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8 investors tell us the story behind the Romanian startup boom

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With record funding levels and three unicorns to show, local investors are buoyant about Romania’s prospects heading into 2021. We caught up with eight of them recently, and heard how the country’s technical talent pool, broadband access and low cost of living have positioned it for the era of remote-first global companies across industries.

The momentum from last year includes 58 startups that raised total funding of €30.39 million, according to a new report just out from long-time Romanian conference How To Web. This represents a 6% increase in the volume of investments overall, and a 51% increase of investments year on year overall. A significant part of these numbers came from companies raising money for the first time.

Key industries include cybersecurity, enterprise software and fintech, with many “super-geeky teams, with deep expertise in the field” as one investor put it. “We are very focused on Romanian founders,” said another. But because of significant emigration in recent years, “they can reside and launch anywhere in the world.”

Here are the investors in their own words, for any TechCrunch reader who is interested in hiring, investing or founding a company in the country:

Oh, and one more thing. We just launched Extra Crunch in Romania. Subscribe to access all of our investor surveys, company profiles and other inside tech coverage for startups everywhere. Save 25% off a one- or two-year Extra Crunch membership by entering this discount code: ECROMANIA 


Cristian Negrutiu, Sparking Capital, Founding Partner

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Given the incipient stage of Romanian ecosystem, our fund is industry agnostic. On a personal note, I’m interested in verticals like supply chain, mobility, proptech, circular/sharing economy.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment is a start-up in the digital fitness industry.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would like to see more solutions in supply chain, as I believed that this industry needs a paradigm shift.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
1. Relevant market 2. Good product 3. Excellent team 4. Fit with us

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I believe that in marketing and finance is difficult to enter or you need something really different. In terms of products/services, marketplaces need to evolve in order to be competitive

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are strongly focused on Romania

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Romanian ecosystem is still in infancy, but with a high velocity and very good prospects for the future. I believe that we will see soon more Romanian unicorns, including from our portfolio

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
As said above – still in early stages, but full of opportunities and going full speed

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Not for Romania. The ecosystem is still based on few cities like Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi and the hubs within those cities

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Apart from traditional HoReCa (Hotel/Restaurant/Café) businesses and overall trends, we didn’t see much impact. Actually, any start-up that promotes digitization in a specific industry (e.g. proptech) gained momentum in this period.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
We tried to be as normal as possible and maintain a steady flow of business. We advise founders to look after their teams and customers and be careful with cash

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, as mentioned above.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
We always need to be positive and not exaggerate about the pandemic. It will pass.


