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How two Texan brothers ‘reinvented fire’ to build a $400 million backyard campfire company with a cult following

Brothers Jeff and Spencer Jan didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to build a $400 million company with a cult following.

Instead, they “reinvented fire.”

Their company, Grapevine, Texas-based Solo Brands, makes the Solo Stove — a backyard fire pit that the Jan brothers describe as a “virtually smokeless” campfire alternative. It’s a Kickstarter success story: The stove’s campaign hit its $15,000 goal in just two hours back in 2016, ultimately raising more than $1.1 million.

As of Tuesday morning, the company now has a $406.74 million market cap under the stewardship of CEO John Merris, who signed on in 2018 after meeting with the brothers. The co-founders were looking for an experienced executive to help them grow the business, and Merris says they initially came on a bit strong.

“I remember in that first conversation with them, Spencer and Jeff telling me that they had reinvented fire,” Merris tells CNBC Make It. “I thought, ’Man, that’s a bold statement. I mean, fire has been around for thousands of years and you guys are somehow the ones that figured this thing out in some special way?”

Then, the brothers sent Merris home with a Solo Stove — and the first time he tried it out on his Texas ranch, he was “absolutely blown away.”

“They had made it accessible for an everyday person in a neighborhood, in a town, to be able to have a campfire-type experience without having to have a 50-acre ranch,” he says.

Stoking the flames
The Solo Stove’s patented stainless steel design features double walls and vent holes that create a “natural vacuum” effect, bringing in extra oxygen. The result: a fire that burns roughly twice as hot as a typical campfire.

“Because it’s so hot, it burns more efficiently,” Merris says. “And that efficient burn is what’s reducing the smoke and ultimately creating that better experience around the fire.”

The appeal of a fire without smoke is fairly obvious, especially if you’ve ever had a fun evening of sitting around a campfire ruined by a sudden shift of the wind and a mouthful of smoke. Once Merris joined, he expanded the Solo Stove’s reach — building out an e-commerce presence, partnering with national retailers and relying on social media and word of mouth for marketing.

Solo Stoves started in sports and outdoors stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods before expanding to Home Depot, Lowe’s, Amazon and Walmart, among other national retailers. The company recorded $130 million in 2020 revenue, up from roughly $16 million in sales in 2018.

The product was well-suited to a pandemic era, Merris says: “People were stuck at home. They were looking for things to do, and Solo Stove became an obvious go-to … to break up the monotony of your day.”

As Solo Brands gained momentum, Merris decided to go big, acquiring direct-to-consumer brands Oru Kayak, paddleboard maker Isle and outdoor apparel brand Chubbies in 2021. The company is now on pace for record annual revenue, with $320.4 million in total sales through the first three quarters of the fiscal year.

And while the acquisitions surely helped, most of that money — as much as 70% — still comes from the Solo Stove, Merris says.

Aiming for a ‘billion-dollar brand’
For people who want a campfire in their backyard, the Solo Stove makes sense. But the brand’s explosive growth and cult following extends seemingly beyond that demographic, due to an additional element: a cool factor.

The company offers “upgraded technology, upgraded innovation,” says Peter Keith, a senior research analyst at Piper Sandler. It managed to inject life into a household market that had become “outdated and stale,” he adds.

Solo Brands aims to make its stoves at least relatively accessible, offering a wide variety of styles, sizes and price points to entice new consumers to give the brand a shot. Stoves range from a seven-inch-wide tabletop firepit called the Mesa, priced at $104.99, to the 27-inch-wide Yukon, listed at $459.99 on the company’s website.

It worked at first: Solo Brands’ initial public offering in October 2021 valued the company at more than $2 billion.

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Business

Amid the AI hype, don’t forget about no-code

No-code startup Softr, which allows its customers to build apps from their existing data, announced Tuesday that it has added Google Sheets to its integration list.

Previously, Softr focused on Airtable databases. Its move to support data from Google’s spreadsheet product likely expands its potential customer pool. Even before that expansion, CEO Mariam Hakobyan told TechCrunch+ that her company grew its annual recurring revenue 3x from December 2021 to December 2022.

