March 21, 2019

Zeus raises $24M to make you a living-as-a-service landlord

Cookie-cutter corporate housing turns people into worker drones. When an employee needs to move to a new city for a few months, they’re either stuck in bland, giant apartment complexes or Airbnbs meant for shorter stays. But Zeus lets any homeowner get paid to host white-collar transient labor. Through its managed ownership model, Zeus takes on all the furnishing, upkeep, and risk of filling the home while its landlords sit back earning cash.

Zeus has quietly risen to a $45 million revenue run rate from renting out 900 homes in 23 cities. That’s up 5X in a year thanks to Zeus’ 150 employees. With a 90 percent occupancy rate, it’s proven employers and their talent want more unique, trustworthy, well-equipped multi-month residences that actually make them feel at home.

Now while Airbnb is distracted with its upcoming IPO, Zeus has raised $24 million to steal the corporate housing market. That includes a previous $2.5 million seed round from Bowery, the new $11.5 million Series A led by Initialized Capital whose partner Garry Tan has joined Zeus’ board, and $10 million in debt to pay fixed costs like furniture. The plan is to roll up more homes, build better landlord portal software, and hammer out partnerships or in-house divisions for cleaning and furnishing.

“In the first decade out of school people used to have two jobs. Now it’s four jobs and it’s trending to five” says Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar. “We think in 10 years, these people won’t be buying furniture.” He imagines they’ll pay a premium for hand-holding in housing, which judging by the explosion in popularity of zero-friction on-demand services, seems like an accurate assessment of our lazy future. Meanwhile, Zeus aims to be “the quantum leap improvement in the experience of trying to rent out your home” where you just punch in your address plus some details and you’re cashing checks 10 days later.

Buying Mom A House Was Step 1

“When I sold my first startup, I bought a home for my mom in Vancouver” Taggar recalls. It was payback for when she let him remortgage her old house while he was in college to buy a condo in Mumbai he’d rent out to earn money. “Despite not having much growing up, my mom was a travel agent and we got to travel a lot” which Taggar says inspired his goal to live nomadically in homes around the world. Zeus could let other live that dream.

Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar

After Oxford and working as an analyst at Deutsche Bank, Taggar built student marketplace Boso before moving to the United States. There, he co-founded auction tool Auctomatic with his cousin Harjeet Taggar and future Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison, went through Y Combinator, and sold it to Live Current Media for $5 million just 10 months later. That gave him the runway to gift a home to his mom and start tinkering on new ideas.

With Y Combinator’s backing again, Taggar started NFC-triggered task launcher Tagstand, which pivoted into app settings configurer Agent, which pivoted into automatic location sharing app Status. But when his co-founder Joe Wong had to move an hour south from San Francisco to Palo Alto, Taggar was dumbfounded by how distracting the process was. Listing and securing a new tenant was difficult, as was finding a medium-term rental without having to deal with exhorbitant prices or sketchy Cragislist. Having seen his former co-founder go on to great success with Stripe’s dead-simple payments integration, Taggar wanted to combine that vision with OpenDoor’s easy home sales to making renting or renting out a place instantaneous. That spawned Zeus.

Stripe Meets OpenDoor To Beat Airbnb

To become a Zeus landlord, you just type in your address, how many bedrooms and bathrooms, and some aesthetic specs, and you get a monthly price quote for what you’ll be paid. Zeus comes in and does a 250-point quality assessment, collects floor plans, furnishes the property, and handles cleaning and maintenance. It works with partners like Helix mattresses, Parachute sheets, and Simple Human trash cans to get bulk rates. “We raised debt because we had these fixed investments into furniture. It’s not as dilutive as selling pure equity” Taggar explains.

