Armed with nearly $3 million, a list of prominent investors and tens of thousands of users, the apartment rental platform PocketList looked like a startup poised to take off.
CEO and co-founder Nick Dazé touted the proptech software that let potential renters get an inside peek at apartments before being listed as technology that "turned the entire rental market on its head." He sold it as a way for landlords to save billions of dollars by cutting down turnover time between tenants and assured renters access to honest, up-to-date information about units before they went online.
Investors — who poured a record amount of money into seed startups last year — hardly needed convincing. Dazé closed a $2.8 million seed round last April led by David Sacks' Craft Ventures.
"It's no surprise that renters have flocked to the service," said angel investor Spencer Rascoff, co-founder of Zillow and dot.LA, in announcing the raise.
By July, PocketList had unveiled the app in Los Angeles with plans to launch in San Francisco and San Diego by the fall. Seattle, Chicago and New York were next.
Users could rate apartment features like natural lighting and parking in the neighborhood. There was a question and answer page for past tenants to field concerns and a chat function for landlords and prospective renters. The idea was to make renters feel like they had unvarnished insight into a unit, much the way Yelp lets users rate restaurants.
But the rollouts in new cities never came. Even before PocketList went live, renters across the country stopped signing new leases as the pandemic cast a pall over the economy. Landlords — now navigating eviction moratoriums and mounting bills — didn't have the money or the inclination to spend on new apps, Dazé said.
In the last week of April, the CEO and his co-founder Julian Vergel de Dios gave notice to eight remote employees and around 20 investors that the company would be closing operations for good.
"I spent from February until last week fundraising," Dazé told dot.LA during the first week of May. "The ultimate pause of us beginning to wind things down is that we struck out on fundraising and few very, very large customer deals we've been working on for several months fell through."
Dazé attributed PocketList's undoing to the declining renters' market and a reeling economy that kept many landlords from buying in. But in the world of venture deals, losses don't always mark the end of a company. It's the absence of investor faith.
"For a lot of seed investors, it's almost like buying lottery tickets," said UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Olav Sorenson.
"The odds of it paying off are low, but if it does pay off, you could make a lot of money," he said.
Investing capital in early-stage startups is risky and uncertain. It's nearly impossible to collect data on startups that fold given that most close shop quietly, according to Pitchbook spokesperson Kayla Gordon.
But, according to Sorenson, roughly half of all startups that raise seed money will close a Series A. The seed round supplies entrepreneurs with enough money to prove to investors their business can be successful.
That metric of success depends on investors. Most venture-backed companies in this stage don't turn a profit, but some can show enough potential for growth to entice investors back.
The Pandemic and Proptech
Investors' appetite for early-stage startups waned a bit last year, with these riskier companies pulling in $44 billion in capital compared to $47.1 billion in 2019, according to Pitchbook data.
It was a particularly rough year for proptech companies. The industry was hit harder than other parts of tech, such as ecommerce, which flourished during the pandemic as consumers moved online. Venture investments in real estate technology companies plummeted by half to $9.1 billion globally in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Pitchbook.
Most of that drop off came from flexible and co-working office spaces, said Pitchbook analyst Zane Carmean. The stay-at-home economy dried up demand for office rentals.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that WeWork required a large injection of capital from Softbank and core investors after the failed IPO in 2019," Carmean said by email.
Other real estate tech startups kept their footing. Carmean pointed to a boom in housing demand from young coastal workers moving to the Midwest, South and Mountain West as remote working took hold.
Inside other real estate companies, though, research and development teams were the first to cut spending, said Marcelino Diaz, an analyst focused on proptech at Plug and Play Ventures. With the market dwindling, they didn't have spare cash to experiment with new technologies.
Instead, they were spending on tech that played into pandemic needs.
"Offices and retail were looking at how startups could come to help with sanitization, space optimization and most importantly, social distancing," Diaz said.
Investors backed startups like L.A.-based OpenPath for its touchless entry systems designed to reduce face-to-face contact inside office buildings and elevators. Diaz's firm invested in virtual and augmented reality startups like Avatour and Giraffe360, whose camera devices and software helped real estate managers move tours online. And he kept an eye on startups whose UV light technology promised cleaner, disinfected commercial spaces.
