obvious categories. For example, ReCharge saw beauty care products subscribers grow by 120% last year.

“Overall, we saw a 91% subscriber growth in 2020 across the board in all categories of subscriptions,” O’Connor told TechCrunch. “We believe there is a combination of factors at play: the pandemic, the rise of physical subscriptions and the rise of direct-to-consumer buying.”

ReCharge plans to use its fresh capital to accelerate hiring in both R&D (engineering and product) and go-to-market functions such as sales, marketing and customer success. It plans to continue its expansion into other e-commerce platforms such as BigCommerce, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and Magento, and outside of North America into other geographic markets, starting with Europe. ReCharge also plans to “broaden” its acquisition scope so that it can “accelerate” its time-to-market in certain domains, according to O’Connor, and of course build upon its products and services.

Yoonkee Sull, partner at ICONIQ Growth, said his firm has been watching the rapid rise of subscription commerce for several years “as more merchants have looked for ways to deepen relationships with loyal customers and consumers increasingly have sought out more convenient and flexible ways to buy from their favorite brands.”

Ultimately, ICONIQ is betting on its belief that ReCharge “will continue to take significant share in a fast-growing market,” he told TechCrunch.

Sull believes the ReCharge team identified the subscription e-commerce opportunity early on and addresses the numerous nuanced needs of the market with “a fully-featured product that uniquely enables both the smallest merchants and largest brands to easily adopt and scale with their platform.”

Andrew Collins, managing director at Summit Partners, was impressed that the company saw so much growth without external capital for years, due to its “efficiency and discipline.”

The ReCharge team identified a true product-market fit and built a product that customers love — which has fueled strong organic growth as the business has scaled,” Collins added.

Una Brands launches with $40M to roll up brands on multiple Asia-Pacific e-commerce platforms

Una Brands' co-founders (from left to right): Tobias Heusch, Kiran Tanna and Kushal Patel

Una Brands’ co-founders (from left to right): Tobias Heusch, Kiren Tanna and Kushal Patel. Una Brands Una Brands

One of the biggest funding trends of the past year is companies that consolidate small e-commerce brands. Many of the most notable startups in the space, like Thrasio, Berlin Brands Group and Branded Group, focus on consolidating Amazon Marketplace sellers. But the e-commerce landscape is more fragmented in the Asia-Pacific region, where sellers use platforms like Tokopedia, Lazada, Shopee, Rakuten or eBay, depending on where they are. That is where Una Brands comes in. Co-founder Kiren Tanna, former chief executive officer of Rocket Internet Asia, said the startup is “platform agnostic,” searching across marketplaces (and platforms like Shopify, Magento or WooCommerce) for potential acquisitions.

Una announced today that it has raised a $40 million equity and debt round. Investors include 500 Startups, Kingsway Capital, 468 Capital, Presight Capital, Global Founders Capital and Maximilian Bitner, the former CEO of Lazada who currently holds the same role at secondhand fashion platform Vestiaire Collective.

Una did not disclose the ratio of equity and debt in the round. Like many other e-commerce aggregators, including Thrasio, Una raised debt financing to buy brands because it is non-dilutive. The round will also be used to hire aggressively in order to evaluate brands in its pipeline. Una currently has teams in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia and plans to expand in Southeast Asia before entering Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Tanna, who also founded Foodpanda and ZEN Rooms, launched Una along with Adrian Johnston, Kushal Patel, Tobias Heusch and Srinivasan Shridharan. He estimates that there are more than 10 million third-party sellers spread across different platforms in the Asia-Pacific.

“Every single seller in Asia is looking at multiple platforms and not just Amazon,” Tanna told TechCrunch. “We saw a big gap in the market where e-commerce is growing very quickly, but players in the West are not able to look at every platform, so that is why we decided to focus on APAC, launch the business there and acquire sellers who are selling on multiple platforms.”

Una looks for brands with annual revenue between $300,000 to $20 million and is open to many categories, as long as they have strong SKUs and low seasonality (for example, it avoids fast fashion). Its offering prices range from about $600,000 to $3 million.

Tanna said Una will maintain acquisitions as individual brands “because what’s working, we don’t change it.” How it adds value is by doing things that are difficult for small brands to execute, especially those run by just one or two people, like expanding into more distribution channels and countries.

