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Tony Florence, the low-flying head of NEA’s tech practice, on the art of building household brands

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Tony Florence isn’t as well known to the public as other top investors like Bill Gurley or Marc Andreessen, but he’s someone who founders with SaaS and especially marketplace e-commerce companies know — or should. He’s responsible for the global tech investing activities for NEA, one of the world’s biggest venture firms in terms of assets under management (it closed its newest fund with $3.6 billion last year).

Florence has also been involved with a long list of e-commerce brands to break through, including Jet, Gilt, Goop, Casper, Letgo, and Moda Operandi.

It’s because we talked earlier this week with one of his newest e-commerce bets, Maisonette, that we wanted to ask him about brand building more than a year into a pandemic that has changed the world in both fleeting and permanent ways. We wound up talking about how customer acquisition has changed; what he thinks of the growing number of companies trying to roll up third-party sellers on Amazon; and how upstarts can maintain momentum when even younger companies become a shiny new fascination for customers.

Note: one topic that he couldn’t and wouldn’t comment on is the future of one famed founder who Florence has backed twice, Marc Lore, who stepped down from Walmart last month to begin building what he recently told Vox is a multi-decade project to build “a city of the future” supported by “a reformed version of capitalism.”

Part of our chat with Florence, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows:

TC: You’ve funded a number of very different businesses that have managed to grow even as Amazon has eaten up more of the retail market. Is there any sector or vertical you wouldn’t back because of the company?

TF: You have to be thoughtful about Amazon. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular area that you either can ignore or feel like you’re completely comfortable and open to, given the scale of their platform. At the same time, there are founding principles and fundamentals that we think about as they relate to companies being able to compete and operate successfully.

TC: And these are what? You’ve backed Marc Lore, Philip Krim (of Casper), Sylvana and Luisana of Maisonette. Do they have something in common?

TF:  Sometimes [founders] come at the problem organically; they’re living it [and want to solve it]. Other times, somebody like Marc sees a business opportunity and just attacks it. But there are commonalities. These are folks who are very customer centric, who are focused on good, fundamental unit economics, and who are obsessive about their people, their teams. It takes a village to build a young successful company, and all of those founders you mentioned are great at recruiting world-class people. There’s a sense of vision and mission and culture.

When you wake up and decide to do something, the majority of people you talk to just want to tell you the reasons why it can’t work, so it also takes a certain [wherewithal] to have such conviction around what you’re doing that you’re kind of all in on it, and you’re going to break through no matter what.

TC: Maisonette was going to open a brick-and-mortar store but put a pin in that plan because of COVID. Will we go back to seeing direct-to-consumer brands opening real-world locations when this is over? Has the pandemic permanently changed that calculation?

TF: Leading up to the pandemic, a lot of the young DTC companies that were direct-to-consumer brands, and even the traditional e-commerce marketplaces, were experimenting with offline. Some of it was out of necessity, frankly. Sometimes [customer acquisition costs] became so expensive that it was actually cheaper for them to go offline. In other cases, it was done because the customer wanted that closed loop experience, as with [mattress maker] Casper.

A lot of companies [opened these stores] in a contained way it worked really well. It’s very accretive financially to the overall business contribution, margin wise. It was accretive for the overall customer experience. And in many cases, it didn’t cannibalize anything. It just expanded the [total addressable market].

We’re spending a lot of time right now continuing to think through what are the permanent changes that are going to come out of the pandemic, but I would say the omnichannel model has really has started to take shape and succeed if you look at big retailers like Walmart and Target, so I think there will be an omnichannel dynamic to many of these companies that we’re talking about. Also, over the last 12 months, the cost of acquisition and the efficacy of marketing has swung back in the favor of these young companies. It’s improved to a point where we don’t really even need to think about offline.

TC: I know it had become expensive to acquire customers digitally because it was so crowded out there. Did it become less crowded?

TF: There were very few platforms that these companies could use pre pandemic that weren’t oversaturated . . . it was just very competitive, and that would bid up the cost of acquisition. In the last 12 months, you’ve seen big parts of that market go away. With airlines and financial services and a lot of the spend going way down, it’s become a lot cheaper for companies to market digitally.

TC: Still, it feels at times that it’s hard to maintain a brand’s momentum over time; there’s always some new outfit nipping at its heels. How does a brand itself fresh and relevant in 2021?

TF: There’s a hits dynamic — a fad dynamic — in the consumer space, so that’s always a challenge. You [compete by] continually reinventing and adding [to your offerings]. You see that in social categories, you see that in marketplaces [where they add] managed services and other components [like] payments, and you clearly see it in the way some of the direct-to-consumer companies continue to add new products to the mix.

You focus on the core aspects of your brand and its mission and vision and make sure that the customers really feel that. There’s a community dynamic that has really occurred the last four or five years around e-commerce companies. Glossier is a great example of a company that built a great community around a core set of product offerings, and that has really propelled that company beyond its core customer customer base.

