Utah’s Pluralsight unveils IPO filing

Pluralsight, the Utah-based education technology company, has revealed its IPO filing. 

Given the timing of the unveiling, the company is likely targeting a May public debut.

Its core business is online software development courses, helping people improve their skills in categories like IT, data and security. Businesses small and large pay Pluralsight to help train their employees. It also has offerings for individual subscribers.

In the filing, the company acknowledges that it is a competitive landscape, and names Cornerstone OnDemand, Udacity, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning as others in a comparable market. It also mentions General Assembly, which was recently acquired by Adecco for $413 million. 

This is the first glimpse we get at Pluralsight’s financials. For 2017, the company brought in $166.8 million in revenue, up from $131.8 million in 2016 and $108.4 million in 2015.

Losses are growing, however. This is partly due to a sizeable increase in sales and marketing expenditures. For 2017, the company lost $96.5 million. This is up from losses of $20.6 million in 2016 and $26.4 million in 2015.

Pluralsight has been around since 2004. Like many startups outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, the company bootstrapped its business and didn’t raise significant outside funding until 2013. Pluralsight previously raised nearly $200 million in financing.

The largest shareholder is Insight Venture Partners, which owned 46.1 percent of the shares prior to the IPO, an unusually high percentage. Co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard owned 13.4 percent and investment group ICONIQ owned 8.1 percent.

Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan served as lead underwriters. Wilson Sonsini and Goodwin Procter served as counsel.

Pluralsight plans to list on the Nasdaq under the ticker “PS.”

A provision in the JOBS Act from 2012 helped make it so that companies could file confidentially and then reveal financials and other business information just weeks before making public debuts. This helps companies avoid too much scrutiny in the months leading up to an IPO. There is also a quiet period in this time, meaning that companies are limited in what they can say publicly about their businesses.

Like most tech companies, Pluralsight chose to take advantage of this confidential filing provision. But it also announced that it filed, something that companies don’t usually do. Most choose to stay quiet about IPO plans until they make the filings public, unless reporters break the news first.

It was no surprise to those who have been following Utah’s tech scene that Pluralsight is planning to list on the stock market this year. The venture-backed “unicorn” has been a late-stage company for several years now, with a reported valuation of $1 billion as of 2014. 

After a slow first couple of months, there has been a flurry of tech IPO activity in recent weeks. DropboxSpotify and Zuora recently debuted. Pivotal, Smartsheet and Carbon Black are amongst the companies expected to list in the coming weeks.


Instead of stealing instruments, musicians turn to Splice

“The percentage of Top 40 music made with our platform blows my mind,” says Splice co-founder Steve Martocci. He tells me about some bedroom music producers who were “working at Olive Garden until they put sounds on Splice.” Soon they quit their jobs because they were earning enough from artists downloading those sounds to use in their songs. That led them to collaborate with famous DJ Zedd, resulting in the Billboard No. 12 hit “Starving.”

Splice has attracted $47 million in funding to power this all-new music economy. That might be a shock, considering Martocci estimates that 95 percent of digital instruments and sample packs are pirated because they’re often expensive with no try-before-you-buy option. Even Kanye West got caught stealing the trendy Serum digital synthesizer.

But Splice lets artists pay $7.99 per month to download up to 100 samples they can use royalty-free to create music. That’s cheaper than it costs to listen to music on Spotify. Splice then compensates artists based on how frequently their sounds are downloaded, and has already paid out over $7 million.

Splice Sounds is like an iTunes Store for samples

“We try to make more seats at the table in the music business,” says Martocci, who previously founded messaging app GroupMe, which sold to Skype for between $50 million and $80 million in 2011. “GroupMe was made to go to concerts with our friends. Music has always been my motivator, but code is my canvas. Artists come up to me and hug me because I’m changing the creative process.”

Splice co-founder Steve Martocci

But now he’s getting some big-name assistance, attracted by Splice’s success in the stubborn musician community and its $35 million Series B from December. Splice has just hired former Facebook product manager Matt Pakes as VP of product to lead core teams in New York, and former Secret co-founder Chrys Bader to build out a new squad in Los Angeles. [Disclosure: I knew both from before they moved out of the SF social scene.]