Cristian Munteanu, Managing partner, Early Game Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Given our limited geographical scope (we invest only in Romania), we have to have a generic approach and consider many verticals and trends. Just as an example, we are looking at startups applying technologies that reached mass adoption to niche fields: computer vision applied to specific crops (agritech) or applied to in-store customer behaviour (martech); biometric data (collected through wearable devices) applied to group interactions as opposed to single individuals; ultra-light blockchain ledgers applied to smart buildings… From another investment perspective, we are looking to invest in what we call “the infrastructure for innovation” such as startups building APIs — we believe that Romania is not yet API-fied enough.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
The last term sheet we signed was with a startup that is building technology to help enterprise-level companies to better manage their software licenses. Super-geeky team, with deep expertise in the field, creating a lot of value to their customers.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would like to find great teams trying to make in-game payments easier (building at the intersection of payments and gaming), or working on Irrigation-as-a-Service (agritech), or building a NASDAQ for energy.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for founders that are both super competent and brave. Such people will dare tackle big problems and will have a chance to succeed at solving it.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I’ve seen too many startups building apps to help people find parking spots, too many marketplaces that no one need, too much off the shelf technology for marketing, too many CRMs and ERPs.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are investing only in Romania — 100% committed to the local ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
I think that, given the natural potential of Romania, agritech has a big chance; still this space is not fully serviced yet. Otherwise, cybersecurity, enterprise software, and fintech are quite well represented. From our portfolio of almost 20 startups, CODA is enabling managed service providers with cybersecurity skills; Humans is building a hub for synthetic media technologies; Mechine is making agricultural equipment speak to each other; Tokinomo is collecting and analyzing data from the shelf (in-store marketing); BunnyShell is building next-gen cloud tech and making it easy for anyone to set up servers in three clicks.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The startup ecosystem in Romania is very young, with the first local VC funds established three years ago with support from the European Investment Fund. And yet, Romania is home to three unicorns and many other promising startups. The large technical talent pool, the widely spread broadband access and the low costs of doing business and living turn Romania into a market to keep an eye on.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I expect founders from the big cities to stay in the big cities as setting up and working for a startup does not mean writing code on the laptop from a remote beach. In the tormenting search for product-market fit, founders need to talk business, visit partners, sign contracts, attend events, meet peers, do surveys, prototype and one thousand other things that cannot be done on Zoom to their full extent. The tech industry and the startupland took a hit from the pandemic as the rest of the world. And just as the rest of the world, they will survive, adapt, and mostly return to the normal interactions from before March 2020.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Unfortunately, I saw urban mobility apps suffer from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Also, anything related to restaurants, hotels and conventional events was badly affected. We are invested in startups in these verticals and made everything we could to help them during the worst days of the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our fund registered a 20% decrease in the numbers of investments in 2020 compared to 2019 and a 40% decrease in the total value of deals; so the impact of COVID was significant. At the same time, in terms of fund performance, 2020 was a good year, with companies in our portfolio raising new investment rounds with outside investors, increasing their valuation, and showing good returns. The first half of 2020 was dedicated to damage control measures and supporting the portfolio companies, but the situation changed towards the end of the year, with high new deals activity in the last quarter (higher than in Q4 2019). VC-backed startups had investors to turn to in harsh times and benefited from support and additional funds when needed; things were much more difficult for the rest of the startups though.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Probably the first thing we noticed the moment the pandemic started was a peak in productivity. During the months of mandatory shelter at home, the early-stage startups working on their prototypes put in extra-hours and gained speed. Personnel retention was good, people were focused, there was a positive spirit and a general desire to make things happen. Indeed, some startups reported an immediate boost of sales, such as Tokinomo whose robots replace the human promoters in supermarkets.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The highlight of 2020 was the week I spent on a magnificent yacht sailing with friends through the islands in Greece. It was a recharging moment that gave me a boost for the rest of the year. The next elating moment came in December with the Series A investments that increased our fund’s performance.


Andrei Pitis, Founding partner, Simple Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Startups creating world leading Intellectual Property with Romanian and broader Eastern European founders

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Uniapply.com

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Strong committed founders with deep understanding of the domain they are planning to disrupt on a global scale through innovative intellectual property.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think too many people are trying to launch platforms without much understanding of how hard it is to launch it in the absence of a major differentiator. Customer acquisition through other digital marketing platforms is very expensive if there is no other unfair advantage to launch such a platform.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are very focused on Romanian founders — but they can reside and launch anywhere in the world. We have investments in many US-based companies started by Romanian founders.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
I think Romania is very well positioned to win in cybersecurity and enterprise software as well as AI-based engines. I am very excited about pentest-tools.com, deepstash.com, uniapply.com from our portfolio as well as Fintech OS and TypingDNA that are not in our portfolio.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Bucharest is a thriving ecosystem with plenty of opportunities ripe for global expansion.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Indeed we have seen a surge in founders from smaller cities in Romania. We are founding partners of the Innovation Labs pre-accelerator that has a nationwide footprint and we are seeing more and more students interested in becoming founders all over Romania.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Mobility solutions are impacted, local players are losing to bigger players like Lime.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
The pandemics delayed a lot of the investments, but we closed them toward the end of the year. Biggest worries for founders is that they have less and less leverage as a startup to attract tech talent. The problem is that the tech people can now work for any company in the world and this skyrocketed their salaries/rates.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes we have seen — some of them benefited from people staying at home and having more time.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The introduction of the vaccine and the pace at which people are vaccinated in Romania, that is not the fastest but also not the slowest either. An online platform for appointments is up and running and people are using it!


