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Two ex-Sequoia VCs: the most ‘compelling emerging market’ may be America, outside of Silicon Valley

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Roughly eight years ago, investors Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen left Silicon Valley to open a venture firm, Drive Capital, in Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t an easy decision. Leaving California wasn’t exactly fashionable at the time. In fact, While Olsen had grown up in Cincinnati, the Yale grad had landed at Sequoia Capital a couple of years out of college — a dream job — and had no interest in going anywhere. Meanwhile, Kvamme is a California native who attended UC Berkeley, grew up immersed in the world of startups (his dad was also a VC), and cofounded four companies before himself landing at Sequoia, where among his deals, he led the firm’s investment in LinkedIn.

Even after a series of developments would lead them to take the leap, the early ride was bumpy. There was no venture community. Midwestern startups were still few and far between. More, Kvamme, first lured to Ohio by his longtime friend John Kasich to take an economic development job that he thought would be temporary, was soon deemed a little too cozy with the state’s power players.

Looking back now, it’s a wonder they stayed. Yet it’s because they did that Columbus is primed for more VCs to join them, they convincingly argue. Indeed, Drive, which now manages $650 million and features nine investors, is receiving interest from 7,000 startups each year, and some of its portfolio companies are beginning to break out. The very first company to attract a check from Drive, an eight-year-old, Columbus-based hospital software maker called Olive AI, was assigned a $1.5 billion valuation just last month in a funding round led by Tiger Global. Another investment, in the five-year-old car insurance startup Root, also appears promising. Root, which went public in November, currently boasts a market cap of $4.7 billion, and Drive owns 26.6% of the company. (Olsen says it hasn’t sold a share.)

We talked late last week with Kvamme and Olsen about what they are building — and why VCs who may be thinking about leaving California for Austin or Miami might pay more attention. You can hear that conversation in full here. In the meantime, following are some excerpts from our chat edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Everyone is threatening to ditch California. What’s the argument for heading to Columbus? How did Mark convince you to join him, Chris?

CO: The early case that Mark made is: there’s an enormous amount of money that’s spent on research here. In Silicon Valley, the venture dollars ratio to research dollars is massively too many VC dollars for too little research; the opposite is true here in Ohio. This is more what Silicon Valley looked like in the late 1990s.

At first, I was like, “Nope, not falling for it. There’s no way I’m believing that data. It’s a terrible idea” to move. But I was very much a numbers guy — still am — and when I started looking at the data, [I could see the] economy of Ohio is bigger than Turkey. The economy of the Midwest would be the fourth-biggest economy in the world. It’s bigger than Brazil. It’s bigger than Russia. It’s bigger than India. And it has this legacy educational infrastructure that’s been producing more engineers than any other corner of the planet. It was kind of like, wait a minute. If this thesis is right, maybe emerging markets are the most compelling place for venture capitalists to invest. But maybe the most compelling emerging market is America, just outside of Silicon Valley.

TC: I imagine that you had your pick of companies when you first launched Drive. Is that true and has that changed in this new COVID era, when everybody is striking deals online? Who is showing up that you didn’t see a few years ago?

CO: It might surprise you but we actually didn’t have our pick of the companies when we first got here, largely because it was unusual to be a venture capitalist. In Ohio, there just aren’t a lot of them. And so a lot of entrepreneurs were in non-obvious places. Unlike in Silicon Valley, where you have entrepreneurs sign up on this superhighway of capital, where you go from Y Combinator to the seed investor and then to the A investor, that infrastructure didn’t exist here. What was a little bit surprising to us was how much we ended up having to work to originate investment opportunities here in the Midwest and not because people weren’t here but because that kind of activity just hasn’t been built yet.

We’ve had to spend a lot of time going into the universities and putting new seed managers in business and helping them fundraise and sort of building all of this infrastructure from scratch so that the next entrepreneur is out here [versus moves away], and it works. In our first year, we had inbound interest from 1,800 [startups], then it went to about 3,000 and now it’s up to about 7,000, which is more than I’ve heard any other venture firms say that they see in California. And I don’t think it’s because we’re great. I think that’s more [a reflection of the] scale of the opportunity that’s here now. One of the things that we would love to see more of is more venture capitalists coming here, because there’s certainly more opportunity than we can invest in.

