Singapore’s SalesWhale raises $5.3M to bring AI to sales and marketing teams

SalesWhale, a Singapore-based startup that uses AI to help marketers and salespeople generate leads, has announced a Series A round worth $5.3 million.

The investment is led by Monk’s Hill Ventures — the Southeast Asia-focused firm that led SalesWhale’s seed round in 2017 — with participation from existing backers GREE Ventures, Wavemaker Partners and Y Combinator. That’s right, SalesWhale is one a select few Southeast Asian startups to have been through YC, it graduated back in summer 2016.

SalesWhale — which calls itself “a conversational email marketing platform” — uses AI-powered “bots” to handle email. In this case, its digital workforce is trained for sales leads. That means both covering the menial parts of arranging meetings and coordination, and the more proactive side of engaging old and new leads.

Back when we last wrote about the startup in 2017, it had just half a dozen staff. Fast-forward two years and that number has grown to 28, CEO Gabriel Lim explained in an interview. The company is going after more growth with this Series A money, and Lim expects headcount to jump past 70; SalesWhale is deliberating opening an office in California. That location would be primarily to encourage new business and increase communication and support for existing clients, most of whom are located in the U.S., according to Lim. Other hires will be tasked with increasing integration with third-party platforms, and particularly sales and enterprise services.

The past two years have also seen SalesWhale switch gears and go from targeting startups as customers, to working with mid-market and enterprise firms. SalesWhale’s “hundreds” of customers include recruiter Randstad, educational company General Assembly and enterprise service business Unit4. As it has added greater complexity to its service, so the income has jumped from an initial $39-$99 per seat all those years ago to more than $1,000 per month for enterprise customers.

SalesWhale’s founding team (left to right): Venus Wong, Ethan Lee and Gabriel Lim

While AI is a (genuine) threat to many human jobs, SalesWhale sits on the opposite side of that problem in that it actually helps human employees get more work done. That’s to say that SalesWhale’s service can get stuck into a pile (or spreadsheet) of leads that human staff don’t have time for, begin reaching out, qualifying leads and sending them on to living and breathing colleagues to take forward.

“A lot of potential leads aren’t touched” by existing human teams, Lim reflected.

But when SalesWhale reps do get involved, they are often not recognized as the bots they are.

“Customers are often so convinced they are chatting with a human — who is sending collateral, PDFs and arranging meetings — that they’ll say things like ‘I’d love to come by and visit someday,’ ” Lim joked in an interview.

“Indeed, a lot of times, sales team refer to [SalesWale-powered] sales assistant like they are a real human colleague,” he added.

500 Startups Japan becomes Coral Capital with a new $45M fund

The 500 Startups Japan crew is going independent. The VC firm announced a $30 million fund in 2015, and now the follow up is a new $45 million fund called Coral Capital.

Helmed by James Riney and Yohei Sawayama, just like 500 Startups Japan, Coral will essentially continue the work the U.S. firm made in Japan, where it made more than 40 investments including Kakehashi, satellite startup Infostellar, SmartHR and Pocket Concierge, which was acquired by American Express.

“Coral provides a foundational role within the marine ecosystem, it’s symbolic about how we want to be in the Japanese startup ecosystem,” Riney told TechCrunch in an interview.

LPs in the fund include 500 Startups backers Mizuho Bank, Mitsubishi Estate, and Taizo Son — the brother of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son and founder of Mistletoe — and Shinsei Bank as well as other undisclosed institutional investors, who Riney said account for nearly half of the LPs. Riney said the fund was closed within two and a half months of fundraising and Coral had to turn some prospective investors away due to the overall interest shown.

Riney said that the scandals around 500 Startups — founding partner Dave McClure resigned in 2017 after admitting he’d been a “creep” around women — “wasn’t really a strong consideration” for starting Coral.

“It’s something we’d been wanting to do for a while,” he explained.

Coral Capital founding partners James Riney and Yohei Sawayama previously led 500 Startups Japan

Riney explained that Coral won’t mix in with 500 Startups Japan investments, and the team will continue to manage that portfolio whilst also running the fund.

Thesis-wise, the plan is to continue on from 500 Startups Japan, that means going after early stage deals across the board. Riney said that over the last four years, he’s seen more founders leave stable jobs and start companies which bodes well for Japan’s startup ecosystem.