Splice now has 100 staffers, mostly hobbyist musicians themselves, but “I don’t think I have one San Francisco employee,” says Martocci. He wants his offices where the artists live. “Everyone has a genuine passion for music. It doesn’t feel like a tech company as much,” says Bader. Martocci apparently takes feedback well, which is different because “I’ve had some pretty fucking hard people to work with in the past…” Bader notes, likely referring to disagreements with his co-founder at Secret. “I have zero tolerance for bullshit at this point in my life and there’s zero bullshit on this team.”

While the Sounds marketplace has blown up recently, pushing Splice to 1.5 million users, the startup has a grander vision for software to eat instruments. That means creating the same kind of tools that help programmers code apps, but for musicians to compose songs. Splice Studio integrates with composition software like GarageBand, Logic and Ableton to offer cloud-synced version control.

This might sound nerdy, but it’s a lifesaver. Splice Studio automatically backs up the artist’s work-in-progress song after every single edit so they can always reverse changes and safely work with collaborators without having to nervously save manually and fret about keeping all the copies organized.

Splice saves every edit to a song-in-progress so you can experiment but always reverse changes

Since Splice’s staffers actually make music themselves rather than parachuting into a foreign space, they intimately understand the frustrations they’re trying to solve. Knowing income can be unpredictable, Splice lets musicians access plugins, software and instruments on a rent-to-own basis, where they can pause payment and resume later. That’s the kind of convenience that Bader says makes Splice “easier than piracy,” echoing Spotify director Sean Parker’s plan to beat bootleg MP3s with a simple streaming service. “I wanted to build something even Reddit couldn’t complain about,” Martocci laughs.

But where Splice goes next could address the biggest, most insidious barrier to creative output: writer’s block. Ask most modern musicians and they’ll tell you about their giant folders of unfinished songs. Getting from a melody rattling around in your head to a few tracks laid out in your preferred composition software is the easy part. Polishing those parts, ditching the unnecessary ones, finding the rights sounds and tying it all together into something listenable can be agonizingly difficult.

Creative Companion is Splice’s solution. Currently being built by Bader’s LA team, it’s a songwriting assistant that can suggest a next step and surface samples that fit well with those you’re already using. Martocci explains how Splice uses “cool machine learning stuff” to recommend “Hey, you should add a bass line. You should add some mastering.”

Splice just hired Chrys Bader, previously the co-founder of Secret

The question for Splice will be how many music producers out there are willing to pay. “There’s an upper bound. This is not a consumer product,” Bader admits. Citing internal research, he says there are 30 million music producers in the world. Many might not even know about Splice, “but at $8 a month, that’s not really breaking the bank. You might pay $200 for a plugin or $700 for Ableton. That’s insane. Musicians can’t afford that. Yet a musician friend tells me all the time ‘I’m broke, I’m broke…but I live or die by Splice.’”

Splice’s heavy-duty funding from Union Square Ventures, True Ventures and DFJ could also attract competition. It might awake the interest of big creative services corporations like Adobe, or more established music production tool companies like Native Instruments, which just launched a direct competitor called Sounds.com. But Splice is digging in for a long fight, giving away Splice Studio to lure in users and commissioning exclusive sample packs from top creators. In that sense, Splice is almost like a record label.

“I want to see a world with more transcendent musical highs,” where “you have more music that’s ready for any moment,” Martocci opines. “If we build something that makes musicians lives better, that makes our lives better because a lot of us are musicians… what else is there in life?” Bader explains.

Computers democratized music-making, leading to a flood of amateurs sharing their content with the world. But all good democratizations necessitate layers of curation to sort through all the output, which social networks have become, and tools to let the most talented artists create what’s worth everyone’s attention.

Martocci concludes, “Software is a great instrument. One-third of the world tries to make music at some point. They’re not going to pick up guitars and recorders any more.” Whatever app they choose, Splice wants to keep them in the creative flow.


US early-stage investment share shrinks as China surges

The global early-stage investment pie is getting bigger… a lot bigger. Just four years ago, investors were putting less than $10 billion per quarter into early-stage deals (Series A and B). The past two quarters, however, have all come in over twice that level. Q1 2018, meanwhile, looks to be a record-setting one, with Crunchbase projecting $25 billion in global early-stage investment.

