5 VCs discuss the future of SaaS and software after Pfizer’s vaccine breakthrough

Monday’s news that a COVID-19 vaccine candidate looks to be incredibly effective gave investors reasons to believe in a better future. Perhaps COVID-19 won’t be with us for years, investors appeared to think, but will instead become something that we can bend the curve on sooner than we thought.

A strong vaccine would be key toward moving back to life as it was. And for many companies battered by the pandemic, news that one was coming was more than a shot in the arm — it was stock market salvation. Airline shares soared. Cruise companies jumped. Even long-suffering Boeing shares took flight.

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But amidst the cheering, one sector of the stock market, a key comp for a host of startups, took hits. Yes, the high-flying SaaS and cloud stocks that have been such a key narrative in 2020 thanks to the pandemic and low interest rates, fell sharply while other sectors rallied off the vaccine tidings.

SaaS and cloud stocks are off more this morning, though their declines are shallower than Monday’s losses.

We asked yesterday what signal public investors were trying to send with their trades. But that’s just one angle of the picture. So, to better understand how private investors are viewing the same signals, I reached out to a few VCs who invest in SaaS and, in my experience, are worth listening to.

Below I’ve compiled notes from Bessemer’s Mary D’Onofrio, Work Life Ventures’ Brianne Kimmel, Day One Ventures’ Masha Drokova, Floodgate’s Iris Choi and Shasta’s Jacob Mullins on our question.

Are the bulls still bullish? Let’s find out.

SaaS, vaccines and the future of work

D’Onofrio wrote that her firm was still digesting the vaccine news and that it was “too early to say decisively whether or not people will be back to a pre-COVID life in the next few quarters.” That’s fair. Some good vaccine news does not mean that I’ll be back to speed-running United Economy Plus across the country every two weeks come April.

That said, D’Onofrio doesn’t appear too worried about the early-week selloff, noting that SaaS and cloud stocks — as measured via her firm’s cloud index — are still far ahead of other, broader indices this year. Why does that matter? “Stocks are forward-looking,” she said, which tells her “that even with more visibility into returning to ‘normal,’ the market anticipates that cloud companies will still be able to capitalize on the [market expansion] and growth opportunities that COVID helped to propel.”

“The pie,” she concluded, “has expanded.” That’s bullish and fair, I reckon.

What’s driving API-powered startups forward in 2020?

Startups that deliver products via an API are seeing momentum in 2020, as their method of serving customers becomes increasingly mainstream. And investors are taking note.

It’s not hard to find a startup with an API-based delivery model that is doing well this year. This column noted a grip of recently funded API-focused startups in May, for example, underscoring how attractive they are to venture capitalists today.

Yesterday, I caught up with Alpaca, a startup whose API allows other companies to add equities-trading capabilities to their own services. The company’s business is skyrocketing this year. According to data it provided to TechCrunch, Alpaca’s trading volume, processed for its developer users and customers, has grown from $388.1 million in January to nearly $1.6 billion in both June and July. Volume fell some in August, but according to CEO Yoshi Yokokawa, September’s trading volume could see Alpaca surpass its summer records.

Alpaca announced a $6 million round from Spark Capital last November that TechCrunch covered, with Social Leverage, Portag3, Fathom Capital and Zillionize helping boost its total capital raised to nearly $12 million. We confirmed with Yokokawa that his startup’s revenue scales with volume, meaning that the company’s top line has exploded this year, with trading volumes up 10x from July 2019 to July 2020.

Alpaca is a good example of what to think of when we consider an API-powered company versus something more more traditional, like Robinhood, which provides services to end users. Alpaca considers developers as its users, and those developers bring Alpaca to market in their own fashion.

The developer-first model can lead to efficiencies. As Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson told TechCrunch regarding new software products: “I don’t want to go through a sales process,” he said, adding that he also doesn’t want to wait “a week to get a call back” but would rather “start exploring now.” With many API companies offering a free tier or low-cost options for tinkering, lowering sales and marketing costs in certain instances when developers sell themselves on an API-delivered service.

So what?

What’s driving the API-delivered model forward in 2020? Or, more simply, why do I keep hearing from API-powered startups that are either raising money, or are seeing rapid growth?

Alpaca’s Yokokawa has a theory. According to the startup exec, two macro trends are coming together to push API startups forward. The first is a simple evolution of the tech industry towards a new software delivery model. Yokokawa drew a timeline for TechCrunch, from legacy IT systems to on-prem software, through SaaS to API-delivered services today, the last in the bunch offering what he views as the most flexibility. That trend has combined with more folks becoming developers, in his view, through traditional education, coding schools, and even no-code’s growth.

An industry shift towards software and services in an increasingly on-demand model (SaaS is more on-demand than on-prem software, and API-delivered tools are even more on-demand than SaaS) and more developers to help plug APIs into other apps could make for a nice tailwind for companies employing the business model.

To get a bit more on the where we stand today, The Exchange chatted with Shasta’s Isaac Roth and collected notes from two Mayfield investors, Patrick Salyer and Rajeev Batra. There’s a general air of bullishness around startups selling APIs. Let’s learn how it is impacting venture interest.

The investor perspective