• A Third Worker Classification? Don’t Bet On It

    UberLately, there’s been a steady drumbeat of accusations that on-demand startups are unfairly wringing profits out of independent contractors. The concern: no one is withholding their taxable wages for them, they aren’t being given health care, and they have almost none of the same protections as full-time employees. In fact, one of the only protections independent contractors are provided under federal law is from race discrimination. In 2008, California’s Fair Housing and Employment Act was amended to give independent contractors protection against sexual discrimination, but many states don’t even go that far.

    Maybe it’s no wonder that, to deflect such criticisms, a growing number of on-demand management teams and investors have begun suggesting that a third classification of worker – one poised to enjoy both flexibility and greater worker protections – is around the corner.

    During a panel that StrictlyVC moderated in May, Simon Rothman of Greylock Partners, whose bets include the food-delivery startup Sprig, told attendees, “I personally think the 1099 [tax classification] framework is broken. It existed in a world of monolithic, centralized corporations, not in a world of distributed companies, so I think there needs to be a third class of worker [and that we’ll eventually have one], though it will take a while.”

    Longtime employment attorneys say not to count on it.

    For more of this story, read on.

  • Piazza, Backed By Sequoia and Others, Looks to Next Round

    Small-Pooja-Image-300x200You might not be familiar with the 25-person, Palo Alto, Ca.-based startup Piazza, but plenty of engineering and other STEM students are aware of it.

    The online platform where students and instructors come together to learn and teach was first conceived by founder and CEO Pooja Sankar, who as a first-year student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, felt isolated at times in her learning experience. It reminded her of her undergraduate experience at Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, the engineering school in India, where there were 400 boys and 20 girls in the computer science department.

    Says Sankar, “I felt at a disadvantage because I didn’t have a support group to master concepts, classes, career, or how you choose a company or a startup.”

    Sankar felt alone in having so many unanswered questions, but it turns out she was far from it. Today, says Sankar, roughly 1 million students around the world are posting questions to their particular course pages on Piazza, to which their peers and instructors are responding. In fact, she says, 50 percent of computer science and STEM majors at the top 20 U.S. schools — as well as at elite schools in Iran; Pakistan; Israel; Ontario, Canada and elsewhere — spend between two and three hours on the platform each day. (Altogether, says Sanker, students and educators at 1,000 universities in 60 countries are now using the platform, including at such prestigious schools as Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and the Imperial College of London.)

    Now Piazza is cultivating a new fan base – company recruiters. Explains Sankar: Up until now, executives have been setting their recruiting strategies in the dark,” says Sankar. “It’s, ‘We’re going to fly our guy to [Carnegie Mellon],’ and they literally send their VP of engineering around” with the hope of connecting with the right people.

    Where Piazza can help them: the troves of data it’s collecting on students, including what courses they are taking and the types of questions and answers they are contributing to the platform, all of which companies are now using to run targeted searches and to send personalized messages to students who opt in to its recruiting service.

    Currently, there are nearly 250 companies using Piazza in their recruiting efforts, up from 40 when the service officially launched in February of last year.

    Sankar characterizes their range as “broad – from 10-person startups to 100,000-person companies” and Piazza charges them for yearly subscriptions to the service accordingly, with prices ranging from $2,000 to “six-figures.”

    Things are going so well, says Sankar, that Piazza — which has so far raised $15.5 million from investors, including Sequoia Capital, Bessemer Venture Partners, Khosla Ventures, SV Angel and Kapor Capital – will be in the market for more funding soon.

    “We’re at a stage where we’re doing what we wanted to do with our last fundraising,” she says. (It closed 16 months ago.)

    “Now we want to throw fuel onto the fire.”

    For a new survey from Piazza about the companies where students most want to work, check out our related TechCrunch piece this morning.

  • LittleBits Raises $44.2 Million to Get Its Little Bits Into More Hands

    space kit+bitsLRIf you work in tech and have or know young children, you’ve likely heard of LittleBits, a 3.5-year-old, venture-backed maker of electronic components that are sold via kits and snap together to create everything from toy robots to synthesizers and more.

    Today, the New York company is getting serious about ensuring its modular pieces make their way into the hands of many more people. Toward that end, it’s announcing $44.2 million in Series B funding led by DFJ Growth, with participation from Morgan Stanley, Alternative Investment Partners, Grishin Robotics and Wamda Capital. (Foundry Group, True Ventures, VegasTechFund, Two Sigma Ventures, and Khosla Ventures  — earlier investors that had provided the company with $15.6 million in previous funding — also joined the round.)

