Greycroft leads $3.5M into Breef, an online marketplace for ad agencies

Breef raised $3.5 million in funding to continue developing what it boasts as “the world’s first online marketplace” for transactions between brands and agencies.

Greycroft led the round and was joined by Rackhouse Ventures, The House Fund, John and Helen McBain, Lance Armstrong and 640 Oxford Ventures. Including the new round, the New York and Colorado-based company has brought in total funding of $4.5 million since its inception in 2019 by husband-and-wife co-founders George Raptis and Emily Bibb.

Bibb’s background is in digital marketing and brand building at companies like PopSugar, VSCO and S’well, while Raptis was on the founding team at fintech company

Both said they experienced challenges in finding agencies, which traditionally involved asking for referrals and then making a bunch of calls. There were also times when their companies would be in high demand for talent, but didn’t necessarily need a full-time employee to achieve the goal or project milestone.

While the concept of outsourcing is not new, Breef’s differentiator is its ability to manage complex projects: a traditional individual freelance project is less than $1,000 and takes a week or less. Instead, the company is working with team-based projects that average $25,000 with a length of engagement of about six months, Raptis said.

Breef’s platform is democratizing how brands and boutique agencies connect with each other in the process of planning, scoping, pitching and paying for projects, Raptis told TechCrunch.

“At the core, we are taking the agency online,” Bibb added. “We are building a platform to streamline a complicated process for outsourcing high-value work and allow users to find, pay for and work with agencies in days rather than months.”

Brands can draft their own brief to articulate what they need, and Breef will connect them to a short list of agencies that match those requirements. Rather than a one- or two-month search, the company is able to bring that down to five days.

Bibb and Raptis decided to seek venture capital after experiencing demand — millions of dollars in projects are being created on the platform each month — and some tailwinds from the shift to remote work. They saw many brands that may have originally utilized in-house teams or agencies of record turn to distributed or smaller teams.

Due to the nature of agency work being expensive, Breef is processing large amounts of money over the internet, and the founders want to continue developing the technology and hiring talent so that it is a secure and trustworthy system.

It also launched its buy now, pay later project funding service, Breef(pay), to streamline payments to agencies and reduce cash flow challenges. Users can construct their own payment terms, mix up the way they are paid and utilize a credit line or defer payments to control external spend.

To date, Breef has more than 5,000 vetted boutique agencies in 20 countries on its platform and is able to save its users an average of 32% in product costs compared with a traditional agency model. It boasts a customer list that includes Spotify, Brex, Shutterstock, Bluestone Lane and Kinrgy.

Kevin Novak, founder of Rackhouse Ventures, said he met Raptis through the Australian tech community. He recently launched his first fund targeting startups in novel applications of data.

“When they were talking to me about what they wanted to do, I got intrigued,” Novak said. “I like finding marketplaces where the idea is well understood by the people involved. Looking at the matching problem, Emily and George have found a unique way to find ad agencies that hasn’t existed before.”


Placement is the much-needed talent agent for jobseekers

“We’re giving away money to strangers on the internet” is a pretty cavalier pitch for a new startup. But the more I learned about Placement, the smarter it sounded. In exchange for 10% of your income for 18 to 36 months, Placement will find you a much higher paying job, prep you for the interview and help you move to your new city of employment.

Actors, athletes and musicians have talent agents. Why shouldn’t office workers? That’s co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan’s vision for Placement. The former VP of product at Flexport thinks he can consistently get people a 30% raise on their cost of living-adjusted income if they’re willing to relocate from either their sleepy hometown or an overpriced metropolis.

“We think you can transform your life without becoming an engineer. You just have to be in the right place,” says Linehan. Not everyone is going to learn to code, and Placement isn’t a school. “We’re not in the business of training people to do jobs. We’re in training people to get jobs.”

Placement sits at the lucrative center of a slew of megatrends. People switching jobs more often. The desperate need to pay off crushing student loan debt. The rise of mid-size cities as rent gets out of control in San Francisco and New York. Social apps keeping people in touch from afar. The search for deeper fulfillment going mainstream.