Zeus quickly finds a tenant thanks to listings in Airbnb and relationships with employers like Darktrace and ZS Associates with lots of employees moving around. After passing background checks, tenants get digital lock codes and access to 24/7 support in case something doesn’t look right. The goal is to get someone sleeping there in just 10 days. “Traditional corporate housing is $10,000 a month in SF in the summer or at extended stay hotels. Airbnb isn’t well suited [for multi-month stays]. ” Taggar claims. “We’re about half the price of traditional corporate housing for a better product and a better experience.”

Zeus signs minimum two-year leases with landlords and tries to extend them to five years when possible. It gets one free month of rent as is standard for property managers, but doesn’t charge an additional rate. For example, Zeus might lease your home for $4,000 per month but gets the first month free, and rent it out for $5,000 so it earns $60,000 but pays you $44,000. That’s a tidy margin if Zeus can get homes filled fast and hold down its upkeep costs.

“Zeus has been instrumental for my company to start the process of re-location to the Bay Area and to host our visiting employees from abroad now that we are settled” writes Zeus client Meitre’s Luis Caviglia. “I particularly like the ‘hard truths’ featured in every property, and the support we have received when issues arose during our stays.”

At Home, Anywhere

There’s no shortage of competitors chasing this $18 billion market in the US alone. There are the old-school corporations and chains like Oakwood and Barbary Coast that typically rent out apartments from vast, generic complexes at steep rates. Stays over 30 days made up 15 percent of Airbnb’s business last year, but the platform wasn’t designed for peace-of-mind around long-term stays. There are pure marketplaces like UrbanDoor that don’t always take care of everything for the landlord or provide consistent tenant experiences. And then there are direct competitors like $130 million-funded Sonder, $66 million-funded Domio, recently GV-backed 2nd Address, and European entants like MagicStay, AtHomeHotel, and Homelike.

Zeus’ property unit growth

There’s plenty of pie, though. With 330,000 housing units in SF alone, Zeus has plenty of room to grow. The rise of remote work means companies whose employee typically didn’t relocate may now need to bring in distant workers for a multi-month sprint. A recession could make companies more expense-cautious, leading them to rethink putting up staffers in hotels for months on end. Regulatory red tape and taxes could scare landlords away from short-term rentals and towards coprorate housing. And the need to expand into new businesses could tempt the big vacation rental platforms like Airbnb to make acquisitions in the space — or try to crush Zeus.

Winners will be determined in part by who has the widest and cheapest selection of properties, but also by which makes people most comfortable in a new city. That’s why Taggar is taking a cue from WeWork by trying to arrange more community events for its tenants. Often in need of friends, Zeus could become a favorite by helping people feel part of a neighborhood rather than a faceless inmate in a massive apartment block or hotel. That gives Zeus network effect if it can develop density in top markets.

Taggar says the biggest challenge is that “I feels like I’m running five startups at once. Pricing, supply chain, customer service, B2B. We’ve decided to make everything custom — our own property manager software, our own internal CRM. We think these advantages compound, but I could be wrong and they could be wasted effort.”

The benefits of Zeus‘ success would go beyond the founder’s bank account. “I’ve had friends in New York get great opportuntiies in San Francisco but not take them because of the friction of moving” Taggar says. Routing talent where it belongs could get more things built. And easy housing might make people more apt to live abroad temporarily. Taggar concludes, “I think it’s a great way to build empathy.”

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The inevitability of tokenized data

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We’re reaching the endgame of an inevitable showdown between big tech and regulators with a ley battleground around consumer data. In many ways, the fact that things have gotten here reflects that the market has not yet developed an alternative to the data paradigm of Google and Facebook as sourcers and sellers and Amazon as host that today dominates.

The tokenization and decentralization of data offers such an alternative. While the first generation of “utility” tokens were backed by nothing more than dreams, a new generation of tokens, connected explicitly to the value of data, will arise.

The conversation around data has reached a new inflection point.

Presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for the breakup of technology giants including Amazon and Facebook. In many ways, the move feels like an inevitable culmination of the last few years in which public sentiment around the technology industry has shifted from overwhelmingly positive to increasingly skeptical.

