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Written by Jonathan Shieber

With a portfolio including Acorns, Sweetgreen and Ro Health, Torch Capital raises $60M for its first fund

Jonathan Keidan, the founder of Torch Capital, had already built a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen, before he raised single dollar for his inaugural venture capital fund, which just closed with $60 million.

Keidan, a consummate networker who began his professional career as a manager working with acts like The Nappy Roots, The Getaway People and a young John Legend, just managed to be in the right place at the right time, he says (thanks, in part, to his gift for gab).

The final close for Torch Capital’s first fund is just the beginning for Torch, which is angling to be one of the premiere firms for early stage consumer internet and consumer facing enterprise software.

The firm began raising its first fund in October 2017 and held a $40 million first close just about one year ago. Keidan and his partners had targeted $50 million for his first investment vehicle, but wound up hitting the hard cap of $60 million, in part due to high demand from the New York-based entrepreneurs that Keidan considers his peers.

In addition to backers like the George Kaiser Family Foundation and billionaire Hong Kong fashion mogul Silas Chou, Keidan was able to tap startup founders like Jennifer Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent the Runway; Casper co-founders Philip Krim and Neil Parikh; and Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bleacher Report and owner of Bustle Media Group (which includes Gawker, Bustle, Elite Daily, Mic, The Outline, and The Zoe Report, which collectively form Bustle Digital Group).

“Because I’ve taken a more startup approach i was recruiting raising money and doing deals at the same time,” says Keidan. 

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A sampling of Torch Capital’s portfolio investments

Along with partners Sam Jones, a former London-based investment banker; Katie Reiner, an investor at the data-driven growth fund, Lead Edge Capital; Curtis Chang, a technology-focused investment banker from HSBC’ and Chantal Haldorsen, a serial startup executive; Keidan has certainly done deals.

He started investing as an angel while still working at his own media company InsideHook, and began forming special purpose vehicles for larger investments as soon as he departed, about three years ago.

For the first year-and-a-half, Jones and Keidan worked on the SPVS, which allowed them to put together a portfolio that included Acorns, Compass, Digital Ocean and Sweetgreen — as well as startups like ZocDoc and the ketchup brand, Sir Kensington’s.

Since launching the fund, Keidan and his partners did 15 investments in the first year — including investments into . the consumer-focused Ro Health, which sells erectile dysfunction medication, supplements for hair growth, and more recently menopausal products for women.

Torch Capital has also backed the fintech company, Harness Wealth, sustainable cashmere manufacturer and retailer, Naadam; and Splendid Spoon, a vegan breakfast and lunch prepared food provider akin to Daily Harvest.

Keidan’s interest in investment stems from his experience in the music industry. It was a time when Spotify was just beginning to emerge and Napster had already shaken up the market. The creation of digital platforms enabled artists to connect more directly with the consumer in a way that traditional companies couldn’t understand.

Instead of embracing the technology labels and artists fought it, and the writing on the wall (that the labels and artists would lose) became clear… at least for Keidan. 

Following some advice from mentors including the super-producer and music mogul, Quincy Jones, Keidan went to business school. He graduated from Columbia in 2007 with an MBA and then did what all former music managers do after their MBA training — he joined McKinsey as a consultant. The stint at McKinsey led Keidan to Jack Welch’s online education venture and from there, Keidan started InsideHook.

Keidan grew the company to over 2 million subscribers in the five years since he helped launch the business in 2012. From that perch he saw the rise of direct to consumer startups and began making angel investments. His first was ZocDoc, his second, Sir Kensingtons (which sold to Unilever) and his third was the real estate investment platform, Compass.

That track record was enough to convince Chou, the Hong Kong billionaire that turned around Tommy Hilfiger and built Michael Kors into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse in the world of ready to wear fashion.

Like the rest of the venture industry, Keidan sees the technology tools that have transformed much of business are now remaking the ease and reach of building direct to consumer brands. Unlike most, Keidan has spent time working on the ground up to develop brands (artists and songwriting talent in the music business).

Everything that Torch Capital invests in has at least one eye on an end consumer, whether that’s direct consumer investments like Ro, Sweetgreen or the business surveying startup, Perksy.

Torch invests between $500,000 and $1 million in seed deals and will invest anywhere between $1 million to $3 million in Series A deals, according to Keidan.

“What makes a consumer company successful at scale is very different than enterprise software or consumer internet deals,” said Keidan. “VCs were having trouble getting their heads around this… [their companies] were overvalued too early… and when they couldn’t meet those goals they were doing things that were detrimental to the brand.”

Keidan thinks he has a better approach.

“Between InsideHook and watching companies grow and my own investments i’d seen the nuances of what it takes to get to scale,” he said.

Nowports raises $5.3 million to become Latin America’s digital shipping answer to Flexport

Nowports, a developer of software and services to track freight shipments from ports to destinations across Latin America, has aims to become the regional answer to Flexport’s billion-dollar digital shipping business.

Almost 54 million containers are imported and exported from Latin America each year, and nearly half of them are either delayed or lost due to mismanagement.

Nowports is pitching shippers on its digital management software to keep track of each container, and has signed on a number of leading venture capital firms to fulfill its mission.

The Monterrey, Mexico-based company raised $5.3 million in its seed round of financing. The round was led by Base10 and Monashees, with participation from Y Combinator and additional investors like Broadhaven, Soma Capital, Partech, Tekton and Paul Buchheit.

