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Singapore-based Syfe, a robo-advisor with a human touch, raises $18.6 million led by Valar Ventures

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe

Syfe, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make investing more accessible in Asia, announced today that it has closed a SGD $25.2 million (USD $18.6 million) Series A led by Valar Ventures, a fintech-focused investment firm.

The round also included participation from Presight Capital and returning investor Unbound, which led Syfe’s seed funding last year.

Founded in 2017 by chief executive officer Dhruv Arora, Syfe launched in July 2019. Like “robo-advisors” Robinhood, Acorns and Stash, Syfe’s goal is to make investing more accessible. There is no minimum amount required to start investing and its all-inclusive pricing structure ranges from .4% to .65% per year.

Syfe serves customers based in 23 countries, but currently only actively markets it services in Singapore, where it is licensed under the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Part of its new funding will be used to expand into new Asian countries. The startup hasn’t disclosed its exact user numbers, but says the number of its customers and assets under management have increased tenfold since the beginning of the year, and almost half of its new clients were referred by existing users.

Other Valar Ventures portfolio companies include TransferWise, Xero and digital bank N26. In a statement about Syfe, founding partner Andrew McCormack said, “The potential of Asia as a region, with a fast-growing number of mass-affluent consumers aiming to grow their wealth, combined with the pedigree of the team and strong traction, makes Syfe a very compelling opportunity.”

Before starting Syfe, Arora was an investment banker at UBS Investment Bank in Hong Kong before serving as vice president of product and growth at Grofers, one of India’s largest online grocery delivery services. While at UBS, Arora worked with exchange-traded funds, or ETFs.

“I could see how a lot of institutions and some ultra-high-net worth individuals who are clients of the bank were using the product, and I thought it was a great tool for individuals, too,” Arora told TechCrunch. “But what I realized was that people are actually not very aware of how to use ETFs.”

In many Asian countries, people prefer to put their money away in bank accounts or invest in real estate. As interest rates and property prices stagnate, however, consumers are looking for other ways to invest. Syfe currently offers three investment products. The first is a global diversified portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and ETFs that is automatically managed according to each investor’s chosen risk level. The second is a REIT portfolio based on the Singapore Exchange’s iEdge S-REIT Leaders Index. Finally, Syfe’s Equity100 portfolio consists of ETFs that include stocks from more than 1,500 companies around the world.

Other Asia-focused “robo-advisor” services include Stashaway and Kristal.ai, and Grab Financial also recently announced a “micro-investment” product. Arora acknowledges that in the future, there may be more entrants to the space. Right now, however, Syfe’s main competitor is the mindset that banks are still the best way to save money, he added. Part of Syfe’s work is consumer education, because “it was culturally ingrained in a lot of us, myself included, to keep your money in the bank.”

Syfe differentiates with a team of financial advisors, including former employees of Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, who are on hand for user consultations. Arora said most Syfe users talk to advisors when they first join the platform, and about 20% of them continue using the service. Questions have included if people should use a credit card to invest, which Arora said advisors dissuade them from doing because of high interest rates.

“We definitely want to be a tech-first platform, but we understand there is a value, especially as you deal with some of the older audiences who are in their 50s and 60s, who are still adapting to these technologies,” he said. “They need to know that you know there is somebody out there to look after their products.”

While Syfe’s average user is aged between 30 to 45, one growing bracket is people in their 50s who are motivated to save for retirement, or want to create a supplement to their pension plan. Users typically start with an initial investment of about SGD $10,000 (about USD $7,340), and about four out of five users regularly top up that amount.

Some users have tried other investment products, like investment-linked insurance plans, but for many, Arora says Syfe is their first introduction to investing in stocks, bonds and ETFs.

“We’ve realized that a fair number of them are quite well-to-do professionals in their field, in their mid- to late 30s, who amassed a significant amount of wealth but never really had a chance to invest, or the right advice on how to invest,” said Arora. “I think this has been one of the biggest revelations for us and it made us realize we should have a human touch in our platform.”

The platform manages its products with a mix of an investment team and algorithms that help avoid human bias, said Arora. Syfe’s algorithms take into account growth versus value, the market cap of a stock, volatility and sector momentum. To balance risk, it also analyzes how individual assets correlate with other assets in the same portfolio.

