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5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

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Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder.

TechCrunch surveyed five key investors who touch different aspects of the consumer electronics industry, based on our TechCrunch List of top VCs recommended by founders, along with other sources.

We asked these investors the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches:

Despite the pandemic, each identified bright spots in the consumer electronic world. One thing is clear, investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups. Multiple respondents cited Peloton, Tonal and Mirror as recent highlights in consumer electronics.

Said Shasta Venture’s Rob Coneybeer, “With all due respect to my friends at Nest (where Shasta was a Series A investor), Tonal is the most exciting consumer connected hardware company I’ve ever been involved with.”

Besides asking about the trends and opportunities they’re pursuing in 2021, the investors we spoke to also identified other investors, founders and companies who are leaders in consumer hardware and shared how they’ve reshaped their investment strategies during the pandemic. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.


Hans Tung, GGV Capital

Which consumer hardware sector shows the most promise for explosive growth?

For consumer hardware, offering end users a differentiated experience is extremely important. Social interactions, gamification and high-quality PGC (professionally generated content) such as with Peloton, Xiaomi and Tonal is a must to drive growth. It’s also easy to see how the acceleration of the digital economy created by COVID-19 will also drive growth for hardware.

First, services improved by the speed and reliability of 5G such as live streaming, gaming, cloud computing, etc. will create opportunity for new mobile devices and global mass market consumers will continue to demand high-quality, low-cost hardware. For example, Arevo is experimenting with “hardware as a service” with a 3D printing facility in Vietnam.

For enterprise hardware, security, reliability and fast updates are key competitive advantages. Also as a result of 5G… manufacturing automation and industrial applications. Finally IoT for health and safety may find its sweet spot thanks to COVID-19 with new wearables that track sleep, fitness and overall wellness.

How did COVID-19 change consumer hardware and your investment strategy?

One opportunity for consumer hardware companies to consider as a result of COVID-19 is how they engage with their customers. They should think of themselves more like e-commerce companies, where user experience, ongoing engagement with the consumer and iteration based on market feedback rule the day. While Peloton had this approach well before COVID, it has built a $46 billion company thinking about their products in this way.

For example, some consumers felt the bike was too expensive so instead of responding with a low-end product, the company partnered with Affirm to make their hardware more affordable with pay-as-you-go plans. A Peloton bike is not a one-and-done purchase; there is constant interaction between users, and the company that drives more satisfaction in the hardware adds more value in the business.

Entering 2021, in what way is hardware still hard?

Hardware is still hard because it takes more to iterate fast. The outcome for competitors relative to speed-to-market can be dramatic. For example, every year I look at future generation of EVs with lots of innovations and cool features from existing OEMs but see very few of these making it to market compared to Tesla and other pure players that are cranking out vehicles. Their speed of execution is impressive.

Who are some leaders in consumer hardware — founders, companies, investors?

  • John Foley, founder and CEO of Peloton. John and the Peloton team have cracked the code on the integration of community experience and hardware.
  • Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit and founder/CEO of Arevo, maker of ultrastrong, lightweight continuous carbon fiber products on demand. Experienced founder and team with 3D printing manufacturing know-how at scale are now able to offer breakthrough consumer and industrial products at competitive prices.
  • Manu Jain, head of Xiaomi’s business in India where Xiaomi is the #1-selling smart phone. He built the Indian operation from the ground up; had zero dollar marketing budget for the first three years; and localized manufacturing for all Xiaomi phones sold in India.
  • Jim Xiao, founder and CEO of Mason, a rising star who is creating “mobile infrastructure as a service.”
  • Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. Irving and his team are on a mission to reimagine modern farming.

Is there anything else you would like to share with TechCrunch readers?

Worry less about trends and build products that resonate with customers.

 

Dayna Grayson, Construct Capital

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

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Investors still love software more than life

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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. Want it in your inbox every Saturday morning? Sign up here.

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

Despite some recent market volatility, the valuations that software companies have generally been able to command in recent quarters have been impressive. On Friday, we took a look into why that was the case, and where the valuations could be a bit more bubbly than others. Per a report written by few Battery Ventures investors, it stands to reason that the middle of the SaaS market could be where valuation inflation is at its peak.

Something to keep in mind if your startup’s growth rate is ticking lower. But today, instead of being an enormous bummer and making you worry, I have come with some historically notable data to show you how good modern software startups and their larger brethren have it today.

In case you are not 100% infatuated with tables, let me save you some time. In the upper right we can see that SaaS companies today that are growing at less than 10% yearly are trading for an average of 6.9x their next 12 months’ revenue.

Back in 2011, SaaS companies that were growing at 40% or more were trading at 6.0x their next 12 month’s revenue. Climate change, but for software valuations.