Placement co-founder and CEO Sean Linehan

Through the normalization of income sharing agreements, Placement has found a way to powerfully monetize these societal shifts. That potential has attracted a $3 million seed round led by Founders Fund and backed by Coatue’s new seed fund, XYZ Ventures, The House Fund, plus angels like Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, Eventbrite founders Julia and Kevin Hartz, DoorDash CEO Tony Xu, 137 Ventures MD Elizabeth Weil and her husband Facebook Calibra VP of Product Kevin.

With the cash to build out its jobseeker’s software toolkit, Placement could grow far beyond the Jerry Maguire-style boutique talent agency into a scalable way to put millions on a better career track. “The number one problem that I see in the American economy right now is the lack of income mobility,” Linehan says. “There are so many services for making rich people get richer, but what about services to help low-income people to get to the middle, or help those in the middle to improve?”

“If I stayed home, there’s just no way”

The CEO’s own rise was “a tried and true American tale,” he tells me. “I grew up in a pretty low-income neighborhood in San Bernardino . . . below the poverty line.” But a chance to attend UC Berkeley brought him to Silicon Valley, and the economic powerhouse city of San Francisco (before the housing crisis made it so expensive). “I don’t think I could have been as successful if I went to another place. If I had stayed in my home town, there’s just no way.”

Yet after college, when friends moved away and he broke up with his girlfriend, Linehan found himself living in a bunkbed by himself with extra space. “I called a friend back home working a minimum wage job, still living at home, and said ‘Your life kinda sucks. Come crash with me!,’ ” Linehan recalls. “He was super smart — smarter than most of the people I went to Berkeley with, but he never got on the train out of town.”

In the following years, Linehan coached his friend through becoming a professional and navigating interviews. “Now he’s tripled his income on a cost of living adjusted basis. He went from minimum wage to $70,000 to $80,000.” That ignited the idea for Placement. “How do you take that process of tapping people who are special and just need economic opportunity, and bring it to more people?” But Linehan needed a co-founder who could execute on getting these up-and-comers jobs.

That’s where Katie Kent came in. Also from the product team at Flexport, Kent had helped start Zipfian Academy as the first data science bootcamp in America. The 12-week crash course had been placing 93% of graduates into full-time roles when Zipfian was acquired by Galvanize, where Kent became director of outcomes with the mandate to get students great jobs. The right idea, experience and the track record of turning Flexport into a $3.2 billion freight forwarding unicorn led investors to jump at the chance to fund Placement.

Share me the money

So how exactly do Placement’s income sharing agreements work? “They only pay us if they make more money on a cost of living adjusted basis” Linehan explains.

First, the startup recruits through targeted advertising and word of mouth referrals, which the company says 100% of clients have provided. Primarily, it’s seeking business professionals with a skill mismatched to their city, such as sales, human resources or operations in a place without companies competing to hire for those roles. They might have never left their hometown or returned after school at a mid-tier college, suppressing their earning potential. But lack of knowledge about jobseeking, fears of leaving their support network or a lack of funds to finance a move keep them stuck there.

“There are two moments when society puts a gentle hand on your shoulder saying its okay to move away: when you go to college and when you graduate college,” says Linehan. “We’re trying to engineer a third moment. We give people the permission and space to have that conversation with their family by providing that forcing function.” Placement serves the same utility the CEO did for his friend, revealing that if they seize the opportunity of moving to a growing but still affordable city like Denver, Austin, Raleigh or Seattle, “people’s lives would be so much better.”

The other demographic Placement seeks is the 10 million-plus workers who’ve gotten in over their heads in some of the country’s priciest cities. “If you’re ambitious and talented but not an engineer in SF, this is a hard life. The costs are exceeding the benefits at this point.” Placement looks for cheaper cities where their skills are still relevant and they might even earn the same or a little less, but they can fetch a huge increase in income on a cost of living-adjusted basis and they have a path to buying a house. Linehan declares that “Our controversial opinion is that more important than reskilling people is getting them to the right place where the work is happening in the first place.”

Placement then evaluates the prospective client in what is currently an extremely selective process to determine if they’re undervalued based on their skills, qualifications, shortfalls and redflags. If they’re already being adequately or overpaid, it won’t accept them. Those eligible are offered access to Placement’s research on all the optimal salary and location/hirer pairs for their role, which most people wouldn’t or couldn’t do themselves. Linehan says, “We run their job search for them. We’re kind of like a concierge.”