Arora said Syfe is currently in advanced talks with regulators in several countries and expects to be in at least two new markets by the end of next year. It also plans to double the size of its team and create more consumer financial products.

During COVID-19, Arora said Syfe’s portfolios experienced significantly lower corrections than indexes like the S&P, so only a few users withdrew their money. In fact, many invested more.

“I feel people have been rethinking their finances and the future,” he said. “As banks cut interest rates across the world, including in Singapore, many of them have started looking at other options.”

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Mirakl raises $300 million for its marketplace platform

French startup Mirakl has raised a $300 million funding round at a $1.5 billion valuation — the company is now a unicorn. Mirakl helps you launch and manage a marketplace on your e-commerce website. Many customers also rely on Mirakl-powered marketplaces for B2B transactions.

Permira Advisers is leading the round, with existing investors 83North, Bain Capital Ventures, Elaia Partners and Felix Capital also participating.

“We’ve closed this round in 43 days,” co-founder and U.S. CEO Adrien Nussenbaum told me. But the due diligence process has been intense. “[Permira Advisers] made 250 calls to clients, leads, partners and former employees.”

Many e-commerce companies rely on third-party sellers to increase their offering. Instead of having one seller selling to many customers, marketplaces let you sell products from many sellers to many customers. Mirakl has built a solution to manage the marketplace of your e-commerce platform.

300 companies have been working with Mirakl for their marketplace, such as Best Buy Canada, Carrefour, Darty and Office Depot. More recently, Mirakl has been increasingly working with B2B clients as well.

These industry-specific marketplaces can be used for procurement or bulk selling of parts. In this category, clients include Airbus Helicopters, Toyota Material Handling and Accor’s Astore. 60% of Mirakl’s marketplace are still consumer-facing marketplaces, but the company is adding as many B2B and B2C marketplaces these days.

“We’ve developed a lot of features that enable platform business models that go further than simple marketplaces,” co-founder and CEO Philippe Corrot told me. “For instance, we’ve invested in services — it lets our clients develop service platforms.”

In France, Conforama can upsell customers with different services when they buy some furniture for instance. Mirakl has also launched its own catalog manager so that you can merge listings, add information, etc.

The company is using artificial intelligence to do the heavy-lifting on this front. There are other AI-enabled features, such as fraud detection.

Given that Mirakl is a marketplace expert, it’s not surprising that the company has also created a sort of marketplace of marketplaces with Mirakl Connect.

“Mirakl Connect is a platform that is going to be the single entry point for everybody in the marketplace ecosystem, from sellers to operators and partners,” Corrot said.

For sellers, it’s quite obvious. You can create a company profile and promote products on multiple marketplaces at once. But the company is also starting to work with payment service providers, fulfillment companies, feed aggregators and other partners. The company wants to become a one-stop shop on marketplaces with those partners.

Overall, Mirakl-powered marketplaces have generated $1.2 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) during the first half of 2020. It represents a 111% year-over-year increase, despite the economic crisis.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand across all areas — same features, same business model, but with more resources. It plans to hire 500 engineers and scale its sales and customer success teams.

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Introducing the Expo Pass for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

Don’t let budget woes keep you from participating in TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. We’re dedicated to making this event accessible to as many members of the mobility community as possible. Case in point: Today we’re announcing the new Expo Ticket for just $25.

Pro tip: Get your Expo ticket today. The price jumps to $50 once the conference begins on October 6.

What can you do with an Expo ticket? The short answer is plenty. You’ll have access to all the Mobility 2020 breakout sessions, which take a deeper dive into specific topics. We’ll be announcing those breakout sessions soon. Watch for our announcement, and be sure to check out the Mobility 2020 agenda.

I learned a lot from the breakout sessions. An official from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spoke about the city’s plan to build pathways for micromobility vehicles. Access to experts sharing that kind of information is essential for anyone launching a micromobility startup. — Parug Demircioglu, CEO at Invemo and partner at Nito Bikes.

Plus, you can explore 40+ startups — both early stage and more established companies — exhibiting during the conference. Think of “Expo” as an alternative way to spell “opportunity.” Connect with the exhibiting founders, hear their product stories and watch their demos. You might find your next customer, partner, investment or employer.

