‘Airbnb for warehousing’ startup Flexe raises $43M to help online retailers take on Amazon

‘Airbnb for warehousing’ startup Flexe raises $43M to help online retailers take on Amazon

9:12am, 7th May, 2019
The Flexe team in Seattle. (Flexe Photo) As more consumers shop online, retailers need capacity to ship products across the country — particularly as they battle e-commerce kingpin Amazon. , a Seattle logistics startup that operates an on-demand warehouse marketplace, is helping them do that. The company today announced a $43 million investment round to meet demand from a growing number of companies needing “pop-up” storage space. Activate Capital and Tiger Global Management led the Series B round. Seattle VC firm Madrona Venture Group also invested for the first time, while previous backers Redpoint Ventures, Prologis Ventures, and others put more cash behind Flexe. Total funding to date is $63.5 million. Flexe operates much like Airbnb — instead of matching travelers with open homes and apartments, it matches retailers with warehouses that have excess capacity. Companies such as Staples, Toms, Ace Hardware, and others use Flexe to help support their online businesses and reduce the costly “last mile” delivery expense. Giant brands including Walmart and P&G are also customers. Flexe benefits warehouse owners who make revenue on space that would have otherwise sat empty, which Flexe estimates is 20-to-30 percent of a given warehouse. More than across the U.S. and Canada use Flexe’s software to bid on various offers, up from 370 warehouses three years ago. Flexe tripled revenue in 2018 and was the fastest-growing company in Washington state last year by Deloitte. “Flexe invented the on-demand warehousing category for businesses facing a crisis of agility while trying to meet rising consumer demands,” Flexe co-founder and CEO told GeekWire. Flexe co-founder and CEO Karl Siebrecht. (Flexe Photo) Flexe offers customers pay-as-you-go flexibility; merchants don’t need to sign long-term leases for warehouse space — only when they know how much capacity is required, as well as where and when. They can avoid the fixed costs that often come with a lease, particularly for retailers that only need extra storage space for a limited amount of time — a beverage vendor that sees sales spike in the summer; a retailer that sells its inventory during the holiday season; or a company such as Lime, the fast-growing mobility startup that has thousands of shared bikes, scooters, and cars. There are other unique use cases, too, such as Ace Hardware using Flexe to support its emergency response initiatives during Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael. Flexe has described itself as a “warehousing-as-a-service” company. “We needed space in the northeast U.S., the Midwest, and on the West Coast,” Justin Schuhardt, a supply chain executive with Walmart, at a recent industry event. “So, what ended up happening was Flexe was able to, through their marketplace approach, give us a selection of different providers from coast to coast with different size buildings and different available capacity.” Walmart is one of many companies using Flexe in the e-commerce battle against Amazon. While Flexe’s customers are competing against Amazon, so too is Flexe itself. Instead of selling on Amazon, Flexe offers brands an alternative that lets them ship products in their own branded boxes and existing shopping software. The third-party warehouses, meanwhile, handle labor and administrative work. It also keeps retailers from having to share any data with Amazon. “Companies that depend on Amazon logistics to meet their customers’ expectations will hand over their customer data, customer experience and customer relationship to Amazon,” Siebrecht said. “We believe there’s a better way —  a new option that uses technology to offer an entirely new model for on-demand warehousing and fulfillment.” (Flexe Photo) Amazon forever altered the retail landscape when it introduced the Prime two-day shipping program 14 years ago. The Seattle company upped the ante again late last month when for Prime members. Amazon will spend $800 million during this quarter alone on the new shipping initiative, signaling the importance of building out its fulfillment network to meet consumer demand. But Flexe can offer similar delivery speeds given how many warehouses are on its marketplace. In 2017, Flexe began . Siebrecht said Amazon’s recent 1-day shipping announcement “has already driven a pop in demand for Flexe.” “When Flexe announced one-day shipping capabilities two years ago, it allowed our clients to offer the most competitive delivery promises and successfully fulfill them,” he added. “Not only is our network of warehouses massive, it’s connected through a single technology platform and it’s provider agnostic. In other words, companies aren’t limited to a fixed provider or set locations of fulfillment centers.” Since launching in 2013, Flexe company has amassed a huge warehouse footprint, with approximately 30 million square feet available on its platform. But that’s still a far cry from Amazon, which owns of space at its own fulfillment centers across the world. (Flexe screenshot) Consumer expectation for fast shipping is driven not only by Amazon but rivals such as Target and Walmart that have instituted their own two-day shipping initiatives and turned physical stores into mini-warehouses for popular programs such as order online and pick up in store. Two market trends are playing to Flexe’s hand. One is the growing online shopping industry — e-commerce sales during the last holiday season $126 billion, up 16.5 percent year-over-year. Another is the rising cost of industrial real estate and . Will O’Donnell, managing partner at Prologis Ventures — an investor in Flexe — said vacancy rates in logistics real estate are near historic lows. “As the industry continues to grow, we recognize the value of integrating flexible options into supply chain planning,” he said in a statement shared with GeekWire. “We have been an investor in Flexe and are supportive of new business models that can help meet our customers’ business needs.” Prologis, a publicly-traded logistics real estate giant, is an example of a company that might be considered a competitor to Flexe “when in fact these companies are partners in the Flexe network,” Siebrecht noted. An additional use case for Flexe is when businesses face unpredictable problems that affect manufacturing and production with suppliers and distributors, such as President Trump’s China tariff that . (Flexe Photo) Flexe competitors include industry giant XPO Logistics, newer startup Stord, and UPS, which its own warehouse technology startup called Ware2Go in August. Siebrecht, a former executive at aQuantive and AdReady, said the new UPS service focuses on small and medium-sized businesses, while his company targets “high growth, venture-backed startups all the way up to Fortune 50 global corporations.” There are a bevy of other startups building solutions for supply chain improvement, including fellow Seattle on-demand trucking startup , which helps match trucking companies with shippers. Flexe has plans to expand internationally, but for now it is focused on the U.S. and Canada, said Siebrecht, a Pacific Northwest finalist for . Siebrecht co-founded the company with . Flexe estimates the logistics industry to be $1.5 trillion. The U.S. market for warehousing is worth $27 billion, according to . Flexe, a finalist for the category at last week’s , is ranked No. 88 on the index of top Pacific Northwest startups. The company has 80 employees and plans to double its headcount this year. This year Flexe has beefed up its C-suite by hiring , the company’s new chief people officer and general counsel; , chief technology officer who was previously a transportation exec at Amazon; and Matt Millen, chief revenue officer. Flexe also just moved into a new, 24,000 square-foot office headquarters in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. As a result of the new funding, Raj Atluru, managing director at Activate Capital, has joined the Flexe board. “Flexe presents such clear value for forward-looking businesses who recognize that structural flexibility is a competitive differentiator and key ingredient to winning in the market,” Atluru said in a statement. Tiger Global, which co-led the round with Activate Capital, has made several recent Seattle investments, including last week for Zenoti. It also led for Seattle marketing startup Amperity; in Seattle-based real estate company Redfin; and is an investor in Bellevue, Wash.-based OfferUp, a Craigslist competitor valued at more than $1 billion. Siebrecht called Tiger Global “one of the most sophisticated and experienced e-commerce and logistics technology investors in the world.”
Real estate startup Loftium pivots to rentals, stops offering down payments for share of Airbnb profits

