• A Lending Case Involving Top VCs Moves Toward a Trial

    Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 11.18.46 AMElevate, a venture-backed company that uses big data to assess loan applications from people with low credit scores, has been called out as a predatory lender, including in Fortune last year. One reason among others is that the APR on some of its loans is a stunning 349 percent.

    Yet the company’s predecessor, Think Finance, which was founded in 2001 and quietly spun out Elevate into a new entity in 2014, is no hero to those with so-called non-prime credit, either, suggests a new lawsuit that is now moving toward a trial.

    According to the suit, plaintiffs are seeking financial relief against a particular payday lender that partnered with Think Finance to avoid state anti-usury laws and that has “taken advantage of people who are struggling financially by charging extortionate interest rates and engaging in illegal lending practices,” it states.

    Among the specific claims against Think Finance — as well as its venture backers Sequoia Capital and Technology Crossover Ventures — are that they engaged in racketeering and the collection of unlawful debt.

    The payday lender is Plain Green, which calls itself a “tribal lending entity wholly owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.”

    But Matthew Byrne, the Burlington, Vermont-based attorney who has filed the complaint, writes in it that “Plain Green was created after existing payday lenders approached the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation . . . and requested that the Tribe become involved in a payday lending scheme.”

    In the U.S., he writes in the complaint, “stringent laws have been enacted to prescribe how loans can be made and to prevent lenders from preying on indigent people. By involving the Tribe in the payday lending scheme, the lenders hoped to circumvent these laws and take advantage of legal doctrines, such as tribal immunity, to avoid liability for their actions.”

    All defendants had filed motions to either dismiss the case or compel arbitration. Late last week, a judge ruled instead that the case can proceed to trial.

    The Chippewa Cree Tribe isn’t the only Indian reservation with which Think Finance has partnered.

    More here.

  • Longtime Facebook VP Mike Vernal Joins Sequoia Capital

    Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 3.11.56 PMMike Vernal, a Facebook VP who has spent the last eight-plus years at the company, most recently leading its search, profile, local and developer platform product groups, is leaving the company to become a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital.

    Before joining Facebook, Vernal spent nearly six years at Microsoft, first as a product manager and later as a development lead.

    The Harvard grad (two degrees) wrote in a tweet yesterday afternoon that “Facebook is an exceptional company with amazing people. Thank you to Mark and everyone at @facebook for the past eight years. I’ll miss you.”

    Vernal joins 10 other partners in Sequoia’s Menlo Park office.

    One of those partners is Bryan Schreier, who joined Sequoia in 2008 after being a senior director at Google. In an email provided to us by a Sequoia spokesman, Schreier writes, “You don’t recruit people like Mike. They choose you and we are thrilled to have him join.”

    Schreier says the firm got to know Vernal through his work fostering startups when he was leading Facebook’s platform initiatives. “His experience scaling engineering, product, and design teams at Facebook will be invaluable to Sequoia founders working to build similarly transformative companies.”

    Like all Sequoia partners, Vernal is expected to be something of a generalist, but it’s likely he’ll be focusing on consumer and developer tech to start.

    Sequoia recently parted ways with another longtime partner, Michael Goguen, when it was revealed that he was being accused of breach of contract in one of the more explosive lawsuits to hit Silicon Valley in a while.

    More here.

  • How Goguen’s Suit Hurts Sequoia

    MIchael GoguenThe Friday before last, we told you that longtime Sequoia partner Michael Goguen had been slapped with a stomach-turning complaint. At its crux, it accused him of breaching an agreement he’d made to pay $40 million to a woman he’d known for years. Apparently, after paying her $10 million, Goguen concluded that he was within his rights to stop writing her checks. The woman then hired a lawyer.

    Whether the case ever goes to trial is now beside the point for Goguen, who has enjoyed a lucrative career as a venture capitalist and who, fairly or unfairly, will now be publicly associated with that complaint and the person who filed it, despite his strongly worded counter-complaint.

    Fairly or unfairly, it also does real damage to Sequoia Capital.

    Entrepreneurs aren’t the immediate issue. It would take a lot more than this bizarre situation for most founders to be deterred from accepting a check from Sequoia, whose imprimatur can make everything easier, from assembling a team, to attracting press, to, later, luring the right investment bankers.

    That Goguen is no longer a partner of Sequoia certainly minimizes the damage. (A spokesman didn’t elaborate when explaining to us last week why Sequoia decided Goguen’s departure was the “appropriate course of action.” But we suspect his original deal with his accuser was made without the firm’s knowledge, which would be a major no-no. That kind of financial agreement would be material information to a partnership.)

    A much bigger problem for Sequoia will be recruiting female investing partners.

    More here.

