Usually, databases about companies have to be painstakingly updated by humans. Soleadify is a startup that uses machine learning to create profiles for businesses in any industry. The first of the company’s products is a business search engine that keeps over 40 million business profiles updated, currently used by hundreds of companies in the USA, Europe and Asia for sales and marketing activities.
It’s now secured $1.5M in seed round funding from European venture firms GapMinder Venture Partners and DayOne Capital, as well as several prominent business angels, through Seedblink, an equity crowdfunding platform based out of Bucharest Romania.
The company plans to use the funds to further improve their technology, build partnerships and expand their marketing capabilities.
On top of Soleadify’s data, they build solutions for prospecting, market research, customer segmentation and industry monitoring.
The way it’s done is by frequently scanning billions of webpages, identifying and classifying relevant data points and creating connections between them. The result is a database of business data, that is normally only available through laborious, manual research.
College graduates this year (and perhaps in the near-term) have been looking for work in what is one of the most challenging job markets in a decade due to the coronavirus and its impacts on the economy and how people can interact with each other. Today, a startup that’s helping them with that job hunting process is announcing a big round of funding to grow its business.
Handshake, which provides a platform for college-aged students to register their interest and skills and search for suitable work, and for recruiters to search for candidates and advertise entry-level openings, has raised $80 million in a growth round of funding.
Handshake is not disclosing its valuation but a reliable source close to the startup said that the valuation has more than doubled since its last round. That was at $275 million, putting the likely valuation now between $550 million and $600 million.
The company has been around since 2014 and has built its profile in part as a more inclusive version of LinkedIn aimed at people only start starting out in the job market, and it’s using the funding to double down on that.
It now covers 17 million job seekers, 1,000 institutions of higher learning and nearly 500,000 employers, with partnerships with some 120 minority-serving institutions, which include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic Serving Institutions in the U.S., to help them and their students better tackle the job-hunting-recruitment market.
And in this year, Handshake has been using its latest funding — which actually closed in November 2019 — to expand to also including community colleges in its network, and expand its virtual events services.
The Series D is being led by GGV and also includes participation from all of its existing investors. Handshake already had an illustrious list of backers: its last round, a $40 million Series C in 2018, was led by EQT and also included the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network and Reach Capital, as well as True Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Spark Capital and KPCB Edge.
Garrett Lord, Handshake’s CEO who co-founded the company with Scott Ringwelski (CTO) and Ben Christensen (a board member), said that the coronavirus has not just impacted the job market, but also the job-hunting market.
“The pandemic, as you can imagine, has really reshaped the hiring economy,” he said. “Companies can no longer go to campus to recruit” — traditionally a huge part of how companies connect with those just entering the job market, by way of events where they can meet many people en masse — “so we’ve seen an unprecedented shift to virtual recruiting.”
Virtual events had, he added, been gaining more popularity “prior to Covid,” but suddenly it became the only game in town. He said that currently some 20,000 employers have managed virtual recruitment events at institutions using the Handshake platform. These take the form of online mixers and fairs, where it provides five 30-minute group meetings with up to 50 students in each, with recruiters providing presentations and talking with students; and/or 10-minute 1:1 meetings with students with up to 15 recruiters.
All well and good, except that the job market itself is still rocky. Lord said that there was a 20-30% drop in listings at the start of the pandemic, with particular sectors like hospitality leading that decline, with those still hiring pulling away from proactive campus recruitment. Now, seven months on, many of those realize that they have to continue to be visible and are slowly coming back.
“They need Handshake more than ever before, to replace boots on ground experience with digital and immersive experiences,” Lord said.
While managing the macroeconomic contraction, the expansion this year to including community colleges on Handshake has been a huge deal.
There has long been a perceived prestige and expertise divide between 2-year and 4-year institutions, but as our concept of higher education continues to evolve, with many students foregoing college altogether, or opting for vocational degrees that do not extend to four years of study at a university or college, and college becomes ever more expensive, it’s about time that platforms that are helping one tier of students also helps the other.
And for its investors, at a time when companies are not just talking about wanting to build more diverse work forces, but putting money where their mouths are, and internalizing that change is something that you sometimes need to be proactive to effect, Handshake is a compelling startup to invest in.
“Since its founding, Handshake has been laser focused on delivering on its vision to democratize job opportunity by connecting employers with job seeking students at institutions of higher education, and has built a rich network of 17 million job seekers, 1,000 institutions of higher learning and nearly 500,000 employers,” said Jeff Richards, Managing Partner of GGV, in a statement. “We’re delighted to join forces with the Handshake team to help the company further expand its impact by delivering innovative, industry-leading recruitment solutions and expanding into new markets.”
While Amazon gradually builds out its own-branded line of products, third-party sellers continue to account for a significant part of the transaction volume and growth on its marketplace — by one estimate, accounting for $200 billion of the $335 billion in gross merchandise value sold on Amazon in 2019. Today, in a twist on the economies of scale that has propelled much of Amazon’s growth, a Boston startup that has built a tech platform that it uses both to buy up and then run D2C brands sold on Amazon is announcing a major round of growth funding to expand its business.