But while overall investment is on the rise, the U.S.’ share is dwindling. A few years ago, North American startups reliably received at least two-thirds of global early-stage investment. No more. For the past three quarters, North America’s share has dwindled to less than half, as the chart below illustrates:

The rise of China’s startup scene, combined with local investors’ penchant for jumbo-sized Series A rounds, goes a long way to explaining the shift. Venture ecosystems in Southeast Asia, Brazil and elsewhere have also been in growth mode, and thus accounting for a more significant share of global early-stage investment.

Huge Series A rounds are huge in China

Before we venture further, it should be noted that although we associate Series A with early-stage companies, this is not always the case. Some of the largest Series A rounds globally have gone to companies that were relatively mature but previously bootstrapped or spun out of large corporations.

Recent data shows both the U.S. and China have their share of spin-outs and older companies gobbling up so-called early-stage rounds. OneConnect and Ping An Healthcare, subsidiaries of Chinese insurance giant Ping An, which raised $650 million and $1.2 billion, respectively, are examples of such activity.

Venture investors in China also put far more into Series A and B deals than U.S. counterparts. A Crunchbase News analysis found that the average Series A round for a China-based startup in 2017 was $32.8 million, just over triple the size of the average Series A for a U.S. company.

The momentum is holding up in 2018. So far this year, at least 12 Chinese companies have raised early-stage rounds of $100 million or more, altogether bringing in more than $4 billion (see list). Recipients of some of the largest rounds include:

  • Ziroom, an apartment rental service provider based in Beijing, raised $621 million in its Series A round.
  • Black Fish, a consumer finance platform, raised a $145 million Series A round.
  • Pony.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup with significant operations in both Silicon Valley and China, raised a $112 million Series A.

U.S. is no slouch in big A and B rounds, either

The U.S. has also had a dozen startups (plus Pony.ai) bring in $100 million or more in early-stage rounds this year. However, the aggregate total these startups have raised — about $1.8 billion — is less than half that of Chinese counterparts.

As mentioned previously, many of the largest early-stage round recipients are mature companies or spin-outs of mature companies. The list includes two companies founded in 2009 that closed Series B rounds of around $100 million this year: Joby Aviation, a developer of electric planes, and Vacasa, a vacation property management company.

Healthcare spin-outs are also attracting big dollars, including Celularity, a developer of placental stem cell-based therapies, and Viela Bio, a developer of therapies for autoimmune diseases.

But while big rounds are still getting done, the number of U.S. early-stage rounds of all sizes has declined a bit over the past four years. Over the last two quarters, Crunchbase projects fewer than 900 early-stage rounds are closing quarterly. Globally, however, the number of early-stage rounds has been trending up:

Part of the pattern is that the dynamics of early-stage funding have changed over the years. In the past, Series A and B rounds were for startups to develop working prototypes, hone market segments to target and attract the earliest customers. Scaling on a national or international level was generally for later stages, after a company had proven demand and a working product.

These days, markets move faster, and it’s not uncommon to see startups move in just a few quarters from concept to scaling en masse. Just look at Bird, the scooter sharing company that raised $115 million after mere months of operation with a business model intended to terrorize pedestrians and motorists provide a last-mile transit solution.

The entire bike, scooter and moped sharing sector has blossomed over a couple of short years, with big early-stage rounds all around. And it’s an area where China was the early leader for scaling. But fintech, biotech, agtech and other fields are also providing fertile ground for substantial early-stage funding rounds.

Should we worry?

So is the declining share of North American early-stage funding a source of worry for founders and investors in the region? Or is it a predictable evolution following economic growth in China and elsewhere?

We won’t attempt to answer that here, but others have tried. Sequoia Capital’s Michael Moritz drew wide criticism earlier this year for an essay sounding the warning bell on what he perceived as superior work ethic among Chinese entrepreneurs compared to their U.S. counterparts.

Purely following the money, the takeaway is this: Investors globally have decided the early-stage opportunity is a lot bigger than they thought a couple of years ago. And while investors are putting a bit more into mature ecosystems like the U.S. and Silicon Valley, they are putting a lot more into China and other regions with underdeveloped venture markets relative to their size and technology prowess.