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Alyce, an AI-based personalised corporate gifting startup, raises $30M

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Swag has a long and patchy history in the world of business. For every hip pair of plaid socks, there are five t-shirts you may never wear, an itchy scarf, a notepad your kids might use, and an ugly mug; and most of all, likely thousands of dollars and lots of time invested to make those presents a reality. Now, a startup that has built a service to rethink the concept behind corporate gifts and make them more effective is today announcing a round of funding to continue expanding its business — and one sign that it may be on to something is its progress so far.

Alyce, a Boston startup that has built an AI platform that plugs into various other apps that you might use to interact and track your relationships with others in your working life — sales prospects, business partners, colleagues — and then uses the information to personalise gift recommendations for those people, has raised $30 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue building out its platform, signing up more users, and hiring more people for its team.

This round is being led by General Catalyst, with Boston Seed Capital, Golden Ventures, Manifest, Morningside and Victress Captial — all previous backers — also participating.

Alyce says that it has grown 300% year-over-year between 2019 and 2020, tackling a corporate gifting and promotional items industry that ASI Market Research estimates is worth around $24.7 billion annually. Its customers today include Adobe’s Marketo, G2, Lenovo, Wex, Invision, DialPad, GrubHub, and 6Sense.

As with so many other apps and services that aim at productivity and people management, Alyce notes that this year of working remotely — which has tested many a relationship and job function, led to massive inbound and outbound digital activity (the screen is where everything gets played out now), and frankly burned a lot of us out — has given it also a new kind of relevance.

“As everyone was flooded with spam last year unsubscribing soared,” Greg Segall, founder and CEO of Alyce, said in a statement. “When a prospect opts out, that’s forever. It’s clear that both brands and customers crave the same thing – a much more purposeful and relatable way to engage.”

Alyce’s contribution to more quality engagement comes in the form of AI-fueled personalization.

Linking up with the other tools people typically use to track their communications with people — they include Marketo, Salesforce, Vidyard and Google’s email and calendar apps — the system has been built with algorithms that read details from those apps to construct some details about the preferences and tastes of the intended gift recipient. It then uses that to come up with a list of items that might appeal to that person from a wider list that it has compiled, with some 10,000 items in all. (And yes, these can also include more traditional corporate swag items like those socks or mugs.) Then, instead of sending an actual gift, “Swag Select”, as Alyce’s service is called, sends a gift code that lets the person redeem with his or her own choice from a personalised, more narrowed-down list of items.

Alyce itself doesn’t actually hold or distribute the presents: it connects up with third parties that send these out. (It prices its service based on how much it is used, and how many more tools a user might want to have to personalise and send out gifts.)

Yes, you might argue that a lot of this sounds actually very impersonal — the gift giver is not directly involved in the selection or sending of a present at all, which instead is “selected” by way of AI. Essentially, this is a variation of the personalization and recommendation technology that has been built to serve ads, suggest products to you on e-commerce sites, and more.

But on the other hand, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of trying to figure out what to get someone, which can be a challenge when you really know a person, and even harder when you don’t, while at the same time helping to create and fulfill a gesture that, at the end of the day, is about being thoughtful of them, not really the gift itself.

(You could also argue, I think, that since the gift lists are based on a person’s observations about the recipient, there is in fact some personal touches here, even if they have been run through an algorithmic mill before getting to you.)

And ultimately, the aim of these gifts is to say “thank you for this work relationship, which I appreciate”, or “please buy more printer paper from me” — not “I’m sorry for being rude to you at dinner last night.” Although… if this works as it should, maybe there might well be an opportunity to extending the model to more use cases, for example brands looking for ways to change up their direct mail marketing campaigns, or yes, people who want to patch things up after a spat the night before.

Notably, for General Catalyst, it’s interested indeed in the bigger gifting category, pointing to the potential of how this service could be scaled in the future.