    Educators, who have been discovering LittleBits, are about to become one big area of focus for the 90-person, New York-based company. Already, LittleBits are being used in 2,100 schools in 70 countries, says LittleBits’s founder and CEO, Ayah Bdeir, who says that while LittleBits has a “good footprint” in California particularly, the company is looking to add to that momentum nationally and internationally by adding employees in sales and distribution.

    LittleBits is also going after more corporate customers. Indeed, according to Bdeir, companies like Salesforce, Twilio, and SAP have — in the last year, entirely on their own — begun employing LittleBits in creativity workshops and in the prototyping of their various products, including those centered on the Internet of Things. (Part of the attraction: Last year, LittleBits introduced a “cloudBit” device that allows users to add a variety of things to their connected home via LittleBits hardware and a companion app. It has since introduced many other related modules that make it easier to play around with popular connected devices as well as invent new ones.)

    Of course, parents and others interested in providing children with an easy way to understand electronics also remain a big target for the company, which currently sells its products through its own site and Amazon, but plans to slowly grow its number of retailing partners starting with Barnes & Noble, which will begin selling LittleBits kits later this year.

    As for sales to date, the company isn’t disclosing numbers but says it has been growing “three to four times revenue” annually and that it has sold “millions of units” (meaning pieces, not kits) in more than 100 countries.

    It also says a subscription model may be on the horizon. “People have been asking for it a lot,” says Bdeir. “It’s something we want to develop.”

    (For more on LittleBits and its newest funding, you can check out our TechCrunch piece here.)

  • L.A.’s Crosscut Ventures Rounds Up $75 Million

    Crosscut VenturesL.A.’s startup ecosystem has more money today, thanks to Crosscut Ventures, a local, seven-year-old outfit that just closed its third fund with $75 million – considerably more than the $50 million was looking to raise when it hit the fundraising trail at the beginning of 2014.

    Crosscut’s newest pool — whose investors include The James Irvine Foundation, Top Tier Capital, and numerous family offices — is also roughly five times the size of the firm’s second fund, which closed with $16 million in 2012. (The outfit collected just $5.1 million for its first, proof-of-concept, fund in 2008.)

    Is it Crosscut, or L.A., or a combination of the two? We recently asked cofounder Brian Garrett, who cofounded Crosscut with fellow managing directors Rick Smith and Brett Brewer — all of whom are joined in the newest fund by managing director Clinton Foy, previously a venture partner. Our conversation has been been edited here for length.

    You’ve just raised a lot of money, considering where you started seven years ago. How do you explain it?

    A lot of it has to do with the general momentum of L.A. ecosystem. When [local VC] Mark Suster announced [his firm, Upfront Ventures’s] $280 million fund last year and hosted its [invite-only] Upfront Summit [in February], I think everyone became more aware of what’s happening here. I don’t think they’d thought it was a long-term or a sustainable [shift] until then.

    There’s also a lack of competition relative to the opportunity here, and, more specific to us, there aren’t a lot of micro venture firms that have four managing directors – two of whom have 15 years of venture experience. [Editor’s note: Garrett and Smith were previously partners at Palomar Ventures.]

    What are your biggest hits to date?

    We’ve had seven exits out of 18 investments in our first fund, four of which produced 9x returns, including [the e-commerce site] ShoeDazzle. We sold our stake when late-stage investors were buying. We had local market knowledge about how competitive that market was getting. We also sold [the digital ad company] Pulpo Media to the public company Entravision for a 9x return; we sold [the e-document repository] Docstoc to Intuit for a 9x – we were the first money in. We also made another secondary sale that hasn’t yet been announced.

    We’ve had two liquidity events in our second fund, too, with the sale of Lettuce to Intuit for a 4x, and the sale of Gradient X to Amobee [a mobile ad company acquired by SingTel in 2012] for 2x our investment.

    You mention ShoeDazzle, which you’d funded when it was valued at less than $10 million. Sounds like you were smart to get out when you did, though did you the miss out on the chance to invest in founder Brian Lee’s next startup, The Honest Company?

    We did. We were at the tail end of fund one and didn’t have a lot of money left, and some sharp-elbowed Silicon Valley VCs took the whole round. We definitely should have gotten money into Honest Company.

    How do you view secondary sales generally? 

    We look at them on a deal-by-by deal basis to evaluate whether to hold or sell. We have a stake now in a company whose valuation is similar to where ShoeDazzle’s was when we decided to sell, but we’re holding because we think it will be a multibillion-dollar company.