We’ve got your back in the networking department with CrunchMatch. Our AI-powered platform helps you find and connect with the people who align with your business goals. Answer a few simple questions when you register and CrunchMatch will be ready to do the heavy lifting for you. Peruse the offerings and schedule 1:1 video calls with the folks who can help you take your startup dream to the next level. It’s the perfect tool to help organize and simplify your expo exploration.

CrunchMatch, which is basically speed-dating for techies, was very helpful. I scheduled at least 10 short, precise meetings. I learned about startups in stealth mode, what big corporations were up to — things not yet picked up by the press. It was great, and I followed up on three or four of those connections. — Jens Lehmann, technical lead and product manager, SAP.

Join mobility’s brightest minds, makers and investors at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 on October 6-7. Set aside your budget concerns and buy an opportunity-packed Expo Pass — before October 6 — for just $25. We can’t wait to “see” you there!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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Group discounts let you bring the team to TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

There’s a lot of virtual ground for one person to cover — and real opportunities to uncover — during the two days of TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 (October 6-7). Take advantage of our group discounts, bring the whole team and multiply your results and your ROI.

Buy four or more passes, and you’ll trim $25 off the price of each pass — but only if you buy them before the deadline: October 5 at 11:59 p.m. (PDT).

With all hands on deck, you can attend interviews, breakout sessions and panel discussions — and interact with top industry leaders — to get a handle on emerging trends. Here’s just one prime example and be sure to check out the Mobility 2020 agenda for the full scoop.

Building an AV Startup: Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun will share her experiences in the world of automation and robotics, a ride that has taken her from Apple to Otto and Uber before she set off to start a self-driving truck company. Sun will discuss what the future holds for trucking and the challenges and the secrets behind building a successful mobility startup.

“Attending TC Sessions: Mobility helps us keep an eye on what’s coming around the corner. It uncovers crucial trends so we can identify what we should be thinking about before anyone else.” — Jeff Johnson, vice president of enterprise sales and solutions at FlashParking.

Other team members can explore and connect with more than 40 early-stage mobility startups exhibiting in the expo — who knows what opportunities they’ll find? With thousands of attendees from around the world, the networking potential will be off the hook. Good news: We don’t have an app for that — we have a full-blown AI-powered platform: CrunchMatch.

It’s the perfect tool for networking at a virtual conference. When you register, simply answer a few quick questions, and CrunchMatch gets to work connecting you with the people who can help grow your business. The rest is up to you — schedule 1:1 video calls and begin building the relationships that can change the course of your business.

“TC Sessions: Mobility isn’t just an educational opportunity, it’s a real networking opportunity. Everyone was passionate and open to creating pilot programs or other partnerships. That was the most exciting part. And now — thanks to a conference connection — we’re talking with Goodyear’s Innovation Lab.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.

So much vital information and incredible opportunity awaits at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020. Don’t go it alone. Grab a group discount, take your whole team and do whatever it takes to drive your business forward.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

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The Peloton effect

How much more connected fitness VC activity are we seeing in 2020?

During the most recent quarter, only a few earnings reports stood out from the rest. Zoom’s set of results were one of them, with the video-communications company showing enormous acceleration as the world replaced in-person contact with remote chat.

Another was Peloton’s earnings from the fourth quarter of its fiscal 2020, which it reported September 10th. The company’s revenue and profitability spiked as folks stuck at home turned to the connected fitness company’s wares.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


Shares of Peloton have rallied around 4x since March, roughly the start of when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact life in the United States, driving demand for the company’s at-home workout equipment. In late June, the leisure company Lululemon bought Mirror, another connected fitness company aimed at the home market for around $500 million.

With Peloton’s 2019 IPO and its growth along with Mirror’s exit in 2020, connected fitness is demonstrably hot, and private-market investors are taking notice. A recent Tweet from fitness tech watcher Joe Vennare detailing a host of recent funding rounds raised by “digital fitness” companies made the point last week, piquing our curiosity at the same time.

Is there really some sort of Peloton effect driving private investment into lots of connected fitness startups? How hot is the more nascent side of connected fitness?

