A TikTok Mansion for Startup Founders. Launch House Isn’t What it Looks Like.
Kristen Anderson was four-and-a-half months pregnant when she got a private message on Twitter about a new self-proclaimed "creator house for entrepreneurs" in Los Angeles.
"We've rented out a $35 million mansion in Beverly Hills and have brought in some amazing founders to live together," the message read.
Anderson is no stranger to the world of venture capital and startup accelerators. She landed $8.1 million in funding for her company after finishing Y Combinator, a program that helped launch big names like Instacart and Airbnb.
But after a year of lockdown and stay-at-home orders, the job got lonely. So in February, just two weeks after learning about it, she booked a flight from Boston to Los Angeles to join Launch House, a live-in accelerator where mostly twentysomethings build their dream tech companies while chronicling it all for TikTok and Instagram.
And they're doing it from a 12,000 square-foot property they say was last rented by Paris Hilton.
In the living room, a whiteboard calendar lists upcoming events like "How to think about the future" and "hackathon presentations." One night, Anderson and her co-founder ordered pizza for the house in exchange for a brainstorm session.
"We just want to be with really smart, talented young people who are building amazing things," she said. "That helps us maintain energy."
The idea came from former Airbnb and Uber product manager Michael Houck, Google alum Brett Goldstein and Commsor co-founder Jacob Peters. The trio sees traditional startup incubators as a relic of the past.
Their goal is to recreate the basements and dorm rooms where the minds behind Google, Amazon and Apple began their empires. Only in their version, it's in a palatial setting replete with a waterfall and hot tub overlooking Los Angeles.
"Universities are no longer going to be the aggregators of great talent," said Peters, who's started to invest his own money — he won't say how much — in Launch House residents. "It's going to be small, niche communities that start in houses."
Perched on a hill in the 90210 zip code, the house reads part co-working space, part dorm-room with the pace of a reality show. Competition to get in is fierce. To secure a spot, applicants fill out an online questionnaire. For those who make the cut, an interview with the founders comes next.
Everyone pays rent, but they call it "membership."
"It's kind of syntax but it matters," Goldstein said. "This is a club and a community, and the physical living experience is just a small component."
Commsor co-founder Jacob Peters, Airbnb and Uber product manager Michael Houck and Google alum Brett Goldstein.Photo by Eray Alan
The vision captures a very specific — and opportune — moment in L.A. The sway of TikTok celebrities and influencers has crashed into VC money. It's at this meeting point where socially-native entrepreneurs hope to make a name for themselves and their nascent companies.
Just take 21-year-old Marc Baghadjian, a senior at Babson College who wakes up for 5 a.m. Zoom classes some mornings before working on his startup late into the night. Earlier this month — right before moving in — Baghadjian landed $1.1 million for his TikTok-style dating app, Lolly. Baghadjian has used the house as a networking opportunity and it helped him land more investors. Recently he secured another $2.5 million in new commitments and his company's valuation tripled.
Influencers drop by almost every other day, Baghadjian said. In February, Lolly posted an ad on TikTok featuring 19-year-old Milo Manheim, a Disney Channel actor and "Dancing with the Stars" competitor.
(Jacobs said the house maintains a "very strict policy" when it comes to visitors and socializing. Guests are required to test negative for COVID-19 at the door, using self-administered rapid tests.)
But unlike veteran accelerators like Y Combinator, Launch House doesn't promise entrepreneurs any investment. The draw is something else — schmoozing, advice and social media exposure.
As the line between advertisement and content creation blurs, it's changing the way companies find both investors and consumers.
"What on Instagram is marketing and what is entertainment?" said Olav Sorenson, a professor specializing in entrepreneurship at UCLA's business school.
"People are no longer thinking about buying ad space as the way to market a product. They're thinking about how we generate word of mouth through connecting to influencers."
L.A. is "on the forefront of this," said Sorenson. "Entertainment itself is often very entrepreneurial."