Bogdan Axinia, Managing partner, eMAG Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Health & wellbeing are areas that “helped” by the pandemic crisis are on brink of transformation and growth. A blend of software and hardware readiness is developing fast together with the openness of clients and regulatory authorities.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Food delivery services. It is still day 0 with great opportunities ahead in terms of consumer services and business growth: food, ready to cook meals, convenience items, grocery, etc.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
It is still room to grow on B2C and B2B2C fintech space despite relatively high numbers of startups.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Bucharest and Romania in general have great potential when we look at talent pool from tech perspective and are a great place to start to scale regional and globally.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Great place to come: great infrastructure (internet cost & speed, number of hubs), talent pool and increased number of investments transactions in last 3 years.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I expect to see a growth but not a surge of founders from other geographies. And I believe thats a good thing for the ecosystem.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel is both exposed and in the same time with great potential for new startups to come. There will be a “revenge travel” period from consumers but they will look for something different and in the same time business travel will not be the same and this will generate new practices and behaviour.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We see opportunities to grow and we are allocating more capital for investments and we are advising our startups to invest more and grow faster.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The start of the vaccine campaign across the globe and the initial results.


Dan Mihaescu, Founding partner, GapMinder Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
B2B platforms enabled by ML/automation/AI in fintech, SaaS enterprise software, cybersecurity, healthcare IT, low-code development environments, conversational technologies, automation in logistics

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Latest investment was DruidAI, announced on January 12th, 2021. GapMinder led a $2.5M round.
– Other 2020 exciting new investments or follow-ons: TypingDNA, FintechOS, DeepStash, Soleadify, Machinations, Innoship, Frisbo, Cartloop, XVision

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
– Stage: Seed or Series A
– Technology: Automation or conversational technology assisted by ML or AI
– Team: Mature with track-record for International expansion;
– Product: B2B scalable international, with B2B platforms as main focus

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Copies of B2C models (from US) that are borne in CEE tend to be limited to small local markets, and evolve into highly crowded environments. Shared economy companies borne in Romania are such examples. Unit economics were simply not attractive for us as VC investor.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 70%

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
– Models we consider will continue to thrive: B2B platforms enabled by automation/conversational technologies (assisted by ML/AI) have a higher potential for internationalisation vs B2C models.
– Reg verticals with higher potential, we mentioned above a few.
– GapMinder portfolio exciting companies: FintechOS, TypingDNA, DeepStash, DruidAI, Soleadify, Machinations, Innoship, Frisbo, Cartloop, SmartDreamers, XVision, among others

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Romania (in cities such as Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara, Brasov, Oradea and Iasi) is a high-opportunity market, with excellent teams, startups borne with international vision, excellent environment for automation and ML enabled projects.

The ecosystem becomes more mature, from coverage of pre-seed rounds towards Series A, while not overcrowded yet.
Overall, a high opportunity environment for Series B and late Series A investors from US or rest of Europe.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The hubs are concentrated in terms of education pool, potential customers (B2B or more sophisticated B2C) to test new products, potential investors on the pre-seed phase that are crucial for the initial steps of start-up developments.

For more advanced start-ups, hyper-growth is important, therefore the capability to scale up and go international might be helped by the presence in certain hubs.
In other words, there is a complex mix that the hubs are offering. So, at Romanian level, we do not expect a diminishing role of the hubs.

