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Bolt adds $75M to its Series C, as the battle to rule online checkout continues

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Bolt, a startup that offers online checkout technology to retailers, announced this morning that it has added $75 million to its Series C round, bringing the financing to a total of $125 million.

WestCap and General Atlantic led the new tranche, which Bolt CEO Ryan Breslow told TechCrunch was raised at around twice its Series C valuation. PitchBook pegs the company’s Series C at a post-money valuation of $500 million, implying that the Series C1 values Bolt at around $1 billion.

The company is calling the latest check its “Series C1.’ Why not just call it a Series D? According to Breslow, Bolt’s future Series D will be much larger.

While Bolt’s creatively demarcated Series C1 is interesting, the capital event is in line with how the checkout space is growing in aggregate right now. There’s a lot of money being put to work on solving a particular e-commerce pain point.

Fast, a competing online checkout software provider, raised $20 million in March. And this June, Checkout.com, which is based in England but has a global stable of offices, raised $150 million at a $5.5 billion valuation.

Bolt, meanwhile, announced the first $50 million of its Series C in July. The company’s C1 event, therefore, represents not only the fourth major investment into checkout tech this year, but it also fits into a now-regular trend of fast-growing startups raising two checks in 2020 — companies like Welcome, Skyflow, AgentSync and Bestow also completed the feat this year.

But enough talking about its market. Let’s dig into what Bolt is building and why it just took on another truckload of cash.

Series C1

Bolt offers four connected services: checkout, payments, user accounts and fraud protection.

The company’s core offering is its checkout product, which it claims is both faster than comparable industry averages and has higher conversion rates. The startup’s payments and fraud services fits into its checkout universe by ensuring that transactions are real and that payments can be accepted. Finally, Bolt’s user accounts (shoppers are prompted to save their credentials when they first execute a purchase with the startup’s tech) boost the chance that someone who has checked out online using its tech will do so again in the future, helping Bolt to sell its service and ensure customers benefit from it.

The more shoppers that Bolt can attract, the more accounts it will have in the market feeding more data into its anti-fraud tool and checkout personalization technology.

And Bolt is reaching more online buyers, with the company claiming a roughly 10x gain of the number of people who have made accounts with its service this year. According to Breslow, the number was around 450,000 last December. It’s around 4.5 million now, he said, and Bolt expects the figure to reach 30 million next year.

Given the huge scale of its expected account creation, TechCrunch asked Breslow about his confidence interval in the number. He said 90%, thanks to Authentic Brands Group (ABG) linking up with Bolt, a deal that his company announced last month. Breslow said that ABG has 50 million shoppers; perhaps the 30 million figure is possible.

(Distribution for checkout tech is like oxygen, so competing companies in the space love to chat about their availability gains. Here’s Fast talking about being supported by WooCommerce from last week, for example. Fast declined to share processing growth metrics with TechCrunch after that announcement.)

Bolt’s historical shopper growth has paid dividends for its total transaction volume. The company told TechCrunch that it processed around $1 billion in transactions this year, up around 3.5x from its 2019 gross merchandise volume (GMV). That approximate pace of growth implies a roughly $286 million GMV result for Bolt last year; how far the company can scale that figure in 2021 will be our chief measuring stick for how well its ABG deal performs.

Breslow told TechCrunch that Bolt expects to 3x its GMV in 2021, which we read as implying a roughly $3 billion number.

But don’t just take that figure, apply a payment processing percentage, and walk away with a revenue guess for Bolt. The company does make money from payments, but also from charging for its other services — like fraud protection — on a SaaS basis. So Bolt is a hybrid payments-and-software company, an increasingly popular model, though one that certain categories of software are slow to pick up on.

Underpinning Bolt’s plans to treble GMV and greatly expand its shopper network is its new capital. The $75 million cache of new dollars is going into handling market demand, moving upmarket and engineering, the company said. In short there’s a lot of in-market demand for better checkout tech — hence all the venture activity — and larger customers need more customizations and sales support. Bolt is going to spend on that.

Given that Bolt just reloaded, it would not be a surprise to see Fast or Checkout.com raise more capital in Q1 or Q2 of 2021. More when that happens.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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