'Let's Pretend This Is a TikTok Creator House'
At almost all hours of the day, entrepreneurs at Launch House work from slender white desks and office chairs scattered across the living room, decorated with sparkly art they say Hilton left behind. Others choose to work outside, on lounge chairs lining the pool.
"I spend a lot of time in the laundry room," said Kathryn Cross, a 22-year-old from Manhattan Beach. "That's a pretty big room and you can lock the door. I'll take calls from my car or in the garage."
Cross is a model, runs a Gen Z consultancy firm called Bridge Strategy and streams herself playing chess on Twitch for extra cash. She was worried about the lack of privacy before moving in, but said space and noise aren't issues. Even weekends are work days.
"At 2 a.m. on a Saturday, there will be someone sitting in a corner coding," she said.
And Cross doesn't want to leave. While Launch House was designed to bring on a new cohort of founders every month, many stay longer.
The concept for a live-in accelerator was born last summer, when some tech companies closed their offices and even dropped pricey leases. Fashioning themselves as "digital nomads," young entrepreneurs across the country took off for remote work spots. Their offices could suddenly be anywhere.
Reply to @alyssaasf - were a creator house for #startups #tech #fyp
Houck picked Tulum, Mexico. He already knew Goldstein and Jacobs through On Deck, a fellowship program for entrepreneurs cooking up new startup ideas, and asked them to tag along.
"On the way down, we got this cheeky idea," Goldstein said. "Let's pretend this is TikTok creator house."
The first version of Launch House was born there, in an AirBnb villa blocks from the beach, as a "co-living, co-working experiment," Peters said. It was set up like an upscale college campus for about 18 entrepreneurs to build software and apps. A big facet of that experiment was documenting it online.
"We made a website, an Instagram page and a TikTok," said Peters. "Our social accounts got immediate buzz. No one had ever really lifted that veil of mystique that often surrounds early-stage startup founders."
But, as Goldstein put it, the infrastructure in Mexico was "not there for us to give the right experience."
COVID-19 cases were still soaring last fall. There was a small outbreak at the house. Then, in October, Tulum was issued a warning when Hurricane Delta ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana.
"There were leaks in our place," he said. "The grocery store was closed because there was a hurricane. It was just kind of hot. We couldn't Instacart orders."
Joining LA's Influencer Buzz
The three relocated to L.A., a city clad with venture capitalists they already knew. And inside other extravagant houses across the city, young content creators were churning out TikToks and Instagram posts, signing deals with big name companies for advertisements.
"Paris Hilton moved out literally a week before we moved in," Peters said. "We turned a celebrity mansion into a hacker house," said Peters.
Hilton's PR agency did not respond to questions about whether she rented the house prior, but a few TikTok posts look to be filmed inside. Launch House has no ties to M13 Ventures, the firm founded by Hilton's fiancé, Carter Reum, according to M13 partner Christine Choi.
If the common areas resemble a glamorous WeWork, the seven bedrooms read more like dorms. Grey metal bunk beds, piles of laundry, books written by successful entrepreneurs.
Those are parts rarely seen on Launch House's social media accounts.
The goofy yet focused atmosphere inside the house — along with the success of those living there — are what the public sees.
Faraaz Nishtar, a software engineer, ended his lease in San Francisco to join Launch House. It's there he met Brendon Davis, a 23-year-old stunt YouTuber who films videos with members of Sway House, a buzzy TikTok house in Bel Air home to a group of young influencers. At least once a week, Davis drives to Launch House to brainstorm with Nishtar on pitching his app to content creators.
His startup, Alias, archives a user's digital footprint, which Nishtar hopes will become a "global directory" of online content. He scored half a million from investors like Balaji S. Srinivasan, a former general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and later attracted a few new angel investors when he moved in. Peters included.
"Last night, we stayed up talking from midnight until 2 a.m. about the future of media," Nishtar said. "In college, people are dicking around and lounging. There's not much of that happening here."
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Hollywood is on notice: Gen Z would rather scroll through social media, play video games and stream music than watch TV or catch a film.