    We look at the market landscape and who the buying audience will be and whether the next plateau of value creation is worth the risk it will take to achieve.

    Where do you think it’s not worth the risk?

    In ad tech, for example, we think you’re either first in a new category and you get a big exit via an acquisition from Google or Yahoo, or you’re in the walking dead zone, along with tons of other good, profitable ad tech businesses that no one wants to buy because it’s become so hard to defend any particular intellectual property or sustain a differentiation.

    You were long juggling Crosscut with a startup you’d cofounded, a fashion and media platform called StyleSaint. Meanwhile, Brett was a senior VP of corporate development at the company Adknowledge. Are you both still doing double-time?

    Brett and I are now full-time with the fund. Brett [quit Adknowledge] six months ago; I’ve been full time since August of last year, when I set out to raise the fund. I quickly realized I couldn’t wear both hats.

  • The Case Against Anthony Noto, and Most Other CFOs, Becoming CEO

    Anthony NotoDick Costolo — who is stepping down as CEO of Twitter in July — has, at a couple of recent conferences, described Twitter CFO Anthony Noto as more than an “accountant” and said that Noto was not brought into the company “just be a CFO.”

    Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal even suggested that Noto has emerged as a front-runner to replace Costolo, describing Noto – a former tech banker at Goldman Sachs and a former CFO of the National Football League – as a “take-charge” executive, based on interviews with his supporters at the company.

    But promoting Noto to the top spot may not be such a great idea — not based on the experience of longtime executive recruiter Jon Holman, who says CFOs tend to make lousy CEOs. In fact, of the hundreds of C-level executives that Holman has placed over the last 30-plus years, he says he has “never” placed a CFO as a CEO – “nor would I recommend it to someone.”

    Holman “doesn’t know Noto at all,” he is quick to say. He adds that Noto could become the “second or third guy in history who has gone from CFO to CEO and been successful.” But he’s highly skeptical of the model for a variety of reasons.

    First, it’s likely that until April — when Noto was also put in charge of Twitter’s floundering marketing department — Noto has never managed anything near the roughly 4,000 employees that Twitter has around the world.

    “At Goldman, Noto was an analyst, meaning he was a domain expert who knows a huge amount about various industries,” observes Holman. “But he was never managing large numbers of people,  and the people he was managing [in the several years that Noto spent as co-head of the investment bank’s technology, media and telecommunications group] were analysts – not people in marketing, sales, finance, engineering . . .” notes Holman.

    More, says Holman, while CFOs generally sound like they know everything, they do not. “Because CFOs sit in on board meetings along with the CEO, they speak as if they understand the business.They understand the financials of the business. They know that, ‘We’re spending 33 percent of revenue on sales and marketing.’ But they’ve never run a sales organization, and their job has never been on the line if there’s a revenue shortfall,” he notes.

    Not last, CFOs tend to reign in spending and to generally take the most conservative path possible, notes Holman. That’s probably not ideal at Twitter, which has shied away from making dramatic changes to its platform — and been soundly criticized for it. “Most CEOs are outer directed, while CFOs are inner directed,” says Holman. Using a baseball analogy, he observes that “Most CEO types want to swing for the fences; CFOs want players to hit singles.”

    That’s not to say Twitter should rule out Noto completely, suggests Holman. In fact, he could make sense as CEO in the very short term.

    Among other reasons why a company like Twitter might bring in a CFO is if “you have investors who think the sky is falling, or, in this case, that it’s a big problem that Twitter isn’t converting tweets to revenue. CFOs generally speak in appropriate adult-like tones and can [massage] investors and assure them that a company will get it all figured out.”

    Another argument for promoting the CFO is when a company is just going to sell itself anyway, says Holman. In that case, “What you need is someone who understands how to sell a company, someone who will run a [sales] process, which Noto clearly knows how to do.”

    A third reason a CFO like Noto could make sense right now is “if there’s a perception that what a company needs to do is big-time pruning: laying people off, getting expenses under control, those kinds of things that CFOs tend to be really good at.”

    Of course, all of these scenarios would be a prelude to bringing in someone else, and Twitter already has an interim CEO lined up in co-founder Jack Dorsey.  Could we see the equivalent of two interim CEOs at the company?

    Twitter “can do whatever it wants,” says Holman. “Is it a clever strategy? Probably not.”

