Here’s why Spotify will go public via direct listing on April 3rd

Spotify explained why it’s ditching the traditional IPO for a direct listing on the NYSE on April 3rd today during its Investor Day presentation. With no lockup period and no intermediary bankers, Spotify thinks it can go public without all the typical shenanigans.

Spotify described the rationale for using a direct listing with five points:

  • List Without Selling Shares  – Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow
  • Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in
  • Equal Access – Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.
  • Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings
  • Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Spotify won’t wait for the direct listing, and on March 26th will announce first quarter and 2018 guidance before markets open. It also announced today that there will be no lock-up period, so employees can start selling their shares immediately. This prevents a looming lock-up period expiration that can lead to a dump of shares on the market that sinks the price from spooking investors.

It’s unclear exactly what Spotify will be valued at on April 3rd, but during 2018 its shares have traded on the private markets for between $90 and $132.50, valuing the company at $23.4 billion at the top of the range. The music streaming service now has 159 million monthly active users (up 29 percent in 2017) and 71 million paying subscribers (up 46 percent in 2017.

During CEO Daniel Ek’s presentation, he explained that Spotify emerged as an alternative to piracy by convenience to make paying or ad-supported access easier than stealing. Now he sees the company as the sole leading music streaming service that’s a dedicated music company, subtly throwing shade at Apple, Google, and Amazon. “We’re not focused on selling hardware. We’re not focused on selling books. We’re focused on selling music and connecting artists with fans” said Ek.

Head of R&D Gustav Soderstrom outlined Spotify’s ubiquity strategy, opposed to trying to lock users into a “single platform ecosystem”. He says Spotify does “what’s best for the user and not for the company, and trying to solve the users’ problems by being everywhere.” That’s more shade for Apple, who’s HomePod only works with Apple Music despite customers obviously wishing they could play other streaming services through it.

By now being baked into a wide range of third-party hardware through the Spotify Connect program, Soderstrom says Spotify gets a more holistic understanding of its listeners. He declared that Spotify has 5X as much personalization data as its next closest competitor, and that allows it to know what to play you next. He cheekily calls this “self-driving music”.

 

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek giving the Investor Day presentation

Directing what people listen to turns Spotify into the new top 40 radio — the hit-maker. That gives it leverage over the record labels so Spotify can get better licensing deals and favorable treatment. Now over 30 percent of Spotify listening is based on its own programming through featured playlists, artists, and more.

There’s plenty of room for Spotify to grow. Only 12 percent of the 1.3 billion payment-enabled smartphones in the world have a streaming music subscription and Spotify makes up half of those. And with the free tier, Spotify has the best way to capture people tip-toeing into streaming.

Wall Street loves a two-sided marketplace, so Spotify is positioning itself in the middle of artists and fans, with each side attracting the other. It’s both selling music streaming services to listeners, and selling the tools to reach and monetize those listeners to musicians. That’s both on its platform, and using its targeting and analytics info to deliver efficient ticket and merchandise promotions elsewhere. Ek discussed the flywheel that drives Spotify’s business, explaining that the more people discover music, the more they listen, and the more artists that become successful on the platform, and the more artists will embrace the platform and bring their fans.

Yet with music catalogues and prices mostly similar across the industry, Spotify will have to depend on its personalized recommendations and platform-agnositic strategy to beat its deep pocketed competitors. Music isn’t going away, so whoever can lock in listeners now at the dawn of streaming could keep coining off them for decades. That’s why Spotify not raising cash for marketing through a traditional IPO is a strange choice. But with its focus on playlists and suggestion data, Spotify could build melodic handcuffs for its listeners who wouldn’t dream of starting from scratch on a competitor.

You can follow along with the presentation here.

For more on Spotify’s not-an-IPO, check out our feature piece:

We want to hear about your robotics company

As you might have heard, last year’s TC Robotics event in Boston was such a hit we’ve decided to do it again — only on the West Coast, this time. On Friday, May 11, we’ll be holding TC Sessions: Robotics on the U.C. Berkeley campus. We’ve got a lot of big industry luminaries lined up that we can’t wait to tell you about, but in the meantime, we’d like to hear from you.

We’re going to have several opportunities for robotics companies to show off their goods in the lead up to and the event itself. We’re looking for the best and brightest in the robotics world — both startups and established companies alike. If you’ve got a technology you think will wow us, we want to hear from you.