At European or US level, it is debatable if main hubs are too overcrowded or over-expensive for the teams. However, the business growth potential for the more advanced start-ups is important.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
The behaviour of users, both internal and external, has migrated towards a need for autonomy, which drives the need for:
– Tools that allow conversational interactions (including in natural language) with evolved human like feeling
– Remote collaborative low code development tools
– A general need for all companies (from the smallest ones to enterprise) to move yesterday to digital interactions

In 2020 a lot of consumers and companies were forced to focus on core priorities, and move to secondary focus the “nice-to-have” services or products. The VCs have seen even a sharper delimitation between high-tech and tech-enabled companies, not to mention some “interesting” proofs of Fake Tech. This shift has impacted lots of verticals, and such shift might be here to stay.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
GapMinder’s strategy described above is focussed on companies that actually have been benefiting from the tide of urgency in accelerating digital transformations of companies. And we seen it in the 2x-3x growth of most of our portfolio companies in 2020.
Our advices to our portfolio companies have been simple:
1. Cash is king. Make sure you have an 18 months minimum runway. If an opportunity to raise, seriously consider it.
2. Customers are the most important partners you have. Listen to them
3. The team is your most important asset. Keep it close and take care of it in these daring times.
4. Act fast

Of course, on top of the above, we had very specific conversations with each team.

To be candid, this all looks good at the end of 2020, but the first half of 2020 has been intense for founders in our portfolio and filled with doubts about decisional freeze in some verticals, stress on implementation in international markets wherever travel was needed, alignment between teams inside larger companies. Looking back, this was just normal. We feel fortunate to be part of the life of such great teams and start-ups, that proved so good during tough times.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, we already felt signs of recovery in second half of 2020, especially Q4.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Starting at scale the vaccination against COVID-19 in last 6 weeks is definitely the most important positive sign at human level, society level, but also from a pure business perspective.
In our team, GapMinder, we feel optimistic!


Alexandru Popescu, Managing Partner, Cleverage Investment

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
HealthTech

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Oncochain

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Team, idea, traction

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50%

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Sanopass; Oncochain ( our portfolio); Fintech ( Fintech OS – Teodeor Blidarus; Sergiu Negut)

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very dynamic yet at an early stage

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Telemedicine – advantage; dentistry – exposed;

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
No impact due COVID; biggest worries are related to teams maturity & to market capacity to absorb new ideas fast enough; my advice is to look for know-how and try to grow as fast as possible

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Definitely I see “green shoots”

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Much better evaluation of one of our investments after only few months


Theodor Genoiu, Associate, Roca X

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Edutech, energy, deeptech

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
eCommerce marketplaces, some service areas, mobility

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Our thesis has a goal of a 40% distribution of the AuM in Romania

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Positive industry outlook – edutech, medtech, fintech, logistics;

Exciting companies – Fintech OS, Medicai, Kinderpedia, iFactor and a few others.

Negative industry outlook – marketplaces, Deeptech, gaming (in terms of funding, not talent), advertising

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Growing ecosystem with a large technical talent pool but in need of true entrepreneurial education, experience and mentality.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?

Yes and no, in more established ecosystems a surge in founders coming from geographies outside major cities might be an outcome, the onset of remote work will bring a major boost to startups, although talented technical employees will become more and more difficult to onboard.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our investment strategy remains unchanged, the most commons worries of founders in our portfolio are linked to attracting new funding partners, lack of foresight in some target markets and difficulty in finding employees in certain verticals. We don’t have a general advice for all our startups, it’s case by case, we advise some to pivot, others to start conversion efforts on their large customer base and others to launch in new geographies.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The openness to adopt new technologies and try new things from well-known conservative verticals such as education.


Matei Dumitrescu, Founding Partner, Smart Impact Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Impact, health, energy

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
iFactor, Ringhel, Sanopass

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Yes, there are: impact startups

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact, innovation, scalability

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Marcom, ecomm, marketplaces

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Almost 100% focused on local startups with a global view

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not long-term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Tech, ehealth. Medicai and its founder Mircea Popa are examples of great potential.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Bucharest is booming, the market in getting bigger, the VCs are growing, the number of new initiatives is dramatically increased.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No, but remote work is possible

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We had an opportunity with e-education and e-health. However, sharing economy was exposed to problems.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our startups were already agile, working remote and selling through digital channels digital products or services.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, we do.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There wasn’t such moment.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
We invest in IMPACT, because the impact creates VALUE, and that is what people pay for!