“At General Catalyst, we are proud to lead the latest round of funding for Alyce as the company has reimagined the gifting category with technology and impact. The ability to deliver products and experiences that both the giver and recipient feel good about is incredibly powerful,” said Larry Bohn, Managing Director at General Catalyst, in a statement.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Haitian Activist Brings Awareness To Spate Of Violence Rattling Country

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NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian activist and actor who has been calling attention to the recent surge of violence and kidnappings in his country.

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Consumer agency warns against Peloton Tread+ use, as company pushes back

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Almost exactly a month ago, Peloton CEO John Foley wrote an open letter about the the company’s treadmill. “I’m reaching out to you today because I recently learned about a tragic accident involving a child and the Tread+, resulting in, unthinkably, a death,” it begins. “While we are aware of only a small handful of incidents involving the Tread+ where children have been hurt, each one is devastating to all of us at Peloton, and our hearts go out to the families involved.”

Today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning, telling users to stop using the Tread+. Citing 39 incidents, included the aforementioned death, the CPSC writes, “The Commission has found that the public health and safety requires this notice to warn the public quickly of the hazard.”

Peloton followed up with its own strongly worded statement writing, “The company is troubled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) unilateral press release about the Peloton Tread+ because it is inaccurate and misleading. There is no reason to stop using the Tread+, as long as all warnings and safety instructions are followed.”

The commission’s warning includes multiple injuries involving small children and a pet. Specifically, the note calls for users with children at how to cease using the product, a more stern warning than the initial suggestions outlined by Foley back in in March, who at the time told users to keep children and pets away from the system and store the device out of reach after using. Peloton has since added that there have been 23 incidents involving children, 15 with objects and, as the CPSC noted, one with a pet. The company added that it had not revealed the specifics previously out of privacy concern.

“If consumers must continue to use the product, CPSC urges consumers to use the product only in a locked room, to prevent access to children and pets while the treadmill is in use,” the organization notes. “Keep all objects, including exercise balls and other equipment, away from the treadmill.”

For its part, the connected fitness maker adds,

Peloton invited CPSC to make a joint announcement about the danger of not following the warnings and safety instructions provided with the Tread+, and Foley asked to meet directly with CPSC. CPSC has unfairly characterized Peloton’s efforts to collaborate and to correct inaccuracies in CPSC’s press release as an attempt to delay. This could not be farther from the truth. The company already urged Members to follow all warnings and safety instructions. Peloton is disappointed that, despite its offers of collaboration, and despite the fact that the Tread+ complies with all applicable safety standards, CPSC was unwilling to engage in any meaningful discussions with Peloton before issuing its inaccurate and misleading press release.

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Why it’s not surprising to see nine-figure AI rounds 

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. If you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning, sign up here

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

This week, Scale AI raised a $325 million Series E. The company, as TechCrunch has written, works in the data labeling space. And it has been on a fundraising tear over the last few years. In 2019 TechCrunch wrote about how the company’s then-22-year-old CEO had put together a $100 million round. Then in December of 2020, it raised $155 million at a roughly $3.5 billion valuation. Now it’s worth more than $7 billion.

Impressive, yeah? Well, as I learned earlier this week, AI startups in general are having one hell of a year. From the start of 2021 to April 12th, there were 442 AI-startup deals in the U.S. worth $11.65 billion, according to PitchBook data. And the recent Microsoft-Nuance AI deal may accelerate things even more.

Sapphire Ventures’ Jai Das weighed in on the AI venture market for The Exchange. He answered our question regarding how competitive the space was in the first quarter by saying that “investment activity in AI/ML startups has been absolutely insane” during the first quarter.

Per Das: “AI/ML startups are routinely getting 5-6 term sheets from top-tier VC firms and they are able to raise their financings at 150-250X of current ARR.”

Chew on that for a moment. We’ve seen public software multiples reach new heights in the last year, but even for aggressive startup rounds, those are some bonkers numbers. Imagine an AI-focused startup with $1 million in recurring revenue being valued at a quarter of a billion dollars. Damn.

