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Extra Crunch roundup: A fistful of IPOs, Affirm’s Peloton problem, Zoom Apps and more

DoorDash, Affirm, Roblox, Airbnb, C3.ai and Wish all filed to go public in recent days, which means some venture capitalists are having the best week of their lives.

Tech companies that go public capture our imagination because they are literal happy endings. An Initial Public Offering is the promised land for startup pilgrims who may wander the desert for years seeking product-market fit. After all, the “I” in “ISO” stands for “incentive.”

A flurry of new S-1s in a single week forced me to rearrange our editorial calendar, but I didn’t mind; our 360-degree coverage let some of the air out of various hype balloons and uncovered several unique angles.

For example: I was familiar with Affirm, the service that lets consumers finance purchases, but I had no idea Peloton accounted for 30% of its total revenue in the last quarter.

“What happens if Peloton puts on the brakes?” I asked Alex Wilhelm as I edited his breakdown of Affirm’s S-1. We decided to use that as the subhead for his analysis.

The stories that follow are an overview of Extra Crunch from the last five days. Full articles are only available to members, but you can use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one or two-year subscription. Details here.

Thank you very much for reading Extra Crunch this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


What is Roblox worth?

Gaming company Roblox filed to go public yesterday afternoon, so Alex Wilhelm brought out a scalpel and dissected its S-1. Using his patented mathmagic, he analyzed Roblox’s fundraising history and reported revenue to estimate where its valuation might land.

Noting that “the public markets appear to be even more risk-on than the private world in 2020,” Alex pegged the number at “just a hair under $10 billion.”

What China’s fintech can teach the world

HANGZHOU, CHINA – JULY 31: An employee uses face recognition system on a self-service check-out machine to pay for her meals in a canteen at the headquarters of Alibaba Group on July 31, 2018 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China. The self-service check-out machine can calculate the price of meals quickly to save employees’ queuing time. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

For all the hype about new forms of payment, the way I transact hasn’t been radically transformed in recent years — even in tech-centric San Francisco.

Sure, I use NFC card readers to tap and pay and tipped a street musician using Venmo last weekend. But my landlord still demands paper checks and there’s a tattered “CASH ONLY” taped to the register at my closest coffee shop.

In China, it’s a different story: Alibaba’s employee cafeteria uses facial recognition and AI to determine which foods a worker has selected and who to charge. Many consumers there use the same app to pay for utility bills, movie tickets and hamburgers.

“Today, nobody except Chinese people outside of China uses Alipay or WeChat Pay to pay for anything,” says finance researcher Martin Chorzempa. “So that’s a big unexplored side that I think is going to come into a lot of geopolitical risks.”

Inside Affirm’s IPO filing: A look at its economics, profits and revenue concentration

Consumer lending service Affirm filed to go public on Wednesday evening, so Alex used Thursday’s column to unpack the company’s financials.

After reviewing Affirm’s profitability, revenue and the impact of COVID-19 on its bottom line, he asked (and answered) three questions:

  • What does Affirm’s loss rate on consumer loans look like?
  • Are its gross margins improving?
  • What does the unicorn have to say about contribution profit from its loans business?

If you didn’t make $1B this week, you are not doing VC right

Image Credits: XiXinXing (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

“The only thing more rare than a unicorn is an exited unicorn,” observes Managing Editor Danny Crichton, who looked back at Exitpalooza 2020 to answer “a simple question — who made the money?”

Covering each exit from the perspective of founders and investors, Danny makes it clear who’ll take home the largest slice of each pie. TL;DR? “Some really colossal winners among founders, and several venture firms walking home with billions of dollars in capital.

5 questions from Airbnb’s IPO filing

The S-1 Airbnb released at the start of the week provided insight into the home-rental platform’s core financials, but it also raised several questions about the company’s health and long-term viability, according to Alex Wilhelm:

  • How far did Airbnb’s bookings fall during Q1 and Q2?
  • How far have Airbnb’s bookings come back since?
  • Did local, long-term stays save Airbnb?
  • Has Airbnb ever really made money?
  • Is the company wealthy despite the pandemic?

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost explains the strategy behind acquiring Spacemaker

Andrew Anagnost, president and CEO, Autodesk.