“For example, in Indonesia there are at least five or six important platforms that you should be on, and many times the sellers aren’t doing that, so that’s something we do,” Tanna explained. “The second is cross-border in Southeast Asia, which sellers often can’t do themselves because of regulations around customs, import restrictions and duties. That’s something our team has experience in and want to bring to all brands.”

Amazon FBA roll-up players have the advantage of Amazon Marketplace analytics that allow them to quickly measure the performance of brands in their pipeline of potential acquisitions. Since it deals with different marketplaces and platforms, Una works with much more fragmented sources of data for revenue, costs, rankings and customer reviews. To scale up, the company is currently building technology to automate its valuation process and will also have local teams in each of its markets. Despite working with multiple e-commerce platforms, Tanna said Una is able to complete a deal within five weeks, with an offer usually happening within two or three days.

In countries where Amazon is the dominant e-commerce player, like the United States, many entrepreneurs launch FBA brands with the goal of flipping them for a profit within a few years, a trend that Thrasio and other Amazon roll-up startups are tapping into. But that concept is less common in Una’s markets, so it offers different team deals to appeal to potential sellers. Though Una acquires 100% of brands, it also does profit-sharing models with sellers, so they get a lump sum payment for the majority of their business first, then collect more money as Una scales up the brand. Tanna said Una usually continues working with sellers on a consulting basis for about three to six months after a sale.

“Something that Amazon players know very well is that they can find a product, sell it for four to five years, and then ideally make a multi-million deal exit and build another product or go on holiday,” said Tanna. “That’s something Asian sellers are not as familiar with, so we see this as an education phase to explain how the process works, and why it makes sense to sell to us.”

Music mixing marketplace EngineEars raises $1M, with help from Kendrick Lamar

EngineEars today announced a $1 million raise. The company’s first round of funding features investments from Kendrick Lamar, DJ Mustard, Roddy Rich and Slauson and Co. “Quality of sound is still important in music,” Lamar said in a quote provided to TechCrunch. “Ali has always been a progressive thinker. Engineers will transcend the culture.”

The service was launched in 2018 by Grammy winner Derek “MixedByAli” Ali, who has worked on a slew of high-profile tracks from artists including Lamar, Jay Rock, SZA, Nipsey Hussle and Snoop Dogg.

The educational courses turned into a touring curriculum, with 15 workshops in four countries, where Ali says he was able to determine what the community most needed.

“During that time, we really learned what the problem is,” says Ali. “All of the problems entailed tracking payments, being credited, the antiquated business model of file transfers and essentially just helping an independent audio engineer sustain and create a business for themselves.”

Source:  Claima Stories 

EngineEars has since branched out into something more akin to a marketplace for audio engineers. Independent mixers can offer their services and connect with artists and labels, get credit for the tracks they’ve worked on and — perhaps most importantly in the world of freelancing — get paid.

The platform launched an alpha version in January and since has 120 engineers verified by an existing vetting process. The invite-only service has another 2,000 people on its waiting list, according to Ali.

The service is currently working on a feature roadmap based on the requests of existing users and looking toward potential additions like the ability to buy beats, going forward. Other suggested features include contract negotiations for work-for-hire, but much of this is still very much in early stages.

How 4 New Jersey pools turned into a startup that just raised $10M

As the oldest of 12 children, Bunim Laskin spent much of his teen years looking for ways to help keep his siblings entertained. Noticing that a neighbor’s pool was often empty, Laskin reached out to ask if his family could use her pool. To make it worth her while, he suggested that they could help cover her expenses for maintaining the pool.

Soon after, five other families had made the same arrangement with her and the pool owner had six families covering 25% of her expenses. This meant that the neighbor was actually making money off her pool. The arrangement sparked a business idea in Laskin’s mind. At the age of 20, he founded Swimply, a marketplace for homeowners to rent out their underutilized pools to local swimmers, with Asher Weinberger.

The Cedarhurst, New York-based company launched a beta in 2018, starting with four pools in the New Jersey area. 

“We used Google Earth to find houses, and then knocked on 80 doors with a pool,” Laskin recalls. “We got to 100 pools organically. Word of mouth really helped us grow.” The site was pretty bare bones, he admits, with potential customers only able to view photos of the pools and connect with the pool owner by phone.