One part of that growing skepticism has to do with the fact that when populist ideology rises, all institutions of power are subject to greater scrutiny. But when you hone in on specifics, it is clear that the issue underlying the loss of faith in technology companies is data: what is collected, how it is used, and who profits from it.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a significant amount of user data was used to help Russian political actors sew discord and help Trump get elected in 2016, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s subsequent testimony in front of Congress were a watershed moment in this loss of faith around data.

Those who dismissed consumer outrage around the event by pointing out that barely anyone actually left the platform because of the event failed to recognize that the real impact was always more likely to be something like this – providing political cover for a call to break up the company.

Image courtesy of Bryce Durbin

Of course, not every 2020 Democratic candidate for the Presidency agrees with Warren’s call. In a response to Warren, Andrew Yang — the upstart candidate who has made waves with his focus on Universal Basic Income and after appearances on Joe Rogen’s popular podcast – wrote: “Agree there are fundamental issues with big tech. But we need to expand our toolset. For example, we should share in the profits from the use of our data. Better than simply regulating. Need a new legal regime that doesn’t rely on consumer prices for anti-trust.”

While one could suggest that Yang is biased, since he comes from the world of technology, he has been more vocal and articulate about the coming threat of displacement from automation than any candidate. His notion of a different arrangement of the economics of data between the people who produce it and the platforms who use (and sell advertising against) it are worth considering.

In fact, one could make an argument that not only is this sort of heavy-handed regulatory approach to data inevitable, but represents a fundamental market failure in the way the economics of data are organized.

Modern server room interior in datacenter

Data, it has been said, is the new oil. It is, in this analogy, the fuel by which the attention economy functions. Without data, there is no advertising; without advertising, there are none of the free services which have come to dominate our social lives.

Of course, the market for data has another aspect as well, which is where it lives. Investor (and former Facebook head of growth) Chamath Palihapitiya pointed out that 16% of the money he puts into companies goes directly into Amazon’s coffers for data hosting.

This fact shows that, while regulators – and even more, Presidential candidates looking to score points with a populist base – might think that all of technology is aligned around preserving today’s status quo – there are in fact big financial motivations for something different.

Enter ‘decentralization.

In his seminal essay “Why Decentralization Matters,” A16Z investor Chris Dixon explained how incentives diverge in networks. At the beginning of networks, the network owners and participants have the same incentive – to grow the number of nodes in the network. Inevitably, however, a threshold is reached where it pure growth in new participants isn’t achievable, and the network owner has to turn instead to extracting more from the existing participants.

Decentralization, in Dixon’s estimation, offers an alternative. In short, tokenization would allow all users to participate in the financial benefit and upside of the network, effectively eliminating the distinction between network owners and network users. When there is no distinct ownership class, there is no one who has the need (or power) to extract.

The essay was a brilliant articulation of an idealized state (reflected in its 50,000+ claps on Medium). In the ICO boom, however, things didn’t exactly work out the way Dixon had imagined.

The problem, on a fundamental level, was about what the token actually was. In almost every case, the “utility tokens” were simply payment tokens – an alternative money just for that service. Their value relied on speculation that they could achieve a certain monetary premium that allowed them to transcend utility for just that network – or enable that network to grow so large that that value could be sustained over time.

It’s not hard to understand why things were designed this way. For network builders, this sort of payment token allowed a totally non-dilutive form of capitalization that was global and instantaneous. For retail buyers, they offered a chance to participate in risk capital in a way they had been denied by accreditation laws.

At the end of the day, however, the simple truth was that these tokens weren’t backed by anything other than dreams.

When the market for these dream coins finally crashed, many decided to throw out the token baby with the ICO bathwater.

What if it prompted a question instead: what if the tokens in decentralized networks weren’t backed by nothing but dreams, but we’re instead backed by data? What if instead of dream coins, we had data coins?