  • VC Michael Goguen’s Counter-Complaint Calls Accuser an “Exotic Dancer” Looking for a “Payday”

    MIchael GoguenMichael Goguen, the longtime venture capitalist who was asked to leave Sequoia Capital following a stunning breach of contract complaint, yesterday filed a counter complaint in San Mateo County Court that proposes the accusations against him are a myth.

    In reaction to claims that Goguen sexually and emotionally abused a woman named Amber Laurel Baptiste for more than a decade, and then failed to follow through on an agreement to pay her $40 million to keep her claims confidential, Goguen is now countersuing Baptiste for extortion.

    He’s not holding any punches. In his countersuit, Goguen’s legal team paints a picture of a woman in love with him, and features a long list of text and email messages from Baptiste to underscore that depiction.

    Among them: “The love that I hold in my heart for you was instant. It is a perfect love. And to me it is the perfect way to love someone. It is forever and unconditional;” “I love our visits. I feel so blessed to have met you and have been able to maintain a special relationship with you. I can only hope that it continues;” “I know it feels really good when we are together and to me it feels so perfect and I never want to let go of you;” and “I miss you so Much [sic]. My Body Misses you so Much. I love you so Much.”

    The counter-complaint also features pictures that Baptiste, born in 1980, had allegedly sent to Goguen of herself dressed in lacy lingerie.

    Goguen had joined Sequoia Capital in 1996, five years after getting his master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. (The now-52-year-old studied electrical engineering as an undergrad at Cornell.)

    More here.

  • VC Michael Goguen Hit with Explosive Lawsuit

    MIchael GoguenMichael Goguen, a longtime partner at Sequoia Capital who joined the tony Sand Hill Road firm roughly 20 years ago, has been named in an extraordinary breach of contract lawsuit that accuses him of sexually mistreating a woman he met in 2001, then refusing to honor a financial arrangement they made in more recent years to keep her from suing him.

    Filed in San Mateo County court on Tuesday of last week, Goguen is accused of having abused the plaintiff, named Amber Laurel Baptiste, “sexually, physically and emotionally for over 13 years.” More centrally, states the complaint: When Baptiste “could no longer tolerate his behavior,” Goguen signed a contract to pay her $40 million “as compensation for the horrors she suffered at his hands.” But “after paying her $10 million, Mr. Goguen refused to honor the rest of his agreement.”

    Baptiste could not be reached for comment Friday night. Her attorney, Patricia Glaser of the L.A.-based litigation firm GlaserWeil, is traveling in Israel, according to her office; she has not responded to an emailed request for comment.

    Goguen’s attorney, Diane Doolittle, the co-chair of the national trial practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, meanwhile wrote us a statement Friday night, saying: “On Monday, we will be filing a legal cross-complaint against [Baptiste] alleging extortion. The cross complaint will include an enormous amount of evidence, and cite contemporaneous emails and texts, that will help paint a full and complete picture of this entire matter. We will rely on all of this evidence to mount the most vigorous defense possible in court.”

    Either way, Goguen looks to be out of a job suddenly. Reached Friday night for more information, a Sequoia spokesman wrote us that, “We first learned of these claims yesterday. We understand that these allegations of serious improprieties are unproven and unrelated to Sequoia. Nevertheless, we decided that Mike’s departure was the appropriate course of action.”

    In Baptiste’s complaint, she is described as a “victim of human trafficking since she was 15.” It says that she was “brought to America in 2001,” “sold as a dancer to a strip club,” and that shortly after her arrival, she met Goguen at a Texas strip club and was soon submitting to his “constant sexual abuse” and “relying on his promise that he would help her break free of the human traffickers who held her in perpetual debt.”

    Continues the complaint, “Unbeknownst to Ms. Baptiste, Mr. Goguen was a worse predator than the human traffickers who were keeping her in bondage.”

    More here.

  • Everwise, A Mentoring Matchmaker, Raises $8 Million

    image002Everwise, a New York-based company whose online service connects executives willing to volunteer their time with people looking for mentorship — from new entrepreneurs, to budding sports coaches, to people looking to rise through the ranks of Fortune 500 companies — is taking the wraps off the bigger business that it’s been quietly building over the the past year. Now, the three-year-old, 40-person outfit has become what it’s calling an “integrated platform for talent development.”

    The cornerstone of the technology has long worked by plugging data from a user’s LinkedIn profile — and from a personalized questionnaire that he or she answers — into an algorithm that essentially points that person to a more experienced executive from another company.

    But Everwise has thrown a number of new bells and whistles into the mix. For example, a user is still assigned a mentor, but he or she is also provided with curated content from around the web based on the recommendations that Everwise mentors have made in the past, including which books to read and TED talks to watch. Customers can also be included in peer groups suited to their needs.

    More here.