That's a remarkable shift from earlier generations – who still prefer to kick back and watch a screen – and poses serious challenges to traditional media, according to an annual survey of digital trends by Deloitte.
Asked to choose their favorite entertainment activity, the top response among Generation Z, was video gaming (26%), followed by listening to music (14%), browsing the internet (12%), engaging on social platforms (11%) and then watching TV or movies at home (10%).
Administered in February as the pandemic was raging, the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers reflects the rising popularity of gaming across ages but most starkly highlights the digital divide among generations.
"Media companies and advertisers may still be video-first, but younger generations may not be," the report said.
Of the Generation Z respondents, defined as those born between 1997 and 2007, 87% play video games daily or weekly, on smartphones, consoles or computers. And while a majority of the respondents, including millennials and Generation X, said video games have helped them stay connected to others during the pandemic, they see entertainment differently.
For all other generations (Millennials: born 1983-1996; Gen X: 1966-1982; Boomers: 1947-1965 and Matures: 1946 and prior), kicking back and watching the tube came in as the number one entertainment option.
Here are some additional takeaways:
- 82% of U.S. consumers have at least one video streaming subscription
- The average subscriber pays for four services
- Cost is the most important factor for deciding whether to subscribe to a new streaming service, followed by content selection
- 52% find it difficult to access content across so many services
- 53% are frustrated by the need to have multiple service subscriptions
- 40% would prefer to pay $12 a month for an ad-free video service, while 60% said they'd accept some ads for a lower fee.
- Streaming music subscribers pay for an average of two paid music services
- 45% would rather pay than have ads for their music streaming; 67% of millennials would prefer to pay
- 67% don't trust the news they see on social media
- 55% pf Generation Z and 66% of millennials say social media ads influence their purchasing choices versus 49% of Generation X and 13% of boomers
- 40% would be willing to provide more personal information to receive more targeted ads
- 62% of Gen Z and 72% of millennials would rather see personalized ads than generic
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With more than 200 million subscribers and intense competition from the likes of Disney and HBO Max, can Netflix keep its big lead in the streaming wars?
Financially, Netflix has never been better off. It has forecast its cash flow to break even in 2021. If it does, that would eliminate, for the first time, the company's need to raise external financing for its day-to-day operations.
That's in part because the company raised its subscription price last year, by $1 for the standard option and $2 for premium, and still added a record 37 million new subscribers. But as the pandemic winds down and competition heats up, it's unclear whether it will be able to sustain the pace.
According to analytics firm JustWatch, Netflix's market share in the U.S. is already on the decline.
And the debt that has financed much of their enormous content library looms. In its most recent earnings report, the company's balance sheet showed nearly $8 billion due within one year, and an additional $20 billion further down the road. Flush with cash, however, it recently pledged to cut its debt load to a sustained level of $10 billion to $15 billion.
The question now is how Netflix can wind down that debt while simultaneously growing its revenues. Having already expanded to over 190 countries, there are few new markets to tap. Can Netflix squeeze more subscribers out of its current markets? Or might it continue looking to squeeze more out of existing subscribers' wallets?
At its earnings call on Tuesday, Netflix may offer some answers on how it plans to keep ahead of the pack. Analysts see the streamer, whose shares are trading near record-high levels, at a pivotal moment. Here is what some of them are expecting ahead of the first-quarter earnings call:
Shrinking Profitability in the Short-Term…
One reason why Netflix's financials were so strong last year is that the pandemic forced it to reduce spending on content production. Subscribers piled in anyway, and the company was able to make up for some of the shortfall by leaning into animation. But in the near-term, that slowdown may have consequences.
"We believe that the leaner content pipeline going into 2021 could very well influence subscriber growth," wrote Moody's analyst Neil Begley in his most recent note.
...But Long-Term Growth
Although Netflix is likely to increase the billions of dollars it already spends on making and buying shows and films, analysts still believe it's poised for profitability by next year.