“Now you’re seeing people more into their careers who see entrepreneurism as a way to fundamentally change their industry,” he said in an interview. “That bucks the trend of risk aversion in Japan which is commonly the perception.”

He sees the arrival of Coral as an opportunity to continue to push startup culture in Japan, a country well known for massive corporations and company jobs with an absence of early stage capital options for founders.

“There’s a lot of work we can do and the impact we can make in Japan is much higher than in somewhere like Silicon Valley,” Riney said.

“Pretty much every corporate has a startup program, but few of them are strong leads within seed or early stage deals, they tend to feel more comfortable in later stage investments. There have been investors investing on behalf of corporations who got the courage to spin out and go alone… but it is still much much fewer than other countries,” he added.

Investors are still failing to back founders from diverse backgrounds

The large majority of venture dollars are invested in companies run by white men with a university degree, according to a new report by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC.

This new data reveals that despite the lip service investors have paid to backing founders from diverse backgrounds, much, much, more work needs to be done to actually achieve the industry’s stated goals. It also shows the vast gulf that separates the meritocratic myth that Silicon Valley has created for itself from the hard truths of its natural nepotistic state.

In 2017, venture capital investment reached $84.24 billion, a height not seen since the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s. The data from RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC covers a survey of the seed to Series D investments made during that year from what the two organizations selected as the top 135 firms by deal activity. Those firms invested in 4,475 companies, which collectively included 9,874 co-founders, according to the report.

Of those co-founders only 9 percent were women, while 17 percent identified as Asian American, 2.4 percent identified as Middle Eastern, 1.9 percent identified as Latinx and 1 percent identified as black.

“VCs should make more of a deliberate effort to spend quality time with communities of color that are otherwise unfamiliar,” said Suzy Ryoo, a venture partner and vice president of technology at Cross Culture Ventures . “Another tactical suggestion would be to co-host salon dinners community events with the growing group of early-stage venture funds managed by diverse investors, such as Cross Culture Ventures, Backstage Capital, Precursor Ventures, etc.”

The data compiled by Diversity VC and RateMyInvestor contains some other staggering statistics. Ivy League-educated founders captured 27 percent of all the dollars invested in venture capital startups, while all graduates from all other universities across the U.S. represented 50 percent of venture funding. Founders who graduated from international institutions had nearly 16 percent of venture funding. Founders without a university degree accounted for around 6 percent of the total capital invested.

Finally, investors are still wildly reluctant to leave Silicon Valley to look for new deals, according to the survey. This despite skyrocketing prices for real estate and talent and the emergence of big technology ecosystems in cities across the U.S.

“Silicon Valley has done a poor job of fostering diversity of all forms, especially diversity of thought,” said DCM partner Kyle Lui. “VCs and founders tend to back/hire people who are in their existing network who most likely share the same views as them, went to the same school as them, and shared similar life experiences as them.”

Investors are still failing to back founders from diverse backgrounds

The large majority of venture dollars are invested in companies run by white men with a university degree, according to a new report by RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC.

This new data reveals that despite the lip service investors have paid to backing founders from diverse backgrounds, much, much, more work needs to be done to actually achieve the industry’s stated goals. It also shows the vast gulf that separates the meritocratic myth that Silicon Valley has created for itself from the hard truths of its natural nepotistic state.

In 2017, venture capital investment reached $84.24 billion, a height not seen since the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s. The data from RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC covers a survey of the seed to Series D investments made during that year from what the two organizations selected as the top 135 firms by deal activity. Those firms invested in 4,475 companies, which collectively included 9,874 co-founders, according to the report.

Of those co-founders only 9 percent were women, while 17 percent identified as Asian American, 2.4 percent identified as Middle Eastern, 1.9 percent identified as Latinx and 1 percent identified as black.

“VCs should make more of a deliberate effort to spend quality time with communities of color that are otherwise unfamiliar,” said Suzy Ryoo, a venture partner and vice president of technology at Cross Culture Ventures . “Another tactical suggestion would be to co-host salon dinners community events with the growing group of early-stage venture funds managed by diverse investors, such as Cross Culture Ventures, Backstage Capital, Precursor Ventures, etc.”

