From launch to launch: Peter Beck on building Rocket Lab’s orbital business

Breaking into the launch industry is no easy task, but New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has done it without missing a step. The company has just completed its third commercial launch of 2019, and is planning to increase the frequency of its launches until there’s one a week. It’s ambitious, but few things in spaceflight aren’t.

Although it has risen to prominence over the last two years at a remarkable rate, the appearance of Rocket Lab in the launch market isn’t exactly sudden. One does not engineer and test an orbital launch system in a day.

The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2006, and for years pursued smaller projects while putting together the Rutherford rocket engine, which would eventually power its Electron launch vehicle.

Far from the ambitions of the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, which covet heavy-launch capabilities to compete with ULA to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, Rocket Lab and its Electron LV have been laser-focused on frequent and reliable access to orbit.

Utilizing 3D printed engine components that can be turned out in a single day rather than weeks, and other manufacturing efficiencies, the company has gone from producing a rocket a year to one a month, with the goal of one a week, to match or exceed its launch cadence.

Seem excessive? The years-long backlog of projects waiting to go to orbit disagrees. There’s demand to spare and the market is only growing.

Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO, sat down with us to talk about the process of building a launch provider from scratch, and where the company goes from here — other than up.

Devin: To start with, why don’t we talk about the recent launches? Congratulations on everything going well, by the way. Any thoughts on these most recent ones?

Peter: Thanks, it’s great to be hitting our stride. We wanted electron to be an accurate vehicle and we’re averaging within around 1.4 kilometers. When you get into what that means, at those speeds it takes 180 milliseconds to travel 1.4 km, so we’ve got the accuracy down pat.

Indian PM Narendra Modi’s reelection spells more frustration for US tech giants

Amazon and Walmart’s problems in India look set to continue after Narendra Modi, the biggest force to embrace the country’s politics in decades, led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to a historic landslide re-election on Thursday, reaffirming his popularity in the eyes of the world’s largest democracy.

The re-election, which gives Modi’s government another five years in power, will in many ways chart the path of India’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, as well as the local play of Silicon Valley companies that have grown increasingly wary of recent policy changes.

At stake is also the future of India’s internet, the second largest in the world. With more than 550 million internet users, the nation has emerged as one of the last great growth markets for Silicon Valley companies. Google, Facebook, and Amazon count India as one of their largest and fastest growing markets. And until late 2016, they enjoyed great dynamics with the Indian government.

But in recent years, New Delhi has ordered more internet shutdowns than ever before and puzzled many over crackdowns on sometimes legitimate websites. To top that, the government recently proposed a law that would require any intermediary — telecom operators, messaging apps, and social media services among others — with more than 5 million users to introduce a number of changes to how they operate in the nation. More on this shortly.

Growing tension

Automattic acquires subscription payment company Prospress

Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Longreads, Simplenote and a bunch of other cool things, is acquiring a small startup called Prospress. Among other things, Prospress has developed WooCommerce Subscriptions, a recurring payment solution specifically designed for WooCommerce.

Given that physical and digital subscriptions are taking over the e-commerce world, it makes sense that Automattic wants to own WooCommerce Subscriptions. Charging customers on a regular basis is one of the most painful challenges when it comes to payment.

Prospress also works on a marketing automation tool to remind customers that they have abandoned their carts, follow up, cross sell and more. The company also has a tool to test your checkout functionality before going live. After the acquisition, the Prospress team will keep iterating on its own products and join the rest of the WooCommerce team.

This is a strategic acquisition more than anything else. Prospress has around 20 employees, so it’s not going to change the face of Automattic and its team of 900 people. But it’s an important move so that Automattic can own a bigger chunk of the (e-commerce) stack.

WooCommerce competitor Shopify doesn’t provide subscriptions out of the box. You have to use third-party products, such as Bold or ReCharge.

Like WordPress, WooCommerce is an open-source project — it integrates directly with WordPress. It means that anyone can download WooCommerce and host it on their servers. And the WooCommerce ecosystem is one of the main advantages of WooCommerce compared to obscure e-commerce solutions.

