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Investor Alexa von Tobel on the biggest driver of social-media-fueled stock trading

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Alexa von Tobel has always felt strongly that too many people are shut out of the stock market. She felt this as a 23-year-old who didn’t have $5,000 to open a brokerage account. She felt it while building LearnVest, a financial planning startup she launched in 2009 and sold in 2015 to Northwestern Mutual for what she says was ultimately $375 million. In fact, von Tobel — who two years ago launched her own venture firm with fellow entrepreneur and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker —  cares so much about the yawning gap between investors and non-investors that she has written books about how to take control of one’s money. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is also a certified financial planner.)

Little wonder that in late January, for a podcast that von Tobel routinely hosts for Inc., she interviewed Robinhood Vlad Tenev about the company’s quest to make investing accessible to all and how it had shaken up the brokerage landscape in the process. Neither foresaw what would happen days later, when a Reddit community of amateur investors didn’t try to occupy Wall Street so much as turn it upside down by using Robinhood, in part, to drive up the share price of companies like GameStop and AMC Theatres — then unwind those positions. As a 21-year-old college student who lost $150,000 over the course of several days told the outlet Vice, “This whole thing has numbed me to money.”

What happened? Education, in the view of von Tobel, who says it never became an integrated part of bigger picture. While the GameStop saga has “brought a lot of new learnings and new things that people have to process and consider,” paramount among these is the inadequate financial training that Americans receive.

“I want the tools to be democratized, where everyone can get equal access to the financial system,” said von Tobel in a lively chat with us late last week that you can hear here. “But I also want equal education, and that’s where we’re woefully falling behind as a society. It’s not taught in high schools, colleges, or grad schools. Very few schools even teach the basics.”

The issue only grows more important to address each year, she says. People are living longer, and they’re more responsible than ever for their financial well-being. Meanwhile, because of innovations in fintech, including at Robinhood — which became wildly popular very quickly precisely because it dispensed with many of the barriers to participating in the stock market — there is little to keep someone from making lousy decisions with outsize consequences.

So what’s to be done? For starters, she suggests that society begin to place as much emphasis on financial health as physical wellness. “If you’re close to having a major health crisis, doctors do a really good job of saying, ‘Here’s all the things that you need to do to protect yourself; here’s what needs to happen. The same needs to exist in the financial world.”

It will take a number of stakeholders, she believes. One of these is “platforms – all of them — that provide you with [financial] tools and resources, so you can understand the kind of risks you’re taking on [to the extent] that they can provide it.”

Another, she said, is regulators, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Created in 2010 to safeguard consumers in banking, mortgage, credit card and other financial transactions, the CFPB’s very constitutionality was called into question by the Trump administration, yet its guidance is sorely needed, suggests von Tobel. (“Regulation is always a step behind, and that’s a little bit of what we’re feeling” as a society right now.)

Of course, the third and biggest stakeholder of all is the U.S. educational system, says von Tobel, adding that “you need all three, working in unison” in order to have real impact.

As for any structural changes in the meantime that von Tobel thinks should happen — according to CNBC, for example, Robinhood is preparing to lobby against a trading tax that’s been floated as a way to dampen some of the frenzied activity seen in recent weeks — she declines to “pontificate too much.”

Still, she said she thinks that “getting a Citadel and everyday Americans on equal footing is where we want to end up,” and she isn’t without hope that we’ll get there.

For example, she thinks crypto is “here to stay” and that the infrastructure being created around it will be positive for innovators as well as end users. She’s also expecting “self-driving wallets” that pay bills and make investments to become the new normal, and she thinks they could minimize some of the financial distress we might continue to see otherwise.

Considering the chaos of late, the latter almost sounds too easy, but the “wallet is simply a math equation every day,” she says. “If you have so much [money] available free, where should it go? What’s the most optimal place? It’s a math equation that updates every single hour, and I do think elements of it will be self-driving based on your goals and what you want to accomplish.”

As she puts it, “I can’t wait for the day that that actually exists in a way where it automates on its own. I do believe that’s the future.”

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BrioHR raises $1.3M ahead of Y Combinator’s demo day

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As the next Y Combinator demo day approaches, more startups from the current Winter 2021 batch are showing up in our inboxes. One of the most interesting from the mix is BrioHR, which is building human resources (HR) software for Southeast Asia.