TC: You don’t worry that you’ve teed up the market for other VCs to come and steal your deals?

MW: Not at all. I’m the old guy here, so I remember when Sequoia was started in 1972; my father worked with Don Valentine and National Semiconductor, and it was then Kleiner, Perkins, NEA, [just] a couple of firms. And what happens is you create this network effect. And the more capital, the more folks [who are building stuff in close proximity to you]. Right now, if we don’t invest in a Series A, there’s a couple of local folks, but primarily, [that capital has] got to come from the coasts.

CO: My attitude is, ‘Come on [over] because the worst thing that is happening right now is that I know for sure there are multibillion-dollar investments that are not getting made still because they’re based here. The problem that we have right now is [that] a Redpoint comes in and invests in one company in Ann Arbor, or Benchmark comes into this one company in Indianapolis, or, Sequoia comes in [for a deal here or there] but they aren’t making this their primary business. And until we see more venture capitalists showing up here saying, “This is all I do every single day,” I fear that that next opportunity that we’re missing won’t get its funding. We’re just out of whack in terms of the number of opportunities versus the number of venture capitalists here . . .

[Also] some of the very best investments in Silicon Valley are done with venture firms that can partner and then entrepreneurs have access to a larger Rolodex, a larger pool of capital, more diversity of thought — all the things that they need to grow their business.

TC: You’re competing with other hotspots like Austin for attention. Make the case for Columbus specifically.

MW: If you put a circle around Columbus, a one-day car drive, you’re talking about 60% of the GDP of American, over 50% or 60% of the population, and [access to] a huge percentage of all the top customers. Columbus is in the middle of it all. What we’re able to do then is easily travel to Chicago and Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati; it’s a quick flight to Minneapolis, and so on and so forth. And the Midwest is a spectacular place to build companies.

TC: Drive’s team includes a director of engineering and several software engineers. Why?

CO: One of the things you learn very quickly that’s different about the Midwest is, it’s not a city; it’s a nation. And you have to set up your infrastructure differently if you’re going to be successful investing into that nation [because] there’s just a lot of ground cover.

One of the things that we have been able to do is to look at venture capital and say, “Look, there are a lot of rote, repetitive tasks that venture capitalists do, and what if we could eliminate those tasks, so that we don’t need to hire the boiler room of Ivy League grads to cold call the entire phone book and annoy all the entrepreneurs and do all that kind of stuff. We can do more homework in an automated fashion.” So that was kind of the idea that we had. And so we built this software platform that we’re able to use now to not only identify which entrepreneurs have the highest probability of turning into an investment but also [who are] the people for our portfolio companies who have the highest probability of joining a certain startup, or, which venture capitalists have the highest probability of investing in that follow-on round of capital.

TC: You had the chance to reinvent the VC model when you started your own firm. Are there any things that you did in setting up Drive that were different than what you’d experienced at Sequoia?

MK: We were very fortunate to have worked at Sequoia. Sequoia is by far the best firm out there, in my opinion. And we often use the phrase, What would Sequoia do? And we built a lot of things around that. But we weren’t Sequoia, so there were many things that we had to do that Sequoia had maybe done 40 or 50 years ago  but today doesn’t have to do. That includes building a lot of these capabilities Chris had mentioned before, building some of the infrastructure, helping lawyers understand how to do Series A term sheets or finding headhunters.

We’re also not in a situation where everyone is coming into the office [unlike at Sequoia]; they see a lot of wonderful companies that just ring them up. That’s why we had to be very focused on our outbound efforts. So I’d say that 60% to 70% of what we’ve done, we learned at Sequoia, but the rest we had to make specific to what we’re doing here at Drive.

TC: How big a net are you casting geographically?

CO: At this point, it’s massive. If you were to look at our portfolio, we have companies in Denver, Washington, Atlanta, Toronto, Austin. I think what we’re finding is that this opportunity is a broader phenomenon that we’re investing in.

Before we will invest into any of these cities, we’ve had to go in the same way we did into Columbus. And we’ve had to meet with the landlords, because landlords out here are not built for startups. They’re built for legacy companies, and they want to see five years of trailing financials, and they want a massive security deposit. And it’s like, “Well, I don’t have that.” So too with the headhunters. There are phenomenal headhunters in Ohio. They’re totally different than the ones who are successful in Denver or in Atlanta because those talent networks are very localized.

