Jewelry startup AUrate raises $13M

AUrate, a startup selling gold jewelry directly to consumers, announced today that it has raised $13 million in Series A funding.

The company’s co-founders Bouchra Ezzahraoui and Sophie Kahn said that AUrate’s prices range from $50 to $3,000, but they’re really aiming for what Ezzahraoui called “this new market sweet spot” of $300 to $500. And while that’s not exactly cheap, she said customers are getting a piece of fine jewelry made from real gold, which would normally be priced at $1,200 or more.

The jewelry is produced by local partners in New York City, and the gold comes from sustainable sources. Kahn also said while fine jewelry has traditionally been created “by men for women,” she designs AUrate’s pieces, and she’s “always looking for a balance between bold and feminine, which represents our women.”

In addition to selling jewelry online, AUrate also operates two brick-and-mortar stores in New York, with a third under construction in Washington, D.C. And it introduced something called Curate, where the company will send up to five recommended pieces to customers, which they can try at home with no commitment.

Founded in 2015, AUrate says its online revenue has been growing consistently by 400 percent every year, while its brick-and-mortar retail business has been doubling. Also noteworthy: 40 percent of its customers return for additional purchases, and 90 percent of customers are women.

The new funding was led by Michael Platt’s Bluecrest Capital, with participation from Point King Capital, Arab Angel Fund and Drake Management.

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Skubana raises $5.4M for its e-commerce operations software

Skubana, a startup promising to help e-commerce business manage what can be a dizzying array of logistical challenges, is announcing that it has raised $5.4 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by Defy Partners, with participation from Advancit Capital and FJ Labs. Early Skubana backer Brian Lee — who co-founded The Honest Company, ShoeDazzle and LegalZoom, and is also involved as a Defy Sage — is joining Skubana’s board of directors.

“When I first launched Shoedazzle and The Honest Company, one of our primary challenges was understanding how our products performed across channels,” Lee said in a statement. “Skubana solves a core problem that thousands of brands face and no other competitor solves well.”

CEO Chad Rubin said these were issues he faced when he started his own e-commerce business, Crucial Vacuum, a decade ago. In fact, Rubin’s co-founder and CTO DJ Kunovac (who was working at McKesson health IT) recalled visiting Rubin’s warehouse and saying, “What you’re experiencing right now is effectively where healthcare was a decade or two ago.”

The problem, Kunovac argued, is that there was separate software and systems for every part of the process. What was needed was a “horizontal platform of commerce.”

skubana dashboard snapshot imac

So with Skubana, Rubin and Kunovac have built a software platform that handles shipping, inventory management, restocking and more. The main thing Skubana doesn’t handle is the creating the actual online storefront and shopping cart. Instead, it’s built to take care of everything that a business needs to do once those orders start coming in.

As Rubin put it, “If Shopify is a city, then we’re everything underneath the ground.”

By bringing all the data together from various sales channels and applying and machine learning, the company says it can improve profitability and reduce issues like selling more product that you have in the inventory. There’s also an app store to integrate Skubana with other systems.

“We’re completely replacing these siloed, fragmented pieces of software,” Rubin said.

Brands already using the software include Bird Rides, Valvoline, and Deathwish Coffee. Kunovac noted that Skubana isn’t “entry-level software” — when brands sign up to use it, they’ve usually a growing a commerce business, which is when “the laws of physics have started to take over.” In other words: “They come to us from pain.”

With the new funding, Skubana says it will double its size in the next 18 months, build a number of new products and continue to invest in its app store ecosystem.

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Report: SoftBank-backed Brandless gets a new CEO amid turmoil at the company

Brandless, a direct-to-consumer purveyor of food, beauty, and personal care products, says that every item it makes is non-genetically modified, kosher, fair-trade, gluten-free, often organic and, in the case of cleaning supplies, EPA “Safer Choice” certified. Beginning with its 2012 launch, items were also priced at $3 across the board.

That changed in January, when the company added baby and pet products to its stable of offerings, some of them at a $9 price point. But according to a new report in The Information, that’s far from the only change afoot at the company. Instead, the outlet paints a picture of a company that sold 40 percent of its business to SoftBank for a stunning $240 million before it had found its footing,  and where things have been sliding downhill since.

Indeed, while cofounder and longtime CEO Tina Sharkey suggested to Bloomberg that SoftBank loved Brandless’s uniform price points, its messaging to customers, and that Brandless was focused on a “highly curated collection” in contrast to Amazon’s everything-store ethos, Brandless has steadily been losing customers since the round closed  — a lot of them, according to The Information.

Specifically, it says that analysis provided to it by Second Measure, a company that analyzes anonymized debit and credit card purchases, found that Brandless had 26.5% fewer customers last month than it did in May 2018.

