The shift to remote work has buoyed the valuations of several startups making productivity tools. The latest is Roam Research, which has raised $9 million at a valuation of $200 million, or about 25 times higher than the median valuation for seed rounds.
Roam is tapping more than a dozen individuals and firms for the round, including Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison, True Ventures and Lux Capital. The Oakland, California, startup, which currently sells access to a web-based note-taking tool, will use the cash to finish its mobile app and hire people.
The rapid pivot to remote work has magnified already strong investor interest in apps to help people stay on task and collaborate. Roam rivals like Notion and Coda have recently raised hundreds of millions in VC funding, also at high valuations. Workplace software firm Asana, recently valued on the secondary markets at $5 billion, plans to go public through a direct listing in the coming weeks.
Launched last fall by CEO Conor White-Sullivan and his co-founder, Joshua Brown, Roam’s software is intended to help users identify relationships between their ideas. Users can link to past notes on similar topics using hashtags and other keyboard shortcuts, or simply create bulleted lists.
The design should help “people to think better and have a better space for problem-solving and mapping out domains—basically a different type of Google,” said White-Sullivan, 32.
“It’s a structure that fits everyone’s brain better than files and folders and Word documents.”
Though in early development, the no-frills service has attracted a following in the research community and among an influential set of tech CEOs like Patrick Collison. Under the hashtag #RoamCult on Twitter, they share accolades and tips. More than 100,000 people have signed up for Roam, with a much smaller number paying for the service, which costs $165 per year or $15 per month.
Those sales have been enough to generate $1 million in annual recurring revenue, said White-Sullivan, who noted that the 11-person company is currently profitable.
But it’s competing in an increasingly crowded market for note-taking apps—and charging a higher price. Coda, which allows teams to collaborate on documents, charges $10 per month for its pro version. Notion, which also offers note-taking and task-management tools, costs only $4 per month for the personal pro plan.
Notion’s success raising money has helped Roam, says White-Sullivan. Notion similarly raised just $10 million last year at a valuation of $800 million, an unusually large price for a smaller financing that allowed the San Francisco startup’s founders to give up very little equity. Then in April, Notion raised another $50 million at a $2 billion valuation.
Other investors participating in Roam's seed funding include Coinbase's former Chief Technology Officer Balaji Srinivasan, Uber investor Tim Ferriss, Accomplice VC partners Sarah Downey and Jeff Fagnan, and individual investors Nikhil Basu-Trivedi, Josh Buckley, Brianne Kimmel and Harry Stebbings. Roam plans to allow its most active users to participate in the deal through crowdfunding tool Wefunder.
Excitement about this new crop of note-taking apps echoes the fanfare that rose around Evernote in its early years—and then largely evaporated. The note-taking app and subscription service launched in 2008, touting a better way to organize information across smartphones and computers. It reached a valuation of more than $1 billion, boosted by a who’s who of Silicon Valley investors. Users topped 200 million. But its outlook dimmed as people turned to other free, cloud-based services, and Evernote went through rounds of layoffs. An expected initial public offering failed to materialize.
Investors are making bets on this new generation of note-taking apps because of the success of Zoom and Slack, two cloud-based collaboration services that went public last year.
Rejected by Y Combinator
The sudden flood of investor enthusiasm for note-taking apps has been a reversal of fortune for Roam’s founder, who spent years trying and failing to drum up interest in his idea.
In 2011, White-Sullivan sold his website Localocracy to AOL for under $1 million, then stayed on at the internet pioneer until 2013. After he left, he conceived of a better way to organize information. Others didn’t buy it.
Startup accelerator Y Combinator rejected him five times, he said, perhaps because he sent his application video from his van, where he was living to keep costs for Roam as low as possible. Seed investors had a similarly cool reaction.
“Nobody would touch us,” he said. “It just sounded like a really insane idea to people.”
Chain-smoking and sipping Red Bulls, he kept pitching, collecting an unlikely group of investors that included Richard Meadows, a freelance journalist known for eating pizza for 222 days straight, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and Skype founding engineer Jaan Tallinn.
Later, Roam raised $1.4 million from early-stage venture firms Chapter One and Village Global.
White-Sullivan sees many different types of professionals and consumers beyond the technorati using the tool, including journalists, therapists, academics and researchers.
But to realize Roam’s full value, these users will need to stick with the product for several weeks, unlike mainstream note-taking tools.
“It’s OK to have a tool that requires a little bit of a paradigm shift,” White-Sullivan said.
As for the possibility that Roam could fizzle like a similarly buzzy note-taking app, he says Roam is different. “Evernote had no vision at all,” he said.