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SPACs are the construct VCs need to fund clean tech

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In light of climate change and escalating global energy demand, more emphasis is being placed on emerging clean technologies — ranging from renewables and energy storage to nuclear power. Although these technologies have tremendous potential, they require lots of innovation, and innovation needs abundant capital.

The issue: early-stage financing for clean tech hasn’t been plentiful, and it’s stifling the growth of new energy companies. Why is this? In general, clean tech companies lack the startup advantages of agility and flexibility.

“Moving fast” works for products such as consumer mobile apps and SaaS solutions. The clean tech sector, on the other hand, tends to involve highly regulated, capital-intensive, mission-critical infrastructure.

That has hurt both returns and well-intentioned impact. According to Cambridge Associates, venture-backed companies have returned, on average, -15% internal rate of return (IRR) since 2000. Contrast that to venture-backed companies in healthcare, which returned 24% in IRR over the same time period.

Why clean tech lacks funding

While noble in its aims to make the world a better, cleaner, safer, healthier place through technology, clean tech venture capital has suffered simply because clean tech does not fit the traditional venture capital model. Central to the venture capital model is the ability to de-risk new ideas and significantly capitalize the most promising ones, allowing for liquidity via M&A or initial public offering (IPO).

Early-stage financing for clean tech hasn’t been plentiful, and it’s stifling the growth of new energy companies.

This construct allows for the return of venture capital dollars, plus appreciation that enables VC firms to raise new funds. These capitalization events also allow the venture-backed company to accelerate growth and maximize market impact.

How this construct works is evident when comparing healthcare and clean tech. In healthcare, new innovations are de-risked by VCs. More mature innovations are acquired or reach IPO every year. As a result, the average annual ratio of dollars raised via an exit to VC-invested dollars since 2012 is 1.8. This ratio is only 0.2 for clean tech, an 800-plus percent difference in the wrong direction. This has resulted in poor returns and limited capitalization of clean tech companies.

Enter (or reenter) the SPAC

Given the state of the world’s environment and lack of abundant energy in emerging economies, we need to collectively fix this issue. Special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are significantly improving clean tech’s venture capital construct. According to Investopedia:

SPACs are companies with no commercial operations that are formed strictly to raise capital through an initial public offering (IPO) for the purpose of acquiring an existing company.

Also known as “blank-check companies,” SPACs have been around for decades. In recent years, they’ve become more popular, attracting big-name underwriters and investors and raising a record amount of IPO money in 2019.

In 2020, more than 110 SPACs completed transactions in the U.S., capitalizing these companies with more than $29 billion.

In 2020, SPACs capitalized clean tech companies with almost $4 billion of capital, including Fisker, Lordstown Motors, QuantumScape, Hyliion, XL Fleet and others. This helped push the ratio of funds raised at exit to venture capital invested in 2020 from the previous 0.2 average to a much healthier 0.6, a 200% improvement.

In 2021, we will likely see even further improvement. Why? Because there are 43 active SPACs looking toward or finalizing merger targets with a clean tech focus, potentially providing $12 billion in growth capital. Even if there are no more new SPACs in 2021 and a historically low average of M&As and IPOs, 2021 promises continued improvement for clean tech investment.

Don’t let Nikola tarnish the pack

One of the most high-profile clean tech SPACs was Nikola Corporation. The battery-electric and hydrogen-powered truck maker has attracted much fanfare since going public last June through a reverse merger with special purpose acquisition company VectoIQ. The company’s market capitalization soared and things seemed to be going well, but things became controversial later in the year when the company was accused of making false statements about its technology and other things.

Although examples such as Nikola have the potential to tarnish the emergence of SPACs as a way to spur clean tech investing, they shouldn’t. There are plenty of examples of emerging companies that scream quality and integrity. For example, Stem*, a leader in the energy storage optimization space, is now going public, pending SEC approval, via the Star Peak SPAC.

Public markets are receiving the SPAC with enthusiasm. Assuming the merger happens, Stem will be capitalized with greater than $450 million of cash to accelerate growth and drive impact. It’s an illustration of SPACs as a positive venture capital construct that is needed to make clean tech work and become a thriving sector.

As a long-time clean tech venture capitalist myself, it is interesting that public investment via the SPAC may be the correcting element for the clean tech VC construct. For years, I assumed that corporates would step up their M&A activity at premium valuations to solve this issue, but I’ve spent a long time waiting.

Judging by activity, corporates seem content to continue playing the still very important investor/nurturer role, versus the “owning” role. Regardless, capitalizing promising clean tech companies can only mean one thing: clean-tech-related impact is coming like never before as these companies require and use capital to scale.

New and more diverse approaches to finding and funding new, great clean tech companies are sorely needed. SPACs are going to be the tool needed to bring clean tech up to par with sectors such as healthcare. It’s a development that will benefit all of us.

*Stem is a Wind Ventures portfolio company.

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Freemium isn’t a trend — it’s the future of SaaS

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As the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded around the world last spring, companies large and small saw demand slow to a halt seemingly overnight. Enterprises weren’t comfortable making big, long-term commitments when they had no clue what the future would hold.