Real estate startup Loftium pivots to rentals, stops offering down payments for share of Airbnb profits

9:30am, 6th May, 2019
Loftium co-founders Yifan Zhang and Adam Stelle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg) Loftium, the Seattle real estate startup that helped people buy homes in exchange for renting out an extra room on Airbnb, has shifted its focus to rentals. The company to providing down payment assistance to potential homebuyers who agreed to split their Airbnb profits with the company. But late last year, Loftium quietly pivoted in a big way. Now it rents out apartments to tenants at a discounted rate if they agree to become an Airbnb host. In an interview with GeekWire, Loftium CEO cited skyrocketing housing prices as the reason for the shift. Loftium’s original offering was popular — the company signed up more than 10,000 customers for down-payment assistance, Zhang said. However, thanks to high housing prices, competition among buyers and the complexity of the mortgage process, many of Loftium’s customers still weren’t able to afford to buy the homes they wanted. “Given how quickly home prices have risen, we realized that a large portion of our customer base were not able to buy a home even with Loftium’s down payment assistance, and that was a very frustrating part of the business,” said Zhang, a finalist for Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the . Loftium CEO Yifan Zhang leads an all-hands meeting at the company’s new office. (Loftium Photo) Similar to WeWork’s business model with office space, Loftium now rents units directly from landlords and then leases them out to its customers. Zhang wouldn’t say how many units Loftium has in its portfolio, but the switch to rentals has let the company expand quicker. Loftium collects rent from customers, as well as a cut of the money from renting rooms on Airbnb. It hopes that those combined income sources outweigh rent the company pays directly to landlords. The new model is easier to scale because Loftium doesn’t have to raise huge loads of capital to help people with down payments, and it’s much faster and easier to lease out units than it is to close home sales. After making the switch to rentals, Loftium quickly expanded beyond its core area of Seattle to Denver and Portland. Further expansion appears on the horizon, as the company has open positions on its for property acquisition leads in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and San Jose, Calif. Loftium today has approximately 15 employees, and it is hiring across a variety of areas. Though still small, the company is anticipating significant growth, and it just signed a lease for a new office space: A single floor at in downtown Seattle totaling 5,600 square feet. The Loftium office. (Loftium Photo) The idea for Loftium struck Zhang, who has founded multiple startups, when she first moved to Seattle. She and her husband bought a townhome and rented out one bedroom on Airbnb. “I was just amazed by the income stream from that,” Zhang told GeekWire in 2017. “Just one bedroom in our three-bedroom condo could cover the vast majority of our mortgage, taxes, and insurance, which was a little crazy.” Technology companies of all sizes are trying to figure out how to disrupt buying a house, which remains one of the most challenging and costly experiences a person faces. A number of well-funded large companies including Zillow, Redfin, Opendoor and Offerpad have decided that taking control of the process by purchasing homes directly, sprucing them up then and selling them to consumers is the solution. In the Seattle area alone, startups such as FlyHomes, JetClosing and others are tackling different parts of the problem. As she ran Loftium, Zhang was exposed to every wart in the homebuying process. Zhang pointed to the mortgage approval process as a major headache. It can be tough to get a mortgage if you haven’t been in a job for more than two years, an issue that could impact tech workers who make good money but tend to jump around. Zhang would like to see potential revenue from renting out rooms on platforms like Airbnb figured into mortgage calculations as well. “We signed up homebuyers, and then we sent them into this complex process of homebuying,” Zhang said. “With rentals, we do get to control the experience much more and create a really good experience for renters and landlords.”