One more note from my chat with Battery. Its investor Brandon Gleklen riffed with The Exchange on the definition of ARR and its nuances in the modern market. As more SaaS companies swap traditional software-as-a-service pricing for its consumption-based equivalent, he declined to quibble on definitions of ARR, instead arguing that all that matters in software revenues is whether they are being retained and growing over the long term. This brings us to our next topic.

Consumption v. SaaS pricing

I’ve taken a number of earnings calls in the last few weeks with public software companies. One theme that’s come up time and again has been consumption pricing versus more traditional SaaS pricing. There is some data showing that consumption-priced software companies are trading at higher multiples than traditionally priced software companies, thanks to better-than-average retention numbers.

But there is more to the story than just that. Chatting with Fastly CEO Joshua Bixby after his company’s earnings report, we picked up an interesting and important market distinction between where consumption may be more attractive and where it may not be. Per Bixby, Fastly is seeing larger customers prefer consumption-based pricing because they can afford variability and prefer to have their bills tied more closely to revenue. Smaller customers, however, Bixby said, prefer SaaS billing because it has rock-solid predictability.

I brought the argument to Open View Partners Kyle Poyar, a venture denizen who has been writing on this topic for TechCrunch in recent weeks. He noted that in some cases the opposite can be true, that variably priced offerings can appeal to smaller companies because their developers can often test the product without making a large commitment.

So, perhaps we’re seeing the software market favoring SaaS pricing among smaller customers when they are certain of their need, and choosing consumption pricing when they want to experiment first. And larger companies, when their spend is tied to equivalent revenue changes, bias toward consumption pricing as well.

Evolution in SaaS pricing will be slow, and never complete. But folks really are thinking about it. Appian CEO Matt Calkins has a general pricing thesis that price should “hover” under value delivered. Asked about the consumption-versus-SaaS topic, he was a bit coy, but did note that he was not “entirely happy” with how pricing is executed today. He wants pricing that is a “better proxy for customer value,” though he declined to share much more.

If you aren’t thinking about this conversation and you run a startup, what’s up with that? More to come on this topic, including notes from an interview with the CEO of BigCommerce, who is betting on SaaS over the more consumption-driven Shopify.

Next Insurance, and its changing market

Next Insurance bought another company this week. This time it was AP Intego, which will bring integration into various payroll providers for the digital-first SMB insurance provider. Next Insurance should be familiar because TechCrunch has written about its growth a few times. The company doubled its premium run rate to $200 million in 2020, for example.

The AP Intego deal brings $185.1 million of active premium to Next Insurance, which means that the neo-insurance provider has grown sharply thus far in 2021, even without counting its organic expansion. But while the Next Insurance deal and the impending Hippo SPAC are neat notes from a hot private sector, insurtech has shed some of its public-market heat.

Stocks of public neo-insurance companies like Root, Lemonade and MetroMile have lost quite a lot of value in recent weeks. So, the exit landscape for companies like Next and Hippo — yet-private insurtech startups with lots of capital backing their rapid premium growth — is changing for the worse.

Hippo decided it will debut via a SPAC. But I doubt that Next Insurance will pursue a rapid ramp to the public markets until things smooth out. Not that it needs to go public quickly; it raised a quarter billion back in September of last year.

Various and Sundry

What else? Sisense, a $100 million ARR club member, hired a new CFO. So we expect them to go public inside the next four or five quarters.

And the following chart, which is via Deena Shakir of Lux Capital, via Nasdaq, via SPAC Alpha:

Alex

 

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The Product Manager asterisk

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Product manager might be one of the most grey roles within a startup. However, as a company progresses and the team grows, there comes a time when a founder needs to carve out dedicated roles. Of these positions, product management might be one of the most elusive — and key — roles to fill.

Ken Norton, who recently left his job as director of product at Figma to consult rising PMs, thinks it’s easier to start with defining what they aren’t: the CEO of the product.

“Product managers need to realize that there is a lot of janitorial work that gets done in product management,” he said. “It’s not fun or glamorous, and it’s certainly not being the CEO of the product. It’s just stuff that needs to get done.” I wrote up a guide on how and when to hire your first product manager that expands on some of these insights, including how focus might be the biggest trait to interview for:

Hiring continues to be one of the hardest parts of building a startup, and those early employees can define the trajectory, culture and eventual success of it. Even during TC Sessions: Justice this past week, Precursor’s Sydney Thomas explained how startups need to make “pretty final decisions, pretty early on in what type of company you want to build.”

It’s a slight asterisk to the common narrative of how startups pivot every other day. It’s not that simple, and I’ll probably remind you of that every other week, dear Startups Weekly readers.