The company fits into a theme I’ve noticed amongst startups, namely a focus on taking proven software genre approaches to specific parts of the world, localizing them and building in-region winners. This theme is not new, of course, but it does feel slightly more pronounced amongst recent accelerator batches than before (TechCrunch covers Techstars, Y Combinator, 500 Startups and other accelerators as part of our startup focus). Perhaps this is the impact of so many accelerators going virtual, widening the founder pool from whom they might matriculate to include a more global group of founders.

Back to BrioHR itself, the company is announcing $1.3 million in fundraising, inclusive of its YC check. The investment was led by Global Founders Capital, and saw participation from East Ventures and angel investors.

TechCrunch caught up with Benjamin Croc, the company’s co-founder and CEO, who is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the city pictured in the image at the top of this post). The time zones were tricky to navigate, but the company’s vision was simple enough: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) HR software suite, tailored to fit the laws of the Southeast Asian region.

Croc and his co-founder, Nabil Oudghiri, founded the company in 2018, incorporating in the second half of the year after talking over their idea for a few months. BrioHR did not launch its product until the fourth quarter of 2019, opening for what Croc described as early adopters. The startup launched more broadly in the first quarter of 2020, right in time for COVID-19 to shake up the world.

Its fundraising came in two chunks, one in the middle of 2020 and one that came in the third quarter of the year; the first chunk of the raise was larger than the second. BrioHR raised the capital using a convertible note, with terms that Croc described as near to standard.

In our conversation, TechCrunch was curious about how prevalent SaaS as a model is in Malaysia and the other countries the startups wants to sell into. The co-founder said that while SaaS is not as well known in his part of the world as it is in the United States — not a huge surprise given that the U.S. is the largest SaaS market in the world — he praised the speed at which Southeast Asian countries adopt business trends; if Croc is right, his view could point to a very active subscription software market in the region in coming years.

BrioHR competes with local companies that are more focused on providing single solutions, like payroll management. From our discussion, it appears that Croc hopes that by going broad, in a feature sense, BrioHR will surpass legacy competitors. The startup is itself still building out its regional tooling, providing payroll support in only a handful of countries. It intends to expand that service to new countries this year, and be everywhere with its payroll product in two to three years, its co-founder said.

Notably, even though it has already raised capital, BrioHR intends to take part in Y Combinator’s demo day. Croc said it is taking part for optionality. TechCrunch read that as the company isn’t actively looking to raise more capital at the moment, but wouldn’t turn down another convertible note at a comfortable cap. Then again, what company at any demo day would?

Since launching out of its early-adopter program, Croc said that the company has grown 10x. That’s not hard from a small base, so the company’s 2021 growth will be more illustrative of its true near-term potential. Let’s see what new metrics it breaks out in a few weeks’ time.


Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.


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Twitter rolls out vaccine misinformation warning labels and a strike-based system for violations

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Twitter announced Monday that it would begin injecting new labels into users’ timelines to push back against misinformation that could disrupt the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. The labels, which will also appear as pop-up messages in the retweet window, are the company’s latest product experiment designed to shape behavior on the platform for the better.

The company will attach notices to tweeted misinformation warning users that the content “may be misleading” and linking out to vetted public health information. These initial vaccine misinformation sweeps, which begin today, will be conducted by human moderators at Twitter and not automated moderation systems.

Twitter says the goal is to use these initial determinations to train its AI systems so that down the road a blend of human and automated efforts will scan the site for vaccine misinformation. The latest misinformation measure will target tweets in English before expanding.

Twitter also introduced a new strike system for violations of its pandemic-related rules. The new system is modeled after a set of consequences it implemented for voter suppression and voting-related misinformation. Within that framework, a user with two or three “strikes” faces a 12-hour account lockout. With four violations, they lose account access for one week, with permanent suspension looming after five strikes.

Twitter introduced its first pandemic-specific policies a year ago, banning tweets promoting false treatment or prevention claims along with any content that could put people at higher risk of spreading COVID-19. In December, Twitter added new rules focused on popular vaccine conspiracy theories and announced that warning labels were on the way.

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Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck explains why the company needs a bigger rocket, and why it’s going public to build it

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Rocket Lab packed a ton of news into Monday to kick off this week: It’s going public via a SPAC merger, for one, and it’s also building a new, larger launch vehicle called Neutron to support heavier payloads. I spoke to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck about why it’s building Neutron now, and why it’s also choosing to go public at the same time. Unsurprisingly, the two things are tightly linked.