This morning let’s take a look through some recent funding rounds in the space to get a feel for what’s going on. (If you’re a VC who cares about the sector, feel free to email in your own notes, subject line “connected fitness” please.) We’ll then execute the same search for Q3 2019 and see how the data compares.

Hot Wheels

To start with the current market I pulled a Crunchbase query for all Q3 funding rounds for companies tagged as “fitness” and then filtered out the cruft to get a look at the most pertinent funding events.

Here’s what I came up for for Q3 2020, to date:

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Was Snowflake’s IPO mispriced or just misunderstood?

Notes, details, and other data from an incredibly busy week

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. 

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Was Snowflake’s IPO mispriced or just misunderstood?

With an ocean of neat stuff to get through below, we’ll be quick today on our thought bubble focused on Snowflake’s IPO. Up front it was a huge success as a fundraising event for the data-focused unicorn.

At issue is the mismatch between the company’s final IPO price of $120 and where it opened, which was around $245 per share. The usual forces were out on Twitter arguing that billions were left on the table, with commentary on the question of a mispriced IPO even reaching our friends at CNBC.

A good question given the controversy is how the company itself felt about its IPO price given that it was the party that, theoretically, left a few billion on some metaphorical table. As it turns out, the CEO does not give a shit.

Alex Konrad at Forbes — a good chap, follow him on Twitter here — caught up with Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman about the matter. He called the “chatter” that his company left money on the table “nonsense,” adding that he could have priced higher but that he “wanted to bring along the group of investors that [Snowflake] wanted, and [he] didn’t want to push them past the point where they really started to squeal.”

So Slootman found a new, higher price at which to value his company during its debut. He got the investors he wanted. He got Berkshire and Salesforce in on the deal. And the company roared out of the gate. What an awful, terrible, no-good, mess of an IPO.

Adding to the mix, I was chatting with a few SaaS VCs earlier this week, and they largely didn’t buy into the money-left-on-the-table argument, as presuming that a whole block of shares could be sold at the opening trade price is silly. Are IPOs perfect? Hell no. Are bankers out for their own good? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that Snowflake screwed up.

Market Notes

No time to waste at all, let’s get into it:

  • Lots of IPOs this week, and everyone did well. Snowflake was explosive while JFrog was merely amazing. Sumo Logic and Unity had more modest debuts, but good results all the same. Notes from JFrog and Sumo execs in a moment.
  • Disrupt was a big damn deal this week, with tech’s famous and its up and coming leaders showing up to chatter with TechCrunch about what’s going on today, and what’s going on tomorrow. You can catch up on the sessions here, which I recommend. But I wanted to take a moment and thank the TechCrunch sales, partnership, and events teams. They killed it and get 0.1% of the love that they deserve. Thank you.
  • Why is Snowflake special? This tweet by GGV’s Jeff Richards has the story in one chart.
  • What are the hottest categories for SaaS startups in 2020? We got you.
  • There’s a new VC metric in town for startups to follow. Folks will recall the infamous T2D3 model, where startups should triple twice, and then double three times. That five-year plan got most companies to $100M in ARR. Now Shasta Ventures’ Issac Roth has a new model for contention, what he’s calling “C170R,” and according to a piece from his firm, he reckons it could be the “new post-COVID SaaS standard.” (We spoke with Roth about API-focused startups the other day.)
  • So what is it? Per his own notes: “If a startup entering COVID season with $2-20M in revenue is on track for 170% of their 2019 revenue AND is aligned with the new normal of remote, they will be able to raise new capital on good terms and are set up for future venture success.” He goes to note that there’s less of a need to double or treble this year.
  • Our thought bubble: If this catches on, a lot more SaaS startups would prove eligible for new rounds than we’d thought. And as Shasta is all-in on SaaS, perhaps this metric is a welcome mat of sorts. I wonder what portion of VCs agree with Shasta’s new model?
  • And, closing, our dive into no-code and low-code startups continues.