Data is indeed the oil of the new economy. In the context of any given digital application, data is where the value resides: for the companies that are paid to host it; for the platforms that are able to sell advertising against it; and for the users who effectively trade their data for reduced priced services.

Data is, in other words, an asset. Like other assets, it can be tokenized and decentralized into a public blockchain. It’s not hard to imagine a future of every meaningful piece of data in the world will be represented by a private key. Tying tokens to data explicitly creates a world of new options to reconfigure how apps are built.

First, data tokenization could create an opportunity where nodes in a decentralized hosting network – i.e. a decentralized alternative to AWS – could effectively speculate on the future value of the data in the applications they provided hosting services for, creating financial incentive beyond simple service provision. When third parties like Google want to crawl, query, and access the data, they’ll pay the token representing the data (a datacoin) back to the miners securing and storing it as well as to the developers who acquire, structure, and label the data so that it’s valuable to third parties — especially machine learning and AI-driven organizations.

Second, app builders could not only harness the benefits of more fluid capitalization through tokens, but easily experiment with new ways to arrange value flows, such as cutting users in on the value of their own data and allowing them to benefit.

Third, users could start to have a tangible (and trackable) sense of the value of their data, and exert market pressure on platforms to be included in the upside, as well as exert more control over where and how their data was used.

Tokenized data, in other words, could create a market mechanism to redistribute the balance of power in technology networks without resorting to ham fisted (even if well meaning) regulation like GDPR, or even worse, the sort of break-up proposed by Warren.

Even after the implosion of the ICO phenomenon, there are many like Fred Wilson who believe that a shift to user control of data, facilitated by blockchains, is not just possible but inevitable.

Historically, technology has evolved from closed to open, back to closed, and then back to being open. We’re now in a closed phase where centralized apps and services own and control a vast majority of the access to data. Decentralized, p2p databases — public blockchains — will open up and tokenize data in a disruptive way that will change the flow of how value is captured and created on the internet.

Put simply, tokenized and open data can limit the control data monopolies have on future innovation while ushering in a new era of computing.

It’s how information can finally be set free.

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PagerDuty just filed its S-1

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Yet another San Francisco-based company looks to be going public imminently. PagerDuty, an 8.5-year-old startup that sends a wide range of companies information about their technology, just filed its S-1, a public disclosure about its IPOs plans.

PagerDuty, which helps companies quickly respond to IT incidents, as well as increasingly tries to anticipate them, had reportedly filed confidentially several months ago, but the 35-day government shutdown meant that no one could review its prospectus (or that of other companies) at the time.

According to a January story from Bloomberg, Morgan Stanley is leading the offering.

We’ve reached out to the company for more information. In the meantime, the offering says it seeks to raise $100 million, an amount that’s frequently used as a placeholder.

PagerDuty was valued at $1.3 billion last fall when it closed on $90 million in Series D funding led by T. Rowe Price Associates and Wellington Management. Earlier backers Accel, Andreessen Horowitz and Bessemer Venture Partners also joined the round, which brought the company’s total funding to $173 million.

According to the S-1, venture investors currently own about 55 percent of the company. Andreessen Horowitz owns the biggest stake, with 18.4 percent of its shares sailing into the IPO. Accel meanwhile owns 12.3 recent, Bessemer owns 12.2 percent, Baseline Ventures owns 6.7 percent, and Harrison Metal owns 5.3 percent.

PagerDuty, which employed 500 employees as of last fall, has never been profitable according to its filing, which says it generated a net loss of $38.1 million for the fiscal year ended January 31, 2018. (It saw revenue of $79.6 million during the same period.)

The risk factors for the company hold few, if any, surprises, including competition and management changes. Another risk is security. In fact, the company reveals in its S-1 that its security measures have, in the past, been compromised and notes that they could be again, which isn’t nothing, considering how much information PagerDuty requires to execute its work, including the personally identifiable information of its clients, including contact information and physical location.