  • Amid Unicorn Talk, High-Potential, Low-Glamour PayNearMe Slogs Along

    PayNearMePayNearMe doesn’t get a lot of attention from the press. Partly, that’s because the five-year-old, Sunnyvale, Ca., company doesn’t seek it out. But PayNearMe is also in a business that’s not nearly so relatable to many in Silicon Valley as enterprise messaging or high-end black-car services. It’s focused on the roughly 25 percent of people in the U.S. who don’t have bank accounts but buy things — like the rest of us — that would be hard to pay for in cash, like rent, healthcare, and online goods.

    It’s a huge market, one that’s remarkably underserved excepting older players like MoneyGram and Western Union. It’s also a lot of work to build, making it a fairly long-term bet, one into which investors like True Ventures, August Capital, and Khosla Ventures have already sunk $71 million, including a $14 million inside round earlier this year.

    How does it work? Say a person needs to pay their rent or buy a bus ticket. PayNearMe has relationships with both brick-and-mortar stores –including, crucially, 7 Eleven, Ace Cash Express and Family Dollar — as well as businesses like property management software companies. Together, the companies make it possible for anyone to walk into one of more than 17,000 locations with cash, and walk out with a receipt for payment.

    This week, we talked with PayNearMe founder and CEO Danny Shader – previously a CEO of Good Technology, an EIR at both Kleiner Perkins and Benchmark, and cofounder of Accept.com, an online consumer-to-consumer payments service that sold to Amazon for $175 million in stock in 1999 – to learn more about the gritty, complex business he’s been building.

    PayNearMe doesn’t give out a lot of numbers, but you say that overall payment volume has more than tripled from this time last year. 

    Our business is growing five to 10 percent a month, which keeps compounding, so it’s getting to be a pretty sizable business. It’s extremely hard to build up an entirely new payment network, but we’ve done it, it’s working, it’s growing, and it’s incredibly defensive. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

    You could boil the ocean, trying to go after everyone who’s unbanked. What’s your process like?

    We pursue things vertical by vertical. So the biggest vertical is lending, then rent and municipal government payments, and now healthcare is driving a lot of new people into the insured ranks and they need to pay their premiums. Within a vertical, there’s a handful of software companies that are systems of record, whether it be for property management companies or government agencies, and we integrate into those software systems. For rents, for example, we integrate with AppFolio and ManageAmerica, a property management system for manufactured housing, meaning mobile homes.

    We try to go after very large accounts directly or go downstream.

    Going downstream [to smaller players] sounds like a lot of work. How do you do it? How many employees do you have altogether?

    We have more than 50, roughly half of whom are in Sunnyvale, with the rest scattered [around the U.S.]. And it does take time to get going on a new vertical. Say we want to do something in health, in medical records. We’ll go to a trade show and call on [some of the vendors] , and they’ll typically say, “Go away, my customers aren’t asking for you.” So we’ll go to end customers and invest heavily in getting them to work with us, and they do, and they talk about it, and a year later, the software providers say, “We want to integrate with you.”

    Processing rent payments is one of your biggest businesses, but we understand that Family Dollar will no longer be accepting rent payments, that it grew worried about safety issues around people walking in with large sums of cash. We’ve asked the company about it but they haven’t responded.

    I can’t speak for Family Dollar, but rent is a big vertical and we’re processing rent at a ton of other locations. Other folks will be joining our network, too.

    PayNearMe shares its economics with stores like Family Dollar and 7 Eleven. Do you discuss that split? Is it 50/50?

    I can’t comment on [the percentage of transaction fees we pay out], but it’s [a good deal for them]. Imagine: Hey, our sales force will sign up big entities like municipalities that will include your logo [so people know where to pay their bills], and we’ll pay you a commission, and by the way, we’re sending you valuable foot traffic.

    PayNearMe has a lot of stuff coming. Can you give readers a curtain raiser?

    I can say that we now have a complete set of money transmitting licenses in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that we spent the last three years and millions of dollars [to obtain]. The licenses allow us to act as an agent of a consumer, taking their money and delivering it to some other location. It lets us enter adjacent markets. [But that’s all I can say.]

    Do you anticipate these adjacent businesses will be larger than what you’ve already built?

    I think we could build a big public company doing what we’re doing. It’s a massive market hidden in plain sight. Most people in the Valley are asking if cash is going away. Actually, the cash market is increasing, and the bifurcation between the 1 percent and everyone else is contributing to that.

  • Brit + Co Raises $20 Million, Shifting Gears in the Process

    Brit MorinBrit + Co, a nearly four-year-old, San Francisco-based lifestyle site dedicated to all things D.I.Y., has often been likened to a next-generation Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

    It’s looking like Udemy, an online educational marketplace taught by experts who are not university professors, may be as apt a comparison.