"It was a pivot in terms of where investments went," he said.
PocketList's founders anticipated their app would carve out its own spot in the changing market. But the demand for rental units in coastal cities — the platform's target audience — was shaky.
Pitching the Platform
In 2018, Dazé and Vergel de Dios were coming off 86 venture rejections for their startup Block, a Chrome extension for apartment hunters to sort and share listings with roommates. Dazé admitted the concept was tricky to explain, which he said, is "probably why it didn't work."
They scrapped the software and built a new prototype each month until landing on the idea for PocketList in July of 2019. In the early days, the co-founders operated the service manually through Google Forms and email, matching renters eyeing apartments in each other's neighborhoods.
"I was on my computer 24/7, three-year-old daughter climbing on my back," said Dazé, who was also consulting for Clutter, a storage and moving startup with offices in L.A. "You make it work."
Eventually, he told Clutter's CEO, Ari Mir, he was quitting the job to build his company full time. He asked Dazé for a demo and quickly became PocketList's first investor in its pre-seed round.
"Basically we raised about a million bucks that weekend," Dazé said.
Mir's investment "got the ball rolling" and a few investors who turned down the pitch for Block even chipped in. The pair soon pulled in a new roster of investors for a seed round about six months later: Abstract VC, Wonder Ventures and angel investor Rascoff.
User sign-ups and engagement had been almost doubling month over month and at its height, about 75,000 renters used the app. The platform was free for renters, instead relying on landlords to pay a fee to receive notifications about how often users listed their properties.
But by the time their funding round closed, it was mid-April of 2020 and the economy largely shut down as stay-at-home orders tightened.
"An incredibly prominent investor of ours who has a large audience — a day after lockdown — called me and scared the shit out of me," said Dazé. "He's like 'You need to batten down the hatches.'"
Dazé terminated the company's office lease in Playa Vista and cancelled software subscriptions. He cut monthly spending back by 30% without laying off a single employee.
"If we hadn't done that, we may have ultimately failed earlier," he said.
The company scrambled. It introduced paid features like instant messaging (which later became free) and experimented with new pricing models for landlords. Despite the changes, Dazé said, "every single interaction in our platform slowed down a lot."
He made the call to close the business after a series of rejections for his next funding round. A few undisclosed customers also pulled out of expected deals. On April 29, he and Vergel de Dios broke the news to their eight employees during a Zoom meeting. That afternoon, they emailed investors.
Craft Ventures and Wonder Ventures could not be reached for comment.
"Our bank account isn't at zero," Dazé said. "We're not shutting down shop in a panic because we're running out of money, but there's not enough money for us to do anything dramatic like pivot the company."
Though he would not disclose how much capital remains, Dazé told investors "not to expect anything" back. He'll distribute whatever remains based on the amount each investor contributed.
The CEO was tight lipped about his next moves, but hinted at a potential deal that may acquire the company's software. And he's confident new companies — if not members of his own team — will try their hand at a similar technology.
As for the proptech market, commercial real estate is already picking back up as companies forecast returning to the office. In L.A., leases hardly got cheaper over the past year.
"I consider this a timing issue, like most great failures," said Dazé.
He chalks most of it up to COVID-19. In a world without it, he said, "things would have turned out very differently."
Editor's note: An earlier version said Daze had been working for several weeks to strike a deal with customers, it in fact had been months. This article has also been updated to clarify the total amount raised.
Los Angeles is home to around 5,000 startups, the majority of which are in their young, formative years.
Which of those thousands are poised for a breakout in 2021? We asked dozens of L.A.'s top VCs to weigh in. We wanted to know which companies they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Yesterday, our investors picked their favorite Series-A or later startups, and not surprisingly there was more consensus, with familiar names like PopShop Live and Scopely leading the way.
But the most lucrative returns come from identifying companies in their infancy, as recent blockbuster IPOs vividly demonstrate. For instance, Sequoia's $600,000 seed check to Airbnb in 2009 accounted for 70% of its shares in the company and helped it get into competitive later rounds. When the vacation rental service went public last month, Sequoia's stake was worth $4.8 billion.