Perch, which acquires D2C businesses and products that are already selling on Amazon, and then continues to operate and grow those operations, has raised $123.5 million in funding.
Perch plans to use the capital mainly to continue acquiring D2C businesses, as well as to build out its team and invest in its platform, “but we are profitable so we plan to use cashflows from the business to build the team and the funding toward acquiring additional winning brands and products,” said Chris Bell, Perch’s CEO and founder, in an interview over email.
The company currently counts women’s athleisure brand Satina, kitchenware from Flathead and Aulett and others, health and personal care brands among its stable of companies. There are just 10 on the platform today, and the funding is coming on the back of success so far, as well as ambitious plans to grow that to 50 by the end of 2021, and eventually hundreds or thousands of brands.
And before you think that this is just about running a lot of smaller businesses together, Bell adds that “technology is the most important part of our model.”
Some 40% of the startup’s team works on its platform, which is used to onboard “eventually thousands of brands at scale in an e-commerce-native environment.” The platform is used to help run analytics on sales, determine pricing and ad strategy, and inventory positioning and other marketing decisions. Longer term it will also be used to help figure out how to sell and balance products on social and retail channels (while ultimately selling through Amazon, for now).
The funding — which brings the total raised by Perch to over $130 million — is being led by Spark Capital, with previous backer Tectonic Ventures and new investor Boston Seed also participating. The startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round.
Amazon has grown in part on the principle of economies of scale, both in terms of procurement as well as in distribution. Both in the case of physical or digital goods, small margins on sales of a huge array of products adds up to strong returns; and the same goes for working out the costs for operating a logistics and distribution network.
Perch has essentially picked up on that idea and is developing its own take on it around the D2C model.
Direct-to-consumer businesses have been one of the big stories in e-commerce in the last decade: companies are leveraging the internet and newer innovations in manufacturing to build their own products and brands that they sell direct to customers, bypassing traditional retail chains, with some like Everlane, Warby Parker and Third Love finding huge success in the process.
But while a lot of those sales have focused around D2C companies developing their own sites or via social media, a very large proportion of the smaller players are also selling through marketplaces — and specifically Amazon’s marketplace.
As a larger category, they are growing fast — up 50% year-on-year in 2020, with some 86% of third-party sellers profitable.
But on an individual basis, most of them don’t necessarily have a strategy for how they will scale or exit the business eventually, so the opportunity here is to bring a number of these more promising smaller D2C brands into a bigger operation — the idea being to bring more economies of scale both to manufacturing those products as well as to collectively distributing them over Amazon.
“We typically do not retain the entrepreneurs or founders beyond a transition period, though we are open-minded if there is the right fit, though they are often excited to take some time off or start their next adventure,” said Bell. “For staff or contractors who work with the founder on the brand, we have a discussion with the founder and those individuals throughout the process and depending on need or mutual discussion we have retained some of those relationships.”
It’s Perch’s own realization of how to expand the economies of scale for D2C that has attracted investors here.
“The Perch team has the M&A, eCommerce, and Amazon experience to understand what makes a quality and scalable consumer product and take those products to the next level post-acquisition,” said Alex Finkelstein, General Partner, Spark Capital, in a statement. “We are beyond excited to lead this round. Perch is already off to an exceptionally strong start. Given the booming eCommerce market, I expect we will continue to see record numbers and additional acquisitions this year.”
Bell added that while any company can approach it to get acquired, it has a relatively strict set of criteria for what it would seriously consider.
“We look for winning products and brands,” he said. “What that means is the products need to have a proven track record of product-market fit, as evidenced through at least 18-24 months of profitable sales, great customer reviews, low return rate, no evidence of consistent product quality issues, and a trademarked brand that is recognized and enforced by their channel partners / marketplaces.”
There have been a number of companies that are trying to muscle in on Amazon’s supremacy in online retail markplaces in the US — including the likes of Walmart and Alibaba — but for now Amazon continues to be the main game in town, Bell said. (And no surprise there: one estimate in 2018 was that it was hovering at 49% marketshare in e-commerce in the U.S.)
“Amazon has created the leading third-party seller marketplace in a really differentiated way,” he said. “Not only do they have the most consumers visiting every day, but they also have the most maturity around technical integrations, brand protections, and a best-in-class fulfillment operation.”
He added that “Walmart is making good strides in terms of developing their seller services and technical integrations, and their announcement that they will be offering fulfillment for 3rd party merchants will help considerably. I expect they will continue to gain share, but they have a really long way to go to catch up with both consumers and marketplace sellers.” In terms of others, he also noted that “Google appears to be investing in their marketplace, but we haven’t seen as much traction there. Without an integrated fulfillment option, many sellers would prefer to use their Google ad dollars to send consumers to their own page to transact rather than through Google’s marketplace. Facebook/Instagram stores have promise but still very nascent.”
Interestingly, the Perch proposition provides a very different alternative to the e-commerce landscape that others see. Some like Shogun have built their business on premise that the only way foward is to move away from a reliance on third-party marketplaces like those of Amazon, Perch has doubled down on it, seemingly confident that it’s here to stay. And indeed, the bigger that Perch grows, the more likely it is that the bulked-up company has a chance of having some negotiating power of its own.