    Indeed, fueled with $20 million in new Series B funding – from Intel Capital, Liberty Media, and retail veteran Ron Johnson, among others — the company is now planning to shower almost as much effort on educating visitors as it does on entertaining them. We caught up with founder (and former Googler) Brit Morin yesterday to learn more about the company’s evolution. Our chat has been edited for length.

    People think of Brit + Co as a media company. What’s changing?

    For more than three years, we’ve really focused on building out the media arm for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted to do one thing at a time. We also really wanted to build the foundation of the brand and understand from our audience what type of commerce they’d want from us. Although women were into it from an aspirational and inspiration standpoint, they said, ‘I have no idea how to do this,’ and it opened our eyes. So we launched into online education last year and we’ve since sold 15,000 classes and kits [required as part of the classes].

    How many classes versus kits is that?

    We don’t break that out but we have 15 different classes right now, and we’ll have more like 60 to 70 by year end. Our community of makers are the ones teaching the classes. [Editor’s note: classes range from 20 minutes to 60 minutes in length and from $9.99 to $19.99 in price, not including the required kits.]

    How big is the media side of the company at this point?

    On the media side, we now have 12 million visitors every month. We have roughly 100 advertisers, with a 74 percent retention rate. And we’re doing millions in revenue, 99 percent of which is native advertising, meaning our content and videos somehow include the products of our sponsors, though our readers know it’s advertising. We’ll partner with Starbucks for example, and teach you how to make your own coffee ice cream.

    You also just acquired Snapguide, a free iOS app that lets users create and share step-by-step guides. Snapguide had raised $10 million from investors. Are you breaking out how much you paid? As important, what drove the deal?

    We aren’t disclosing price, but there are a number of cool things about Snapguide, including [the ways it helps a third aspect of the business, a year-old, Etsy-like marketplace where people can sell their homemade goods]. If you [as a participant of that marketplace] are creating your own step-by-step guide, you can use a photo or a video or a hybrid [thanks to Snapguide].

    You recently raised $20 million from investors, bringing your total funding to $27.6 million. Will you be in the market again any time soon?

    The way I approach is it: it’s great to be in a position where you don’t have to raise money, but we’re very opportunistic whether it be a great investor or [something else that provides] great option value for the company. We’re not opposed to raising money earlier.

  • A French VC Shows off a New Fund — and Growing Interest in Europe

    Felix CapitalFrédéric Court has been a venture capitalist for about 15 years, but it was only recently that he hit the fundraising trail for the first time.

    The experience went well, apparently. This morning, Court, a longtime partner with the European venture firm Advent Venture Partners, is taking the wraps off his own, London-based venture fund, Felix Capital, which he says raised $120 million in just a few months.

    That might not be terribly uncommon in Silicon Valley, but it doesn’t happen very often in Europe. More unusual, Court is the sole managing partner, though he has enlisted longtime Advent colleague Less Gabb as his finance partner and Antoine Nussenbaum – formerly of Atlas Global – as principal.

    Earlier this week, we talked with Court about why he has struck out on his own, and whether his debut fund says anything more broadly about what’s happening in Europe.

    Why leave Advent after all these years? 

    Our last fund is doing extremely well, but Advent is now a life sciences fund [which closed its newest, life sciences fund last fall with $235 million]. It’s a bit like what happened at Atlas Venture. The tech partners were going to raise a tech fund from scratch and I decided instead to start something quite new and have a sector-focused and thematic approach.

    Your new theme is “operating at the intersection of technology and creativity.” What does that mean? 

    It means investing in more creative businesses like digital brands, especially in markets like commerce and media, in sectors like fashion, and beauty and wellness more generally. Some fantastic global brands have been built in Europe, and we think there’s a generation of new companies to be built that are digital first – companies like FarFetch [an e-commerce site featuring designer apparel from hundreds of boutiques], which we backed at Advent and is in our portfolio now at Felix, as well.

    Are you looking to fund European companies alone?

    They’ll either be in Europe or have a European angle. We have one [still-undisclosed] investment in New York where we’ve been helping them expand across the pond. We did that at Avent with companies like [the mobile payment company] Zong, which we helped move from Switzerland to Palo Alto [where the company was acquired in 2011 by eBay], and [social media marketing company] Vitrue, which is based in Atlanta and we helped expand into Europe.

    What size checks will you be writing?

    We have the flexibility to invest from $100,000 up to $10 million in a later-stage round, though our sweet spot will be $2 million to $4 million in Series A and B rounds.