“We have the benefit of flying Electron [Rocket Lab’s current, smaller launch vehicle] for a lot of customers. and we also have a Space Systems Division that supplies components into a number of spacecraft, including some of the mega constellations,” Beck told me. “So we have very strong relationships with, with a lot of different customers, and I think we get unique insight on where the industry is going, and where the where the pain points are.”

Those pain points informed Neutron, which is a two-stage reusable rocket. Rocket Lab already broke with Beck’s past thinking on what the launch market needed by developing partial reusability for Electron, and it’s going further still with Neutron, which will include a first-stage that returns to Earth and lands propulsively on a platform stationed at sea, much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. But the market has shifted since Rocket Lab built Electron – in part because of what it helped unlock.

“The creation of Neutron came from from two discrete factors: One, the current need in the marketplace today. Also, if you project it forward a little bit, you know, Neutron will deliver the vast majority – over 90% of – all the satellites that, that are around or in some form of planning. And if you look at those satellites, 80% of them are mega constellations, by volume. So, in talking with, with a bunch of different customers, it was really, really apparent that a mega constellation-building machine is what the market really needs.”

Beck says that combining that market needs with a historical analysis that showed most large launch vehicles have taken off half-full resulted in them arriving at Neutron’s 8 metric ton (just over 17,600 lbs) total cargo mass capacity. it should put it in the sweet spot where it takes off full nearly every time, but also can still meet the mass requirement needs of just about every satellite customer out there, both now and in the future.

“We’re covered in scars and battle wounds from the development of Electron,” “The one thing that that Elon and I agree on very strongly is, by far the hardest part of a rocket is actually scaling it – getting to orbit is hard, but actually scaling manufacturing is ridiculously hard. Now, the good news is that we’ve been through all of that, and manufacturing ins’t just as product on the floor; it’s ERP systems, quality systems, finance, supply chain and so on and so forth. So all that infrastructure is is built.”

In addition to the factory and manufacturing processes and infrastructure, Beck notes that Electron and Neutron will share size-agnostic elements like computing and avionics, and much of the work done to get Electron certified for launch will also apply to Neutron, realizing further cost and time savings relative to what was required to get Electron up and flying. Beck also said that the process of making Electron has just made Rocket Lab extremely attuned to costs overall, and that will definitely translate to how competitive it can be with Neutron.

“Because electron has a $7.5 million sticker price, we’ve just been forced into finding ways to do things hyper efficiently,” he said. “If you’ve got a $7.5 million sticker price, you can’t spend $2 million on flight safety analysis, payload environmental analysis, etc – you just can’t do that. With a $60 or $80 million vehicle that you can amortize that. So we’ve kind of been forced into doing everything hyper, hyper efficiently. And it’s not just systems; it includes fundamental launch vehicle design. So when we apply all of those learnings to nNutron, we really feel like we’re gonna bring a highly competitive product to the marketplace.”

As for the SPAC merger, Beck said that the decision to go public now really boils down to two reasons: The first is to raise the capital required to build Neutron, as well as fund “other” projects. The other is to acquire the kind of “public currency” to pursue the kinds of acquisitions in terms of business that Rocket Lab is hoping to achieve. Why specifically pursue a SPAC merger instead of a traditional IPO? Efficiency and a fixed capital target, essentially.

“We were actually sort of methodically stepping towards an IPO at the time and, we were just sort of minding our own business, but it was clear we were pursued very vigorously by a tremendous number of potential SPAC partners,” Beck told me. “Ultimately, on the balance of timelines, this just really accelerated our ability to do the things we want to do. Because, yes, as you pointed out, that this kind of streamlined the process, but also provided certainty around proceeds.”

The SPAC transaction, once complete will result in Rocket Lab having approximately $750 million in cash to work with. One of the advantages of the SPAC route is that how much you raise via the public listing isn’t reliant on how the stock performs on the day – Beck and company know and can plan on that figure becoming available to them, barring any unexpected and unlikely barriers to the transaction’s closing.

“Having all the capital we need, sitting there ready to go, that really sets us up for a strong execution,” he said. “If you look at Rocket Lab’s history, we’ve only raised spend a couple of hundred million dollars to date, within all the things we’ve done. So capitalizing the company with $750 million – I would expect big things at that point.”


Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear firsthand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.


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