 

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Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight

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Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

With focus on local business reviews and information, you might think Yelp would be relatively free of the types of misinformation that other social media platforms struggle with. But of course, Yelp reviews are high stakes in their own way, since they can have a big impact on a business’ bottom line.

Like other online platforms, Yelp relies on a mix of software and human curation. On the software side, one of the main tasks is sorting reviews into recommended and not recommended. Group Product Manager for Trust and Safety Sudheer Someshwara told me that a review might not be recommended because it appears to be written by someone with a conflict of interest, or it might be solicited by the business, or it might come from a user who hasn’t posted many reviews before and “we just don’t know enough information about the user to recommend those reviews to our community.”

“We take fairness and integrity very seriously,” Someshwara said. “No employee at Yelp has the ability to override decisions the software has made. That even includes the engineers.”

He added, “We treat every business the same, whether they’re advertising with us or not.”

Yelp trust and safety report

Image Credits: Yelp

So the company says that last year, users posted more than 18.1 million reviews, of which 4.6 million (about 25%) were not recommended by the software. Someshwara noted that even when a review is not recommended, it’s not removed entirely — users just have to seek it out in a separate section.

Removals do happen, but that’s one of the places where the user operations team comes in. As Vice President of Legal, Trust & Safety Aaron Schur explained, “We do make it easy for businesses as well as consumers to flag reviews. Every piece of content that’s flagged in that way does get reviewed by a live human to decide whether it should should be removed violating our guidelines.”

Yelp says that last year, about 710,000 reviews (4%) were removed entirely for violating the company’s policies. Of those, more than 5,200 were removed for violating the platform’s COVID-19 guidelines (among other things, they prohibit reviewers from claiming they contracted COVID from a business, or from complaining about mask requirements or that a business had to close due to safety regulations). Another 13,300 were removed between May 25 and the end of the year for threats, lewdness, hate speech or other harmful content.

“Any current event that takes place will find its way onto Yelp,” acknowledged Vice President of User Operations Noorie Malik. “People turn to Yelp and other social media platforms to have a voice.”

But expressing political beliefs can conflict with what Malik said is Yelp’s “guiding principle,” namely “genuine, first-hand experience.” So Yelp has built software to detect unusual activity on a page and will also add a Consumer Alert when it believes there are “egregious attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews.” For example, it says there was a 206% increase in media-fueled incidents year-over-year.

It’s not that you can’t express political opinions in your reviews, but the review has to come from first-hand experience, rather than being prompted by reading a negative article or an angry tweet about the business. Sometimes, she added, that means the team is “removing content with a point of view that we agree with.”

One example that illustrates this distinction: Yelp will take down reviews that seem driven by media coverage suggesting that a business owner or employee behaved in a racist manner, but at the same time, it also labeled two businesses in December 2020 with a “Business Accused of Racism” alert reflecting “resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee.”

Beyond looking at individual reviews and spikes in activity, Someshwara said Yelp will also perform “sting operations” to find groups that are posting fraudulent reviews.

In fact, his team apparently shut down 1,200 user accounts associated with review rings and reported nearly 200 groups to other platforms. And it just rolled out an updated algorithm designed to better detect and un-recommend reviews coming from those groups.

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Broaden your view of ‘best’ to make smarter, more inclusive investments

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What can we learn from the best 40 venture capital investments of all time? Well, we learn to invest exclusively in men, preferably white or Asian.

We reviewed CB Insights’ global list of “40 of the Best VC Bets of all Time.” All of the 40 companies’ 92 founders were male.