The rest of today’s newsletter will include notes on a hot up-and-coming edtech IPO, an exit that includes Jay-Z, and the latest in agricultural tech robots. Also, remember you can always find me on Twitter @nmasc_ or e-mail me at natasha.m@techcrunch.com.

The public markets get educated

It’s been yet another busy week for the public markets. I published a scoop earlier this week that Coursera is filing to go public soon, which would be one of the first debuts that will let us see how an education company’s finances changed, and accelerated, amid the pandemic’s impact on remote learning.

Here’s what to know: Like clockwork, Coursera’s S-1 dropped late Friday, giving us the first glance of the numbers behind the business. The startup tried to pain a picture of a path of profitability, with rising revenues as well as rising net losses. We get into the meat of it here. 

Image Credits: Fotograzia / Getty Images

What’s better than one billionaire? Two 

One of the biggest headlines of this past week was Square buying a majority stake of Tidal. A fintech and music collaboration might not seem that obvious, but the music economy remains one of the most under-tapped (and under-innovated) opportunities that remains out there.

Here’s what to know: Square CEO Jack Dorsey used his other company, Twitter, to share more information about the $297 million deal. As part of this transaction, Tidal owner Jay-Z got a board seat with Square, triggering conversations about the future of musical NFTs. The deal also officially confirmed that Jay-Z isn’t just a businessman, he’s a business, man.

Singer Jay-Z performs before US President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio, on November 5, 2012. After a grueling 18-month battle, the final US campaign day arrived Monday for Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, two men on a collision course for the world’s top job. The candidates have attended hundreds of rallies, fundraisers and town halls, spent literally billions on attack ads, ground games, and get out the vote efforts, and squared off in three intense debates. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Decentralized insect farming, anyone?

In this week’s Equity Wednesday episode, we brought on TC’s climate tech editor, Jonathan Shieber, to talk about the opportunities within agtech right now. We covered a lot within the 20-minute episode: from $100 million for mealworms, farm-to-grill robots and decentralized insect farming.

Here’s what to know: Farms have always had a compelling reason to turn to robotics to make tedious work much, much easier. We got into two different businesses and their approaches on how to serve farm robots, from SaaS leases to selling the robots one by one.

Image Credits: Fernando Trabanco Fotografía / Getty Images

Around TechCrunch

Thanks to all of you who tuned into TC Sessions: Justice this past week, it was so fun to hang — and make sure to give virtual kudos to my colleague, and showrunner, Megan Rose Dickey.

Next up is TechCrunch Early Stage, our yearly event that is all about tactical advice to help new and first-time founders navigate the Wild West world that is venture capital and startups. We just announced the judges of the pitch-off competition, and have already landed top-tier venture capitalists to share what you won’t find on Twitter: behind the scenes startup advice that is beyond 180 characters.

It’s the bootcamp you always wished you could attend, so get your tickets here.

Across the week

Seen on Extra Crunch

Understanding how investors value growth in 2021

Dear Sophie: Can you demystify the H-1B process and E-3 premium processing

11 words and phrases to cut from your VC pitch deck

Making sense of the $6.5B Okta-Auth0 deal

Seen on TechCrunch

SoftBank makes mountains of cash off of human laziness

Mary Meeker’s Bond has closed its second fund with $2 billion

The technology selloff is getting to be somewhat material

What China’s Big Tech CEOs propose at the annual parliament meeting

And finally…

I wanted to end by using this platform to address the rise of anti-Asian violence across our country. Conversations around how to be a more inclusive and anti-racist society need to be more loud, and more collaborative in order for change to actually happen. Intention around inclusion will impact the world we live in, the startups we create and the success of our collective. Here are some resources to donate, petition and learn.

Thanks,

N

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Tens of thousands of US organizations hit in ongoing Microsoft Exchange hack

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A stylized skull and crossbones made out of ones and zeroes.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of US-based organizations are running Microsoft Exchange servers that have been backdoored by threat actors who are stealing administrator passwords and exploiting critical vulnerabilities in the email and calendaring application, it was widely reported. Microsoft issued emergency patches on Tuesday, but they do nothing to disinfect systems that are already compromised.

KrebsOnSecurity was the first to report the mass hack. Citing multiple unnamed people, reporter Brian Krebs put the number of compromised US organizations at at least 30,000. Worldwide, Krebs said there were at least 100,000 hacked organizations. Other news outlets, also citing unnamed sources, quickly followed with posts reporting the hack had hit tens of thousands of organizations in the US.

Assume compromise

“This is the real deal,” Chris Krebs, the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said on Twitter, referring to the attacks on on-premisis Exchange, which is also known as Outlook Web Access. “If your organization runs an OWA server exposed to the internet, assume compromise between 02/26-03/03.” His comments accompanied a Tweet on Thursday from Jake Sullivan, the White House national security advisor to President Biden.

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