Brainly, a startup from Poland that has built a popular network for students and their parents to engage with each other for advice and help with homework questions, has raised $80 million, a series D that it will be using both to continue building out the tools that it offers to students as well as to hone in on expansion in some key emerging markets such as Indonesia and Brazil. The news comes on the heels of dramatic growth for the company, which has seen its user base grow from 150 million users in 2019 to 350 million today.
The funding is being led by previous backer Learn Capital, with past investors Prosus Ventures, Runa Capital, MantaRay, and General Catalyst Partners also participating. The company has now raised some $150 million and while it’s not disclosing valuation, CEO and co-founder Michał Borkowski confirmed it is “definitely” an upround for the company. For more context, Pitchbook estimates that the company was valued at $180 million in its last round, a Series C of $30 million in 2019.
That C round was raised specifically to help Brainly grow in the U.S. It currently has some 30 million users in that market, and it happens to be the only one in which Brainly is monetising users. Everywhere else, Brainly is currently free to use. (In the U.S. there are also some formidable competitors, like Chegg, which has strong traction in the market of helping students with homework, with some 74% of Chegg’s user spend concentrated in that one single country.)
“Brainly has become one of the world’s largest learning communities, achieving significant organic growth in over 35 countries,” said Vinit Sukhija, Partner at Learn Capital, in a statement.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Brainly was finding an audience with students — primarily those aged 13-19, said Borkowski — who were turning to the service to connect with people who could help them with homework when they found themselves at an impasse with, say, a math problem or getting to grips with the sequence of events that led to the revolutions of 1848. The platform is open-ended and is a little like a Quora for homework, in that people can find and answer questions they are interested in, as well as ask questions themselves.
That platform, however, took on a whole new dimension of importance with the shift to virtual learning, Borkowski said.
“In the western world, online education wasn’t a big investment area [pre-Covid] and that has changed a lot, with huge adoption by students, parents and teachers,” he said. “But that big transition, switching from offline to online, has left kids struggling because teachers have so much more to do, so they can’t engage in the same way.”
So with “homework” becoming “all work”, that has effectively led to needing more help than ever with home studies. And while many parents have tried to get more involved to make up the difference, “having parents as teachers has been hard,” he added. They may have been taught differently from how their kids are learning, or they don’t remember or know answers.
One thing that Brainly started to see, he said, was that with the pandemic more parents started using the app alongside students, either to work out answers together or to get the help themselves before helping their kids, with a number of these being from parents of kids younger than 13. He said that 15-20% of all new registrations currently are coming from parents.
Brainly up to now has been mainly focused on how to build out more tools for the students — and now parents — that use it, and has so far been about organic growth for those communities.
However, there is clearly scope to expand that to more educational stakeholders to better organise what kind of questions are answered and how. Borkowski said that the company has indeed been approached by educators, those building curriculums and others so that answers might tie in better with the kinds of questions that they are most likely to ask of students, although for now the company “wants to keep the focus on students and parents getting stuck.”
In terms of future products, Brainly is looking at ways of bringing in more tutoring, video and AI into the mix. The AI aspect is very interesting and will in fact tie in to wider curriculum coverage based on more localised needs.
For example, if you ask for help with a particular kind of quadratic equation technique, you can then be served lots of same practice questions to help better learn and apply what you’ve just been learning, and you might even then get suggested related topics that will appear alongside that in a wider mathematics examination. And, you might be offered the chance to meet with a tutor for further help.
Tutoring, he said, is something that Brainly has already been quietly piloting and has run some 150,000 sessions to date. Having such a large user base, Borkowski said, helps the startup run services at scale while still effectively keeping them in test mode.
“It will be about looking at what students are studying and how to map that to the curriculum in the country, and what we can do to help with that.” Borkowski said. “But it will require a heavy lift and and machine learning to pinpoint students” for it to work properly, which is one reason it has yet to roll it out more comprehensively, he added.
Tutoring and more personalization are not the only areas where Brainly is actively testing out new services.