Specifically, we’re looking for technology that will make for great videos and stage demos. We’re also searching for startups who are interested in participating in a pitch competition. Bonus points for new technologies we haven’t seen before — and for companies based in and around the Bay Area. Think you’ve got what it takes? Fill out the form below. We’ll reach out to those companies that meet the criteria.

More information on the upcoming TC Sessions: Robotics event can be found here.

 

The red-hot AI hardware space gets even hotter with $56M for a startup called SambaNova Systems

Another massive financing round for an AI chip company is coming in today, this time for SambaNova Systems — a startup founded by a pair of Stanford professors and a longtime chip company executive — to build out the next generation of hardware to supercharge AI-centric operations.

SambaNova joins an already quite large class of startups looking to attack the problem of making AI operations much more efficient and faster by rethinking the actual substrate where the computations happen. The GPU has become increasingly popular among developers for its ability to handle the kinds of lightweight mathematics in very speedy fashion necessary for AI operations. Startups like SambaNova look to create a new platform from scratch, all the way down to the hardware, that is optimized exactly for those operations. The hope is that by doing that, it will be able to outclass a GPU in terms of speed, power usage, and even potentially the actual size of the chip. SambaNova today said it has raised a huge $56 million series A financing round was co-led by GV and Walden International, with participation from Redline Capital and Atlantic Bridge Ventures.

SambaNova is the product of technology from Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, two professors at Stanford, and led by former Oracle SVP of development Rodrigo Liang, who was also a VP at Sun for almost 8 years. When looking at the landscape, the team at SambaNova looked to work their way backwards, first identifying what operations need to happen more efficiently and then figuring out what kind of hardware needs to be in place in order to make that happen. That boils down to a lot of calculations stemming from a field of mathematics called linear algebra done very, very quickly, but it’s something that existing CPUs aren’t exactly tuned to do. And a common criticism from most of the founders in this space is that Nvidia GPUs, while much more powerful than CPUs when it comes to these operations, are still ripe for disruption.

“You’ve got these huge [computational] demands, but you have the slowing down of Moore’s law,” Olukotun said. “The question is, how do you meet these demands while Moore’s law slows. Fundamentally you have to develop computing that’s more efficient. If you look at the current approaches to improve these applications based on multiple big cores or many small, or even FPGA or GPU, we fundamentally don’t think you can get to the efficiencies you need. You need an approach that’s different in the algorithms you use and the underlying hardware that’s also required. You need a combination of the two in order to achieve the performance and flexibility levels you need in order to move forward.”

While a $56 million funding round for a series A might sound colossal, it’s becoming a pretty standard number for startups looking to attack this space, which has an opportunity to beat the big chipmakers and create a new generation of hardware that will be omnipresent among any device that is built around artificial intelligence — whether that’s a chip sitting on an autonomous vehicle doing rapid image processing to potentially even a server within a healthcare organization training models for complex medical problems. Graphcore, another chip startup, got $50 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, while Cerebras Systems also received significant funding from Benchmark Capital. Yet amid this flurry of investment activity, nothing has really shipped yet, and you’d define these companies raising tens of millions of dollars as pre-market

Olukotun and Liang wouldn’t go into the specifics of the architecture, but they are looking to redo the operational hardware to optimize for the AI-centric frameworks that have become increasingly popular in fields like image and speech recognition. At its core, that involves a lot of rethinking of how interaction with memory occurs and what happens with heat dissipation for the hardware, among other complex problems. Apple, Google with its TPU, and reportedly Amazon have taken an intense interest in this space to design their own hardware that’s optimized for products like Siri or Alexa, which makes sense because dropping that latency to as close to zero as possible with as much accuracy as possible in the end improves the user experience. A great user experience leads to more lock-in for those platforms, and while the larger players may end up making their own hardware, GV’s Dave Munichiello — who is joining the company’s board — says this is basically a validation that everyone else is going to need the technology soon enough.

“Large companies see a need for specialized hardware and infrastructure,” he said. “AI and large-scale data analytics are so essential to providing services the largest companies provide that they’re willing to invest in their own infrastructure, and that tells us more investment is coming. What Amazon and Google and Microsoft and Apple are doing today will be what the rest of the Fortune 100 are investing in in 5 years. I think it just creates a really interesting market and an opportunity to sell a unique product. It just means the market is really large, if you believe in your company’s technical differentiation, you welcome competition.”