    You’re announcing three companies as part of the launch. For curious readers, what are they?

    There’s FarFetch. We’ve also funded the Business of Fashion, which started pretty much like your newsletter and over the last seven or eight years has become one of the most authoritative media brands in the online fashion industry. Along with [coinvestors] Index Ventures and LVMH, we’re helping the founder turn it into a platform. Our third investment is in Rad, a Paris-based online street wear brand that’s a bit like Urban Outfitters and is expanding across Europe.

    This new fund closed with $40 million more than you were targeting. Are LPs loosening their purse strings in Europe more broadly?

    There is capital in Europe, but the delta between the opportunity and available capital is significant. It’s still a fraction of the available capital in the U.S.

    But you’re also seeing more U.S. firms like Insight Venture Partners enter Europe and take stakes in high-growth companies.

    They typically come in much, much later. What we’ve seen in the past two or three years is a reduction in competition from U.S. firms because the market is so competitive in the U.S.; firms just don’t have the bandwidth to fly to Europe unless one of their trusted friends mentions a deal to them. Also, when you’re talking about Insight and [Technology Crossover Ventures] and DST [Global], they’re looking to write checks of $50 million to $70 million, and the number of companies that can take that much capital is much lower here than in the U.S.

    Is Europe seeing more corporate investors? They’ve sort of filled a hole in the U.S., especially when it comes to Series B rounds.

    We see some corporate money, though much less than in the U.S.. We’re more seeing local sovereign funds step in, where governments have realized that a lack of capital [to startups is a disadvantage]. One of the biggest backers is [the French government’s] Bpifrance.

    Are things fairly collegial among traditional early-stage investors then?

    There are firms that we know well – Accel, Index – and they were very helpful to me in raising my new fund, and in introducing me to their LPs. In the early stages in Europe, there isn’t the kind of competition you see in the U.S., while in parallel, we’re seeing the quality of talent rise in both founders and people joining startups. These will be very interesting years to invest.

    Photo of Less Gabb, Frédéric Court, and Antoine Nussenbaum (left to right), courtesy of Felix Capital.

  • Four VCs on What’s Happening Now in On-Demand Startups

    Now ButtonLast week, at the On-Demand conference in San Francisco, StrictlyVC interviewed a panel of venture investors about the many companies they’re seeing – and funding — that deliver food, massages, and medical advice in real-time. We talked about the opportunity presented by these startups, as well as the many open questions that on-demand companies have created.

    The panelists – Patricia Nakache of Trinity Ventures, Satya Patel of Homebrew, Simon Rothman of Greylock Partners, and Steve Schlafman of RRE Ventures – each had thoughtful points of view. And while our recording of the event wasn’t crystal clear, owing to the room’s acoustics, we were able to piece together parts of that discussion below. Hope you enjoy it.

    So many on-demand companies have now been funded. How is that impacting what you’re seeing? Are there fewer on-demand startups knocking on your doors or more?

    SR: I actually counted. If you look at marketplaces, [we’ve been pitched] by about 1,000 of them in the last 18 months.

    SS: We’re seeing them every single day. It’s across the board: B2B, B2C, infrastructure, some more horizontal apps in platforms; we’re not seeing any let up at all.

    SP: We see 200 new companies each month and probably a quarter are related to the on-demand economy.

    What are they centered around? Anything really novel?

    PN: They come in cohorts, seemingly, so a couple of weeks ago, it was alcohol delivery on-demand and on-demand massage startups. But we’re also seeing more companies in transportation, in food delivery, in health and wellness and finance.

    SP: We’re not seeing any slowdown in transportation [and food delivery] companies. We’re kind of seeing things in every single vertical.

    Does that make sense? Is there enough untapped opportunity to support more food-delivery startups, for example? Where are we in the grand scheme of things?

    SR: There’s definitely too much money [funding these me-too startups]. The odds of five companies ahead of you falling apart is probably not a good business [strategy]. It’s okay not to be the first in a space, but once a space feels like [earlier companies are] approaching liquidity [meaning they’ve established both supply and demand], it’s probably time to move on to another space.

    How narrow can these startups go? Would you back a startup that’s say, delivering dairy products exclusively?

    PN: It’s the age-old debate from the software world: Do you invest in a platform or a best-of-breed solution, and I think it depends on how big the problem is that you’re solving. I think you can go too narrow to justify a standalone service, but does Uber eat the whole world? No, I don’t believe that.