“We have some sales through standalone brand sites, but the vast majority of our focus is on the marketplace and we expect that to continue for the immediate future,” said Bell.
Tiliter, an Australian startup that’s using computer vision to power cashierless checkout tech that replaces the need for barcodes on products, has closed a $7.5 million Series A round of funding led by Investec Emerging Companies.
The 2017-founded company is using AI for retail product recognition — claiming advantages such as removing the need for retail staff to manually identify loose items that don’t have a barcode (e.g. fresh fruit or baked goods), as well as reductions in packaging waste.
It also argues the AI-based product recognition system reduces incorrect product selections (either intentional or accidental).
“Some objects simply don’t have barcodes which causes a slow and poor experience of manual identification,” says co-founder and COO Martin Karafilis. “This is items like bulk items, fresh produce, bakery pieces, mix and match etc. Sometimes barcodes are not visible or can be damaged.
“Most importantly there is an enormous amount of plastic created in the world for barcodes and identification packaging. With this technology we are able to dramatically decrease and, in some cases, eliminate single use plastic for retailers.”
Currently the team is focused on the supermarket vertical — and claims over 99% accuracy in under one second for its product identification system.
It’s developed hardware that can be added to existing checkouts to run the computer vision system — with the aim of offering retailers a “plug and play” cashierless solution.
Marketing text on its website adds of its AI software: “We use our own data and don’t collect any in-store. It works with bags, and can tell even the hardest sub-categories apart such as Truss, Roma, and Gourmet tomatoes or Red Delicious, Royal Gala and Pink Lady apples. It can also differentiate between organic and non-organic produce [by detecting certain identification indicators that retailers may use for organic items].”
“We use our pre-trained software,” says Karafilis when asked whether there’s a need for a training period to adapt the system to a retailer’s inventory. “We have focused on creating a versatile and scalable software solution that works for all retailers out of the box. In the instance an item isn’t in the software it can be collected by the supermarket in approx 20min and has self-learning capabilities.”
As well as a claim of easy installation, given the hardware can bolt onto existing retail IT, Tiliter touts lower cost than “currently offered autonomous store solutions”. (Amazon is one notable competitor on that front.)
It sells the hardware outright, charging a yearly subscription fee for the software (this includes a pledge of 24/7 global service and support).
“We provide proprietary hardware (camera and processor) that can be retrofitted to any existing checkout, scale or point of sale system at a low cost integrating our vision software with the point of sale,” says Karafilis, adding that the pandemic is driving demand for easy to implement cashierless tech.
The startup cites a 300% increase in ‘scan and go’ adoption in the US over the past year due to COVID-19, as an example, adding that further global growth is expected.
It’s not breaking out customer numbers at this stage — but early adopters for its AI-powered product recognition system include Woolworths in Australia with over 20 live stores; Countdown in New Zealand, and several retail chains in the US such as New York City’s Westside Market.
The Series A funding will go on accelerating expansion across Europe and the US — with “many” supermarkets set to be adopt its tech over the coming months.
Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students have switched to online learning. So whereas EdTech used to be somewhat of an also-ran in the venture stakes, it has now become one fo the hottest spaces on the planet. It’s therefore of title surprise that funding rounds are following.
Knowledgehook, a proprietary mathematics learning platform, has now raised £13.5m Series A with participation from Mesoamerica’s Alexandria Corp., Nelson Education, Ideal Ventures, Nicoya Ventures and an unmanned UK-based EdTech fund. Knowledgehook raised a seed round in 2006 that included John Abele’s North Point Ventures.
Knowledgehook’s platform claims to have over 100,000 schools around the world that tracks where each student is on their math journey. In 2021, it plans extend its reach to 50,000,000 students globally. The platform offers school licenses, as well as Netflix-like home subscriptions.
Their programs connect a child’s at-home learning with in-school education, providing insights on learning gaps. Teachers then use this to develop a child’s understanding of the math concepts related to their challenges, enabling them to adjust instruction and monitor progress.
Co-Founder and CEO Travis Ratnam (pictured) said in a statement: “Our platform is not a game, it will pull together a 360 view on a child’s learning journey enabling people around them to improve their experience and outcomes.”
Created and launched from Canada, Knowledgehook now supports schools across the US, Mexico, and the UK.
On November 3, California voters will determine how the state’s gig workers will, well, work.
A ballot measure would create a new legal classification for Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, and DoorDash deliverers—not quite employees, but not the independent contractors they’ve been until now.
Under Proposition 22, lavishly funded by the gig companies, their workers would be assured of something resembling a minimum wage, as well as some health care coverage and access to workers’ compensation.
If the measure fails, the companies likely will have to recognize their workers as employees. Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the state if that happens, though court filings from a related legal case suggest they might instead shift the way they operate in California.
Opponents, including labor- and driver-advocacy groups, say gig work is too precarious. They argue that transforming contractors into employees may bring some stability to those who depend