There is certainly going to be a lot of competition in this area, and not just from those startups. While SambaNova wants to create a true platform, there are a lot of different interpretations of where it should go — such as whether it should be two separate pieces of hardware that handle either inference or machine training. Intel, too, is betting on an array of products, as well as a technology called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (or FPGA), which would allow for a more modular approach in building hardware specified for AI and are designed to be flexible and change over time. Both Munichiello’s and Olukotun’s arguments are that these require developers who have a special expertise of FPGA, which is a sort of niche-within-a-niche that most organizations will probably not have readily available.

Nvidia has been a major benefactor in the explosion of AI systems, but it clearly exposed a ton of interest in investing in a new breed of silicon. There’s certainly an argument for developer lock-in on Nvidia’s platforms like Cuda. But there are a lot of new frameworks, like TensorFlow, that are creating a layer of abstraction that are increasingly popular with developers. That, too represents an opportunity for both SambaNova and other startups, who can just work to plug into those popular frameworks, Olukotun said. Cerebras Systems CEO Andrew Feldman actually also addressed some of this on stage at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference last month.

“Nvidia has spent a long time building an ecosystem around their GPUs, and for the most part, with the combination of TensorFlow, Google has killed most of its value,” Feldman said at the conference. “What TensorFlow does is, it says to researchers and AI professionals, you don’t have to get into the guts of the hardware. You can write at the upper layers and you can write in Python, you can use scripts, you don’t have to worry about what’s happening underneath. Then you can compile it very simply and directly to a CPU, TPU, GPU, to many different hardwares, including ours. If in order to do that work, you have to be the type of engineer that can do hand-tuned assembly or can live deep in the guts of hardware, there will be no adoption… We’ll just take in their TensorFlow, we don’t have to worry about anything else.”

(As an aside, I was once told that Cuda and those other lower-level platforms are really used by AI wonks like Yann LeCun building weird AI stuff in the corners of the Internet.)

There are, also, two big question marks for SambaNova: first, it’s very new, having started in just November while many of these efforts for both startups and larger companies have been years in the making. Munichiello’s answer to this is that the development for those technologies did, indeed, begin a while ago — and that’s not a terrible thing as SambaNova just gets started in the current generation of AI needs. And the second, among some in the valley, is that most of the industry just might not need hardware that’s does these operations in a blazing fast manner. The latter, you might argue, could just be alleviated by the fact that so many of these companies are getting so much funding, with some already reaching close to billion-dollar valuations.

But, in the end, you can now add SambaNova to the list of AI startups that have raised enormous rounds of funding — one that stretches out to include a myriad of companies around the world like Graphcore and Cerebras Systems, as well as a lot of reported activity out of China with companies like Cambricon Technology and Horizon Robotics. This effort does, indeed, require significant investment not only because it’s hardware at its base, but it has to actually convince customers to deploy that hardware and start tapping the platforms it creates, which supporting existing frameworks hopefully alleviates.

“The challenge you see is that the industry, over the last ten years, has underinvested in semiconductor design,” Liang said. “If you look at the innovations at the startup level all the way through big companies, we really haven’t pushed the envelope on semiconductor design. It was very expensive and the returns were not quite as good. Here we are, suddenly you have a need for semiconductor design, and to do low-power design requires a different skillset. If you look at this transition to intelligent software, it’s one of the biggest transitions we’ve seen in this industry in a long time. You’re not accelerating old software, you want to create that platform that’s flexible enough [to optimize these operations] — and you want to think about all the pieces. It’s not just about machine learning.”

Don’t foul this free-throwing Toyota basketball robot

Because if it gets to the free-throw line, it sinks the shot – every. single. time. This robot (via The Verge) is the project of a group of Toyota engineers using their spare time, to build a robot inspired by the manga Slam Dunk, which is about a Japanese high school basketball team.

The engineers brought their robot out to face off against humans, (pro players, though pro players from a B–league in Japan, not NBA) but the robot nailed it every time. Still, it’s a free–throw competition – humans still have a gigantic lead on other aspects of basketball, like most of them, in fact. Don’t get me started on the dunk competition.

Hootsuite nabs $50M in growth capital for its social media management platform, passes 16M customers

Over the last several years, social media has become a critical and central way for businesses to communicate, and market to, their customers. Now, one of the startups that helped spearhead this trend has raised a round of growth funding to expand its horizons. Hootsuite, the Vacouver-based social media management company that counts some 16 million businesses as customers, said today that it has raised $50 million in growth capital — specifically through a credit financing agreement — from CIBC Innovation Banking.