The data compiled by Diversity VC and RateMyInvestor contains some other staggering statistics. Ivy League-educated founders captured 27 percent of all the dollars invested in venture capital startups, while all graduates from all other universities across the U.S. represented 50 percent of venture funding. Founders who graduated from international institutions had nearly 16 percent of venture funding. Founders without a university degree accounted for around 6 percent of the total capital invested.

Finally, investors are still wildly reluctant to leave Silicon Valley to look for new deals, according to the survey. This despite skyrocketing prices for real estate and talent and the emergence of big technology ecosystems in cities across the U.S.

“Silicon Valley has done a poor job of fostering diversity of all forms, especially diversity of thought,” said DCM partner Kyle Lui. “VCs and founders tend to back/hire people who are in their existing network who most likely share the same views as them, went to the same school as them, and shared similar life experiences as them.”

Why Silicon Valley needs more visas

When I hear protesters shout, “Immigrants are welcome here!” at the San Francisco immigration office near my startup’s headquarters, I think about how simple a phrase that is for a topic that is so nuanced, especially for me as an immigrant entrepreneur.

Growing up in Brazil, I am less familiar with the nuances of the American debate on immigration legislation, but I know that immigrants here add a lot of jobs and stimulate the local economy. As an immigrant entrepreneur, I’ve tried to check all of those boxes, and really prove my value to this country.

My tech startup Brex has achieved a lot in a short period of time, a feat which is underscored by receiving a $1 billion dollar valuation in just one year. But we didn’t achieve that high level of growth in spite of being founded by immigrants, but because of it. The key to our growth and to working towards building a global brand is our international talent pool, without it, we could never have gotten to where we are today.

So beyond Brex, what do the most successful Silicon Valley startups have in common? They’re also run by immigrants. In fact, not only are 57% of the Bay Area’s STEM tech workers immigrants, they also make up 25% of business founders in the US. You can trace the immigrant entrepreneurial streak in Silicon Valley from the founders of SUN Microsystems and Google to the Valley’s most notorious Twitter User, Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Immigrants not only built the first microchips in Silicon Valley, but they built these companies into the tech titans that they are known as today. After all, more than 50% of billion dollar startups are founded by immigrants, and many of those startups were founded by immigrants on H-1B visas.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/jvoves

While it might sound counterintuitive, immigrants create more jobs and make our economy stronger. Research from the National Foundation of American Policy (NFAP) has shown that immigrant-founded billion-dollar companies doubled their number of employees over the past two years. According to the research, “WeWork went from 1,200 to 6,000 employees between 2016 and 2018, Houzz increased from 800 to 1,800 employees the last two years, while Cloudflare went from 225 to 715 employees.”

We’ve seen the same growth at Brex. In just one year we hired 70 employees and invested over $6 million dollars in creating local jobs. Our startup is not alone, as Inc. recently reported, “50 immigrant-founded unicorn startups have a combined value of $248 billion, according to the report [by NFAP], and have created an average of 1,200 jobs each.”

One of the fundamental drivers of our success is our international workforce. Many of our key-hires are from all over Latin America, spanning from Uruguay to Mexico. In fact, 42% of our workforce is made up of immigrants and another 6% are made up of children of immigrants. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams are more productive and work together better, but that’s only part of the reason why you should bet on an international workforce. When you’re working with the best and brightest from every country, it inspires you to bring forth your most creative ideas, collaborate, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. It motivates you to be your best.

With all of the positive contributions immigrants bring to this country, you’d think we’d have less restrictive immigration policies. However, that’s not the case. One of the biggest challenges that I face is hiring experienced, qualified engineers and designers to continue innovating in a fast-paced, competitive market.

This is a universal challenge in the tech industry. For the past 10 years, software engineers have been the #1 most difficult job to fill in the United States. Business owners are willing to pay 10-20 percent above the market rate for top talent and engineers. Yet, we’re still projected to have a shortage of two million engineering jobs in the US by 2022. How can you lead the charge of innovation if you don’t have the talent to do it?

What makes matters worse is that there are so few opportunities and types of visas for qualified immigrants. This is limiting job growth, knowledge-sharing, and technological breakthroughs in this country. And we risk losing top talent to other nations if we don’t loosen our restrictive visa laws.