But what about pace among AI investing? We’ve heard that the time from a round opening to its closing among many startups has been compressed and compressed again. Das helped explain the situation, saying in an email that “most firms are completing their due diligence way before the financing actually happens,” which means that there is “no need to do any due diligence during the financing.”

That actually makes some sense? If rounds are largely preemptive — something that Das underscored later on in his comments — you have to do pre-diligence. Otherwise you’ll always be investing blind or missing out on deals due to other firms moving more quickly.

This week The Exchange also dug into the broader domestic venture capital market, with a special focus on seed deals, and the super late-stage investments that dominate headlines. A comment on the earlier-stages of venture investing that just missed our piece on the matter came from Jeff Grabow, EY’s U.S. Venture Capital lead.

In his comments on pre-seed, seed and post-seed deals, something stood out to us — a prediction of sorts. Here’s Grabow:

[Q1 2021] was a strong quarter for pre-seed funding when you compare it to prior years, and we expect the overall environment to remain strong given the abundance of capital available and plethora of investable themes that tap into new markets via technological solutions. It paints a rosy picture for the post-COVID environment.

That tracks with our internal estimates. Q1 2021 was so hot for at least American venture capital activity (expect more international coverage soon) that it seems likely that the year itself will be a record in many respects. Provided that things don’t slow too much, records will be broken. And here Grabow flat-out anticipates a pretty attractive climate for venture after COVID-19 is behind us.

So, records will be broken. The question is by how much.

More notes on Coinbase’s direct listing

Not to whomp the equestrian deceased too much, but I have a few more notes for you on the Coinbase direct listing.

Public.com, the Robinhood consumer trading rival, helped The Exchange better understand just how much retail interest there was in the stock. Per its ever-present spokesperson Mo, on April 14th, Coinbase “was the most popular stock on public,” measured by number of transactions. And perhaps more notably, on the same day “social activity (measured by the number of posts) increased by 70% compared to the day prior.”

I do not know how long the consumer trading boom can last, but that’s a pretty impressive set of metrics.

Similarweb also had a few data points to share, including that visits to coinbase.com reached 86.4 million in January. Hot damn. And during that month new visitors bested returning visitors. That data helps explain how Coinbase wound up with the epic first quarter that it did. Now the question is if it can keep up its bull run or, frankly, if consumer interest in trading in crypto specifically will outlast the equities trading boom or not.

Coinbase Series D lead investor Tom Loverro, who we’ve mentioned a few times this week, including on the podcast, said that we’re still merely in the second inning of crypto. So expect these topics to keep coming up again and again. And again.

Various and sundry

Trying to actually stick to our word count target for once, here are some final notes on the IPO market from the week.

First, the AppLovin IPO did not go according to plan. After modestly pricing at $80 per share, the middle of its range, the mobile-app focused tech company saw its value fall during its first two days’ trading. It’s now worth $61 per share as of the end of Friday.

The Exchange spoke with AppLovin CFO Herald Chen on its IPO day. Chatting with the finance executive, our read from the conversation is that the company could accelerate its acquisition game more now that it is public. Having a liquid stock means that it can be even more acquisitive than before. And AppLovin claims that it can buy companies, run them through its business process, and juice their revenues per its S-1 filing.

If that bears out, the public markets may be giving the company a bit too hard of a time. It was a bit odd to see a software company struggle post-IPO in today’s climate.

Chen also told The Exchange that his firm didn’t see any pushback regarding its multi-class share structure during its roadshow. The multi-class share miasm is something I’ve written about with our own Ron Miller. The CFO did note that no single person has complete control of the company, even with several different classes of equity with disparate voting rights. That matters, frankly.

We’ll keep tabs on AppLovin as it trades. (Our earlier coverage of its numbers is here.)

Finally, autonomous trucking company TuSimple went public this week, and Similarweb filed to go public. We’re also watching the broader IPO market as UiPath either raises its price range or note. We have a guess on that score.

And just as the week was closing, Squarespace dropped its S-1. Notes here with more to come.

Good vibes and nothing other than the best from here,

Alex

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