We asked Ryan Holmes, the co-founder and CEO, for details about its valuation and funding, and said that it will be used for more acquisitions in the near future, and with it the valuation is unchanged.

“We opted for to go with non-dilutive credit at this point and found a great partner and terms in CIBC,” he wrote in an email. “The company is cash flow positive and the facility will primarily be reserved for M&A purposes. There is no associated valuation, however our latest 409a is up from last year and growth is very strong.”

Notably, the last time Hootsuite raised money — way back in 2014 — the company was already valued at $1 billion. For some context, at the time it had 10 million businesses as customers, and today it has 16 million including what it says is 80 percent of the Fortune 1000, so it’s likely that its valuation has grown as well.

“This financing is a testament to the strong fundamentals behind Hootsuite and our ongoing commitment to innovation and growth as the clear leader in social media management,” said Greg Twinney, CFO of Hootsuite, in a statement. “The additional capital will help us scale even faster to bring the most innovative products and partnerships to market globally and help our customers strategically build their brands, businesses and customer relationships with social.”

The funding, according to the release, will also be used to expand its business in Asia Pacific, Europe and Latin America. It also plans to add in more tools to serve the needs of specific verticals like financial services, government and healthcare.

You may not know the name Hootsuite but you might recognise its mascot — an owl — and more specifically its corresponding shortened link — it starts with ‘ow.ly’ — that is used a lot on Twitter, the social network that gave Hootsuite its first customers and ubiquity.

Things have moved along quite a bit since those early days, when Hootsuite first started as a side project for Holmes, who himself was running a marketing and advertising agency when he started it.

Social media is now the fastest-growing category for marketing spend — partly because of the popularity of social networking services like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter; and partly because “eyeballs” can be better tracked and quantified on these networks over more legacy channels like print and outdoor ads. At the same time, presenting yourself as a business on a social network is getting harder and harder. Sites like Facebook are focused on trying to improve engagement, and that is leading it to rethink how it shares and emphasizes posts that are not organically created by normal people. On the other side, we’re seeing a new wave of privacy and data protection regulation come in that will change how data can be used across and within these sites.

All of this means that Hootsuite, and others that it competes with, need to get a lot smarter about what it offers to its customers, and how it offers it.

Starting as a modest tool that plugged into Twitter, Hootsuite itself now integrates with just about all of the major social platforms, most recently finally adding Instagram earlier this month. Its customers use a dashboard to both monitor a variety of social media platforms to track how their companies are being discussed, and also to send out messages to the world. And they now use that dashboard and Hootsuite for a growing array of other purposes, from placing ads to content marketing to analytics across an increasing number of platforms — a range of services that Hootsuite has developed both in-house and by way of acquisition.

One challenge that Hootsuite has had over the years has been the company’s focus on the freemium model, and how to convert its initially non-paying users into paying tiers with more premium offerings. Some of that expansion into new services appears to have helped tip the balance.

“In the past year, Hootsuite has seen tremendous growth from acquisitions like AdEspresso, to strategic partnerships with market leaders such as Adobe, to recognitions such as being named a leader in the Forrester Wave and G2 Crowd,” said Holmes in a statement. “This financing allows Hootsuite in continuing to create strong value for customers looking to unlock the power of social.”

Another challenge has been the fundamental fact that Hootsuite relies on third parties to essentially “complete” its offering: Hootsuite offers analytics and tools for marketing, but still needs to connect into social networks and their data pools in order to do that.

This makes the company somewhat dependent on the whims of those third parties. So, for example, if Twitter decides to either increase the fees it charges to Hootsuite, or tries to offer its own analytics and thereby cuts off some of Hootsuite’s access, this impacts the company.

One solution to this is to continue to integrate as many other platforms as possible, to create a position where its stronger because of the sum of its parts. Unsurprisingly, Hootsuite also says that some of the funding will be used to increase its partnerships and integrations.

More generally, we are seeing a trend of consolidation in the area of social media management, as several smaller, and more focused solutions are brought together under one umbrella to improve economies of scale, and also to build out that “hub” strategy, becoming more indispensable, by virtue of providing so much utility in one place.

As part of that trend, we’ve seen two of Hootsuite’s rivals, Sprinklr and Falcon.io (not an owl but another bird of prey), also grow by way of a spate of acquisitions.