Once they’ve selected some targets, Placement quarterbacks their preparation process, helping them to improve their LinkedIn and resume, practice telling their story and offering mock interviews with experts in their field. As they progress through interviews Placement sets up and requires hirers offer remotely, it teaches clients to negotiate to get their best possible compensation.

“If you’re a normal person who didn’t go to an elite institution or are a couple years out of school, there’s no resources,” Linehan laments. While some top coding schools and other bootcamps place graduates, and some startups like Pathrise are also working on interview prep, most seeking a new employer end up relying on mediocre job hunting tips they find online. That’s in part because it was hard to get people to fork over significant cash in exchange for instruction that wasn’t guaranteed to help.

How Placement income sharing agreements work

The Placement income sharing agreement is designed to align incentives, though. It’s vested in getting clients not only the best job and salary, but one they’ll want to stick with. As long as the startup nets them a higher adjusted income, clients pay 10% of their earnings. That lasts for 18 months, or 36 months if they receive Placement’s $5,000 relocation stipend and human support. There are also caps on the total Placement can get paid back, and the agreement dissolves after five years so clients aren’t locked in if things don’t work out.

For example, Placement aims to help someone earning $40,000 per year pre-taxes reach $52,000 on a cost of living adjusted basis. They’d end up paying Placement $7,794 over the course of 18 months, or $433 per month. After the bill, they’d still be earning $3,900 per month, or $567 more than they used to. If they take the $5,000 relocation stipend and extra assistance, their ISA extends to 36 months and they’ll end up paying back $15,588 total, including the stipend.

Clients are likely to keep growing their compensation after their Placement ISA ends, so they’ll start reaping all the added proceeds. The startup has worked with fewer than 1,000 clients to date, but is supposedly growing quickly.

Eventually, Placement could move into working with programmers and designers, but it sees a big gap in assistance for business roles. Linehan notes that “We’re providing an option that will be available to a lot more people than a Lambda School or Galvanize coding bootcamp. Not everyone’s going to be software engineers.”

Making America anti-fragile

The biggest hurdle for Placement will be scaling what can be quite a hands-on, relationship-driven process of matching clients with the right hirers. “It’s one thing to get one person a job. It’s another to get 10,000 people a job,” Linehan admits. But he conquered the same problem at Flexport, which was moving 1,000 shipping containers across the ocean but had to figure out “how the hell do you move 1 million?”

Placement co-founders (from left): Katie Kent and Sean Linehan

That requires Placement to pour product know-how into building tools that equip clients to take more initiative to match themselves with hirers and teach themselves interview skills. It also must automate more of its marketing outreach, client screening and connections to recruiters while retaining a human element worth a four to five-figure price.

Right now, the startup’s team numbers just four, and though it will expand to seven soon, it may need to raise a bunch more to chase this dream. Some investors have been understandably skeptical about the whole “handing out $5,000” model without onerous ISAs.

For comparison, the one-year MissionU school for business and data jobs that was acquired and shut down by WeWork asked for 15% of income for three years without a relocation stipend, or $23,400 on a $52,000 per year job. ISAs for General Assembly’s tech job education cost 10% for 48 months, even if students don’t earn more than in their old job. Pathrise’s slimmer offering costs just 7% for one year. Colleges are jumping on the trend too, with some working with startup Leif to run their ISAs.

Placement has plans to cover prickly edge cases. If someone gets laid off from their new job, the startup will help them find another. “We’re on the hook to make sure they’re successful,” Linehan insists. It only won’t step in if an employee is fired for an ethical problem like sexual harassment or committing fraud. And if someone simply gets lonely in their unfamiliar city, they’re not required to stay, though moving home could hurt their earnings and Placement’s take. That’s why the startup is working to help its clients find community, even amongst each other, so they don’t feel isolated, and prefers sending workers to cities where they know someone.

Meanwhile, Placement must resist the temptation to become a hiring agency paid by employers and instead work fully on behalf of its clients. “When you’re aligned economically with the employer, you’re just chasing dollars from bigger and bigger whales of companies, and at one point you figure out you’re a recruiting firm for the Gap,” Linehan says with a shudder. The complexity of dealing with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is enough hassle, so Placement doesn’t intend to work with jobseekers abroad or those that need visas, as “it’s not good for startups if you’re at the mercy of the government.”