We’ve reached out to both Brandless and SoftBank for more information. (Brandless’s earlier backers include Redpoint Ventures, New Enterprises Associates, GV, and Cowboy Ventures. It has raised $292 million altogether, shows Crunchbase.)

SoftBank declined to comment and we’ve yet to hear back from Brandless. In the meantime, The Information says it has talked with numerous former employees who cite quality control issues as one of the company’s biggest challenges over time — from silicone serving spoons that detached from their handles, to glass containers that arrived broken on customer’s doorsteps and, in some cases, sliced their fingers.

They also recount inventory challenges, including buying too much perishable inventory and not buying enough of other, popular items. And they say that some of the inventory for sale on Brandless in its early days came from  Beach House, a company that was cofounded by Ido Leffler, an Israeli entrepreneur who also cofounded Brandless with Sharkey.

A bigger revelation by The Information is that Sharkey stepped down as CEO in March, which Sharkey had herself quietly revealed in a Medium post in March titled “More Goodness.”

A source familiar with the situation says Sharkey made the decision, approaching the board about replacing herself and moving exclusively into a co-chairman role. The Information cites its own source, who seems to echo that Sharkey was not pushed out, but who suggests her decision stemmed from tensions with SoftBank, which was pushing for Brandless to turn a profit.

The Information also reports that Brandless recently appointed a new CEO to replace Sharkey: serial founder John Rittenhouse, whose LinkedIn profile says he began the job last month. Rittenhouse spent several years as a C-suite executive at Wal-Mart nearly 20 years ago. He has since cofounded two beverage industry companies, VinAsset and the business-to-business software firm Fortera.co.

A source tells us he was introduced to the company through New Enterprise Associates .

The Information report is definitely worth a read, offering as it does other interesting details while leaving open the question of whether Brandless is going through the growing pains of a young company that raised too much capital too soon, or its problems run deeper.

Either way, the bet is looking like a troubled one for SoftBank, and at a time when the Japanese conglomerate reportedly has other, seemingly major challenges with which to contend.

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Shopify Ping adds support for Apple Business Chat and Apple Pay

Last year Shopify announced Shopify Ping, a free unified messaging platform for merchants to communicate directly with customers in a chat context. Today, it announced it’s adding support for Apple Business Chat to Shopify Ping.

The real benefit to this is that users can not only use Apple’s business chat product to communicate with customers, the customers can pay directly with Apple Pay right inside the chat client, reducing friction, and making it more likely the person will complete his or her purchase.

As the company wrote in a blog post announcing the new integration, this approach is likely to increase sales. “We know that customers who engage in a conversation with a brand are nearly three times as likely to complete a purchase. Live chat also creates a personal connection between a brand and the customer which builds trust and makes them more likely to come back,” the company wrote.

With Shopify Ping, merchants can manage all of the Apple Business Chat interactions together with its other chat traffic in a single place. This means that small merchants have access to the same rich set of customer interaction tools as some of the biggest merchants on the planet, enabling them to provide a more sophisticated level of service, something that has often been out of reach for smaller businesses without deep pockets.

Apple Business Chat was released last year to provide businesses with a way to use iMessage in a business context. The company has been expanding the product over the last year, and today’s announcement puts it in reach of Shopify’s vast user base.

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Lifestyle goods resale marketplace StockX raises $110M, pushing valuation past $1B

Detroit-based StockX, which provides a way for people to resell luxury and lifestyle goods including streetwear, bags, watches and shoes, is now valued at over $1 billion based on its most recent raise of $110 million, just revealed by the New York Times. Alongside the raise, StockX is bringing on a new CEO – ecommerce vet and former eBay SVP Scott Cutler.

Cutler replaces co-founder Josh Luber at the helm of the company, but he’ll continue to be the “public face” of the company according to the NYT, which is not unusual for a founder-led company when it brings on more traditionally experienced executives to steer the startup through periods of aggressive growth and business maturation.

StockX’s success rode the sneaker culture boom of the past half-decade or so, as the startup first focused exclusively on acting as a resale source for shoes with high levels of hype. Their unique value prop, for consumers, was offering a verification service so that you knew when you were buying (often at a premium, and often so-called ‘deadstock’ or stuff that’s new in condition but not available through typical consumer sales channels) was the real deal.

The company expanded from there into new categories, first with watches, then handbags, and most recently streetwear – all categories where high potential for fraud mean that consumers are willing to pay more for some assurance of authenticity.

Also unique to StockX is its treatment of the marketplace as analogous to a public stock exchange, with shoe releases, watch, bag and clothing SKUs replacing companies as the trade commodity. The app for StockX displays charts trending value and features bids and calls, making it similar in concept to another company where new CEO Cutler has experience – the NYSE.

With this funding, the company will focus on growing its international business and also do more with selling new products, which it has done on occasion for select releases, but which hasn’t been a primary focus of its business to date.

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