There’s also a contextual commerce opportunity. Goop is a great example this; Gwyneth [Paltrow] brilliantly came up with [an effective way] to merge content and commerce, and that’s something a lot of companies in the commerce space have started to invest in.

TC: Content, community and not necessarily speed, so focusing on what Amazon does not. Can I ask: do you think Amazon needs to be reigned in?

TF: If you’re competing with them [in the] cloud market or a commerce market, they’re a very formidable competitor, and you got to take them very, very seriously. They’re at a scale that’s just incredibly impressive. But I do think you’re seeing a lot of innovation around the edges and companies finding areas that Amazon maybe can’t focus on or isn’t focusing on.

TC: What do you think of these Amazon Marketplace roll-ups that we’re seeing? There’s been at least a half of dozen of them that already, including Thrasio, which announced $750 million this week. All are raising money hand over first.

TF: We haven’t made an investment in the area, though we’re watching very closely. It can be a very capital intensive strategy to execute on because you’re buying brands and then bringing them onto the platform to consolidate and grow, but there’s just an enormous long tail to the e-commerce space and this is an opportunity to consolidate that.

TC: Like, an infinite opportunity? How many roll-ups can the market support?

TFL I do think that we’ll see a handful of these companies get to decent scale. The question will be whether you’ve got more of an arbitrage going on [by] buying companies and generating synergies or there’s some fundamental bigger breakthrough. If you could use AI [and] machine learning to understand how to better serve customers and think about customer acquisition a little bit better, that would be really interesting. If there are real economies of scale to the supply chains [or] baseline infrastructure, that would certainly be interesting.

It’s early on. It remains to be seen how this is gonna play out.

Pictured above, left to right: NEA’s global managing director, Scott Sandell, and Florence, who is the head of global tech investing activities at NEA and who works alongside Mohamad Makhzoumi, who oversees the firm’s healthcare practice.

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Eco raises $26M in a16z-led round to scale its digital cryptocurrency platform

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‍Eco, which has built out a digital global cryptocurrency platform, announced Friday that it has raised $26 million in a funding round led by a16z Crypto.

Founded in 2018, the SF-based startup’s platform is designed to be used as a payment tool around the world for daily-use transactions. The company emphasizes that it’s “not a bank, checking account, or credit card.”

“We’re building something better than all of those combined,” it said in a blog post. The company’s mission has also been described as an effort to use cryptocurrency as a way “to marry savings and spending,” according to this CoinList article.

Eco users can earn up to 5% annually on their deposits and get 5% cashback on when transacting with merchants such as Amazon, Uber, and others. Next up: the company says it will give its users the ability to pay bills, pay friends and more “all from the same, single wallet.” That same wallet, it says, rewards people every time they spend or save.

After a “successful” alpha test with millions of dollars deposited, the company’s Eco App is now available to the public.

A slew of other VC firms participated in Eco’s latest financing, including Founders Fund, Activant Capital, Slow Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Tribe Capital, Valor Capital Group, and more than one hundred other funds and angels.  Expa and Pantera Capital co-led the company’s $8.5 million funding round.

CoinList co-founder Andy Bromberg stepped down from his role last fall to head up Eco. The startup was originally called Beam before rebranding to Eco “thanks to involvement by founding advisor, Garrett Camp, who held the Eco brand,” according to Coindesk. Camp is an Uber co-founder and Expa is his venture fund.

For a16z Crypto, leading the round is in line with its mission.

In a blog post co-written by Katie Haun and Arianna Simpson, the firm outlined why it’s pumped about Eco and its plans.

“One of the challenges in any new industry — crypto being no exception — is building things that are not just cool for the sake of cool, but that manage to reach and delight a broad set of users,” they wrote. “Technology is at its best when it’s improving the lives of people in tangible, concrete ways…At a16z Crypto, we are constantly on the lookout for paths to get cryptocurrency into the hands of the next billion people. How do we think that will happen? By helping them achieve what they already want to do: spend, save, and make money — and by focusing users on tangible benefits, not on the underlying technology.”

Eco is not the only crypto platform offering rewards to users. Lolli gives users free bitcoin or cash when they shop at over 1,000 top stores.


Early Stage is the premier “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, product-market fit, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in — there’s ample time included for audience questions and discussion.


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Early-stage investor Mayfield shows how to scale up your biotech startup at TC Early Stage in April

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Founders in the earliest stages of startup life face a hefty learning curve. Just some of the core competencies you need to lock down include how to raise VC funding, recruiting the right people, finding product-market fit and building a killer go-to-market team. The list goes on and on…and on. You’ll learn about all those topics and more at TechCrunch Early Stage Operations & Fundraising taking place on April 1-2. 

Do you science? Are you inspired to use biology as technology? If your entrepreneurial interests lean toward the scientific side of the startup equation, you don’t want to miss this special session — brought to you by Mayfield — at TC Early Stage 2021 on April 1-2.