H1-B visa applications fell this year, and at the same time, these visas have become harder to obtain and it has become more expensive to acquire international talent. This isn’t the time to abandon the international talent pool, but to invest in highly specialized workers that can give your startup a competitive advantage.

Already, there’s been a dramatic spike in engineering talent moving to Canada, with a 40% uptick in 2017. Toronto, Berlin, and Singapore are fastly becoming burgeoning tech hubs, and many fear (rightfully) that they will soon outpace the US in growth, talent, and developing the latest technologies.

This year, U.S. based tech companies generated $351 billion of revenue in 2018. The U.S. can’t afford to miss out on this huge revenue source. And, according to Harvard Business School Professor William R. Kerr and the author of The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, “Today’s knowledge economy dictates that your ability to attract, develop, and integrate smart minds governs how prosperous you will be.”

Immigrants have made Silicon Valley the powerhouse that it is today, and severely limiting highly-skilled immigration benefits no-one. Immigrants have helped the U.S. build one of the best tech hubs in the world— now is the time for startups to invest in international talent so that our technology, economy, and local communities can continue to thrive.

Four ways to bridge the widening valley of death for startups

Many founders believe in the myth that the first steps of starting a business are the hardest: Attracting the first investment, the first hires, proving the technology, launching the first product and landing the first customer. Although those critical first steps are difficult, they are certainly not the most difficult on the arduous path of building an iconic company. As early and late-stage funding becomes more abundant, founders and their early VC backers need to get smarter about how to position their companies for a looming valley of death in-between. As we’ll learn below, it’s only going to get much, much harder before it gets easier.

Money will have the look, and heft, of dumbbells as the economic cycle turns. Expect an abundance of small, seed checks at one end, an abundance of massive checks for clear, breakout companies at the other, and a dearth of capital for expanding companies with early proof points and market traction. Read more on how to best prepare for this inevitable future. (Image courtesy Flickr/CircaSassy)

There will be an abundance of capital at the two ends of the startup spectrum. At one end, hundreds of seed and micro VCs, each armed with dozens of $250,000-$1 million checks to write every year, are on the prowl for visionary founders with pedigrees and resumes. At the other end, behemoths like SoftBank, sovereigns, as well “early-stage” firms raising larger funds are seeking breakout companies ready for checks that are in the mid-tens to hundreds of millions. There will be a dearth of capital to grow companies from a kernel of a business, to becoming the clear market-defining leader. In fact, we’re already seeing deal volume decreasing significantly as dollars increase, likely evidence of larger checks going into fewer companies.

Even as the overall number of deals decrease below 2012 levels, the overall dollars invested into startups continue to soar. The 200+ “seed-stage” funds formed since 2012 will continue to chase nascent companies. Meanwhile, the increasing number of mega-funds will seek breakout companies into which to make $100 million+ investments. Companies with early traction seeking ~$20 million to grow will be abundant and have difficulty accessing capital.

Founders should no longer assume that their all-star seed and Series A syndicates will guarantee a successful follow-on financing. Progress on recruiting and product development, though necessary, are no longer sufficient for B-rounds and beyond. Founders should be mindful that investors that specialize in leading $20-50 million rounds will have a plethora of well-funded, well-mentored, well-staffed startups with slick presentations, big visions and some early market traction from which to choose.

Today, there is far more capital chasing fewer quality companies. Fewer breakout companies and fear of missing out is making it easy to raise growth rounds with revenue growth, which may not be scalable or even reflective of an attractive business. This is creating false realities and prompting founders to raise big rounds at high prices — which is fine when there is an over-abundance of capital, but can cripple them when capital later becomes scarce. For example, not long ago, cleantech companies, armed with very preliminary sales, raised massive financings from VCs eager to back winners toward scaling into what they characterized as infinite demand. The reality is that the capital required to meet target economics was far greater and demand far smaller. As the private markets turned, access to cash became difficult and most faltered or were acquired for pennies on the dollar.

There is a likely future where capital grows scarce, and investors take a harder look at the underpinnings of revenue, growth and (dis)economies of scale.