Drover picks up £5.5M funding for its car subscription marketplace

Drover, a London-based startup that lets you take out a “car subscription” as an alternative to car ownership, has picked up £5.5 million in seed funding. The round was led by VC firms Cherry Ventures, Partech and BP Ventures (the venture arm of BP), and adds to an earlier £2 million ‘pre-seed’ investment from Version One, and Forward Partners.

Founded by Felix Leuschner (CEO) and Matt Varughese (CTO) in late 2015 and subsequently launched the following January, Drover has built what it describes as a Mobility-as-a-Service platform, giving you access to a car wrapped up in a single monthly subscription. This includes the vehicle itself, insurance, road tax, maintenance and breakdown cover. In addition, users can swap, upgrade or downgrade their car monthly or just cancel altogether, without any long-term commitment or steep upfront payments, says the startup.

Of course, you might think that sounds just like existing car rental offerings, except Drover is designed to be a rolling monthly contract, or for 6 months or longer. In other words, mid to long term rentals, which it sees as a gap in the market and competing more against an outright car purchase or taking credit via a longterm car lease or hire-purchase.

More broadly, Drover says it is hoping to tap into macro trends of the sharing economy, which affords an asset-light and on-demand lifestyle (yes, really!). In terms of how this breaks down into actual customers, Drover’s CEO cites young families who value flexibility as their circumstances change, “life-style driven premium customers” who may want a convertible in the summer and an SUV in the winter, and “convenience-oriented customers” who are drawn to Drover’s all-inclusive and hassle-free package compared to the broken and fragmented user experience of traditional car ownership.

The startup has elected to operate a marketplace model, too, meaning that it doesn’t own any cars or have to shoulder the capital cost of inventory. Instead it currently works with 100 fleet partners to provide a selection of new and used vehicles on its platform. Fleet partners are large rental companies like Europcar, Avis Budget Group and Hertz, car dealership groups, and OEMs, which includes a partnership with BMW Group UK. The buy-in from fleet partners is a new way to monetize vehicles that would otherwise be sitting around idle while depreciating.

“Drover’s marketplace model thereby allows its vehicle partners (rental car companies, dealership groups, OEMs) to list, manage and monetise available vehicle inventory, driving incremental revenue from otherwise under-utilised assets,” Drover’s Leuschner tells me.

Meanwhile, Dover says the new funding will be used to scale the business further and invest in its engineering and product team.

“We at Cherry have the thesis that car ownership is going to change fundamentally in the next few years,” Cherry Ventures founding partner Christian Meermann tells me. “Why should consumers actually own a car or lease it for a long period of 3 or 4 years in the times of sharing economy, desire for high flexibility, and fast innovation cycles in the automotive industry? We believe that Drover’s car subscription service will change the whole automotive industry with Drover’s extremely high flexibility, combined with its broad selection of available cars”.

Meermann says he hopes the Drover team will rapidly grow car subscription in the U.K. and beyond. The key to this, he says, is building great tech to power the supply side of the startup’s marketplace (ie making it cost-effective and scalable for fleet partners to onboard and manage inventory), while at the same time “creating tremendous value” for customers on the demand side.

My Tamagotchi Forever brings the 90s to your smartphone

We had all but forgotten about Tamagotchis. But those attention-starved little creatures are coming back.

Today, My Tamagotchi Forever launches on Google Play and the App Store. For those of you who didn’t ride the wave of handheld digital pets in the late 90s and early aughts, or those of you who are too young to have participated, here’s the gist:

Tamagotchis were little digital pets that lived inside a small handheld device. What made Tamagotchis interesting is that they were on a real schedule, needing food and attention on a daily basis. If you ignored your Tamagotchi for a few days, it would die. It was a high stakes game.

Eventually, the fad died as did many a Tamagotchi.

But today, Bandai Namco has tried to revive the trend with the launch of My Tamagotchi Forever.

Within the game, each Tamagotchi has a sleep meter, a hunger meter, an entertainment meter, and a bathroom meter. Users must fulfill the needs of the Tamagotchi in order to keep it happy and earn virtual currency to buy equipment for entertainment and food. Users can earn coins by playing mini-games in the entertainment section of the app.

Where My Tamagotchi Forever strays from its ancestors is in-app purchases. The game lets you skip past certain necessities, like waiting for your Tamagotchi to sleep, by purchasing Diamonds.

Given that this game is geared towards children, you could see how users could quickly rack up a bill, as some of the in-app purchases are as expensive as $99.

You can check out the trailer below or head straight to the app here.