  • Of the 43 U.S.-based founders, 35 were white American; four were white immigrant/first generation, from France, Ukraine, Russia and Iran; and four were Indian immigrant/first generation.
  • Of the 19 Western Europe/Israel-based founders, all were white.
  • Of the 30 Asia-based founders, all were natives of the country in which they built their businesses: 23 Chinese, three Japanese, two Korean and two Indian.

Of course, this dataset is incomplete. There are numerous examples of founders from underrepresented backgrounds who have generated extremely impressive returns. For example, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is Cuban American; Calendly’s Tope Awotona is Nigerian American; Sendgrid’s Isaac Saldana is Latinx; and Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd is the second-youngest woman to take a company public.

That said, the pattern in the dataset is striking. So, why invest in anyone who’s not a white or Asian male? 

The conventional answer is that diversity pays. Research from BCG, Harvard Business Review, First Round Capital, the Kauffman Foundation and Illuminate Ventures shows that investors in diverse teams get better returns:

  • Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator (2015): “Many suspect that venture capital firms are biased against female founders. This would be easy to detect: among their portfolio companies, do startups with female founders outperform those without? A couple months ago, one VC firm (almost certainly unintentionally) published a study showing bias of this type. First Round Capital found that among its portfolio companies, startups with female founders outperformed those without by 63%.”
  • Kauffman Fellows Report (2020): “Diverse Founding Teams generate higher median realized multiples (RMs) on Acquisitions and IPOs. Diverse Founding Teams returned 3.3x, while White Founding Teams returned 2.5x. The results are even more pronounced when looking at the perceived ethnicity of the executive team. Diverse Executive Teams returned 3.3x, while White Executive Teams only returned 2.0x. As mentioned above, we report realized multiples (RMs) only for successful startups that were acquired or went through the IPO process.”
  • BCG (June 2018): “Startups founded and cofounded by women actually performed better over time, generating 10% more in cumulative revenue over a five-year period: $730,000 compared with $662,000.”
  • BCG (January 2018): “Companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity — 45% of total revenue versus just 26%.”
  • Peterson Institute for International Economics (2016): “The correlation between women at the C-suite level and firm profitability is demonstrated repeatedly, and the magnitude of the estimated effects is not small. For example, a profitable firm at which 30 percent of leaders are women could expect to add more than 1 percentage point to its net margin compared with an otherwise similar firm with no female leaders. By way of comparison, the typical profitable firm in our sample had a net profit margin of 6.4 percent, so a 1 percentage point increase represents a 15 percent boost to profitability.”

How do we reconcile these two sets of data? Research going back a decade shows that diverse teams, companies and founders pay, so why are all of the VC home runs from white men, or Asian men in Asia, plus a few Asian men in the U.S.?

First Round did not include their investment in Uber in their analysis we reference above on the grounds that it was an outlier. Of course, one could rebut that by saying traditional VC is all about investing in outliers.

  • Seth Levine analyzed data from Correlation Ventures (21,000 financings from 2004-2013) and writes that “a full 65% of financings fail to return 1x capital. And perhaps more interestingly, only 4% produce a return of 10x or more, and only 10% produce a return of 5x or more.” In Levine’s extrapolated model, he found that in a “hypothetical $100M fund with 20 investments, the total number of financings producing a return above 5x was 0.8 – producing almost $100M of proceeds. My theoretical fund actually didn’t find their purple unicorn, they found 4/5ths of that company. If they had missed it, they would have failed to return capital after fees.”
  • Benedict Evans observes that the best investors don’t seem to be better at avoiding startups that fail. “For funds with an overall return of 3-5x, which is what VC funds aim for, the overall return was 4.6x but the return of the deals that did better than 10x was actually 26.7x. For >5x funds, it was 64.3x. The best VC funds don’t just have more failures and more big wins —  they have bigger big wins.”

The first problem with the outlier model of investing in VC is that it results in, on average, poor returns and is a risker proposition compared to alternative models. The Kauffman Foundation analyzed their own investments in venture capital (100 funds) over a 20-year period and found “only 20 of the hundred venture funds generated returns that beat a public-market equivalent by more than 3% annually,” while 62 “failed to exceed returns available from the public markets, after fees and carry were paid.”