  • The Obstacle to Becoming a VC is Financial, Not Gender, Inequality

    Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 3.19.35 PMStart you own venture firm. That’s the advice that one of the industry’s first women VCs, Kathryn Gould, gave to other women, and it came to mind yesterday as I watched an interview given to journalist Emily Chang this week by longtime Sequoia Capital investor Michael Moritz.

    As you’ve likely heard by now, Chang asked Moritz about Sequoia’s responsibility to hire women, as Sequoia has no female investment partners on its U.S. investment team.

    Adjusting his collar uncomfortably, Moritz said he’d like to think that the firm is “blind to somebody’s sex, to their religion, to their background.” He added that there is, in his view, a pipeline problem to explain the dearth of women at Sequoia. “I think the issue begins in our high schools, and where women particularly in America and also in Europe, tend to elect not to study the sciences when they’re 11 or 12. So suddenly the hiring pool is much smaller.”

    Asked if Sequoia might not be looking hard enough, Moritz said that Sequoia “looks very hard . . . We just hired a young woman from Stanford who is every bit as good as her peers and if there are more like her, we’ll hire them. What we’re not prepared to do is to lower our standards.”

    Numerous outlets have since suggested that Moritz put his foot in his mouth by associating women with low standards. Facebook commenters were no more generous, with some smartly pointing out that Moritz himself was a history major.

    I’m not going to defend Moritz. But focusing anger at him, or at Andreessen Horowitz, or at Benchmark, or Accel Partners (none of which employ any female general partners, save for Accel’s Sonali De Rycker in London), is somewhat misguided.

    More here.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • One of Craigslist’s Biggest Threats to Date: VarageSale

    VarageSaleIt’s accepted wisdom that nothing and no one can destroy Craiglist, the San Francisco-based local classifieds marketplace whose success has continued unhampered for roughly 20 years, despite many newer entrants with far snazzier technologies.

    VarageSale might just be different. At least, the 50-person, Toronto-based outfit is gaining enough traction that last month, Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners sank $34 million into its operations.

    What makes the startup, which claims to have millions of users, so promising? A few things, according to cofounder Carl Mercier, who sold an antispam company to security-software maker Websense in 2009 and founded VarageSale with his wife, Tami Zuckerman, in 2012. For starters, users have to be accepted onto the platform by volunteer moderators in the many communities in which VarageSale now operates. (The company has quietly spread to cities in 42 states and in every Canadian province.)

    As key, seemingly, the conversations that happen behind the scenes between Craigslist users — the harried “I’ll take it!” emails, along with the privately asked questions and price haggling — are instead displayed in Twitter-like feeds at VarageSale. It helps build interest in users’ items, suggests Mercier; it also builds community.

    We talked with Mercier this week. Our conversation has been edited for length.

    You say VarageSale has millions of users. Is that single-digit millions? And how many items are selling on the platform each month or year?

    We have millions of users who view billions of items of month. For competitive reasons, we’d rather not be more specific. But 50 percent of our mobile users open the app every day, which is very unusual for a commerce app.

    What are they returning to check out?

    Typically people are coming to the site for information about a specific category they’re following — like clothes for a two-year-old boy, or smartphones. They also come back all the time because they want to make sure they don’t miss that treasure, or because they posted an item and there are 10 people who’ve expressed an interest in it.

    Do you do anything to slow the pace of transactions to foster those conversations? It’s interesting that people don’t just sell to the first interested party.

    It’s more akin to people putting their towel on a beach chair at 6 a.m to reserve it. Maybe the first person to express an interest [lands the item], but once they ask a question, then we see other people become interested — sometimes tens of them.

    You don’t enable people to transact through the site, though. Like Craigslist, that happens offline. Might that change?

    We really want to focus on building up our local communities right now — growing our user base and coverage. That’s where we feel like we’ll have the biggest impact.

    I’d read about VarageSale meet-ups. How do most people come together?

    It really depends on the people and the communities. Sometimes people meet in a parking lot or at their house; sometimes, our moderators organize events every one or two weeks.

    Given your emphasis on community, VarageSale sounds like a hybrid of a number of things, including Craigslist and NextDoor. Maybe even Airbnb? Are people selling home items alone, or are you starting to see other things, like neighbors alerting others to their available in-law unit?

    Hah, no. Airbnb is really good at that. Some people are renting properties [on the platform], but we mostly focus on physical goods.

    You’ve just raised a lot of money. Is this an employee-intensive business? How will you use the capital?

    Building strong communities isn’t something that we can just press a button and it happens. It’s definitely hard work that involves a lot of human intervention. We probably won’t be hiring 1,000 people, but we think we’ll add 30 to 40 employees in the next year. We already have a small presence in Europe, Australia, and Japan that we’re growing.

    Will your eventual business model center on transaction fees? Local advertising?

    Revenue isn’t a priority for us. We want to focus on improving user experience and we have great partners [in our venture investors]. With the money we now have in the bank, we have runway for a few years.

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