The company is also creating more space for adding in video to demonstrate different techniques (which I suspect is especially good for something like mathematics, but equally helpful for, say, an art technique). This is presumably in part based on a 2018 acquisition the startup made to bring on more video tools, which underscores in some ways how deliberate Brainly’s expansion strategy has been.
There are “thousands per week” being added already, but as with tutoring “that, for us, is a testing stage,” added Borkowski. There should be more coming in Q1 about new products, he said.
Bolt, which covers 200 cities in 40 countries with its delivery and transportation services, has raised €150 million ($182 million at current rates) in an equity round that CEO and co-founder Markus Villig said in an interview will be used to double down on geographic expansion and to help it become the biggest provider of electric scooters in Europe.
Bolt currently has some 50 million customers using its services, and Villig has built the business around two main areas to differentiate it from the Ubers of the world: strong capital efficiency (or “frugality” as he describes it) and putting a heavy emphasis on services for emerging markets, alongside launches in cities like London and Paris and, soon, Berlin.
“This round was the first time we raised with most of the previous round still in the bank, despite the pressures of Covid” he said. “This shows the frugality of the company. Due to lockdowns, we were not as aggressive as we would have liked to be, so financially we are now in a very good position for 2021.”
The round is being led by D1 Capital Partners with participation also from Darsana Capital Partners. D1 has this year been a huge player in growth rounds for some of the very biggest startups: it has made investments in eyewear giant Warby Parker, gaming engine maker Unity, car sales portal Cazoo, and fintech TransferWise, collectively with valuations into the multiple billions of dollars.
On that note, Villig wouldn’t disclose what Bolt’s valuation is but said that it was closer to the multiples of 1.5x on gross merchandise value (GMV: the total figure transacted on Bolt’s platform), a la the recently listed DoorDash, than it is closer to “others” in the transport space that are seeing valuations closer to 0.5x GMV.
He also confirmed to me that Bolt is doing about €2 billion in GMV currently annually, which would give it a valuation, by his hinted calculations, of €3.5 billion ($4.3 billion). No comment from Villig on my number crunching, but he also didn’t dispute it.
For some context, in May of this year Bolt was valued at $1.9 billion after raising just over $100 million. At the time, it said it had 30 million users, so it’s added 20 million in about six months.
The company’s rise has been an interesting counterpoint to the likes of Uber, which built its business with early, aggressive — and as it turned out, very costly — growth into multiple markets and product areas, a number of which it has more recently been divesting (see also here, here and here for other examples).
Founded originally as Taxify and slowly growing the business just around ride-hailing for a number of years in less-scrutinized emerging markets, the company rebranded in 2019 as it kicked its strategy into a higher gear, with launches in cities like London and a move into micro-mobility, primarily around electric scooters. Its current list of biggest markets reflects that mix: Villig said they were the UK, France, South Africa and Nigeria.
Not all of that has been smooth, with too-aggressive moves, such as a failed initial launch in London — scuppered when regulators quickly responded to its attempt to exploit a loophole to get a license — quickly burning the company (and possibly teaching Villig a lesson he’s tried to remember going forward).
Even with the shift, Villig said that his aim is to keep the company operating on the same frugal ethos when it comes to considering new investments and how to grow. And that gives a potentially different cast to news of, say, Bolt rolling out newer scooter models, or commitments to carbon reduction.
He noted that in a year that has seen so many job losses, particularly in businesses that have seen massive drops in users and usage, Bolt has not laid off anyone.
It’s interesting, indeed, to see how and which companies choose to “zig” while others “zag” at the moment.
The food delivery business is a case in point. We are seeing a number of consolidations underway, with Uber acquiring Postmates, and Just Eat Takeaway (itself a big merger) acquiring Grubhub. Alongside that there have also been a number of closures of smaller players that found it too costly to try to scale. Within that context, Bolt is doubling down on food delivery, with Bolt Food in 16 countries and 33 cities and plans for more cities in the coming year.
“What most people have not realized is that the food part is what we are most optimistic about,” Villig said.