What will be the next breakout? The complete list is below and is ranked in random order except for the first three, which stood out by virtue of getting multiple votes: Pipe enables companies with recurring revenues to tap into their deferred cash flows with an instant cash advance. Clash App, Inc., is a TikTok alternative launched by a former employee of the social network in August. And XCLAIM allows bankruptcy claims to be digitally traded.
Pipe provides financial services to help cloud service companies tap into their deferred cash flows, allowing them to continue growing without taking on debt or giving up ownership. For subscription-based businesses, this makes it "as if all of your customers converted to annual plans overnight," according to the company.
Founded by Harry Hurst, Josh Mangel and Zain Allarakhia, the company raised $66 million of seed funding earlier this year in a deal led by Craft Ventures and Fin Venture Capital.
Created by former Vine-r Brendon McNerney and entrepreneur and marketing expert P.J. Leimgruber, Clash App is a short form video platform similar to TikTok, but without built-in sound libraries. It's geared toward empowering creators with innovative monetization options and inclusive communities.
XCLAIM has created an electronic platform where bankruptcy claims that take a notoriously long time to process can be digitally traded. Founded in 2018 by Matthew Sedigh, who has operated in the corporate restructuring field for more than a decade, the company says "rather than wait years for the bankruptcy court process to issue payment distributions, creditors can now access immediate liquidity by selling their claim to interested buyers." Earlier this year, it raised a $4 million seed round led from Luma Launch, First Round Capital and Freestyle Capital.
Freck Beauty manufactures beauty products intended to make the user feel seen. Remi Brixton, the company's chief executive officer, founded the startup in 2015 when she was in search of a freckle makeup product. When she couldn't find one, she launched her own, the FRECK OG. The East Los Angeles-based company raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding in a deal led by KarpReilly and Stage 1 Fund earlier this year.
The Skills wants to be the master class on sports and life. The Los Angeles-based startup launched two months ago and offers classes from gold medal Olympians — including swimmer Michael Phelps and volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings — and Grand Slam tennis Champion Maria Sharapova. In December, it closed a $5 million seed round backed by Boston-based Will Ventures, Global Founders Capital, 8VC, Maveron, Hack VC and Correlation VC.
Founded by Shaun Cooley, former chief technology officer of Cisco's Internet-of-Things (IoT) and Industries division, Mapped provides IoT services in El Segundo.
The company raised $3 million of seed funding in a deal led by Greycroft earlier this year, putting its pre-money valuation at $9 million.
Created in 2016 by Geoffrey Michener, Dataplor indexes micro-businesses in Mexico (and will soon be expanding to other countries in Central and South America) and sells the data to larger companies.The company relies on contractors in those countries to collect the information from local businesses. It raised $4 million from ff Venture Capital, Quest Venture Partners and Space Capital earlier this year and expects to use it to expand into more Latin American countries.
Launched by serial entrepreneur Joe Bayen, Grow Credit helps customers improve their credit score by providing credit for subscription services like Netflix and Spotify. Their MasterCard can help consumers with thin or damaged credit scores and the small line of credit can be upgraded for a fee. The company closed a $2 million seed round earlier this year with participation from Mucker Labs.
The two-year-old Santa Monica-based company has seen business boom during the pandemic as retail stores shut down and online orders surged. The direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand uses backyards as showrooms and raised $4.3 million in a seed round earlier this year led by Mucker Capital. Founded by Jake Liu and Terry Lin, a former designer at Pottery Barn, Outer aims to appeal to Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn shoppers.
A livestreaming reseller of collectibles like FunkoPop vinyl figurines, Pokémon cards and sports cards, WhatNot taps into a growing retail trend and promises that the collectibles are verified, much like sneaker reseller GOAT.
The startup secured $4 million in seed funding this month from Scribble Ventures, Wonder Ventures, Operator Partners, Y Combinator, Liquid 2 Ventures, Twenty Two Ventures and other investors. The company plans to use the funds to expand into video games, comics books, designer toys and vintage fashion.
Fourthwall is the developer of an internet platform that helps content creators launch fully-branded websites focused on interacting with fans. Their website tag phrase is "Make a living doing what you love," which is complemented by their model, which provides creators 100% ownership of their website and brand.
Founded by Walker Williams and Will Baumann, the company has raised $4 million to date, from investors Defy Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Initialized Capital Management.