As the filing notes, cyber incidents and malicious internet-based activity continues to increase generally, putting pretty much every organization at risk.

We profiled the company’s CEO, Jennifer Tejada, last fall. She joined the company in 2016 after previously serving as the CEO Keynote Systems, a company that specialized in developing and marketing software as a service and which as since merged with another company. For roughly the last year, she has also been a director on the board of the cosmetics giant Estee Lauder.

Tejada owns 6.4 percent of PagerDuty, shows the filing. Meanwhile, PagerDuty cofounders Andrew Miklas and Baskar Puvanathasan, both of whom have since left the company, each own a 7.1 percent stake.

Assuming PagerDuty’s plans move forward without a hitch, Tejada will join a small but growing list of women CEOs who’ve taken the tech companies they lead public, including Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz and Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake.

PagerDuty also looks to be joining at least a handful of startups that are situated in San Francisco proper and planning to go public in 2019, including Slack, Lyft, Uber, Pinterest, and, very likely, Airbnb.

Little wonder the city’s Board of Supervisors is trying to prepare for how the influx of even more wealth will impact life for its already crowded residents, many of whom are already struggling to afford life in San Francisco, where everything from rent to restaurant bills have been steadily rising for years.

The cost of buying a home is expected to rise, too. As cited in SF Weekly, a recent study completed by academics from UCLA and Pennsylvania State University titled “Cash to Spend: IPO Wealth and House Prices” analyzed the impact of IPOs in California between 1993 and 2017. What it discovered, unsurprisingly: that home prices within 10 miles of the company’s headquarters rose on average one percent after the filing date and another .8 percent after the company went public.

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Suse is once again an independent company

Open-source infrastructure and application delivery vendor Suse — the company behind one of the oldest Linux distributions — today announced that it is once again an independent company. The company today finalized its $2.5 billion acquisition by growth investor EQT from Micro Focus, which itself had acquired it back in 2014.

Few companies have changed hands as often as Suse and yet remained strong players in their business. Suse was first acquired by Novell in 2004. Novell was then acquired by Attachmate in 2010, which Micro Focus acquired in 2014. The company then turned Suse into an independent division, only to then announce its sale to EQT in the middle of 2018.

It took a while for Micro Focus and EQT to finalize the acquisition, though, but now, for the first time since 2004, Suse stands on its own.

Micro Focus says that when it acquired Attachmate Group for $2.35 billion, Suse generated just 20 percent of the group’s total revenues. Since then, Suse has generated quite a bit more business as it expanded its product portfolio well beyond its core Linux offerings and into the more lucrative open-source infrastructure and application delivery business by, among other things, offering products and support around massive open-source projects like Cloud Foundry, OpenStack and Kubernetes.

Suse CEO Nils Brauckmann will remain at the helm of the company, but the company is shaking up its executive ranks a bit. Enrica Angelone, for example, has been named to the new post of CFO at Suse, and Sander Huyts is now the company’s COO. Former Suse CTO Thomas Di Giacomo is now president of Engineering, Product and Innovation. All three report directly to Brauckmann.

“Our genuinely open, open source solutions, flexible business practices, lack of enforced vendor lock-in and exceptional service are more critical to customer and partner organizations, and our independence coincides with our single-minded focus on delivering what is best for them,” said Brauckmann in today’s announcement. “Our ability to consistently meet these market demands creates a cycle of success, momentum and growth that allows SUSE to continue to deliver the innovation customers need to achieve their digital transformation goals and realize the hybrid and multi-cloud workload management they require to power their own continuous innovation, competitiveness and growth.”

Since IBM recently bought Red Hat for $34 billion, though, it remains to be seen how long Suse’s independent future will last. The market for open source is only heating up, after all.

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CoParenter helps divorced parents settle disputes using AI and human mediation

A former judge and family law educator has teamed up with tech entrepreneurs to launch an app they hope will help divorced parents better manage their co-parenting disputes, communications, shared calendar and other decisions within a single platform. The app, called coParenter, aims to be more comprehensive than its competitors, while also leveraging a combination of AI technology and on-demand human interaction to help co-parents navigate high-conflict situations.