“Currently we are adding restaurants by the day. There are cost synergies on a lot of fronts, including the supply side, where drivers can serve passengers and food. But also today we have had to decline some drivers for car-based services because they don’t have the right licenses, but now we can offer them to carry goods on bikes, which doesn’t require that license at all. We can offer something to drivers that we weren’t able to do. And what that means is no need to spend money on finding drivers.”
He said Bolt was “lucky” to get into food, even as late as 2019 since restaurants that were already interested were augmented by a new wave of them in the wake of the health pandemic and forced closures and reduced diners overall in venues. “They were all keen to get additional income and were eager to try out new platforms,” he said.
That willingness to find the way ahead even in what looks like a murky or hard market is what has brought investors around this time. Villig said they were already talking to a lot of them, and so it made sense to close the round to prepare for 2021.
“We are excited to partner with Bolt as they continue to build a market-leading mobility platform across Europe and Africa,” said Dan Sundheim, founder of D1 Capital, in a statement. “The team has executed incredibly well during a challenging year and continues to provide millions of users with safety, flexibility and great value. We are optimistic about the growth opportunity ahead for Bolt after the COVID-19 pandemic and look forward to supporting the team as they invest in innovation over the coming years.”
A few weeks back, I spent two short hours in Ford’s upcoming EV. I don’t feel comfortable declaring a conclusion with just a couple of hours behind the wheel. I need more time with the Mach-E, and after Ford reads this article, I’ll probably be last in line for long-term tests.
During my short time with the Mach-E, one thing became clear: The Mach-E should not be called a Mustang, and it should not be called an SUV.
By calling the Mach-E a Mustang SUV, Ford is selling buyers an experience not found in the Mach-E. This isn’t a fight over semantics. The Mach-E isn’t a sporty SUV in a traditional manner. For that, look at the Audi E-Tron Sportback or Tesla Model X. Those offer several key characteristics missing from the Mach-E SUV. They’re sturdy, stout and powerful, whereas the Mach-E feels small, loose and sloppy.
There are several areas of concern. I found the vehicle dynamics questionable. The throttle is nauseating, and the rear end has a hard time keeping traction. The range is poor compared to competitors; the AWD version gets 50 miles less than a comparable Tesla. And what’s more important in an electric vehicle than driving characteristics and electric range?
A few weeks back I took a 2021 Mustang Mach-E AWD around a familiar route in lower Michigan. Every auto journalist knows this area by Hell, Michigan. Despite the name, it’s a lovely area with old-growth hardwoods lining gentle winding roads where cars can breathe. And for fun, turn off the main road for a bit of dipping and diving on gravel roads. This area was not kind to the Mach-E.
The test was short, but I was still left with several impressions.
The Mach-E bumbles around like an economy crossover. There’s nothing confident or reassuring about the ride or handling. Even with the Mustang name, the Mach-E doesn’t drive like a Mustang (hold your jokes; the latest Mustangs are fantastic). The Mach-E isn’t a car that can be thrown into a corner and expect to emerge safely. The body rolls, rear tires break loose and you lose respect for the Mustang name.
The throttle is touchy and over-expressive. Tap the peddle and Mach-E leaps forward. Combined with aggressive regenerative braking, the Mach-E takes some getting used to. I found the powertrain nauseating. Electric vehicles are an exercise in finesse. The electric motors need to provide power in a smooth, predictable fashion that’s exciting and confident without being overbearing. It’s a hard formula and something that few automakers have gotten right the first time.
I was immediately taken aback by the AWD Mach-E’s poor handling. Most modern EVs drive so well they’re boring. Not the Mach-E. The rear end is too lively for a pedestrian-vehicle, and not in a sporty manner. This is just sloppy and nauseating. The tires easily break free on everyday turns. Press down on the accelerator, turn the wheel and the vehicle often has to engage traction control to keep the rear wheels from spinning.