Luckily, U.S. salaries total $8.6 trillion per year, Linehan claims, so it’s got enough of a domestic market. “The American economy is so huge that I don’t see other people tackling problems like that being competitive.” Placement does have potential to use its data to recommend and teach specific skills. “If you just make this change, if you learn Excel, you could totally get this job in a different industry that pays more and that you’ll like more,” Linehan says. He also dreams of one day improving urban planning by suggesting cities build music venues or parks that jobseekers say would soften the landing of moving there.

Zooming out, there’s also chance for Placement make the country more stable and resistant to strong-man populism promising financial security. “A two-tier society is fragile. I don’t want to live in a democracy where there’s a bunch of hay waiting for a matchstick to set it on fire,” Linehan concludes. “There doesn’t have to be a have and a have-not class, and you don’t need the government to do forced redistribituion to make everything fair. You just need people that care about getting on the right track, and that to me is a worthy cause to dedicate a life to.”

The House Fund closes its second fund with $44 million to pour into UC Berkeley grads, alums and faculty

In 2016, we profiled a then-24-year-old named Jeremy Fiance who had managed to pool together $6 million for a fund focused on his alma mater, UC Berkeley, where as a student he’d brought to campus Kairos Society, an organization for budding entrepreneurs, as well as created a student accelerator called Free Ventures.

Fiance wasn’t waiting on someone to give him a job in venture; he wanted to create his own vehicle — dubbed The House Fund — with the support of the school to invest in its talented students, alums and professors, and eventually channel some of its gains back into the university system. To his mind, regional VCs were too focused on Stanford, creating a funding vacuum — and an opportunity. Why not address it himself?

Fast-forward two years and it’s apparent that investors give Fiance high marks. To wit, The House Fund is today announcing a second fund with $44 million in capital commitments, including backing from University of California (which oversees a $126 billion endowment) and the Berkeley Endowment Management Company, which provides stewardship of endowment gifts given expressly to UC Berkeley. Other investors include funds of funds, including Ahoy Capital; unnamed family offices; Berkeley alums; and tech execs.

The specific pitch these investors are buying ties partly to the school’s size, says Fiance. UC Berkeley has 500,000 alums in the world and another 60,000 students on campus. Some of those graduates have also built some very valuable, still-private companies, including Flexport, Nextdoor, Warby Parker, Databricks and DoorDash (all are so-called “unicorn” companies). Others have taken their companies public (think Redfin, Coupa and Cloudera, among others). Naturally, some percentage of UC Berkeley alums have also sold their companies, including Caviar, which was acquired by Square (and then by DoorDash), and PillPack, which sold to Amazon.

Investors are also betting on Fiance’s promising track record. Though The House Fund’s debut vehicle was relatively small, it managed to get checks into the logistics firm Flexport, the email service Superhuman, the teen app Tbh (acquired by Facebook) and Dyndrite, a maker of additive manufacturing software that we first encountered back in April. The House Fund’s second fund already holds some promising stakes, too. Among its bets so far is the blockchain gaming company Forte, founded by esports veteran Kevin Chou, who previously founded (and sold) Kabam; Oasis Labs, a cryptographic project whose founder previously sold an earlier startup, Ensighta, to FireEye; and, a seven-month-old company that aims to help people find better jobs in new cities. (Its co-founders, Sean Linehan and Katie Kent, came out of Flexport.)

Most of all, perhaps, they’re counting on Fiance’s ability to continue growing a network that has already allowed The House Fund to meet with more than 3,000 startups with ties to UC Berkeley. (It has funded 50 in total.)

He has help. Though The House Fund remains a capital pool with just one general partner, Fiance is quick to acknowledge the team he has built. Among these members is Cameron Baradar, who was the third engineer at the mapping visualization startup Mapsense before it was acquired by Apple and who is now a partner at the firm; Brett Wilson, who founded the ad tech startup TubeMogul and sold it to Adobe in 2017 and is a venture partner; Annie Tsai, a former CMO at the marketing automation company Demandforce who is a part-time partner; and Arjun Arora, who founded and sold an ad tech startup, worked as an investor for both Expa and 500 Startups and is now a part-time partner.