 

Softr’s quick revenue expansion is a good reminder that while the tech world seems completely consumed by all things AI, there’s quite a lot of work going on in other areas that are worth keeping an eye on.

That said, there is an interesting connection between AI and no-code worth writing down: Both are potentially great expanders of human capability. AI tooling could operate as a second brain of sorts for the digitally busy, and no-code services may allow nondevelopers to build the tools they need to complete their work. In both cases, the genres of new tech development have a shot at helping regular folks do a lot more, more quickly and often at a low cost.

Something else that modern AI tooling and no-code share is accessibility. Softr, for example, grew its base of signed-up users from 35,000 to 150,000 in 2022. That’s really quite a lot for a service that was, until recently, Airtable-specific. On the AI side, I don’t need to reiterate just how much market demand there is for modern LLM tooling.

Let’s dig into Softr’s progress since we last covered the company and chat about what we can learn about no-code progress as a method of building more accessible software.

Softr, no-code and empowering the regulars
Ask anyone who works at a company that builds software and isn’t part of the engineering or product orgs how long it will take them to get something built for their own needs. Without even making Jira ticket jokes, we all know what the answer will be. And to a degree, the standard situation makes sense: What nondeveloper employees need is often pretty basic software, and expensive engineers need to focus on the company’s core offering not internal tooling.

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Twitter’s legacy blue checkmark era is officially over

Twitter appears to have officially killed off its legacy blue checkmarks, one of the last remaining vestiges of the pre-Elon Musk owner era.

The legacy blue checks, which Twitter doled out to journalists, celebrities and other public officials for free to help curb impersonations and spam, were supposed to end April 1.

Musk took to Twitter on April 11 — days after the legacy checkmarks should have disappeared — to shift the end date to April 20 or 4/20. Yes, that’s the day when folks honor weed because Twitter is now owned by a middle schooler.

With the legacy checkmarks gone, Twitter will have verification marks only for paid users and businesses as well as government entities and officials. Now, if a user sees a blue checkmark and clicks on it, the label reads: “This account is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.”

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Business

Autotech Ventures’ new $230M mobility fund adds fintech, circular economy to its investment strategy

Autotech Ventures will use its newly closed $230 million fund to expand beyond its foundation of early-stage ground transportation startups and invest in what the firm believes are the next big opportunities in automotive and mobility.

Fintech, logistics, supply chain and the circular economy are at the top of the list.

The $230 million fund, its third since launching in 2017, will be used to invest in seed through Series C mobility-related startups, according to the company. A mixture of financial and corporate LPs, including Allison Transmission, American Axle, Iochpe-Maxion and Shell participated in the fund.

“We’re still a ground transportation-focused firm and we have a very similar strategy [with this fund],” Alexei Andreev, Autotech Ventures managing director told TechCrunch. “On a high-level, it’s same as Fund 1 and Fund 2. However, one of the fastest areas of growth is SaaS-enabled fintech. Auto commerce is inefficient and there are large pockets of profit to capture.”

The firm is particularly interested in transportation-related fintech ventures that are poised to grow during a recession.

“We made a prediction that sooner or later there will be a recession and we identified areas that benefit when the economy softens, Andreev said, noting that this latest fund invested in Yendo, a Dallas-based startup (formerly known as Otto) that lets customers borrow against their vehicles at the same interest rate as standard credit cards.

Autotech Ventures’ previous fintech investments include U.K.-based buy now, pay later startup Bumper and Carpay, a buy here, pay here loan servicing SaaS platform for car dealers.

Andreev said the firm is also investigating investment opportunities in the circular economy, a nascent industry focused on finding ways to reuse materials and products. Circular economy startups have garnered an increasing amount of attention and investment as automakers transition away from gas-powered vehicles and towards EVs.

Autotech Ventures is also cautiously wading into generative AI, although Andreev was quick to note that the company has not made any investments in that area.

Autotech has more than $500 million under management and has invested in more than 40 companies.

Some of the firm’s investments include computer vision startup DeepScale (which was acquired by Tesla), Lyft, used vehicle marketplace operator Frontier Car Group, Drover, Outdoorsy, Swvl, parking app SpotHero and Xnor.ai, which Apple acquired in January 2020. Five of those startups have gone public, including indie Semiconductor and Volta Charging.

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