The idea for coParenter emerged from co-founder Hon. Sherrill A. Ellsworth’s personal experience and entrepreneur Jonathan Verk, who had been through a divorce himself.

Ellsworth had been a presiding judge of the Superior Court in Riverside County, California for 20 years and a family law educator for 10. During this time, she saw firsthand how families were destroyed by today’s legal system.

“I witnessed countless families torn apart as they slogged through the family law system. I saw how families would battle over the simplest of disagreements like where their child will go to school, what doctor they should see and what their diet should be — all matters that belong at home, not in a courtroom,” she says.

Ellsworth also notes that 80 percent of the disagreements presented in the courtroom didn’t even require legal intervention — but most of the cases she presided over involved parents asking the judge to make the co-parenting decision.

As she came to the end of her career, she began to realize the legal system just wasn’t built for these sorts of situations.

She then met Jonathan Verk, previously EVP Strategic Partnerships at Shazam and now coParenter CEO. Verk had just divorced and had an idea about how technology could help make the co-parenting process easier. He already had on board his longtime friend and serial entrepreneur Eric Weiss, now COO, to help build the system. But he needed someone with legal expertise.

That’s how coParenter was born.

The app, also built by CTO Niels Hansen, today exists alongside a whole host of other tools built for different aspects of the co-parenting process.

That includes those apps designed to document communication, like OurFamilyWizard, Talking Parents, AppClose and Divvito Messenger; those for sharing calendars, like Custody Connection, Custody X Exchange and Alimentor; and even those that offer a combination of features like WeParent, 2houses, SmartCoparent and Fayr, among others.

But the team at coParenter argues that their app covers all aspects of co-parenting, including communication, documentation, calendar and schedule sharing, location-based tools for pickup and drop-off logging, expense tracking and reimbursements, schedule change requests, tools for making decisions on day-to-day parenting choices like haircuts, diet, allowance, use of media, etc. and more.

Notably, coParenter also offers a “solo mode” — meaning you can use the app even if the other co-parent refuses to do the same. This is a key feature that many rival apps lack.

However, the biggest differentiator is how coParenter puts a mediator of sorts in your pocket.

The app begins by using AI, machine learning and sentiment analysis technology to keep conversations civil. The tech will jump in to flag curse words, inflammatory phrases and offensive names to keep a heated conversation from escalating — much like a human mediator would do when trying to calm two warring parties.

When conversations take a bad turn, the app will pop up a warning message that asks the parent if they’re sure they want to use that term, allowing them time to pause and think. (If only social media platforms had built features like this!)


When parents need more assistance, they can opt to use the app instead of turning to lawyers.

The company offers on-demand access to professionals as both monthly ($12.99/mo – 20 credits, or enough for two mediations) or yearly ($119.99/year – 240 credits) subscriptions. Both parents can subscribe for $199.99/year, each receiving 240 credits.

“Comparatively, an average hour with a lawyer costs between $250 and upwards of $500, just to file a single motion,” Ellsworth says.

These professionals are not mediators, but are licensed in their respective fields — typically family law attorneys, therapists, social workers or other retired bench officers with strong conflict resolution backgrounds. Ellsworth oversees the professionals to ensure they have the proper guidance.

All communication between the parent and the professional is considered confidential and not subject to admission as evidence, as the goal is to stay out of the courts. However, all the history and documentation elsewhere in the app can be used in court, if the parents do end up there.

The app has been in beta for nearly a year, and officially launched this January. To date, coParenter claims it has already helped to resolve more than 4,000 disputes and more than 2,000 co-parents have used it for scheduling. Indeed, 81 percent of the disputing parents resolved all their issues in the app, without needing a professional mediator or legal professional, the company says.

CoParenter is available on both iOS and Android.

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