Shop LatinX calls itself the "leading beauty, fashion, and lifestyle ecommerce designed by and made for Latinas." The brainchild of two Los-Angeles-based Latinas, Brittany Chavez and Raquel Garcia launched their website before Black Friday in 2016. It features more than 200 brands.
Founded by former SpaceX software engineer Karan Talati and Neal Sarraf, First Resonance promises to ease the workflow for manufactures with software intended to provide greater visibility into production and test product development lifecycle. The company raised $1.75 million of seed funding last year from Wavemaker Partners, Stage Venture Partners and PLG Ventures, among clothes.
Vurbl offers curated, one-stop-shop of what it calls the best audio on the internet, which can include podcasts but also goes well beyond that from religious sermons to court arguments. The new platform founded by CEO Audra Gold is being built with the $1.3 million pre-seed round Vurbl closed in September led by AlphaEdison with participation from Halogen Ventures and Ten13.
Former Disney executive Chris Williams founded the studio that produces family-focused content from YouTube stars. This year it launched clock.work, an advertising agency designed to help major brands reach kids. Investors include Viacom, Greycroft, Third Wave Digital and United Talent Agency, along with strategic angels including Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Landau.
The app allows renters to see and share apartments that will soon be available before they're listed — reducing the time properties sit vacant and potentially heating up competition among apartment hunters. It launched earlier this year. The company has $2.8 million in seed funding led by David Sacks' Craft Ventures along with Abstract VC, Wonder Ventures and angel investor Spencer Rascoff, co-founder of Zillow and dot.LA.
The audio-based social platform promises to be the spot for "live, supportive, feel good conversations—just like hopping on the phone with a friend when you need it most." It lets people start a conversation around any topic or join by listening. Quilt raised an undisclosed amount of venture funding from Freestyle Capital in 2019.
Founded by Abhi Nayar, Chris Garwood and Igor Licthmann, Tonebase provides high-level music education online. Yale School of Music alumnus Garwood and Lichtman told their alma mater that it built with the idea that it was "a way for people everywhere to learn from the very best musicians around the world — individuals who, due to their busy performing and teaching careers, are traditionally accessible to only a select few." The company has raised an undisclosed amount from Launch fund, e.ventures and other undisclosed last May.
Launched in 2013 by Jeff Su, Yu-Han Chang and Rajiv Maheswaran, Second Spectrum already has deals with the NBA and English Premier League. This year it scored another one with Major League Soccer to use its optical tracking system to evaluate and analyze performance.
Second Spectrum puts their tracking cameras inside the stadium. Machine learning and AI-powered analytics provide detailed data that helps coaches and others better understand the game from player speed and deceleration to shot velocity in near real time. That technology can also be used on broadcast platforms to give fans more insight. The company raised about $20 million backed by CAA Ventures, Raine Ventures and The Chernin Group in 2018.
Founded by CEO Taylor Nieman, Shaun Merritt and Brandon Dietz, Toucan is a Chrome browser extension that lets people learn a new language. It scans websites you visit and translates some words into the language you want to learn. The Santa Monica-based company most recently raised a $3 million round backed by GSV Ventures, Amplifyher Ventures, and Wonder Ventures, among others.
Created by former SpaceX engineers, Serve Automation aims to change the way foods get delivered. It has secured $7 million in a seed round and is operating in stealth mode.
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Lots happened in the L.A. tech and startup community this week. dot.LA chief host and correspondent Kelly O'Grady takes you through the key stories:
- Startups: Techstars LA 2020 Class Launches, Rental App Pocketlist Launches, OpenPath Seeks End of Key Cards
- Media: Peacock Launches Everywhere, 'Going Public' Fuses IPOs & Reality TV
- Investing: Fisker to Go Public, Wavemaker Raises Oversubscribed Round, Fewer L.A. Startup Deals Getting Done
Weekly Recap: Techstars L.A. 2020 Launches Remote, NBC Launches Peacock & Startup Deal Volume is Low www.youtube.com
Watch to stay smart on what is happening, and follow us on Instagram for daily video content.
- Los Angeles' Tech and Startup Scene is Growing. - dot.LA ›
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- Catch Up With This Week's Startup News in Our Weekly Video Recap ›