The outlier model of investing in VC also typically results in a bias toward investing in homogeneous teams. We suggest that the extremely homogeneous profiles of the big wealth creators above reflect the fact that these are people who took the biggest risks: financial, reputational and career risk. The people who can afford to take the biggest risks are also the people with the most privilege; they’re not as concerned about providing for food, shelter and healthcare as economically stressed people are. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a study of “549 company founders of successful businesses in high-growth industries, including aerospace, defense, computing, electronics and healthcare” showed that “more than 90 percent of the entrepreneurs came from middle-class or upper-lower-class backgrounds and were well-educated: 95.1 percent of those surveyed had earned bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent had more advanced degrees.” But when you analyze the next tier down of VC success, the companies that don’t make Top 40 lists but land on Top 500 lists, you see a lot more diversity.

In VC, 100x investment opportunities only come along once every few years. If you bet your VC fund on opportunities like that, you’re relying on luck. Hope is not a strategy. There are many 3x-20x return opportunities, and if you’re incredibly lucky (or Chris Sacca), you might get one 100x in your career.

We prefer to invest based on statistics, not luck. That’s why Versatile VC provides companies with the option of an “alternative-VC” model, using a non-traditional term sheet designed to better align incentives between investors and founders. We also proactively seek to invest in diverse teams. Given the choice of running a fund with one 100x investment, or a fund with two 10x investments, we’ll take the latter. The former implies that we came perilously close to missing our one home run, and therefore we’re not doing such a great job investing.

“While we all want to have invested in those exciting home-runs/unicorns, most investors are seeking the data points to construct reliable portfolios,” Shelly Porges, co-founder and managing partner of Beyond the Billion, observed. “That’s not about aiming for the bleachers but leveraging experience to reliably deliver on the singles and doubles it takes to get to home base. A number of the institutional investors we’ve spoken to have gone so far as to say that they can no longer meet their targets without alternatives, including venture investments. “

Lastly, the data above reflects companies that typically took a decade to build. As the culture changes, we anticipate that the 2030 “Top 40” wealth creators list will include many more people with diverse backgrounds. Just in 2018, 15 unicorns were born with at least one woman founder; in 2019, 21 startups founded or co-founded by a woman became unicorns. Why?

  • “All else being equal, a larger pool of female-founded companies to select from for VC investing should increase the odds of a higher number of female-founded VC home runs,” said Michael Chow, research director for the National Venture Capital Association and Venture Forward. According to PitchBook, investments in women-led companies grew approximately 54 percent from 2015 to 2019, from 459 to 709. In the first three quarters of 2020, there have been 468 fundings of women-led companies; this figure beats 2015, 2016 and nearly 2017 total annual fundings. ProjectDiane highlights that from 2018 to 2020, the number of Black women who have raised $1 million in venture funding nearly tripled, and the number of Latinx women doubled. Their average two-year fail rate is also 13 percentage points lower than the overall average.
  • “Millennials value a diverse workforce,” Chow added, according to Gallup and Deloitte Millennial surveys. “In the battle for talent, diverse founders may have the edge in attracting the best and brightest, and talent is what is required for going from zero to one.”
  • The rise in popularity of alternative VC models, which are disproportionately attractive to women and underrepresented founders. We are in the very early days of this wave; according to research by Bootstrapp, 32 U.S. firms have launched an inaugural Revenue-Based Finance fund. Clearbanc notes on their site they have “invested in thousands of companies using data science to identify high-growth funding opportunities. This data-driven approach takes the bias out of decision making. Clearbanc has funded 8x more female founders than traditional VCs and has invested in 43 states in the U.S. in 2019.”
  • More VCs are working proactively to market to underrepresented founders. Implicit biases are robust and pervasive; it takes a proactive and intentional approach to shift the current status quo of funding,” Dreamers & Doers Founder Gesche Haas said. Holly Jacobus, an investment partner at Joyance Partners and Social Starts, noted that “we’re proud to boast a portfolio featuring ~30% female founders in core roles —  well above the industry average —  without specific targeting of any sort. However, there is still work to be done. That’s why we lean heavily on our software and CEOs to find the best tech and teams in the best segments, and we are always actively working on improving the process with new systems that remove bias from the dealflow and diligence process.”