What should startup leadership teams emphasize in an inevitable future where the $30 million rounds will be orders of magnitude harder than their $5 million rounds?

A business model representative of the big vision

Leadership teams put lots of emphasis on revenue. Unfortunately, revenue that’s not representative of the big vision is probably worse than no revenue at all. Companies are initially seeded with the expectation that the founding team can build and sell something. What needs to be proven is the hypothesis that the company can a) build a special product that b) is inexpensive to convince customers to pay for, and c) that those customers represent a massive market. It should be proven that it is unattractive for customers to switch to the inevitable copycats. It should be clear that over time, customers will pay more for additional features, and the cost of acquiring new customers will go down. Simply selling a product to customers that don’t represent that model is worse than not selling anything at all.

Recruiting talent that’s done it

Early founding teams are cognitively diverse individuals that can convince early investors that they can overcome the incredible odds of building a company that until now, shouldn’t have existed. They build a unique product, leveraging unique tools satisfying an unmet need. The early teams need to demonstrate the big vision, and that they can recruit the people that can make that vision a reality. Unfortunately, more founders struggle when it comes to recruiting people that have real experience reducing a technology to practice, executing on a product that customers want and charting the path to expand their market with improving unit economics. There are always exceptions of people that do the above for the first time at startups; however, most of today’s iconic startups knew what kind of talent they needed to execute and succeeded in bringing them on board. Who’s on your team?

Present metrics that matter

The attractive SaaS valuation multiples behoove all founders to apply its metrics to their businesses even if they aren’t really SaaS businesses. Sophisticated later-stage investors see right past that and dismiss numbers associated with metrics that are not representative. Semiconductors are about winning dedicated sockets in growing markets. Design tools are about winning and upselling seats in an industry that’s going to be hooked on those tools. Develop a clear understanding of how your business will be measured. Don’t inundate your investor with numbers; present a concise hypothesis for your unfair advantage in a growing market with your current traction being evidence to back it.

Find efficiencies by working in massive markets

“Pouring fuel on the fire” is a misleading metaphor that leads some into believing that capital can grow any business. That’s just as true as watering a plant with a fire hose or putting TNT in your Corolla’s gas tank: most business models and markets simply are not native to the much-sought-after venture growth profile. In fact, most later-stage startups that fail after raising large amounts of capital fail for this reason. Most markets are conducive to businesses with DIS-economies of scale, implying dwindling margins with scale, which is why many businesses are small, serving local, fragmented markets that technology alone cannot consolidate. How do your unit economics improve over time? What are the efficiencies generated by economies of scale? Is there a real network effect that drives these economies?

Image courtesy Getty Images

I expect today’s resourceful founders to seek partners, whether it’s employees, advisors or investors, to help them answer these questions. Together, these cognitively diverse teams will work together to accelerate past any metaphoric valley and build the iconic companies taking humanity to its fantastic future.  

Chinese investment into computer vision technology and AR surges as U.S. funding dries up

Last year 30 leading venture investors told us about a fundamental shift from early stage North American VR investment to later stage Chinese computer vision/AR investment — but they didn’t anticipate its ferocity.

Digi-Capital’s AR/VR/XR Analytics Platform showed Chinese investments into computer vision and augmented reality technologies surging to $3.9 billion in the last 12 months, while North American augmented and virtual reality investment fell from nearly $1.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017 to less than $120 million in the third quarter of 2018. At the same time, VC sentiment on virtual reality softened significantly.

What a difference a year makes.

Dealflow (dollars)

What VCs said a year ago

When we spoke to venture capitalists least year, they had some pretty strong opinions.

Mobile augmented reality and Computer Vision/Machine Learning (“CV/ML”) are at opposite ends of the spectrum — one delivering new user experiences and user interfaces and the other powering a broad range of new applications (not just mobile augmented reality).

The market for mobile AR is very early stage, and could see $50 to $100 million exits in 2018/2019. Dominant companies will take time to emerge, and it will also take time for developers to learn what works and for consumers and businesses to adopt mobile AR at scale (note: Digi-Capital’s base case is mobile AR revenue won’t really take off until 2019, despite 900 million installed base by Q4 2018). Tech investors are most interested in native mobile AR with critical use cases, not ports from other platforms.