Scientist Entrepreneurs — Scaling Breakout Engineering Biology Companies 

Arvind Gupta and Ursheet Parikh, early-stage investors, company builders and Mayfield partners, along with Po Bronson, NYT bestselling author and managing director of IndieBio, will discuss scaling startups and touch upon three seminal areas that influence trajectory: fundraising, hiring and product design. Their insights draw on their experience with companies including ingredients-as-service leader Geltor (which raised a $91 million Series B in 2020); CRISPR platform Mammoth Biosciences (its dream team includes co-founder and Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna); and Endpoint Health (started by GeneWEAVE’s founding team and former YC Bio Partner Diego Rey).

Whether you’re a biotech entrepreneur, a researcher or a scientist tackling the daunting challenges of human and planetary health, this session will help you build a stronger, more successful startup as you take your product to market.

Mayfield will follow up this session with even more content at Disrupt 2021 in September. These sessions will reveal company-building insights from entrepreneurs, investors, industry leaders and policymakers. Mayfield invests in exceptional people whose mission in life is to create a better world — not just for our generation  but for future generations as well. If you science, don’t miss your opportunity to learn from leading investors who have partnered with iconic biotech and health IT entrepreneurs — from Amgen and Genentech to Mammoth Biosciences.

Get your ticket for the April TC Early Stage event here. Or get a dual-event ticket for the April and July events for double the knowledge across operations, marketing, recruiting and fundraising — and save up to $100.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Early Stage 2021 — Operations & Fundraising? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you

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Every day, your life leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that tech giants use to track you. You send an email, order some food, stream a show. They get back valuable packets of data to build up their understanding of your preferences. That data is fed into machine-learning algorithms to target you with ads and recommendations. Google cashes your data in for over $120 billion a year of ad revenue.

Increasingly, we can no longer opt out of this arrangement. In 2019 Kashmir Hill, then a reporter for Gizmodo, famously tried to cut five major tech giants out of her life. She spent six weeks being miserable, struggling to perform basic digital functions. The tech giants, meanwhile, didn’t even feel an itch.

Now researchers at Northwestern University are suggesting new ways to redress this power imbalance by treating our collective data as a bargaining chip. Tech giants may have fancy algorithms at their disposal, but they are meaningless without enough of the right data to train on.

In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:

  • Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
  • Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
  • Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.

People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.

What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.

There may have already been a few examples of this. In January, millions of users deleted their WhatsApp accounts and moved to competitors like Signal and Telegram after Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. The exodus caused Facebook to delay its policy changes.

Just this week, Google also announced that it would stop tracking individuals across the web and targeting ads at them. While it’s unclear whether this is a real change or just a rebranding, says Vincent, it’s possible that the increased use of tools like AdNauseam contributed to that decision by degrading the effectiveness of the company’s algorithms. (Of course, it’s ultimately hard to tell. “The only person who really knows how effectively a data leverage movement impacted a system is the tech company,” he says.)

Vincent and Li think these campaigns can complement strategies such as policy advocacy and worker organizing in the movement to resist Big Tech.

“It’s exciting to see this kind of work,” says Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics, who was not involved in the research. “It was really interesting to see them thinking about the collective or holistic view: we can mess with the well and make demands with that threat, because it is our data and it all goes into this well together.”

There is still work to be done to make these campaigns more widespread. Computer scientists could play an important role in making more tools like AdNauseam, for example, which would help lower the barrier to participating in such tactics. Policymakers could help too. Data strikes are most effective when bolstered by strong data privacy laws, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives consumers the right to request the deletion of their data. Without such regulation, it’s harder to guarantee that a tech company will give you the option to scrub your digital records, even if you remove your account.

And some questions remain to be answered. How many people does a data strike need to damage a company’s algorithm? And what kind of data would be most effective in poisoning a particular system? In a simulation involving a movie recommendation algorithm, for example, the researchers found that if 30% of users went on strike, it could cut the system’s accuracy by 50%. But every machine-learning system is different, and companies constantly update them. The researchers hope that more people in the machine-learning community can run similar simulations of different companies’ systems and identify their vulnerabilities.

Alkhatib suggests that scholars should do more research on how to inspire collective data action as well. “Collective action is really hard,” he says. “Getting people to follow through on ongoing action is one challenge. And then there’s the challenge of how do you keep a group of people who are very transient—in this case it might be people who are using a search engine for five seconds—to see themselves as part of a community that actually has longevity?”

These tactics might also have downstream consequences that need careful examination, he adds. Could data poisoning end up just adding more work for content moderators and other people tasked with cleaning and labeling the companies’ training data?

But overall, Vincent, Li, and Alkhatib are optimistic that data leverage could turn into a persuasive tool to shape how tech giants treat our data and our privacy. “AI systems are dependent on data. It’s just a fact about how they work,” Vincent says. “Ultimately, that is a way the public can gain power.”

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