“In Nowports we saw a very strong combination: well prepared and ambitious team using technology to help thousands of customers to improve their importing and exporting processes. By adding efficiency, reliability, and transparency to change a multi-billion dollar industry, Nowports has been able to attract many clients that saw significant improvements in their daily routines by using the solution” said Caio Bolognesi, general partner from Monashees, in a statement.

The company said it would use the money to expand into new markets, grow its team and integrate with more companies involved in the (very fragmented) Latin American logistics industry. It’s a market that needs a range of better logistics technologies.

“Even though over 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea, the most cost-effective way to move goods en masse, there has yet to be a solution that’s able to connect suppliers, customs brokers, carriers and transportation companies to provide an efficient and reliable service,” said Maximiliano Casal, founder and chief executive of Nowports, in a statement. “This is why we launched Nowports, combining our 10 years of industry expertise to fill this void and are currently working with over 40 customers in the region and growing.”

The company now has offices in Chile and Uruguay, and is planning to expand to Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

“With platforms, algorithms with AI and integrations, our platform allows companies to take control of their shipments and plan and predict the best timing to move the freight based on the needs of their own company,” said Alfonso De Los Rios, founder and CTO of Nowports.

As the company looks to expand, it has a strategic road map it can follow in the growth of Flexport, the Silicon Valley startup that has become a billion-dollar business by applying technology to the outdated shipping industry.

The two co-founders of Nowports met at a program at Stanford University, with De Los Rios hailing from a family with deep ties to the shipping industry. He and Casal linked up and the two began plotting a way to make the deeply inefficient industry more modern and transparent. To familiarize himself with the market for which he’d be developing a technology, Casal worked in a freight forwarder in Kansas City that had been operating for more than 30 years.

In all, freight providers are getting paid nearly $40 billion per year to move freight into Latin America.

“Alfonso and Max are the ideal founders we look to invest in as they are industry experts and passionate about evolving the industry using technology and automation,” said Adeyemi Ajao, general partner from Base10. “We are proud to be investors in Nowports alongside our friends at Monashees and look forward to watching the company’s continued growth.”

Armoire is angling to become the every day Rent the Runway

When Armoire first emerged from MIT’s accelerator program back in 2016, the company’s vision was already fully formed — combine StitchFix and Rent the Runway to give women a low-cost, sustainable way to get a high-fashion, high-functioning wardrobe for every day.

Ambika Singh, the Seattle-based company’s chief executive set out to solve two problems, the amount of time wasted on shopping, some 216 hours spent in stores or online, and the waste associated with the impulse purchases and fast fashion that have become the byproduct of an accelerating consumer culture.

Carried along by two trends — the proliferation of direct to consumer brands trying to capture the attention of a new customer and the rise of the rental movement — Singh thought Armoire could provide a daily wardrobe for professional women at a price point that could be attractive enough to switch from an ownership to a rental model for fashion.

(Or as the New York Times put it in a strong contender for headline of the year: “They see it. They like it. They want it. They rent it.“)

It may have taken three years, but investors are now renting out some space of their own on the company’s cap table. Armoire recently raised a $4 million seed round from investors including Jesse Draper’s Halogen Ventures; Zulily co-founder, Darrell Cavens; Vijay Talwar, the former chief executive of BlueNile; and Rajeev and Jill Singh, former executives at Concur.

A subscription to Armoire’s service costs $149 per month and covers four items per shipmnet. The company’s average customer (Singh would not disclose how many of those there are), typically receive between 12 and 15 items in a month by swapping out the clothes they order.

Singh says this $149 per month is a discount to inventory that would otherwise cost around $300 if bought directly from stores.

The other benefit, says Singh, is that the company focuses on women-owned brands. Current suppliers include Of Mercer, Brass Clothing, and Zuri.

While the relationship between the company and its clothing providers is more of a wholesale model (Armoire buys the clothes at a discount), Singh envisions a time when the company could reduce costs or add revenues by marketing styles from its clothing suppliers to customers.

Other companies that are also taking the rental retail model to the masses have a consignment relationship where their suppliers are getting a portion of rental revenues.

The number of companies pitching rental retail has grown significantly since Armoire’s chief executive first stepped on the MIT pitch competition stage in Boston years ago. Now there’s Gwynnie Bee, Haverdash, and the grand dame of rental fashion, Le Tote.

Why enter a market when there’s already a global contender backed by over $62 million in venture financing?

Some competitors and retailers have a consignment relationship they’re getting a portion of a rental revenue.

“We’ve got a particular focus that a woman post-30 needs. We focus on maternity and nursing and we have a focus on fit.” says Singh. “The fact that rental has major headwinds around us and we have this consumer that is underserved and finding her voice in her wallet.”

Armoire’s team is 90% women and was hired from places like TheRealReal, Amazon, Zulily, and Rover. The company owns all of its own inventory, and is targeting a 30-to-60 year-old woman who’s typically a working mother.

Singh uses a $70,000 median household income as its targeting proxy on Facebook, but says she’s hoping to bring the price point down for middle class consumers. “This is a good way to get the volume ‘she’ might desire with a fixed budget,” says Singh.

And Armoire does have an option to buy the clothes that customers are renting — should they feel inclined. Singh expects the company booked roughly $200,000 in May.