With a new deal for customers and a fresh $23 million, Mayvenn extends its hair care business

Pitching customers a new, all-inclusive service for buying and installing hair, Mayvenn is looking to significantly expand its haircare business and just raised $23 million in a new round of funding to do it.

The new financing was led by Essence Ventures — and it represents the first outside investment by the  holding company owned by serial entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis .

A millionaire many times over, Dennis was the founder and chief executive of SunDial brands — a line of skin and haircare products which sold to Unilever for $240 million. He used that exit to create Essence Ventures with the acquisition of Essence magazine from Time Inc. and has now, with Mayvenn, is working to create a media and investment powerhouse.

Dennis joins a clutch of celebrity investors and venture capital firms in backing Mayvenn. Previous investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Cross Culture Ventures, Trinity Ventures along with a clutch of super famous athletes and music moguls like Serena Williams, Andre Iguodala, and Jimmy Iovine.

Dennis says the new capital infusion for Mayvenn is a testament to the vision of its founder and chief executive Diishan Imira.

Diishan’s vision is very big,” Dennis said. “He’s building a platform to service a space and a consumer that has not been served and certainly not in this way.”

With the new cash in hand Mayvenn is going to market with a new value proposition for its network of stylists and their customers. Before, Mayvenn would sell hair direct to consumers and then provide those consumers with a marketplace of stylists that would install the hair.

That’s a costly proposition for customers who can spend as much as $250 for the hair and another $250 for the service.

Now, Mayvenn is going to make it so customers can buy the hair directly from the company, and Mayvenn will match that customer with a hair stylist who will install the hair. All for the cost of the hair itself

“Customers will be able to buy hair and the installation service for probably 40% less than what they normally would have paid,” says Imira.

Imira first got started selling hair while he was living overseas in Shenzhen in Shanghai from 2003 to 2005. A world traveler who has spent time in Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Japan and China, Imira always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but it was after his stint in business school that he returned to Oakland with the idea for Mayvenn.

The company was accelerated through 500 Startups in 2013 and before that Imira was buying and selling hair for relatives who worked at salons and barbershops.

“I’m just a kid from Oakland selling hair out of the trunk of my car,” Imira says, laughing. “I always saw these barbershops and hair salons as points of commercial distribution. When I started selling hair i said, ‘This is crazy. How come you guys are not making any money off of selling this product?’”

There are $6 billion worth of haircare products sold in the African American community annually and Mayvenn is grabbing an increasingly larger share of that pie since its launch. Imira says the company has done $80 million in revenue in the five years since it graduated from 500 Startups. And the company has paid out over $20 million in commissions to its hairstylists.

Mayvenn chief executive officer Diishan Imira

“Now we really want to increase that number. Our number one metric is that number. How much are we paying hair stylists?” Imira says.

For Imira, Mayvenn is about developing entrepreneurial talent from within the black community. “Black women are buying $9 billion of hair products in general and they’re buying it from these corner stores and 90% of those are owned by people not in the community,” he says. “All of those dollars flow out of the community and nobody is getting a piece.”

With its new offering, Mayvenn is giving more money back to consumers, getting more money out to stylists and cutting the middleman out of the equation,” he says.

Along with co-founder Taylor Wang, who serves as the company’s chief operating officer, Imira says Mayvenn has built a business whose only real online competitor is the Chinese wholesale service AliExpress.

Indeed, what separates Mayvenn fom the other startups that are trying to sell hair and beauty products directly to consumers is the network of stylists that the company has built.

“The biggest competitor for selling direct to consumers is AliExpress,” and now, with its network and the ability to combine products and services at a wider scale, Mayvenn can provide better service for less, Imira says. “They can’t bundle the hair with the service. We can take the margin out of the hair we can bundle the package. We can be more price competitive than AliExpress and give you better hair and better service.”

 

Ne-Yo wants to make Silicon Valley more diverse one investment at a time

Dressed in a Naruto t-shirt and a hat emblazoned with the phrase “lone wolf,” Ne-Yo slouches over in a chair inside a Holberton School classroom. The Grammy-winning recording artist is struggling to remember the name of “that actor,” the one who’s had a successful career in both the entertainment industry and tech investing.

“I learned about all the things he was doing and I thought it was great for him,” Ne-Yo told TechCrunch. “But I didn’t really know what my place in tech would be.”

It turns out “that actor” is Ashton Kutcher, widely known in Hollywood and beyond for his role in several blockbusters and the TV sitcom That ’70s Show, and respected in Silicon Valley for his investments via Sound Ventures and A-Grade in Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, Bird and several others.