Many WooCommerce users probably host their e-commerce website on WordPress.com. But by controlling the payment module, Automattic can also generate some revenue if WooCommerce users choose to use WooCommerce Subscriptions as their payment solution.

Zero raises $20 million from NEA and others for a credit card that works like debit

Just ahead of the launch of the Apple Card, a startup that has its own take on modernizing the credit card industry, Zero, is announcing the close of its $20 million Series A. The new round of funding was led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA), and brings Zero’s total raised to date to $35 million, including both equity and debt funding.

Other investors in the round include SignalFire, Eniac Ventures, Nyca Partners and some unnamed school endowments. Zero had previously announced an $8.5 million raise in fall 2017, led by Eniac, and had raised $7 million in venture debt from Silicon Valley Bank.

Zero has a clever idea that targets millennials’ hesitance to sign up for credit cards.

Today, only 33% of millennials have a major credit card, a Bankrate survey found — largely because they’re wary of falling into the vicious debt cycle. Instead, this younger demographic often only carries a debit card. But that also means they’re missing out on credit card benefits — like points, rewards and cash back.

Zero’s idea is to offer a rewards credit card that works like debit.

The Zerocard itself is a World Mastercard, so it earns credit card cash back. But unlike a traditional credit card, it’s combined with an FDIC-backed checking account called Zero Checking. That means Zerocard and Zero Checking work together in the app, allowing cardholders to see one net number they can spend from.

That way, they won’t make the mistake of accidentally going over budget, as is often the case with traditional credit cards, which then benefit from charging interest on the unpaid balance.

Zero co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen says he had always liked optimizing his personal finances, but didn’t see the value in overspending to chase rewards.

“People spend 10 to 15% more on average just because they’re putting it on a credit card, and not seeing where they stand all the time,” he says. “Spending 10 to 15% more to chase 1 to 2% in rewards doesn’t make sense.”

Plus, he adds, “half of all credit card points are never even redeemed.”

With Zerocard, the company does away with other credit card annoyances as well.

Zerocard doesn’t charge annual fees like many traditional credit cards do. And Zero Checking doesn’t add any additional ATM fees beyond what the ATM owner charges. It also does away with foreign transaction fees, minimum balance fees and overdraft fees — like many of today’s challenger banks.

Meanwhile, the Zero app is built with an eye toward what makes apps great.

Galen, who led product development for Zynga’s “Words with Friends” has experience in this department, while co-founder and COO Joel Washington previously co-founded car sales marketplace Shift. The executive team, combined, has backgrounds that include time at Affirm, Apple, Capital One, Dropbox, Google, Postmates, Silicon Valley Bank, Upgrade and Wells Fargo.

Overall, Zero’s design feels clean and simple, compared to the cluttered and dated apps from traditional banks. It has smart features, too, like a detailed transaction view that shows the vendor’s logo and location on a map to make it easier to recognize purchases.

“Zero creates an innovative debit-style experience, with an elegant design, and truly compelling rewards. It’s a fabulous banking experience,” said Hans Morris, managing partner of Nyca Partners and former president of Visa, Inc., in a statement. “Few people understand how complex it is to launch either a credit card or a checking account program, and I believe Zero is the first U.S. startup to launch both,” he said.

Zero launched in November 2018, but only to a small number of customers. Though officially open for business, it was functioning more like a public beta — though it didn’t call it that at the time. Meanwhile, its waitlist continued to grow.

Today, there are still 204,000 people waiting to be allowed in — something that Galen says is now going to happen.

“We haven’t launched to everyone on the waitlist yet, but we expect to within the next few weeks,” he says.

Another interesting twist on traditional credit cards is Zero’s path to card upgrades: it encourages but also rewards customers for telling their friends. By doing so, customers gain access to better-looking cards and higher cash-back percentages.

Zero customers start with a “Quartz” card offering 1% back on purchases. When a friend they refer joins, they receive a higher-level card called “Graphite” that offers 1.5% back. Two friends earns you the “Magnesium” card with 2% back and four friends gets you the “Carbon” card with 3% back. The Carbon card is also solid metal, capitalizing on the millennial trend of wanting their cards to look cool. And metal cards are in particular demand.

