Building a creator-focused OS

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. 

A week ago TechCrunch covered Pico’s $6.5 million funding round and described it as “a New York startup that helps online creators and media companies make money and manage their customer data.” The Exchange has also covered Pico before, most recently during a mid-2020 dive into the world of indie pubs and subscription media.

While our own Anthony Ha did an inimitable job covering the Pico round, I got on a Zoom call with the company, as well, as their new capital came with a relaunch of sorts that I wanted to better understand.

The Pico team walked me through what’s changed at their business by describing the historical progress of creative digital tooling. They said earlier eras in the space focused on content hosting and distribution. In the startup’s view, a new generation of creative-focused tooling will bring the market to an era in which content management systems, or CMSs — say, Substack or WordPress — will not own the center of tooling. Instead, monetization will.

That’s Pico’s bet, and so it’s building what it considers to be an operating system for the creator market. My gut read is that a creative digital world that centers around monetization sounds like one that is more lucrative than what preceding eras brought us.

Pico’s view is that regardless of where someone first builds their audience, they eventually go multi-SKU — or multi-platform, perhaps — so keeping a single, centralized register of customer data may prove critical.

The startup’s revamped service is a bit of a monetization tool, as before, along with a creator-focused CRM that sits atop your CMS or other digital output on any particular platform. So far customer growth at the company looks good, growing by about 5x in the last year. Let’s see how far Pico can ride its vision, and if it can help build out a middle class in the creator economy.

The grocery revolution will be IRL

Somewhat lost in our circles amid the hype regarding Instacart’s epic COVID period is the fact that most folks still go to stores to buy their fruit and veg, as our friends in the UK might say.

Grocers did not forget the fact. But their historically thin margins and rising competition for customer ownership in the Instacart era hasn’t left them too secure. How can they pursue a more digitally enabled strategy without outsourcing their customer relationship to a third party?

Swiftly might be part of the answer. The startup is building technology that may help grocery chains of all sizes go digital, take advantage of modern mobile technology, and generate more incomes via ads, while offering consumers more shopping options. Neat, yeah?

The startup has raised a little over $15 million to date, per Crunchbase data, but came back into our minds thanks to the launch of a deal with the Dollar Tree company, a consumer retailer that has around one zillion stores in America.

I’ve been aware of Swiftly for ages, having met its co-founder Henry Kim back when he was building Sneakpeeq, which later became Symphony Commerce. The latter company was eventually bought by Quantum Retail. But during my chats with Kim over the years in and around San Francisco, he consistently brought up the grocery market, a space he’d had experience in before building Symphony Commerce.

After hearing Kim hype up the possibilities for grocery and digital for a half decade or so, to see the company that came out of his hopes and planning land a major partner is fun.

Swiftly provides two main products, a retail system and a media service. The retail side of its business provides checkout services, loyalty programs, personalized offers and the like for mobile shoppers. And the media side allows IRL grocers to snag a bit of the consumer packaged goods (CPG) ad spend that they often miss out on, while looping in analytics to provide better attribution to the impact of ads sold.

I expect that Swiftly will raise more capital in the next few quarters now that it has a big, public deal out. More when we have it.

UiPath, SPACs, and a neat venture capital round

Over the past two weeks The Exchange has written quite a lot about the UiPath IPO. Probably too much. But to catch you up just in case, the company’s first IPO pricing range looked like a warning for late-stage investors as the resulting valuations were a bit lower than anticipated. Next the company raised that range, ameliorating if not eliminating our earlier concern. Then the company priced above its raised range, though still at a discount to its final private round. Then it gained ground after starting to trade, and its CFO was like, we did good.

To dig even more into the company’s private-public valuation saga, The Exchange asked B2B investor Dharmesh Thakker, a general partner at Battery Ventures, about his take on the company’s final private round in the context of it landing a bit higher than where the company eventually priced its IPO. Here’s what he had to say:

[T]here was smart money involved in that round. These are people who understand that material value creation happens 3-5 years post IPO, as we have seen with Twilio, Atlassian, MongoDB, Okta, and Crowdstrike who have increased value 5-10x post IPO.

Right now, UIPath has only 1% penetration at $608M revenue in a $60B automation market, and the urgency around intelligent process automation for repetitive tasks is only increasing post-COVID. Companies need help managing their costs with automation. So, as the company penetrates its target market and grows over time, UIPath will drive ongoing value, which pre-IPO and IPO stage investors realize. They will be patient.”

He’s bullish, in other words. A more acerbic take on the UiPath IPO came in from PitchBook analyst Brendan Burke. Here’s what he had to say about the company and its market:

RPA has scaled rapidly due to the demand for automation yet remains a limited solution that may lack durable value. Due to its reliance on custom scripts, we view RPA as a bridge technology to cloud-native AI automation that faces competitive risk from AI-native challengers. The future of enterprise automation is for front-line users to deploy cloud-native machine learning models that can adapt to dynamic data streams and make accurate decisions. UiPath’s implementations are not cloud-native and require third party integrations with around 75 AI model vendors for intelligent decision-making. Additionally, the company lists the ability to recruit AI engineers as a risk factor for the business. UiPath’s ability to expand across the AI value chain will be critical for its long-term prospects.

I include that remark as it can be, at times, hard to get actual negative commentary out of the broader analyst world, as people are so terrified of being rude.

Scooting along, there’s a new SPAC deal out this week that I wanted to flag for you: SmartRent is merging with Fifth Wall Acquisition Corp. I. SmartRent raised more than $100 million while private, according to Crunchbase data, from RET Ventures, Spark Capital and Bain Capital Ventures, among others.

So this particular SPAC deal, which puts a $2.2 billion equity valuation on SmartRent, is a material venture-backed exit. You can check its investor deck here. We care about the company as it appears to work in a similar space to Latch, which is also going out via a SPAC. Dueling OS companies for rental units? This should be fun. (More on Latch’s SPAC deal here.)

Finally for our main work today, HYPR raised $35 million this week. Among all the venture capital rounds that I wish I could have written about this week but didn’t get to, HYPR is up there because it promises a password-free future. And having just raised a Series C, it may have a shot at pulling it off. Please god, let it happen.

Various and sundry

I got to cover a few rounds raised by recent Y Combinator graduates this week, including Queenly and Albedo’s recent funding events. Check ‘em out.

Oh, and Afterpay’s recent earnings show that the buy-now-pay-later market is still growing like all hell,


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