Ne-Yo, for his part, is known for a string of R&B hits including So Sick, One in a Million and Because of You. His latest album, Good Man, came out in June.

Ne-Yo, like Kutcher, is interested in pursuing a side gig in investing but he doesn’t want to waste time chasing down the next big thing. His goal, he explained, is to use his wealth to encourage people like him to view software engineering and other technical careers as viable options.

“Little black kids growing up don’t say things like ‘I want to be a coder when I grow up,’ because it’s not real to them, they don’t see people that look like me doing it,” Ne-Yo said. “But tech is changing the world, like literally by the day, by the second, so I feel like it just makes the most sense to have it accessible to everyone.”

Last year, Ne-Yo finally made the leap into venture capital investing: his first deal, an investment in Holberton School, a two-year coding academy founded by Julien Barbier and Sylvain Kalache that trains full-stack engineers. The singer returned to San Francisco earlier this month for the grand opening of Holberton’s remodeled headquarters on Mission Street in the city’s SoMa neighborhood.

Holberton, a proposed alternative to a computer science degree, is free to students until they graduate and land a job, at which point they are asked to pay 17 percent of their salaries during their first three years in the workforce.

It has a different teaching philosophy than your average coding academy or four-year university. It relies on project-based and peer learning, i.e. students helping and teaching each other; there are no formal teachers or lecturers. The concept appears to be working. Holberton says their former students are now employed at Apple, NASA, LinkedIn, Facebook, Dropbox and Tesla.

Ne-Yo participated in Holberton’s $2.3 million round in February 2017 alongside Reach Capital and Insight Venture Partners, as well as Trinity Ventures, the VC firm that introduced Ne-Yo to the edtech startup. Holberton has since raised an additional $8 million from existing and new investors like daphni, Omidyar Network, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and Slideshare co-founder Jonathan Boutelle.

Holberton has used that capital to expand beyond the Bay Area. A school in New Haven, Conn., where the company hopes to reach students who can’t afford to live in tech’s hubs, is in development.

The startup’s emphasis on diversity is what attracted Ne-Yo to the project and why he signed on as a member of the board of trustees. More than half of Holberton’s students are people of color and 35 percent are women. Since Ne-Yo got involved, the number of African American applicants has doubled from roughly 5 percent to 11.5 percent.

“I didn’t really know what my place in tech would be.”

Before Ne-Yo’s preliminary meetings with Holberton’s founders, he says he wasn’t aware of the racial and gender diversity problem in tech.

“When it was brought to my attention, I was like ‘ok, this is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed,’” he said. “It makes no sense that this thing that affects us all isn’t available to us all. If you don’t have the money or you don’t have the schooling, it’s not available to you, however, it’s affecting their lives the same way it’s affecting the rich guys’ lives.”

Holberton’s founders joked with TechCrunch that Ne-Yo has actually been more supportive and helpful in the last year than many of the venture capitalists who back Holberton. He’s very “hands-on,” they said. Despite the fact that he’s balancing a successful music career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of free time, he’s made sure to attend events at Holberton, like the recent grand opening, and will Skype with students occasionally.

“I wanted it to be grassroots and authentic.”

Ne-Yo was very careful to explain that he didn’t put money in Holberton for the good optics.

“This isn’t something I just wanted to put my name on,” he said. “I wanted to make sure [the founders] knew this was something I was going to be serious about and not just do the celebrity thing. I wanted it to be grassroots and authentic so we dropped whatever we were doing and came down, met these guys, hung out with the students and hung out at the school to see what it’s really about.”

What’s next for Ne-Yo? A career in venture capital, perhaps? He’s definitely interested and will definitely be making more investments soon, but a full pivot into VC is unlikely.

At the end of the day, Silicon Valley doesn’t need more people with fat wallets and a hankering for the billionaire lifestyle. What it needs are people who have the money and resources necessary to bolster the right businesses and who care enough to prioritize diversity and inclusivity over yet another payday.

“Not to toot the horn or brag, but I’m not missing any meals,” Ne-Yo said. “So, if I’m going to do it, let it mean something.”

SynapseFi raises $17M to develop its fintech and banking platform

SynapseFi, a startup that helps banks and fintech companies work together to develop technology, has announced that it raised a $17 million Series A funding round.

The funding actually closed at the back end of last year, but CEO Sankaet Pathak said the company has been so busy developing new products, hiring and more than that it is only getting around to disclosing the deal now. The investment was led by Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital, with participation from other unnamed backers.