By insisting on marketing the Mach-E as sporty, Ford set the expectations on the capability outside of its technical ability. Things get loose when the driver leans into the performance aspects of the Mach-E. During my time with the Mach-E, there were several times I was rounding a normal corner and the back tires became unpredictable or took the car too wide. This is exaggerated with additional speed. I’m curious how the AWD system handles snow and ice. Several times during my test drive it struggled on gravel.
I later asked a Ford engineer about the tremendous amount of oversteer, and he replied, “Yeah, only if you drive it that way.” That stuck with me because I don’t think it was my fault. I don’t think I was driving the Mach-E around Ann Arbor, Michigan in an aggressive fashion, but even still, the roads were dry, and the traction control kicked on several times during my short drive. That shouldn’t happen.
The Mach-E performs better in a straight line. The acceleration is quick. With the go-pedal mashed to the floor, the Mach-E rears on its back legs and jumps forward with enthusiasm. Is it quicker than a Tesla? No, but it’s still quicker than most vehicles in its price range and plenty fast enough to speed away from a stop light.
The Mach-E has three driving modes. In the standard and economy mode, the throttle delivers power in a more refined method than the performance mode, which seems messy and crude. All three modes offer one-peddle driving through aggressive regenerative braking.
The electric range is another factor to consider with the Mach-E. The AWD version tops out at an EPA-estimated 270 miles compared to the 326 miles found in Tesla’s AWD Model Y. The RWD-only version of the Mach-E tops out at 300 miles per charge.
With such a short test, I’m unable to dive deep into the real-world battery range of the Mach-E. I need to live with the car and use it for a variety of tasks, both around town and long distance. All I can report is the results from my 2 hour drive: I average 2.7 miles to kilowatt-hour, I returned it with 112 miles remaining on the battery, which the vehicle says is 56%. I was driving the AWD model with the extended range battery. The EPA and Ford says this version is good for 270 miles per charge.
The Mach-E’s pricing is competitive with a starting price of $42,895. The AWD, extended-range version starts at $54,700 and heads north depending on options. Most U.S. buyers are eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. The Tesla Model 3 starts at $37,990. The long-range, AWD Model 3 that starts at $46,990; the Model Y crossover costs $49,990.
Competitors have downsides, too. The Tesla Model 3 and Model Y are novel vehicles with class-leading range, but they’re not without flaws, including questionable build quality. Other vehicles like the Polestar 2 are fantastic but have less electric range and a higher starting price of $59,900.
The Mach-E’s interior is fantastic, and that was not a surprise. Ford builds some of the nicest interiors in its class, and the inside of the Mach-E is lovely.
Like most EVs, Ford took great steps to replace traditional automotive components with modern equivalents. Instead of a gauge cluster, a small, narrow LCD screen sits in front of the driver. It’s classy and efficient. A large LCD screen sits in the center stack for media playback and climate controls. A rotating knob is glued onto the screen at the bottom and provides physical volume control. I really like the volume knob.
The seats seem fine. I was only in them for two hours.
The inside is a bit cramped, but it’s acceptable for a small crossover. The driver sits in a commanding position, which could be the reason for the SUV designation. Two adults can sit in the back for a cross-town jaunt, but I wouldn’t want to sit back there for an extended amount of time, as legroom is lacking.
I’m frustrated about the vehicle’s dynamics, which overshadow fun features found within the Mach-E. Owners can use their smartphone as a key and preprogram navigation routes through a robust road-trip app. The doors are operated by a button, allowing for a cleaner exterior. Ford is even adding hands-free driving through an over-the-air-update, too. But these items hardly matters. Who cares if the cake’s pretty if it tastes like sadness?
My first impressions of the Mach-E are poor, and I went into this short test with excited optimism. For me, this Ford Mach-E was supposed to bring the joy of electric vehicles to the masses through a familiar nameplate and legacy manufacturer. I’m a Ford guy who lives in Michigan and looks at the Mach-E development with local pride. I’m disappointed.
Right now, based on first impressions, I can only recommend shoppers try competitors before buying the Ford Mustang Mach-E. I don’t think this vehicle is good enough to buy over a Tesla.