Various and Sundry

Again, there’s so much to get to that there is no space to waste words. Onward:

  • Chime raised an ocean of capital, which is notable for a few reasons. First, a new $14.5B valuation, which is up a zillion percent from their early 2019 round, and up around 3x from its late 2019 round. And it claims real EBITDA profitability. And with the company claiming it will be IPO ready in 12 months I am hype about the company. Because not every company that manages a big fintech valuation is in great shape.
  • I got on the phone with the CEO and CFO of JFrog after their IPO this week to chat about the offering. The pair looked at every IPO that happened during COVID, they said, to try to get their company to a “fair price,” adding that from here out the market will decide what’s the right number. The CEO Shlomi Ben Haim also made a fun allusion to a tweet comparing JFrog’s opening valuation to the price that Microsoft paid for GitHub. I think that this is the tweet.
  • JFrog’s pricing came on the back of it making money, i.e. real GAAP net income in its most recent quarter. According to JFrog’s CFO Jacob Shulman “investors were impressed with the numbers,” and were also impressed by its “efficient market model” that allowed it find “viral adoption inside the enterprise.”
  • That last phrase sounds to us like efficient sales and marketing spend.
  • Moving to Sumo Logic, which also went out this week (S-1 notes here). I caught up with the company’s CTO Christian Beedgen.
  • Beedgen, I just want to say, is a delight to chat with. But more on topic, the company’s IPO went well and I wanted to dig into more of the nitty-gritty of the market that Sumo is seeing. After Beedgen walked me through how he views his company’s TAM ($50 billion) and market dynamics (not winner-takes-all), I asked about sales friction amongst enterprise customers that Slack had mentioned in its most recent earnings report. Beedgen said:
  • “I don’t see that as a systemic problem personally. […] I think people in economies are very flexible, and you know the new normal is what it is now. And you know these other guys on the other side [of the phone], these businesses they also need to continue to run their stuff and so they’re gonna continue to figure out how we can help. And they will find us, we will find them. I really don’t see that as a systemic problem.”
  • So, good news for enterprise startups everywhere!
  • Wix launched a non-VC fund that looks a bit like a VC fund. Called Wix Capital, the group will “invest in technology innovators that are focused on the future of the web and that look to accelerate how businesses operate in today’s evolving digital landscape,” per the company.
  • Wix is a big public shop these days, with elements of low and no-code to its core. (The Exchange talked to the company not too long ago.)
  • And, finally my friends, I call this the Peloton Effect, and am going to write about it if I can find the time.

I am chatting with a Unity exec this evening, but too late to make it into this newsletter. Perhaps next week. Hugs until then, and stay safe.

Alex

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From Unity to Disrupt, tech has an especially optimistic week

Editor’s note: Get this free weekly recap of TechCrunch news that any startup can use by email every Saturday morning (7 a.m. PT). Subscribe here.

While TechCrunch was busy producing our first-ever online Disrupt this week, the IPO market got even more exciting than expected — so here’s a quick look. Snowflake, Jfrog, Sumo Logic and Unity each raised price ranges days before IPO, to meet what had seemed like growing enthusiasm from public markets. Yet each still opened higher than its offering price, with cloud data-warehousing company Snowflake’s value doubling to make it the largest software IPO in history and Unity up 30%.

Despite the pandemic and various major turmoils around the world, the promise of these companies is helping to maintain optimism from retail investors to people thinking about founding a company.

Here’s a quick look at our coverage of the main companies in the IPO process this week, in chronological order:

Snowflake and JFrog raise IPO ranges as tech markets stay hot (EC)

As it heads for IPO, Palantir hires a chief accountant and gets approval from NYSE to trade

What’s ahead in IPO land for JFrog, Snowflake, Sumo Logic and Unity (EC)

JFrog and Snowflake’s aggressive IPO pricing point to strong demand for cloud shares (EC)

Unity raises IPO price range after JFrog, Snowflake target steep debut valuations

Go public now while software valuations make no sense, Part II

In its 4th revision to the SEC, Palantir tries to explain what the hell is going on

It’s game on as Unity begins trading

Unity Software has strong opening, gaining 31% after pricing above its raised range

And don’t miss Alex Wilhelm’s additional notes coming later today over on The Exchange weekend newsletter.

Image Credits: Canix

Disrupt 2020

Our tenth annual startup conference was remote-first this year, but it managed to capture the same sort of vibe in my humble opinion.