"We know that the company has launched in every market, and that original content investment reached a tipping point in 2020," wrote Justin Patterson and Sergio Segura, analysts at KeyBanc Capital Markets, in their most recent Netflix note. "Even with healthy reinvestment in content, we believe this positions the company toward sustainable [free cash flow] generation beginning in 2022."
Moody's analysts also expect Netflix to continue adding subscribers over a longer period, projecting the streamer to hit 250 million subscribers globally by late 2022.
Higher Quality Programming
Most analysts think Netflix is likely to increase the quality of its programming.
Michael Pachter and Alicia Reese, analysts at Wedbush Securities, pointed to Netflix's recent licensing deal with Sony, which will give the streamer exclusive rights to Sony's films after their theatrical and home entertainment runs for five years, starting in 2022. Netflix will also get first-look rights on Sony's direct-to-streaming content, some of which it has pledged to produce.
"While the financial terms were not disclosed, it has been widely reported that Netflix will pay over $1 billion for the deal," they wrote in their most recent Netflix note. "This is meaningful for Netflix as many of its earlier exclusive licensing deals have expired, the content pulled back by studios such as Disney to shore up their competing streaming services."
Improving the quality of its content should allow Netflix to increase prices, KeyBanc analysts wrote. This past year's hikes didn't seem to repel customers, suggesting they may yet be willing to pay more, despite the many alternatives consumers now have.
But Maybe a Future Market Sell-Off?
Despite Netflix's strong 2020, Wedbush analysts called it overvalued and issued a price target of $340, nearly 40% below its current level.
"We have been consistently wrong about Netflix, but optimism about the company's potential to generate free cash flow growth of more than $1 billion per year [which, they note, is what the company's current valuation implies] seems to us to be misplaced," the note said.
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From helping save beehives to healing the human body, some of L.A.'s most innovative companies are helmed by female founders. Who stands above the pack? We asked the region's top VCs participating in our recent dot.LA sentiment survey to weigh in.
Ara Katz, a serial entrepreneur and founder of probiotic company Seed tops our list. Katz found a niche in a multi-billion dollar industry, but she acknowledges that this past year has been especially tough for women, as the pandemic forced millions to drop out of the workforce.
"It is not lost on me what a privilege it is to be building a company as a female founder and mother given how impactful the pandemic and the past year has been on women and mothers in the workforce," said Katz. "My best advice to founders is to build with abandon — it is contagious, amplifying and makes it all meaningful."
Nationally, female-founded or co-founded companies earned less than 3% of all venture capital in 2020, according to data from Pitchbook. Although women founders say they still face issues of sexism and encounter more obstacles than their male counterparts, there are signs of improvement. In the first quarter of this year, women entrepreneurs reeled in $9.8 billion in capital investment nationally – an all-time high in quarterly investments over the past 12 years.
In Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana, $544 million was poured into female founded startups alone over that time.
Therese Tucker, founder of fintech company BlackLine, which also made our list, said that it's important for women to find people who believe in them as they build their companies.
"Don't be intimidated by condescension," Tucker said, "Look for people you can actually partner with who 'get' your business."
And just as importantly, founder of health platform Kensho, Krista Berlincourt, said stay true to who you are.
"It is not easy. And you'll be surrounded by men, so just find the people who get you and your vision, hold onto them tight, and go for it. Then remember that soft is strong. You don't have to 'crush it' to be successful," she said. "Be you. Be flexible. Soften. Grow. That's the only thing that has ever worked," Berlincourt added.
Here's the complete list:
Ara Katz, Seed
Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, a Venice-based probiotic company designed to improve health and digestion. Katz's experience as a breastfeeding mother led her to explore the importance of microbes and their impact on bodily health. Among other leading roles, Katz was co-founder and CMO of ecommerce marketplace Spring, which was sold to ShopRunner in 2018. She was also on the founding team of Beach Mint, an e-commerce company for fashion and lifestyle brands.