That year, Swimply did around 400 reservations and raised $1.2 million from friends and family.

In 2019, Swimply launched what he describes as a “proper” website and app with an automated platform. It grew “4 to 5 times” that year, again mostly organically. In an episode that aired in March 2020, the company appeared on Shark Tank but went home without a deal.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Swimply, Laskin said, pivoted right into the pandemic.

“We were the perfect solution for people when the world was falling on its head,” he said. The company restructured its offering to ensure that pool owners did not have to interact with guests. “It was the perfect, contact-free, self-serve experience to hang out and be with people you quarantined with.”

The CDC then came out to say that it was safe to swim because chlorine could help kill the virus, and that proved to be a big boon to its business.

“On one end, it was a way for people to have a normal day and on the other, it helped give owners a way to earn an income, at a time when many people were being affected financially,” Laskin told TechCrunch.

Business took off in 2020 with revenue growing 4,000% and now Swimply is announcing a $10 million Series A round. Norwest Venture Partners led the financing, which also included participation from Trust Ventures and a number of angel investors such as Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra; Rob Chesnut, former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb; Ancestry.com CEO Deborah Liu and Michael Curtis. 

Swimply is now operating in a total of 125 U.S. markets, two markets in Canada and five markets in Australia. It plans to use its new capital in part to expand into new markets and toward product development.

Image Credits: Swimply

The way it works is pretty straightforward. Swimply simply connects homeowners that have underutilized backyard spaces and pools with those seeking a way to gather, cool off or exercise, for example. People or families can rent pools by the hour, ranging in price from $15 to $60 per hour (at an average of $45/hour) depending on the amenities. New markets that Swimply has recently expanded to include Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, NC and the California cities of Oakland, San Luis Obispo and Los Gatos. 

“The shifting mindset from younger generations about ownership is a huge contributor to increased growth of the Swimply marketplace,” said co-founder Weinberger, who serves as Swimply’s COO. “Swimming is the third most popular activity for adults and number one for children, and yet no other company has tackled the aquatic space to make swimming more affordable and accessible…until now.”

While the company declined to provide hard revenue figures, Laskin said Swimply was seeing “7 digits a month in revenue” and 15,000 to 20,000 reservations a month. Families represent the most popular reservation.

“People can book and pay through our platform, and only 20% of hosts ever meet their guests,” Laskin said. “We’re enabling a new kind of consumer behavior with what we’re doing.”

The company is planning to use its new capital to also rebuild much of its tech infrastructure and boost its customer support team to be more “readily available.”

It is also now offering a complimentary up to $1 million worth of insurance per booking for liability as well as $10,000.

Swimply has a little over 20 employees, up 10 times from 2 people in December of 2020. It plans to double that number over the next few months.

The company’s model has proven quite lucrative for some owners, according to Laskin.

“Last year, there were some owners who earned $10,000 a month. One owner in Denver earned $50,000 last year and he had signed up toward the end of the summer. He should make over $100,000 this year,” Lasken projects.

Its only criteria is that owners offer a clean pool. Eighty five percent of hosts offer restrooms as well. If they don’t, they are limited to one-hour reservations with a max of five guests. Swimply has also partnered with local pool companies, and if they pay one of its owners a visit and certify that pool, that owner gets a badge on the site “so guests get an additional level of security,” Laskin said.

Ed Yip of Norwest Venture Partners admits that when he first heard of the concept of Swimply, he “didn’t know what to make of it.”

But the more he heard about it, the more excited he got.

“This is the holy grail for a consumer investor. We’re not changing consumer behavior, but rather productize the experience and make it safer and easier on both sides,” Yip told TechCrunch.

What also gets the investor excited is the potential for Swimply beyond just swimming pools in the future.

“We’re seeing a ton of demand from hosts wanting to list hot tubs and tennis courts, for example,” Yip said. “So this can turn into a marketplace for shared outdoor resources and that’s a huge market opportunity that adds value on both sides.”

Indeed, the concept of monetizing underutilized space is a growing concept. Earlier this year, we reported on Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, raising $53 million in a Series B round of funding. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.