But now that done that and we’ve been invested in an infrastructure and we’ve got a density of companies in a lot of the cities that I just mentioned, now we can help and we can be very different from a venture firm that’s just going to zoom in for quarterly board meetings. We’ve got a partnership now that’s expanded where we’re investing people resources, and we’re in the cities on a weekly basis.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Location broker X-Mode continues to track users despite app store bans

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Privacy researchers say hundreds of Android apps, far more than previously disclosed, have sent granular user location data to X-Mode, a data broker known to sell location data to U.S. military contractors.

The apps include messaging apps, a free video and file converter, several dating sites, and religion and prayer apps — each accounting for tens of millions of downloads to date.

Sean O’Brien, principal researcher at ExpressVPN Digital Security Lab, and Esther Onfroy, co-founder of the Defensive Lab Agency, found close to 200 Android apps that at some point over the past year contained X-Mode tracking code.

Some of the apps were still sending location data to X-Mode as recently as December when Apple and Google told developers to remove X-Mode from their apps or face a ban from the app stores.

But weeks after the ban took effect, one popular U.S. transit map app that had been installed hundreds of thousands of times was still downloadable from Google Play even though it was still sending location data to X-Mode.

The new research, now published, is believed to be the broadest review to date of apps that collaborate with X-Mode, one of dozens of companies in a multibillion-dollar industry that buys and sells access to the location data collected from ordinary phone apps, often for the purposes of serving targeted advertising.

But X-Mode has faced greater scrutiny for its connections to government work, amid fresh reports that U.S. intelligence bought access to commercial location data to search for Americans’ past movements without first obtaining a warrant.

X-Mode pays app developers to include its tracking code, known as a software development kit, or SDK, in exchange for collecting and handing over the user’s location data. Users opt-in to this tracking by accepting the app’s terms of use and privacy policies. But not all apps that use X-Mode disclose to their users that their location data may end up with the data broker or is sold to military contractors.

X-Mode’s ties to military contractors (and by extension the U.S. military) was first disclosed by Motherboard, which first reported that a popular prayer app with more than 98 million downloads worldwide sent granular movement data to X-Mode.

In November, Motherboard found that another previously unreported Muslim prayer app called Qibla Compass sent data to X-Mode. O’Brien’s findings corroborate that and also point to several more Muslim-focused apps as containing X-Mode. By conducting network traffic analysis, Motherboard verified that at least three of those apps did at some point send location data to X-Mode, although none of the versions currently on Google Play do so. You can read Motherboard’s full story here.

X-Mode’s chief executive Josh Anton told CNN last year that the data broker tracks 25 million devices in the U.S., and told Motherboard its SDK had been used in about 400 apps.

In a statement to TechCrunch, Anton said:

“The ban on X-Mode’s SDK has broader ecosystem implications considering X-Mode collected similar mobile app data as most advertising SDKs. Apple and Google have set the precedent that they can determine private enterprises’ ability to collect and use mobile app data even when a majority of our publishers had secondary consent for the collection and use of location data.

We’ve recently sent a letter to Apple and Google to understand how we can best resolve this issue together so that we can both continue to use location data to save lives and continue to power the tech communities’ ability to build location-based products. We believe it’s important to ensure that Apple and Google hold X-Mode to the same standard they hold upon themselves when it comes to the collection and use of location data.”

The researchers also published new endpoints that apps using X-Mode’s SDK are known to communicate with, which O’Brien said he hoped would help others discover which apps are sending — or have historically sent — users’ location data to X-Mode.

“We hope consumers can identify if they’re the target of one of these location trackers and, more importantly, demand that this spying end. We want researchers to build off of our findings in the public interest, helping to shine light on these threats to privacy, security, and rights,” said O’Brien.

TechCrunch analyzed the network traffic on about two-dozen of the most downloaded Android apps in the researchers’ findings to look for apps that were communicating with any of the known X-Mode endpoints, and confirmed that several of the apps were at some point sending location data to X-Mode.

We also used the endpoints identified by the researchers to look for other popular apps that may have communicated with X-Mode.

