Her Highflying LA Startup Changed How Students Got to School. Then Came the Pandemic.

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

Her Highflying LA Startup Changed How Students Got to School. Then Came the Pandemic.

When Joanna McFarland co-founded HopSkipDrive in 2014, she thought she had discovered the perfect low-risk business model – contracting with school districts to provide safe and reliable ridesharing for students.

"I always said this is the most recession-proof business there is because it's schools and schools don't close," McFarland recalls. "But apparently it's not pandemic proof."

With the raging coronavirus shuttering schools in most of the eight states it serves plus Washington D.C., McFarland says the company is bringing in "far less" than 20% of the revenue it did pre-pandemic. Though that's up from last Spring when revenue vanished practically overnight.

"2020 has been a year," McFarland said in a Zoom video interview last month. "I don't know what else to say."

McFarland attended The Wharton School for undergrad, and got an MBA at Stanford in 2005, before executive roles at OneWest Bank, AT&T Interactive and GM Consumer Finance. But nothing could prepare her for 2020.

"March, April and May was just crisis mode," McFarland remembers. "New information was coming in every single day. How do you possibly plan for next month or next quarter, let alone like tomorrow? How do you keep your team from freaking out?"

HopSkipDrive laid off 10% of its workforce in March, but thinking that schools would reopen by Fall, McFarland hoped to retain the bulk of her staff. The company received a $1.6 million Payroll Protection loan in April to retain 102 jobs – one of the largest given to an L.A. startup.

"That meant that we got to keep all of our operations team, our support team, our marketing team, our sales team," she said.

The funding ran out in August, and with most students still stuck at home, she laid off 60 people. Fewer than 50 employees remain.

"That was very, very difficult to do," McFarland said.

Joanna McFarland attended The Wharton School for undergrad, and got an MBA at Stanford in 2005, before executive roles at OneWest Bank, AT&T Interactive and GM Consumer Finance. But nothing could prepare her for 2020.

It was a major setback for the once fast-growing startup, which was started by McFarland and two other L.A.-area working moms desperate for a safe way to ferry their overscheduled kids to and from school, soccer games and violin lessons — activities that now seem like the relics of a bygone era.

"With eight children between us, we were constantly struggling with the need to be in multiple places at once," McFarland said soon after launching. "We designed HopSkipDrive to be safe enough for our own kids to use, and in doing so, have developed a scalable transportation solution that has been game changing for families."

Before COVID-19, HopSkipDrive had been on a significant hiring spree, relocating its offices to the trendy ROW DTLA in the Arts District, where Spotify has its L.A. headquarters.

HopSkipDrive raised $22 million in late-stage funding last February from two of L.A.'s most prominent venture firms, Greycroft and Upfront Ventures, to bring its total fundraising close to $45 million. (Upfront also got in on the 2015 seed round.)

"We're excited to invest in a L.A.-based company that's creating a whole new category and solving such a real problem for families," Upfront Ventures partner Greg Bettinelli said in 2015. "We see a real growth opportunity."

The timing of the most recent raise – a month before stay-at-home orders went into effect – proved fortunate in extending HopSkipDrive's runway when contracts dried up. Through it all, McFarland has given up trying to predict when students will be back in the classroom.

"In times like this, you look at what you can control and you look at what you can't control and obviously we cannot control when schools open or don't open," McFarland said.

What she can effect is HopSkipDrive's slimmed down operation, which she says will pay dividends when things return to normal.

"It gives you time to take a step back and look at every single process and every single thing that you're doing and figure out how we would do this a little bit faster, a little bit better, a little bit more efficiently," McFarland said. "Ultimately, we have a much faster path to profitability when sales do return than we had before."

And McFarland, who has had to navigate the crisis while her kids have been at home, too, takes a degree of solace in the fact schools will reopen at some point. When that happens she thinks they will need HopSkipDrive more than ever because of a nationwide bus driver shortage that has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

"They're going to need our help, and we're all gearing up for that," she said. "I'm excited for that day."


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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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Inflation Reduction Act Officially Passes the Senate, Revamping Electric Vehicle Pricing

David Shultz

David Shultz is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside and Nautilus, among other publications.

The Capitol at Sunset
Courtesy of Mike Stoll via Unsplash

Over the weekend Senate Democrats officially passed the Inflation Reduction Act in what amounts to President Biden’s biggest legislative win so far. The bill includes a host of broad-spectrum economic policy changes and completely reworks the subsidies for electric vehicle purchases. The law still has to get through the House, but this should be a much smaller hurdle.

dot.LA covered the bill in depth as it neared the goal line at the end of July, and the final iteration doesn’t change much. To recap:

1. The rebate total stays $7,500 but is broken into two $3,750 chunks tied to how much of the car and its battery are made in the US.

2. The manufacturer caps are eliminated, meaning even EV companies that have sold more than 20,000 vehicles are once again eligible.

3. Rebates will now only apply to cars priced below $55,000 and trucks/SUVs below $80,000

With the new system placing a renewed emphasis on American manufacturing and assembly, the calculus of which vehicles cost how much is still being worked out. The most comprehensive (but unofficial!) list I’ve seen has come from Reddit user u/Mad691.

In addition to the EV rebate program, the bill also includes a number of economic incentives aimed at curbing emissions and accelerating the country’s transition to electric vehicles.

There’s $20 billion earmarked for the construction of new clean vehicle manufacturing facilities and $3 billion will go help electrify the USPS delivery fleet. Another $3 billion will go to electrifying the nation’s ports. Then there’s $1 billion for zero-emission trucks and buses.

Now that the bill is about to be codified into law, VC investment in the sector might heat up in response to the new money flowing in.

“I do anticipate more climate funds standing up to invest in EV infrastructure,” says Taj Ahmad Eldridge, a partner at Include Ventures and the director at CREST an ARES Foundation initiative with JFF/WRI that aims to provide training for people in the new green economy. “However, we do see funds being a little more thoughtful on diligence and taking their time to fund the right investment.”

The sentiment seems to be shared across Southern California. ChargeNet CEO and Co-Founder Tosh Dutt says the Inflation Reduction Act “super charges” the company’s effort to build infrastructure across the country.

“This investment accelerates the transition to renewable energy and gives companies like ChargeNet Stations the confidence to expand more rapidly, especially in underserved communities,” says Dutt.

For Rivian, the bill’s passage has left would-be customers in a sort of limbo. Because many of their models will exceed the $80,000 cap for trucks and SUVs after options, customers who’ve preordered are scrambling to sign buyers’ agreements to take advantage of the current EV rebate scheme which doesn’t include price caps. As I noted in the previous article, if you buy an EV before the bill is signed, you’re eligible for the current rebate system even if the vehicle isn’t delivered until 2023. Any existing contracts under the current system will remain valid.

With the legislation seemingly on the fast track to become law, it’s unclear whether or not Rivian will expedite the purchasing process to allow customers to sign the buyers’ agreement before the new rebate program becomes the law of the land. Tick tock!