The San Francisco-based startup has sat under the radar for a while now despite starting up in 2014. Its core product is a platform that helps banks and developers work together. That involves developer-facing APIs that allow companies to connect with banks to offer services, and also bank-facing APIs that allow banks to automate and extend back-end operations.

Pathak describes the vision as making it possible for anyone around the world to get access to high-quality financial products. The first focus is to make financial products “like Lego bricks” to enable banks to add new products and services easily. As it stands today, development is a painful process that requires specific infrastructure development, but SynapseFi aims to standardize a lot of the processes and platform to make things much simpler.

The idea for the business came when Pathak, who moved to the U.S. from India in 2010, grew frustrated at being unable to get a bank account or loan because he had no social security history. He left the University of Memphis, where he had studied computer engineering and sciences, and founded the startup in April 2014 alongside his friend Bryan Keltner.

Initially, the business focused on payments, but it gradually tilted to become a technology enabler for the financial industry.

Today, SynapseFi has over 60 staff and it works with a roster of over 100 financial industry clients. Its products include the basics like payment, deposit, lending and investment services, but it has also ventured into crypto with services that include a white-label wallet.

To date, it claims to have processed over $10 billion in transactions and helped bank more than 1.5 million people through its technology.

The SynapseFi team

“There are three core things we want to fix in banking,” Pathak told TechCrunch in an interview. “The back office is still mostly manual today and we want to automate that. There’s a need for vertical integration… we want any large or small financial company to be able to come to us and operate at the same scale as the likes of Wells and Chase. We also want to automate financial advice using behavior science.”

Pathak added that the startup also harbors an ambition to expand overseas. That’s likely to mean Europe first — potentially a market like the UK or Germany — but it’ll require fairly intensive localization as the SynapseFi platform is customized to accommodate U.S. APIs and data pipes, none of which will work outside of the country.

An expansion would be likely to happen around the time that the company looks to raise its Series B, although Pathak stressed that he is also focused on building a sustainable business and not simply relying on venture capital money. Indeed, he said that the company is likely to reach breakeven by the end of the year.

“I still think it’s a healthy business practice,” Pathak said.

Weights & Biases raises $5M to build development tools for machine learning

Machine learning is one of those buzzwords that nearly every tech company likes to throw around nowadays — but according to Lukas Biewald, it represents a genuinely new approach to programming.

“Software has eaten a lot of the world, and machine learning is eating software,” Biewald said.

In his view, there are “fundamental” differences between the two approaches: “One important difference is if all you have is the code you used to train the program, you don’t really know what happened … If I had all the code that was used to train a self-driving car algorithm but I don’t have the data, I don’t know what went down.”

Along with Chris Van Pelt, Biewald previously founded CrowdFlower (now known as Figure Eight), which launched nearly a decade ago at the TechCrunch 50 conference, and which has created tools for training artificial intelligence.

Biewald (who I’ve known since college) and Van Pelt, plus former Google engineer Shawn Lewis, have now started a new company called Weights and Biases to build new tools for machine learning developers. They’ve also raised $5 million in Series A funding from Trinity Ventures and Bloomberg Beta.

“Artificial Intelligence has so much potential, but few companies are implementing it yet because the development process is too complicated for all but a small number of highly trained engineers,” said Trinity’s Dan Scholnick, who’s joining the startup’s board of directors. (Scholnick previously backed CrowdFlower.) “W&B aims to dramatically streamline the machine learning software development process so that AI benefits can be unlocked across industries and no longer restricted to the few firms able to hire extremely skilled and extraordinarily expensive AI developers today.”

weights and biases screenshot

The eventual goal is to create a whole suite of development tools, but Weights and Biases’ first product records and visualizes the process of training a machine learning algorithm. Biewald explained that this makes it possible for developers to go back and see what they were doing, say, a month ago and to share that information with teammates. And it’s already being used by the nonprofit research company OpenAI.

Biewald added that when he talked to his friends in the field about their biggest problems, this was the first thing that came up. That’s how he hopes to approach future products as well — working with developers to figure out what they really need.

“I don’t want to help with the hype,” he said. “I want to help with the real problems that really get in the way … to make this stuff actually work.”

Biewald also offered more details about his vision for the company in a blog post:

You can’t paint well with a crappy paintbrush, you can’t write code well in a crappy IDE, and you can’t build and deploy great deep learning models with the tools we have now. I can’t think of any more important goal than changing that.

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