Innovative SaaS companies responded quickly by making their products available for free or at a steep discount to boost demand.

While Zoom gets all the attention, there were hundreds of free SaaS tools to help folks through the pandemic. Pluralsight ran a #FreeApril campaign, offering free access to its platform for all of April. Cloudflare made its Teams product free from March until September 1, 2020. GitHub went free for teams in April and slashed the price of its paid Team plan.

A selection of new free, free trial and low-priced offerings from leading SaaS companies. Image Credits: Kyle Poyar/OpenView.

The free products were aimed squarely at end users — whether it be a developer, individual marketer, sales rep or someone else at the edge of an organization. These end users were stuck at home during the pandemic, yet they desperately needed software to power their working lives.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them. Many end users want to jump straight into a product, no hassle or credit card or budget approval required.

After they’ve set up an account and customized it for their workflow, end users have essentially already made a purchase decision with their time — all without ever feeling like they were in an active buying cycle.

An end user-focused free offering became an essential SaaS survival strategy in 2020.

But these free offerings didn’t go away as lockdowns loosened up. SaaS companies instead doubled down on freemium because they realized that doing so had a real and positive impact on their business. In doing so, they busted the outdated myths that have held 82% of SaaS companies back from offering their own free plan.

Myth: A free offering will cannibalize paying customers

GoDaddy is a digital behemoth, known for being a ’90s-era pioneer in web domains as well as for their controversial Super Bowl ads. The company has steadily diversified into business software, now generating roughly $700 million in ARR from its business applications segment and reaching millions of paying customers. There are very few businesses that would see greater potential revenue cannibalization from launching a free product than GoDaddy.

But GoDaddy didn’t let fear stop them from testing freemium when lockdowns set in. Freemium started out as a small-scale experiment in spring 2020 for the websites and marketing product. GoDaddy has since increased the experiment to 50% of U.S. website traffic, with plans to scale to 100% of U.S. traffic and open availability to other markets in 2021.

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Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

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This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

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Snap to launch a new Creator Marketplace this month, initially focused on Lens Creators

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Snap on Wednesday announced its plan to soon launch a Creator Marketplace, which will make it easier for businesses to find and partner with Snapchat creators, including Lens creators, AR creators and later, prominent Snapchat creators known as Snap Stars. At launch, the marketplace will focus on connecting brands and AR creators for AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022.

The company had previously helped connect its creator community with advertisers through its Snapchat Storytellers program, which first launched into pilot testing in 2018 — already a late arrival to the space. However, that program’s focus was similar to Facebook’s Brand Collabs Manager, as it focused on helping businesses find Snap creators who could produce video content.

Snap’s new marketplace, meanwhile, has a broader focus in terms of connecting all sorts of creators with the Snap advertising ecosystem. This includes Lens Creators, Developers and Partners, and then later, Snap’s popular creators with public profiles.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will open to businesses later this month to help them partner with a select group of AR Creators in Snap’s Lens Network. These creators can help businesses build AR experiences without the need for extensive creative resources, which makes access to Snap’s AR ads more accessible to businesses, including smaller businesses without in-house developer talent.

Lens creators have already found opportunity working for businesses that want to grow their Snapchat presence — even allowing some creators to quit their day jobs and just build Lenses for a living. Snap has been further investing in this area of its business, having announced in December a $3.5 million fund directed toward AR Lens creation. The company said at the time there were tens of thousands of Lens creators who had collectively made over 1.5 million Lenses to date.

Using Lenses has grown more popular, too, the company had noted, saying that more than 180 million people interact with a Snapchat Lens every day — up from 70 million daily active users of Lenses when the Lens Explorer section first launched in the app in 2018.

Now, Snap says that over 200 million Snapchat users interact with augmented reality on a daily basis, on average, out of its 280 million daily users. The majority (over 90%) of these users are 13 to 25-year-olds. In total, users are posting over 5 billion Snaps per day.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will remain focused on connecting businesses with AR Lens Creators throughout 2021.

The following year, it will expand to include the community of professional creators and storytellers who understand the current trends and interests of the Snap user base and can help businesses with their ad campaigns. The company will not take a cut of the deals facilitated through the Marketplace, it says.

This would include the creators making content for Snap’s new TikTok rival, Spotlight, which launched in November 2020. Snap encouraged adoption of the feature by shelling out $1 million per day to creators of top videos. In March 2021, over 125 million Snapchat users watched Spotlight, it says.

Image Credits: Snapchat

Spotlight isn’t the only way Snap is challenging TikTok.

The company also on Wednesday announced it’s snagging two of TikTok’s biggest stars for its upcoming Snap Originals lineup: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio. The siblings, who have gained over 20 million follows on Snapchat this past year, will star in the series “Charli vs. Dixie.” Other new Originals will feature names like artist Megan Thee Stallion, actor Ryan Reynolds, twins and influencers Niki and Gabi DeMartino, and YouTube beauty vlogger Manny Mua, among others.

Snap’s shows were watched by over 400 million people in 2020, including 93% of the Gen Z population in the U.S., it noted.

 

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