At least one app identified by TechCrunch slipped through Google’s app store ban.

New York Subway in Google Play., until it was removed by Google. (Image: TechCrunch)

New York Subway, a popular app for navigating the New York City subway system that has been downloaded 250,000 times, according to data provided by Sensor Tower, was still listed in Google Play as of this week. But the app, which had not been updated since the app store bans were implemented, was still sending location data to X-Mode.

As soon as the app loads, a splash screen immediately asks for the user’s consent to send data to X-Mode for ads, analytics and market research, but the app did not mention X-Mode’s government work.

Desoline, the Israel-based app maker, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but removed references to X-Mode from its privacy policy a short while after we reached out. At the time of writing, the app has not returned to Google Play.

A Google spokesperson confirmed the company removed the app from Google Play.

Using the researchers’ list of apps, TechCrunch also found that previous versions of two highly popular apps, Moco and Video MP3 Converter, which account for more than 115 million downloads to date, are still sending user location data to X-Mode. That poses a privacy risk to users who install Android apps from outside Google Play, and those who are running older apps that are still sending data to X-Mode.

Neither app maker responded to a request for comment. Google would not say if it had removed any other apps for similar violations or what measures it would take, if any, to protect users running older app versions that are still sending location data to X-Mode.

None of the corresponding and namesake apps for Apple’s iOS that we tested appeared to communicate with X-Mode’s endpoints. When reached, Apple declined to say if it had blocked any apps after its ban went into effect.

Read more on TechCrunch

“The sensors in smartphones provide rich data that can be exploited to limit our movements, our free expression, and our autonomy,” said O’Brien. “Location spying poses a serious threat to human rights because it peers into the most sensitive aspects of our lives and who we associate with.”

The newly published research is likely to bring fresh scrutiny to how ordinary smartphone apps are harvesting and selling vast amounts of personal data on millions of Americans, often without the user’s explicit consent.

Several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security, are under investigation by government watchdogs for buying and using location data from various data brokers without first obtaining a warrant. Last week it emerged that intelligence analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency buy access to commercial databases of Americans’ location data.

Critics say the government is exploiting a loophole in a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, which stopped law enforcement from obtaining cell phone location data directly from the cell carriers without a warrant.

Now the government says it doesn’t believe it needs a warrant for what it can buy directly from brokers.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a vocal privacy critic whose office has been investigating the data broker industry, previously drafted legislation that would grant the Federal Trade Commission new powers to regulate and fine data brokers.

“Americans are sick of learning that their location data is being sold by data brokers to anyone with a credit card. Industry self-regulation clearly isn’t working — Congress needs to pass tough legislation, like my Mind Your Own Business Act, to give consumers effective tools to prevent their data being sold and to give the FTC the power to hold companies accountable when they violate Americans’ privacy,” said Wyden.


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Online wholesale retailer Boxed taps Aeon for Asia expansion

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Boxed, the New York-based online retailer that sells and delivers bulk-sized groceries, makes its foray into Asia by partnering with Aeon, one of Asia’s largest brick-and-mortar retail operators.

Unlike its consumer-focused business in the U.S., which has been described as “Costco for millennials,” Boxed is exporting its nascent software-as-a-service solution to Aeon in Malaysia. As part of the tie-up, the American startup will create an end-to-end e-commerce solution to aid Aeon’s digital transformation, which includes a storefront platform and inventory-picking software. Boxed declined to disclose the value of the deal but said it’s in the “several tens of millions of dollars.”

Malaysia, which is home to more than 30 million people, is Boxed’s first stop in Asia and Aeon’s biggest market outside its home base of Japan. Aeon employs some 10,000 staff in Malaysia, where it has pledged to spur local employment amid the pandemic through its virtual mall.

With Boxed’s technology, Aeon customers will have the flexibility to pick their chosen number of items and have them shipped in a box to their doorstep. Boxed doesn’t intend to provide last-mile delivery in Asia but will instead tap local courier services. Grab, for instance, is a potential partner, Boxed co-founder and CEO Chieh Huang told TechCrunch in an interview.

Foray into Asia

Through a mutual friend, Huang got in touch with Aeon, which was established 263 years ago in Japan and today operates 21,000 locations, from clothing chains, convenience stores to general merchandise stores, across 14 countries.