Computer vision and visual machine learning is more advanced than mobile AR, and could see dominant companies in the near-term. Here, investors love  startups with real-world solutions that are challenging established industries and business practices, not research projects. Firms are investing in more than 20 different mobile augmented reality and computer vision and visual machine learning sectors, but there is the potential for overfunding during the earliest stages of the market.

What VCs did in the last 12 months

Perhaps the most crucial observation is the declining deal volumes over the last year.

Deal Volume (number of deals by category)

(Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR/XR Analytics Platform)

Deal volume (the number of deals) declined steadily by 10% per quarter over the last 12 months, and was around two-thirds the level in Q3 2018 that it was in Q4 2017. Most of the decline happened in the US and Europe, where VCs increasingly stayed on the sidelines by looking for short-term traction as a sign of long-term growth. (Note: data normalized excluding HTC ViveX accelerator Q4 2017, which skews the data)

Deal Volume (number of deals by stage)

The biggest casualties of this short-termist approach have been early stage startups raising seed (deal volume down by more than half) and some series A (deal volume down by a quarter) rounds. This trend has been strongest in North America and Europe, but even Asia has not been entirely immune from some early stage deal volume decline.

Deal Value (dollars)

(Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR/XR Analytics Platform)

While deal volume is a great indicator of early-stage investment market trends, deal value (dollars invested) gives a clearer picture of where the big money has been going over the last 12 months. (Note: investment means new VC money into startups, not internal corporate investment – which is a cost). Global investment hit its previous quarterly record over $2 billion in Q4 2017, driven by a few very large deals. It then dropped back to around $1 billion in the first quarter of this year. Since then deal value has steadily climbed quarter-on-quarter, to reach a new record high well over $2 billion in Q3 2018.

Over $4 billion of the total $7.2 billion in the last 12 months was invested in computer vision/AR tech, with well over $1 billion going into smartglasses (the bulk of that into Magic Leap) . The next largest sectors were games around $400 million and advertising/marketing at a quarter of a billion dollars. The remaining 22 industry sectors raised in the low hundreds of millions of dollars down to single digit millions in the last 12 months.

A tale of two markets

Deals by Country and Category (dollars)

American and Chinese investment had an inverse relationship in the last 12 months. American investors increasingly chose to stay on the sidelines, while Chinese investor confidence grew to back up clear vision with long-term investments. The differences in the data couldn’t be more stark.

North American Deals (dollars)

North American investment was almost triple Asian investment in Q4 2017, with a record high of nearly $1.5 billion dollars for the quarter. Despite 2018 being a transitional year for the market (Digi-Capital forecast that market revenue was unlikely to accelerate until 2019), North American quarterly investment fell over 90% to less than $120 million in Q3 2018. American VCs appear to have taken a long-term solution to a short-term problem.

China Deals (dollars)

Meanwhile, Chinese VCs have been focused on the long-term potential of the intersection between computer vision and augmented reality, with later-stage Series C and Series D rounds raising hundreds of millions of dollars a time. This trend increased dramatically in the last 12 months, with SenseTime Group raising over $2 billion in multiple rounds and Megvii close behind at over $1 billion (also multiple rounds).

Smaller investments (by Chinese standards) in the hundreds of millions have gone into companies Westerners might not know, including Beijing Moviebook Technology, Kujiale and more. All this saw Chinese quarterly investment grow 3x in the last 12 months. (Note: some recent Western opinions about market investment trends were based on incomplete data)

Where to from here?

With our team’s investment banking background, experience shows that forecasting venture capital investment is a fool’s errand. Yet it is equally foolish to ignore hard data, and ongoing discussions with leading investors along Sand Hill Road and China indicate some trends to watch.

American tech investors might continue to wait for market traction before providing the fuel needed for that traction (even if that seems counterintuitive). While this could pose an existential threat to some early stage startups in North America, it’s also an opportunity for smart money with longer time horizons.

Conversely, Chinese VCs continue to back domestic companies which could dominate the future of computer vision/augmented reality. The next 6 months will determine if this is a long-term trend, but it is the current mental model.

