StrictlyVC Scores Again: Great Talk and Yummy Sliders
The StrictlyVC Insider Series, founded by TechCrunch editor Connie Loizos, continues to be one of the better tech events in the Bay Area. The most recent event earlier this month in San Francisco offered another evening of candid interviews with technology leaders sharing aspects of their startups’ growth stories. This crop of insiders included leaders in luxury consignment sales, plant-based burgers and a disappearing messaging app, as well as two partners from Lightspeed Ventures, the hot VC firm behind Wall Street’s latest social media darling, Snapchat.
First up was Jon Brod, co-founder and president of secure messaging app Confide. In the wake of Snapchat’s introduction of disappearing messages, a bevy of ephemeral texting apps emerged to cater to people’s increasing demand for information privacy. If Snapchat appeals to teens and Millennials, Confide was designed for serious adults.
The company likes to say that it offers “military-grade” end-to-end encryption, not only making messages disappear the second they are read but also preventing any attempts to capture private communications via screenshots. Sounds like the perfect platform to discuss sensitive and confidential information? According to Politico and the Washington Post, White House communications staff members must believe so, because they use it regularly. Confide made national headlines early in 2017, attracting press most startups can only dream of, for being the texting app of choice for the White House, including press secretary Sean Spicer. That, Brod said, was when he noticed Confide’s user numbers “getting to the next stratosphere.”
Attention can bring trouble, however. About a month into the media dazzle, Confide found itself being challenged by security researchers who identified several vulnerabilities. Brod told the audience that the company can fix security problems “incredibly quickly,” and he said that no Confide users were affected. But Confide is nonetheless facing a class action lawsuit alleging that the app’s screenshot protection does not work as advertised. “It’s completely unfounded and meritless,” Brod asserted, “This is what this [law firm] does; it goes after high-flying and other tech companies.” Having only raised $3.5 million since its start in 2013, Confide may be facing a rocky road ahead.
Next up was Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of luxury consignment sales site The RealReal. The RealReal has carved a unique pathway among second-hand luxury fashion sites by focusing exclusively on consignment.
The company provides consignors who want to sell their pre-owned designer goods with free direct shipping, as well as free white-glove pick-up services in 16 U.S. cities. Founded in 2011 by Wainwright, The RealReal has pulled in $123 million in venture capital funding and is on track to hit $500 million in gross merchandise value (GMV) this year. Wainwright has been a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for decades; a few people still remember her as the CEO who took Pets.com to bankruptcy. But her triumphant comeback from the dotcom bubble burst is an inspirational story for young startup founders today, few of whom probably have the stomach for the cyclical turns of Silicon Valley. The RealReal has already experimented with pop-up stores, and it will soon open a permanent outpost in New York’s Soho district.
After Wainwright came Patrick O. Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, the company behind the plant-based burger that’s taking the culinary world by storm. Brown and his team of dedicated scientists believe they are not just creating a vegan burger patty recipe but saving the world by inventing new foods completely made of plants. As Brown often points out, animal agriculture uses 30 percent of all land and more than 25 percent of all freshwater on the planet, creating as many greenhouse gas emissions as all of the world’s cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes combined. Impossible Foods is on a mission to change that by making plant-based meats that are good for both people and the planet. The company’s star team of top scientists, farmers and chefs have spent the last five years investigating the molecular basis of food flavors and textures with the aim of identifying methods and ingredients to naturally recreate them. The magnitude of scientific research undertaken by Impossible Foods approaches that of Elon Musk’s effort to build the SpaceX rocketships. In one of his more surprising comments, Brown pointed out that VC firms in his experience are really bad at doing due diligence about science and research. Regardless, Impossible Foods has raised about $200 million since its start in 2011.
Impossible Foods’ burgers are currently playing hard to get; at the moment they are available only in 11 exclusive high-end restaurants in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. (Thanks to Brown’s presence at the conference, attendees got to taste samples of his signature rare sliders.) But luxury and exclusivity are not the company’s long-term goals; Brown wants Impossible Foods’ burgers to be as broadly known and popular as Big Macs. When interviewed on-stage by Lora Kolodny, one of TechCrunch’s better known reporters, Brown said he believes that, to scale successfully, the company needs initially to cultivate a sense of rarity and mystery. Sadly, given how delicious the samples were, Brown did not reveal when he plans to move toward the mass market.
The final speakers were Barry Eggers and Ravi Mhatre, founders of Lightspeed Ventures, who were interviewed by Haystack general partner Semil Shah. The Menlo Park- based Lightspeed was the seed funder behind Snapchat and a huge beneficiary of its recent IPO. The firm currently manages more than $4 billion in committed capital and invests in the U.S. and internationally, with partners in Silicon Valley, Israel, India and China.