To receive the full cash-back rates, customers have to pay their balances in full by the due date, Zero says.

The company has partnered with Salt Lake City-based WebBank to issue the card, and deposits are held at Memphis-based Evolve Bank & Trust, an FDIC member. Zero makes money primarily on interchange and interest on deposits.

While some users may leave balances on the card that generate interest, Zero isn’t focused on that aspect of the business for revenue generation.

“Most companies in fintech today are launching undifferentiated debit cards as a feature or extension to their product for an additional engagement and monetization stream,” says Rick Yang, partner at NEA, as to why he invested.

“Zero is completely focused on their card programs and building a differentiated solution that actually provides a value proposition that resonates with consumers. We’ve also been fascinated by the growth of debit outpacing credit, and we think that our solution gives consumers the best of both worlds,” he adds.

Zero is currently iOS-only, but is working on an Android version that is expected to be ready in August.

DoorDash, now valued at $12.6B, shoots for the moon

More than five years ago, Sequoia partner Alfred Lin called Tony Xu, the founder of a small on-demand delivery startup called DoorDash, to say he was passing on the company’s seed round.

This was, of course, before venture capital funding in food delivery startups had taken off. DoorDash, launched out of Xu’s Stanford graduate school dorm room, wasn’t worth Sequoia’s capital — yet.

Today, venture capitalists are valuing the San Francisco-based company at a whopping $12.6 billion with a $600 million Series G. New investors Darsana Capital Partners and Sands Capital participated in the deal, which nearly doubles DoorDash’s previous valuation, alongside existing backers Coatue Management, Dragoneer, DST Global, Sequoia Capital, the SoftBank Vision Fund and Temasek Capital Management.

As for Sequoia’s Alfred Lin, he realized his mistake years ago and jumped in on DoorDash’s 2014 Series A, and has participated in every subsequent round since. DoorDash, a graduate of Y Combinator’s Summer 2013 cohort, is also backed by Kleiner Perkins, CRV and Khosla Ventures, among others. In total, the company has raised $2.5 billion in VC funding, making it one of the most well-capitalized private companies in the U.S.

SoftBank, via its prolific dealmaker Jeffrey Housenbold, was responsible for making DoorDash a unicorn in early 2018. The nearly $100 billion Vision Fund led DoorDash’s $535 million Series D, valuing the business at $1.4 billion. Just three months ago, the SoftBank Vision Fund, DST Global, Coatue Management, GIC, Sequoia and Y Combinator put an additional $400 million in the fast-growing business.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 05: DoorDash CEO Tony Xu speaks onstage during Day 1 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 5, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Xu told TechCrunch the company’s Series F was “a reflection of superior performance over the past year.” DoorDash was currently seeing 325% growth year-over-year, he said, pointing to recent data from Second Measure showing the service had overtaken Uber Eats in the U.S., coming in second only to GrubHub.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Xu said at the time. “If you just run the math on DoorDash’s course and speed, we’re on track to be number one.”

At a venture capital-focused summit hosted in April, Xu added that DoorDash was the largest delivery platform in America by “pretty wide margins,” explaining that it was, in fact, growing 4x faster than its next closest peer. In this morning’s announcement, the company added that it’s grown 60% since its late February Series F, with its annualized total sales hitting $7.5 billion in March, an increase of 280% year-over-year. 

Still, one wonders what kind of growth metrics DoorDash might be sharing to attract that kind of valuation multiple. The company has yet to disclose revenues and is not yet profitable, but has seen its price tag grow astronomically in just two years. Since March 2018, DoorDash’s valuation has skyrocketed from $1.4 billion to $4 billion with a $250 million Series E to $7.1 billion with a $350 million Series F and, finally, to nearly $13 billion with its Series G.

The $12.6 billion valuation makes DoorDash one of the 10 most valuable venture-backed companies in the U.S., surpassing Coinbase, Instacart and even Slack, according to PitchBook.

DoorDash is currently active in more than 4,000 cities in the U.S. and Canada, with hundreds of partners, including both restaurants and supermarkets (Walmart is using DoorDash for grocery deliveries). The company also operates DoorDash Drive, which allows businesses to use the DoorDash network to make their own deliveries.