    SS: It’s not just obvious industries like transportation and food. Pretty much every industry where there are service-based professionals is up for grabs. One of the craziest ideas [I’ve heard] is private investigators [which is] this weird market that exists probably on Craigslist and on the web and [a startup is now] taking it and making an experience out of it.

    Certain white collar professionals might argue that their industries can’t be too thoroughly disrupted because of their relationships with clients.

    SP: I don’t think there’s any professional service or product field that can’t benefit from improved efficiency.

    SR: It’s about quality. Take medicine, as an example. The outcome matters; it can mean the difference between life and death. Not everyone lives in a market where you can get a great doctor. Technology can remotely deliver that care, giving you truly efficient access to the world’s best [physicians], and I think that trumps anything having to do with your relationship with a mediocre doctor.

    Would you rather fund a telemedicine or other business that doesn’t require rolling out locally, versus startups that have to physically tackle city by city?

    SR: It’s a lot easier. Anyone who has tried to build a marketplace nationally will tell you [that] every local marketplace is almost like doing another startup. You [may have] a playbook, but you have to get supply and demand in every city over and over again, you have to customize it, sometimes you have to have a local team. The footprint may be smaller of [that distributed] team, and the demand may be centralized, but you still have decentralized supply.

    For companies that do go the city-by-city route, what are the top things they should have down before expanding into new markets?

    SR: Well here’s the one thing to avoid. I think everyone is trying to take Uber’s local rollout playbook and just copy it, but it doesn’t work.


    SR: I don’t think local presence is mandatory. I see a lot of companies with a local presence in every city they’re operating in, without any good reason other than, that’s how it’s done. That’s actually not how it’s done. It’s how Uber did it and that’s fine and it works for them. But the default should always be to keep it in-house if possible.

    SP: You’re going to better understand where things are likely to break in remote cities if you take the time to understand your own operations.

    SR: The push right now is to get big fast in lots of markets. But if you haven’t unlocked the core market you’re in and really made your experience amazing, your chances of success declines with every city you expand into. Being first to the market isn’t winning. Being right is winning. It’s a race to liquidity; it is not a race to geography.

    Speaking of which, from a logistical standpoint, how do these on-demand startups address everyone who doesn’t live in an urban center? Would it make sense for more of these startups to launch early trials outside of major cities?

    SP: It’s more about more use that’s being addressed. If a company is solving a universal [problem] and its way of doing that is clean and focused, it doesn’t really matter where it starts. Operationally, it’s easier to build liquidity in more densely populated areas. There’s a question of whether some of these work in suburban areas, but operating early in urban environments gives you the flexibility to figure out suburban environments.

    What if they don’t work in suburban areas? Is there enough supply and demand in cities to justify these investments and valuations?

    SR: If you can get a meaningful percent [of the overall market] in those large areas, you can build a very large company.

    On-demand companies are dependent on contract workers. What happens if regulations change in such a way that companies have to treat them as full-time employees? Is that a concern, and either way, do you think these companies have a responsibility to turn these contract workers into full-time employees at some point?

    SR: I personally think the 1099 [tax classification] framework is broken. It existed in a world of monolithic, centralized corporations, not in a world of distributed companies, so I think there needs to be a third class of worker [and that we’ll eventually have one], though it will take a while.

    [I think these] decentralized environments are the future, and [that’s a good thing as] they enable assets to be decentralized, too. Uber doesn’t need to [own cars], for example, and that produces more money that can be pushed back to the company and customers and its employees [so that we’re eventually seeing] high-wage jobs with a lot of control.

    SP: I think regulation is going to change, but in the short term, as a business, you can decide your responsibilities will be dictated by a framework, or you can decide that your responsibilities are dictated by what’s right. And [these companies] need to do what’s right, which is to take care of workers and provide them not just with benefits and uniforms and living wages, but real career paths with the ability to grow their careers.

    SS: [Our portfolio company] Managed by Q [an on-demand office cleaning company], said early on that ‘We’re actually going to hire the workers and give them a great culture and train them and give them career advancement,’ and I think that’s brilliant . . . because at the end of the day, those employees are who your customers are interacting with, and you want to make sure they’re as good as your product.

    SP: When workers are getting all the [traditional benefits they’ve enjoyed], they’re likely to stick around longer, too.

  • Thumbtack Take Its Own Investor, Google, Head On

    17046010043_91ccba83b0_mAt a StrictlyVC event in San Francisco last week, Charles Hudson of SoftTech VC sat down with Sequoia Capital partner Bryan Schreier and Marco Zappacosta to discuss Thumbtack, an online marketplace for hiring workers that Zappacosta co-founded soon after graduating from Columbia University in 2007.