Claire Schmidt, AllVoices
Claire Schmidt aims to empower workers through AllVoices, an anonymous reporting and management platform, which allows employees to report issues in the workplace. The LA-based company has raised a total of $4.1 million with investments by Crosscut, Greycroft, Halogen Ventures and dot.LA founder Spencer Rascoff. Inspired by the the MeToo movement, the platform lets employees alert management to problems like discrimination, harrasment, or work bias. Prior to roles at AllVoices, Schmidt was vice president of technology and innovation at Fox properties and senior director of giving at Thrive Market, an e-commerce platform for organic products.
Ariel Kaye, Parachute
Ariel Kaye used her design and brand background to launch Parachute in 2014. Parachute is a direct-to-consumer bedding brand based in Culver City. The startup has raised over $47 million in funding to date with investments by H.I.G Capital, Jaws Ventures and Brilliant Ventures. The brand avoids chemicals and synthetics in their products putting an emphasis on sustainability.
Therese Tucker, BlackLine
Therese Tucker is the founder and executive chair of BlackLine, an LA-based platform for accountants that takes on repetitive or complicated tasks. BlackLine pulled in nearly $352 million in revenues in 2020, and expects to grow that to at least $410 million this year. Ranked among Fortune's '50 fastest growing' women led companies in 2016, the company also received first place in G2's "Best Finance Products of 2021" ranking.
Sophia Amoruso, Nasty Gal
Southern California native Sophia Amoruso is the founder and former owner of Nasty Gal, a multi-million dollar clothing store originally started on eBay. Nasty Gal was sold at a value of $20 million, including $15 million in debt, to BooHo in 2017. Amoruso's newest project is an eight-week entrepreneurship course called Business Class, which aims to help female business leaders begin or grow their small businesses. The New York Times bestseller author of#GIRLBOSS, she detailed her entrepreneurial story that was later made into a Netflix series.
Madeline Fraser, Gemist
Madeline Fraser is the CEO and founder of Gemist, a mobile app that allows users to design a ring and try it on at home before they buy. Fraser used her experience in growing tech-startups to create one of her own. The sustainable jewelry brand raised $1 million in funding in its first seed round in 2019 and last year was backed by De Beers Group Ventures, Hawke Ventures and Monique Woodward last year for an undisclosed amount.
Krista Berlincourt, Kensho
Berlincourt is the CEO and co-founder of Kensho, an Los Angeles-based health platform and guide to natural medicine. Kensho provides users with specialized wellness services from surfing to acupuncture. The company has raised $1.3 million and is backed by top investors like CrossCut Ventures, Female Founders Fund and Evolve Ventures. Prior to creating her own company, Berlincourt worked in public relations at venture-backed Simple.
Katherine Power, Who What Wear
Katherine Power co-founded Who What Wear 15 years ago out of frustration with a fashion industry that was often out of reach for many. The brand focuses on providing affordable and size-inclusive fashion. She is now CEO of Clique Media Group, a parent company that oversees Who What Wear and other consumer brands. As of 2017, Clique Media Group raised over $15 million in funding with investments by Amazon, Greycroft and e.ventures. Power was also listed in Fortune's 40 under 40 in 2016.
Cat Chen, Skylar
Cat Chen is the founder and CEO of Skylar, a fragrance and body care brand. Chen developed a hypo-allergenic and cruelty free fragrance after being dismayed by the lack of clean ingredients in high-priced perfumes. The company founded in 2017 has raised a total of $11 million backed by Amplify, FirstMark Capital and GingerBread Capital. Prior to Skylar, Chen was was an executive of operations at The Honest Company, where she helped grow the company to $300 million of revenue in her four years there.
Shivani Siroya, Tala
The founder and CEO of Tala, a Santa Monica-based consumer credit smartphone app, Shivani Siroya created the company to assist people in underrepresented markets. Tala uses advanced data science to provide personalized financial services, such as disbursing loans to people with no formal credit history. The startup has raised over $217 million in funding by top investors, and has since been mentioned in TedTalks, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Siroya's company is valued at an estimated $750 million dollars as of 2019, and was deemed one of the top FinTech companies in the world by Forbes.
Lead image by Ian Hurley.
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