First, a cannabis SaaS company took home the grand prize at the Startup Battlefield competition… we are truly living in the cloud these days. Here’s more, from Matt Burns:

Growing cannabis on an industrial scale involves managing margins while continually adhering to compliance laws. For many growers, large and small, this consists of constant data entry from seed to sale. Canix’s solution employs a robust enterprise resource planning platform with a steep tilt toward reducing the time it takes to input data. This platform integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software and Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform, through the use of RFID scanners and Bluetooth-enabled scales. Canix launched in June 2019, and in a little over a year (and during a pandemic), acquired over 300 customers spanning more than 1,000 growing facilities and tracking the movement of 2.5 million plants.

Next, here’s an especially pithy take on the future of startups, from senior Benchmark partner Peter Fenton.

I think this opportunity to build the tools for a world that’s ‘post place’ has just opened up and is as exciting as anything I’ve seen in my venture career. You walk around right now and you see these ghosts towns, with gyms, classes you might take [and so forth] and now maybe you go online and do Peloton, or that class you maybe do online. So I think a whole field of opportunities will move into this post-place delivery mechanism that are really exciting. [It] could be 10 to 20 years of innovation that just got pulled forward into today.

The truth is that I have not had time to watch all of the talks — I was busy with the Extra Crunch stage and other stuff, and that’s not even counting other programming we had going on. So check out the quick selection of picks below. To catch up more, you can browse the full agenda and watch the videos here.

We’ll also be offering coverage of the EC stage plus analysis from our conversations in the coming weeks, for subscribers (which includes anyone who bought a ticket and redeemed it for an annual subscription).

Over in the real world, Tik Tok is still on track for a full shut-down despite the frantic dealmaking efforts by innumerable parties. At one point this week, it looked like Oracle and various business interests had a plan to keep Tik Tok alive as an independent company that would IPO (with some sort of national security oversight), and maybe that will still come about? I doubt Trump and his advisers will go along with that plan, given the national security problem of leaving algorithms controlled from China, and the long-term trade problem of US consumer tech being banned there too.

Meanwhile, the Bytedance-owned company also just announced 100 million users in Europe. Apparently it was a press push to counter the bad news, but as Ingrid Lunden notes, it’s hard to know what this user base means without the US. To which I’d add, European regulators are already busy going after foreign tech companies. I can’t imagine that they’ll leave an app this popular alone.

It’s another reminder that the next era will not offer startups the same possibilities for global success.

How to hire your first engineer (if you’re a nontechnical founder)

Lucas Matney talked with technical leaders and startup founders to figure out a key problem that many readers of this newsletter have had before (including me). How to get someone who can make your company a tech company? Here’s the intro, with the full thing on Extra Crunch:

Their advice spanned how to handle technical interviews, sourcing technical talent, how to decide whether your first engineering hire should become CTO  — and how to best kick the can down the road if you’re not ready to start worrying about bringing on an engineer quite yet. Everyone I spoke to was quick to caution that their tips weren’t one-size-fits-all and that overcoming limited knowledge often comes down to tapping the right people to help you out and lend a greater understanding of your options.

I’ve broken down these tips into a digestible guide that’s focused on four areas:

  • Sourcing technical candidates.
  • How to conduct interviews.
  • Making an offer.
  • Taking a nontraditional route.

Across the week

TechCrunch

Calling VCs in Zurich & Geneva: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

Opendoor to go public by way of Chamath Palihapitiya SPAC

Black Tech Pipeline proves the ‘pipeline problem’ isn’t real

Gaming companies are reportedly the next targets in the US government’s potentially broader Tencent purge

Equity Monday: The TikTok mess, two funding rounds and Nvidia will buy ARM

Extra Crunch

3 VCs discuss the state of SaaS investing in 2020

The stages of traditional fundraising

Making sense of 3 edtech extension rounds

Facebook investor Jim Breyer picks Austin as Breyer Capital’s second home

Are high churn rates depressing earnings for app developers?

#EquityPod: Schools are closing their doors, but Opendoor isn’t

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 MascarenhasDanny Crichton and myself hosted a live taping at Disrupt for a digital reception. It was good fun, though of course we’re looking forward to bringing the live show back to the conference next year, vaccine allowing.