Earlier this week, Autodesk announced its purchase of Spacemaker, a Norwegian firm that develops AI-supported software for urban development.

TechCrunch reporter Steve O’Hear interviewed Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost to learn more about the acquisition and asked why Autodesk paid $240 million for Spacemaker’s 115-person team and IP — especially when there were other startups closer to its Bay Area HQ.

“They’ve built a real, practical, usable application that helps a segment of our population use machine learning to really create better outcomes in a critical area, which is urban redevelopment and development,” said Anagnost.

“So it’s totally aligned with what we’re trying to do.”

Unpacking the C3.ai IPO filing

On Monday, Alex dove into the IPO filing for enterprise artificial intelligence company C3.ai.

After poring over its ownership structure, service offerings and its last two years of revenue, he asks and answers the question: “is the business itself any damn good?”

Is the internet advertising economy about to implode?

Image Credits: jayk7 / Getty Images

In his new book, “Subprime Attention Crisis,” writer/researcher Tim Hwang attempts to answer a question I’ve wondered about for years: does advertising actually work?

Managing Editor Danny Crichton interviewed Hwang to learn more about his thesis that there are parallels between today’s ad industry and the subprime mortgage crisis that helped spur the Great Recession.

So, are online ads effective?

“I think the companies are very reticent to give up the data that would allow you to find a really definitive answer to that question,” says Hwang.

Will Zoom Apps be the next hot startup platform?

Image Credits: Zoom

Even after much of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, we will still be using Zoom’s video-conferencing platform in great numbers.

That’s because Zoom isn’t just an app: it’s also a platform play for startups that add functionality using APIs, an SDK or chatbots that behave like smart assistants.

Enterprise reporter Ron Miller spoke to entrepreneurs and investors who are leveraging Zoom’s platform to build new applications with an eye on the future.

“By offering a platform to build applications that take advantage of the meeting software, it’s possible it could be a valuable new ecosystem for startups,” says Ron.

Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Without an on-campus experience, many students (and their parents) are wondering how much value there is in attending classes via a laptop in a dormitory.

Even worse: Declining enrollment is leading many institutions to eliminate majors and find other ways to cut costs, like furloughing staff and cutting athletic programs.

Edtech solutions could fill the gap, but there’s no real consensus in higher education over which tools work best. Many colleges and universities are using a number of “third-party solutions to keep operations afloat,” reports Natasha Mascarenhas.

“It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.”

3 growth tactics that helped us surpass Noom and Weight Watchers

3D rendering of TNT dynamite sticks in carton box on blue background. Explosive supplies. Dangerous cargo. Plotting terrorist attack. Image Credits: Gearstd / Getty Images.

I look for guest-written Extra Crunch stories that will help other entrepreneurs be more successful, which is why I routinely turn down submissions that seem overly promotional.

However, Henrik Torstensson (CEO and co-founder of Lifesum) submitted a post about the techniques he’s used to scale his nutrition app over the last three years. “It’s a strategy any startup can use, regardless of size or budget,” he writes.

According to Sensor Tower, Lifesum is growing almost twice as fast as Noon and Weight Watchers, so putting his company at the center of the story made sense.

Send in reviews of your favorite books for TechCrunch!

Image via Getty Images / Alexander Spatari

Every year, we ask TechCrunch reporters, VCs and our Extra Crunch readers to recommend their favorite books.

Have you read a book this year that you want to recommend? Send an email with the title and a brief explanation of why you enjoyed it to bookclub@techcrunch.com.

We’ll compile the suggestions and publish the list as we get closer to the holidays. These books don’t have to be published this calendar year — any book you read this year qualifies.

Please share your submissions by November 30.

Dear Sophie: Can an H-1B co-founder own a Delaware C Corp?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

My VC partner and I are working with 50/50 co-founders on their startup — let’s call it “NewCo.” We’re exploring pre-seed terms.

One founder is on a green card and already works there. The other founder is from India and is working on an H-1B at a large tech company.

Can the H-1B co-founder lead this company? What’s the timing to get everything squared away? If we make the investment we want them to hit the ground running.

— Diligent in Daly City

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Equity Shot: Airbnb’s IPO is finally here

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Today we have an Equity Shot for you about Airbnb’s S-1 filing, as it looks to go public before the year is out.