As for the size checks they are writing, Fiance says they “sized the fund in such a way that we were right-sizing to the opportunity in front of us.” What that means: while The House Fund once wrote checks of $50,000 to $100,000, it’s now investing up to $1 million in seed rounds, with an undisclosed amount of money targeted for reserves.

It also dives in before a lot of venture funds will, insists Fiance. “There are actually very few funds that are willing to take a first leap, he says. But we put together pre-seed syndicates. We help companies fundraise by putting together a personalized demo day for them with 20 to 30 investors” who might conceivably be interested in the startup.

“We have a very strong sense of the market and other funds and where and how they’re investing,” adds Fiance. The suggestion, seemingly, is that like the university around which it is centered, The House Fund does its research.

This new startup wants to be the ‘Netscape for crypto,’ and some investors think it has a shot

Three-month-old Elph wants to make it easier for you to find and use blockchain-based apps. How? Through a portal that’s promising to enable users to click through to see how their crypto holdings are faring, to buy and sell CryptoKitties, or to find and use other decentralized apps.

Its cofounder and CEO, Ritik Malhotra, says it will eventually be the “Netscape for crypto.”

If it sounds outlandish, that’s mostly because there are still so few blockchain apps from which to choose. Malhotra and team trust that this will change over time, however, and investors seem to trust them, including Coinbase, The House Fund, and numerous individual investors who just provided the company with a little less than a million dollars in pre-seed funding.

A large part of the appeal is the founders’ pedigree. Malhotra was a Thiel fellow, for example, stepping away from UC Berkeley in order to make the requisite two-year commitment demanded of the prestigious program. Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, Elph’s cofounder and CTO, had also previously cofounded and led a YC-backed startup, Streem, that sold to Box in 2014. Afterward, Luthra joined Coinbase as a senior engineer on Coinbase’s crypto team, learning the ins and outs of the nascent but fast-growing industry.

But the company’s premise is compelling, too. Most crypto outfits today require users to walk through numerous manual steps to create and store their wallet, and authenticate that they are who they say before they can start actively engaging with the service. With Elph, users simply sign up with an email and password, says Malhotra; Elph then handles account management across apps based on the unique ID that it assigns them.

“It’s an app store,” explains Luthra. “You log in, you see a bunch of decentralized apps, you click them, and they open up. We’ve handled all the interfacing with the blockchain and done the heavy lifting in the background for you.”

These decentralized app developers don’t need to buy into Elph’s vision; they all respond to open web3 protocols that allow them to interact with the Ethereum blockchain and Ethereum smart contracts. Elph has been able to implement the web3 APIs in its app, meaning everyone is talking the same language.

Elph is also working on a developer SDK to make it even easier for developers to build blockchain-based apps.

Malhotra and Luthra seem to be carving their careers out of abstracting away the complexity of highly technical things. Streem built desktop software for cloud storage services, for example, enabling customers to stream files to their desktop environments. (Notably, it also raised just $875,000 from investors to build out its product.) More recently, while working at Coinbase, Luthra realized he was witnessing “this huge boom of new, decentralized apps coming out that are hard for anyone to access or use who isn’t fairly technical.” It’s “kind of like the Internet in 1994 right now,” he says. “So we decided to simply it.”

The company is opening up its public beta launch today, which you can check out here. Because most users need to be educated about which apps are being built, the portal today allows them to browse apps by category — much like sites like Netscape and Yahoo once did when the Internet was still young and its content a confusing morass for web surfers.

The team has plainly paid attention to creating an engaging experience that aims to make finding and using these apps fun. As for how Elph accrues value for itself and its investors, the idea is employ token mechanics, meaning that new features will be added over time by “maintainers” or people who work on the app store to either jazz it up or else rank apps for Elph and receive tokens as rewards in exchange for their efforts. (These tokens, presumably, will be available to trade over time on cryptocurrency exchanges that are easily accessed through . . . Elph.)

Elph isn’t the only outfit to identify this same opportunity. Coinbase, for example, last year rolled out Toshi, a browser for the Ethereum network that aims to provide universal access to financial services.

Still, it’s early days, obviously, and momentum appears to be building slowly. Today, there are roughly 3,000 decentralized apps up and running, roughly four times more than there were a year ago. Some day, believes Malhotra, there will be millions.

If Malhotra and Luthra play their cards right, Elph may help you find them.