Thankfully we had Chris Gates behind the scenes tweaking the dials, Alexandra Ames fitting us into the program and some folks to watch live.

What did we talk about? All of this (and some very, very bad jokes):

And then we tried to play a game that may or may not make it into the final cut. Either way, it was great to have Equity back at Disrupt. More to come. Hugs from us!

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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Unity Software has strong opening, gaining 31% after pricing above its raised range

Whoever said you can’t make money playing video games clearly hasn’t taken a look at Unity Software’s stock price.

On its first official day of trading, the company rose more than 31%, opening at $75 per share before closing the day at $68.35. Unity’s share price gains came after last night’s pricing of the company’s stock at $52 per share, well above the range of $44 to $48 which was itself an upward revision of the company’s initial target.

Games like “Pokémon GO” and “Iron Man VR” rely on the company’s software, as do untold numbers of other mobile gaming applications that use the company’s toolkit for support. The company’s customers range from small gaming publishers to large gaming giants like Electronic Arts, Niantic, Ubisoft and Tencent.

Unity’s IPO comes on the heels of other well-received debuts, including Sumo Logic, Snowflake and JFrog .

TechCrunch caught up with Unity’s CFO, Kim Jabal, after-hours today to dig in a bit on the transaction.

According to Jabal, hosting her company’s roadshow over Zoom had some advantages, as her team didn’t have to focus on tackling a single geography per day, allowing Unity to “optimize” its time based on who the company wanted to meet, instead, of say, whomever was free in Boston or Chicago on a particular Tuesday morning.

Jabal’s comments aren’t the first that TechCrunch has heard regarding roadshows going well in a digital format instead of as an in-person presentation. If the old-school roadshow survives, we’ll be surprised, though private jet companies will miss the business.

Talking about the transaction itself, Jabal stressed the connection between her company’s employees, value  and their access to that same value. Unity’s IPO was unique in that existing and former employees were able to trade 15% of their vested holdings in the company on day one, excluding “current executive officers and directors,” per SEC filings.

That act does not seemed to have dampened enthusiasm for the company’s shares, and could have helped boost early float, allowing for the two sides of the supply and demand curves to more quickly meet close to the company’s real value, instead of a scarcity-driven, more artificial figure.

Regarding Unity’s IPO pricing, Jabal discussed what she called a “very data-driven process.” The result of that process was an IPO price that came in above its raised range, and still rose during its first day’s trading, but less than 50%. That’s about as good an outcome as you can hope for in an IPO.

One final thing for the SaaS nerds out there. Unity’s “dollar-based net expansion rate” went from very good to outstanding in 2020, or in the words of the S-1/A:

Our dollar-based net expansion rate, which measures expansion in existing customers’ revenue over a trailing 12-month period, grew from 124% as of December 31, 2018 to 133% as of December 31, 2019, and from 129% as of June 30, 2019 to 142% as of June 30, 2020, demonstrating the power of this strategy.

We had to ask. And the answer, per Jabal, was a combination of the company’s platform strength and how customers tend to use more of Unity’s services over time, which she described as growing with their customers. And the second key element was 2020’s unique dynamics that gave Unity a “tailwind” thanks to “increased usage, particularly in gaming.”

Looking at our own gaming levels in 2020 compared to 2019, that checks out.

This post closes the book on this week’s IPO class. Tired yet? Don’t be. Palantir is up next, and then Asana .

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SaaS Ventures takes the investment road less traveled

Open since 2017, the firm just launched its second $20 million fund

Most venture capital firms are based in hubs like Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston. These firms nurture those ecosystems and they’ve done well, but SaaS Ventures decided to go a different route: it went to cities like Chicago, Green Bay, Wisconsin and Lincoln, Nebraska.

The firm looks for enterprise-focused entrepreneurs who are trying to solve a different set of problems than you might find in these other centers of capital, issues that require digital solutions but might fall outside a typical computer science graduate’s experience.

Saas Ventures looks at four main investment areas: trucking and logistics, manufacturing, e-commerce enablement for industries that have not typically gone online and cybersecurity, the latter being the most mainstream of the areas SaaS Ventures covers.