  • First we get into Airbnb’s macro performance, which shows a stable-picture historical revenue growth. There are a ton of numbers to get to so get ready for a quick dive into net revenue, gross margins and losses.
  • Then we discuss the dramatic drop in bookings, the promising comeback and if short-term travel is Airbnb’s future.
  • There’s a weird quarter of profitability that you should all know about, and a heads-up on what to look for in Q4 numbers.
  • Finally, we talk about the bullish and bearish case on Airbnb, which poetically filed the same day that Moderna announced a promising vaccine trial. 

All that, and our trusty other host Danny Crichton was busy filing a post about the winners and losers of the Airbnb IPO. Ownership, you quiet, billionaire beast. There’s more coming from TechCrunch on the company’s IPO, and from the Equity crew on everything else we ferret out on Thursday. Stay tuned!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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Airbnb Fights Its ‘Party House Problem’

The luxury cabin in Incline Village, Nev., just north of Lake Tahoe, has a hot tub, sauna, pool table, fire pit, two patios and a backyard full of towering pine trees. It sleeps 14, according to its listing on Airbnb. And it has been a nightmare for Sara Schmitz, a retiree who lives next door.

The home is frequently the site of raucous bachelor parties and weddings, Ms. Schmitz said. Recently, a crew of college students stayed there, blowing weed smoke into her house. When she asked them to stop, they threw trash in her yard.

“It’s a constant party house,” said Ms. Schmitz, 57. She has called the police a dozen times about the property and joined the Incline Village STR Advisory Group, an organization that fights short-term rentals — for which the largest source is Airbnb.

What Ms. Schmitz encountered is part of the “party house problem” facing Airbnb. That’s when guests who book its properties hold parties in them, something that appears to be happening more frequently in the coronavirus pandemic, as people look for places to socialize with bars closed and hotels appearing risky. In July, New Jersey police broke up a party at an Airbnb with more than 700 people in attendance.

Image
Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The party houses pose a risk to Airbnb’s reputation and business as the $18 billion company prepares to go public this year. In many neighborhoods, people have been turned off by the rentals’ noise and annoyances. Complaints about party houses across sites like Airbnb and Vrbo soared 250 percent between July and September compared to last year, according to Host Compliance, which provides local neighborhood hotlines across the United States and Canada.

Worse, the party houses raise safety issues. Between March and October, at least 27 shootings were connected to Airbnb rentals in the United States and Canada, according to a tally of local news reports by Jessica Black, an activist fighting short-term rentals. The tally was verified by The New York Times.

Over the years, Airbnb employees have pushed executives to do more to address the party houses, said six people who worked on safety issues at the company. But they said the start-up largely prioritized growth until a deadly shooting last Halloween at an Airbnb made national headlines. Five people died.

The issues are now fueling Airbnb’s many fights with communities over how to regulate home rentals. Groups like the one in Incline Village are becoming more vocal and are sharing their strategies for fighting short-term rentals. Cities including Chicago, San Diego, Ann Arbor and Atlanta have recently proposed or enacted stricter rules or bans on the properties.

“Airbnb’s long-run viability and profitability is going to have a big question mark” if the party issue is not resolved, said Karen Xie, a professor at the University of Denver who researches the short-term rental industry.

Image

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman, said the company is combating the party houses with “robust new policies, products and technologies to stop large gatherings, which far exceeds measures taken by others.” He said Airbnb has made changes even though the moves “knowingly impacted growth and nights booked.”

Airbnb began rolling out new rules against party houses around the same time that it was preparing to file to go public. In July, it said guests under the age of 25 with less than three positive reviews on the site could not book entire homes near where they live. In August, the same month it filed for a public listing, it placed a 16-person cap on reservations, banned parties and sued guests who were responsible for the events.

Last month, it started testing technology to block suspicious last-minute bookings and suspended some party houses from its listings. And ahead of Halloween — the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the Airbnb in Orinda, Calif. — it banned one-night rentals on Halloween.

Some said the measures were too little, too late.

“The damage has really been done to the neighborhoods during that time,” said Austin Mao, an Airbnb host in Las Vegas. He said the costs of repairing damages from parties at his properties, which host as many as 2,000 guests a month, have been tremendous. Neighbors complained so much about parties over the summer that he converted a third of the listings to long-term rentals.