Thanks to Janet Bannister, managing partner, Real Ventures, and Erika Cramer, co-managing member, How Women Invest, for thoughtful comments. David Teten is a past Advisor to Real Ventures.

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Facebook launches BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps

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Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, is today launching its next experimental app, called BARS. The app makes it possible for rappers to create and share their raps using professionally created beats, and is the NPE Team’s second launch in the music space following its recent public debut of music video app Collab.

While Collab focuses on making music with others online, BARS is instead aimed at would-be rappers looking to create and share their own videos. In the app, users will select from any of the hundreds of professionally created beats, then write their own lyrics and record a video. BARS can also automatically suggest rhymes as you’re writing out lyrics, and offers different audio and visual filters to accompany videos as well as an autotune feature.

There’s also a “Challenge mode” available, where you can freestyle with auto-suggested word cues, which has more of a game-like element to it. The experience is designed to be accommodating to people who just want to have fun with rap, similar to something like Smule’s AutoRap, perhaps, which also offers beats for users’ own recordings.

Image Credits: Facebook

The videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length and can then be saved to your Camera Roll or shared out on other social media platforms.

Like NPE’s Collab, the pandemic played a role in BARS’ creation. The pandemic shut down access to live music and places where rappers could experiment, explains NPE Team member DJ Iyler, who also ghostwrites hip-hop songs under the alias “D-Lucks.”

“I know access to high-priced recording studios and production equipment can be limited for aspiring rappers. On top of that, the global pandemic shut down live performances where we often create and share our work,” he says.

BARS was built with a team of aspiring rappers, and today launched into a closed beta.

Image Credits: Facebook

Despite the focus on music, and rap in particular, the new app in a way can be seen as yet another attempt by Facebook to develop a TikTok competitor — at least in this content category.

TikTok has already become a launchpad for up-and-coming musicians, including rappers; it has helped rappers test their verses, is favored by many beatmakers and is even influencing what sort of music is being made. Diss tracks have also become a hugely popular format on TikTok, mainly as a way for influencers to stir up drama and chase views. In other words, there’s already a large social community around rap on TikTok, and Facebook wants to shift some of that attention back its way.

The app also resembles TikTok in terms of its user interface. It’s a two-tabbed vertical video interface — in its case, it has  “Featured” and “New” feeds instead of TikTok’s “Following” and “For You.” And BARS places the engagement buttons on the lower-right corner of the screen with the creator name on the lower-left, just like TikTok.

However, in place of hearts for favoriting videos, your taps on a video give it “Fire” — a fire emoji keeps track. You can tap “Fire” as many times as you want, too. But because there’s (annoyingly) no tap-to-pause feature, you may accidentally “fire” a video when you were looking for a way to stop its playback. To advance in BARS, you swipe vertically, but the interface is lacking an obvious “Follow” button to track your favorite creators. It’s hidden under the top-right three-dot menu.

The app is seeded with content from NPE Team members, which includes other aspiring rappers, former music producers and publishers.

Currently, the BARS beta is live on the iOS App Store in the U.S., and is opening its waitlist. Facebook says it will open access to BARS invites in batches, starting in the U.S. Updates and news about invites, meanwhile, will be announced on Instagram.

Facebook’s recent launches from its experimental apps division include Collab and collage maker E.gg, among others. Not all apps stick around. If they fail to gain traction, Facebook shuts them down — as it did last year with the Pinterest-like video app Hobbi.

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