The company’s first fund, which launched in 2017, was worth $20 million, but SaaS Ventures launched a second fund of equal amount earlier this month. It tends to stick to small-dollar-amount investments, while partnering with larger firms when it contributes funds to a deal.

We talked to Collin Gutman, founder and managing partner at SaaS Ventures, to learn about his investment philosophy, and why he decided to take the road less traveled for his investment thesis.

A different investment approach

Gutman’s journey to find enterprise startups in out of the way places began in 2012 when he worked at an early enterprise startup accelerator called Acceleprise. “We were really the first ones who said enterprise tech companies are wired differently, and need a different set of early-stage resources,” Gutman told TechCrunch.

Through that experience, he decided to launch SaaS Ventures in 2017, with several key ideas underpinning the firm’s investment thesis: after his experience at Acceleprise, he decided to concentrate on the enterprise from a slightly different angle than most early-stage VC establishments.

Collin Gutman, founder and managing partner at SaaS Ventures (Image Credits: SaaS Ventures)

The second part of his thesis was to concentrate on secondary markets, which meant looking beyond the popular startup ecosystem centers and investing in areas that didn’t typically get much attention. To date, SaaS Ventures has made investments in 23 states and Toronto, seeking startups that others might have overlooked.

“We have really phenomenal coverage in terms of not just geography, but in terms of what’s happening with the underlying businesses, as well as their customers,” Gutman said. He believes that broad second-tier market data gives his firm an upper hand when selecting startups to invest in. More on that later.

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Amid layoffs and allegations of fraud, the FBI has arrested NS8’s CEO following its $100+ million summer financing

The tagline from today’s announcement from the United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York says it all: “Adam Rogas Allegedly Raised $123 Million from Investors Using Financial Statements that Showed Tens of Millions of Dollars of Revenue and Assets that Did Not Exist”.

Rogas, the co-founder and former chief executive and chief financial officer and board member of the Las Vegas-based fraud prevention company, NS8, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged in Manhattan court with securities fraud, fraud in the offer of sale of securities, and wire fraud earlier today.

Last week, the company laid off hundreds of staff as reports of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission surfaced, according to a report in Forbes.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” Lightspeed Ventures told Forbes in a statement. “We are shocked by the news and have taken steps to inform our LPs. It would be premature to comment further at this time.” Lightspeed Ventures helped lead NS8’s $123 million Series A this June. Other investors include Edison Partners, Lytical Ventures, Sorenson Ventures, Arbor Ventures, Hillcrest Venture Partners, Blu Venture Investors, and Bloomberg Beta, per Crunchbase data.

The allegations are, indeed, shocking.

“As alleged, Adam Rogas was the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse,” said Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement. “While raising over $100 million from investors for his fraud prevention company, Rogas himself allegedly was engaging in a brazen fraud.  Today’s arrest of Rogas ensures that he will be held accountable for his alleged scheme.”

Allegedly, while Rogas was in control of the bank accounts and spreadsheets that detailed its transactions with customers, he cooked the books to show millions in transactions that did not exist.

From January 2019 through February 2020, the FBI alleges that somewhere between 40 percent and 95 percent of the purported total assets on NS8’s balance sheet were fictitious, according to the statement. Over the same period bank Rogas altered bank statements to reflect $40 million in revenue that simply were not there, according to the Justice Department’s allegations.

On the back of that fake financial data, NS8 was able to raise over $120 million from some top tier investment firms including Lightspeed Venture Partners and AXA Ventures. 

Rogas managed to hoodwink not just the investment firms, but the auditors who were conducting due diligence on their behalf. After the round was completed, NS8 did a secondary offering which let Rogas cash out of $17.5 million through personal sales and through a company he controlled, according to the statement from the DOJ.

“It seems ironic that the co-founder of a company designed to prevent online fraud would engage in fraudulent activity himself, but today that’s exactly what we allege Adam Rogas did. Rogas allegedly raised millions of dollars from investors based on fictitious financial affirmations, and in the end, walked away with nearly $17.5 million worth of that money,” said FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. “Within our complex financial crimes branch, securities fraud cases remain among our top priorities. We’ve seen far too many examples of unscrupulous actors engaging in this type of criminal activity, and we continue to work diligently to weed out this behavior whenever and wherever we find it.”

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