In 2016, Christopher Thorpe, an entrepreneur in Lincoln, Mass., said he faced $28,000 in damages after an Airbnb guest threw an 80-person rave, complete with ticket sales, at his home. Mr. Thorpe later learned that other hosts had reported that guest for parties, but Airbnb had not removed the renter from the platform.

“Airbnb put up as many roadblocks as they could to avoid dealing with this,” Mr. Thorpe said.

Image

Credit…Kyle Oster/Fox5

Airbnb has long grappled with safety issues, said the six former employees who worked on trust and safety and who asked to remain anonymous.

Two of them said they asked Airbnb to sue people who frequently threw parties at the rentals for the damages, but executives feared that would draw attention to the events. Several also said they pushed to limit or remove the “Instant Book” option, which confirms bookings immediately without requiring approval from the host. But the feature, which was used by almost 70 percent of listings in 2019, boosted convenience and made Airbnb more competitive with hotels. So Airbnb did nothing, they said.

Mr. Nulty said Airbnb promoted Instant Book so hosts could not discriminate against guests by denying some of them a booking, adding that hosts can turn off the feature. He denied that executives had been urged to sue party promoters and said its legal team did not reject proposals because of concerns over public attention.

Image

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

In Incline Village, which has a population of around 9,000, the Airbnb party houses have increasingly grated on residents. Shortly after Joe and Edie Farrell, retired physical therapists, moved permanently into their vacation home there last year, the house next door became an Airbnb. Blasting music and drunk people created “10 days of anxiety” around July 4, said Ms. Farrell, 70.

“Airbnb is basically helping people set up a hotel in our neighborhood,” Mr. Farrell, 68, said. “Now you have to worry about your safety and peace and quiet.”

Then came last year’s fatal shooting at the Airbnb in Orinda. A Vice news article that outlined Airbnb’s fraudulent listings and fake host accounts also went viral, raising questions about trust.

In response, Airbnb said it would ban parties thrown by professional organizers that were promoted on social media. It also said it would verify that all seven million of its listings were as advertised by Dec. 15, 2020, and announced a global hotline for neighbors to report parties. And it promoted its head of policy, Margaret Richardson, to be vice president of trust. (She has since left.)

But when the pandemic hit in March, executives scrambled to keep the company afloat. Verification stalled. (Airbnb said 40 percent of listings have “begun the verification process.”) The neighborhood hotline, which was supposed to be available globally, is only accessible in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands.

In May, Airbnb cut a quarter of its staff, including a large chunk of its safety team. In an internal Q. and A. with Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, employees protested the layoffs. One said the decision would leave guests without support for weeks, according to a list of the questions viewed by The Times. Another wrote that he would feel unsafe staying in an Airbnb or renting his home on the site because of the lack of a safety plan.

Image

Credit…Ray Chavez/The Mercury News, via Getty Images

In the first week after the layoffs, safety cases piled up, said former employees. Airbnb asked many of those it had laid off to return temporarily to work through the cases; many of those workers have since remained, said current and former employees. In Dublin, the layoff plans were rescinded altogether, they said. Airbnb said the team that manages user safety is now the size it was before layoffs.

In August, Airbnb introduced more changes to improve safety. It sued a guest who held a party in Sacramento that resulted in three people getting shot. It then sued another guest who hosted a party in Cincinnati, where a property manager was shot in the back while trying to break up the event.

On Oct. 19, the company sued Davante Bell, a party promoter in Los Angeles who threw parties at Airbnb mansions. “Airbnb has suffered and continues to suffer reputational harm and potential liability to third parties as a direct result of Bell’s actions,” the company’s lawsuit said.

Mr. Bell, who declined to comment on Airbnb’s suit, has been selling tickets to a new party called “Nightmare on King Bell Street Halloween Mansion Party” on social media. This week, he continued posting fliers for the event. When asked if the party would be held at an Airbnb, Mr. Bell did not answer.

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No-code is the new blockchain

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Natasha was on vacation, so Danny and your humble servant had to endeavor alone. She’s back next week, so we’ll be back to full strength as a collective soon enough.

But even with a depleted hosting crew, we had a mountain of news to get through. And to joke about, as Danny was in the mood for a laugh. Here’s the rundown:

That was a lot. We did our best. Hugs and chat with you next week!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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