Working with Aeon was challenging at first, Huang said, as there were differences not only in time zones but also in cultural norms due to Aeon’s colossal size. It took numerous in-person meetings and international calls to eventually bridge the gap.

The partners are also exploring opportunities to work together in other Southeast Asian markets. Boxed will keep its enterprise-facing angle by licensing software to local retailers rather than expanding its consumer business to the region, which is already crowded with established e-commerce players like Shopee, Lazada and Tokopedia.

Digitizing traditional retailers

An Aeon mall / Source: Aeon

Prior to the SaaS deal, Aeon was already an investor in Boxed. In 2018, it led the e-commerce startup’s $111 billion Series D funding round so it could tap Boxed’s intel in retail digitization. Huang believed his company was chosen because it was one of the few e-commerce operators alongside JD.com and Amazon that have full control over the supply chain and users’ purchasing experience.

Boxed builds its own warehouse robots as well because “we are able to do it much cheaper ourselves than buying the robots,” argued Huang. “Most of the robots are very advanced because they are not able to control the environment. We own the fulfillment center so we can delete a lot of the things that are expensive, such as Lidar.”

Furthermore, the startup’s “box” model helps flat out the costs of shipping with each incremental item delivered, giving the platform a price advantage, the founder said.

Future of Boxed

Founded in 2013, Boxed has accumulated over seven million registered users. With a staff of 500 employees across the U.S., it’s now generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

In all, Boxed has raised over $270 million. Since its last financing round in 2018, the company has had little publicity. During that time Boxed was focused on fine-tuning its retail software solution, which has become its second and more profitable line of business. The firm’s margin is improving every year and getting close to profitability in 2021, said Huang. And like other e-commerce companies, Boxed saw growth in user demand through the pandemic.

Going public is “always on our mind,” said Huang. “I think it will surprise a lot of people how close we are to profitability.”

Reuters reported in September that Boxed was weighing up “a sale or going public through a merger with a blank-check acquisition company that could value it at around $1 billion.” To that, the startup gave a somewhat indefinite response:

“As a result of the shift to online, we’ve also seen increased demand from many parties looking to partner with us to accelerate growth both in our marketplace and new SaaS business. We are thoughtfully considering these options when it comes to the long-term success of Boxed.”

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Tecera launches with $225M to fund cloud consulting firms

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As we move deeper into a cloud-centric world, everything was supposed to get easier, but in truth there’s a lot of moving parts, and companies need help getting everything to work. This takes people with a particular set of skills to help clients with tasks like integrations, managing hybrid and multi-cloud environments and getting data where you need it.

Tecera, a new venture capital firm launching today wants to attack this problem by investing in companies that can act as helpers and consultants. In a world where venture capital tends to gravitate mostly towards software and hardware, this is a distinctly different investment thesis.

Chris Barbin, founder and CEO at Tecera knows quite a bit about this. He was one of the founders at Appirio, a consulting firm founded way back in 2006 when cloud computing as we know it today was just getting off the ground. His former company had the vision and the foresight to start a firm to help companies use new tools like Salesforce, Google, Workday and AWS. Wipro bought the company in 2016 for $500 million after it had raised over $117 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Barbin believes that today, the level of complexity has only increased, and there will be a growing need for what he calls this people power to make everything work, and that takes a specialized kind of investor. “There’s been a flurry of investment activity into professional services-based companies over the last couple of years, but there’s never been an investment firm that is exclusively focused on these types of businesses,” Barbin explained.

During the firm’s research phase, the founders identified key platform companies like Salesforce, Twilio, Snowflake, DataDog and Cloudflare, and they estimate that there are between 7500 and 10,000 consulting companies supporting companies like this. “The goal of the firm is to help create a kind of a powerhouse for those emerging [platforms], or a firm or two that actually has the collection of those [SaaS platforms] in their toolkit,” he said.

The company will be targeting established firms with revenue between $5 and $20 million with aspirations to grow into the hundreds of millions, and will be doling out investments of between $5 and 20 million of capital per bet.

The firm is just getting started, but plans to have 8 employees by mid-year. Barbin indicated at least one investment was already in the pipeline, but wasn’t ready to give details just yet.

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