    Thumbtack is interesting for numerous reasons, including the amount of funding it has raised — $148 million over three rounds, all within a 14-month period – and who its investors are. Sequoia is among them (Schreier sits on Thumbtack’s board). So is Google, which provided Thumbtack with $100 million last summer – and, the business world recently learned, is now entering into direct competition with Thumbtack.

    Hudson, who spends much of his time studying marketplaces, asked Zappacosta and Schreier – a former Googler – about their “multifaceted” relationship with Google, among other things. That conversation, edited for length, follows:

    CH: How did Sequoia and Thumbtack come together?

    MZ: Jason Calacanis introduced us to [Sequoia partner] Roelof Botha and another angel investor introduced us to Bryan. It was the fall of 2010. Unlike a lot of VCs, they were very explicit about what they thought was good and wasn’t yet good. When we [later] went back with numbers to show them [how we were growing], they did [write a check].

    CH: Many marketplaces sit in between the buyer and seller, but Marco, you’ve taken the opposite stance. Why?

    MZ: A lot of entrepreneurs and investors view the transactional model as a way to get a higher take rate. The problem in doing that is you’re solving your own problem; you’re not actually solving the customers’ problem at that point. There are times when you fundamentally [need to act as the facilitator]. Taking payment is key to making eBay work. It’s key to Uber, where speed is fundamental. But with Thumbtack, when a customer is spending $3,000 to repaint their house and you ask them what the hard part is, no one ever tells you it’s about paying the painter. It’s about finding the painter, and that’s the focus at Thumbtack. [Editor’s note: Thumbtack sends customer requests to service providers like plumbers, caterers, and painters. If the service provider thinks it’s a fit, they pay Thumbtack a fee to shoot a quote to the customer, who then chooses whether or not to work with that service provider.]

    CH: Is leakage –people going off platform to have a direct relationship – something you’ve ever worried about?

    MZ: If you haven’t created enough value for both sides to keep using your platform, that’s your problem.

    CH: [Tell us about your fees.]

    MZ: We’ve explicitly kept [them] very low — much lower than we think it could be. If you look at other marketplaces like Airbnb, it’s 10 to 12 percent. Uber is now 18 to 20 percent. eBay is like 13 percent. We’re below that and happily because our goal is to get market share. Today we move a billion dollars worth of commerce on the platform, which we feel good about, but that’s still nothing relative to the almost trillion dollars worth of commerce happening in the US. That’s the thousand x [opportunity] in front of us.

    CH: You recently raised $100 million from Google Capital. Google has also made some reference that they have designs on the home services market. 

    MZ: I have to give Bryan credit for board member words of encouragement when this happened, which is that if Google or Facebook or Amazon aren’t competing in your market, then you’re probably in a shitty market. And I think he’s exactly right.

    BS: You felt better for like three seconds, right?

    MZ: [Laughs.] It’s indicative of the opportunity being enormous. I don’t perceive any sort of nefarious action on the part of Google Capital. I think it’s unfortunate. It’s a 50,000 to 60,000 person organization, but it’s why we’ve kept them at arm’s length. We’re excited to have them as investors, but we’ve been careful of that relationship accordingly.

    BS: Thumbtack connects people to people; they don’t connect companies. They don’t connect ads to people. It’s a very different business, with people on both sides who have an intimate relationship. This is something that Google has never been very good at. [It isn’t] intrinsic to their DNA.

    MZ: The opportunity and the challenge in this space is just how fragmented it is. There’s no natural point of aggregation as there is in retailing, where you can go to a distributor and instantly get access to 30 or 40 percent of the inventory in that category. So Google and Amazon — despite their money and brands and hard working employees — have to go out and recruit these plumbers and caterers one by one, and that’s a fucking grind, one that we’re real good at, and one we’ve done without any salespeople and with a lot of technology and innovation.

    CH: How do you think about Amazon given its reach and scale and financial resources?

    BS: They still suffer from that corporate DNA issue, which is that they send packages to people, not people to people. And it’s very different. You have to get people on the phone when they’re fixing a toilet and really don’t want to be bothered.

    CH: You raised two fairly large rounds back to back. Why?

    MZ: The truth, at the end of the day: it’s because you can. We didn’t need the money. The business is growing great and generating very real revenue. These rounds in happen in quick succession and in ever-growing numbers because companies . . . [in a big space and with a big vision] . . . can.

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