If mobile AR revenue accelerates in 2019 as critical use cases and apps emerge (as in Digi-Capital’s base case), this could become a catalyst for renewed investment by American VCs. The big unknown is whether Apple enters the smartphone tethered smartglasses market in late 2020 (as Digi-Capital has forecast for the last few years). This could be the tipping point for the market as a whole (not just investment). However, Apple timing is hard to predict (because Apple), with any potential launch date known only to Tim Cook and his immediate circle.

Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Chinese investors embraced a Jobsian approach over the last 12 months, with Western VCs increasingly dot-connecting (or not). It will be interesting to see how this plays out for computer vision/AR investment over the next 12 months, so watch this space.

July sets a record for number of $100M+ venture capital rounds

In July 2018, the tech sector’s leisure class — venture capitalists — kicked investments into overdrive, at least when it comes to financing supergiant venture rounds of $100 million or more (in native or as-converted USD values).

With 55 deals accounting for just over $15 billion at time of writing, July likely set an all-time record for the number of huge venture deals struck in a single month.

The table below has just the top 10 largest rounds from the month. (A full list of all the supergiant venture rounds can be found here.)

It’s certainly a record high for the past decade. Earlier this month, we set out to find when the current mega-round trend began. We found that, prior to the tail end of 2013, supergiant VC rounds were relatively rare. In a given month between 2007 and the start of the supergiant round era, a $100 million round would be announced every few weeks, on average. And many months had no such deals come across the wires.

Of course, that hasn’t been the case recently.

Why is this happening? As with most things in entrepreneurial finance, context matters.

There are some obvious factors to consider. At the later-stage end of the spectrum, the market is currently awash in money. Billions of dollars in dry powder is in the offing as venture investors continue to raise new and ever-larger venture funds. All that capital has to be put to work somewhere.

But there’s another, and perhaps less obvious, cog in the machine: the changing part VCs play in a company’s life cycle. The current climate presents a stark contrast to the last time the market was this active (in the late 1990s). Back then, companies looking to raise nine and 10-figure sums would typically have to turn to private equity firms or boutique late-stage tech investors, or raise from the public market via an IPO.

Now some venture capital firms are able to provide financial and strategic support from the first investment check a private company cashes to when it goes public or gets acquired. On the one hand, this prolongs the time it takes for companies to exit. But on the other, some venture firms get to double, triple and quadruple down on their best bets.

But as in Newtonian physics, a market that goes up will also come down. The pace of supergiant funding announcements will have to slow at some point. What are some of the potential catalysts for such a slowdown? Keep an eye out for one or more of the following:

  • U.S. monetary policy could change. As stultifyingly boring as Federal Reserve interest rate policy is, very low interest rates are a major contributor to the state of the market today. With money so cheap, other interest rate-pegged investment vehicles like bonds perform relatively poorly, which drives institutional limited partners to seek high returns in greener pastures. Venture capital presents that greenfield opportunity today, but that can change if interest rates rise again.
  • A sustained public market downtrend for tech companies. While everything was coming up Milhouse in the private market, a few publicly traded tech giants got cut down to size. Facebook, Twitter and Netflix all reported slower than expected growth, leading to a downward repricing of their shares. So far, most of the steepest declines are isolated to consumer-facing companies. But if we start to see disappointing earnings from more enterprise-focused companies, or if asset prices remain depressed for more than just a couple of months, this could slow the pace of large rounds and lower valuations.
  • Narrowing or vanishing paths to liquidity. For the past several quarters, the count of venture-backed companies that get acquired has slowly but consistently declined, a trend Crunchbase News has documented in its quarterly reporting. At the same time, though, the IPO market has mostly thawed for venture-backed tech companies. Even companies with ugly financials can make a public market debut these days. But if IPO pipeline flow slows, or if otherwise healthy companies fail to thrive when they do go public, that could spell bad news for investors in need of liquidity.

All this being said, there’s little sign that the market is slowing down. Crunchbase has already recorded four rounds north of $100 million in the first two days of August. Most notably, ride-hailing company Grab snagged another $1 billion in funding (after gulping down $1 billion last month) at a post-money valuation of $11 billion.

If you believe the stereotypes, venture investors are either already on vacation or packing their bags for late summer jaunts to exotic locales at this time of year. But, as it turns out, raising money is always in season. So even though the dog days of summer are upon us, August could end up being just as wild as July.